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Public Affairs : Day in the Life at USMA, CIA

Culinary students played host to a group of U.S. Military Academy cadets Oct. 16 at the Culinary Institute of America
in Hyde Park,
N.Y. The chefs-in-training spent the day at West Point in September. 
                                                                                                               Photos by Paul Mansfield/Culinary Institute of America

Cadets, culinary students share 'Day in the Life' experiences
USMA-CIA exchange explores professions 

By Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Oct. 31, 2013) — Smiles. Such an ordinary thing, yet one visitor to West Point was surprised to see them on the faces of cadets. It defied the soldierly image he expected.

Someone else envisioned a classroom filled with “trigger pullers” talking about war and tactics, but instead found instructors and students engaged in give-and-take discussions. These were some of the discoveries made by a group of student-chefs from the Culinary Institute of America—or CIA—in Hyde Park, N.Y., on Sept. 11.

Likewise, when cadets visited the CIA on Oct. 16, the scene there wasn’t of students constantly reciting recipes while confined to kitchens until graduation. They study all the arts, sciences and business behind the industry, but still have time to compete in intramural sports, enjoy road trips and even join heavy-metal bands.

Challenging these pre-conceived notions and shattering the stereotypes, generalizations and categorization of West Point cadets and CIA chefs served as a focal point in a dialogue shared on both sides of the Hudson River during two “Day in the Life” exchanges hosted by the Department of Social Sciences.

The cadets chosen for the exchange are all enrolled in the Advance Critical Thought course and are candidates for nationally competitive scholarships, such as Rhodes, Fulbright and Marshall.

“These are cadets who are at the top of their majors and have leadership roles in the Corps of Cadets,” Terry Babcock-Lumish, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences, said. “We like to challenge their assumptions and take them out of their comfort zone, and help them understand how to respond in situations that may be new or foreign.”

Upon arriving here, Leah Pfeiffer anticipated finding more in common with the Corps than the differences inherit in their future professions.

“I expected the cadets to be very similar to us on a fundamental level—they would have fears about becoming adults, they would have friends who they liked being crazy with, they would work hard and have goals or dreams, and they would be relatable as young adults,” she said.

The differences, she said, would come from the specific goals and priorities which attracted them to their institutions.

“Cadet life is measured, calculated, observed and methodical,” Pfeiffer, 22, said. “Those may be dirty words to young adults who crave freedom but they have a purpose and create a really strong foundation for a purposeful and driven life. We have more rules here at CIA than an average college, but West Point has way more rules than even us.”

Pfeiffer is a senior at CIA pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management. A native of Fairfax, Va., she enrolled in culinary school for one simple reason.

“Because I love food,” Pfeiffer said. “I have the immense luxury of creating a career entirely devoted to something that I love. What an honor. One of CIA’s taglines is ‘We speak food,’ and I know in my heart that I do too, so it was a natural decision to go where I could communicate with people in a medium that comes naturally to me. I love food.”

Class of 2014 Cadet Oriana Ellis saw this passion at the culinary school and it didn’t take long before noticing something cadets experience routinely at the academy.

“While waiting outside for a test, a student chef had his eyes closed to take a quick nap. I think that was the closest connection we have to them—exhaustion,” Ellis said. “The passion and ethics we have and apply to our professions are comparable in depth. Rushing to keep up with my fast moving host also reminded me of the speed at which we move in order to pack as much as we can into every day.”

Cadets may be well-versed in brigade functions with the Corps of Cadets, but a kitchen brigade revealed a different perspective on chain of command, execution of orders and discipline. Inside the student kitchens, cadets were challenged with preparing an eight-course “Taste of the Hudson Valley” menu which included sautéed foie gras with caramelized pearl onions, potato gnocchi with brown butter sage sauce and heirloom tomato and goat cheese tarts.

“The most exciting part of the trip was getting the opportunity to cook foie gras, a delicacy I had never tried before,” Ellis said. “Knowing that I had cooked an expensive amount of food was very cool. It was rewarding to see how the flavors of the apple compote and apple cider syrup—we made it from scratch—combined to make delectable flavors.”

Despite wearing the uniform of a Soldier, Ellis said she felt like a chef slowly learning the ropes.

Class of 2014 Cadet Erin Mauldin may know her way around the brigade at the U.S. Military Academy but experiencing a kitchen brigade at the Culinary Institute of America provided insight into an unfamiliar profession.

Class of 2014 Cadets Allie Sutherland and Teddy Fong work back-to-back at the student kitchens inside the Culinary Institute of America Oct. 16.

“It was most difficult to work around all of the other bodies in the kitchen. Learning to call out ‘Sharps!,’ ‘Behind you!’ or ‘Hot!’ was an interesting yet useful concept to move safely around in the kitchen,” she said. “My host was excellent with instructions and explaining why we were doing what we were doing and what was going on as we did it.”

“It was an absolutely lovely meal and I give them a considerable amount of credit,” Babcock-Lumish said. “The student-chefs had a big responsibility. They were already preparing an ambitious autumnal menu, all the while teaching our cadets along the way.”

The dialogue which followed proved even more rewarding.

“There were great conversations about discipline, hierarchy, work ethic and identity,” Babcock-Lumish said. “They discussed whether their particular profession is an art, a science, or a combination of both. That’s when these cultural exchange experiences get fun, because we can’t anticipate the topics that develop organically.”

Class of 2014 Cadet Alexandra Sutherland said although cadets are referred to as “future officers” rather than “college students” they are able to enjoy more than a few social norms as others in their age group experience outside the gates.

“It’s kind of unique to come here and see how not everyone is that stereotypical image of a Soldier you see in Hollywood movies,” Class of 2014 Teddy Fong said. “When I first came here I was blown away by how normal people are. So I think the best story to put out to the world is that we’re all human and everyone has their life stories and unique backgrounds.”

Class of 2014 Cadet Nils Olsen said it’s easier for others to identify a person by the uniform they wear rather than who they really are.

Class of 2014 Cadet Connor Love said his mother feared he would become brainwashed. The notion of West Point being a “leadership factory” conjures that image of a conveyor belt process which transforms civilians into officers.

“West Point isn’t this big, grey box where you put a young man or woman in and you get a Soldier out,” Love said. “It’s more diverse than we think and every person in this uniform is unique in (his or her) own way.”

They also discovered the connection between the profession of arms and the culinary trade is historical. The Culinary Institute of America was founded in 1946 as vocational training for World War II veterans returning from overseas. But the origin of this USMA-CIA exchange is more recent.

Babcock-Lumish and her husband, Maj. Brian Babcock-Lumish—both assistant professors in the Department of Social Sciences—were at a Slow Food event in the Hudson Valley when they met Rich Vergili, a Culinary Institute of America professor.

Conversations throughout the day led the West Point professors to correlate experiences in the profession of arms and culinary arts within the two institutions. Vergili provided introductions to the deans who would facilitate the USMA-CIA exchange.

Having spent time at other civilian universities, Babcock-Lumish noted upon moving to the Hudson Valley her curiosity about two seemingly different student bodies sharing intense, often cloistered lives on opposite sides of the river.

“It’s curious to find two institutes of higher learning whose graduates go immediately into the very industries for which they’ve trained and studied,” she said. “We thought that ambition and focus on a particular professional path was interesting. The chefs and cadets don’t necessarily know each other’s profession or institution, so we thought putting them together would provide potential lessons learned for each other.”

The intent was not to force dialogue. Instead, giving culinary students and cadets a “Day in the Life” experience could yield conversations beyond what they expected.

“It was a test for us, a pilot opportunity to learn if this could be a constructive conversation that should continue across the Hudson,” she said. “We were optimistic certainly but didn’t know just how fruitful, provocative and exciting it would be.”