The CIA at Greystone

Educating America’s Top Chefs Alongside Bachelorette Revelers

By / Photography By Chloe Hoeg | May 20, 2016
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When Gwen Chong’s besties were planning her bachelorette party, they knew they wanted a respite from the usual affair of games with racy double-entendres and the bride-to-be forced to don a wrapping-paper mock wedding gown.

In short, they longed for something more distinctive, more memorable and more civilized.

They found exactly that by attending together California Cheeses and the Wines That Love Them, one of the most popular non-professional classes offered at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Each month, about 100 students from around the state, as well as a few from around the globe, enroll in one of the campus’ culinary or wine enthusiast programs.

Wearing a glittery “bachelorette’’ tiara in the front row of the Sunday afternoon class, Chong, an admitted cheese fanatic from San Francisco, studied the interplay of half a dozen different wines with Vella Dry Jack, Fiscalini Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar and Pt. Reyes Original Blue cheese. All the while, instructor Traci Dutton led the class in a discussion about how wine and cheese are both naturally fermented products, how full-bodied wines may pair better with richer cheeses and how wines and cheeses produced in the same region may have a natural affinity for one another.

It was the first time Chong and her six friends had visited the CIA. Even though one of her friends is allergic to alcohol, another sensitive to tannins and yet another five months pregnant, Dutton was able to accommodate all their needs by including nonalcoholic wines and even iced tea alternatives.

“We were looking for something to do that wasn’t just drinking wine at a winery,’’ says Chong, 33. “It was a lot of fun. We will definitely come back.’’

She’s not alone. About 20% of visitors who take one class end up coming back to take more, says Anne Girvin, communications manager for the CIA’s Greystone campus.

After all, it’s not every cooking school that allows amateurs to oft en catch glimpses of future great chefs in training, cooking alongside them in expansive 15,000-square-foot professional teaching kitchens. Even fewer schools are housed in such a dramatic historic structure. The CIA’s landmark volcanic stone building, built by hand over two years by Chinese laborers, was once home to the fabled Christian Brothers Winery. After spending more than $15 million to renovate and seismically retrofit the 1889 structure, the CIA opened it in 1995 as a continuing education campus for its professional culinary students.

With its prime address in the Napa Valley, one of the most visited food and wine meccas in the state if not the world, it wasn’t long before the Greystone campus started opening its doors wider to nonprofessionals by offering more and more classes for home cooks, wine lovers and foodies, priced from $25 to $2,195.

In fact, while the CIA’s Hyde Park, NY, and San Antonio, TX, schools host beverage classes once every few months, the St. Helena campus offers them every weekend, owing to its location in the heart of wine country. Classes such as Tasting Wine Like A Pro and The Marriage of Food and Wine with Chef John Ash, which are each two and a half hours long, are held in a spacious classroom complete with light tables and sinks at each seat.

A broad range of culinary classes are offered, including one-hour cooking demos on weekends, where visitors can watch a chef instructor make a dish that they will later get to sample with a glass of wine. For a slightly more interactive experience, the two-hour Sampling classes allow guests to either sit back or join in to assist.

“It’s basically TV come to life with all the bloopers involved,” jokes chef instructor Sandy Sauter. “I like to show the mistakes to show people that we make mistakes, too, and to show how to fix them.”

Then there are the intensive hands-on cooking and baking classes, each five hours long, which run the gamut from Gluten-Free Baking to Everyday Grilling to Saturday Sushi. For those who really want to dive into a specialty, there are two- to five-day boot camps, focused on everything from Latin cuisine to farm-to-table cooking to pastry to tasting wine like a pro. Each is limited to 12 students, and oft en must be booked at least four months in advance.

The Basic Training boot camp, which covers knife skills and cooking techniques, is so popular that it is offered twice a month. It attracts a lot of retired firefighters, private airline attendants and even people contemplating going into the restaurant industry.

Colin Bebbington, 26, of Nova Scotia, was one such person. He took Basic Training on the advice of his father, who wanted him to gain some experience before seriously contemplating becoming a chef. At the end of the four-day session, Bebbington was hooked. He’s now enrolled in the professional culinary degree program at Greystone, where he’s done so well that he was elected leader of his class.

“It was the most insightful work I’ve ever experienced,” he said about the basics boot camp. “The attention to detail was just amazing.”

With the CIA taking over the Copia property in Napa, the number of enthusiast classes will expand once construction is completed on the new teaching kitchens there in summer 2017.

As it is, the Greystone campus is at capacity now, Girvin says, and enthusiast classes must be scheduled around the needs of the school’s professional students. Once Copia opens, many of the enthusiast classes will shift over there, allowing for more leeway.

“We can have our own schedule there,” says Sauter, who ran the culinary programs at the original Copia. “We’ll be able to offer classes at night so locals don’t necessarily have to take a day off from work to take one. It broke my heart to see Copia close. But now I can go back and make it even better.”

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