The Culinary Institute of America San Antonio graduating class of April 2016. Credit: Courtesy / CIA

Nao Latin Gastro Bar, a unique eatery operated by the adjacent Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, is surrounded by some of the greatest restaurants and culinary talent in the country. This is where local chefs and food enthusiasts come to train, learn and share their culinary knowledge.

In the past decade, the CIA has played a critical role in San Antonio’s culinary transformation from a place known for Tex-Mex cuisine to a city with an incredibly diverse food culture. As one of the founding tenants of the mixed-use Pearl Brewery complex, the CIA has also played its part in strengthen the city’s urban core footprint.

“I think that the caliber of cook and chef that exists in the city, and the understanding of technique  has risen, has been elevated,” said Nao Executive Chef Zach Garza, a former student of the CIA- San Antonio campus, who went on to graduate from the CIA in Hyde Park. “In particular, in Latin cuisine, you see more people interested in experiencing Latin cuisine besides Tex-Mex. For years it was Tex-Mex, and there’s so much more out there. Now we have people asking about Peru, Argentina, and Brazil– wanting to see variety and have an adventure.”

Executive Chef Zach Garza arranges plates for the next dinner course. Photo by Lea Thompson
Executive Chef Zach Garza arranges plates for the next dinner course. Photo by Lea Thompson

The San Antonio campus celebrated its 10-year anniversary on Friday, May 6, with a six-course dinner, prepared by graduates and students of the renowned school who have gone on to develop incredible restaurants, markets and businesses. The menu at Nao featured thoughtfully paired dishes and beverages that revealed the chefs’ culinary roots and honored the city’s Latin cuisine.

Each chef crafted unique dishes that demonstrated how the CIA had influenced their work – from the beef tartare served on a tostada with pickled, local vegetables, quail egg and guacamole by Culinary Director of the Pearl Shelley Grieshaber to the guava empanadas prepared by former student and St. Phillip’s graduate Crystal Rivas – the evening was a celebration of San Antonio’s culinary talent and cultural evolution as a city.

When Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, the visionary leader behind Silver Ventures, first asked the Culinary Institute of America to consider building a campus in San Antonio, the idea was dismissed as “implausible.” However, Goldsbury was confident that San Antonio’s vibrant energy would be perfect for a renown institution like the CIA, which would attract and encourage local culinary talent, and elevate the city’s reputation as a true food destination.

Goldsbury opened the Center for Foods of the Americas (CFA) in 2006, providing local chefs and food enthusiasts with a place to learn the same techniques and values being taught at the CIA campuses in Hyde Park and Greystone. Though the CFA was independently operated, the school used curriculum similar to the instruction taught at the CIA, and flew in CIA instructors to teach the classes.

The Culinary Institute of America, nestled within the Pearl Brewery mixed-use complex. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Culinary Institute of America, nestled within the Pearl Brewery mixed-use complex. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After two years of running the CFA, Goldsbury presented the CIA with a more than $30 million donation – more than enough to construct and expand a new campus in Texas. This time, the CIA saw San Antonio’s culinary potential for growth and development.

The Pearl as it stands today, and San Antonio’s reputation as a food destination, would not exist without the CIA.

The campus is also home to celebrated and James Beard-nominated restaurants, public cooking classes and events that celebrate local and global food cultures. Local culinary staff and students can be found working at the popular Pearl Farmer’s Market, or Nao, a restaurant that also serves as a training ground for young chefs.

Nao has gone through several major changes since it opened for business in 2012 in an attempt to strike a right balance between classroom and successful business. Until a year ago, Nao was largely run by CIA students in preparation for professional life after graduation. In 2015, the restaurant changed its name, management, and began using professional staff for its dinner shifts, while students continued to train and run the eatery for its lunch service. Nao hopes to usher in new generations of talented chefs like Garza, who have returned to share their gifts with the city.

The success of locally trained chefs such as Diego Galicia of Mixtli, Luis Morales of Humble House Foods, and Diego Fernandez of Hearsay (formerly Starfish) have helped bring San Antonio the recognition it deserves, said CIA San Antonio Director Fernando Salazar.

“That’s bringing other chefs to venture into San Antonio to open restaurants, and it’s made San Antonio a force to reckon with in terms of creativity and restaurants to visit. The CIA and the Pearl helped put San Antonio on the same level as other major food cities in the country,” Salazar said. “A lot has changed here in the last 20 years, the last 10 years, but the CIA San Antonio has definitely made its (mark) as game changing grounds. It’s a place that people really get excited about, and a place I am proud to be.”

Top Image:The CIA San Antonio Graduating Class of April 15, 2016. Photo Courtesy of  the CIA San Antonio.

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Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.