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At CIA, home cooks learn from the pros

HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- Yes, one can teach an old dog new tricks.

That was my satisfied conclusion as I drove away from a one-day workshop at the Culinary Institute of America campus. I had chopped and minced my way through ''Sautéing and Stir Frying" in the CIA's ''Programs for Food Enthusiasts," a spring and fall series of Saturday workshops for home cooks. No professional chefs allowed, a sweet fact that means there won't be classmates who know it all. The instructors do, however; they are members of the CIA faculty who train chefs on other days.

I registered in late January for an early March workshop to spice up a weekend getaway. The Hudson River Valley is about a four-hour drive from Boston, so I left on Friday and spent the night in nearby Poughkeepsie in order to be fresh for my 9 a.m. class. Arriving early also gave me the opportunity to dine Friday night at St. Andrew's Cafe, one of five restaurants on campus staffed by CIA students.

Traveling such a distance for the workshops is quite common. ''Roughly 80 percent of the students are coming from more than two hours away," said Sue Cussen, CIA's director of marketing, in a telephone interview. ''A few years ago, the students were all local. Now they fly in from Texas, North Carolina, and from all over, particularly in the fall, when they take advantage of foliage season."

The continuing education department workshop series has risen in popularity since it started in the late 1980s. ''We offered six different programs on six dates; it was very small," said Cussen. ''Now we have 75 programs on 16 Saturdays a year geared to 'food enthusiasts.' "

Each session adds new courses -- 32 were introduced this spring -- that are often seasonal in nature. ''In the spring, we have grilling; in the fall, we have stews and holiday baking," said Cussen.

There also are five-day ''Boot Camps" for home cooks and ''Young Chefs" workshops on Saturdays for ages 8-18. ''The kids love it," she said. ''Today it's a different world, and it's nice to see youngsters have an honest interest in becoming chefs. The Food Network and other dedicated food channels make cooking look like fun, though they may simplify too much."

In the Saturday workshops, each class is limited to 15 participants. The workshops are held in the J. Willard Marriott Continuing Education Center, a two-story building that has a floor of kitchens and dining areas. When I arrived that morning, fellow students were wandering the halls in search of their courses. A mother and young son from Maryland were looking for his baking session. Handwritten signs on the doors indicated course names, among them ''Fresh Pasta and Sauces," ''Soups," ''Classical French Cuisine," ''The Flavors of Southeast Asian Cuisine," ''Basic Breads," ''Chocolate Desserts to Die For," and ''The Joy of Healthy Cuisine."

When I had registered, my first choice, ''Chocolate Desserts to Die For," was full, so I enrolled in ''The Joy of Healthy Cuisine." In late February, the staff called with the news that my workshop had been canceled because the instructor was ill. From a menu of alternatives, I selected ''Sautéing and Stir Frying."

Instructor David Kamen had seven men and six women in his upstairs classroom. Asking questions, he made us rethink what we knew about cooking methods. At the end of this informative lecture, Kamen divided us into four teams to prepare the 10 recipes in the back of the class brochure. It was about 11 a.m., and our target finish time was 1:30 so that we would have time to eat our creations.

As we arrived downstairs, the aromas from the chocolate and baking courses were to die for. In our kitchen, each of us had a set of knives, towel, paper chef's hat, and CIA apron. Each team had its own prep area, stove, and sink. Kamen's assistants, CIA students Tara, Bryan, and Juan, were at the ready to help us find ingredients, utensils, skillets. They responded whenever they heard ''Can you help me?" and gave us tips as needed. Bryan made me keep mincing the garlic so that it was in truly tiny pieces, a skill I still use. I toss stir-fried ingredients his way, too.

My team divided duties by recipes: stir-fried beef with green beans and carrots; sugar snap peas, basic rice pilaf, and Asian stir-fried vegetables (lots of chopping). The other teams were preparing chicken breast Provencal, stir-fried mushrooms, sautéed beef Robert, fried rice, flounder Meuniere, and assorted pepper stir-fry.

As the day progressed, Kamen checked on each student and periodically demonstrated techniques, such as slicing flank steak or sautéing a chicken breast. He even explained how to chop an onion without tears. He was facile with the knife and patient with the students. His assistants also were alert to problems. For instance, Bryan rescued blackened mushrooms (thank heavens!) when the student let the oil get too hot before she added them to the pan. She had to start over.

Everyone's assignments came together at about the same time. Kamen and crew gathered large serving platters on which we placed our handiwork. We filled our dinner plates and went into a formal dining room, our feast about 4 1/2 hours after the workshop had begun.

Is there another course in my future? No doubt. Learning new tricks like these is quite tasty.

Jan Shepherd is a freelance writer in Boston.

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