Dining Under the Five-Star Heavens
by Helen Susan Edelman
A night out at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., is by all standards an exceptional experience. Beyond the cornucopia of fresh foods and spectacular flavors, the meal is a multi-sensory learning opportunity, where diners take pleasure in the bounty of virtuosic chefs exploring all aspects of the menu – from aromas to aesthetics. Every fall since 2002, 100 or more alumni, students, board members, donors and the president of Empire State College, have gathered for dinner at the prestigious C.I.A. The sell-out event features a comprehensive, interactive presentation on topics such as wine and food pairings, cooking with wine, how to buy and serve wine, as well as a guided tasting of selected wines.
It all started with Joan Altman ’81, former assistant to the Hudson Valley dean and a graduate from that location. She was attending a retirement luncheon at the C.I.A. and thought, "This would be a wonderful venue for an alumni event." Altman contacted the director of sales for external events at the C.I.A. and, with support from the Office of Alumni and Student Relations, the two of them worked together planning and executing the event for the next 10 years. Each year, a different pre-dinner event is planned. The first year, guests were treated to a cheese-making demonstration. The second year, a tour of the C.I.A. was included. The third year, there was a cocktail hour in the outdoor herb garden of Ristorante Caterina de' Medici. The following year, a wine-and-food pairing was presented by Michael Weiss ’91, a professor of wine studies at the C.I.A. and author of two best-selling, seminal books in the field: “Exploring Wine,” for industry professionals, and “WineWise,” for consumers. (See more on Michael Weiss ’91, pg. 12)
Weiss was such a hit that the wine-and-food pairing became the highlight for each dinner going forward. While Altman has retired from the college, she still looks forward to attending the C.I.A. dinner events.
“It’s become a Hudson Valley tradition for our college community,” says Maureen Winney, director of alumni and student relations at the college. “Inquiries come in for the C.I.A. event a year in advance – people don’t want to miss it, especially if they’ve been before.”
A unique menu of appetizers, entrées and desserts is planned for Empire State College guests by the innovative experts at the C.I.A., an internationally acclaimed, nonprofit college with a mission to provide the world’s best culinary education in cooking, baking and pastry arts, culinary science and applied food studies. All foodies are welcome to study there – novices who wish to become a chef, professionals who want to build on their honed talents to advance their careers, and enthusiasts with a passion for cooking, who simply seek to enhance skills in their home kitchens.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for engagement,” says SUNY Empire President Merodie Hancock. “It’s a venue that draws face-to-face interaction and I enjoy the opportunity to go table to table in this intimate setting to meet college supporters. I also enjoy watching Michael Weiss so freely sharing his knowledge of wine pairing. My goal is to discover at least one new tip at each event.”
Hancock adds that the evening is an opportunity for those advanced C.I.A. students who staff it to “learn as they work, a hands-on approach to gaining valuable knowledge that is fundamental to our philosophy and practice at the college, supporting and aligning both study and career.”
The C.I.A. dinner is one of many successful, high-profile regional events Winney’s office plans across New York and, reasonably priced, it’s “both a good value and a good time,” she adds. Although Winney interacts directly with the C.I.A. throughout the planning of the evening and the menu of fresh, seasonal foods, she says that she doesn’t know exactly what will be on the plate until the group is seated.
“When we get there, it’s ready,” she says, “right down to the place settings. The service is attentive, the food is, of course, out of this world and the wine tasting is fabulous. People take notes whenever Michael Weiss talks.”
She adds that there are a number of SUNY Empire alumni who work at the C.I.A., as the college at one time had a program on the Hyde Park campus, where students could be immersed simultaneously in culinary training and study for an ESC undergraduate degree. The C.I.A. now offers its own associate and baccalaureate degrees, but some students do cross-register with Empire State College for liberal arts studies and other academic options.
“It’s very special in this way,” Winney says, adding that the night at the C.I.A. is one of her personal favorites among college events. “Our alumni at the C.I.A. have stayed connected to the college and it shows in the way this occasion is planned and executed. We can assure those who love this event that there are more to come.”
photos by Marty Heitner ’92