Category Archives: Culinary School

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”

Bean Demonstration by Chef Cesare Casella at the International Culinary Center

Chef-Casella-explains-bean-cooking-techniquesChef Cesare Casella explains bean cooking techniques

On Tuesday, I took advantage of having a free afternoon to take in a culinary demonstration at the International Culinary Center given by Dean of Italian Studies Cesare Casella.  The topic was beans – how to cook them and some of the Italian dishes that you can make using them.  Along with tips as to how to cook beans perfectly, Chef Casella interwove his recipes with stories about growing up in Tuscany, where beans are a staple dish.  (Tuscans are sometimes referred to as mangiafagioli or “bean-eaters.”)

Plate of cooked beansPlate of cooked beans

To acclimate our tastebuds to how properly cooked beans should taste and feel, Chef Casella presented us each with a plate of cooked beans prepared without oil or salt to start the demonstration.  We had – moving counter clockwise from the right – chickpeas (ceci), fagioli toscanelli, corona beans, fagioli stregoni, fagioli del Papa (which have a chestnut-like flavor), and Italian cannellini beans.  Each of them were solid (i.e., not mushy) and tender to the bite with the skin also breaking down easily when chewed.  Bags of these beans can be found for sale on Chef Casella’s website dedicated to showcasing heirloom products from Italy.

Beans cookingBeans cooking away

“Cooking the beans is important,” he advised us.  Because of the chemicals in the water and its hardness, he prefers to use filtered or spring water when preparing beans.  Beans take time and care to cook properly, he instructed.  “The perfect way to cook the beans is for a very long time.”  Steps like soaking them, cleaning, them, and then cooking them slowly are key steps in the process.  After letting them soak in warm water for about half an hour, gently rub them together to release more dirt from them.  Then, drain them, and put them in a stockpot or Dutch oven.  Cover them with cold water, and let them soak for at least 6 hours (better overnight).  If it is warm outside, put the beans in the refrigerator to soak, so that they don’t ferment in the heat.  Drain the beans and put them in a pot and cover them with fresh, cold water.  Cook them in simmering water until they are done (times will vary depending upon the size of the beans).

Mise en place for demoSet up for the demonstration

Aside from the tip about the kind of water that he uses to cook his beans, another tidbit Chef Casella imparted to us is that he always makes a vegetable sachet to put into the cooking pot with the beans, just as his grandmother and mother did.  He puts together carrots, celery, onion, garlic, rosemary, and sage into a cheesecloth and includes it with the cooking liquid.  (The cheesecloth makes it easier to remove everything at the end of the cooking time without have to fish around for bits of vegetables and herbs.)  All the items should be cleaned, trimmed, and peeled in the case of the carrots and onions so that no dirt gets onto the beans and into the cooking liquid.  This combination of ingredients is based upon his own personal preference, he added, so you need to discover the mix that works best for your tastes.  The base, however, should be neutrally-flavored, not over-powering, which is why pepper isn’t usually included in the sachet.  He did also toss in a couple of pinches of salt, which he said is fine to do at the cooking stage.

Bean cooking liquidBean cooking liquid aka “Liquid Gold”

Never throw away the liquid in which the beans have been cooked, he told us.  This is “liquid gold,” and can be added to dishes for cooking or finishing them, as in the case of making farro risotto-style (farrotto) as he did during the demonstration (photo below).  He also said that it isn’t necessary to skim the top of the beans to remove the bubbling residue as they cook, as that also affects the final flavors.  One student in the audience asked about how to reduce gassiness that some folks have from eating beans.  Chef Casella said one method is to change the cooking water, but this has consequences for achieving their full flavor: “Less farty, you change the water; you want more flavor, you keep the water.”

Seven Bean SaladSeven Bean Salad

When it came time to taste the results of Chef Casella’s cooking, it was clear how this attention to detail and precise cooking methodology produced delicious and intensely flavorful results.  The Seven Bean Salad had the beans that we tasted in the opening exercise plus the addition of Tuscan lentils, which added a meaty, hearty note to the dish.  Beans are very starchy, he told us, so when making a salad like this one that uses olive oil with the beans, be prepared to add a lot of oil to the salad.  As we watched him pour a steady, green stream of oil over the beans, I wondered if it would taste really greasy at the end.  It didn’t at all.  As he promised, the oil was mostly absorbed into the beans, given them a lush texture.  The salad had a lightness and freshness that called out for a slab of grilled, freshly-baked Tuscan bread and a glass of local wine to round it out.

FarrottoFarrotto with cannellini beans

The next dish we tried, was a clear example of how using the bean cooking water helps to build the layers of flavor, taste, and texture on a plate.  Farro is a wonderful, nutty grain that can be used in many recipes.  In this one for farrotto, Chef Casella took the liquid in which the cannellini beans were cooked and added ladlefuls of it to the farro to develop a creamy, risotto-like texture.  The final dish, which we were given to taste, had a rich depth and levels of flavor to it with the al dente grains, tender beans, chunks of smoky bacon, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

Stewed Beans in Tomato SauceStewed Beans with Tomatoes

A traditional Tuscan dish of Stewed Beans with Tomatoes was the third plate that Chef Casella gave to us to try at the demonstration.  During the part of the talk about cooking methods, the chef had cautioned us about adding acidity to the water, as it would make the beans tough.  In this dish, the tomatoes are combined with the beans only after they are finished cooking, along with some of the liquid from the beans.

Chef Casella cooks beansChef Casella tending to a pot of beans

As I polished off my plate, sopping up the last of the tomatoe-y broth with a bit of bread, I was transported for a moment back to my travels in Italy.  I could almost have been at a long, communal table in an historic trattoria in Florence after having wandered around the cities tourist attractions, enjoying a meal with my friends, instead of sitting in a chair in the auditorium at the International Culinary Center.  This demonstration was very informative about the variety not just of the beans themselves but also their flexibility in preparation, which is what has made them such a staple in many cultures and cuisines.  It made me realize that I need to consider using them more often in my own cooking projects.

Buon appetito!

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!

International Culinary Center – Level 6 Working at L’Ecole

Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice CreamPatissier – Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream, Bourbon Jelly, and Cocoa Meringue

There’s just a little bit over a week left in Level 6 at the International Culinary Center.  Actually, I have just two more classes, and then the last day is when we take our final exam.  In Level 5, we started working in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant run by the school, preparing meals paid for and eaten by the general public.  I’ve fumbled quite a bit in both of these levels, but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount, and not just about restaurant cooking.

Patissier – Pumpkin Soufflé with Eggnog Sauce

Before the beginning of this level (as with Level 5) we were given pages of recipes that we’d be making during the class.  We were also given photos of what each of the completed dishes should look like before they are delivered to the tables.  As I mentioned in my previous post, each plate is given a once-over by our supervising chef before it leaves the kitchen.  The expediting chef (who relays orders from the waitstaff to the cooks) also double-checks them and wipes them clean of any stray sauce stains before they head out to the dining room.  To say there’s a little bit of pressure, even for us a students, to get it exactly perfect would be understating it just a little.

Poissonier – Scallops stuffed with Crayfish-Shrimp Mousseline on a bed of Sautéed Leeks and Sunchoke Purée

There’s the additional component for us in Level 6, as we rotate through the different stations as part of our lessons, that these recipes are the ones that we’ll be called upon to reproduce in our final exam at the end of the level.  Next week, we’ll be drawing slips of paper to see which two of the eight dishes that we’ve been making these past few weeks will be the ones that we have to prepare as we’ve been taught to do and to present before a panel of judges, who are chefs and will be our new peers in the culinary industry.  So the learning process at this stage is even more intense.  It is about honing technique and really absorbing all the information from our previous classes as well as the tips the instructors have been trying to instill in us as a culinary second nature.

Poissonier – Grilled Swordfish with Stir-fried Vegetables, Coconut Risotto Cake, and Ginger Beurre Blanc

This course level, I started off in Garde Manager (appetizers) and worked my way around through Poissonier (fish), Saucier (meat), and am finishing up in Patissier (pastry), which was were I started out in Level 5.  At each stage I feel like I’m really getting better with some aspects of this work, but I’m definitely still messing up on others.  Getting my speed up in this environment is still difficult for me.  I feel like (and I’m sure my instructors would concur) that I still second-guess my abilities and over-think the process.  I’ve been told that with time and with more experience working in kitchens this gets better.

Garde Manger – Fettuccine with Arugula Pesto, Shrimp, and Preserved Lemon

I’m still in awe of how much goes into working in a restaurant kitchen: the drive, the stamina, the reflexes, the massive expenditure of energy.  I keep being reminded of how everyone who has been in the industry for a while talks about how this work is “really a young person’s job.”  Seeing my much-younger classmates (truly, as most were born after I’d finished college) seemingly breeze through prep tasks and service without so much as breaking a sweat or becoming flustered, ever, I can’t help but agree with that assessment.  I watch our chef-instructors who just seem to handle pulling these dishes together as though it was just like breathing.  Sometimes, I feel more like a guppy gasping for air, as I work alongside them and some of my more talented classmates.

Garde Manger – Porcini Consommé with Butternut Squash, Seared Squab Breast, and Sage

At the same time, this experience, as part of the structure of a larger culinary education program, does help to tie together a lot of the various aspects of what we’ve been doing these past few months.  The dishes that we’ve been making build upon lessons that we had as far back as the beginning of the program.  The overall concepts and techniques and standards are reinforced every night we are in the kitchen.  My hope, now, is that I can remember all of what I’ve learned and reproduce these dishes to the standard to pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!