Tag Archives: Cooking courses

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”

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”

New York Culinary Experience 2013 at the International Culinary Center

Creme Brulee at NYCECrème Brûlée at the New York Culinary Experience

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of assisting with several of the classes that were given as part of the New York Culinary Experience held at the International Culinary Center, as sponsored by the school and New York Magazine.  Even though I’d finished up in culinary school a few weeks ago, I’d promised one of the event coordinators that I’d be available to help out with the weekend, as I knew from volunteering at the NYC Wine & Food Festival back in October that it would take many extra hands to have it all go smoothly.  That, and one of my instructors had also asked if I could assist with one of the classes for which he was the sous chef.

Day 1

Deans-Sailhac-Soultner-making-Saumon-en-CrouteInternational Culinary Center Deans André Soltner & Alain Sailhac

The participating chefs, each renowned in the culinary field, walked the attendees through a series of recipes that they were to prepare during the course of the two-plus hour class.  In each kitchen, there was a chef-instructor from the school plus several “kitchen elves” (i.e., student assistants) helping out, making sure that the equipment and the ingredients were there for the guests to have available to complete the dishes.  As part of the program, the participants each received a bag with an apron and a chef’s knife to use during the classes.  The recipes they would be working on were handed out in the class itself.

Chef Alain DeCoster taking sauces with participantsChef-instructor Alain DeCoster talks about making a sauce with the chicken drippings

Being one of these assistants meant that I didn’t really get to take many photos of the activities taking place on Saturday and Sunday.  I was usually poking into the neighboring kitchens on the floor, looking for extra sauté pans, half-sheet trays, and cooling racks or running upstairs to the storeroom to get supplies like extra side towels to have on hand.  I was around, however, for some unique moments, such as on Saturday morning, when Chef Jacques Torres bounded into the classroom where his fellow International Culinary Center deans André Soltner and Alain Sailhac were trying to get ready to show students how to make a Saumon en Croûte (fillet of salmon cooked in puff pastry) and a Roasted Chicken with Spring Vegetables.

Chef Michael Lomonaco demonstrating Ragu BologneseChef Michael Lomonaco demonstrating making Ragù alla Bolognese

Then, in the afternoon, Dean of Italian Studies, Cesare Casella popped on over from the classroom next door to offer Chef Michael Lomonaco a refreshing beverage that he’d whipped up in his class.  Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of those glasses on hand to offer to the class, which might have been just as well, as they still had to tackle making Ragù alla Bolognese (bolognese-style meat sauce) and meatballs in tomato sauce from a recipe of the chef’s grandmother.  First on the stove was the ragù, which needed to simmer away for a couple of hours, then the class tackled the proper way to make meatballs.

Meatballs in Sauce at NYCEMeatballs cooking in Homemade tomato sauce

The binder for the meatballs, the chef explained, was plain, regular, sliced white bread moistened with a bit of milk.  Then, add the meat and combine it all by hand.  Breadcrumbs make the meatballs too tough, so he doesn’t use them to hold the mixture together.  The power of good home-cooked Italian food, like the kind that Chef Lomonaco was teaching everyone to make was unleashed in the corridors of the school on Saturday afternoon, Several of the black-garbed events staff dropped by, ostensibly to see if we needed any assistance or for them to fetch any needed supplies for us, drawn in the direction of the class by the enticing aromas wafting down the hallway.

Day 2

Sunday morning started off again bright and early, with the volunteers’ roll call taking place at 8:00 a.m. again in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant of the International Culinary Center.  Coffees in hand, we received our assignments and headed upstairs to prepare the kitchens for the day’s lessons.  Our job was to set up each of the stations with cutting boards for two people along with all the pots, pans, utensils, and ingredients that each student would need to use during the course of the class.  We also did the small things like make sure the burners worked and that the ovens would heat up (where needed).

April Bloomfield - Green Pean & Ham SoupGreen Pea and Ham Soup with Mint and Crème Fraîche

My morning assignment on Sunday was with Chef April Bloomfield.  I was really intrigued to hear her talk about how she approaches cooking and putting together her dishes.  It was very interesting to listen to her walk through with the students how she composes each plate, building layers of flavors into every component and then putting them all together to create something that makes your mouth say “WOW!” when you eat it.

April Bloomfield - Carrot, Avocado & Orange SaladCarrot, Avocado, and Orange Salad

Some of these dishes aren’t ones that she serves in her restaurant, she said, but they all show some of her culinary influences and attention to tastes and combining flavors.  I saw that some of the students were a little bit skeptical when they started making the Carrot, Avocado, and Orange Salad on the recipe list.  Chef Bloomfield explained that orange and carrot really work well together as do citrus and avocado.  Then, some toasted spices and fresh cilantro tie all of it together.  Once I can get my hands on some of those colorful carrots that they used in the lesson, this dish is first on my list to try to make.

Chef Michael Anthony talking chickenChef Michael Anthony talks about chicken

On Sunday afternoon, Chef Michael Anthony, of Gramercy Tavern, walked his class through the de-mystification of the perfect roast chicken.  He said that there’s “a bit of a Barbie complex” surrounding The Perfect Roast Chicken, getting the skin all crispy and golden while the breast meat stays plump and moist and the legs and thighs are tender and juicy.  By starting the cooking process with a trussed bird placed in a hot sauté pan, coated with a little bit of oil, on the stovetop and then finishing cooking it in the oven, chicken perfection can also be achieved in the home kitchen.  After following his step-by-step instructions, all the participants were able to achieve just that.

A quiet kitchenA quiet kitchen

At the end of the lesson, as with all the previous ones, the other kitchen assistant and I collected all of the items that we’d put out on the stations.  We worked with the chefs from the restaurant to round up everything that they were going to take back with them, gave the items that the dishwasher could clean, and started to hand-wash the other, smaller cooking items which we were responsible for returning to the team of organizers.  Then, after wiping down and sanitizing all the stations and making sure the burners and ovens were turned off, we were free to head to the locker rooms to change out of our uniforms and into civilian gear.  It was a hectic, energetic two days filled with lots of food, amazing chefs, tons of information and cooking tidbits, and some very, very lovely people who took part in this event.  I hope that the attendees enjoyed taking part in the weekend’s activities as much as I did in working them.

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!