Dinner with the CIA in Napa Valley

The Culinary Institute of America Greystone in Napa Valley is an international destination for aspiring chefs.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The mention of Napa Valley conjures images of vast fields of grape vines laden with purple fruit and rolling hills haloed in warm, magic hour sunshine. But most visitors to California Wine Country don’t realize the CIA has a strong, long-standing presence in this region of luxury and agriculture.

Of course, the CIA around those parts are more concerned with glutens than guns and more comfortable around cakes than with code breakers.

The Culinary Institute of America Greystone has had a school in the Napa Valley since 1946, with more than 300 students at different levels of experience and proficiency filling its test kitchens at any given time.

The CIA has four schools – New York, San Antonio, Singapore and the Napa school at what once was Greystone Cellars. Built out of regional volcanic rock in 1889, Greystone’s sprawling complex was once a busy vineyard and winery and was once owned by Inglenook. The interior holds massive test kitchens for group use, theater kitchens for lectures and even a kitchen rigged for televised broadcasts.

After World War II, led by a philanthropic effort championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the CIA took hold to train some returning GIs in the art of cooking. The Greystone facility was deemed unsafe after years of use in 1989. In 1990, it was sold to the CIA and underwent a four year retrofit. CIA’s Napa not for profit setup began offering classes in 1995.

Now, CIA Greystone offers courses in all aspects of cooking, including ethnic specialties, meat preparation, confectionary, baking, restaurant management, etc. As the school marches into the 21st Century, a major focus is the current theme of farm to table – using local regional ingredients in all forms of cooking to reduce transportation costs and preserve the freshness of the  final prepared meal.

During Crave Online’s visit to the world famous chef school, we were treated to a special meal in the Barrel Room – a long wooden warehouse filled with huge wine casks and plaques dedicated to legendary vintners like Robert Mondavi and the Gallos . Chef Mary Sue Milliken was on hand to prepare a fresh, predominantly vegetarian menu of Mexican cuisine.

Made on the scene by Milliken while we watch on overhead mirrors, this meal – like so many at the CIA are intended as lessons as much as for dining pleasure. Milliken stressed how she embraces the theory of farm to table, while citing her new devotion to reducing the amount of meat in her cooking.

The entire experience was an education, even if not every dish appealed to this reporter’s taste. I am a serious carnivore, and this particular CIA menu left me out amongst the avocados and kidney beans. But the activity, the endless appealing aromas and the exciting cacophony of busy cooking alongside lecturing chefs made the CIA Greystone one of the most unique dining experience of my life.

There are tours, tasting and dining events at the school throughout the year for locals and Napa tourists.