The Culinary Institute of America opened its newest restaurant, NAO (pronounced “nay-oh”), Thursday night with a grand-opening splash. It is the international culinary academy’s ninth restaurant and its first in San Antonio.
Celebrity chef Sara Moulton was on hand, as was Kit Goldsbury, whose efforts to revitalize the Pearl Brewery played the primary role in attracting the renowned culinary school to San Antonio. Also in attendance were several chefs and food figures, including Bruce Auden of Biga on the Banks, Jesse Perez of the upcoming Arcade at the Pearl Brewery, Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria Ice House, cookbook author and kitchenware merchant Melissa Guerra, and Leslie Horne of Aurelia’s Chorizo.
Focused on the diverse cuisines of Latin America, NAO offers a menu filled with New World flavors rooted in tradition and creatively reinterpreted with modern, relevant perspectives and techniques using indigenous ingredients. Derived from the Latin root “neo,” meaning to weave or intertwine, as well as the English root meaning something new, NAO celebrates tradition and innovation.
“The CIA opened our San Antonio campus to help elevate the cuisines of Latin America to their rightful place among the great cuisines of the world,” said Dr. Tim Ryan, president of The Culinary Institute of America. “The opening of NAO is a true milestone for culinary education, and for how we as chefs think about the cuisines of Latin America. The flavors of the new world are calling to be discovered, and the CIA is proud to showcase them to our guests in the dining room at NAO.”
Ryan also took a moment to inform the guests of Moulton’s presence and remarked that she had graduated from the CIA as part of the greatest class in the school’s history. Naturally, it was the class in which Ryan also graduated.
Several students then unveiled the new sign outside of the restaurant. Ryan reminded the audience that most chefs love fire. It brings out their inner pyromaniac, he said. So, instead of having a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Goldsbury and Ryan took blazing tiki torches and set fire to a paper sign in front of a doorway to the restaurant.
Celebrating the cuisines of all of Latin America, NAO offers a unique opportunity to experience the flavors of regions both familiar and unexplored, ranging from the Rio Grande valley to the southern-most tip of Tierra del Fuego.
The menu includes dishes like Causitas, a sushi-style Peruvian dish made of purple potato puree, crabmeat and Botija olives; as well as a Oaxacan Stone Soup, a flavorful seafood broth with shrimp, serrano chilies and herbs. Cooked right in the guests’ bowl with wood-fired hot river rocks, NAO modernizes an ancient method of cooking developed at a time when metal pots were rare and gourds served as the “stock pot” of the day.
Another exciting aspect of the restaurant is the Visiting Chef Series; featuring guest chefs from Latin America who share their culinary expertise as instructors in residence during the college’s Latin Cuisines Certificate Program. Additionally, they offer NAO dining guests an opportunity to experience the culinary talents of Latin America’s most celebrated chefs in what will serve as a virtual ‘conservatory’ of Latin Cuisine. With a line-up including Peru’s Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, Brazil’s Yara Roberts, Argentina’s Hubert O’Farrell, and Bolivia’s Eric Calderon, NAO offers a diverse range of culinary experiences.
NAO’s Executive Chef Geronimo Lopez-Monascal is a Venezuelan native with more than 20 years of culinary experience in six countries, who has spent much of his career exploring the various ingredients, techniques, and traditions of Latin America. He brings his talents to NAO not only as chef, but also as instructor in the CIA’s Latin Cuisines Certificate and Associate Degree programs. During their course of studies at the college’s San Antonio campus, students will work in both the dining room and kitchen operations at NAO.
Heading up the front of the house operations is Robert Rodriguez, a 1997 CIA graduate who recently returned to his alma matter as NAO general manager. Rodriguez’s hospitality and restaurant experience spans more than 15 years and includes restaurants in New York City as well as San Antonio.
NAO is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Reservations are available online via OpenTable.com, or they can be made by calling the restaurant directly at 210-554-6484. For more information, visit NAORestaurant.com.