Culinary-School Daze

Don’t Challenge Grant Achatz to an Egg-Flipping Contest

From left, Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz.
From left, Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz. Photo: Courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America

If you dropped a grand to attend last night’s Augie Awards gala — the annual benefit for the Culinary Institute of America — you weren’t just supporting the Hyde Park–based culinary school, you were paying to attend an intimate cocktail party and dinner with the evening’s honorees, Ferran Adrià (Chef of the Year) and Grant Achatz (Alumnus of the Year), at Cipriani. “When I began cooking, there were no schools. Well, very few,” Adrià told us. “But I never planned to be a cook. I planned to be a soccer player. I asked my coach if he thought I could be good one day, and he said ‘eh.’” We asked some other food luminaries in attendance about their school days.

Jose Andres, chef-owner, Minibar, D.C.: “One day I had this big tray of 60 cannelloni to take into the dining room, where [there] was this big aquarium with sea bass. As I was coming from the kitchen through those bouncing doors, passing this long, long tray over my shoulder, the door kind of hit the tray in the back, and the entire thing wound up going down in the aquarium, where the sea bass started eating the cannelloni with this huge energy.”

Charlie Palmer, chef-owner, Aureole:
“I was a fellowship student at the CIA, which is like a teaching assistant. I was working in the restaurant where I was a sous-chef, and the maître d’ and I didn’t really get along. So some of us from the kitchen, well, we aspic-ed his car. It was a fifteen-degree day. That was one of the good ones.”

Grant Achatz, chef-owner, Alinea, Chicago: “There was this class called A.M. Pantry, which is basically breakfast cookery. That was my background — you know, my father’s restaurant was a diner, so to me flipping eggs and omelettes was something I could do blindfolded with both hands tied behind my back. The rest of the students had probably never done that before, so everybody was really nervous about flipping eggs. And the instructor, I think, was kind of playing off that in a way. She was flipping the eggs, and I felt like she felt like it was really cool that she could flip the eggs and no one else could. So everyone else had to go up to the front of the room, crack two eggs into the sautée pan, and flip them. So everybody’s going through the line, and when I go up there and I flip it, she was kind of surprised that I could do it so well. So then she’s like, well, can you crack the eggs with one hand? And I’m like, of course. Can you hold two eggs in the hand and crack one and then crack the other? And I’m like of course, I’m a breakfast cook, this is what I do. And it got to this point where she was throwing out all these challenges, and I was meeting them all, and the class just started to giggle. Because they could tell she was trying to get me to do something I couldn’t do, but I could do them all. There were plenty of failures for me at culinary school, but that was a real personal victory.”

Don’t Challenge Grant Achatz to an Egg-Flipping Contest