chef megan okain lotay

It’s Friday afternoon as I write this, the second part of my coverage of my Culinary Institute experience, and I am exhausted.

I’m usually not even awake by 6:30 a.m., the time I arrived each morning at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) campus at the Pearl Brewery complex to attend the four-day “Best of Boot Camp” class. This week has been a complete whirlwind of culinary experiences and I can’t believe it has come to an end.

The first day of class, when I was afraid of pretty much everything in the professional kitchen, seemed a distant memory on the last day of class as I gathered everything for my “mise en place,” the organized arrangement of ingredients for that day’s recipes.

The class presenting our day one menu.
The class presenting our Day One menu. Photos courtesy of Megan O’Kain Lotay.

The first hour or so of each day was devoted to lecture, where my seven classmates and I were exposed to different cooking and baking techniques, as well as the cultural origins of the foods that we would prepare that day.

The magic happened after each lecture when our instructor, Chef Michael Katz, let us loose in the kitchen to cook the various recipes that we would then enjoy for lunch.  With 20 years in the industry and a Certified Executive Chef designation under his belt, Chef Katz effortlessly and expertly managed every cooking disaster we created.

Chef Katz showing us how to make fresh mozzarella.
Chef Katz showing us how to make fresh mozzarella.

I’ve also decided that he must be the most patient man in the world as he calmly addressed each of our frantic shouts during class, “Chef!  Chef!  I need help!”

The first day focused on fundamentals, and we applied the basic techniques we learned in lecture to our recipes.  Divided into teams of three, each team sliced, diced, minced, sautéed, pan-fried and poached its way through the recipes.  Like most teams the first day, my team assigned a recipe to each team member and we worked almost exclusively alone.  I was responsible for braised greens, but my lack of chopping skill put my recipe behind schedule and the greens ended up a tad underdone.

We enjoyed the dishes we prepared for lunch, and even though none of us were at the top of our game, everything tasted amazing.  We set the bar pretty high for our lunches the rest of the week.  (The best dish, in my opinion, was the 40-clove chicken prepared by my classmates on Team 3).

Chef Katz turned up the heat on the second and third day of class.  The initial list of simple, straightforward recipes was replaced with more complex Italian recipes on Wednesday and French Bistro-style recipes on Thursday.  Working individually within our team was no longer an option if we had any hope of completing each recipe by lunch.  In no time, my teammates, Mariana Iturralde and Molly Larrigan, and I had a rhythm: Mariana stirred the ragù I started, while Molly and I finished off the polenta cake for which Mariana prepped the mise en place.

Everything just started to gel, but that’s not to say it was easy.

I never knew making chocolate mousse was so complicated and time-consuming.  You need to slowly melt the chocolate, stir in egg yolks, make a meringue, whip heavy cream, delicately fold all the ingredients together and then let it set in the refrigerator.

Chef Katz was right about the whipped cream - delicious!
Chef Katz was right about the whipped cream – delicious!

Serving is also part of the process.  They say that the eye eats first, so presentation is important.  You can’t just spoon the mousse in to a bowl and call it a day. To artfully shape chocolate mousse, it’s best to transfer it into a pastry bag and then swirl it into a serving dish.  Also, don’t try to shortcut the presentation by squirting whipped cream from a can on top of the mousse – Chef Katz caught me in the act.

Instead, use a bit of the whipped cream you made earlier and add a generous dollop to crown all of your hard work.

Thanks to the Best of Boot Camp class, I made progress on the three goals I set for myself before the start of the class (still need work on knife skills … thankfully the CIA has a class for that, too!).  But for me, it was the other students, the instructors, and their stories that made the experience truly impactful.  Of the eight students, only three of us lived in the San Antonio area.  The other five students traveled specifically to the city to take the Best of Boot Camp class, so it’s clear that the CIA increases the allure of the city and draws a unique and interesting crowd.

 Me with my teammate Molly taking a break from onion chopping
Me with my teammate Molly Larrigan taking a break from onion chopping

For example, my teammate, Mariana, traveled nearly 24 hours from her farm outside of La Paz, Bolivia to attend the class.  She and her family own AgroTakesi, a coffee farm high in the hills of Bolivia that produces a premium, one-of-a-kind, organic coffee called Café Takesi.

We were treated to a taste of her coffee and it puts Starbucks to shame.

Molly, an anesthesiologist, traveled with her two daughters and husband all the way from Calgary, Canada. Val Urbat, from Spokane, Washington, was in class while her husband went fishing on nearby lakes.

Val Urbat working the pizza oven.
Val Urbat working the pizza oven.

David Wiechering, a retired banker, drove from Harlingen; and Terri Wilson, an engineer living in Phoenix and originally from Trinidad & Tobago, attended so she could learn to make more than cereal for dinner.  Working in such close proximity for four days, we learned a lot about each other.  Some of it was interesting, some funny, and some stories were downright inspiring.

One of the most inspiring stories came from Jose (Joe) Lopez, one of the two CIA students supporting Chef Katz as part of their externship.  As we chatted, Joe revealed that he was completing the Warriors to Work program through the Wounded Warriors Project.

 Chef Joe is part of the Warriors to Work program
Chef Joe is part of the Warriors to Work program.

I had noticed that his hand was scarred, but I didn’t realize the cause or extent of Joe’s injuries.  He explained that on his last day of deployment in Afghanistan his convoy hit an IED.  Joe suffered severe lung damage and burns to his arm, hand and legs as a result of the incident, but after years of hospitalization and rehabilitation, the support of the Wounded Warriors program and his CIA education, Joe is on his way to a promising culinary career.

It’s clear that the CIA is doing a lot more than just educating the next wave of chefs —it’s also positioning San Antonio as a hot spot of culinary activity and attracting new talent and visitors to the area.  San Antonio is now a foodie destination and we are poised to benefit from the ideas, perspective and flavor that these activities bring with them.

Yes, I learned about cooking, but the more important lesson was to go out, experience something new, and embrace the opportunities available here in San Antonio.  Get out of your comfort zone, meet new people, try new things … and see what makes San Antonio, our “little city,” so very special.

Class and guests enjoying a dinner at Nao, the CIA's student-staffed restaurant at the Pearl Brewery complex.
Class and guests enjoying a dinner at Nao, the CIA’s student-staffed restaurant at the Pearl Brewery complex managed by top chefs.

Megan O’Kain Lotay and her husband, Jesse, have lived in San Antonio for two and a half years.  Megan works in marketing at USAA and in her spare time keeps a blog, The San Antonio Palate, to chronicle her dining adventures.  She is also working on a local arts and crafts startup,

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Megan O'Kain Lotay

Megan O’Kain Lotay and her husband, Jesse, live in North Central San Antonio (in the 'burbs) and are passionate about San Antonio, enjoying all it has to offer, and taking advantage of dog-friendly dining...