At Culinary Institute, a Chef
Whips Up a Class in Haute Cuisine

By Lawrence Biemiller

St. Helena, Calif. -- Let others worry about teaching with Web-enabled technology, with supercomputers, with Internet2. What Dieter Doppelfeld needs for class this morning is a cedar plank long enough for a salmon fillet. Twice Chef Dieter has sent his teaching assistant into the depths of the Culinary
Chef Dieter
Chef Dieter (left) with Ricardo Lemos
Institute of America's vast Romanesque building here, but the boards he has returned with are too small. You can't make roasted cedar-plank salmon without the plank -- the cedar completes the flavor. In a kitchen where a row of custom-made French ranges stretches into the distance, a kitchen with a bread oven the size of a small garage, a kitchen that surely contains more wire whisks than many counties -- could today's lunch menu come to grief for want of a piece of wood?

And already it is mid-morning. This is Day Four of a five-day course, "Cooking Principles," one of the institute's many continuing-education offerings. During a session that began at 7 a.m., the six students have asked a multitude of questions, discussing ingredients, pricing, and cooking techniques (although when Robert Pincus mentioned making scrambled eggs in a microwave, Chef Dieter stiffened, as though he had just seen Escoffier's ghost at the back of the room). Now the students have unrolled their knife kits and set to work. Neither of the two teams wants to end up, as Chef Dieter puts it, "in the weeds" -- except that he still has a trace of a German accent, so it comes out "in de veeds."

Richard Smith, who owns a Cape Cod bed and breakfast called the Whalewalk Inn, is slicing potatoes on a mandoline. Jun Iwata, a chef at a Japanese resort, is cutting squash. Mr. Pincus, a visiting professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is making a crust for a loin of veal and teaching Mr. Smith how to say arigato -- Japanese for "thank you." Eric Sklar, a founder of a fast-food chain in Washington, D.C., called Burrito Brothers, is dicing scallions and garlic for a bread salad on the other side of a big, red Bonnet range. Next to him is Ricardo Lemos, who works for a Canadian seafood company called Clearwater Foods. He is extracting bones from a sea bass with pliers, while Roger Behrens is freshening two chickens with lemon juice. Mr. Behrens, who gave up his security-alarm business to cook, works at a hospital in Fremont, just north of San Jose.

Chef Dieter stops by Mr. Lemos's station and, with a touch of his fingers, locates a few more bones in the sea bass. Quick to grin and apparently unflappable, Chef Dieter became an apprentice cook in Cologne at 14 and has since worked everywhere from hotels to a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Bonhomme Richard. In the kitchen a chef's authority is absolute, but Chef Dieter's is matched with a subtle sense of humor that gracefully dices everything from the ease of roasting -- "You just shove it in the oven and say, `Good night, baby"' -- to culinary pretension here in the Napa Valley, where the French fries all refer to themselves as pommes frites and the cognoscenti trade tasting notes on obscure olive oils. "Now, if you live in the valley," Chef Dieter deadpans in the middle of explaining how to prepare chicken for the rotisserie, "you'll take your rosemary brushes and baste it in oil."

Mr. Behrens runs into a more plebeian problem, however: He's having trouble trussing the chickens. Chef Dieter demonstrates -- "Over here, like this, under here." To take a course here, you must have worked at least six months in a professional kitchen, but if most of that experience is with burritos, or maybe breakfasts, you might never have had to truss a chicken. Or bone a loin of veal, which Chef Dieter is soon demonstrating for Mr. Pincus. When he's not teaching or studying clouds, Mr. Pincus is "on the bottom of the totem pole" in the kitchen of a Madison restaurant called Opera House. "I get the prep list -- 'Peel and de-vein 300 shrimp,'" he says.

Chef Dieter shows him how to remove the tenderloin, then how to slip his knife along the bone -- "Make yourself a little handle," he advises. At last a cedar plank arrives that will accommodate the whole salmon fillet, which has been marinating in soy, vegetable oil, whiskey, garlic, and brown sugar. The fillet gets pegged to the wood, and Chef Dieter props it up in front of the rotisserie on which the two chickens are turning. Lunch is saved.

"Cooking Principles" isn't the only class in the huge teaching kitchen. Nearby, an advanced-sauces class is working on chutneys, salsas, and ketchups. Down at the far end of the kitchen, students in a 30-week baking course are in the middle of an exam: They have two days to produce a country bread, a lattice-topped pie, Danish pastries in two shapes, chocolate-chip cookies, and a pâte à choux.

Even with that much activity, however, the kitchen is far from full. It stretches nearly half the 400-foot length of the Greystone Cellars building, built in 1888 as a communal winery and later owned for nearly 40 years by the Christian Brothers. The Culinary Institute, whose main campus is in Hyde Park, N.Y., moved in five years ago, after extensive renovations created not only the teaching kitchen but also classrooms, an auditorium, a restaurant, banquet facilities, and a gift shop. From 3,000 to 4,000 students a year come for some kind of continuing education, whether it's a course for one of the institute's corporate clients (among them, Lawry's and Red Lobster), a course in pairing wine and food, or a food-media conference. A five-day program like "Cooking Principles" costs $700 to $800, not including accommodations -- or dinners in local restaurants, which are plentiful and feature wine lists that students may feel duty bound to explore.

Indeed, at 7 the next morning Chef Dieter is asking his usual question: "Anyone have an interesting dining experience?" There are reports of lamb's-tongue salads and lemon tarts, of well-known restaurants' pommes frites. Next, Chef Dieter starts a braised-chicken dish that will serve as both a mid-morning snack and a demonstration of today's lesson in combining cooking methods -- the chicken is to be browned in a skillet, then finished in an oven. He works with surprising speed and athleticism. With a few flicks of his wrist, carrots find themselves airborne above a heavy, sizzling skillet; by 7:30, he is deglazing the pan for a sauce. An hour later, he is passing out foam plates that bend precariously under the weight of chicken parts, sauce, mushrooms, and vegetables. "Monday," Mr. Smith says, "we had deep-fat-fried Camembert at quarter after 8."

The day's menu proves challenging. The sweet-and-sour rabbit gets off to a good start, but by the middle of the morning, Mr. Lemos's rouille has failed to come together and Chef Dieter comes to the rescue, glaring at it and whisking rapidly. As the hours pass, ragouts and stews crowd a big Blodgett oven across the room; a parade of dishwashers carries clean pots and utensils past the red range, where heat shimmers over the burners. Mr. Pincus calls out "Chef?" Chef Dieter needs no more than a glance at the tofu in Mr. Pincus's skillet to say "Done!"

At 12:25, though, Mr. Pincus, Mr. Iwata, and Mr. Smith are in trouble. The fried rice is so gummy it will be thrown out ("The rice needs to be cooked the day before," Chef Dieter will say during the after-lunch critique), and the plantains vanish, never to be spoken of again. At the last minute, when the other platters have been set out on the buffet in the center of the kitchen and students and staff members have gathered to eat, the braised duck is discovered in the oven. "I thought we were supposed to get better as the week went on," Mr. Pincus mutters. "We got really weeded."

Which may be true, but they've gotten weeded cooking dishes they've never cooked before, and they've learned a lot along the way. When everyone is seated, the rabbit and the lamb and the canard oublié turn out to be splendid, and Mr. Behrens's polenta is delicious. Mr. Sklar has brought a couple of bottles of a claret made with grapes grown on his parents' land; everyone begins to relax. At the head of the table, Chef Dieter is laughing and telling stories between bites. He has high praise for Mr. Iwata's green beans with sesame sauce. "This," he says with a smile, "is a very nice way of eating beans."

Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published February 4, 2000.