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Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 3 – My Own Journey

Starting to make the pastaMaking pasta at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese

Perhaps it is a bit fitting that I’m writing this third installment in my “Should You Go To Culinary School?” mini-series on the 101st anniversary of the birth of Julia Child. Her love of French cuisine and her dedication to the making really delicious food has been one of the driving forces in my culinary life. The others have included my mother, from whom I first learned to cook, and the time I spent living in Italy (by the way buona festa to my Italian friends, as today is also Ferragosto). When people have approached me about whether or not they should pursue a formal culinary education, I share a bit of my own story and the winding pathway that led me to enroll at the International Culinary Center last August. I don’t know if it’s a tale of caution or woe or inspiration.

Meatballs & SpaghettiMeatballs & Spaghetti – one of the first cookbook recipes I ever made & still a family favorite

Making food for other people has always been a part of my life and of who I am. I learned to cook at a young age, as I would spend time in the kitchen watching my mother prepare our meals. By the time I was in high school, I was pretty much fixing dinner for the family most evenings. In college, I’d bake cookies as a study break and dole them out to the dorm floor (these cookies gave me car-borrowing privileges from a friend) and make dinners to share on occasion. It was then that I also started to get into making dishes from cooking magazines, rather than just simply reading the articles. After university, when I was living and working in Washington, DC for a non-profit organization, I’d spend time dreaming up dinner party menus and cooking up more of those magazine recipes.

Menu Card 1991Menu for a holiday dinner party – 1991

At the same time, I never thought about pursuing cooking as a career. It didn’t seem as though it was one of those things that you did. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and any restaurant jobs that my friends had had were part-time waitressing gigs to help them earn extra cash while they were in school. The Food Network got started just about the time I headed to Italy to graduate school. From there, I finished up my M.A., found work in Europe, stayed there for a while, moved into financial services, and then embarked on that bumpy career ride, until I was let go in 2010, in the aftermath of the economic downturn.

Bag of VegetablesVegetables don’t give you a major client project at 5:00 p.m. at night to be finished the next day

All along the way, cooking was a hobby; it was my creative outlet, my release value from the stresses and dramas of my office jobs. I remember chopping up peppers after one particularly draining day thinking to myself, “At least vegetables don’t talk back to you.” Still, cooking for a job, to make culinary things my career, that was way outside of my scope or at least I thought it was. By then, I’d joined the legions of others and had set up food blog to capture my thoughts and recipes. The original idea was that this would help me to see if I really did want to migrate to a career working with food. This site has expanded quite a bit since that first post back in 2005, and now this website is about my getting out and exploring the local NYC food scene through events, markets, classes, and recipes with local and seasonal ingredients.

Books for CooksBooks for Cooks

I’d taken amateur courses for several years, starting when I lived in London. When I’d been living there, on my way home from work I’d walk by Prue Leith’s cooking school. It was the first time that it dawned on me that I could take courses in the culinary arts to build a stronger foundation for my skills. My first ever class was a demo about culinary techniques held at Books For Cooks. It was the first time I had been taught how to properly chop an onion. I instantly became hooked on taking classes and learning more and more about to improve my culinary skills base. From there, I took knife skills and culinary techniques classes at the Institute of Culinary Education, spent a week learning to make pasta at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese in Italy, and dabbled in amateur food and wine classes at a couple of different places. Still, at the back of my mind, I always knew that there was more and that I wanted to go further.

As a career changer, I’d been looking at the job boards and had noticed that most of the food media positions I wanted to have required having gone to culinary school. I discovered that all the years of home cooking, reading, watching cooking shows, and amateur classes weren’t enough for me to break into this field. This wasn’t an easy decision for me to make. I’d first toured the International Culinary Center almost ten years earlier, but I wasn’t ready yet to spend the time or the money studying there. I also wasn’t convinced that this was the path I wanted to take with my life. This time around, after much soul-searching, another round of layoffs, declining prospects in my current industry, and bunch of other stuff, I decided that I was definitely ready to take this step.

Wine & Food Pairing lessonGetting ready to sample white wines

It was really after taking their Wine & Food Pairing classes and the Culinary Techniques course that I realized that the International Culinary Center was where I wanted to pursue my formal culinary education. As I mentioned, I’d taken classes several other places, but, for me, the ability to bridge from the Culinary Techniques program (very important to consider) as well as the very intensive and thorough nature of the course curriculum made it the right choice. As a student in the amateur-level Culinary Techniques course, was taught the same material as the professional students were in their Level 1 classes, was exposed to the time commitment, physical stresses, scheduling, recipes, techniques, methodology, and expectations (minus the exams and evaluations) that they were. It is really a wonderful course to take if you are looking to gain a solid foundation in classical culinary skills. After we finished that course, it became apparent to me that I wanted to go all the way and to enroll in the Classic Culinary Arts program. With the encouragement and guidance of my instructors in the amateur courses, I took the placement exam and joined my class in Level 2.

Diploma coverI did it – finally!

While it was a challenging, sometimes frustrating, often tiring route, I’m very, very happy that I stuck with it and decided to do it. Culinary school did, however, take over my life. There were days and nights when I wondered if I had made the right decision and why, at my mid-career era, I was putting myself through the tasks that could be more easily mastered by someone much younger and fitter than me to take on a life behind the stove. Still, making great-tasting food and watching other people enjoy and take delight in a meal that I’ve prepared for them, is something that I’ve always enjoyed, that I’ve always been passionate about. I’m looking forward to being able to do that for a long, long time to come.

Buon appetito!

Articles in this series:

Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 1

Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 2 – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Bloody

“Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 4 – Some More (hopefully) Helpful Advice”

“What I Learned in Culinary Techniques at the International Culinary Center”

Articles by course level:

“Wild Mushroom Risotto (Risotto ai Funghi)” – about a dish we made in Level 2

“International Culinary Center – Classic Culinary Arts Level 4 Buffet”

“International Culinary Center – Level 5 Working at L’Ecole”

“International Culinary Center – Level 6 Working at L’Ecole”

“International Culinary Center – I Passed My Final Exam!”

“Graduation Day for the International Culinary Center”