Minutes before it reaches your plate, this trout will have been swimming in our special tank. The blue tinge and characteristic bent shape guarantee that this gently poached fish was absolutely fresh when cooked.
From the menu of the Escoffier Restaurant, Culinary Institute of America Amercia
Something was fishy. Too fishy.
An innocent trip to upstate New York embroiled me in spying on the CIA. Not the CIA we know, but the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, this country's largest academic training ground for chefs.
During an afternoon tour of the Culinary Institute the subject of trout tanks first emerged. Our group had done its homework, reading up on the CIA, and one of the women (a wildlife specialist) expressed an interest in seeing the school's famous trout tanks. They used to be in the dining room, our student guide explained, but had been dismantled because they no longer worked.
The focal point of our visit was dinner at the Institute's Escoffier Restaurant, a $19.50 fixed-price meal prepared and served by the students under the direction of the faculty, for which reservations had been necessary over six months in advance.
While the menu listed rare, intriguing preparations, such as Cote d'Agneau Grillee Imam Bayaldi and Poulet Saute Valoise, curiosity forced me to order the truite a bleu, that curled blue poached fish that was touted as just swimming in the tanks we were told were nonexistent.
A quiz to the captain followed: "Is the trout really from your tanks?"
The trout was not blue. It lazed on the plate with no suggestion of a curl. It tasted as if it had retired from swimming several days ago.
I sternly grilled the waiter.
Was this trout live from the tank?
Where were the tanks?
"In the basement."
Had he actually seen them?
"No, only the faculty chef is allowed to go down to the basement to pick up the fish."
How humble, we agreed, to have the chef run up and down the stairs himself for each fish order.
I simmered very gently as I approached the maitre d'hotel, faculty member Curt Nickel. No, he responded, I could not visit the trout tanks in the basement.
I asked him how long they keep fish live in the tanks. He took on a little color, replied that they could be kept quite a while, but with the popularity of trout in the Escoffier Restaurant and for school lessons, they bought and used 200 trout every two or three days. He even gave me the name of the hatchery, again assuring me that my trout at dinner had been fresh from the tanks.
A month later, reporter Steve Banker was interviewing CIA spokesman Bill Primavera on Tapes for Readers for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. At my urging, he threw in a question about trout tanks. "Boy, are you smart," chuckled Primavera, who went on to explain that the CIA did have trout tanks at one time, but no longer. The continuing misinformation on the menu was a matter of economics, of not being able to print altered menus that soon. "We are firm advocates of truth in menu," he announced. "It is all corrected now."
But the menu still reads, "Minutes before it reaches you plate, this trout will have been swimming in our special tank." The Institute member who read the current menu to me over the telephone from the Escoffier Restaurant did say, however, that the trout is not always fresh from the tank. "Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. The tanks have been broken."
She didn't know, but when pressed, specified, "many weeks."
Curt Nickel, however, was still stone-walling. Asked how long the tanks were out of order, he replied, "That I can't say."
"It could be, yes."
Why did he not tell me that the trout were not freshly killed when I asked him in October?
"I was not aware that we did not have live trout."
Now he is, and he suggests that people stay away from the truite au bleu and order trout Bocuse instead.
According to the new director of the CIA, J. Joseph Meng, trout tanks were discontinued in December 1977, and new menus due this month will reflect that fact. Under fire he jettisoned his maitre d'hotel: "It is probably unlikely that he did not know that there weren't live trout, and therefore he was lying. I would be inclined to suspect that he probably knew."
Some of the students knew.
Ira Schwalbe was president of the student council when he graduated last September. He says that the tanks sometimes worked, because he saw live trout in them during the summer. But a good waiter, he added, would know when they were fresh and tell the customers. As for why the other students didn't know or tell, "A lot of it depends on the students. They can get by without getting involved."
The CIA is graduating 72 professional cooks every three weeks, and has a two-year wait for admissions. The graduates are offered an average of four to five jobs, each at salaries averaging $12,000, after they spent $10,000 and two years being educated.
Yet some of them can't or won't tell whether truite au bleu has been made with live fish. Some of them believe in trout tanks they have never seen.
That could be dangerous, because too many restaurant managers or even chefs automatically believe the meat wholesaler who sells them "prime" steaks; they may then face an inspector who will cite them for serving choice steaks when the menu identified them as prime. It is a public offense in some cities -- Washington included -- to call a veal steak a veal cutlet on the menu, or identify potatoes as Idahos if they are from another state.
It would be going too far to see the CIA as sending forth into the kitchens of America a network of trout launderers. Yet during the investigation, one of our own coterie begged as we left the Escoffier Restaurant, "Please don't write this restaurant up badly, because we'll look like such fools to our friends for coming all this way for dinner."
Will the coverups never end?