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