SAN ANTONIO, TX - I’m lured to a spot in this handsome Southwest Texas city by a dark-eyed beauty who promises to give me access to “CIA secrets.” The woman, who looks like one of those sultry characters in a James Bond movie, agrees to meet me in a darkened staircase in San Antonio’s Pearl District, a chic entertainment area where the CIA’s San Antonio headquarters is located.
I get there early and as the rendezvous hour approaches, my pulse quickens and I swear my heart is about to jump out of my chest with excitement.
Suddenly, out of the shadows, the woman approaches.
“Are you ready?” she asks before leading me to the CIA’s entrance where a man wearing a dark suit and glasses awaits.
“Welcome,” says Fernando Salazar, the CIA’s Managing Director. “I hope you’re hungry?”
Maybe I forgot to mention but San Antonio’s “CIA” is a branch of the “Culinary Institute of America” and not the American spy agency. Being an amateur chef myself, the thought of taking some lessons with a CIA chef is very appetizing.
“Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency, we’re only too happy to share our secrets with visitors,” smiles Salazar before introducing me and some other tourists to Chef Justin Ward, an instructor at the famed culinary institute who conducts hands-on classes on weekends so visitors can learn proper cooking techniques, including the distinctive cuisine of this area.
“We offer these classes (known as Saturday Kitchens) so visitors can appreciate the unique cultures that make up the many flavours of Texas cuisine,” says Salazar, who was lured out of retirement after years in the restaurant industry to head up San Antonio’s CIA campus, the cornerstone of the Pearl District.
Left: Cured is one of the famous restaurants in the Pearl District. Middle: Pearl beer can still dominates this district in San Antonio. Right: Chef Ward supervises the students.
“The Culinary Institute of America has been around a long time and actually predates the spy agency,” says the likeable Salazar, who also tells us getting the CIA to set up shop in San Antonio was no easy task.
“Kit (Kit Goldsbury, a local billionaire whose vision it was to turn the old, abandoned Pearl Brewery into a multifaceted complex anchored by the culinary school) tried three times to get the CIA to open a campus here but each time they turned him down.
“Then, after building a permanent school at Pearl and offering a huge endowment, the CIA agreed to sanction the school and now San Antonio is one of three (CIA) campuses in America (the others are in New York’s Hyde Park and California),” Salazar boasts.
The reason why Goldsbury invited the CIA here was so young Hispanic chefs could hone their culinary skills under some expert guidance.
“Kit recognized that while Hispanics make up 80 per cent of kitchen staffs across America, very few ever make it to the front of the kitchen as head chefs. So he was determined to bring the CIA to San Antonio so Hispanics could be taught by the very best,” Salazar reveals.
Each semester classrooms are crammed with a full complement (about 150) of mostly young Hispanic students who work towards a Culinary Arts Degree in baking and pastry.
Some graduates of the CIA set up restaurants in the city, and some have even opened rooms in the Pearl District, which offers many chic dining experiences at fashionable restaurants like Cured — its Head Chef Steve McHugh is a CIA New York graduate — Bakery Lorraine, Botika and the Boiler House.
Chef Ward and his student assistants hand out aprons and chef hats to our small group and then lead us to the stainless steel classroom where he splits us into teams of three.
“Our weekend courses are designed to showcase Texas cuisine and show you how to work as a team in the kitchen,” says Chef Ward, a 35- year veteran of the restaurant industry who joined the San Antonio CIA a few years ago.
“I really like working with the students here because they bring such enthusiasm to the kitchen.”
For the next four hours, under Chef’s expert guidance, we prepare regional dishes — our team is responsible for cooking Dr. Pepper Ribs with Texas barbecue sauce, grilled bratwurst with a tangy mustard sauce, smoky baked beans and coleslaw.
Left: Hotel Emma is a unique property and resides on some old brewery buildings. Right: The Pearl Brewery smokestack is now a San Antonio landmark.
Ward encourages us to read the “method” of cooking the dishes before looking at the ingredients needed for each dish because “the method is really your blueprint.”
He and his assistants keep checking our progress, showing us how to make the dry rub for the ribs, how to keep our work space clean and then offer us some tips as we rush to meet the deadline.
When the bell rings, the dishes each team has made are assembled on a long counter and the weekend students get to sample each. “I’m very impressed,” says Chef Ward. “You’ve all earned high marks and every dish exceeds my expectations — especially those Dr. Pepper Ribs. This was a good group.”
Afterwards, we tour the Pearl complex, which hosts a farmers market each Saturday.
Many of the original brewery buildings — some dating back to 1881 — were saved and revitalized during the renaissance. For instance, Cured, Chef Steve McHugh’s fabulous restaurant, is housed in a building that once served as the Pearl Brewery’s administration office, circa 1904. In all, there are 18 restaurants and cafés scattered around Pearl, along with 14 retail shops and 324 apartments.
But the most amazing transformation at Pearl was the brewery’s old brewhouse, which has been turned into the stunning Hotel Emma, recognized by some national publications as one of the top new hotels in the world.
It’s certainly one of the most unique — some of the brewhouse’s original boilers have been converted into cozy snugs in the main bar. Originally built in 1894, the brewhouse stood idle after the Pearl Brewery shut down, and when Goldsbury bought the complex, each of the buildings was crammed with antiques — many have been dusted off and are used in the hotel’s public spaces and 146 luxurious rooms.
Guests checking in at the Hotel Emma, whose manicured lawns drift off into the slow-moving San Antonio River, are ushered into the lovely library and treated to a complimentary margarita.
Above: The San Antonio River drifts past the Pearl District.
Later I visit some of Peal’s most noted restaurants:
• At Cured, I sample Chef McHugh’s menu specialties like his award-winning Charcuterie plate, Chicken Fried Chicken Livers and Pork Cheeks Poutine and partake in a Cured tradition — guests buy the kitchen staff a six pack of beer known as a “String of Pearls" off the dersert menu as a thank you for the great food and service.
• At Botika I’m introduced to Chef Geronimo Lopez’s unique “Chifa” (Chinese-Peruvian) and “Nekkei” (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine as well as his take on other dishes that combine Asian and Latin American ingredients. “The two styles compliment each other perfectly,” Chef Lopez tells me.
• I also make a brief stop at Nao Latin Gastro Bar — its chefs are about to graduate from the CIA — and enjoy some Latin American specialties and the creativity of the young chefs.
• I end the night at the popular Jazz, TX, a club that specializes in jazz, blues, Texas swing, salsa and big band music. The atmosphere is exciting and the music bounces off the wall.
What a way to end my visit to the Pearl District — it’s truly the jewel of San Antonio.