My First Month at the Majestic CIA

By Ajai Sharma

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”—Neil Armstrong

My journey to The Culinary Institute of America was not exactly comfortable. It took me more than a year to get here, but there’s a saying—“whatever happens, it happens for good.” God had some plans for me for going to the CIA, a boy born in the town of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India and raised in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

When I graduated from the most prestigious Hotel Management College in India—The Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal—it moved me closer to the chapter of my life that was the Big American Dream!

On April 13, 2019, I boarded my flight from Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport to New York’s JFK International Airport. I was so excited and thrilled to travel. As the plane throttled upward, my heart kept saying, “Buddy, you’re moving another second closer to your dream college!” Thirteen hours later, the plane touched down in New York City—the city where your wildest dreams come true.

I walked out at the airport, standing in the immigration line—confused, tired, and excited. The officers saw my passport and I-20 and actually said with a smile, “Man you’re going to the best culinary school in the world; wish you all the best in the United States!” I left the airport and got into one of New York’s famous yellow taxis, which turned out to be an expensive disaster all the way from the airport to the CIA campus—but the 15 long hours from home to college was worth it.

A Joyous Arrival

When I finally got to the CIA, with the majestic Roth Hall right in front of me, I was overwhelmed and shed tears of joy. My first reaction was “This is the Oxford for chefs.”

Feeling rejuvenated, I moved to my on-campus housing in Dargan/Rovetti Hall, where one of the resident assistants handed me the key for my room. There I met my roommate, who turned out to be a fellow Indian—but sadly, he’d be graduating in two months.

We started to gel, and he showed me around campus and took me for a quick bite at the Egg. When we got there my eyes were wide open; it was like I was at some fancy restaurant! After dinner, my roommate helped me join in some casual conversations with other students, and I later unpacked and settled down in anticipation of the next day, which was orientation. Also, that night, our group was given a quick tour by Nathan Flintjer, assistant director for student life, who also briefed us about the orientation program over the next two days.

Joining the CIA Family

The next morning in the Ecolab Theatre, we were welcomed by the Admissions Team. The day continued with meeting our financial planners and filling out the remaining formalities and sitting in on sessions with Student Affairs Department Dean Dr. JJ Manley, Campus Safety, Health Services, IT, Human Resources, and International Student Affairs.

When the first half of the day wrapped up, we collected our uniforms from Central Issue. Returning to Ecolab, we met with CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan and received our toques during a special ceremony. I was very excited to see Dr. Ryan, whom I had seen speaking during graduation and at other seminars. It was a very interactive session. He is a pure maestro, engaging us in a fun conversation and leading us through a popular chant for students at the CIA:

“Mirepoix, mirepoix, roux, roux, roux.

Chop ’em up, dice ’em up,

Throw ’em in the stew!”

The toquing ceremony, when we received our first chef hats from the chefs of CIA, officially welcomed us into the CIA family. We then we took a pledge of being true to ourselves and to the CIA. I’ll never forget that moment!

Class Time!

The orientation day ended with our very first class—Culinary Fundamentals. Our excitement was at a peak when we entered our kitchen, K7 just opposite Farquharson Hall in the main building.

I was so thrilled to see the kitchen and meet Chef-Instructor Eric Schawaroch. On that first day, we did some cooking and took a quick tour, then moved on to the necessary knife skills tray and to preparing chicken stock. It was kind of tough to be back working in the kitchen after a year away. In the days that followed we took academic courses in subjects like professionalism, college writing, SERVSafe, and mathematics.

Meeting Maneet

On May 3, I had the opportunity to meet celebrity chef and CIA alumna Maneet Chauhan—and was lucky enough to present a book I had written to her. (Special thanks to Sue Haug, office manager at the Student Rec Center, for making it happen!) Chef Chauhan was so happy to see my achievement and passion towards the field of culinary arts. It was another fond memory I’ll never forget.

So far, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for me at the CIA. Exposure to such a different, diverse culture has been a lot to take in.

In the end, I can sum up the experience by saying this: Success never comes easy in life, but when it does, you should cherish it. And I’m definitely cherishing my time here.


Ajai Sharma is a student in the CIA’s associate degree program in culinary arts. He is from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India.