CIA and its new food science program

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Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

Our reporter, Justin Rocket Silverman, uses a pipette on a piece of meat as he observes the experiments going on at the Culinary Institute of America.

In a windowless room 90 miles north of New York City, highly trained CIA scientists experiment with cutting edge technologies like ultrasonic homogenizers and “robovaps.”

“We’re testing preconceived notions of how things need to be done,” says professor Jonathan Zearfoss, a 25-year CIA vet. “If there’s a better, more efficient way to do it, we want to know that.”

Zearfoss and his colleagues work for the nation’s second most important CIA — the Culinary Institute of America. But this is no ordinary cooking school: it’s the country’s most-storied institution of higher cooking, a place on the forefront of food science, where pros can hone their craft and tinker with gadgets as sophisticated as any miniature spycam.

Chef Francisco Migoya demonstrates an experiment showing how the surface used to prepare or mold chocolate directly affects its glossiness. 

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

Chef Francisco Migoya demonstrates an experiment showing how the surface used to prepare or mold chocolate directly affects its glossiness. 

And make no mistake, the work is of international importance. With this CIA’s help, American cuisine will someday eclipse that of the French.

From the CIA’s hallowed kitchens in Hyde Park, N.Y., chefs have gone on to run international restaurant groups and host acclaimed food and travel shows. The school’s new culinary science program — added to its menu earlier this year — has quickly become the definitive course of study for those wanting to explore the fundamental nature of food.

“It makes you a better chef to understand why kitchens function the way they do, and how changes happen,” says Kaylah Cowan, a 24-year-old CIA student from Sacramento, Calif.

The News' Justin Rocket Silverman, center, with Charlie Palmer, chairman of the board for CIA, left, and CIA President L. Timothy Ryan, right. 

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

The News’ Justin Rocket Silverman, center, with Charlie Palmer, chairman of the board for CIA, left, and CIA President L. Timothy Ryan, right. 

Change is certainly a main ingredient. On a recent afternoon, Cowan and her classmates experimented with a pressure cooking system that allows chefs to prepare risotto without a single stir.

“It’s doing all the work in four minutes that an Italian nonna would need 30 minutes of stirring and undivided attention to do,” says Mark Krasnow, an associate CIA professor. “Cooking is probably the oldest form of technology. But now we have the tools to ask if this is really the best way to do things.”

This is groundbreaking, cloak-and-dagger stuff.

The News' Justin Rocket Silverman examines bottles of MSG and caffeine in one of the labs at the Culinary Institute of America.

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

The News’ Justin Rocket Silverman examines bottles of MSG and caffeine in one of the labs at the Culinary Institute of America.

“The current method of cooking and preparing risotto will be forever changed,” says company man Charlie Palmer, founder of Aureole restaurant in Midtown and chairman of the CIA’s board.

It’s Palmer’s job to find real-life applicability in the school’s research operations — and serve the national interest at the same time.

“Diners would be able to order risotto even when in a hurry, rushing to get to a show or a meeting,” says the chef, who’s a partner in 10 other restaurants nationwide. “This means more truffle risotto for everyone!”

News reporter Justin Rocket Silverman examines aged chorizo. 

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

News reporter Justin Rocket Silverman examines aged chorizo. 

Like that other CIA, the culinary school trains operatives from dozens of countries and maintains bases in other states and abroad.

At the Singapore outpost, opened in 2011, series work is being done by agents on the ground, working tirelessly to crack the code of Asian cuisine.

“There’s a compelling strategic reason for us to be in Singapore,” says CIA President Tim Ryan, sounding not unlike the brass at that group with the same three-letter name.

CIA students watch mayonnaise emulsion with blender and without egg.

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

CIA students watch mayonnaise emulsion with blender and without egg.

Real-life spies are taught to question everything, and that’s a lesson that certainly rubbed off on these chefs. Under scrutiny now: the humble pinch of salt. Plenty of recipes call for it, yet there’s nothing scientific about the measurement. Krasnow is building a database of the varying weights of a pinch, depending on the pincher. They range from 250 mg to 500 mg — and that’s the kind of uncertainty no intelligence agency can let stand.

Another target is the reflectivity of chocolate. CIA researchers have determined the shininess of chocolate is a function of the surface on which its cools. For example, sweets chilled on stainless steel glimmer differently than those left out on Plexiglas or sandpaper.

The difference can save lives — or not — but it does lift the veil on how chefs do their jobs.

“This is the future of cooking,” says Michael Farina, 39, a CIA student from Manhattan. “Chefs are not the pirates of yesteryear, hidden back in a smoky kitchen. Now we are being seen more and more as scientists and artisans.”


Lifestyle – NY Daily News

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