For some culinary students in San Antonio, the road to graduation is paved with cake, bread, and the occasional pop-up.
The Culinary Institute of America’s annual pop-up CIA Bakery Café opened Monday at Savor, the school’s new restaurant that is part-cafe, part-classroom. For the next 12 weeks, student chefs will prepare and serve breakfast and lunch, under the watchful gaze of CIA faculty, while in the final rounds toward earning an associate degree in baking and pastry arts.
The café gives students the opportunity to hone their skills in a retail bakery and sit-down restaurant, said Amandy Carranza, instructor for hospitality and service management.
“They know a lot about bread and chocolate, but all of a sudden, they have to cook,” Carranza said. “So, it’s a brand-new experience.”
The CIA opened its Texas outpost at the Pearl in 2008, and has operated the bakery pop-up in various locations on the campus every time this year since 2015. It’s become an annual tradition that area office workers especially anticipate, then dread the day it closes, Carranza said. “The No. 1 question I get asked is, when are you closing?”
The student chefs also look forward to the experience. Dion Vaughn, who worked as a food service specialist during his eight years in the Army and later perfected his chicken fines herbes dish in the CIA’s culinary program in 2017, started the baking and pastry program last year.
“You just scratch the surface in the military. It’s about getting people fed and food on the table,” Vaughn said. “Here, you learn the why for the what you’re doing.”
His favorite part of running the pop-up café was opening day, “because you get to see the reaction of whether the community accepts it or not,” he said. “All the hard work that goes into it behind the scenes, and you’re a part of it, and you see how the guests receive it. They like it, and you love it.”
Vaughn dreams of traveling the world and working in the culinary arts wherever he goes. On Wednesday, he was in the patisserie where chefs showcase their bakes – buttery croissants, artful cookies, cakes, and tarts, even alfajores, are lined up neatly on the bar, and the fresh-pressed coffee is hot. (At dinner, the pastries are removed, and the space becomes a full bar with wine and mixed drinks to accompany the Savor menu, which offers entrees prepared by the culinary students.)
Other baking and pastry students could be seen working in the kitchen, where the French toast is crafted with brioche also made by the students, and lunch preparations were in progress. Student Stephanie Padilla was slicing cured salmon for the café’s version of avocado toast. It’s a new skill for the pastry chef, but one she said she’s enjoying.
“The idea of doing it was a little weird to me at first,” Padilla said. “In baking, everything is so exact. In this, I have a little more freedom.”
Padilla came to the school from her home in Ennis, Texas, and hopes to own a custom cake studio someday. Classmate Carly Bussman is a Nevada native married to a service member stationed at a San Antonio military installation. Her goal is to open a wedding cake business.
But in the café this week, Bussman was assigned to the “expo” job, making sure every plate was perfect before making its way from the kitchen to the dining room. That included all the soups, salads, tacos, and desserts served by students working the front of the house as they rotate weekly to learn all aspects of running a café.
“We really emphasize the teamwork and all elements of running a business,” Carranza said. “In the food industry, it’s all about communication.”
The pop-up has been busy since it opened Monday, with customers seeking some of the unique offerings not always available in San Antonio. The CIA chef who runs the baking department, Alain Dubernard, is from Mexico but also lived and trained in France.
“We have a client base that has been following us for many years and once the word goes out, they are in a countdown,” Carranza said. “They want to make sure they visit this as much as they can until we close.”
The bakery pop-up is open Monday through Friday, with takeout available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and lunch service from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Savor is open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Located in the Full Goods building at the Pearl, 200 E. Grayson St., the bakery will remain open through April 11 when it closes again until 2020.