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The Long Gray Line chefs: West Point goes culinary

Oct. 18, 2013 - 02:43PM   |  

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HYDE PARK, N.Y. — West Point Cadet Christer Horstman was on a mission — to cut pork chops.

He and nine other U.S. Military Academy cadets crossed the Hudson River this week to pair with Culinary Institute of America students for a day under a novel exchange program. The future chefs and Army officers found common ground by cooking a dinner for themselves as a team.

But Horstman — who joked he’d been in a kitchen four times before — needed some tips on slicing pork chops from a slab of meat.

“Try to use long strokes,” said Tyler McGinnis, his culinary student guide. “If you saw it, it will have these little cuts.”

West Point and the Culinary Institute are only about 25 miles apart as the chopper flies, but the two Hudson Valley schools seem worlds apart.

West Point forges cadets into Army officers through a rigorous program that includes marching and academic courses such as nuclear engineering. The institute — also known as the CIA — turns out top chefs trained in multiple cuisines and the fine points of kitchen technique.

One school drills, the other grills.

Institute President Tim Ryan said a complementary pair of daylong student exchanges this fall nudged the students out of their comfort zone and gave them fresh perspectives. And people at both schools argued that they’re not really so different. Each school sends graduates into a single profession. Discipline is crucial at both places and graduates are trained to be leaders — be it in a kitchen or in a desert.

“In many ways there’s a hierarchy,” said Terry Babcock-Lumish, who teaches economics at West Point. “They don’t say, ‘Yes, ma’am!’ or ‘Yes, sir!’ But its ‘Yes, Chef!’”

Babcock-Lumish and her husband, West Point international relations instructor Maj. Brian Babcock-Lumish, came up with the student exchange idea last summer after meeting an institute professor at a local food event. The exchange launched in September with 10 culinary students clad in white button-up jackets touring the gray stone buildings of the academy for a day and sitting in on a class.

“They’re two different kinds of tough,” said institute student Andrew Worgul, who visited West Point. “It’s tough to be able to stand for a 12- or 14-hour day in the kitchen, but also they put up with a lot at West Point. They have a lot more regulations and rules than we do.”

On Thursday, the institute became the host. Supervising chef Howie Velie gave the students the overall mission of cooking a dinner made with local ingredients from the Hudson Valley.

Ten cadets guided by 10 culinary students prepared foie gras, pumpkin soup and apple strudel in a crammed and steamy kitchen classroom. Cadets in toques and combat boots gingerly sliced onions and mushrooms in contrast to the staccato chopping of their culinary counterparts.

“Just real quick with the knives — this is not combat class!” Velie shouted, holding a blade out chest high. “Don’t walk around like this.”

The cadets, used to long marches and heavy packs, adjusted to a different kind of pressure. They learned how to mince, sear, grate and roast on a tight deadline. Horstman and the other cadets said the terminology was new but the regimentation wasn’t.

“It is way more hectic in a kitchen than I ever imagined, but the team work and everything is really familiar, I think, to us at West Point,” said Cadet Calla Glavin. “I actually think they may work longer days than we do.”

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