The list of things to do at Vassar is infinite. The list of things to do at Vassar in the winter, however, is not. It can be dull. It can be lonely. So, when a friend from back home visited and asked if we could tour the Culinary Institute of America, I jumped on the invitation.
Going in, I must admit that I had certain expectations of what to expect: My gut reaction to “culinary school” was students in white coats and tall hats prancing through the halls while whisking a nice meringue. I pictured old Frenchmen yelling about the ways to properly cook an egg in front of a class of eager, curious chefs-in-the-making. Like a scene from a movie or something, a bunch of rows of white-robed students watching and listening intently as some mustachioed chef gesticulates wildly as he extols the virtues of tomatoes from one region over those grown in some other region.
However, as with most things in life, I figure that these romanticized expectations would not be met. They couldn’t be met, no one would actually be able to learn in that environment. Right? Beneath my and colorful hopes for something beyond imagining, I figured that this school would be just as normal as any other.
Oh, how wrong I can be.
As we arrive at the CIA, we are met with a fairly typical campus scene: buildings, trees, parking lots. We see dorms and a gym. We park in a below ground parking garage. We take an elevator to ground level. Everything is, for all intents and purposes, normal.
However, upon emerging from the elevator, any trace of normal has disappeared. We are in a balcony-style garden overlooking the Hudson River, perched at the top of a hill with statues and topiaries and a fountain. And, at the head of this miraculous sight is an enormous and regal building of red brick and dozens of tall windows. This is the famous Roth Hall, where all the magic happens.
When we enter Roth Hall, we enter a magical land of food and fancy. After paying the $6 tour fee, we are directed to a grand staircase gracing the enormous foyer. We join a group of other tourists who are also waiting for one of the guided tours of the school. Three student tour guides introduce themselves, including their majors: One is culinary arts. One is pastry. One is restaurant management. This is the first sign that we have entered a land beyond our own. Where Vassar students introduce themselves as “Econ majors” or “STS majors,” here they major in pastry, or culinary arts—which I can only assume is some kind of general degree on how to be a good cook of a variety of foods.
What happens beyond this point, I can only describe as follows: Imagine entering the school where High School Musical was filmed, only it’s real. You walk the halls, trying not to expect the students to burst out in song. And then…they do. Everyone sings and everyone is all in this together. Every insane expectation is met, somehow both slowly and suddenly. You walk the halls slack-jawed, grinning from ear to ear, marveling at everything because of the sheer improbability of it all.
Walking through the CIA is like that. When we pass a particularly beautiful room, I make a snarky comment about how it looks like a church for food. Our tour guide then informs us that it was originally a chapel when the building was part of a monastery, as it was originally constructed to be. When the CIA purchased its current campus in 1970, they found it only fitting to turn the chapel to a dining hall. Though I meant it in jest, my snarky comment could not have been closer to the truth: The CIA is a literal church for food.
This is the kind of place the CIA is.
The tour moves through Roth Hall, and focuses heavily on the pastry wing of the college. Visitors move through long hallways flanked by kitchen classrooms, and students with trays of bread and cakes flit around the tour groups. Yes, they are wearing white coats. Yes, they are wearing tall white hats. Some of them have hands covered in flour, some of them are taking aprons to be cleaned. Large windows let the sunlight filter in and allow for a glimpse into the world of the CIA, and you cannot help but gawk at the sheer wonder of it all.
Along the way, the tour guide enlightens the group about the goings on of a culinary college: how classes work, what classes are, the specifics of the shockingly strict chef’s uniform, the bizarre hours of the students working in the bakery. It is as if Disneyland were giving a college admissions tour. Visitors learn about CIA history, everyday goings on, the restaurants on campus, the life of a student and the curriculum, which ultimately creates great chefs.
The Culinary Institute of America is an absolute treasure. Unexpected and fun, it is an hour and $6 of my life I would offer up again in a heartbeat. A short 15 minute drive down Route 9, this is a venture you should be sure not to miss. If you ever feel the need to get away from all the stress and tension on campus to somewhere a little more lighthearted and free, you can’t go wrong by heading up the road to the CIA for a couple of hours of leisurely adventuring.