Higher Ed for the Palate

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If San Francisco is heaven for foodies, the California Culinary Academy (CCA) just might be the pearly gates.

Acquired by Career Education Corp. (CECO) in 2000 and one of just 10 Le Cordon Bleu-certified schools in North America, the academy has been producing some of the world's great chefs and bakers since its founding in 1977. CCA alumni include Juan Carlos Cruz, host of The Food Network's Calorie Commando, and Claud Mann, host of Turner Broadcasting's Dinner and a Movie.

The academy's main location in downtown San Francisco is housed in a historic landmark building on Polk Street whose Renaissance-style architecture belies its gritty surroundings in the city's Tenderloin section. (Think Hell's Kitchen before it became chic.)

Ranking among San Francisco's best options for fine food at very reasonable prices, the academy offers a prix fixe lunch and dinner Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as the aptly named grand buffet, available for lunch or dinner on Thursdays and Fridays. (The prix fixe meals cost $16 for lunch and $24 for dinner, the buffet $22 and $38; fine wine and alcoholic beverages are available for an additional charge.)

A recent grand buffet lunch featured an abundance of charcuterie trays, hors d' oeuvres and smoked seafood appetizers, followed by a startling array of entrees, including Muscovy duck breast with wild mushroom and dried cherry gastric, herb-roasted monk tail with peppercorn sauce, apple cider-brined pork chop with corn and balsamic roasted onion ragout, and vegetarian risotto. There was also a pasta bar for those not counting carbs.

A good strategy for the buffet is to sample a little bit of everything and then go back for more of what's best. The grilled quail on wild field greens with caramelized apples and reduced balsamic glaze was the standout among appetizers I sampled, while the mustard-coated rack of lamb with cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes and Nicoise sauce led the entrees.

An even better strategy is to save room for dessert.

Whether you're into pies, cakes, torts, cookies, bread pudding, pastries, petitis fours or truffles, there's an astounding array of options -- it's a bacchanalian delight for someone with a serious sweet tooth. Employing tremendous restraint, I opted for the bread pudding with chocolate sauce, which bordered on orgasmic, and a (thin) slice of pecan pie.

Homework Never Tasted So Good

Meals are held in the expansive Careme Room and are prepared by academy students under the watchful tutelage of their chef instructors. Hospitality students serve as waiters, making up for a lack of experience with genuine enthusiasm for the task.

In other words, no snooty artists, writers or actors.

Still, executive chef Herve Le Biavant conceded CCA's dining facility is like "opening a brand new restaurant every three weeks," owing to the rapid pace of student turnover. (To give its growing student body even more real-world experience, CCA plans to open a second restaurant at its main campus in the coming month.)

"We don't pretend to be the top restaurant in town," he said. "It is a culinary school first, and the price reflects that. But I'm very proud of what we're doing here in terms of quality for the price, and would take any chef from the top restaurants here for dinner or lunch."

Indeed, CCA is first and foremost a school, one that has attracted an array of talent from around the world. "We have chefs from all over Europe, Brazil, Central and South America, North America and Asia," said Le Biavant, who came to the U.S. in the early 1970s after classic culinary training in Paris. "Our philosophy is, if you bring yourself to the highest level, the students can follow you."

The curriculum is based on the theory that if students are trained in the classic French style, they can then expand into any other style of cooking, be it fusion or raw, as was ultimately the case with CCA grad Roxanne Klein, owner of the trendy Roxanne's in Larkspur, Calif.

CCA plans to open a second teaching facility in San Francisco next fall, with the hopes of doubling its enrollment within three to four years.

Because Career Education Corp. does not break down results for its individual schools, CCA president Barry Gordon declined to provide specific data on the academy's current enrollment or its revenue. He did say enrollments, and thus revenues, have been "trending up on a quarter-over-quarter basis" since the acquisition in 2000. The growth has partially been aided by the postbubble wave of layoffs in the Bay area, which prompted some former dot-commers to contemplate careers in a fast-growing industry with tangible products and face little threat from outsourcing.

Students at the academy choose one of three tracts: culinary arts, baking and pastry, or hospitality and management. The programs range in duration from seven to 15 months, and tuitions range from $20,000 to $43,000. Those wanting just a taste of the curriculum can take Saturday classes for $175 per class, or an "essentials series" of five classes for $625.

But perhaps the best deal of all awaits those just wanting to taste the academy's edible offerings.

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