Category Archives: Culinary School

Mini Apricota Crostata (Crostatini)

Crostate on plateCrostate on Plate

Even though I’ve cooked most of my life and have made many different dishes for varied meals and occasions, putting food together for a party for a friend to mark a special event in his or her life is still a special treat.  I always want everything to turn out perfect, even more perfectly than when I make things for work.  Today was one of those days.  Because the friend for whom this party was happening is someone I know from my time living in Italy, these Mini Apricot Crostate (Crostatini in Italian) seemed like the perfect thing to bring to it.

Apricot JamApricot Jam

They are a modified version of this larger Apricot Crostata with Almonds merged with this Mixed Berry Crostata.  The dough comes from the latter recipe, as does the technique for building the lattice top.  The apricot jam filling is taken from the former recipe.  Because these are really just tiny bites, I didn’t sprinkle the slivered almonds on top of them.  Instead, I ground up the almonds in the food processor and incorporated them into the dough to give it that lift.

Cutting out dough circlesCutting out dough circles

To get the shape of these crostatini, I borrowed a few techniques from working the Pastry Station during my culinary school days.  This dough, in particular, is more sugar and butter-based, which makes it fragile and even a bit temperamental to work with, especially with it being as humid as it has been these past few days.  One way around this is to roll the dough out between layers of parchment paper to about 2-3 cm in width, and then place it in the freezer for a few minutes (around 5-10).  Once it is chilled, it is easier to punch out circles for the base of the tart and then, working quickly, to place those circles into the baking pan.

Dough base in panDough base in pan

This mini tart pan is by Nordic Ware.  I had it for many years before I figured how to make it work for making bite-sized desserts, which I need to do for catering gigs.  By taking the step of rolling out the dough and cutting the circles while the dough is chilled, you’ll have more consistently-sized crostatini.  For this project, I used a 2-inch round cutter.

Bases filled with jamBases filled with jam

The uncooked bases are filled with the Apricot Jam.  It just takes about a tablespoon of it to fill the whole crostatino.  One trick is that the jam should not be too liquidy, which will just soak the base and make it more difficult for the base to cook through.

Dough in LatticeA piece of the lattice

Working with the dough to make the lattice top is also a bit tricky and labor-intensive.  It is helpful if the dough is bit chilled and if there’s minimal humidity in the air.  The lattice pieces are rolled out into long, thin strips and then layered on top of the jam to make the top to the crostatini.

Close up of prepped crostataPrepped crostatino

If the lattice breaks, you can try to stick the pieces back together or just leave them for a more rustic look.  This step is a bit fiddly, but as you can see from the first photo, the results are quite pretty and really do honor the spirit of a full-sized crostata.

Cooked crostataBaked crostatini

This level of detail was also admired by the my friend and the other guests at the party.  When plated up, they really did mimic the look and feel (and taste) of the larger-sized version.  This was an experiment to see if I actually could replicate this Italian snack-time treat.  I’m very happy with the results and looking forward to another opportunity to make these.

Buon appetito!

Chef Antoine Schaefer of Ferrandi Paris at the International Culinary Center

Dorothy Cann Hamilton introduces Antoine SchaeferICC Founder Dorothy Cann Hamilton with Chef Antoine Schaefer

Last week, in the middle of everything else going on with the start of catering season, I managed to have a free afternoon to catch a chef demonstration at my alma mater, the International Culinary Center.  This one was led by Chef Antoine Schaefer of FERRANDI, a culinary training school in Paris upon which the original French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center) was modeled.  He is also the original chef-instructor at FCI and helped to design the program with the school’s founder Dorothy Cann Hamilton.

Arriving  several minutes after the demo had started, I slipped into my seat in the auditorium.  I’d thought that this would be the usual show of a few signature dishes being recreated and plated, with samples for us to munch on during the talk.  What I experienced instead was another view as to why great chefs are just that.  The food was colorful and delicious with the plating taking the experience to another level, as the photos below show.  It was the kind of talk that I find inspiring and one that makes me want to strive to do better in my own work.

Plating towerPlating Tower

Glasses filled with colored liquid support glass plates.  Various microgreens act as a “garden” around the display.

Plating with cut-out vegetablesFirst Course Plating

Vegetables cut out as “Air and Sea” served with beet spheres, foie gras in cucumber pyramids, carrot purée with shrimp, and a savory tuile with a chive-goat cheese cream.

Mondrian-esque tuna with vegetablesTuna and Vegetables displayed as Mondrian-esque Design

Tuna cooked two ways – as a tartare and seared – garnished with microgreens and plated in random formation with sliced, blanched vegetables laid out à la a Mondrian painting.

Vegetables and Tuna two waysTuna and Vegetables plated in a design inspired by Mondrian

A larger version of the plating in the first photo. Dessert TrayDessert Plating

Mango and passionfruit purée with raspberry coulis served with raspberry cream-filled choux pastry covered with a matcha paste topped with raspberry gelée alongside of a miso caramel sauce and dusted with matcha powder.

Final platesAnother view of the final plates

Buon appetito!

A Holiday Gift List: Chef Version

Rock Center TreeThe Rockefeller Center holiday tree – photo taken after getting off a a gig working a tree lighting party

For the past several years, I’ve combed the markets, trekking to most of the holiday ones in the city to look for unique food-themed gifts to suggest to folks for their loved ones for the season. This year, I’ve worked my first busy season as a chef, balancing daytime shifts as a prep cook in a catering kitchen and evenings working as an events chef for large and small parties and dinners. I’ve been spending lots of hours on my feet, in front of stoves and convection ovens (some of them portable ones), and many hours playing everyone’s favorite games: “can I fit just one more sheet tray on the already-packed speedrack in the walk-in” and “how can I crawl into the back of the walk-in to get the 1/2 dozen eggs that I need without breaking any of them or having something fall on my head.” Yeah, it’s been crazy lately, but I’m actually loving (almost) every minute of it (getting a nice, big, new sheet tray burn on my arm last week wasn’t so much fun).

Burn on armBurns – the not-fun part of kitchen work

I have been getting home just in time to clean out my uniforms and chef’s jackets from one day’s gigs and swapping them out with clean ones for the next day, pass out, get up, make and drink coffee #1 of the morning, shower, and head out for another 16- (or so) hour day. It’s a different kind of energy in the kitchen from when I worked in banking. Then, I could barely muster enough strength to make it to Midtown for 7:00 a.m. conference calls once a month. Now, I am in the kitchen at 7:00 a.m. almost every day, checking in with the lead chef on  the day’s prep list and what my tasks are on it, and moving through everything as quickly as I can. I know the bus schedule by heart and can time the MTA drivers’ arrival (M96, you’re almost bang on time every day, almost, except for when you really screw up.).

Leckerlee gift containerThe only holiday gift I’ve bought this season

This year, I haven’t made it to any holiday markets except for the Columbus Circle one, which I stopped by on the way home after working a 12.5-hour, triple shift day (prep plus two events), and I just happened to be in the neighborhood. I passed by the stand for Leckerlee and Sandy Lee’s fantastic, seasonal (really), Lebkuchen. She’s super terrific and her product just captures all the warmth and flavors and feel of European holiday markets, which I really miss (mostly because walking around with a crêpe in one hand and mulled wine in another has got to be one of the best things in the world to do at this time of year). She also now has these lovely holiday tins and makes her creations in a mini-version, which would make the perfect hostess gift. Add in some (spiked) eggnog, and you would kick off the celebrations on a very good note.

Tree on sidewalkHoliday tree seen on my way home from work one day

So, with this crazy, hectic time of the year in mind, here’s my real holiday gift list for my fellow food industry professionals and busy-season culinary elves:

1.  Sleep

Everyone is running a little short of this these days.  (Even though this conflicts somewhat with accomplishing #6.)

2.  A chance to sit down at some point during the day

I snarfed family meal standing up one day and didn’t even get anything on another couple of days. There are also days when I get on the bus or subway to go home and realize that I haven’t really sat down in 12 or so hours.

3.  A walk-in that actually holds all of my prep work so that I can see it all in one place and find things

See above. I’m not joking about this. The freezer is even more packed. Drives me crazy when I know I made a couple of hundred mini crabcakes and then someone comes to me during the hectic few minutes we are packing everything out to go to an event and says that they can’t find them.

4.  Ample prep space for everyone to work

I was putting together mini-burgers on sheet trays balanced on the top of hot boxes last week, as we’d maxed out on our prep space.

5.  New music for the prep kitchen.

After hearing the same playlists day-in, day-out for the past several months, it is getting really old. How come no one lets me put my iPod in the speakers?  (although I’m not sure that the guys will get into Dee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” or the B-52s or The Clash or The Jam as much as I would.)

6.  Adequate power source to prepare food for service

Another no joking item. I worked a gig in the past couple of weeks where I blew out the fuses as the organizer hadn’t figured the power set-up out for us to set up the equipment to get the food heated in time to serve it. At another gig, I had to plug in ovens on opposite sides of the room to avoid blowing the power.  Please figure this out before you ask me to cook someplace; it’s not fair to the chef or, more importantly, to the client and their guests who just want to have some food.

7.  My own personal knife sharpener

No, really, I want someone who can expertly sharpen my knives on call when I need them done, which seems to be just about every other day lately. Oh, and said person has to be able to work between midnight and 5:00 a.m., which is when I’m sleeping, and to return them to me in time for me to work the next day.  Or maybe what I need is a Knife Kit Genie who can sharpen my knives, clean out my knife kit, and organize everything in its proper place for the next time I need it.

8.  New kitchen clogs

O.K., this might be just for me, but I really need new clogs at this point, as I realized only after standing for so many hours back-to-back recently to return home with aching knees. My old ones are completely shot at this point. Maybe I could use them as gardening clogs if I had a garden or was more adept at trying to keep even houseplants alive.

9.  A way that I can be in two places at the same time 

I’ve been pulling extra prep kitchen shifts while fielding calls to pick up gigs as an events chef, which I’ve had to turn down, as I was already booked. I still haven’t figured out how to clone myself to take on all that extra work. It really hurts to pass that up, especially as it will slow down after this month.

10.  A couple of days off to spend time with my friends

I feel like all of my relationships are on life support these days, and heaven knows when I’m supposed to get holiday cards and shopping done this year. I don’t even have time to do my fallback of making cookies or toffee. The number of times that I’ve cancelled on folks because I am too tired to be coherent is reaching a new record. Make a few days off back-to-back, and I might even be able to file all of my paperwork and get my recipe notes organized.

And, most of all, a very prosperous, safe, accidental fire-free, burn-free, and delicious 2014 for everyone!

Disclaimer: I wrote this in about 15 minutes after pulling another 60-70 hour week and the day after working a second double in about as many days and going in on my day off to work in the prep kitchen, so it might sound a bit loopy and disjointed.  I’d finally managed to get a full night’s sleep last night for the first time in two weeks.  I plan to sleep a lot when I’m at my parents’ house over Christmas, that is if my two little nephews let me do that.

Buon appetito!

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

KB in chef's whitesMe, in my student uniform, on the very first day of my Culinary Techniques course

This week, as the one-year anniversary of my enrolling in the professional Classic Culinary Arts program at the International Culinary Center occurred, I put together some of my thoughts and takeaways from my time spent as a culinary school student. These posts grew out of several conversations I’ve had with people who have approached me about my experiences and insights as they consider pursuing this step in their careers. Someone else actually told me that I should write a book about my experiences. I’m not sure about that! My hope is that this information might be useful to anyone exploring the possibility of a more formal education, rather than just going straight into a restaurant kitchen, as a way to enter a career working with food. Here’s some more (hopefully) helpful hints that I picked up about being a culinary school student.

KnivesThe Culinary Student Starter Kit – you will add to it

Take care of your equipment. Keep track of it and label everything in it.

This is your knife kit, the arsenal that will carry you through your classes and your practical exams. Take care of it. You know what? All of your classmates and all of the other students in your program have the same set of utensils in the same carrying case. Label your knives and your kit. If you leave it someplace or forget to lock it up in your locker (this does happen, believe me), it makes it easier to return it to you if you’ve put your name, address, and phone number on it.

suppliesBack to school supplies

Add notebooks, pens, highlighters, and index cards to your equipment list, too.

Remember this is school. There will be exams, quizzes, books, papers, projects, etc. just like in a regular academic setting. Your chefs might also require you to keep your recipes on notecards rather than to bring your books into the kitchen each class. A small notebook and a pen will also be helpful to have in your pocket to jot down hints and tips for how to get those instructions on how to prepare the dishes that you have to replicate for the chef.

Sharpies & Cake TestersCake testers and Sharpies – stock up on these

Add cake testers and Sharpies to your culinary equipment list.

While your school-issued knife kit has most of your classroom needs, you’ll find that there’s a few other small things you’ll need to pick up here and there. Sharpies are invaluable for all the labeling you’ll need to do for that pasta dough you just made and put in the fridge to rest, the mise en place you prepped for the night’s service, and the terrine that the chef just asked you to let set overnight in the walk-in, where every other class stores their supplies. I seemed to be the human Sharpie dispenser in my class, as I went through lots of them when they were “borrowed” by my classmates. Ditto cake testers, which you can use to check the doneness of vegetables and other cooked items, as well. I swear I went through piles of cake testers. I should have bought a bright pink “Hello Kitty” one for class, that way none of the guys would have “forgotten” to return it to me.

BandagesYou might want to keep a stash of these on hand, too

Take good care of yourself.

As I said in a previous post, kitchen work is physically demanding. Having a solid pair of kitchen shoes is immensely helpful for your feet, knees, back, and overall body frame. I had to buy new ones 2/3 of the way through my program, as I was experiencing issues with my knees. It totally did the trick. I saw other students use knee braces and insoles to give them support along the way. As for those cuts, burns, and bruises that I mentioned, too. You’ll want to make sure that your medicine cabinet is well-stocked to help you take care of those wounds so that they heal quickly and don’t get infected.

Hairbands photoStock up on these – you will need plenty of them

There are few good hair days.

It doesn’t matter how much you spent on getting your hair done or how much you like rocking that cute new ‘do. Most days, your hair will be up in a bun or ponytail, shoved as best you can get it into your student chef’s hat (or whatever headgear you are required to wear). This applies to both long-haired men and women. When you take it down at the end of class or your work shift, it won’t look that much better, at least if you have really curly hair like I do. Good side – that chef’s hat can cover up the frizziest, messiest moptop on those days where your hair didn’t start out looking its best anyway.

Laundry pileYou’ll be doing a lot of laundry

You might want to keep extra clean uniforms in your locker, as well as deodorant, handcream, and a hairbrush.

Your instructors will be serious about your adhering to the uniform requirements. More than once, a classmate was sent back to the locker rooms to get a hat or a scarf before getting started on the day’s lesson. I worked a lot of extra volunteer shifts as a student, so I went through clean uniforms at a pretty rapid pace. I always managed, somehow, to keep at least one whole back-up uniform in my locker at all times (and I’d purchased some extra clean jackets), which got me out of more than one jam. Having deodorant, handcream, and a hairbrush in my locker was also useful so that once I got out of class, I could clean myself up and reenter the real world without feeling too disheveled and smelly.

Water BottleThere’s a reason that you get one of these at Orientation

Don’t forget to hydrate.

Make sure that you drink plenty of water when you are in the kitchen. It is very easy to forget to do this and to get very dehydrated before you realize it. Remember, this is hot work with lots of sweat involved. You’re pushing yourself and your body to get through your prep in time, get your station organized, and have the plates ready to put before your chef for evaluation or to place on the pass for service. After taking one of my practicals, having cleaned everything up, and put my knives away, I asked one of the chefs if I could step out to get some cool water from the fountain in the hallway, as I realized that I’d barely taken a sip of anything during the past several hours and was starting to feel the effects of not having enough fluids in my system. “Go. You know how I hate to do paperwork,” he responded with a light tone. (I wasn’t really going to pass out on him, I hope he knew that.)

Cream-filled bomboloniThere’s generally great snacks at the demos, like this bomboloni from Jacques Torres

Attend the chef demonstrations, extra lectures and workshops, and career services office events.

I’m not just saying this as a former director of student affairs and career services for graduate students (one of my many former jobs), but also because participating in these activities gives an extra dimension to your culinary learning experience. It’s also a great way to network (see below). I know that if you are doing a culinary program part-time while working full-time this can be a challenge, but it is definitely worth it to see if you can fit these into your schedule. The additional lessons in butchery netted me a “very well-done” on my mid-term exam for how I trussed my chicken. That probably also gave me some extra points on my final test score, too. Also, where else are you going to see Jacques Pepin break and fix mayonnaise, hear the stories about the legendary Lutèce from André Soltner, and convince Jacques Torres that his famous hot chocolate would be a perfect addition to his croissant demo on a cold winter’s day?

Gathering beforehandAll these fellow grads are now in my professional network

Look around the room at Orientation, these are your new professional colleagues.

Why do you want to go to this particular culinary school? Is it because there are alumni who graduated from there whose career path you also hope to follow? Is it because you want to tap into its fantastic alumni network so that you can get jobs at certain restaurants? You know when that networking begins? Now. Your classmates are one of your first sets of career resources in the industry. The other students in the program are as well, too, even if they aren’t in your class. Get business cards made for yourself as soon as you start your study program. You’ll need them and will start collecting other people’s cards, too, so that you can begin to create your professional contact base.

Level 3 final - wishboneBest of luck in your studies!
(this wishbone is from the chicken I made for my mid-term exam)

Enjoy! Have fun! Embrace this time!

As I was out and about networking at different events and letting people know that I was in culinary school, I heard from more than a few people how they wished they could go back and have that opportunity to repeat those days. Sure, it’s fast-paced, intensive, and challenging, but it’s also filled with great food, access to great food products with which to work, and amazing instructors who want you to share their passion and enthusiasm for this field (see Part 2 of the series). I found that chefs were very open about wanting to train their successor generation in the culinary arts and that they really want you to succeed, if this is where your heart truly lies. As the Italians say, “In boca al lupo!

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 3 – My Own Journey

“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 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”

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”