Me, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
There’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?
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.
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!”
Articles in this series:
Articles by course level:
“Wild Mushroom Risotto (Risotto ai Funghi)” – about a dish we made in Level 2