by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 2015
I've always considered myself a fairly knowledgeable foodie, but I was served a hefty slice of humble pie the night I sat among a group of accomplished, hardcore chefs over artisanal beer and wood-fired mini pizzas on the terrace at the newly renovated, 380-room Silverado Resort & Spa in Napa, Calif. These culinary experts' intense conversation about arcane ingredients and ultra-sophisticated cooking techniques left me feeling like a rank amateur sitting slack-jawed in the back of a food truck.

Perhaps I should explain. This past fall, Dolce Hotels & Resorts selected 16 of its executive chefs and two general managers to attend the company's second annual back-to-school boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, Calif., and they invited me to tag along. An admitted Food Network addict, I jumped at the chance to rub elbows (and maybe cadge some recipes) from such masters of cuisine, while getting an inside glimpse of their working world. Hence my tête-à-tête with the star chefs on this night before the program officially kicks off.

"Be on the porch at 6.15 a.m. in your chef whites and with your tool bags," commands Michael Moros, general manager of the 209-room The Alexander in downtown Indianapolis, whom Dolce has designated one of the ringleaders of the proceedings, and a classically trained chef and veteran duck hunter who makes his own duck jerky. Like I said, hardcore.

Here's a brief diary from what ensued over the four-day event, which will forever resonate in my mind -- and on my palate.

DAY ONE: Going hog wild
One by one, the chefs assemble at the crack of dawn in their official white jackets. We pile into two minivans, one driven by Moros and the other by Mark O'Brien, general manager of The H, a 131-room property in Midland, Mich. It's still dark as we make our way to the CIA campus, housed in a former winery in nearby St. Helena.

After a quick continental breakfast prepared by CIA culinary students, we head downstairs to our first educational session and to meet our instructor for the week, chef Lars Kronmark, a Danish transplant with a no-nonsense approach, who exhorts the group at every turn to "touch and taste everything!" Today's agenda focuses on whole-pig butchery. Turns out that over the next several hours we will be making charcuterie -- lots of it.

We are broken up into four teams, but before we can begin a hands-on butchering of the locally raised, 90-pound specimen lying in the middle of our demonstration kitchen, we are treated to a lecture on the history of curing and brining. It's the equivalent of a 45-minute crash course in chemistry, agriculture and farming techniques. Then out comes an arsenal of saws and knives, and the chefs set to work carving up the pig. (While I am an active participant in many tasks during the program, I elect to sit this one out.)

In under an hour, our porcine playmate is thoroughly dismantled. The teams are each given a different part of the animal, along with an eight-dish menu. Over the next few days, we will churn out a dizzying array of pork dishes -- everything from crispy pig's ears, dry-cured sausage and roasted stuffed trotters to traditional mortadella, pork brisket and pancetta rolled in salami casing, incorporating myriad sauces and side elements like Italian mustard, sauerkraut and pickled vegetables.

And, yes, we touch and taste everything. At one point I sidle up to chef Murray Hall of the 150-room BMO Institute for Learning in Toronto as he pulls a tray of Roman soldier-style pork ribs from the oven. These are large slabs rubbed with a mixture of fennel seeds, rosemary sprigs and hot pepper flakes, roasted for 45 minutes and then doused in fresh lemon juice. "Don't these look amazing?" he asks, offering me one. It's the size of a small dinosaur bone and delicious. (Hall, who joined Dolce in 2008, is the Canadian champion for the International Association of Conference Centres' 2010, 2011 and 2012 Copper Skillet Cooking Competition.)

After a quick lunch with the CIA students, we're off to the 69-acre Azalea Springs Farm, owned by Douglas Hayes, a former architect turned preservationist, who raises heritage chickens, rare herbs and New Caledonian hogs (aka Red Waddles) the size of small cows. As we tour the farm, Hayes offers a lesson in poultry genetics. We learn that 80 percent of the chickens consumed worldwide come from one species, bred strictly for how fast producers can get them to market, rather than taste. It's sobering information.

Then we pile back into our vans and head to a local organic farm that supplies produce to the CIA. Chef Kronmark instructs us to stroll around and select ingredients in bloom from the garden. "You will be creating and making dishes from what you choose on our final day," he says, "so choose carefully, and find what's at its peak now."

After dinner at Trinchro Winery that evening, the chefs challenge each other in a contest designed to test their olfactory sense by trying to identify the flavors of a dozen wines solely by smell. I manage to name four; chef Corey Siegel of the 120-room Dolce Norwalk in Connecticut nails all 12. We raise a glass (or two) in his honor.