Some might say New York City, with its renowned restaurateurs and trend-setting eateries, is the culinary epicenter of the U.S., if not the world. And they might be right.
But they’d only partly be right.
While the Big Apple has indeed been a mecca for global food trends and talented chefs for decades, the real epicenter of American cuisine, and the secret to New York’s gastronomic success, might actually be 80-some miles north, in a former Jesuit seminary on the banks of the Hudson River. That seminary, somewhere north of Poughkeepsie but south of the Roosevelt estate, is now the home of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), premier culinary school of the U.S., alma mater to names like Grant Achatz, Roy Choi, Charlie Palmer, Anthony Bourdain, and countless other celebrated restaurant personalities who have made their mark in New York City and beyond.
It’s an unexpected place for a culinary epicenter. Even more unexpected might be the profound effect that the school, long a stomping ground for the white-tablecloth set, is starting to have on culinary realms outside fine dining, including quick service and fast casual—realms once untouched by the restaurant elite.
Or at least, it’s unexpected to those who haven’t yet met Tim Ryan.
Where business and creativity intersect
Traveling to the CIA’s campus in Hyde Park, New York, is a bit of a chore; it’s best to take the train from New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, the one that snakes along the Hudson River, through the shadow of the riverside fortress that is the United States Military Academy at West Point, with stops in New England towns with New England names, like Tarrytown, Scarborough, and Peekskill.
The trip, though, is well worth making. It’s not just because the CIA operates a bevy of high-quality restaurants where future culinary stars hone their chops. The restaurants are certainly worth a stop; there’s The Bocuse Restaurant, named after the French culinary titan; Pangea, a pop-up concept serving sustainable ingredients and global flavors; and the Apple Pie Bakery, a fast-casual bakery café, among others. But the campus is also an experience altogether alluring for even the restaurant layman. The original seminary, constructed at the end of the 19th century, is an impressive monument of Georgian architecture sitting atop a hill rolling off the Hudson. The building, which today is called Roth Hall and houses administrative offices, classrooms, and the dining-hall facilities, is all arched doorways and brick corridors, “good morning, chef” greetings echoing down the halls as students bustle about in their chef whites. Hall-facing windows offer sneak peeks into classrooms, lessons of the day on full display.
Ryan’s office occupies a suite on the second floor of Roth Hall, with tall windows overlooking the Hudson and half the campus that stands between. The office is a long rectangle of wooden finishes and various knickknacks, culinary and otherwise, and it feels nostalgic, timeworn, presidential—well suited for the man who has been president of the CIA since 2001.
Ryan is a unique combination of business savvy and creative acumen. He’s straight-laced like a college president should be, with the usual set of letters following his name: EdD, MBA. But he’s also a CIA grad—class of ’77—and boasts an impressive culinary résumé that includes a turn as executive chef at La Normande in his hometown of Pittsburgh, as well as the titles Certified Master Chef and Culinary Olympic Champion.
That strong business sense and creativity have combined to make a leader who, today, recognizes the enormous potential the CIA has in harnessing the unprecedented popularity of the U.S. foodservice industry.
“I think America could easily lay claim to being the most adventurous eaters in the world,” he says on a bright February day, sitting at a round wooden conference table in his office. “And that’s just another reason, along with the opportunity, that everyone wants to come here. We’re not bound by all these traditions and the way things have been done for generation after generation.”
Neither boisterous nor soft-spoken, Ryan often directs a conversation toward the institute’s five core values: excellence, professionalism, leadership, ethics, and a respect for diversity. He’s realistic about the state of the restaurant industry and addresses exciting trends with an air of someone who saw them coming (which he very likely did).
Most importantly, Ryan is convinced trends are converging in a fortunate way for the CIA and its students. Chefs are the new rock stars and have more say over the future of foodservice than ever before. And students are entering the school knowing full well what people like Chipotle founder Steve Ells and food-truck pioneer Choi have been able to accomplish outside the traditional fine-dining world.
“Fast casual is probably a lot more of where the future of the restaurant industry is heading than anything else, which doesn’t mean the demise of fine dining or anything like that—there’s always going to be a place for fine dining—but there’s so much opportunity in fast casual, and there’s so much potential money, that it’s just going to attract people,” he says. “This is America; we’re capitalists. Young chefs here no longer think, ‘Boy, I need to have that high-end restaurant to establish my premium brand and then work my way down until I do the mass market kinds of things.’ They’re going right for that.”
The trick, Ryan says, is to prepare students for a future both as a great cook and as a smart professional, whatever their profession might become.
Charting new pathways
The CIA first opened in 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut, as a trade school for the post-war working class. The school moved into the old Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park in 1972, right around the time it started offering associate’s degrees to students, which have become the foundation of the CIA’s curriculum and give students the fundamentals in either culinary arts or baking and pastry arts. In 1993, the CIA launched a bachelor’s program in management—the first of its kind—and, two years after that, it expanded for the first time outside of Hyde Park, opening its Greystone campus in St. Helena, California.
Ryan’s tenure has seen the CIA expand more than in any other time in its history. The school has opened campuses in San Antonio and Singapore and has established partnerships with other higher-education organizations, including Harvard, Cornell, and MIT. In the last few years, the school has developed new bachelor’s degrees—Culinary Science and Applied Food Studies, the latter of which explores food policy, history, culture, and sustainability—and added bachelor’s concentrations, through which students spend one of four semesters getting hands-on experience at one of the campuses in a specific field of study.
“A bachelor’s student at the CIA is not just learning how to be a really good cook and to be a professional, but getting a liberal arts [education],” Ryan says. “That’s something that chefs typically didn’t get. Of course, exposure to liberal arts opens up so many other horizons and insights.”
The new bachelor’s concentrations, says Michael Sperling, vice president of academic affairs for the CIA, have become a major point of focus for the school as students explore those new horizons and insights in the food world.
He points to the fact that around 20–25 percent of students want to pursue front-of-the-house or wine professions, while about 10 percent hope to go into culinary education and another 5 percent are interested in food journalism. “What all this does is recognize that our students increasingly are matching the increasing breadth of the food world, and [recognize] directions and career paths they’re taking,” Sperling says. “And we want to make sure that our bachelor’s programs are recognizing those pathways and training people for those pathways.”
The new bachelor’s concentrations include Advanced Concepts in Baking and Pastry; Advanced Wine, Beverage, and Hospitality; American Food Studies: Farm-to-Table Cooking; and Latin Cuisine Studies. This fall, the CIA will launch the Intrapreneurship concentration, an opportunity for young chefs who want to become the next Ells and design the next Chipotle.The program teaches students how to bring creative foodservice ideas to life within a major corporation.
“It’s called ‘Intrapreneurship’ because it recognizes that most of our students won’t be going out and looking for venture capital and opening their own business right away,” Sperling says. “They’re much more likely to work for a while entrepreneurially within the context of an organization—a restaurant group or a corporation. So it focuses on that: on planning, looking within an organization entrepreneurially.”
As part of the Intrapreneurship concentration, students will develop their own restaurants and then compete against other students for the best concept. The winner will become a fully functioning pop-up restaurant at the Innovation Station in the CIA’s soon-to-open student commons, operated for an entire semester by Restaurant Associates, the foodservice management firm collaborating with the CIA on the commons. Sperling says it provides “an incredible opportunity” for students to learn what it takes to design their own restaurant concepts.
That’s not the only way the CIA is helping to train entrepreneurially minded individuals. Earlier this year, the school launched the Food Business School at the Greystone campus, a program designed for executives, recent graduates, and career changers interested in developing and implementing food innovations. The Food Business School provides online courses, innovation intensives, and a Venture Innovation Program, all of it hands-on and experiential, says William Rosenzweig, dean and executive director of the Food Business School. Participants are given practical skills and the right mindset and network to successfully launch their food ventures.
“Thinking about the food system as a whole and understanding all of the complex moving pieces that are woven together so tightly in our world will become critical tools for making change and reshaping the way we produce, distribute, and experience food—especially in the fast-casual arena, where every facet of the food production and consumption cycle is under so much intense pressure to change, both in terms of planetary and personal health,” Rosenzweig says via e-mail.
All of it is a big departure for the CIA when compared with the school’s origins. There was a time when the institute simply trained people to be cooks and sent them on their way. These days, with Ryan at the helm and the whole food world banging at its door for innovative food thinkers and makers, the CIA is sending students on their way with an arsenal of skills and ideas at the ready.
“Some [students] want to be Thomas Keller. And they stick with that,” Ryan says, referencing the renowned chef of Per Se and The French Laundry. “But other people come here who have a passion for food and say, ‘Well, wait a second, I used to think I wanted to be Thomas Keller, and now maybe I want to be Steve Ells. Why isn’t that a course for me?’ There are just so many other opportunities in the food world now than there ever was before. This is really the golden era in many ways.”
Fragmenting the field
Down the hill from Roth Hall, so close to the river that some joke about the possibility of students falling in, the new addition to the student commons groans to life. On the bright February day, it’s mostly a shell, all exposed steel and dusty floors and hardhats required. Construction workers are hard at work keeping the facility on schedule for a summer opening.
The student commons is one piece of what has become a far-reaching campus stretching along the Hudson. Joining the old seminary today are student housing clusters, the dorms appropriately named things like Cayenne, Juniper, and Nutmeg; the Marriott Pavilion, which includes an 800-seat theater for graduation ceremonies and other events; and various newer buildings complete with classrooms, kitchens, and offices. Crosswalk signs remind guests that this is no ordinary college campus; the stick figures in the bright yellow signs proudly wear their tall chef hats.
But it is, still, a college campus. Whereas the CIA once was a trade school and only a trade school, today the campus feels distinctly like any other university. And that’s not on accident. Sperling, whose background is in clinical psychology and who spent time at other colleges before landing in Hyde Park, says the CIA wants to give students a rounded education just like any other university. And while in the past the institute was home to many students who were pursuing a career change or simply continued education, now an increasing number of recent high school graduates are enrolling at the CIA.
“Not that a trade [school] is a bad thing by any means, but there are a lot of parents who influence college decisions who say, ‘You can go to culinary school later, but I want you to get a college degree first,’” he says. “We’re making it known that students can do both here. They get a strong college degree in a collegiate environment, and at the same time have a great culinary education.”
Ed Brown is a 1983 CIA graduate who spent time after graduation cooking in fine-dining kitchens in New York and France. Today he is a chef and senior vice president of food and beverage with Restaurant Associates, the foodservice management firm teaming with the CIA on the new student commons’ dining facility. He says the CIA of today is a far cry from the CIA of his days on campus, as it is much more aligned with a normal university environment, especially when it comes to the diverse opportunities for which students are prepared.
“The education [students] come out with, they can be anything they want. When I graduated from the CIA, mostly the role was to go out and become a chef,” he says. “These kids are being given the base of an education that teaches them that, when you finish your [two or] four years here, you can go out and be any one of these 500 different things associated with food—things you think of and things you’d never think of.”
Brown and his colleagues at Restaurant Associates recognize what a big deal it is to work for the CIA; it’s the first time the school has worked with an outside firm on a foodservice project. But the new dining program at the commons is such a big deal to the school, Brown says, that it wanted to bring in an organization that could commit to making the foodservice operations there as impressive as possible.
The centerpiece of the new student commons facility is what the school is calling The Egg, an egg-shaped operation in the middle of the cavernous room that will feature six food stations, including a grill, salad bar, and wood-burning oven. Students will also have access to a marketplace with fresh seasonal produce, grab-and-go meals, and other food items. The Inspiration Station pop-up concept that is part of the Intrapreneurship program is next to the marketplace. True to the university setting, the new dining facility will also have beer. But it’s not just a fridge stocked with bottles and cans of domestic; the CIA partnered with Brooklyn Brewery and its renowned owner, Garrett Oliver, to install a brewery operation across from The Egg. Oliver will help teach students about brewing, and the house-brewed beer will be available to students (or at least, those 21 and older).
Craft beer, of course, is a booming trend in the foodservice world. And even though Ryan says most “trends,” as we consider them, are really just movements that have been growing for years, the CIA is actively investing in operations that Ryan and others see as the future of the food world. It’s ramping up local food sourcing from farmers throughout the Hudson River Valley. It’s growing greens on top of one of its buildings to use in classes. It’s even partnered with 3D Systems to explore innovations in culinary 3D printing.
Ryan is fond of discussing the “fragmentation” going on in the restaurant industry. According to an old marketing adage, he says, all markets fragment over time, meaning things become more and more specialized. He points to the medical world as an example; years ago, many doctors were general practitioners, but today, the field has become specialized with oncologists, pediatricians, neurologists, and so on. It’s the same thing with food, he says, and the direction the CIA is moving in is simply facilitating that fragmentation.
“As knowledge expands, you need to specialize,” Ryan says. “That’s the way we look at the curriculum here.”
Filling the pipeline
On the bright February day, students flood into a gym at the back of the old half of the student commons. It’s a career fair day, one of five the CIA hosts on campus every year. Rows of tables and posters line the gym, advertising opportunities available at a wide range of foodservice companies, from resorts and casinos to medical facilities, foodservice management firms, and limited-service restaurants. (The career fairs are so in demand, a CIA representative says, that even Chipotle was left on the waiting list for this particular fair.)
Perhaps more than any other school in the country, the CIA provides a near-direct pipeline to jobs for its student base. Ryan says the competition for young, talented chefs is greater than it’s ever been, especially as the best chefs in the world expand their portfolios to include casual and limited-service concepts.
It’s not been all sugary sweet for the CIA in Ryan’s tenure. In 2013, controversy arose when students protested the school’s tuition costs. Shortly after, famed chef David Chang of Momofuku in New York City publicly said that young chefs shouldn’t feel obligated to go to culinary school, adding that a culinary education often leads to foodservice jobs outside the fine-dining world that so many of them dream about from a young age.
But perhaps Chang misses the point. After all, just because a chef ends up at a casino, medical facility, or limited-service restaurant doesn’t mean they don’t have an opportunity to change that operation for the better. So many chefs have proved that in the last decade.
“I think what’s changed now is that we’re just applying [our core values] to all different parts of the industry, and that’s for the betterment of the industry,” Ryan says. “So it used to be at one time that CIA graduates went into high-end restaurants and they applied those ideas of excellence and leadership and professionalism there. Now they’re starting Chipotle and applying those kind of core values there, and, as a result, revolutionizing the industry.”
He leans forward and, just like a president would, punches his fist into his palm as he adds emphatically: “Excellence will prevail, leadership will prevail, professionalism will prevail, innovation will prevail, and it will help you to be in the right place at the right time, depending on what the opportunities are then.”