The Institute of Culinary Education Settles into Its New Home.
While a move can be disastrous for some businesses, Rick Smilow, the president and owner of the Institute of Culinary Education since 1995, saw the change as an opportunity, a chance to create the school of his dreams. He knew that finding the right location – centrally located yet affordable – would be a challenge, though not an impossibility. And this past May, after months of searching, strategizing, nailbiting, and building out, the school moved into its third home since its founding in 1975. Located at 225 Liberty Place, in the heart of Battery Park City and in the shadows of The Freedom Tower, the school is housed in the same building that headquarters Time Inc., The Bank of New York, and American Express, surely a first for a trade school.
What began as Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (Kump was a close friend of such culinary giants as Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and James Beard) in an Upper East Side town house, eventually grew to occupy 50,000 square feet in its second home on West 23rd St. As the school expanded to several floors that were connected only by public, passenger elevators, it became untenable to transport ingredients, equipment, and students up and down in the elevators all day long. (PS. The building’s landlord wasn’t too crazy about the elevator traffic either). Simply put, ICE had once again outgrown its home and it was time to find a space that would allow the school to express its true potential as the largest urban culinary institute with the greatest number of recreational cooking classes in the country, about 1600 annually.
With his interest in architecture and design, and his ambitious plans for the school, Smilow was very hands-on throughout the entire process from move out to move in. It was no small feat to visualize just how the vast, nearly 75,000 square foot space could be configured to best serve the diverse needs of the school – the students, the chef instructors, the support staff, not to mention all of the specialty features of ICE that came to include a bean-to-bar chocolate-making facility known as the chocolate lab that is overseen by Michael Laiskonis, a James Beard award-winning pastry chef. There is a fully equipped “Bar” known as the Mixology Center, and an advanced cooking equipment center featuring tandoor ovens and rotisseries, along with the common areas that Smilow so wanted to be able to offer his students. He understood the importance of creating spaces for socializing and networking, and so the light-filled, lounge-with-a-view, functions almost as a kind of indoor quad, located off the main “boulevard.”
Smilow conceives of his school in civic terms, where hallways are roads and the school itself is something of a “culinary village” with streets radiating from the main boulevard. Building a school from scratch, though daunting, meant that many of the wish-list items were actually incorporated into the school’s final architectural plans. In addition to the seriously well-equipped kitchens located throughout the school – twelve in total – students in the management program have access to the latest restaurant software systems that no restaurant today can function without. The early exposure to this technology better prepares students for the jobs of tomorrow, thus giving ICE students a competitive advantage. The school also works hard on job placement, with an overall rate of 86 percent for recent graduates. (This figure is based on the 2015 annual report from ACCSC, the school’s accreditor.) ICE’s award-winning programs have launched over 11,000 careers over the years. In 2015 alone, the institute placed over 500 externs in close to 300 establishments all over the United States. The range of ICE externships reads like a Who’s Who of the food world: Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin and Per Se. The multiple restaurants headed/owned by chefs Mario Batali, April Bloomfield, Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Andrew Carmellini, Tom Colicchio, Alex Guarnaschelli, Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller, Anito Lo, Charlie Palmer, Alfred Portale, Marcus Samuelsson, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael White, and restaurateurs Danny Meyer and Stephen Starr took a combined 152 student externs in 2015. A recent career fair at ICE, a new initiative for the school, attracted hiring reps from the city’s best kitchens.
While it’s easy to be impressed by the whole look and feel of the school – the spacious kitchens and million dollar river views – what isn’t visible to a visitor, is just as remarkable, namely the extraordinary feat of engineering that vents the school’s many kitchens, equal to roughly twelve restaurants worth. (The heat, vapor, smoke, and grease have to be channeled somewhere.) No other urban culinary school in the world has as complex a ventilation system as does ICE, and theirs is discreetly hidden overhead in a drop ceiling, thus maintaining clean lines (literally and figuratively) throughout the vast space.
What is probably ICE’s most eye-catching feature is its state-of-the-art hydroponic garden. Enclosed in glass so that it is visible from a distance, the high-ceilinged garden features flashy trout back lettuce, Genovese basil, Chinese leeks, garlic chives, and micro greens. Not only do students have the opportunity to visit the farm, in harvesting and cooking with “just-picked” ingredients, they learn the true meaning of the word “fresh.” In partnership with New York University, graduate students in an Urban Agriculture course also make use of the garden as part of their curriculum.
High on the list of the school’s attractions is Laiskonis’s Chocolate Lab, a space used to teach classes on bean-to-bar chocolate-making as well as bonbon making. With a dedicated space to experiment with chocolate and to teach others bean-to-bar chocolate-making, Michael is a latter day Willy Wonka. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get Michael to offer visitors a taste of one of his experiments, possibly from the Dominican Republic or maybe from Peru. Most days of the week, a tantalizing fragrance of chocolate in some stage of the making emanates from the lab and wafts down the corridors. Laiskonis sees the lab as a learning center, a place not only for students to acquire techniques of chocolate-making but a place to host visiting chocolate makers from around the world to foster an exchange of knowledge about a rapidly growing and evolving field. When asked what it was like to be given his very own chocolate lab, Laiskonis replied with a smile, “incredibly exciting, but also terrifying.”
With its stunning new facility and inspiring work environment, no matter the time of day or day of the week, the school is abuzz with activity. (Yes, ICE runs classes seven days a week, almost 365 days a year). On average, the Institute graduates 700 students per year and offers recreational classes to an additional 24,000 students. And then there are the famous cooking parties and events hosted at ICE that account for another 9000 or so guests. And between staff and instructors, some full-time, others part-time, that accounts for another 200 staff members. So while there may not be a single, secret ingredient to account for ICE’s success, Smilow and his staff have certainly found a winning recipe.