The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio is also known as the El Sueño campus. That’s due, in no small part, to the scholarship program of the same name that was created to cultivate culinary leaders and assist Texas residents in achieving their dream of attending the school. 

But to me, the dream is also much more than that.

Working at The Culinary Institute of America, or CIA, is kind of like if you were to take the most talented and most invested “restaurant people” and bring them all together in one place. Their sole purpose is to pass on their knowledge and expertise to rooms full of young, hopeful students. It truly does feel like a dream.

It’s impressive to see how quickly students learn to adjust and improve their techniques and products. My favorite lesson to teach is organization. It takes the students the full two years to get the basics of organization and time management down. They build their skills through hands-on tests in which they have a set amount of time to make a specific list of items. I like it when they overcome their nervousness and can execute competently by having a solid plan that they have written down and thought through. 

Lilla Bernal instructs her class on the art of baking banana nut bread at the Culinary Institute of America at Pearl. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Teaching students who are just starting out makes me think of my own journey to get here. I did not grow up in a big food family. We didn’t have cookouts, all-day barbecues, or tamaladas. There were no big food traditions outside of the standard turkey on Thanksgiving and fried chicken on Christmas (OK, maybe that’s not so traditional). I didn’t spend hours in the kitchen baking cookies with Grandma or learning secret recipes passed down for generations. I liked to eat, and that’s about where my culinary prowess ended as a kid and a young adult. 

A year or so after high school I began working at Bakersfield, a San Antonio bakery owned by Jenny Mattingsley and Deborah Auden. The bakery produced high-quality goods made from scratch. I’d never seen anything like it. Jenny was willing to teach us, the uninitiated minimum-wage kids, how to make things — to transform butter, flour, eggs, and sugar into cakes, pastry, breads, and cookies — seven days a week. She was a great teacher and my first baking inspiration. 

From there I worked with Bruce Auden at Restaurant Biga (in the old house) and again, saw things I didn’t know existed. They made their own ketchup. I had no idea one could make homemade ketchup. Bruce asked me if I wanted to go to the savory side or stay in desserts, and I chose the latter. 

Though working at a restaurant was not the long-term career plan my family had for me as a young person, my mom suggested getting a degree to validate my interest in baking. I enrolled at the CIA’s New York campus, graduating in 1999 with an associate degree in baking and pastry arts and an offer to take over the pastry chef position in a tiny, fancy resort in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Eventually, after holding various positions in restaurants in Puerto Rico, Spain, and Mexico, I headed back to San Antonio. 

I spent time at Biga on the Banks and the San Antonio Food Bank before the opportunity to work at the CIA arose. Having graduated from the CIA, I was familiar with the caliber of the faculty, and, admittedly, a little nervous about the interview process. To become a chef instructor at the CIA, one must pass a rigorous series of tests, culminating in teaching a lesson to professors and Certified Master Chefs while they pepper you with questions your future students might have. Intimidating? Sure. But once you’re past that, the mentoring and training begins.

As an assistant professor of baking and pastry arts, my day starts early. I arrive at the bakeshop at 6 a.m., and there are usually a few students who beat me there. The students are really what makes the Culinary Institute of America such a special place. The excitement, commitment, and dedication that I see in my first-semester students is inspiring. 

I am most proud of myself and them when they get to our Bakery Café pop-up restaurant. It’s the capstone of their educational experience, taking place during their final semester. By that time, they’ve honed their skills and are ready to show the world what they can do. I remind them that when they first came to school here, it took them five hours to make 24 cookies correctly, and now they are basically running a bakeshop and full-service kitchen. It’s exciting to see how much they’ve grown.

For me, the main difference between when I started this job and now and is that I realize that every instructor at our campus truly wants every student to succeed — to live their dream. All CIA instructors teach not only precision and care but also consideration and self-respect. 

At the beginning of each semester, I usually give my students a little chat about their uniforms. Our uniform policy is strict, and many students aren’t fully prepared for that. I like to tell them that the uniform is the outward manifestation of their pride in being a student at the CIA, and it shows the world they care about themselves and the career path they have chosen.

I hope that what they hear when I tell them that is that everything they do matters. The sum of their actions — from ironing their chef jackets to making sugar sculptures to washing dishes — becomes their character as pastry chefs, and more importantly, as human beings. 

Lilla Bernal

Chef Lilla Bernal is an assistant professor of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio. She was recently named a Chef Ambassador, representing San Antonio as a UNESCO Creative...