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[whitespace] Mark Erickson
Dean of the CIA: Culinary Institute of America managing director Mark Erickson has brought a blend of working-class sensibility and sophisticated online élan to the venerable Napa County culinary college.

Class Act

Mark Erickson keeps Culinary Institute of America at Greystone cookin'

By Marina Wolf

AS MANAGING director of CIA-Greystone, Mark Erickson is the closest thing there is to a dean on the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America. He even has the appropriate air of reassuring solidity, with his green V-neck sweater and Mr. Rogers manners. Which is why his original motive for joining the food service industry is a bit of a shock: all he wanted was a motorcycle.

His father, patriarch and moral beacon of their working-class home in Minnesota, sent him out to work for it. As luck would have it, the first job that opened up for the 14-year-old Erickson was washing dishes in a hotel restaurant, under a chef whose enthusiasm would forever change the young boy's view of work. "My family worked to get through the day so they could get to real life, which started after they punched out," remembers Erickson. "But the chef at the hotel, he always came to work every day so jazzed up. I'd never met anyone who was so excited to go to work."

Erickson was so impressed that he stayed at the hotel until his high school graduation, and then went straight to the CIA in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Thus began the career of a CIA loyalist. Oh, Erickson did his share of kitchen-hopping (wouldn't be a chef if he hadn't). He worked in hotels and resorts along the East Coast, and even pulled a summer stint in Gstaad, the famous Swiss resort town. After returning to the United States, Erickson was on the U.S. Culinary Olympic teams in 1980, 1984, and 1988, and in 1984 he was invited to join the CIA at Hyde Park as a faculty member.

By 1990, at age 32, Erickson had become director of education, overseeing more than 100 chef-instructors. But he felt uncomfortable holding a position of such responsibility at such a young age and returned to the life of a club chef. Soon, his interest in online technology led him to help found Digital Chef, an online site for professional chefs that eventually shifted from professional support to e-commerce and became known as Tavolo.

But Erickson always kept in touch with his alma mater, and when the managing directorship became available last year at the CIA in St. Helena, Erickson jumped at the chance.

During his short time here so far, Erickson hasn't been inclined to change much about the operation of the campus, which, though only 4 1/2 years old, already offers an astonishing range of continuing education courses, from two-day immersion programs in ethnic cuisines to a 30-week baking-certificate course. More than 4,000 students pass through the huge wooden doors annually, suggesting the wisdom of that old and excellent adage: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Erickson's current project isn't a fix; it's more of an upgrade. He supervised the beta testing of an online course in March, the results of which are being processed now for the first day of general enrollment for online courses on May 1.

The CIA already excels in multimedia visual aids, having been one of the pioneers in video-based vocational training back in the mid-'70s. Putting that content on the Internet is the next logical step for a school serving an industry that boasts such high access to the Web (87 percent of all chefs, according to surveys). And the limitations of the genre are beside the point, says Erickson.

"We know that you can't teach skills over the Internet," he explains. "But you can deliver knowledge and introduce concepts. Then when students come to the CIA, the time spent here is a capstone."

With new media come the inevitable questions about content. Erickson is the first to admit that chefing, especially in restaurants, has changed dramatically over the past 20 or 30 years. Once dishes were the same everywhere, based on strictly codified precepts of continental cuisine. For example, fillet of sole Florentine was sole cooked with butter, shallots, and white wine, and then placed on a bed of spinach with a sauce from the pan drippings. This was true no matter what restaurant you worked in.

Then nouvelle cuisine came along and obliterated the code. "It was great in one way because chefs could feel more comfortable in exercising their creativity," Erickson says. "But without that code, it's much more difficult to walk into a restaurant and understand what's going into a dish."

Chefs still need to know the old codes, but the growing interest in ethnic influences and the use of ever-more esoteric ingredients create complications for working chefs, who may themselves not be cooking fusion but still feel its influence.

"Once you used to be able to stir-fry something, put some sticky sweet sauce on it, and call it Chinese, and people would accept it," Erickson says. "Today we talk about Asian food in very specific terms, as Thai or Indian or Szechwan Chinese. You have to have intimate knowledge of the ingredients, and you really need to understand the culture. Because when people eat these ingredients, they're not just interested in the flavors and textures. They want to know why those things get put together in the first place.

"What is the culture behind this food?"

Even in Europe the tradition-bound restaurant industry is changing, most notably in the field of vocational education and training. The CIA is regularly contacted by governments and private organizations who need help in establishing vocational training to replace the ancient apprenticeship system.

"That system is outmoded, even in Europe," says Erickson firmly. "You can't expect that somebody at 14 years of age can make a decision about what they want to do for the rest of their life."

His slight smile acknowledges the fact that he did just that himself. "I got lucky," he says. Lucky, indeed. Without a chef, a dad, and a motorcycle--which he did buy and drive into the ground--Erickson probably would have ended up as a tool-and-die maker in Minnesota.

Not the worst fate in the world, but a very different path.

Polenta Tartlets with Lamb Ratatouille

Most of Erickson's recipes are created for the commercial kitchen, with measurements in pounds instead of cups. This dish is a great party starter for a large early-summer gathering when the traditional ratatouille vegetables are at their finest.

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 1/2 quarts milk
3 c. cornmeal or polenta meal
2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
4 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 pound coarse-ground lean lamb
1 c. finely diced onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 c. finely diced red pepper
1/2 c. finely diced yellow squash
1/2 c. finely diced eggplant
1 c. finely diced tomatoes
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil
2 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
Salt and freshly ground
black pepper to taste

1. Combine chicken stock and milk in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add cornmeal in a steady stream while whisking. Turn heat to medium-low and cook at a very low boil, stirring continuously, for about 30 minutes, or until mixture is smooth and pulls away from side of pan. Alternatively, once cornmeal has been whisked into boiling liquid, it can be poured into a baking dish, covered, and baked at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.

2. Stir in 1 cup of grated Parmesan and adjust seasonings. Pour mixture onto a lightly oiled half-sheet tray (8 1/2 by 11 by 1 inch) and press into a very smooth layer. Cool overnight or until firm.

3. Invert polenta layer onto a cutting board and cut out small biscuit-sized (1 1/4-inch) pieces with a circle cutter. Use a moist melon baller to create a cup indentation in each circle.

4. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add ground lamb. Brown lamb lightly. Add onions and garlic and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add tomato paste and sauté briefly. Add remaining vegetables and sauté until vegetables are tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and herbs, and season to taste. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

5. Place polenta circles on a lightly oiled baking tray, fill indentations with a portion of ratatouille mixture, sprinkle with remaining cup of Parmesan cheese, and bake for approximately 12 minutes, until hot and golden brown. Serve immediately.

Makes about 75 tartlets, hors d'oeuvre size.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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