Menu Innovations | May 2015 | By Sam Oches

Tradition Unbound

The Culinary Institute of America is a training ground for the world’s best chefs. And today more than ever, its influence is spreading to the entire foodservice world.
Culinary Institute of America president Tim Ryan has helped school teach students to influence fast casual industry.
Tim Ryan has been president of the Culinary Institute of America since 2001, and has helped the school make more progress than in any other time in its history. Donnelly Marks Photography

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.


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