For the majority of our visit to New York, Elliott and I have been eating our way from one end of the island of Manhattan to the other. So, before we headed back to Orange County, we decided to take a little trip up river – no, not to Sing Sing, but close – to the Hudson Valley to visit the Culinary Institute of America, or the CIA, in Hyde Park.
Despite the fact that getting to the CIA is easy by train from Manhattan, we decided to rent a car (I know, I know, you can take the girl outta Cali, but …). We only rented a car to have some flexibility since we decided to take full advantage of upstate New York's offerings by stopping at one of the original farm-to-table restaurants in the United States – but more on that later.
The CIA is arguably one of the top culinary schools in the world. Legend has it that about 75 percent of the executive chefs in the United States all graduated from its program. It is an outstanding, not to mention rigorous, program. LUCCA is proud to say that one of our prep cooks, Jon Allweiss, is currently attending the CIA, and our chef de cuisine, Paul Jacobsen, is a graduate of the Hyde Park campus – as is our consultant and friend, George Kookootsedes (best known as owner of two of Orange County’s legendary restaurants, Chanteclair and John Dominis).
Me? I attended the culinary boot camp up at the Napa Valley campus of the CIA – my own personal "Hell's Kitchen." That’s a story in itself and best left for a return visit to Napa.
This time of year, upstate New York is especially beautiful, and this is the height of the leaf-viewing season – all the leaves are in the middle of turning – and it seemed as if everyone decided to come up for a peek.
We had already been told that all the restaurants – there are five of them – at the CIA were completely booked for lunch and dinner, as were the tours. As part of the curriculum, the students at the CIA all take a shift at the restaurants, working both the front of the house as service staff and in the back of the house as cooks. We walked into the St. Andrews Café on the campus and asked if there was a possibility for two for lunch. The host said that the eatery didn't have any reservations left.
I said, “That's OK, we had been warned,” and I smiled brightly, at which point he called over to the Caterina De Medici restaurant and asked about seating. He told us to go right over – they had a table for us.
Sometimes, it pays to be nice.
Our server at Caterina de Medici informed us that the students work six-week shifts at each of the restaurants. They work three weeks as a server first, then three weeks as a cook. He then told us that the shift change had just occurred and everyone at the restaurant on that particular day had JUST started! Yikes! Maybe because I am a chef, I know all of the things that can go wrong with a rookie crew – and they did, a little bit. We were ordering light because we were going back down to Westchester County for dinner. Our server kept looking over his shoulder and saying, “I sure hope that my instructor didn't see that. ...”
Let's just say that the students need a little more time to settle in with the menu and leave it at that.
After a little more exploring and some picture-snapping, we drove back toward Tarrytown for a 5 p.m. dinner reservation at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills. This is a family-owned working farm and agricultural center, co-owned by Dan – who serves as executive chef – David and Laureen Barber. Everywhere you look are stunning views of the farm and surrounding outbuildings.
A true farm-to-table restaurant, there are no menus at Blue Hill – you are told what is in season, and you decide whether to order a five-taste menu or an eight-taste menu, and whether you would like to include matching wines (the chef will build a menu for you personally, if you have taste preferences, allergies, etc.). All of the food is raised at the farm, foraged on the acreage or is cultivated nearby in the Hudson Valley.
We opted for the eight-taste menu matched to wines. And then the food started to come. Each course (small plates) was absolutely amazing, and the pairings were perfect. From the food, to the service, it was, in a word, amazing. Each and every course was explained, the provenance of all the ingredients revealed, and the chef's motives behind the dish also were discussed. I have dined at some of the finest restaurants in the United States and Europe, and I have to say that none of those eateries came anywhere near this culinary experience.
I was ready to move in and learn.
What a high! So, back in Manhattan the next day – our last in New York – where to eat? How do you top that experience? You don’t. We went in a completely different direction: food trucks!
The Kwik Meal Cart – a truck parked on 45th and 6th – was the past recipient of a prestigious Vendy Award for best street food in the city, so we started there. With falafels and sodas in hand, we headed to Bryant Park for a picnic. It was a beautiful day in the city to sit outside, have a great nosh and watch the world walk by. Yet another great meal.
As Elliott and I review our New York foodie tour on the plane ride home today, I think we’ll have to agree that from five-star dining to food trucks, New York is a great place for lovers of all cuisine. Never a dull moment, and there's always an adventure guaranteed to please all palates.
We’ll probably grab some grub on the way to the airport, so let’s just say that you’re probably in for another story or two, but if you missed any of our adventure, we’ll give you a recap of all the OC METRO blogs in our next newsletter! That means, if you’re not on our list, sign on today!
Oh, and a BIG thank you to Editor-in-Chief Tina Borgatta, Web Editor Kristen Schott and the entire staff at OC METRO for allowing me to share my journey with you!