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Raw talent and college sports mix at Culinary Institute of America

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HYDE PARK, N.Y. >> The basketball team’s starting center missed the home opener because he had to work at Bocuse, the on-campus French restaurant. A 19-year-old woman was a frequent starter at striker for the men’s soccer team. And two years ago, the star of the women’s cross-country team missed out on a fourth straight conference championship because the school’s rolling enrollment schedule saw her graduate two weeks before her final meet.

All of these quirks and challenges, unheard of at colleges like Alabama and Notre Dame and Stanford, are common at an unlikely athletic department: the one at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the country’s most prestigious cooking schools. In its zeal to remake itself into a true four-year college in recent years, the institute, in the Hudson Valley, has done more than expand its menu of bachelor’s degrees. It has also gotten serious about a longtime staple of campus life: intercollegiate sports.

"We want to set ourselves apart from other culinary school options; we do have that full-fledged campus life environment," said David Whalen, associate dean for student activities, recreation and athletics. "As our education has evolved, our hope is that we’ll advance further with more athletic experiences for our students."

Whalen added: "I always joke with our athletes: ‘When you’re grads and you’re making your first million dollars, remember CIA Athletics.’ We haven’t struck gold yet."

On a recent Saturday afternoon, sneakers chirped, basketballs thudded and hip-hop music boomed from the speakers of the institute’s gym as two teams rotated through their layup lines. The scene was familiar, except on this court the seating amounted to three dozen chairs huddled together along one sideline. Above the scorer’s table, someone had hung a banner from the mezzanine. "Welcome to the Culinary Institute of America," it read. "Home of the Steels."

A steel, as any chef knows but most college basketball fans do not, is a tool for sharpening knives.

The Steels wore uniforms as crisp as chef’s whites for the season’s first home game, against New England Baptist College. Institute teams are members of the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, an independent league that pits them against the likes of Pratt Institute, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cooper Union and the institute’s archrival, the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Before tipoff, the starters were announced over the public-address system, and the national anthem was played before a single-digit crowd, but soon extra chairs had to be found as more students trickled in. It was not big-time college sports in any sense of the word; the institute has a half-dozen 6-footers on its roster, and the New England Baptist team, which showed up 10 minutes before the scheduled start, was even shorter.

For decades, the Culinary Institute of America was the quintessential nonsports school. It had a Bacchus Wine Society and a club called the Fromage Friends, but only club sports. In the early 1980s, Todd English, now a celebrity chef with 22 restaurants, was the goalkeeper for the soccer team. One of his teammates was the university president.

"We actually had some pretty good players, if I recall," said English, who had previously attended Guilford College on a baseball scholarship. "We weren’t like all the Bad News Bears. We could actually play. It wasn’t a total disaster."

Since the mid-2000s, in its effort to broaden campus offerings, the institute has created intercollegiate teams in five sports: volleyball, soccer, cross-country, tennis and basketball. There are no scholarships; every player is a walk-on. And representing the school requires careful time management because of an academic curriculum that is unusually taxing.

While pursuing their two-year associate degrees in culinary arts or baking and pastry arts, which form the foundation of the bachelor’s degree programs, institute students spend 6 1/2 hours cooking every weekday, all of it on their feet, in the heat of the kitchen. The sessions begin at either 7 a.m. or 2 p.m.

In the opposite slot, students take classes with titles like "Dynamics of Heat Transfer and Physical Properties of Food," "Specialty Breads" and "Critical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry."

Some breakfast classes start as early as 3:30 a.m. In all, students get more than 30 hours of instruction per week, twice that of typical college students — and their conference opponents — and much of it physically demanding.

Most Culinary Institute team practices do not start until 9 p.m., after the second shift of cooking classes ends. Some teams split practices to accommodate their players’ long hours, and understanding coaches do not require perfect attendance at them. Games are scheduled only on the weekends.

Other factors conspire to make team-building complicated. The institute graduates a class and enrolls a new one every three weeks, meaning it takes precise timing to play a sport for four years. (That was the reason Jackie DeGrandpre, the former cross-country star, missed her final meet.) And then there are the semesters spent at other Culinary Institute campuses in California, Texas and Singapore.

"We have 15 people on our team; sometimes eight come to practice," said Anthony Russo, a senior on the basketball team whose signature dish is a broiled lobster with crab and chorizo stuffing. "It’s not our fault; we have a lot of other obligations. We’re not here to be NBA players."

Last season’s basketball team, like this year’s soccer squad, had a woman on it; she once scored 12 points in a game. According to conference rules, if a member institution does not have a women’s team in one of the league’s sports, women are free to try out and compete for the men’s team.

"At first I was kind of nervous about it," said Zasha Gazder, the pastry student from Illinois who played forward for the men’s soccer team this fall. "I wasn’t sure how I was going to be treated or if they would pass the ball to me. I guess I kind of proved myself."

Despite all the extra hurdles, the institute has enjoyed its share of athletic success. It has won regular season or playoff conference championships in four of the five sports in which it fields a team — 10 overall since 2006.

The basketball team won its recent game against New England Baptist College, 75-54, and has started the season 3-0. But maintaining that momentum may be difficult; Russo and his coach, Tim McEnroe, expect half the current team to leave for externships in December, meaning the remaining players will have to find replacements in intramurals in order to complete the season.

"You have to be very flexible," McEnroe said. "Last year we started off the season 6-2 and were really playing well. I had five kids graduate in December, one kid went on an externship and another kid had to go away on a field trip for his wine class for 21 days. That’s seven kids out of 14. You know that going in."

McEnroe also knows that he must respect the physical demands his players’ studies place on them. If a player is tired, McEnroe said, he is excused from practice.

"We only come here to have fun," Frederick Moore, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, said of playing on the team. "It makes you kind of feel like we are in a normal college. But we’re here for one thing: to cook. We came here to be chefs."

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