When Michael Goldenberg first arrived at the campus of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in May, he was struck by the new smells and aromas in the air.
"Right now it's harvest season, so it smells like grapes and wine," said the 22-year-old enrolled in the CIA's bachelor's degree management program at Hyde Park, N.Y.
But after spending 15 weeks studying at CIA's new Farm-to-Table Cooking program in St. Helena, Goldenberg was most impressed by the flavors.
"I have never tasted tomatoes like the ones here," he said. "And I never ate a kumquat before."
Led by farm-to-table pioneer Larry Forgione of New York, the program aims to show budding young chefs how to walk the walk when it comes to fresh and seasonal cuisine.
"If you don't start with great ingredients," Forgione said simply, "you're not going to have great food."
Forgione came up with the concept while talking to his friend, New York chef Jonathan Waxman, and started working on a syllabus and course guide with the help of organic farmers like Bob Cannard of Sonoma. The CIA fell in love with the idea and ran with it.
"This is the first program of its kind in the country," said Catherine Parker, a manager-in-training at CIA at Greystone. "The students learn that if you're serving a hamburger in November, you can't put a tomato on it."
The epicenter of the program lies just across the street from the CIA in St. Helena, where Farm Manager Christian Dake has created a beautiful production garden on land provided by the Charles Krug Winery.
Dake, a St. Helena native who has grown heirloom seeds for the Baker Creek Seed Company, transformed the empty lot into a crazy cornucopia of heirloom vegetables and beneficial flowers during the past four months.
"This was a parking lot and a harvest pad, so there were chunks of cement and rock," he said. "I added a lot of compost to revitalize it."
Along the way, the 31 students enrolled in the Farm-to-Table program have turned that produce into tantalizing, five-course dinners that they serve Friday and Saturday nights at The Conservatory, a pop-up farm-to-table restaurant on the St. Helena campus.
"We've never had a full-on farm before, and that's important to be true to farm-to-table," Parker said. "This group has gone from seeing it as a pile of dirt to planting and harvesting."
While the back-of-the-house students concentrate on the farm and its compost, the front-of-the-house students deepen their wine knowledge and come up with farm-based cocktails, a wine list and wine pairings for The Conservatory restaurant.
The creative process starts on a Tuesday, when the students spend time working and harvesting at the farm. They are split into teams and given a protein to work with for their course.
"They have to use everything else from our farm," Forgione said. "There are a few exceptions, like almonds."
By Wednesday, the teams come up with a couple of ideas for each course and begin to refine them. By Friday, they hit the ground running, with dinner service starting at 6 p.m. in the 52-seat restaurant.
On a weekend in mid-September, The Conservatory menu included an amuse bouche of Melon and Prosciutto, a chilled Charentais melon soup rimmed with crispy prosciutto; an Heirloom Tomato and Armenian Cucumber Salad with Cape Gooseberry Vinaigrette; Seared Maine Sea Scallops with Bodega Bay Sea Urchin Sauce and Mixed Carrot Salad; Ravioli of Liberty Farm Duck Confit with Smoked Squash Puree and Heirloom Tomato Jam; Elk Tenderloin Wrapped in Swiss Chard with Currant Grape Reduction and Lipstick-Pepper Puree; and a Lavender Scented Custard with a California Almond Tuille.