A Visit to The Culinary Institute of America

Inside a grand 19th century stone building overlooking the hills of St. Helena, California, the future of America's culinary destiny is artfully crafted. For almost seventy years, the Culinary Institute of America is where some of the most notable names in food - including two Iron Chefs and some guy named Bourdain - have studied to earn their coats. The CIA's Greystone campus is one of the most beautiful on the planet, but thanks to the Wine Spectator Restaurant and Spice Islands Marketplace, it also doubles as a must see destination for foodies visiting Napa Valley.
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The beautiful campus.

Our visit to Greystone happened completely by accident. Somehow, during the planning stages of our California adventure, I overlooked the fact that the Culinary Institute had a campus in St. Helena, just a few short miles away from where we were staying in Yountville. We discovered this glaring oversight while on a day trip to Sonoma County, when MJ and I passed by the majestic campus perched atop a hill on the St. Helena Highway. Recalling what I had read about the incredible restaurant at the CIA's New York campus, I suggested to MJ - read: begged until she gave in - that we make an impromptu stop for lunch at Greystone on the way back.
Wine Spectator Restaurant Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The exhibition kitchen at Wine Spectator Restaurant

After battling a few winos for a parking space, we climbed the steps which lead to the beautiful stone building the formerly housed the Christian Brothers Winery. Since it was pushing 3pm, and my stomach had officially turned inside out, our first stop was the Wine Spectator Restaurant. Yes, the same Wine Spectator that's responsible for phrases like "this Cab scored 94 points" being tossed around by guys like yours truly that want to sound smart at cocktail parties. The restaurant essentially serves as a final proving ground for the Culinary Institute's students, giving them "real world" experience that is difficult - if not impossible - to teach in the classroom.
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The view from Wine Spectator Restaurant

The Wine Spectator dining room surrounds an elaborate exhibition kitchen and felt somewhat like a cave thanks to the rock wall which borders one side. Since it was a beautiful day, we decided to dine alfresco and enjoy the view from the restaurant's outdoor patio. Of course, nothing goes better with a great view than an equally great cocktail.
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The Mojito Del Dia
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The dining room at Wine Spectator Restaurant

The restaurant's menu was incredibly diverse, with everything from olive oil tastings to oysters on-the-half shell. Although I was starving, I also wanted to save some room for our dinner at Ad Hoc later, so we went with a plate called "Today's Temptations." This dish offered five small tastings of various specialties, which seemed like the perfect solution to my usual "I'll have one of everything" problem. Our temptations consisted of smoked sturgeon mousse, a potato croquet with smoked salmon, chicken with white bean puree, sweet pea puree, and some sort of fig who's more enticing description I've since forgotten. Between MJ and I there were three oohh's, two oh my's, and one fist bang on the table. Yeah, it was that good.
Wine Spectator Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
Today's Temptations

Content that those five bites of food would hold us over until dinner, we finished our mojitos and moved on to the Spice Islands Marketplace. If you took Williams Sonoma, put it on steroids, and tossed in something called "The Flavor Bar," you might come close to matching the awesomeness of this place. Here they conduct wine and olive oil tastings, next to the lady who's piping out pieces of chocolate which probably belong in the Smithsonian. Not to mention every gadget and gizmo you could ever want for the kitchen is available for you to play with purchase. If you happen to be married to the person that has everything, bring them to Spice Islands. I guarantee they'll find something they still need.
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena Chocolate
The chocolate bar
Culinary Institute of America St. Helena
The wine and olive oil tasting

Our visit to the Culinary Institute of America proved once more that sometimes the best experiences never make their way onto an itinerary. It's not everyday that one has the opportunity to be served lunch by the world's future Michelin stars and follow it up with a visit to the coolest gift shop on the planet. As the top went back on our rented convertible for the final time, it occurred to me that this was the last stop of our 12 day California adventure. I can't say that it was planned that way, but in the end, we saved one of the best for last.

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