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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Tim Ryan

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-01

Tim Ryan says he experienced his defining moment of clarity while washing dishes at a restaurant in his native Pittsburgh.

"Life is a ballet," the young Tim thought, as he observed the kitchen staff seamlessly fulfilling diners' orders under the supervision of a chef with a crisp white toque and a symphony conductor's grace.

When he mentioned the experience to his father, Lawrence, who worked in a nearby brewery, the older Ryan said:

"If you become a chef, you'll never go hungry."

The son saw the chef, Nino Sorci, as a role model.

But Mr. Sorci had somewhat of a different piece of advice for his young part-time worker:

"Be a lawyer."

In those years, the cuisine that drew the highest acclaim internationally was French.

"My dream was to be like the French," Mr. Ryan said. "When Paul Bocuse and his associates traveled to America, it was like the Beatles for me. They had secrets that we didn't have."

That meant, said Mr. Ryan - currently the president of the Culinary Institute of America - that Mr. Bocuse and his team emphasized quality most of all.

"They were fanatical about the pursuit of excellence," he said. "Young people like me wanted to go to study in France. An entire generation went there, and returned with wonderful recipes for making foie gras. It was beyond imagination that France could ever be supplanted as the culinary center of the world."

Fast forward a few years. Paul Bocuse's son, Jerome, applied to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and graduated with honors from Mr. Ryan's institution, a former Jesuit seminary set on 175 verdant acres on the banks of the Hudson River near Hyde Park.

"One doesn't wish to be boastful - but America is where people from everywhere in the world are increasingly coming to learn about the culinary arts, about running successful restaurants," Mr. Ryan said.

"It used to be that culinary knowledge was one of those 'secrets' - passed from man to man down the generations," he said. "Young men apprenticed with great chefs, and often didn't get elevated to a full chef's status until they were middle-aged. But the institute, which was started in 1946, introduced an 'American' model in the world of the culinary arts."

The institute did so by organizing the study of the culinary arts into an academic discipline, offering full-time course that initially led to a diploma. "The institute's purpose was to change the way America eats," Mr. Ryan said, noting that where once the CIA handed out "associate degrees," it now enables its 2,500 full-time students to get bachelor's degrees. A master's program has also been introduced at its two campuses, one in New York State and the other in Greystone, in the heart of California's wine-producing Napa Valley. Faculty members include more than 100 top chefs and restaurateurs not only from America but 16 other countries.

Mr. Ryan is among those who teaches at CIA. He also received a degree from the institution in 1977, although he picked up a doctorate elsewhere in education management.

"We've tried to bring intellect into the kitchen," Mr. Ryan said.

Students, in turn, must bring a total of $23,000 annually for tuition and accommodation. Their contributions account for 45% of the institute's annual budget of $100 million; the rest comes from fundraising by Mr. Ryan and his board. (Yesterday, for example, he was in Arizona to address potential supporters.)

Under his stewardship, CIA has tried to adhere to the European insistence on rigorous academic discipline.

"But we don't require those long apprenticeships," Mr. Ryan said. "The younger generation today doesn't want to be indentured. Everyone is keen to finish school and go out and make a fortune in the world."

Running a restaurant can indeed enable an entrepreneur to make a fortune. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend $511 billion annually on restaurants, or 50% of their outlay on food. There are 925,000 restaurants in the country, serving more than 70 billion meals and snacks each year.

Restaurants employ 12.5 million people - the industry is the largest employer outside of government. Nearly half of all adult Americans have worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives, and 28% of adults got their first job experience in a restaurant, according to the restaurant association.

Mr. Ryan said that restaurant-industry sales are forecast to advance 5.1% in 2006 and currently equal 4% of America's gross domestic product of $13 trillion. The overall economic impact of the restaurant industry is expected to exceed $1.3 trillion in 2006, including sales in related industries such as agriculture, transportation and manufacturing, he said.

"Every dollar spent by consumers in restaurants generates an additional $2.34 spent in other industries allied with the restaurant industry," Mr. Ryan said. "Every additional $1 million in restaurant sales generates an additional 37 jobs for the nation's economy."

"And," he added, "one in four Americans is employed in a business connected in some manner with the restaurant and food industry."

Because restaurant-going is an intensely subjective experience, Mr. Ryan and his associates at CIA emphasize not only staples such as healthy foods, hygiene and good economics, but, perhaps most importantly, customer-relation skills.

"The perfect restaurant has less to do with food and decor as it has to do with how the guest is made to feel," Mr. Ryan said. "No matter what station in life you come from, it's human nature to want to feel appreciated when you're dining out - especially if you're paying for it."

"The American eating public is increasingly sophisticated in its tastes," he said. "But the dining experience comes down to how you feel about being in any particular restaurant. The democratization of good food in America must mean not only access to the finest cuisine, but also the best service that a facility can offer to guests, no matter what their background."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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