cooking enthusiasts meet up in hyde park

Basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic cloves, parmesan cheese. Those are some of the ingredients that go into making a healthful pesto sauce. You can follow an online recipe, buy a jar at your local market, or experience the joy of creating your own as part of a cooking team at one of the country’s foremost culinary schools. Roughly 60 miles north of central Westchester, The Culinary Institute of America is home to over 2,700 full time students and also offers a full roster of year-round learning opportunities for day and weekend visitors.

On a sunny Saturday morning a few months back, I drove from White Plains to the sprawling 170-acre CIA campus in Hyde Park, NY, arriving in about 70 minutes: just in time for freshly baked muffins, croissants and coffee before classes began. I took a seat among the weekend cooking warriors who were gathered in Roth Hall – a former Jesuit novitiate, to share some eats before everyone headed off to the cooking course they had signed up for.

Along with 13 other participants registered for the Healthy Cooking At Home course, led by Chef Paul DelleRose on this day, I headed over to a corridor of professional kitchens. Our assigned kitchen, with its oversized refrigerators, ovens and stovetops, was equipped with everything needed to create an afternoon meal. In our case, that amounted to an abundant 14 dishes. Other food enthusiasts followed their teaching chef to cooking classes in Mediterranean Cooking, Italian Cooking at Home, Everyday Grilling (a seasonal offering) and CIA Favorites. There was a Young Chefs course for parents/grandparents and kids, as well as a variety of baking courses including Everything Chocolate, Pies and Tarts, and Gluten-Free Baking.

My fellow participants in Healthy Cooking arrived alone and in groups for the one-day course: a young man who was a professional cook in North Carolina; a mom with her three grown daughters from Pennsylvania; a woman from a nearby town and another from Florida; a couple from Connecticut; and, of course, a few of us from Westchester. Skill level among the group ranged from novice to professional. The commonality among us came from the desire to learn and to expand our cooking repertoire: whether that meant acquiring skills or reaching beyond our standby recipes.

The class kicked off with Chef DelleRose demonstrating how to make whole wheat ravioli, with a white bean and kale filling. DelleRose has been at the CIA for 10 years and says that the institute is “trying to move to more health-forward, health-conscious” cooking through the use of substitutions: the ravioli affording an example of this new cooking philosophy. After a unanimous thumbs-up tasting, the 14 of us split into groups and headed over to our work stations, where we donned our CIA-provided chef hats and aprons.

I teamed up with Maureen and Elaine and, at our cooking station, we assessed how to proceed with our assigned recipes: sautéed turkey kibbe kebabs; eggplant purée; hummus; and coconut macaroons. Healthy cooking with a Mediterranean flair. Maureen was less comfortable in the kitchen than Elaine and I, and didn’t consider herself much of a cook. Not yet, at least. But it was all about the interest in learning, taking joy in the process, and having fun. The three of us found our groove and were soon checking our recipes for flavor, modifying and substituting spices and, on occasion, seeking out Chef DelleRose and his two assistants, who were unfailingly friendly and helpful as the day progressed.

After each team completed their dishes and placed them at the buffet spread, we filled our plates with everything from asian grilled shrimp and buckwheat noodle salad, zucchini and chickpea tagine with couscous, and cocoa-rubbed pork tenderloin to the kibbe kebabs with eggplant purée, stuffed poblano peppers, chocolate polenta pudding cake, and more.

With bountiful plates in hand, we headed back over to Roth Hall with our class to enjoy all the food made in our kitchen. Along the way, I was stopped by a young man from the Italian Cooking class who gleefully suggested that I marvel at and partake of the selection of foods on his plate.

As we sat to enjoy the rewards of our efforts, Chef DelleRose thoughtfully shared what he enjoys most about teaching at CIA by saying, “I like to interact with people, show them the craft – what we do.” He emphasized that his passion is cooking with eclectic flavors and seeking out global, fun foods to prepare and serve.

And the participants in our class? The ones I spoke with, whatever their level of cooking, were eager to return for another class. Maureen wants to come back for Soups, as does Jane. Elaine, who’s already taken five day classes at CIA, expects to return – perhaps for (Baked) Christmas Gifts. Me? I’m thinking about cake decorating – something far outside my skill set so why not!

Learn more about the CIA offerings by visiting their site (once on the site, enter ‘food enthusiast courses’ into the search bar) or calling 845-452-9600.

(Photo: courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America)

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