Aspiring Chefs Get Chocolate Lab, Indoor Farm With New Culinary School Campus

·Food & Travel Intern
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Photos by ICE.

In a culinary kitchen, a chef instructor silently watches his class hustle to make four dishes in 45 minutes for an exam. In a pastry kitchen, about 15 students roll dough for a bread-baking class. In the demonstration kitchen, high schoolers are learning to cook on BlueStar ranges. People talk and study in student lounges beside floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Hudson River. Meanwhile in a neighboring room, a chef worked on making pure chocolate — straight from the bean.

Welcome to the new Institute of Culinary Education. The New York City school has been around since 1975, but in mid-June, it officially moved from its location in Chelsea to Financial District downtown. It nearly doubled in size, taking up a 74,000-square-foot floor in Brookfield Place, a high-end commercial and office building.

“We needed more space. We’ve got so many great students who are interested in coming in to learn from us,” said Chef James Briscione, ICE’s director of culinary development and two-time Chopped winner. The school’s former building, on NYC’s bustling 23rd street, consisted of six non-adjacent floors, which was difficult for transporting food (and people) for classes.

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Photo: Courtesy of ICE

With a larger place, up-and-coming neighborhood, and fresh appliances, moving was the change a growing school like ICE needed, school officials and students say.

The new facilities include a bean-to-bar chocolate lab (ICE is the first U.S. culinary school to have one) that teaches students the entire chocolate-making process, from tempering to molding. A culinary technology lab holds a vertical rotisserie, hearth oven, tandoor, and other cooking tools used throughout history and around the world. An indoor hydroponic farm is soon to come, where classes can grow their own vegetables and herbs organically — so organically, that they’ll place ladybugs in there to help fertilize the plants.

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Photo: Courtesy of ICE

There are also 12 teaching kitchens, a demonstration kitchen, stock-making and smoking kitchen, mixology center, and student lounge. All culinary kitchens have gas, induction, and French top burners, while pastry kitchens have features like injection deck ovens and large-scale mixers. Having state-of-the-art brands like Jade and Southbend doesn’t hurt either.

“It’s way easier now,” said ICE culinary student Peter Martinez, who’s taken classes both 23rd Street and Financial District locations. “All the equipment is brand new. It’s like opening a restaurant, it’s like your baby,” he said.

With millions of dollars invested into the new space, ICE signed a 20-year lease. The construction was funded privately, so tuition is not expected to rise more than its regular annual increase, according to the Institute’s public relations office. ICE declined to reveal the exact amount of funding.

President Rick Smilow and vice president Richard Simpson spearheaded the design of the new space, but turned to the staff for advice and approval because they interact with students more closely. Though Smilow championed acquiring new technologies, the school still prioritizes necessary cooking techniques over new kitchen trends. “I want you to know what sous-vide is, but you damn well better know how to sear a chicken breast properly,” Briscione said.

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Photo: Courtesy of ICE

The chef calls Financial District (FiDi for short) “the next new big neighborhood in New York.” At this point, it’s not only an economic epicenter; it’s also a nascent food hub. Brookfield Place alone houses Hudson Eats and Le District, a French food market similar to Eataly. Chef Jose Garces’ 15th restaurant – a tapas joint named Amada; L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – a famed restaurant in MGM Grand; and Food & Wine Magazine are moving into the building starting this year. Bon Apetit Magazine and Epicurious reside across the street.

ICE hopes to contribute to that neighborhood, with promising alumni like Top Chef judge Gail Simmons and Chopped judge and Marc Murphy. The school has launched more than 11,000 food careers and won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ “Award of Excellence” for the fourth time this year. According to its website, 81 percent of graduates land jobs in their desired fields.

The school offers programs in culinary arts, pastry and baking arts, hospitality management and culinary management, as well as classes for recreational or continuing studies students. Those classes range from wine education to food photography and take in about 26,000 students each year. Martinez, head chef at Havana Rum Room in North Bergen, NJ, is one of them. “I tried the office job, I tried the labor-intensive jobs, and I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere until I finally realized that I was supposed to be a chef. I started to love it even more once I enrolled at ICE,” he said.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of ICE

Tuition for professional programs ranges from $13,880 for an evening Hospitality Management track, to $39,950 for an 8-month Culinary Arts morning track. The continuing professional and recreational programs are more variant, depending on the class; a wine introduction class is $160 for two sessions, while an advanced cake decorating course runs for over $13,000. ICE offers three scholarships starting from $5,000, but students can also receive awards from partners, like the James Beard Foundation.

The curriculum underwent renovations, too. Lessons became streamlined for students to work less in teams and more hands-on. Though there is more independent work, collaborations aren’t completely lost. With brigade-style kitchens, students can face each other and converse as they cook in central islands, rather than face the walls as they did before.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of ICE

“It was a little bit ‘tunnel vision’ at 23rd street,” said Martinez, “Here, it’s a little bit more active.”

Perhaps one change that wasn’t planned is a stronger sense of community. In the old building, pastry kitchens were on the fifth floor, while culinary kitchens were on the 14th. Now that all the classes are on the same floor with two communal lounges, students will not only run into each other between lessons, but also share the dishes they made. “When the culinary class walks out with a platter of hors d'oeuvres, there’s a couple pastry students out there and you see them go, ‘Oh wow real food we can eat!’” Briscione said.

“I think it’s one thing to make food and eat it with your classmates, but it’s another thing to bring that food to someone to eat,” the chef said.  “We’re here to make great food for people that’s gonna make people happy.”

More on becoming a chef:

Culinary High School Preps Grads for Restaurant Life

15 Things You’d Learn in Culinary School

Why This Doctor Dropped Everything To Go To Culinary School