Food & Drink First course 

The Center for Foods of the Americas prepares its pilot culinary arts program

It's late afternoon at the Pearl Brewery, and with all the churned up earth and piles of old railroad ties and track, the site resembles the closing scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. There's no harmonica, but an excavator, in reverse, beeps a cautionary tune as it scrapes a space for a small urban village: One day people will come here to live, work, dine, and shop. There will be gardens, paths, plazas, and tree-lined streets.

But today it's a 22-acre construction zone. Workers wander in and out of the old Jersey Lily - slated for a community meeting facility, its newly exposed wooden beams and balcony feel like Shakespeare's theater-in-the-round - while, across the way, a man with a push-broom sends dust billowing out of a long warehouse. Its bricks are so clean they look new, but it has no roof. Look up: Red steel beams form a grid over the golden cupola of the old brewery and the blue sky beyond.

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The CFA expects work on the school to be completed in January. It will include six kitchens designed to the specifications of New York-based Culinary Institute of America. Large windows will provide natural light and a view of the surrounding Pearl Brewery site. (Renderings courtesy of Silver Ventures)

In five months, this warehouse will open as the temporary home of the Center for the Foods of the Americas, a 30-week certificate culinary-arts program. This week, Silver Ventures, owner of the Pearl Brewery site and the school, announced that Shelley Grieshaber, who formerly ran Central Market's five cooking schools, will be the CFA's education director. The Culinary Institute of America, as part of a 3-year partnership with Silver Ventures, will provide the curriculum, the instructors, and the exact specifications for the school's six kitchens. It will also work with the investment company to plan the school's permanent facilities, which will include a restaurant.

Grieshaber is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the Culinary Institute. She left Texas in the mid-'80s to study political science and legal studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. But after five years working as a legal analyst she decided to go to culinary school. "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer," she says, "but culinary school opened every creative door that had been suppressed by law school."

After graduating with honors, she moved to New York City, she says, "like all former `Culinary Institute` students, to break into the white-tablecloth business." Among other fine restaurants, she worked as the lead cook and saucier at the River Café - where Culinary Institute graduates Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer also cooked - and as the tournant (relief chef) at the famed Union Square Café before opening Seaport Soup Company, a takeout and catering company in the financial district of Manhattan.

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A worker sweeps out the empty shell of the old Pearl Brewery warehouse (below), soon to become the Center for Foods of the Americas. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Homesick, Grieshaber returned to San Antonio in 2001 to manage Central Market's San Antonio cooking school, and later moved to Austin to run all five of the chain's cooking schools.

Unlike Central Market, Grieshaber says the CFA is not for home cooks and enthusiasts, but rather for people pursuing careers in the culinary arts; it will only accept new high-school graduates and those who are currently working in the food-service industry. The fledgling culinary school will begin accepting applications after Labor Day and has already asked local chefs and restaurateurs to help recruit students. "The best indicator of a potential student is the chef that he or she is working with," says Grieshaber. "It's a tradition in the culinary world: We are all mentors and we all push people forward."

From the beginning, Silver Ventures and the Culinary Institute envisioned a culinary arts program that would be geared toward Hispanic students. "A vast majority of kitchen and restaurant staff are Hispanic and Latin American, and many don't have the opportunity to receive formal training in the culinary arts" says Grieshaber. "Many of the schools are far away from family and home and, for financial and cultural reasons, it's hard for these students to pick up and move to Hyde Park for culinary school."

CFA, Grieshaber says, will provide an opportunity for students to study culinary arts part-time and close to home, so they can continue to work and support their families. CFA classes will be bilingual and, while tuition for a 30-week program is $16,000, scholarships and financial aid will be available. How much can a CFA graduate expect to make? Grieshaber says salaries vary widely, but culinary-school graduates "have more opportunities and rise more quickly through the ranks of the kitchen, out of the lower tier and into positions such as the sous-chef, executive chef, and manager." The Culinary Institute website says that graduates from its two-year associate's degree program earn $25,000-30,000 a year.

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A schematic drawing of The Center for Foods of the Americas, located at the Pearl Brewery. At left, the curving wall of the Jersey Lily, formerly a stables, meeting house, and bar, which will re-open soon as a banquet and community meeting hall. (Renderings courtesy of Silver Ventures)

CFA's program will be the equivalent of the first year at the Culinary Institute's Hyde Park campus, says Ruben Katz, Culinary Institute spokesman. Graduates will receive a certificate of completion, "and then, we anticipate, many students will go on to Hyde Park."

The Culinary Institute began in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute, a storefront vocational training school for young men returning from World War II. The Restaurant Institute had 50 students and three instructors: a chef, a baker, and a dietician. Today, the Culinary Institute of America `the name changed in the early '50s` resides on a 150-acre site on the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York, and a second 15-acre campus in Napa Valley, California. Each year 2,400 students enroll in its two- and four- year training programs, and 6,000 food service professionals participate in continuing-education courses. According to Katz, over the years it has produced more certified master chefs than "any other institution, of any kind, in the world." Local graduates include Andrew Weissman (La Rêve, Sand Bar), James Sanchez (Ácenar), and Scott Cohen (La Mansion).

For its pilot program, the CFA will accept 40 students each 30-week instructional period. Although Silver Ventures may hire local faculty to teach sanitation and Texas food-safety law, most of the instructors will rotate in from the Culinary Institute to teach 3-week course blocks. Initially, the CFA will offer only culinary arts, emphasizing basic cooking and baking, nutrition, kitchen safety and math, and the history of gastronomy.

Back at the Pearl Brewery, there's a ditch where the bottling plant used to be - from its edge, you can see the old "On the job safety begins here" sign that marked the entrance to the employee's workaday bar; yes, they used to drink on the job - and where, in three or four years, Silver Ventures will build a new structure that will house, among other things, the permanent CFA facilities.

Silver Ventures and the Culinary Institute are still planning the next phase of the school, which is dependent on the success of the pilot program. In a broad sense, Katz says, the idea behind the "center" aspect of the school is to promote San Antonio as an important culinary destination and a gateway to Latin and South American foods, culture, and art. To that end, plans could include bringing in chefs from Latin and South America as faculty-in-residence at the school and featured guests at the restaurant, and expanding the CFA's programs to include Latin-focused continuing-education courses. The school may also flesh out its curriculum with a pastry certificate and management, operations, and human resources courses. "The restaurant business is more complicated today than it was in the old days," says Katz. "A chef can't hide behind the kitchen door."

In the future, will the Center for Foods of the Americas move from being a Silver Ventures certificate cooking school to a Culinary Institute of America campus? "I think we are all hopeful that will be the outcome," says Katz.

By Susan Pagani



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