By Robert Ramsey — Chef Instructor, School of Culinary Arts

In the early 2000s, I cracked open “The French Laundry Cookbook” for the first time. A young and inexperienced cook, I was working in a hotel kitchen and still only halfway through my culinary school education. I remember the moment with vivid clarity — pouring over the glossy, crisp pages with my fellow line cook, Caleb. The sous chef, who had brought in the cookbook for inspiration, was taken aback that we hadn’t seen it before, let alone heard of the man behind the book, Chef Thomas Keller.

Chef Robert Ramsey

Chef Robert Ramsey

Why has this seemingly mundane moment stuck like glue to my otherwise mediocre memory? Because it was truly pivotal in my culinary career. Up to this point, I was cooking because I was having fun, but my career path was rather aimless. I didn’t have goals, wasn’t making strides to advance my skills and was putting minimal effort into my culinary education. But then “The French Laundry Cookbook” came along and showed me what food could be: refined, inspired, creative, elegant, restrained yet exceedingly complex and simply exquisite! This was the moment when I woke up — my eyes opened to the world of cuisine. I began developing my goals and narrowed my focus on working in fine dining. I started collecting cookbooks from the hottest restaurants at the time — Alinea, Momofuku, Noma, Eleven Madison Park — reading them cover to cover, imprinting the images deeply into my brain. I made it my new mission to train in the kitchens of one of these restaurants. Young and cocky, I sent resume after resume, sure that one of them would hire me.

Young Chef Robert – discovering his career path (and a very large oyster mushroom)

Months later and with no offers on the table, I saw an article about a collaborative dinner with the team at the then lesser-known Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Everything from the food to the space to the natural surroundings looked incredible. Unfamiliar with the restaurant, I did some research and discovered that this exclusive meal was hosted by a working farm, inn and restaurant with close ties to Thomas Keller — the proprietor had trained with him. The on-site restaurant called “The Barn” had just opened and was proving itself on par with the best restaurants in the country. Offering five- and nine-course tasting menus with ingredients sourced from the surrounding farmstead, it had an interesting twist that appealed to a budding young chef like myself. Plus, they did regular collaborations with leading chefs from around the world. It would be like working at all of the top fine dining establishments — only they would come to you. I sent my resume right away.

One week later and still no response, I called, emailed and sent my resume again. Two weeks later… still nothing. But I didn’t give up. I called human resources to confirm that they received my application. “Did you forward it to the chef?” I inquired. They assured me that they had, but one month later, I still hadn’t heard from them. Unwilling to admit defeat, I called again, but this time directly to the restaurant front desk. I asked to speak with the chef and, shockingly, they put him on! Nervously, I stumbled through my case and was offered a three-day stage on the spot. My persistence had paid off. I was headed to Tennessee.

Blackberry Farm

Blackberry Farm

After completing my stage, I ended up working at Blackberry Farm for two years. I did collaborative dinners with Daniel Boulud (my first weekend on the job!), Alain Ducasse, Tien Ho, Barbara Lynch, Judy Rodgers, Francois Payard, Michael Schwartz, Steven Satterfield and many, many more. I harvested fresh produce from the garden. I learned to make farmstead products — preserves and pickles, aged charcuterie, even cheese produced from the sheep on the farm. I was exposed to new skills, techniques, ideas, chefs and ingredients, and, most importantly, I excelled. I quickly worked my way through every station. When the chef and executive sous chef traveled to New York City to cook at the James Beard House, they left me in charge of The Barn — I got to run the show!

As much as I learned during my time at Blackberry Farm, in the end I realized that I wasn’t in love. I found the pace of fine dining to be too slow for my tastes, the diners too fussy, the service too precious, the costs too astronomical and the expectations too inflated. I cherished my experience and had no regrets, but a career in crafting tasting menus was not for me. I had to see what else was out there.

I moved to New York, the food capital of the country, to explore the endless possibilities available in the food industry. Soon enough, I was working for James Beard Award-nominated chef Anna Klinger, and rose to the rank of chef de cuisine at her restaurant Bar Corvo. Anna’s restaurants (she also owns Al Di La and Lincoln Station) had the kind of casual and convivial environment I connected with, but maintained an emphasis on exceptional, authentic and honest food. While I felt I was cooking some of the best food of my life at the time, I began to see my role as chef morphing into that of a teacher. As my career progressed, I found a love for sharing my knowledge of food and cuisine. As a chef running a restaurant, I realized how much I cherished those teaching moments on the job — watching someone master an emulsion for the first time or slice into a perfectly rosy grilled pork chop. When I was offered a teaching position in the culinary arts program at ICE, I jumped on the opportunity. Finally, I had discovered a way to combine my two passions: cooking and teaching.

My experience shows that with all of the confidence and determination in the world, you can still be wrong about which path is the best fit for you. But there is only one way to find out if you are destined to be the next Thomas Keller or not, and that is to commit to trying. My philosophy in life is to figure out what you want and then go after it. Sometimes, you will be wrong and that’s okay. It’s a cycle, and hopefully, you’ll never run out of things you want, and you’ll never run out of the drive to go after them.

Want to train in the kitchen with Chef Robert? Click here to learn about ICE’s award-winning Culinary Arts program.

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Did you know: the hydroponic garden at ICE supplies fresh herbs and produce not just to culinary and pastry students, but also to a growing list of fine dining restaurants in New York City? We caught up with Rob Laing of Farm.One to chat about the herbs and harvesting know-how they’re delivering to L’Appart, the Michelin-starred restaurant located in Brookfield Place led by Executive Chef Nicolas “Nico” Abello.

harvesting hydroponic herbs

Tell me about your agreement with L’Appart.

Farm.One is working with L’Appart to plant and help maintain a new outdoor aromatic herb garden on their terrace at Brookfield Place. It’s an intimate area where guests can sit outside and enjoy fresh tea infusions using a selection of herbs from the garden after their meal at the restaurant. We had already been supplying ingredients to the restaurant, so being part of their herb garden was the natural next step. 

What kind of herbs and produce do you supply them?

For their fresh tea infusions program, L’Appart uses a number of aromatic herbs like lavender, bergamot, lemongrass, thyme, lemon verbena and different varieties of mint and thyme, including pineapple mint, chocolate mint, lemon thyme, rose petal thyme and others. For the restaurant, we supply all kinds of fresh herbs, edible flowers and some microgreens — for example, beautiful wood sorrel flowers, in keeping with their French roots.

harvesting hydroponic herbs

What about L’Appart makes them a good recipient for fresh, hydroponic herbs?

We love working with Chef Nico and his team because they share our excitement for being able to grow interesting herbs right here in the city. Their menu is elegant and French, with many opportunities to showcase excellent fresh flavors paired with their other carefully chosen ingredients. But also, they’re literally in the same building as us. You can’t get more local than that.

Can you explain a bit about the educational aspect of supplying them with herbs? Who do you teach? What do you teach them? Why is this important?

The technique of harvesting from a plant is almost as important as how you plant the seed. If you do it incorrectly, you’re often left with a sad-looking stick. So we work with L’Appart to teach their staff how to continually harvest from their herb garden, while encouraging the plants to flourish. If we do this right, they’ll have a vibrant garden all through the season for their guests to enjoy. 

How does this compare with what ICE students learn in the hydroponic garden? 

When students start at ICE, they are often at the beginning of their culinary journey and just getting their first taste of fresh herbs, especially the more unusual ones. This is why the chef instructors at ICE bring their students into the farm early on, to allow students to experience and taste the range of herbs we grow. As they progress through the course, they can build on their knowledge of produce, all the way through to their externships with restaurants like L’Appart, where they get to work with and learn from leaders like Chef Nico — professionals who have a career’s worth of experience working with fresh products. 

harvesting hydroponic herbs

What are some of the dishes that Chef Nico is creating with the hydroponic garden’s herbs?

Chef Nico’s recent dishes using our products in a private dining event included:

  • King Coho salmon, sorrel and oxalis It’s very common to pair citrus with fish, so it makes sense that this dish brings together the sour/acid notes of different kinds of sorrel and oxalis (which is also commonly called “sorrel”) with the pleasant fattiness/oiliness of salmon, balancing the dish. This dish was made with purple and red oxalis flowers, yellow wood sorrel flowers, plus beautiful red veined sorrel and striking purple oxalis leaves.
  • Lobster, lemon balm and anise hyssop  Chef
 Nico wanted to express the many variations on anise flavors and scents. Micro anise hyssop, bronze fennel fronds and fennel crowns all bring out a slightly different aspect of anise. Lobster and fennel, and fennel and onion are classic pairings. The fried lemon verbena was a cool touch which made the sometimes-chewy herb crispy and delightful.
  • Goat cheese, nepitella, wild strawberry
 — This was an interesting dish by pastry chef Mina. It featured za’atar marjoram, an ingredient not commonly found in a dessert dish. The combo of the burnt toast, the classic mint and goat cheese adapted to the more unusual nepitella, and the wild strawberry sorbet worked really well.

Can you name a few other restaurants you’re currently supplying?

We work with a number of New York’s Michelin-awarded restaurants, including Atera, Daniel, Jungsik, Chef’s Table and other excellent but more informal destinations like Mission Chinese Food, Double Zero, Pizza Loves Emily (Ed. note: from ICE alum Matt Hyland), Print and Butter.

You, too, can study farm-to-classroom cuisine at ICE — click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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On Tuesday, May 9, 2017 — for the very first time — ICE held a momentous commencement ceremony at NYU’s Skirball Center to celebrate the graduation of ICE career students who completed their programs in the first half of 2017. ICE President Rick Smilow welcomed 600 proud family and friends to share in the ICE graduates’ accomplishments. Rick noted the diversity of the students, who represented all of ICE’s career programs — Culinary Arts, Pastry & Baking Arts and Restaurant & Culinary Management — as well as diverse ages, nationalities, educational backgrounds, career aspirations and more.

After months of dedicated work and challenging themselves on a daily basis, the mood of the graduates was nothing less than ecstatic — the excitement in Skirball Center was palpable. Still, the room quieted to a hush as guests listened to a keynote address from acclaimed Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern and words of inspiration from Chef Mario Batali. The crowd also had the chance to soak in reflections from alumnus Jonathan Defren (Culinary ‘08/Management ‘08/Hospitality ’11), who holds the royal trifecta of diplomas — Culinary Arts, Restaurant & Culinary Management and Hospitality Management, and has paved a dynamic career path in the hospitality industry.

Huge congratulations to ICE’s graduates and check out our video recap of this truly special day.

Ready to jumpstart your culinary education? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs. 

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By James Briscione — Director of Culinary Development

This past March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invited me to Brazil to help launch a new campaign called #USfoodexperience which was developed to introduce American ingredients and dining traditions to the Brazilian market. As part of my visit, I created a menu of classic dishes from around the United States and served it to 100 of São Paulo’s top chefs and media. I also toured local culinary schools and hosted a series of demos at each school, sharing recipes for some of my favorite American foods. But for me, the highlight of the trip was our dinner at D.O.M., the #2 restaurant in all of South and Central America.

Chef Alex Atala

Chef Alex – photo courtesy of domrestaurante.com

If you’re a fan of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, (if you’re reading this blog, I assume you must be) then you already know about restaurant D.O.M. You also know its chef Alex Atala — the bearded, jiu-jitsu-practicing chef who seemed to spend as much time in a wetsuit exploring the Amazon as he did in a chef coat. His restaurant ranks among the best in the world. So as soon as I found out that I would be spending a week in Sao Paolo, Brazil, nabbing a reservation at D.O.M. was a must.

Like at many of the restaurants that populate the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, dinner at D.O.M. is far more than a meal. Chef Alex is crafting an experience — a journey through food that takes visitors on a tour of his native land. Different regions of Brazil are presented through a series of carefully crafted bites, smells and sips.

sake cocktails

sake cocktails served inside fresh chillies

Chef Alex grabs your attention from the very first bite. Our meal began with a sorbet made from fresh chilies. I expected it would be a cold bite that began sweet and ended with a spicy kick. Instead, the sorbet was savory, with plenty of salt and a barely detectable sweetness and fresh chile flavor that exploded on the palate, with no trace of heat whatsoever. It left you with nothing to taste but the incredibly complex fruity aroma of the chilies themselves. The sorbet was paired with a small cocktail of sake and Brazilian sparkling wine served in a hollowed out chile.

Small bites continued to flow from the kitchen: plump, freshly shucked oysters accentuated with dried mango and whisky, “ravioli” of puréed beet, cased in a sheet of local honey. Chef Alex has the confidence and vision to serve a course of nothing more than watercress stems and mustard seeds. It is so perfectly crafted and presented that you wonder why these pieces are discarded in nearly every other restaurant in the world. As a chef, my mind instantly went to the painstaking detail that goes into a bite like this — you must use tiny, surgically sharp scissors to mold the stems into the perfect shape, then switch to tweezers to carefully place mustard seeds and delicate miniature flowers. How many minutes go into the creation of something that is gone in a matter of seconds? A plate full of umami arrived after that: a crispy tangle of crunchy caramelized onions, seaweed and puffed rice, anchored by creamy mushroom flan.

My favorite plate of the entire meal arrived next. A tasting of pirarucu, the Amazonian fish that Chef Alex and his cooks are shown wrestling with on Chef’s Table. Pirarucu is a monstrous fish that can grow up to 10 feet long. Back in the restaurant, Chef Alex demonstrated his mastery of one my favorite approaches to crafting a dish — showcasing great ingredients in different forms on the same plate. A piece of crispy fried fish skin was topped with a savory purée of banana and dried shrimp. Another application showed the fish perfectly seared to emphasize its meaty texture and mild flavor. The fish sat on top of a few spoonfuls of açai purée that were so flavorful and complex that I had trouble identifying it as the same fruit found in trendy breakfast bowls and smoothies. Smoky and sweet grilled onions and peppers with a touch of heat rounded out the flavors on the dish.

watercress stems with mustard seeds

watercress stems with mustard seeds

The next dish arrived with several components as well. First, a shrimp head with its contents removed, seasoned, cooked and replaced was served with a single shrimp that could pass for a miniature lobster. The grilled shrimp was glazed in sweet Brazilian butter and sat on top of a pillow of finely shredded Brazil nut, dotted with segments of fresh citrus and mint leaf.

Two meat courses followed. The first was quail, which was served with portions of both the breast and leg with a savory jus and bitter Brazilian cocoa. Then arrived a succulent braise of lamb in red wine. The lamb braise was so perfectly constructed that I nearly argued with Chef Alex after the meal when he informed me that the only spice in the braise was toasted black pepper. I could hardly believe him — it tasted so distinctly of coriander, cinnamon and dried fruit.

With the savory courses complete, we enjoyed a simple dessert of mango, chocolate and cream flavored with puxuri, an Amazonian fruit grown for its aromatic seeds. The puxuri seeds are similar in flavor to cinnamon and star anise. The true standout of the evening, however, arrived before the dessert. Strangely enough, one of the most memorable bites of the evening was our cheese course served in the form of the classic French aligote. If you’re unfamiliar with aligote, you’ve seriously been missing out.

Aligote is technically a potato dish, though by ratio it actually contains more cheese and butter than potato purée. Of course, at D.O.M. this classic preparation is given a Brazilian spin, made with a tender fresh cheese called minhas. Perfect texture, seasoning and flavor aside, the truly great part of this course is the way it’s served. Aligote typically looks like one of those ads for mozzarella cheese sticks, with an impossibly long strand of melted cheese connecting the two halves after it’s broken in half. Our server picked up two very large spoonfuls of the aligote from the kitchen and began twirling the spoons as he walked out the door. Keeping the aligote in constant motion, it was basically suspended between the spoons as he made his way to our table. After stopping at the table next to ours, where he dropped two portions on the plates of our neighbors, with spoons still in motion, he came to our table where he twisted and twirled two more portions of these luxurious potatoes onto our plates. Not only was it incredible theatre, but by the time the aligote reached our plate it was at the perfect temperature. The silken mixture had become just firm enough to “cut” with the edge of spoons and then melt into salty, cheesy perfection in our mouths.

For me, D.O.M. was a dining destination, but for its chef and staff, the restaurant is a constant journey. Through a steady stream of thoughtfully prepared and beautiful dishes, they truly brought the best of Brazil to our table.

Ready to launch an exciting, international career in the culinary arts? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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By David Waltuck — Director of Culinary Affairs

Richard Olney’s book “Simple French Food” is one of my favorites. This exploration of “simple” food has a 40-page introduction explaining in detail what the author means by simple — clearly, simplicity can be complicated. The idea of the book — focusing on preparing simple foods very, very well — was made clear to me during a trip to France, years before I opened my restaurant Chanterelle.

plated sea bass

Like many young, aspiring chefs of the time, I was inspired by La Pyramide, the mythic three-Michelin-star restaurant in Vienne, France, and of its formidable chef Fernand Point, who mentored a whole generation of great chefs and is considered the father of nouvelle cuisine. Point had died long before I made my pilgrimage to La Pyramide in the mid 70s. (He died in 1955, the year of my birth. Coincidence?) But the restaurant, still run by his widow, remained a shrine to his legacy. The style and service at La Pyramide would stay with me throughout my career and influence the way I eventually conceived of my own restaurant.

First and foremost, La Pyramide demonstrated the importance of simplicity — with a caveat. Point famously reinvented haute cuisine by focusing on regional dishes, reworking and refining them, and ultimately achieving a seemingly simple perfection: one that was only attainable through much effort. As it turns out, the trick of simplicity is to never let the effort show.

Though considered the height of haute cuisine, La Pyramide was unpretentious in terms of service and style, something I noted in other great restaurants in France. The humility of the restaurant and staff made all of the difference in the experience for the client. This starkly contrasted with many French restaurants in New York in the 70s and 80s, where snobbishness and condescension were a matter of course. Like La Pyramide, my restaurant, Chanterelle, was noted as a place that was welcoming and unpretentious, though quite serious about food and service. This once surprising combination has since become the norm.

Finally, La Pyramide hammered home the value of the kind of expertise that only comes with time. At La Pyramide, everyone from the sommelier to the servers to the chef had been a part of the team for years, so their craft had become second nature. I discovered a profound lesson here: To be really good at anything, you must master technique to the point where you can relax within it. Like an athlete or a dancer, you must become so familiar with the movements of your craft that you’re completely at ease even at moments of great effort. This ease comes with practice and repetition, and in my opinion, relies on simplicity and lack of pretension. When you are confident and comfortable with what you do, there’s less temptation to indulge in showiness or condescension. Your clients will sense that they are in good hands and will want to go with you wherever you take them.

I like to think that the success of Chanterelle was in large part because I embraced the above lessons — humility, expertise through repetition, and the appearance of simplicity. I am sure that some chefs still practice this approach nowadays — though restaurants are going in a million directions, from perfected comfort food to elaborate, modern creations, I’m still a firm believer in stripping away. If something is on a plate, you should be able to give me a reason why. Though substantial efforts may go into each component of a dish, the result should feel simple. Diners can then enjoy the food on its own terms, and though they are on some level aware of the work that went into preparing it, they are not ostentatiously reminded of it.

Ready to get started on your culinary education? Click here to learn about ICE’s Culinary Arts program.

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