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CIA Goes to San Antonio


The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is considered one of the world’s most lauded and revered cooking schools. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate.) Michael Ruhlman wrote a book about the frenzied rigors of being a student there, its halls have inspired TV shows, including the PBS series “Cooking Secrets of the CIA,” food world characters like Anthony Bourdain (’78) and Grant Achatz (’94) are among the alumni, and chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry was recently named to is its board of trustees.

Continuing its influence on culinary trends worldwide, with schools in Napa, Calif., and Hyde Park, N.Y., the CIA has committed to changing the perception of Latin American cuisines by cutting the ribbon on its third location, known as “El Sueño” (“The Dream”). Set in San Antonio, a city where more than half the residents are Hispanic or Latino, the 30,000-square-foot campus is situated along River Walk in the shadow of the towering Pearl Brewery. It houses the school’s Center for Foods of the Americas and offers a 30-week certificate program, as well as two- to five-day boot camps for the public, focused on indigenous cooking from countries like Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Cuba.

“The CIA,” says Dr. Tim Ryan, the school’s president, “is here to support an important mission ­– to elevate Latin American cuisines to their rightful places among the great cuisines of the world, and to provide access to a world-class CIA education to young Latinos, so that they can assume the mantle of culinary leadership in the generations to come.”

El Sueño began largely as the dream of Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, a billionaire who started on the production line for Pace Foods (makers of Pace Picante Sauce) and later became the company’s president. In 2007, Goldsbury donated $35 million to the CIA with the stipulation that to celebrate the foods to which he owed much of his career success, the gift be earmarked for teaching Latin American cuisines.

Paramount to the success of Goldsbury’s goal is El Sueño’s Center for Foods of the Americas, a multifaceted research arm of the institute overseen by chef-instructors Iliana de la Vega and Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick. Their focus is to document the ethnography of cooking techniques and recipes that too often vanish over time. “We travel to Latin American countries and interview the cooks. We go to the fields because it’s important to know what our foods were like before, and how we have come to them now,” says de la Vega, a Mexico City native. “If we hear of a unique ingredient, we’ll hike in the mountains to learn more about it. If someone’s making an exceptional dish, we go there to capture it on video and paper, and bring it back to our students.”

The Alamo City campus is vibrantly influenced by countries due south with features like an outdoor wood-fired clay comal for tortillas, and a parrilla grill and barbacoa pit for roasting. Indoors, students benefit from a Latin Foods demonstration theater, cooking suites, a professional bakeshop, conference space, a computer lab and library and forward-thinking amenities like ionized water for cleaning, a composting machine, solar-generated electricity and a recycled water tower, as well as a cafe and bakery slated to open this fall. Preliminary plans for an onsite restaurant to open in 2012 are also in the works.

To taste for yourself what El Sueño students are learning, make Peruvian Ceviche with Leche de Tigre (Tiger’s Milk)

Zester Daily contributor Liz Pearson is a writer, consultant, food stylist and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, “Every Day With Rachael Ray” and Saveur. She lives in Texas.

Photo: The CIA’s El Sueno, in San Antonio.

Credit: Courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio


Zester Daily contributor Liz Pearson is a writer, consultant, food stylist and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, "Every Day With Rachael Ray" and Saveur. She lives in Texas.