Category Archives: Background and General Food Thoughts

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

Blocks of ButterHope you like butter as you’ll be using lots of it!

Following up from yesterday’s post about Should You Go To Culinary School?is one that I’ve been wanting to write for a while about some of the realities actually being in culinary school. As I mentioned, quite a few folks have been asking me about my experiences as a culinary student and my advice for undertaking this career path. Before I get started with the stories, though, and there’s lots of great ones to tell, that’s for sure, I should re-clarify that I have absolutely no idea if this is something that you should do yourself. I’ve seen the stars in people’s eyes, the wistful sighs as they dream of days of nothing but cooking wonderful food. Here’s some other things that might be part of your student life, hopefully, none of them scare or depress anyone.

The Good (some of the positives)

Head Cheese on tray of AspicHead Cheese displayed on tray of Aspic – Level 4 Buffet

You will have incredible chefs and instructors to guide you along your path as a culinary student.

I learned so much from my teachers, not just from the material that was written in the books, but also from the other insights that they shared along the way about how to survive in the industry and what steps to take in building a career in this field. As one of them said to us on his final day as our instructor: “We learn every day in this profession. I learn from you, and I hope that you have been able to learn from me.” This photo above is from our Level 4 Buffet. One of our instructors took us through how to work with aspic and to design this tray using segments of vegetables as garnish. Was it necessary to create this to serve the head cheese we’d made in class? Maybe not. Was it fantastic and inspiring to see the scale of detail and precision that goes into this level of craftsmanship in food presentation? Absolutely. I need to come up with an excuse to use this sometime for a dinner party.

Kitchen SuppliesHeading to the kitchen with supplies

You get to work with great ingredients.

One of the things I miss about culinary school the most is having access to the range and variety of recipe components that we had as students. A big one I miss on a regular basis: great, homemade stock (in the two large containers at the bottom center in the photo). Working with it at school, I finally appreciated just how key of a component stock is in creating layers of flavor in dishes. We made vats of it at school in huge steam kettles. It’s not the chicken or vegetable stock that I miss so much, but the deep, rich veal stock that we always had on hand. To make it at home is a laborious and lengthy process, as it really should cook overnight. I miss duck fat less, as I can make, and have made, that easily at home.

La Tech - Poulet Grand-merePoulet Roti Grand-Mère (Grandmother’s-style Roast Chicken)

Yes, will you get to eat (mostly) good food.

I say mostly in that last phrase because, you eat what you make. So, those mistakes you do along the way might end up being that night’s dinner (or lunch, depending upon if you are in the night or day class). Today is the one-year anniversary of the day after my first night in the professional class. It must have been extreme nerves or insecurity or something because I almost completely wrecked the two dishes that we had to do in the class, including the Poulet Roti Grand-Mère that was one of them (this photo is from a more successful attempt). Fortunately, I did not overcook the proteins (the chicken or the venison in the second dish). Guess what? This chicken dish came back on the curriculum for Level 3, so I had plenty of time to learn how to correct my mistakes. Oh, and it was one of the two dishes that I had on my mid-term exam.

The Bad (some things to keep in mind)

Culinary School books & notecardsYou will need to learn and absorb all this information

Culinary school might take over your life.

This is the message that I continually sent to my friends, when I had the chance to check my phone during our brief breaks for dinner: “Sorry, I can’t make it tonight. I’m [select one] in class / working / volunteering at an event / studying for an exam.” Was it worth it to put my social and dating life on hold to pursue this? To have my friendships and family relationships on life support? (Seriously, I barely made it to my sister’s wedding in Virginia and showed up only briefly for our annual family holiday dinner at my folks’ house.) For me, definitely. For you, just keep this in mind. Also build in the hours you’ll spend on trails, internships, volunteer opportunities, and other training things that you do along the way. Once it gets started, the course proceeds at a rapid, rollercoaster-like pace. Don’t forget the time to study for exams, prep for your practicals, mid-term, and finals, and to work on, recipe test for, and complete your Level 5 project (if you study at the ICC).

WalletThis is not a cheap venture

It is expensive. It is also an investment.

This is the part that I stress to folks when they approach me about their desire to attend culinary school. Is it worth it? It depends. I know, that’s a cop-out, but it really is the truth. I can’t answer this for you. I’ll cover some of my own personal story and journey on the way to deciding to enroll in culinary school in another post, but, if you are considering this, look deep inside yourself. It isn’t just the cost of tuition. It is the cost of your time, your energy, your physical well-being (my knees took a real beating), your relationships (as I mentioned above), your existing career, and your future prospects. Also, consider the opportunity costs of what you could have done with all that time/money/energy if you did not do this. Do a cost-benefit analysis. As with any type of post-secondary education, figure out if this really does work for you. I give the same advice to those people who are thinking of doing the M.A. program that I did, too.

Shepherd's PieWe made some pretty awesome Shepherd’s Pie in our class

Two words: Family Meal.

I’m really not trying to diss Family Meal here, but it will become a lightening-rod topic during your time as a culinary student. If you are in the class or group that makes it for everyone (fellow students, faulty, staff), you’ll defend it to the death. If you are the one eating it, suddenly you’ll become some Michelin-star-granting food critic evaluating the merits of food served in bulk in large hotel pans. I had a blast in Family Meal (Level 4 at the ICC). I even volunteered to come in to help cook it on several of the days when the staff was short-handed, due to smaller student classes. Aside from a few dishes (see sauerkraut below), I really enjoyed the task of making huge quantities of food taste delicious. Of course, I also come from a large family, so pleasing a picky, hungry crowd at mealtimes is a challenge I took on at an early age.

The Ugly (it’s not always flowers and unicorns and gumdrops and lollipops)

Stained uniformGreasy, fatty stock stains – not the easiest thing to get out of your uniform jacket

Kitchen work is hot, sweaty, and dirty.

I know, that might seem obvious, but the day you are trying to pipe buttercream onto a cake and you have to put it back in the fridge every two minutes before it turns to goo and slides off of your cake, you’ll know what I mean. Ditto for making puff pastry in 90-degree weather. I’ve done both. It is also impossible to stay clean. Still, if this is what you love to do, nothing will deter you. You’ll wipe the sweat from your brow and consider it to be a badge of honor to make that dish work, no matter how scorching it is outside or inside, for that matter. Just hope for a cold snap the day you make pastry for your mid-terms and finals.

Empty cans of sauerkrautReally? Really? Why did I get stuck preparing sauerkraut for family meal?

Kitchen work is grueling and smelly, too.

One of the funniest things that someone ever said in the changing rooms came at the end of an evening shift working in the restaurant. She’d been assigned to make the fish stock that evening, a rather fragrant task involving cooking the bones in liquid in a very large pan (rondeau). After class let out she was going to work a bar shift at a cocktail lounge. As she was changing out of her uniform, she was talking about how she hoped she didn’t smell like fish. “Well, I can wipe myself down with Neutrogena face wipes and just hope that the person standing next to me at the bar smells worse than I do,” she said.

My lockerIt is larger on the inside than it looks

Remember those gym locker rooms from middle school and high school. Well, they’re back!

Yep! Guess what? You get to use changing rooms again, segregated by gender, of course. If have any latent body or other issues left over from those teen and pre-teen years, you’ll have to put them aside. There are some separate rooms in the locker rooms (with sinks and showers) where you can change in privacy, but if you’ve got five minutes to be in the kitchen and get to class, you might just want to take a big breath and throw on your uniform as fast as you can without worrying about what others think. You’re in the same boat as everyone else around you, and student garb is hardly haute couture anyway. Also, use this time wisely to get the scoop from your fellow students on upcoming exams and pitfalls to avoid while working in the kitchen.

The Bloody (kitchen work is not for the squeamish)

Bloody nail missingThis was not one of my more brilliant moves

Cuts, scrapes, burns, bruises.

I’ll just put this out there – you might get hurt in culinary school. As careful as you are (and I tried incredibly hard to be so), you could end up with more than a few of these. I did, more several times. There is first aid on sight and staff are trained to take care of every emergency, but it’s better if they don’t happen at all. Sometimes, however, they do. Case in point, two weeks away from the final exam, I was working an extra shift in the restaurant kitchen. While mincing parsley, my thumb ended up in the line of fire of my brand new, factory-sharp, chef’s knife, which had been a birthday present. In a matter of mili-seconds, I’d sliced through my nail and into the nail bed. Fortunately, I didn’t cut the top of my thumb off. I gushed blood, just absolutely gushed it. What did I do? After I figured out I didn’t need to go to the hospital, I cleaned it up, bandaged it, wrapped it, and put a clean glove on it to finish service. As someone later said to me, “A new knife requires a blood sacrifice.” That night, mine received its due.

Checking out the pigChecking out the pig

Charcuterie and butchery, you will be breaking down animal proteins.

Moving into Level 4, I think we were all a bit excited by the prospect of getting our hands on a half of a pig and learning all about working with it to make charcuterie products. The goal was not just to create food items for us and our fellow students to consume, although that was one part of the exercise, the other objective was to teach us about food costs and about how to use every part of the animal to avoid waste and to be resourceful in planning menus so as to include every scrap of everything that we buy for our businesses, as much as is possible. This lesson is a fundamental part of the professional course, as is butchery. You can’t opt out of doing it, as you might have been able to do with dissecting that frog in high school biology.

Chef Phil preparing calf's liver for cookingOur chef teaching us how to prepare calf’s liver

Offal day.

If I had to pick a least favorite day during my entire time in culinary school, this one from Level 2 would be it. I didn’t grow up eating these animal parts, and I’ve never really enjoyed consuming them. I’m sure it’s also not high on other people’s lists, either. How to prepare offal (liver, kidney, etc.) is an important skill to have, I feel. During Level 4, when working with the pig and preparing for the class buffet, your group might choose to have pâté, liver mousses, or similar dishes on their menu. This lesson will come in handy then.

Schedule for schoolSome of my program deadlines

Hopefully, this gave you some more of an idea of what being a culinary student is like. I feel as though there are quite a few articles about whether or not you should go to culinary school and what the outcome might be, but very few that talk about the experience of being a student, of pulling yourself up and getting into that kitchen night after night, day after day no matter how trying or deflating the previous lesson has been. I would have wanted to have had the opportunity to do a post every evening or every week when I was in school to give a more detailed picture of what it is like to go through the program, but, then, I was kind of busy trying to keep my head above water during my lessons, preparing for exams, getting hands-on experience, and doing laundry to keep my uniforms as clean as they could be. I feel like I did a lot of laundry when I was a student.

Buon appetito!

Articles in this series:

“Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 1”

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

“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 – Finishing Up”

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

“Graduation Day for the International Culinary Center”

Should You Go To Culinary School? Part 1

A-quiet-kitchenA quiet kitchen

To be very clear from the start, I have no idea, no opinion, about whether or not YOU, personally, should make the choice to go to culinary school. I know that there was this article recently on Eater as well as a supplemental piece by David Chang (who attended the same school as I did) with some of his thoughts on the topic. If you search around the web, there’s also other posts about this subject. Many articles about culinary school talk about what happens after you’ve finished, how competitive and brutal working in a professional kitchen can be, the burn-out and self-destructive behavior that the industry breeds, and how little you make (especially in relation to other professions and how big the fees are for attending school).

School bagSchool bag – get used to toting this around

What happens before that? What makes people want to go to culinary school in the first place? School itself, as much as I enjoyed the experience, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park or as easy as just doing recipes and writing posts about them for websites. There was lots of sweat, some bloodshed, tears, frustration, anger, self-doubt, anxiety, and inner turmoil…and all that might have even been on a good day in the kitchen. It was one year ago today that I walked into the Level 2* kitchen at the International Culinary Center to begin my life as a student in their evening Classic Culinary Arts Program. Even now, as I type those words, a bit of a thrill goes through my chest, as I remember exactly how intimidating it felt to embark on what would be a busy, crazy, chaotic 8-month ride that culminated in our graduation ceremony at Carnegie Hall in April of this year.

Chef hatDo you want to wear this hat?

Sometimes, when I’ve spoken to people who have wanted to pick my brain about this topic, to see if it is a path that they should be thinking about pursuing, I’ve seen the stars in their eyes about being in culinary school. I don’t know if this is because of the portrayal of cooking on television shows, the cachet that is attached to winning food competitions, or some of the glamor that being a top-rated chef evokes. Or, it could simply just be that somehow culinary is considered to be a choice career these days, miles away from the mundane life of working in a cubicle for some large corporation. Cooking has its tedious moments, too, make no mistake about it. For the desk-jockeys among you, also realize that this is a physically demanding profession, and that starts from the time you walk into that first classroom kitchen.

New Uniforms!These uniforms will never look this clean again

Throughout my journey over the last year-plus, I posted articles on this website about the different levels of the program I attended at the International Culinary Center. I also added stories (and lots of food photos) about doing kitchen assisting work for various visiting chefs, helping out at demonstrations, and volunteering at food events to get a wide range of experience in working with different people and exposure to cooking styles. Below, you’ll find a compilation of these links, which I hope will give you a peek into what the life of a culinary student is like. Unfortunately, there are gaps in my posts, so not all levels of the program are described, as the demands of school and getting hands-on training outweighed putting content up on this site. I’ve included links below to those posts relating to my culinary school adventures as well as to the articles in this series “Should You Go To Culinary School?

Buon appetito!

Articles in this series:

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

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

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

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

Not entirely convinced that I should pursue the professional program for reasons of time+money as well as whether or not it was the best choice for me career-wise, I enrolled in the intensive Culinary Techniques course at the ICC and then bridged into the Classic Culinary Arts Program in Level 2 by taking a placement exam that reflected the material we’d gone through in the amateur course, which covered the same culinary skills development as students do in Level 1 in the professional program, plus some additional material. Several graduates a year take this same path. I highly, highly, highly recommend looking at the Culinary Techniques course if you would like to upgrade your culinary skills and to learn how to tackle the fundamental building blocks of classic cuisine and if you are even the slightest bit uncertain about making the investment to pursue the professional program. You might find out that this is the level of culinary education you need to achieve your goals.

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 – Finishing Up”

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

“Graduation Day for the International Culinary Center”

Articles about volunteering:

“Meatopia 2012”

“Mamma Agata Cooking School at The International Culinary Center”

“New York Culinary Experience 2013 at The International Culinary Center”

Reflections on Big Summer Potluck 2013 – BSP4

Checking-in-for-BSP4Checking in at BSP4

Having attended last year’s Big Summer Potluck for the first time and having gained so much inspiration, motivation, and insight, I knew that this was a food blogger event that I wanted to put on my calendar for this year.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to commit to going to it back in February when the tickets were on sale as I was still in culinary school.  I put my name on the waitlist, and a ticket came up a few weeks ago.  I went on line and secured my place lickety-split.

BSP4 - Heading to the Anderson HouseHeading to Friday night’s potluck dinner – it’s kind of like summer camp!

The overall theme of the weekend, is Food, Inspiration, and Community.  Like last year, there were plenty of all of those things to go around with a group of energetic, eager food bloggers all assembled to share their experiences.  This year’s specific theme was Invest in Yourself.  As the program description put it: “When you invest in yourself, you not only move forward but you also put yourself in a position to invest in others, invest in the community.”  Having spent the past year, investing in my culinary education and getting ready to spend more time and energy moving my career from simply writing about food to making more of it, and hopefully even teaching about it, this topic had particular relevance for me.

Jessamyn Rodriguez of Hot Bread Kitchen telling their storyJessamyn Rodriguez – Founder of Hot Bread Kitchen

All of the weekend’s speakers shared their experiences with us.  They brought up their initial inspiration, their starting steps to realize their dreams, their professional setbacks, their course corrections, and their successes. From Jessamyn Rodriguez of Hot Bread Kitchen, we heard how this amazing, incredible business incubator for immigrant women came into being.  Their program has launched several new enterprises and allowed many women (and men) to support their families.  I’ve long been a fan of their delicious breads and have used them in several of my recipes.

HBK - demonstrating making tortillasTortilla-making demonstration by Hot Bread Kitchen*

“In 2006, I decided to invest in myself,” Jessamyn started off her story.  She was working fulltime when she decided she wanted to know about making bread.  She pursued a baking certificate at The New School and then took on an apprenticeship at Daniel, where she was taken under the wing of the head baker to learn the craft.  This lead her to think about using bread to create an organization that could help women to create their own businesses.  In order to get it off of the ground, she said it was about prioritizing, “about putting resources in the right places.”

Hot Bread Kitchen display Hot Bread Kitchen display

Her three key pieces of advice were:

    1. Trust your intuition – that crazy idea that you might have or that slip of the tongue
    2. Take a risk and go BIG – this isn’t necessarily logical; the best entrepreneurs are scrappiest and sneakiest
    3. Let your successes propel you – “successes have to be more powerful than failures”; “take successes at 10 times the value of failures”; you have to glom onto your successes and to believe in your idea

Jessamyn counseled us, “You’re not in it with both feet, until you are in it with both feet.”

Chris from The Peche introducing Jeni Britton-BauerChris from The Pêche introducing Jeni Britton-Bauer

Another entrepreneur who re-enforced what Jessamyn told us about being inspired, not losing sight of a vision, and about working through what might be perceived as failures to achieve success, was Jeni Britton-Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.  She talked about her passion for making ice cream and how, initially, that drove her to produce the flavors that she wanted to, not necessarily what the customer might want to buy from her: “I had to fail miserably to find out about [that].”  In the end, though, acknowledging this fact has made her a better ice cream-maker and has made her business stronger.

J-Bar from Jeni's Ice CreamJ-Bar from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

Jeni “thinks of every project as a train I’m on,” she told us.  Some of them have already reached their destinations, some have crashed and burned (the failures), and some have yet to arrive at their destinations.  There’s 1,000 failures for everything that works, she added.  Why did she continue? she was asked.  “Because I didn’t want to do anything else,” she replied.  I’m not sure about the times that things didn’t work, but the J-Bars that we had for our afternoon break were delicious.  That’s enough to be very inspired!

Joe Yonan telling his storyJoe Yonan telling his story

Our last key speaker of the day was Joe Yonan of The Washington Post, my hometown paper, talking about “Reassessing the Dream.”  I always love when Joe is speaking at a conference, as he has such wonderful insights into food and the state of food writing (I mean, really, who can forget his comment about someone doing a book called “the 50 shades of grey Maldon Sea Salt” from The Cookbook Conference.).  He talked about being “in need of a major change of scenery” a few years ago, after going through layoffs at The Post, the sale by the owners of the land on which he’d had his community garden plot, and the death of his beloved dog.  He negotiated with his bosses and ended up spending a year in Maine, staying with his sister and brother-in-law on their farm, where they try to raise as much food as possible and to be as sustainable as possible.

Eat Your Vegetables by Joe YonanEat Your Vegetables by Joe Yonan

“This kind of thing isn’t just a fantasy, there are real consequences to the things that you do,” he cautioned us.  It might sound appealing just to run away for a while and to have some other life (even I feel like doing that now and again), but he had to organize his leave of absence from his job, sublet his apartment, and sort out how to make money in the meantime.  He was there to contribute to the running of the farm and to be engaged in that life, about which he had hoped to write a book.  The one he did write (shown in the photo above) covers just a small part of what happened to him while living on the farm; he also took away some valuable insights.

Kimchi Deviled Egg with Poblano Tapenade

Kimchi Deviled Egg – my new favorite food – and Poblano Tapenade from Joe Yonan’s new book with Hot Bread Kitchen Lavash Crackers

He told us, “I learned more than I ever could have imagined about growing food.”  More importantly, he said, he learned about “uni-tasking,” something that is more and more foreign to us in the fast-paced, overly-stimulated environment in which we usually function.  He shared with us that even now that he’s back working in Washington, DC at the paper, he’s still “reassessing the dream that we talked about” and learning the lessons from that year.  He doesn’t know how the experience will affect him in the long run; he’s also not sure that he really needs to know that – yet.

Mango Queen - Filipino BBQ Pork SkewerFilipino Pork BBQ Skewers by Mango Queen

As others will mention in their own write-ups, a weekend at The Big Summer Potluck is not an easy thing to summarize in a quick post.  There’s the new friendships that are made, the people whom you connect with whom you’ve only “met” previously on social media or via their blogs, the advice and insights shared by the featured presenters, the delicious food and new recipes to discover from all the dishes that everyone has contributed (yes, it really is a potluck), and the swag bag contents to explore using.  This year, in particular, with all the changes and investments that have been going on in my life, my finally pursuing a long-held dream of attending culinary school, and in changing my career to one working in food, the tidbits and life lessons from the speakers are ones that I hope to take away and incorporate as I continue to pursue my own dreams.

Buon appetito!

*According to Mexican legend – if you can get your tortillas to puff when you cook them, you are ready for marriage.  I’m so going to practice doing that before BSP5 next year!

Graduation Day for the International Culinary Center

International Culinary Center 2013 graduation program

Yesterday afternoon, several hundred recent graduates of the International Culinary Center, including me and my classmates gathered at Carnegie Hall to celebrate finishing up our culinary studies program.  This was also a chance to recognize those chef-instructors who helped guide us in our education and to hear some words of wisdom from one of America’s leading chefs, Thomas Keller.  It was definitely the one of the most lively and jubilant graduation ceremonies I’ve ever attended, which includes three of my own plus numerous ones I’ve been to for my siblings.

Graduates hanging out before the ceremony

From the minute I walked up to Carnegie Hall and ran into several of my classmates getting ready for the day’s events, you could feel that there was a hint of excitement in the air.  We all had to arrive at the backstage entrance, most of us pausing just to hang out for a bit, enjoying the sunny weather while getting our uniform jackets on and taking a last drag on cigarettes before going inside.  Several of our instructors passed by, shaking our hands and offering congratulations.  I saw Chef Jacques Pépin, one of the deans of the school, slip into the entrance unobserved so that he could be ready for the ceremony on time, too.

Waiting to file into the auditorium

After months and months of a hard slog of lessons, exams, practical evaluations, internships, part-time jobs, and personal sacrifice, it was time to enjoy having finished and to share some of that positive energy with our families and fellow former students.  It was also a chance to re-connect with students who had been in other classes with whom we’d become friends and are now professional colleagues.  The pre-ceremony logistics, which included herding us into a holding room before we could file into the auditorium, was like a giant reunion.  There were class photos taken, stories swapped about current work assignments, and lots and lots of hugs, high-fives, back slaps, and big smiles all around, as everyone waited to be seated for the ceremony.

The stage at graduation

Once we had filed into our rows, separated by program of study, we waited for the ceremony to begin.  The collection of culinary talent on that one stage was phenomenal.  The guest speaker was Chef Thomas Keller.  The school deans André Soltner, Jacques Pépin, Alain Sailhac, José Andrés, Cesare Casella, Jacques Torres, Emily Luchetti, Alan Richman, and Scott Carney were all there to celebrate with us and to show their support for our fledgling careers.  To kick off the program, one of them started clapping, rousing the audience to join in the festive air and adding a touch of impishness to the proceedings.

Recognizing our chef-instructors

The day was also about acknowledging our chef-instructors, too, and all of their hard work and commitment to helping us make it through the program.  Through their diligence, encouragement, and discipline, they guided us through the stages of our curriculum, helping us to understand the levels of technique and coaching us towards greater consistency and perfection in our work.  Their experience and advice helped to mold us as student chefs as well as to instill in us the desire to want to achieve more in the kitchen and to strive to attain excellence in our culinary efforts.  Although I learned a tremendous amount from all of my instructors, most of all, I gained a profound sense that this is a profession where you keep on learning each and every day and that all chefs no matter what their range of experience realize that there is always more room for personal growth.

Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop accepting the Outstanding Restaurant Award on behalf of Michael Chernow

Introductory speeches and welcoming remarks were given by the school’s Executive Vice President Christopher Papagni and the Founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton.  Then, we each walked across the stage as our name was called, the best student in each class formally recognized as their name was said.  We filed across by group: Pastry, Culinary, Italian Studies, Sommelier Studies.  Then, the Outstanding Alumni Awards were given out.  It was so fantastic to see Jen King and Liz Gutman of Liddabit Sweets (both pastry program alumnae) receive the Outstanding Entrepreneurship award in recognition for all their hard work (we definitely could also have used some of their caramels to munch on during the ceremony, too).  Another favorite of mine, The Meatball Shop, received the Outstanding Restaurant Management award given to co-founder Michael Chernow, a culinary program alumnus.

Chef Thomas Keller speaking to the graduates

After the alumni awards were given out, the keynote speaker Chef Thomas Keller took the podium.  Here’s some of what he said to us, to inspire us on our paths to our new careers and to impart to us some of his knowledge based upon his amazing experience:

“You’ve all worked hard to get here. I don’t think any of you thinks it will get easier.”

“Be patient and hone your skills. Be patient and enjoy where you are.”

“For me inspiration is the key. For inspiration to strike, we have to be aware of the world around us.”

“Creativity is about awareness. Embrace the inspiration around you.”

“We must teach and mentor the next generation.”

Graduation at Carnegie HallCongratulations to everyone!

Then, after a few more remarks to close the ceremony, it was time for us to leave, to take all that we’d studied and absorbed through the days and evenings behind the stoves in the school’s kitchens and join our families to continue celebrating our achievements.  Congratulations to all my fellow International Culinary Center graduates!  I wish you every success in your careers and look forward to raising a glass to many, many more of our professional achievements!

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – I Passed My Final Exam!

Packed up for one last night at school

It’s been such a sad, disheartening few days in the media.  When I arrived on Monday evening at the International Culinary Center for my last class in Level 6, I found out about the bombings in Boston as I was in the locker room changing for class.  My heart dropped.  My mind went immediately to the friends who live there, hoping that they were all safe (at this point, I think that none of them were even there at the race).  So, I did want to send out some positive news to counterbalance all the bad stuff that has been happening.

DiplomaYes, it is real!  Grande Diplôme in Classic Culinary Arts with Distinction (Honors Class)

On Wednesday evening, I passed my final exams for culinary school!  My fellow classmates did as well, too, which was fabulous, as we’d all been working so hard these past nine months, including taking extra shifts in the kitchen to gain more proficiency with the recipes on which we’d be tested.  Of course, we went out and celebrated, although we’ll also be celebrating again in a couple of weekends at our official graduation ceremony at Carnegie Hall, along with several other classes of graduates from 2012-2013 in the Culinary, Pastry, and Wine programs.  I have so much more to write and to share about my experiences in this program, but for now, I just wanted to post about some good news.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Finishing up

How many do I have to wash to get through my exams?

It’s looming large now, my final exam in culinary school at the International Culinary Center.  It’s so close, that I can count down towards it in terms of loads of laundry that I need to do in order to have at least one clean uniform available for exam day.  I’ve strategized just how much more industrial-strength stain remover I need to have on hand to wash everything and how much money to put on my laundry card to carry me through to the big day.

All this material is in my head someplace

Since taking the Culinary Techniques course there last summer and then making the decision to take the placement exam to pursue the professional Classic Culinary Arts program, it has been a wild ride.  Some of it has been great – like the thrill at passing my mid-term examination with high marks – and some of it has been frustrating – constantly being told I’m too slow by my chefs.  In some ways, it has been more challenging than all of my previous educational endeavors combined.  That includes getting my Master’s Degree from the top school in my field and having to take oral examinations in order to get my M.A. (twenty minutes being quizzed by two examiners to determine passing or failing at the end of two years of study, oh, and a separate language proficiency exam on top of that to boot).

Will I make it through to earn this?

On Wednesday night last week, before we hit the kitchen at L’Ecole for class session, our group assembled with our chef instructors for our official class photo.  It will hang someplace on a wall along with the photos of countless other classes of shiny, new ambitious culinary school graduates from our program.  In touring the school, you can still see pictures of the first graduating class, which included Bobby Flay.  How cool is that?  Who will be the next Bobby Flay, Christina Tosi, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, or Lee Anne Wong among us?  There’s some pretty serious talent among my classmates so I’ll be curious to see how our careers evolve.

This one was kind of a big boo-boo

I have in mind to write a few other posts about what it is like to be in culinary school, really.  It’s complicated, and I have such mixed emotions being almost at the end of it all.  There’s so much to say good, bad, ugly (some of that in the dishes that I plated), happy, sad, really a bit of everything.  Along the way, there have been cuts, burns, mystery scrapes, stained uniforms (how am I going to get that out of my jacket?), and lots and lots of food.  Three evenings a week for five hours each class night plus lots of volunteering and taking on extra kitchen shifts for practice and to refine my skills (and to work on that little timing/speed problem that still haunts me) have meant lots of missed drinks dates, uncelebrated birthdays, canceled plans, and late nights / early mornings.  Would I change it?  Would I do it again?   I’ll let you know when I pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!