The students at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park have recently created a new eatery on campus, Pangea, which is their answer to an expanding global population that wants and needs to be well-fed without straining the Earth’s capacity to yield nutritious foodstuffs. Call it cuisine ecology: the comprehensive study of how food is produced and harvested, how various foods affect our health and the health of the planet and how to honor “the diverse flavors and influences” of cultures from all over the planet.
Opened to the public in January to serve dinners, Pangea is a classroom/restaurant, conceived and designed by students using odds and ends found all over the campus: the attics and basements; the president’s office; some items were even brought in from people’s homes. Senior director of Food and Beverage Operations Waldy Malouf calls the space “funky.” He points out the disparate conglomeration of furnishings repurposed for this eclectic space, such as a library card catalogue that holds bottles of red wine and a freestanding tool cabinet used to store flatware.
“The school has been here over 50 years, so you can imagine that the attic was full of plates and silverware, posters, old tables and chairs,” he says. “We replaced the carpet, blacked out the ceiling and painted. Then we threw everything else in. We found these old classroom chairs and painted some of them red to make them pop. This palm tree actually came from my basement.” He says that the pair of chandeliers now hanging from the ceiling were donated to the school years ago but were never used.
Physical elements may be mismatched, but they all come together to create a comfortable, casual dining room: a place where students can learn what works in terms of restaurant design and where diners can experience new tastes. It was a feat accomplished with a limited budget and little time, which is another aspect of the project that serves as a learning tool. “It’s good for the students to experiment with the pop-up concept to see how it’s done,” Malouf says. “Here they worked on tabletop settings, and they were involved in the chefs’ garden wall.” He indicates herbs growing along the windows, which are used in tea service and in the kitchen as well. A wall of lettuces and greens grows under a panel of lights, which he calls “a good start for future experimental roof gardens and greenhouses.”
The real success of the project, of course, comes down to the food. “The whole idea of plants and cuisine is central. Pangea is not a vegetarian restaurant – customers can choose from two menus, one with meats or fish and one without – but we call it a ‘plant-forward’ menu. There are ten prix fixe dishes: five courses with two dishes in each course. Both menus have plants and grains as the focus, which is the opposite of dishes heavy on traditional proteins. We use meats and fish sparingly to add flavor and texture. ‘Plant forward’ goes back to the way we used to eat before factory farms. Pre-World War II, people really couldn’t afford that much protein, so their diets were more vegetable-based, with a little bit of protein. Instead of the 32-ounce T-bone with a tablespoon of creamed spinach, it was the reverse: more spinach and greens and grains, with some of the flavor of the proteins.”
The name “Pangea” refers to a time in Earth’s history before the continents became separated. “It is reflective of how the world is shrinking today through technology. Twenty years ago we weren’t experimenting with foods from all over the world as we do today. Indian food was a cream-based curry sauce; now it’s more authentic, real. We can get Southeast Asian foods, foods from Latin America. Sushi is everywhere! My parents didn’t eat raw fish! Forty years ago Chinese restaurants were ‘pseudo-Chinese.’ Now there’s real Chinese food in restaurants. The whole-food movement is driving our exposure to all these new tastes: authentic, spicy, bold flavors.”
Current items on the menu feature winter vegetables and greens, homemade tofu and seitan, rice, lentils, couscous, mussels, market fish, shrimp, grass-fed beef and pork, with exotic and traditional sauces and spice combinations. Some selections are individually plated, while others are served to the whole table. “We’ve reached out to those different cuisines and reimagined those flavors,” says Malouf. “The wait staff is casually dressed; the menus are priced and designed for foodies: slightly different and less expensive than our other restaurants on campus.”
Pangea’s offerings lean toward the Hudson Valley’s locavore preference. “The region is a frozen tundra right now, but in general, the CIA spends over a million dollars a year on local food products. We’re currently bringing in as much dairy products and cheeses and locally produced beverages – ciders, spirits, wines – as possible. When I wrote the Hudson Valley Cookbook in 1995, it was unheard of that this area could produce so much. We’re still losing farmland every day, but younger people are taking over family farms to regenerate them.
“We attempt to buy as much locally as possible. Part of the philosophy of the restaurant – not to overintellectualize it – is to consider how what we eat affects our health, the economy and the world environment. Conscientious eating is the movement going forward, as we try to eliminate diseases and reduce the carbon footprint of 1,000 head of cattle on two acres of land, for example. That has to change; the Earth can’t support it.”
One of Malouf’s goals is to make dining at the CIA more accessible to the community. Diners can make reservations and purchase their meal tickets online. “In February, we’ll start serving lunches, too: four courses with eight dishes in total. One of the misconceptions that people might have is that it takes a long time to eat at a CIA restaurant. In Pangea, you can plan for about an hour for lunch, or an hour and 15 minutes for dinner.”
Pangea’s kitchen is across the hall from the dining room. It’s a tight space equipped with a conglomeration of tools and cookware. “Again, some things were found, some were bought to outfit the kitchen,” says Malouf, who is most proud of the new Josper oven. “In order to get more authentic flavors from around-the-world-cooking, you need a woodburning oven. We burn a bit of wood and hardwood charcoal, and use it for a number of things: Indian naan bread, smoked tofu.”
Pangea is open from now until June, when this unique pop-up pops down at the end of the semester.
Pangea, dinner Monday-Friday, 5:30-8 p.m., $29, lunch, $19. It’s closed on holidays and when classes are not in session. Culinary Institute of America, 1946 Campus Drive (Route 9), Hyde Park; (845) 451-1683, www.ciarestaurantgroup.com/pangea.