Tag Archives: International Culinary Center

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!

International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) 2014 at the International Culinary Center

IDIC 2014International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) 2014

Yesterday was the Seventh Edition of the International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) held, as in past years, at the International Culinary Center.  The IDIC is held each year on January 17th, the feast day of St. Anthony the Abbot, the patron saint of butchers, as we were told.  Held since 2008, this event recognizes Italian chefs around the globe who make their native cuisine and works to preserve authentic Italian dishes and culinary traditions.  This year’s dish is Spaghetti al Pomodoro (Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce).  As Rosario Scarpato, honorary president of GVCI (Virtual Group of Italian Chefs), explained, consumers are used to commercially-popular versions of Italian foods, but it is important for them to know the more traditional cuisine.

Chef Cesare Casella introduces the programmeChef Cesare Casella, Dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center, introducing the program

Although this year’s dish might seem very simple, being composed of spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes, salt, and basil, which was acknowledged at the opening of the day, Chef Cesare Casella reminded us we were there to learn about, “Simple dishes that are Italian food, made in the right way.”  He added, “The way we talk, the way we incorporate the ingredients – need to use the right ingredients from Italy.”  This emphasis on using the highest quality ingredients and putting the components together in just the right way so as to achieve maximum flavors is a cornerstone of Italian cooking, whether in fine dining or la cucina casalinga (home-style cooking).  Even though that might sound very easy, it can be a complicated thing to achieve and to master.  The three chefs who cooked for us yesterday each had his own rendition and method for making Spaghetti al Pomodoro, which resulted in three variations on this “simple” dish, each with different taste profiles.

Olive Oil tasting plateExtra Virgin Olive Oil tasting workshop

Prior to sampling the chefs’ plates, however, we participated in three workshops about some of the ingredients that go into making this dish.  The first one was about olive oil with a discussion by a representative from the Consozio Nazionale degli Olivicoltori (the group that works to represent olive growers and olive oil producers).  With a potential production of 100,000 tons of olive oil per year, this is a vast industry for the country.  This organization works to ensure traceability, food safety, and quality control for Italian olive oils, something that has become of increasing importance as olive oil production has grown globally.  We tried three varieties of Italian extra virgin olive oil from different regions of Italy, each with a distinctive characteristics and flavors, from a grassy and subtle-tasting oil from Calabria to a more pungent (stronger, spicier) one from Abruzzo.

Lou Di Palo talking about Grana PadanoLou Di Palo of Di Palo Selects talking about Grana Padano 

One “permitted” addition to Spaghetti al Pomodoro, we were told, would be to finish it off with a light dusting of Grana Padano cheese.  This nutty-tasting hard cheese from the north of Italy is a staple in many dishes due to its depth of flavor and adaptability.  When less mature, from 9 to 16 months of aging, the cheese has a more creamy profile and is perfect for melting, as with a risotto dish that Lou Di Palo of Di Palo Selects said he’d been served recently.  As the cheese continues to mature, the nuttier flavor becomes more pronounced, and it develops a crumblier texture, perfect for grating on pasta dishes.

Link with The President restaurant in PompeiiLink with President restaurant in Pompeii

Alessandra Rotondi, an Italian wine consultant, walked us through the checkered history of another ingredient that plays a key role in this dish – The Tomato.  She took us on the voyage of this fruit (yes, it was emphasized that a tomato is a fruit) from South America to Spain via Cortez and then back again to the New World.  Along the way, it was used as a decorative ornament, graced the pewter plates of the wealthy (where it gained its reputation as being toxic as it picked up traces of lead leached from the plates), to the gardens of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, and most recently as a food in dishes created by poorer Italians who then brought the recipes for using in a sauce with pasta to the United States.  We didn’t have any of the hanging tomatoes known as “piennolo” to sample at the event, but we were treated to the sight of them via a video link with President restaurant in Pompeii, home to the Vesuvian soil where these tomatoes grow.

Justin Smilie receiving Best New Italian Chef in NYC awardJustin Smilie of Il Buco Alimentari & VineriaBest Emerging Chef of Italian Cuisine in the USA

Before we could dig into plates of pasta, however, much as our appetites were growing with each of these workshops – and the fact that the folks at President were cooking up their own plates of Spaghetti al Pomodoro as we were watching them from our seats in the school’s auditorium – we had a little while longer to wait while the efforts of those who herald Italian cuisine here in New York were recognized and applauded.  Among those honored were Lou Di Palo for his and his family’s efforts at the promotion of Italian cuisine, culture, and ingredients.  Chef Justin Smilie of Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria was recognized as the Best Emerging Chef of Italian Cuisine in the USA.  A complete list of the awardees is here.

Chefs making pastaChefs making their pasta dishes

Then, finally, finally, it was time to watch the chefs prepare their versions of Spaghetti al Pomodoro. Those who were cooking for us yesterday were three chefs under the age of 35 who represent the new faces of Italian cuisine as recognized by the GVCI: Enrico Bartolini of Devero Ristorante in Milan; Matteo Bergamini of SD26 Restaurant in New York City; and Luca Signoretti of Roberto’s Restaurant in Dubai (left to right in the photo with Alessandra Rotondi as moderator for the tasting).  Here are photos of the final plates that they all created.

Enrico Bartolini - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Enrico Bartolini

Matteo Bergamini - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Matteo Bergamini

Luca Signoretti - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Luca Signoretti

Each chef, interestingly enough, used an olive oil from Sicily in his dish.  From there, they put together their own spin on the combination of garlic, tomatoes, salt, and basil (never with black pepper and oregano, as we were advised) along with durum wheat spaghetti.  Chef Bartolini added chopped garlic and red pepper flakes to the oil, par-cooked the pasta (it was still a bit rigid when it came out of the water), and then finished cooking it in the oil, which gave it a sheen and slightly spicy kick, along with some of the reserved tomato juice before adding tomato pulp.  Then, he added the tomatoes to the pasta.  Chef Bergamini infused his oil with cloves of garlic and then added the tomatoes before incorporating the pasta.  Chef Signoretti crushed his tomatoes before making the sauce and then after adding the pasta, grated Grana Padano on top of the dish while it was still in the pan to allow the cheese to melt into the sauce and to absorb some of the liquid so that it coated each strand of the pasta.  My favorite was the one by Chef Bergamini as every bite seemed to have a silken, tangy coating of the sauce on the spaghetti.  The herbacious notes of the basil (torn, not chopped, we were instructed) balanced out the acidity of the tomatoes and creaminess of the cheese.  I could have happily gone back for several more plates of this dish.

Rosario Scarpato introduces seminarsRosario Scarpato thanks everyone for attending IDIC 2014

After we’d cleaned off our plates, it was time to wrap up IDIC for 2014.  Rosario Scarpato, the event organizer, thanked everyone for coming to honor the achievements of the chefs and the others who help to promote Italian cuisine.  He also announced that the program would change slightly for 2015.  Instead of featuring Italian foods that are already well-known outside of Italy to work towards preserving their authenticity, the next year’s event would aim to recognize a dish that is less eaten outside of the country to promote some of the hidden culinary treasures of la cucina italiana.  I’ll be very interested to see what that will be.

Buon appetito!

Announcing scholarship in Marcella Hazan's nameAnnouncing the scholarship in Marcella Hazan’s name


At yesterday’s event, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, found of the International Culinary Center also announced a scholarship named after culinary instructor and cookbook author Marcella Hazan for someone wishing to enroll in their Italian Culinary Experience this spring.  The deadline for applications is March 7, 2014.

“Cooking from the Heart” with Chef John Besh at The International Culinary Center

Chef John Besh adding crab bodies to fish stewChef John Besh adding crab bodies to pan

“I thought today might be a good day to cook fish heads,” Chef John Besh announced as he kicked off his culinary demonstration on Thursday, Halloween Day, at the International Culinary Center to a room packed full of students from all the programs as well as a few alumni like me and a couple of my classmates.  Taking advantage of a day off from the catering kitchens where I usually work, I slid into a seat in the front row, anticipating some delicious treats and looking forward to stories and tips from this celebrated chef, who was in New York City with his team, touring and promoting his new cookbook “Cooking from the Heart,” which talks about his own personal journey and growth as a culinary professional.

Fish Soup w RouilleSoupe de Poissons (Fish Soup) with Rouille

Regaling us with stories of his own (and his chefs’) cooking exploits, Chef Besh walked us through not just the process of making a classic Provençale fish soup and how layers of flavor are built at each stage of the cooking process.  Seared crab bodies lend a subtle nuttiness to the finished product.  “Fish heads add a great viscosity to the soup.”  The soupe de poissons is also the base for a classic bouillabaisse, so a good flavor profile in the base is important to the final dish.  He added lots of saffron to the broth as well as other aromatics: “using dried herbs and spices work well with long, slow braises,” he advised.  To accompany the soup, Chef Besh whipped up a classic rouille, a mayonnaise with garlic and harissa and served it to us with toasted bread rounds.

Chef John Besh making rouilleChef Besh making rouille

He also talked to us about his own personal development in becoming a chef after attending culinary school.  “It was important to me to know the stories behind the food,” he explained.  This journey took him to Germany to the Black Forest region and to Provence in France.  At each step he worked with trained masters of their profession who challenged him, let him make mistakes and learn from them.  He also spent time with home cooks in those areas, too, capturing even more of the feel of the local cuisines.  These stories and the recipes that he developed from these lessons are captured in “Cooking from the Heart,” a copy of which we received at this demo.

Cooking from the Heart cookbookChef John Besh’s latest cookbook

It was very clear from the demo and the passion and delight that Chef Besh’s showed in his cooking on Thursday, that this is a very special book.  It’s a fond look back at the road that a bright, young culinary graduate took in order to become a chef, a recognition of all the people and places that have inspired him along the way.  This is a book that makes you just want to curl up on the couch, as I did, and read it as a piece of literature.  At the same time, the recipes are also inspiring and heart-warming, the terrines, soups, vegetable dishes, and desserts that capture useful techniques and terrific tastes and are rooted in the heritage of the countries in which he studied, and can also translate to meals on your table for family and friends.

Pear ClafoutisPear Clafoutis

We wrapped up the demo with a piece of a Pear Clafoutis, another classic dish, and a simple and tasty dessert that is very easy to make.  It’s super flexible as well, as Chef Besh explained, as it can be made using almost any seasonal fruit that you have available.  Throughout the demo, Chef Besh highlighted the efforts of his team of chefs and discussed how he sends them to get further training with some of the same chefs who taught him along the way.  Of course, he also ribbed them a bit as well for their own culinary exploits, including one of them who had dumped a whole vat of soup on a prominent chef.  He ended the demo by recognizing the folks who work with him, “There’s no way that I could do the work I do, have the life I have, without this team.”

Buon appetito!

Normally, at this point, I might offer this book as a giveaway item on this site, but I’m hanging onto this one, folks.  You should put it on your holiday gift book list, too.  

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”