It is widely accepted that the Culinary Institute of America is the country’s most prominent cooking school, one of the world’s largest repositories of food-knowledge, the place where many a celebrity-chef— from Anthony Bourdain to Cat Cora—took early cooking lessons. And while the training the CIA imparts is primarily based on classic French techniques (as are most similar programs around the world), this year the school took a turn to the south, as they introduced an intensive, 30-week certification course focused exclusively on the cuisines of Latin America; this weekend, the program’s very first students will graduate, diplomas and gleaming chef whites in hand.
In developing the certification course, the CIA saw what everyone else in America has too: a fast-growing Hispanic population with an insatiable appetite for authentic Latin foods, and an ever-expanding non-Hispanic fan base for south-of-the-border flavor. “Restaurant patrons are demanding both authentic and creative interpretations of the traditional foods of Latin America,” the CIA’s website declares in its course description. “And this demand is calling for chefs to be more knowledgeable than ever in these regionally diverse cuisines.”
The course is available exclusively at the CIA’s San Antonio, TX campus, the school’s newest American campus which opened in 2008, thanks to a $35 million gift from none other than Christopher Goldbury, the Texas businessman who popularized salsa in America through his Pace Picante Sauce company, and who became a billionaire when he sold it to Campbell Soup for $1.1 billion in 1997. The school used a portion of the gift to build the state of the art San Antonio facility, but the bulk of it—$23 million—was earmarked for scholarships to pay for students to attend the Latin Cuisines Certificate program. “It was his way of giving back to the community that helped him do so well,” said Chef-instructor Iliana de la Vega, one of the program’s founding professors who also helped develop the curriculum.
During their time in school, students learn about a new world of techniques and ingredients, de la Vega said, but also “about the cultural context in which food is made in Latin America. They learn cultural history, why we eat certain things and why we prepare them in a particular way.” They spend eight weeks studying the cuisines of Mexico, four weeks on Peru and another four on Brazil. Central America is covered in two weeks as is the Hispanic Caribbean, Ecuador and Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. “By the end of it,” de la Vega said “they have spent a good amount of time really learning about every country.” In addition, the students take Spanish and Portuguese language courses as well as a Latin American anthropology class.
But, make no mistake, this is a culinary course through and through—in order to qualify for acceptance students must already have a culinary certificate or degree—which
means much of the learning takes in actual kitchens. There are lessons in pre-Hispanic style smoking, fermenting and masa-making. The students are taught the art of dry roasting on a comal, a classic Mexican technique that calls for vegetables, such as tomatillos, unpeeled garlic or dried chiles, to be placed directly on a heating surface, with no fat or other moisture, until the skins start to blister. A method that deepen flavors, it’s key to making salsas and moles. They also learn why making guacamole or salsa in a molcajete imparts a unique texture and taste. Then they learn how to recreate that texture and taste in a modern blender. “The most important thing is that we teach them to respect traditions,” de la Vega said. “Yes, there are modern interpretations that they can create, but it’s important they understand what exists and why it exists.”
NBC Latino caught up with one of the Latin Cuisines Certificate students, Maribel Rivero, who shared with us why she enrolled in the program and what she got out of it. Like many of the students (some of whom are Hispanic, many of whom are not) Rivero’s journey was as much about cooking as it was about personal history. A half-Mexican, half Bolivian from South Texas, Rivero said the program allowed her to better understand herself and her roots. Watch her story, in her own words, in our video above.
Below is a recipe straight from the course curriculum; it’s designed to put to the test the students’ skills in dry roasting, blending and salsa making techniques.
Morita and tomatillo salsa
4 morita chiles, wiped clean, seeds and veins removed
10 medium tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed
1 garlic clove, peeled
Salt, to taste
1. Soak the chiles in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. In a comal (or on a non-stick griddle), dry roast the tomatillos and garlic.
3. Transfer the reconstituted chiles, tomatillos and garlic to a blender and process, pulsing, to a smooth salsa. Be careful not to over-blend. (You can also use a stone molcajete to mash and blend the ingredients.) Add water sparingly, one teaspoon at a time, until desired texture is achieved. Season with salt to taste. Salsa will keep for 5 days in the refrigerator. Makes 1 1/2 cups.