2000s Archive

The School That Salsa Built

Originally Published September 2007
Mexican salsa made Texas entrepreneur Kit Goldsbury a wealthy man. Now he’s returning the favor with a branch of the CIA dedicated to Latino food.

There’s nothing like dropping the phrase “thirty-five million dollars” into a conversation to get people’s full and undivided attention. Last May 15, San Antonio’s Center for Foods of the Americas (CFA) was just another local culinary academy, and a small, relatively unknown one at that. The next day, local billionaire Christopher (Kit) Goldsbury waved an eight-figure grant at the year-old school. Boom. Suddenly it was hot news in the food world. Of course, the folks at the Center already knew that their mission—jump-starting the careers of fledgling Hispanic chefs—was a big deal. They realized they had the potential to change the face of the nation’s restaurant kitchens. And they were utterly convinced that somewhere down the line their little school could produce a Latino Julia or Mario or Wolfgang. But it took a chunk of change to make everybody else sit up and take notice.

Located about two miles north of downtown, the 5,500-square-foot building housing the CFA sits on 22 sprawling acres flanked by the meandering San Antonio River on one side and a busy thoroughfare on the other. The site is still mostly undeveloped, which makes it hard to believe it sits squarely in the middle of a city of 1.3 million people, the seventh largest in the country. A couple of graceful 19th-century buildings are located near the middle of the tract; a few dozen yards away sit several contemporary structures, one with a sign reading “CFA” over a wraparound concrete porch. Tidy flower beds of butterfly irises and horsetail reeds soften the building’s industrial look, which is accentuated by metal awnings and brick walls.

It might take a visitor to the site a few seconds to identify the school, because the arty sign is turned on end, but one peek through the tall plate-glass windows should dispel any confusion. Inside are six spacious, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen facilities lined up side by side. Equipped with grills, ovens, and megaburners, they have enough firepower to cook an ox. On the opposite side of the space are large stainless-steel refrigerators, while around a corner are areas for storage and dishwashing. The rest of the building is occupied by offices, a conference room, and a combined lecture hall and dining area where students hang out and eat the omelets and pesto chicken they’ve just finished making. The space is small but efficient, and it is busy from early until late.

If someone were to ask entrepreneur and philanthropist Goldsbury what made him decide to lay a cool $35 million on a cooking academy—he also gave several million to start it in the first place—his answer might well be “Salsa.” Goldsbury married into the Pace Picante Sauce family, and hot sauce has been very, very good to him. In the course of the 20-odd years during which he helped build Pace Foods (with the family of his then wife, Linda Pace), Goldsbury grew fond of its several hundred employees, most of whom were Mexican American. “We were almost like a family,” he says. When the company threw parties and picnics, the workers would bring authentic Mexican food from home. “I wondered why these dishes weren’t as popular as Tex-Mex,” he says, referring to the Americanized yellow-cheese-and-chili-slathered enchiladas, tacos, and nachos eaten throughout the state. When he traveled in Mexico, where he had also spent time as a child, he was struck again by the depth and complexity of the dishes there. He became a vocal champion. “I believe Mexican cuisine should take its rightful place among the fine cuisines of the world.” Which led him to the logical conclusion: “Latin chefs should lead the movement.” With a net worth of $1.3 billion (thanks to his having bought out his wife’s interest in 1991 and sold the company to the Campbell Soup Company four years later), he was well equipped to help change the status quo.

Goldsbury had put his finger on a huge inequity in the restaurant world: the dearth of highly trained Hispanic chefs. Walk into a restaurant kitchen in any large American city, and what do you hear? Spanish. It doesn’t matter what’s for dinner—pâté, pasta, meatloaf, blintzes—Spanish is the language being shouted over the roar of the blenders and stove hoods. Talk to the head honcho, though, and you’ll probably be speaking English. This was the crux of the issue. The worker bees, mostly Latino, put in long, hard hours but were stuck at the bottom. The chefs and managers, mostly Anglo, rose through the ranks because they had fancy degrees from schools like the Culinary Institute of America (CIA; in Hyde Park, New York, and St. Helena, California) or the Texas Culinary Academy, in Austin. Education made all the difference.

Long story short, around 2003, Goldsbury found himself tête-à-tête with Tim Ryan, president of the prestigious Culinary Institute. As it turned out, Ryan and his fellow academicians were well aware of the predicament, but they lacked the funding for tackling the problem. Together, though, the two halves made a whole: Goldsbury had the money, the institute had the know-how. The plan they came up with, after some spirited back-and-forth, was a pilot program. The curriculum would concentrate on the French-based fundamentals, like sautéing and stockmaking, taught at the CIA, with an evolving emphasis on Latin cuisines. Overall, the course of study would be affordable and short, with numerous scholarships offered for financially strapped applicants.

Always dedicated to giving back to the community, Goldsbury insisted that the project be located in the Alamo City. “It needs to be in our backyard,” he said. The entrepreneur had another reason for wanting the school to be local, one gleaned from his experience at Pace: Hispanic families are close-knit. “It would be very difficult for a person living here,” he said, “to pull up stakes and go away to upstate New York.” For its part, the CIA wanted a syllabus that was self-contained yet rigorous enough to serve as a gateway to its own campuses. Goldsbury agreed to pay for the building and to fund scholarships; the CIA agreed to write the curriculum and supply the faculty. The program they finally decided on would last 30 weeks and cost some $17,000—far more doable than the full 21- and 38-month diploma programs at the CIA, which cost more than $21,000 per year, plus expenses. To head the academy, they hired Shelley Grieshaber, then 32, a San Antonio native who was a CIA grad herself and had been both a chef and a cooking-school operator. As she says, “It was the perfect marriage of everything I had done in my career.”

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