The Last Course: CCA Leaves Polk Street

| May 26, 2008 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

CCA Careme RoomThe CCA’s Carême Room served its last grand buffet this past Friday. Anyone who has recently driven by that familiar corner of Polk and Turk, with its clumps of white-clad culinary students smoking on the sidewalk, would have suspected as much, what with that huge sign advertising “Building for Lease.”

With only 300 students enrolled — down from a peak of over 2,000 — it became untenable to sustain two separate facilities. The SF Weekly’s exposé last year about the institution’s “burnt chefs” is old news. For years already, chefs and kitchen managers (myself included) had banned CCA interns from our kitchens because of their abysmal lack of skills. Still, few of us expected to hear that the grand Polk Street location would be abandoned in favor of the Potrero Hill’s cold, unwelcoming space.

Going out in style, the academy hosted a multi-course buffet representing the culinary trends of each decade since their Polk Street kitchens opened. We moved from Salmon Coulibiac to blackened fish, through gooey macaroni and cheese to the “mo-ga” of present fascination (molecular gastronomy, the woman in front of me in line explained).

My husband, gesturing toward one particularly complex and well-executed ballontine, asked me “Is that a turducken?” Even I, with my 12-inch, dimpled-blade slicing knife that I haven’t used since my final garde manger class in 1996, had to laugh. There were the usual glistening ice sculpture, two red-meat carving stations, and the ever popular and elaborate dessert table.

Standing before the deeply sculpted, soaring columns of the main dining room, current CCA president, Jennifer White, tried to put a positive spin on the evening. She reminded us that the heart and spirit of the school resides not in the building but rather in those gathered in the room.

The indomitable Chef Hervé Le Biavant, former executive chef (booted out a couple of years ago by the same administrators responsible for the academy’s overeager expansion) returned for the evening. Several of us didn’t recognize him at first, as he was wearing decidedly civilian clothes rather than his usual spotless whites, but seeing him helped stoke the nostalgic embers.

Every alum has a Chef Hervé story. Mine involves a fingertip cut off in butchery class, and his assurance, in his surprisingly un-gruff school nurse role, that I didn’t need to go to the emergency room. He wrapped an extra Band-aid then a finger cot around my forefinger, advised me to be more careful when scraping around chicken bones with a flexible blade, and then told me to get back to class. Amazingly, my fingertip grew back, though there’s a bit of a dent in the nail to remind me of my deboning lesson: a fancy knife is only as good as the person who uses it.

Next Course
Their new restaurant, Carême 350, opens on Wednesday, May 28. Enjoy 25% off if you bring one guest, 50% off if you bring two guests, and 75% off if you bring three or more guests. Discount is only valid on Wednesday, May 28, only between the hours of 11:30-am and 1 pm. Discount will be deducted from the total bill.

On Thursday, June 5 they’ll be serving a special lunch and dinner menu: 3 1/2 courses for $3.50. Not sure what half a course is, but if anyone can deliver half of what’s expected, the CCA certainly can.

Carême 350
350 Rhode Island (at 16th Street)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 216-4329
Lunch: 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Dinner: 6:00 pm – 8 pm
Grand buffet every Friday

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Category: culinary education and classes, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco

About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.
  • http://michaelprocopio.wordpress.com/ Michael Procopio

    Ooooooh what a dig! I graduated from the CCA in 1997. There were still some wonderful instructors then, but the folks in administration really, really had their un-toqued heads up their asses. My class staged a walk-out in protest of hiring an unqualified Nutritionist to teach our Food Chemistry class. We threatened one or two lawsuits, as well. Really makes my blood boil remembering.

    As for Chef Hervé, I liked him. I used to call him Count Chokula, for the obvious reasons.

    There was a lot I hated about that school, but I still managed to carry away plenty of wonderful memories, too.

    Or were those from all those Friday nights across the street at the Embassy Bar?

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy

    Yeah, I was kinda harsh, huh? CCA definitely had excellent instructors, but I think they were under so much pressure with their increasing class size, lack of adequate assistance during their classes, and low morale throughout the ranks in more recent years. I’m just as sad as the next alum about the school’s descent. It’s a very different place than when we were there in the mid- to-late 90s, let alone during the academy’s first, grand decades.

    It’s a good study in organizational culture and the pressure of pitting short-term profit against long-term stability, let alone education.

  • RD

    Does anyone have an idea where Chef Herve Le Biavant is these days? I kow he is no longer with the CCA, where did he go?

  • http://www.clickblogappetit.blogspot.com FJK

    When my son was in sixth grade, the buffet at CCA was his favorite “big deal” meal. I think he liked the dessert buffet and all that elaborate food garnishing the best.

    But he grew up and lost his taste for elaborate, over-prepared food so we haven’t been there in ages.

    Hope the consolidation brings good things (and food) back to the CCA