Culinary Institute of America Serves Up Sports Success

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If a championship game is a pressure cooker then the athletes at the Culinary Institute of America are perfectly prepared.

Saturday in Hyde Park, NY, the C.I.A. will host Albany College of Pharmacy in the Hudson Valley Men’s Athletic Conference championship soccer  match. And the soccer team isn't the only C.I.A. squad enjoying success in the school’s growing athletic department.

Catherine Kabana runs on the cross country team at the Culinary Institute of America. Every good long-distance runner knows what you eat before a race is important, but on a late October Friday – at 10 in the morning – I was the  one front-loading carbs … in the form of oatmeal raisin cookies.

“I have no sugar added, vegan, gluten-free, and my control,” the junior from Tuscarora, PA said, explaining the varieties.

We were standing in a large industrial classroom kitchen at the Institute’s campus along the Hudson River. Kabana is one of 18 students in a course called "Advanced Baking Principles." She challenged me to taste the four types and guess which is which.

What I thought was a delicious regular oatmeal raisin cookie, turned out to be a delicious gluten-free oatmeal cookie. After a helpful hint from Kabana, I got the rest of my picks right.

Figuring out how to make four cookies for special dietary needs – all of them delicious, by the way - takes a lot of skill and thought. Kabana uses running as a way of getting her mind off baking.

“I’ve been doing cross country since 7th grade, so that’s like 8 years for me. I’d run either way whether they had the program or not,” Kabana said. “But I’m so glad they have it because it just keeps me more mentally sound."

I’d run either way, whether they had the program or not. But I’m so glad they have it because it just keeps me more mentally sound.

C.I.A. Cross Country Team Member Catherine Kabana

Coppedge knows about balancing cooking with athletics. In his spare time, he’s an ice hockey goalie. Tall and lean, Coppedge looks like he’d be agile in the net – and to prove it, he drops easily into a split right on the kitchen floor. He says he’s glad when his students take up a sport.

“I think it’s great because when a student comes here, they don’t come here for the sports. They come here because they want to learn how to bake or they want to learn how to serve people correctly or cook food correctly,” Coppedge said. “It gives them an activity that’s totally different than what they do day in and day out.”

The Culinary Institute of America was founded in 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut. The school moved to New York State in 1972 and has since added campuses in California, Texas, and Singapore. Here in Hyde Park, there are 2800 students and the campus features five student-staffed restaurants that are open to the public and double as classrooms.

Over an upscale lunch at American Bounty Restaurant in the C.I.A.’s main building, Associate Dean of Student Activities, Recreation, and Athletics David Whalen says the Institute began expanding its intercollegiate sports menu in 2004 as a way of creating a more traditional campus life for students. Today the CIA has six teams in five sports in the Hudson Valley Athletic Conference.

The league is not part of the NCAA and the Institute isn’t the only member with a unique curriculum: Webb Institute - a nautical engineering school, Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, and Albany College of Pharmacy are among the members.

All contests are held on weekends and if a school only has a men’s team, women are allowed to try out. Whalen says the Steels have one woman on their soccer team and will have another woman on the men’s basketball team this season.

Fans watch as the C.I.A. Steels host Webb Institute in late October in Hyde Park, NY. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)
Fans watch as the C.I.A. Steels host Webb Institute in late October in Hyde Park, NY. The Steels won 11-1. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

“We’re slowly and surely adding sports and our philosophy is we want to equal the opportunities for women. Right now we have more opportunities for men,” Whalen said. “We think the next couple of sports that we add will be on the women’s side, probably in the realm of women’s soccer, women’s basketball, women’s tennis.”

The Institute’s unusual calendar makes scheduling one of the hardest parts of adding sports. The CIA offers two and four-year degrees, but has a rolling admission and graduation schedule. Every three weeks, new students arrive as others graduate. And all students spend 5 or 6 months off campus at an externship.

On top of that, many classes last 8 hours. Soccer coach Mike Murphy says getting an entire roster to practice gets complicated.

“Sometimes during the season I’ll have a full team out there, 15 [players],” Murphy said. “Then I get to the point, maybe a month later, where I’m having six or seven students out because they switched classes and now they’re in [a wine tasting class], which is in the middle of day and they cannot come and practice.”

C.I.A. teams are named “The Steels,” after a valuable item on campus: the tool used to sharpen knives. The newest Steels squad is the women’s volleyball team. In their inaugural season this fall the team went 13-1, en route to the conference championship.

Steels’ freshman middle blocker Corinne Williams recently earned her second conference player of the week award, but when we spoke she was in class, busy making beef consommé.

“I’ve pretty much known I wanted to cook since I was like 4. I got like a little wooden play set for Christmas and I just loved it from that point,” the Leonardtown, Maryland native said. “Just making little plastic meals, taking my family’s orders … I’ve been doing it for so long, I have to do it.”

I’m actually surprised at how good our sports teams are. When I first heard about the sports teams, I was like, ‘Well it’s a cooking school, so we’re not going to be any good.’

C.I.A. Freshman Kathryn Johnson

“C.I.A. had great reputation, great programs,” said the senior and team co-captain. “Then they also had athletics, which was always very important in my life and it keeps me focused. It’s something to meet new people, especially when you’re a freshman.”

At a recent CIA home soccer match against Webb Institute, freshman Kathryn Johnson was one of about 50 fans who came out to watch.

“I’m actually surprised at how good our sports teams are,” the Chicago native said. “When I first heard about the sports teams, I was like, ‘Well it’s cooking school, so we’re not going to be any good.’ But I came out the first game and we won. All the games I’ve gone to we’ve been winning.”

As you might expect, C.I.A. students spend a lot of time thinking about food. Like most athletes here, soccer co-captain Dereck Surges says sports do offer a mental escape, but he points out that even in the campus recreation center, food is still top of mind.

Literally everything here is food. There’s posters out here that are every different type of tomato, every different type of mushroom. There’s the Periodic Table of Desserts, which they took a periodic table and just put every different type of dessert and, I don’t even know, the ratio on how to make the dessert,” Surges said. “Right across from the workout room, but it’s funny because Food Network’s always playing [on TV] above the treadmills. It’s a riot here.”

Steels cross country runners Jacqueline DeGrandpre and Brittany Ronan say a long run after a rich meal on campus or a class that involves tasting isn’t always ideal, but it does have its benefits.

Part of Culinary Institute of America students' training involves preparing lunch for their fellow students.  (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)
Part of Culinary Institute of America students' training involves preparing lunch for their fellow students. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

“Sometimes you’ll get part way through a practice and realize how much your stomach is hurting,” Ronan said.

“When you see [food] that you really like, you can’t deny it. There’s no denying it,” DeGrandpre added.

“But running gives you the ability to eat a little bit more than normal, if you [weren’t] running and exercising,” Ronan said, laughing. “You know how most colleges have the 'freshman 15'? We have the 'freshman 40.'”

Another reality of being on a team at a culinary institute is good-natured taunts from opponents and their fans. Ask any player or coach and you’ll quickly get a list of their favorites.

We should totally have a meet at your school. You could make us dinner.”

“The ball got taken away from one of our players and someone from the crowd was like, ‘He took it right off your cutting board!’”

"Make me a sandwich."

"That’s alright. That’s OK. You’re gonna cook our fries someday."

But tennis coach Serge Nalywayko says after a win, the Steels get in a friendly skewer of their own.

“Sometimes we have fun with the coaches and I tell them at the end of the game, ‘Yes, and we cook also.’"

The Steels have been coming out on top a lot lately. The women’s cross country team recently won their second consecutive conference title. And a win in today’s soccer match, would give the CIA its third championship this fall.

You might say the Steels have found the recipe for success.

This segment aired on November 5, 2011.

Doug Tribou Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.



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