At six-twenty on a Tuesday morning last fall, jittery from too much coffee and not enough sleep, I stepped into a classroom kitchen at the Texas Culinary Academy, in Austin. Chef-instructor Gary Ackerman was directing half a dozen student volunteers who were hustling around preparing trays of ingredients for the class. Ackerman, 45, seemed to be doing about ten things at once. “Nice to have you here,” he said, looking up from a cutting board. “Have a seat.” Then he went back to chopping off carrot tops.
I found a chair at one of several long tables and put on my borrowed chef’s jacket and toque. The large, high-ceilinged room—more than two thousand square feet—was filling up with the forty students who were taking the class. They straggled in, fumbling around for their recipes and helping one another tie their scarves (“This is the manly way; that’s the girly way,” someone said, indicating a Windsor knot and a granny knot). Everyone had on a white jacket, the traditional black-and-white-checked pants, and close-fitting white caps. (I got to wear a toque, which students are awarded when they graduate, because I was a guest.) Although most were in their twenties, a few looked like middle-aged career changers, with a 3 to 2 ratio of men to women. The majority were Anglo or Hispanic, with only one black student (the class had no Asian students, though they make up about 10 percent of the academy’s overall enrollment). This diverse group included chef wannabes who had come from as far away as Michigan to gamble that they could parlay $36,000 into a lucrative job. I had come because I wanted to find out what it was like to train to be a chef these days. And, frankly, I wanted to see how I would perform under pressure: Would I rise to the occasion like a soufflé or collapse into a puddle of goo?
Although not the only professional cooking school in Texas, the Texas Culinary Academy ( TCA) may well be the most ambitious and fastest growing. It started out in 1981 as a small-potatoes apprenticeship program called Le Chef but hit the big time two years ago when it moved into its present glitzy digs, a $9 million, 52,000-square-foot building in North Austin. Its recent rise to prominence is a testament, in part, to the shrewdness of its youthful director, Harvey Giblin, who at 35 bears more than a passing resemblance to Doogie Howser, M.D. While the state’s other culinary schools—El Centro College, in Dallas; St. Philip’s College of San Antonio; Del Mar College, in Corpus Christi; and the two highly regarded Art Institutes in Houston and Dallas—graduated a total of some 250 baby chefs in 2003, the TCA had 420 graduates (and an enrollment 750 students). That number hardly compares with the 1,200 who graduated from the Harvard of cooking colleges, the Culinary Institute of America ( CIA), in Hyde Park, New York, but then the academy hasn’t been around for 32 years either.
Every six weeks, a new group of students arrives, keeping the academy’s six kitchens—each of which cost around $350,000 to equip—humming for three five-hour shifts a day, five days a week. When they finish the program, the students will have survived twelve months of classes and kitchen practice plus a three-month paid “externship” in an actual restaurant; some of their predecessors have worked at Charlie Trotter’s, in Chicago; Lupa, in New York (one of Mario Batali’s restaurants); and the Food Network. Unless their parents are wealthy, they will have racked up loans totaling $36,000 for tuition and $2,000 for equipment and books (the CIA charges about $15,000 a year for its two-year program). They will also wear battle scars from real knives and real flames and, if all has gone well, still have a burning desire to cook. Ninety-six percent of them will get jobs. Some of the best and brightest have ended up at restaurants including the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas, and Spago, in Los Angeles, as well as cruise ship dining rooms.
The TCA teaches French preparations and terms; in my class, we learned the definitions of “demi-glace” (a rich brown sauce reduced by half to a thick glaze) and “pincer” (to brown in fat before adding liquid). But the French focus alone is not unusual. What sets the TCA apart is its status as an affiliate of the historic Le Cordon Bleu, of Paris; it’s one of eleven in the United States. Since Giblin forged an alliance with the crème de la crème of cooking colleges in 2002, the TCA has taught the Cordon Bleu curriculum, and representatives of the French academy drop by periodically for a little tête-à-tête and to see how things are going (which must be like knowing that the Michelin guidebook inspector is in your dining room prodding a lamb chop). Although French principles and recipes undergird the course of study, dishes from other nations are taught as well. Today we would learn how to make brown veal stock, one of the most fundamental preparations of classic French cooking. Feeling the way I do in a theater just before the curtain goes up, I dug out my notebook and a pen.
At exactly six-thirty, chef-instructor John Mims, 54, called the roll. “I have Band-Aids left over from yesterday,” he announced, waving them in the air. “Not as many cuts as expected. Excellent.” Then Ackerman, wearing the usual chef’s jacket and a toque, stepped to the center of the room and faced the