Tag Archives: Should You Go To Culinary School

International Culinary Center – Finishing up

How many do I have to wash to get through my exams?

It’s looming large now, my final exam in culinary school at the International Culinary Center.  It’s so close, that I can count down towards it in terms of loads of laundry that I need to do in order to have at least one clean uniform available for exam day.  I’ve strategized just how much more industrial-strength stain remover I need to have on hand to wash everything and how much money to put on my laundry card to carry me through to the big day.

All this material is in my head someplace

Since taking the Culinary Techniques course there last summer and then making the decision to take the placement exam to pursue the professional Classic Culinary Arts program, it has been a wild ride.  Some of it has been great – like the thrill at passing my mid-term examination with high marks – and some of it has been frustrating – constantly being told I’m too slow by my chefs.  In some ways, it has been more challenging than all of my previous educational endeavors combined.  That includes getting my Master’s Degree from the top school in my field and having to take oral examinations in order to get my M.A. (twenty minutes being quizzed by two examiners to determine passing or failing at the end of two years of study, oh, and a separate language proficiency exam on top of that to boot).

Will I make it through to earn this?

On Wednesday night last week, before we hit the kitchen at L’Ecole for class session, our group assembled with our chef instructors for our official class photo.  It will hang someplace on a wall along with the photos of countless other classes of shiny, new ambitious culinary school graduates from our program.  In touring the school, you can still see pictures of the first graduating class, which included Bobby Flay.  How cool is that?  Who will be the next Bobby Flay, Christina Tosi, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, or Lee Anne Wong among us?  There’s some pretty serious talent among my classmates so I’ll be curious to see how our careers evolve.

This one was kind of a big boo-boo

I have in mind to write a few other posts about what it is like to be in culinary school, really.  It’s complicated, and I have such mixed emotions being almost at the end of it all.  There’s so much to say good, bad, ugly (some of that in the dishes that I plated), happy, sad, really a bit of everything.  Along the way, there have been cuts, burns, mystery scrapes, stained uniforms (how am I going to get that out of my jacket?), and lots and lots of food.  Three evenings a week for five hours each class night plus lots of volunteering and taking on extra kitchen shifts for practice and to refine my skills (and to work on that little timing/speed problem that still haunts me) have meant lots of missed drinks dates, uncelebrated birthdays, canceled plans, and late nights / early mornings.  Would I change it?  Would I do it again?   I’ll let you know when I pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Level 6 Working at L’Ecole

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

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

Patissier – Pumpkin Soufflé with Eggnog Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Level 5 Working at L’Ecole

GM - Pork Belly dishGarde Manger – Braised Pork Belly with Prune Glaze, Bulgur & Tomatillo Vinaigrette

It looks like it’s been a bit quiet around this website, I know, but the reality is that I hit a really busy patch with classes, volunteering at events, and developing and executing the menu for a major project that we had due in class last week.  About a month ago, my group changed over to the next level in the programme at the International Culinary Center to working at L’Ecole, the restaurant that is affiliated with the school.  This step is to prepare us for the reality of working cooking on the line, a job many students take as their first step in their cooking careers.

Portioning out the pork belly to serve it

In this level, we rotate through the various stations in the restaurant, preparing the dishes that are on the menu that is served to the public.  I don’t have any restaurant experience, so for me, this level has been an interesting almost “baptism of fire” into this realm of cooking.  I’ve helped out at culinary demonstrations, chopped vegetables for a food distribution organization, and worked catered events, but I haven’t worked on the line doing an actual service at a restaurant until now.  It’s definitely a different from my other cooking experiences where we just prep and prepare the dishes, plate everything, and then serve it all at once to everyone at the same time.

Patissier – Cranberry Linzer Torte with Chestnut Ice Cream

The first part of the lesson each evening consists of restocking the mise en place for that day’s service.  Then, when the menu changes over from the professional chefs fixing the meals to the time when we, the students, take over the stoves, with the supervision of our instructors, we put together the plates and give them to the waitstaff to be served, just as in any other restaurant.  Given how hard we all work, and how much experience some of the students already have, it was a bit distressing to me to find out that at least one website has advised possible patrons not to come to the restaurant during the time the students are working their shifts.

Poppy Seed Cake with Lemon Curd and Baked Apple

My first station in the kitchen rotation was in Pastry (Pâtissièr).  So our assignment was to figure out what we need to plate each dish when the orders come in and then make the amount we think we need to fill the orders that night.  With the guidance of the instructors, we make all the individual recipes, like the lemon curd, cake, and baked apple in the photo above, and then organize our stations so that we can respond quickly when the tickets arrive.  The chefs call out the orders and then we plate the dishes per the sample plates that they’ve shown to us.

Gooey French Onion Soup – tried to get to it before my classmate ate it

As the clock starts to tick towards 8:00 p.m., when the student part of the service starts, the chef instructors push us to get everything together and our stations cleaned up and everything in place so that we can work efficiently and quickly when the orders start being called.  From Pastry, I moved over to Garde Manger, where we prepare the appetizers on the menu.  There are two other students in my class with whom I rotate through the stations.  There’s also several other students from the class level above ours who have their own separate recipes to prepare, plate, and serve.

Cooked pork belly

One of our dishes, the braised pork belly, actually takes a few days to prepare.  We start a couple of days earlier by trimming a piece of belly of its tough, exterior skin and rubbing a cure of spices, sugar, and salt on each side of the belly.  This then gets covered with heavy cans and weighed down for about 24-hours.  Then, it is cooked and pressed again at least overnight.  After that, we cut it into serving portions and set it aside until it is glazed with a plum sauce and cooked again right before it is served.  It’s probably my favorite of the dishes I’ve worked on in the restaurant so far.

Seared Scallops with Squid Ink Risotto

After Garde Manger, I moved over to work the Fish Station (Poissonier), which I’ll be doing again tomorrow night.  Here the system works the same way: we arrive in class, do the prep work, and wait for the orders to come in to fill them.  The scallop dish is very popular at the moment, and we seem to fill lots of orders for it every evening, keeping our station pretty busy.  My next turn will be at the Sauce Station (Saucier) where we have a rabbit dish and a pork dish on the menu.  With each rotation, I hope I’m getting better at improving my speed at working in the kitchen.  That’s the goal for this level, as well as having us get used to the pressure and flow of restaurant service.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Classic Culinary Arts Level 4 Buffet

Sauerkraut in a bowlSo much sauerkraut for a family-sized choucroute

I think I’m still having a hard time believing that I’m already more than halfway through with my culinary studies. April 2013, which seemed like such a long way away when I started the programme in August of last year, will be here in just a few short months.  Facebook followers will have being watching my progress through the food photos I’ve been posting.  From the Culinary Techniques course this past summer to the dishes that we made in each of the levels.  In the level prior to the one I started this week, we were responsible for making the dinner each evening to feed the students and staff at the school, aka Family Meal. We were also in charge of planning out and producing the food for a Buffet one evening of the course.

Half a Pig

When we began this level a couple of months ago, one of the tasks we knew was before us was to maximize the use of half of a pig.  This exercise is a combination of butchery, charcuterie, resourcefulness, and budgeting.  The results would be put on display for our fellow culinary students and some of the school’s instructors to sample for their evening meal.  Our night for buffet was the Friday just before everyone headed out for the holiday break.  (As our class is a small group, we had just the one big buffet. Other classes are organized differently with two buffets during the course of the level.)

Making Gravlax

We ended up with quite a spread, which several chefs said was really impressive, given the smaller size of our team.  There were the traditional pâtés and terrines. We took a whole salmon and turned some of it into gravlax and some into salmon rillettes.  We also had mustards and chutneys as well as steamed mussels, smoked pork belly, and a ham carved to order.

Aspic display for buffetAspic tray with vegetables and herbs

One of our chefs walked us through making a fancy aspic tray which we used to display the head cheese that had been made from our pig.  It was an interesting experience, not just from the production point of view, but to see it all finally come together and to watch the reactions of our guests to all the food we’d worked so hard to put together for them to enjoy.

Buon appetito!

Basic Chicken Stock

Stock ingredientsStock Ingredients

I’ve spent a few Thanksgiving holiday weekends over the years nursing a cold, so I wasn’t too surprised to wake up this morning feeling a little bit run down.  Between school and volunteering in order to get some more kitchen assisting experience, I’ve been burning the candle at both ends lately.  This weekend is the first one I’ve had in a while to catch my breath.  I’ve been tackling those little projects around the apartment, like cleaning out the freezer.

Chicken parts

For the practical exam that we had to take at the end of the second level of our culinary program, I had bought a few chickens to practice butchering skills.  I’d packed up the parts and had put them in the freezer thinking that, at some point, I’d make stock with them.  Today seemed like as good a day as any to tackle this culinary project.

Mirepoix – the aromatic element for the stock

Making stocks was one of the lessons we learned early in the Culinary Techniques course.  Now that our group has moved into the level where we cook the family meal each lesson for students and staff, we make stocks every night in large volume so that others in the school can use it as needed for their recipes.  It’s kind of made me fall in love with the process of creating these richly fragrant bases for adding to sauces, cooking risottos or turning into soups.  So, I gathered up the ingredients and set aside a couple of hours to let the stock simmer away, giving me the perfect opportunity to figure out my Christmas card/gift list.

Chicken stock all packed up

Basic Chicken Stock

Prep Time: about 2 1/2 hours

Yield: about 2 1/2 quarts or 2.36 litres of stock


2 1/2 lbs. or 1.15 kilos Chicken parts (body, wings)

5 pints or 2.5 litres Water

12 oz. or 340 grams Onion, cut into large chunks (approximate)

7 oz. or 200 grams Carrots, cut into large chunks (approximate)

5 oz. or 140 grams Celery, cut into large chunks (approximate)

1 Bay Leaf

6-7 Parsley stems

10 Black Peppercorns


Place chicken parts and water into a deep pan.  Make sure that the water covers the chicken completely.  Bring the mixture up to a simmer over low heat.  Skim off the impurities that rise to the top of the liquid and discard them.

Water and chicken pieces in the pot

Impurities rising to the top of the stock

Scum from the stock

Add the onions, carrots, celery, bay leaf, parsley stems, and peppercorns to the pan.  Keep the liquid on a low simmer and let it cook away for about two hours, until the chicken has released its flavor into the water.

Herbs for the stock

Adding vegetables and herbs to the stock

Once the stock has simmered a couple of hours and has taken on a light chicken-y taste, ladle it into a bowl and place the bowl in a water bath to cool it down.  Then, if not using it right away, pour the stock into containers to store and to freeze it.  The stock will keep for several months in the freezer.

Straining the chicken stock

Cooling down the chicken stock

Chicken stock ready to use

Note that I did not add garlic, thyme or salt to this recipe, as some recipes call for.  This is because I wanted the stock to have as neutral a flavor as possible so that I could have the flexibility of using it in many different kinds of dishes, including just to make soup to fight off the winter sniffles.

Buon appetito!

Wild Mushroom Risotto (Risotto ai Funghi)

Mushroom Risotto in bowlWild Mushroom Risotto

The other night in culinary class we began the first of two days of lessons focusing on Italian cooking.  It was also the second day in which I had to work solo in the class, as I was the last one to arrive, having spent some extra time at the career fair that took place at the school that afternoon.  If there was any lesson where I didn’t exactly mind being left to cook on my own without a partner (usually, we work in teams of two), this one was it.

Among the things we prepared that evening were an Italian meat sauce (to be crystal clear, it was not a ragù alla bolognese) and a Wild Mushroom Risotto.  After I had presented the latter dish to the chef instructor for his review and comment, he said it was fine, that he was happy with the results (whew, as I’ve only been making risotto for something like 20 years at this point).

Chopped mushrooms

He would, however, have liked to have seen it a little more fluid on the plate.  I tend to make my risottos on the drier side, having been served some extra-soupy, gloopy versions in the past, which I find completely disgusting and almost inedible.  There was plenty left for me to take home after the plating, but I added my batch to the collection that was being taken by the class of all of our risottos.  Tonight, we’re going to use up the leftovers by making arancini, at least that’s the plan. [Note: We didn’t make arancini that next class night, which was kind of a shame, as I really love them.]

Well, guess what I ended up really, really craving yesterday for lunch?  Yep, another dish of the Wild Mushroom Risotto that I had prepared on Wednesday night.  So, I decided to whip up a batch at home, adding some thyme to it, which I thought it needed for a more Fall/Autumn fragrance.  I also amped up the amount of mushrooms and opted, in the end, to leave out the goat cheese that I’d originally planned to use, as the risotto didn’t really seem to need it.  It was plenty rich and creamy just the way it was, with the tastes and smells of the cool, crisper weather to come, bringing back childhood memories of kicking up piles of fallen leaves while walking home from school.  This really is my favorite season.

Ingredients (minus the goat cheese)

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Prep Time: about an hour

Serving Size: 6 primi piatti (first course) portions or 4 adult dinner-sized portions


For the Wild Mushroom Mixture:

1 oz. dried Porcini Mushrooms, reconstituted in boiling water

2 tsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 tsp. Unsalted Butter

1 Tbsp. Shallot, minced

1 large clove Garlic, minced

2 c. mixed Mushrooms (cremini, portabello, shitake, button, or any other variety)

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 tsp. Salt

1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground

For the Risotto:*

1 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 tsp. Unsalted Butter

1 small Onion, finely diced

1 1/2 c. Aborio or Carnaroli rice

1/2 c. dry White Wine

3 c. Chicken Stock, warmed

1 Tbsp. fresh Thyme leaves

1 tsp. Salt

1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground

1 tsp. Unsalted Butter

1/3 c. Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for serving


Cooked mushrooms

Steep dried porcini mushrooms in boiling water.  In the time it takes to chop up the other mushrooms, the shallots, and the garlic, the porcini will have softened and be ready to cook.  Heat a sauté pan with the olive oil and the butter.  Once the butter has melted and is frothy, add the shallots to the pan.  Cook for one minute, until they start to be come translucent.  Add the garlic and cook for one minute more, as the garlic releases its aroma.  Make sure to that neither the shallots nor the garlic burn or take on any color by stirring the mixture every few seconds.

Add the chopped mushrooms, the reconstituted porcinis, and the sprig of thyme.  Let the mushrooms cook until most of their moisture has been released.  The mushrooms can take on a bit of color but should not get golden brown.  Pour in a bit of the liquid from the porcinis (about 2 Tbsp.) and cook down the mixture until most the liquid has been absorbed into the mushrooms.  This will add an extra layer of  mushroom flavor to the finished dish.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Risotto after wine has evaporated

In a large, shallow saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter and heat the olive oil together over low heat.  When the butter is frothy and add the onions.  Cook them for several minutes until they become soft and translucent.  Add the rice and stir to coat in the fat, making sure that each grain is covered.  Let mixture cook for about one minute, taking care that the rice does not take on any color or burn by stirring it a few times while it is cooking.  Pour in the wine, stir into the rice, and let the mixture cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.

Start to add chicken stock to the rice mixture 1/4 c. at a time, stirring with each addition and cooking the mixture until the liquid has mostly evaporated.  Continue to ladle the stock into the rice mixture, stirring after each addition to make sure that the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan.  You will start to see the starch being released from the rice and its overall volume will begin to increase in size.

Getting there

After putting about 1 1/2 c. of the stock into the rice mixture, taste it to see how the risotto is progressing.  It is probably still a bit crunchy on the inside.  Continue to add stock, 1/2 c. at a time, until the rice is mostly tender with a slight resistance when bitten or al dente in texture, probably after about another cup or so of stock.  Add the mushroom mixture to the pan and fold in to incorporate everything.  Add the thyme, salt, and pepper to the mixture and stir to combine so as not to break up the mushrooms too much.

Taste the risotto to make sure the seasoning works.  If the mixture is a bit dry, add another 1/4 c. stock and stir it together.  The risotto should be creamy but not soupy with the grains still maintaining their shape; it should flow on the plate without any excess liquid (all’onda – or “like a wave” in Italian).  Remove the pan from the stove and add the cheese and the butter.  The butter might seem like a bit of overkill, but it does contribute to the creamy mouthfeel of the dish.

Finished risotto

Serve immediately with extra grated Parmesan cheese on the side and a bit of additional fresh thyme for garnish.  To make this dish even a bit more luxurious, it could also be finished with a drizzle of truffle oil.

*Kitchen Witch Tip:

When our chef-instructor was demonstrating how to make this dish, he gave the class a general ratio of 3:1, liquid to rice as the proportion to keep in mind for making it.  I almost emitted an audible squeak of dismay after he said that.  Risotto, as anyone who has made it multiple times can tell you, is a fickle beast, which is why people find it daunting to make.  I, however, love doing it and find it brings out an inner sense of culinary Zen for me.  I enjoy the whole process of stirring, watching the starch coming out of the grains, seeing the rice expand and become creamy, and then, of course, getting to eat the end results.

In this recipe, including the wine, the ratio of liquid to rice that I used was closer to 2.25:1 (o.k., yes, math nerds in my family, I know it’s actually 2.33 repeating, geeze.).  To bring it up to a higher level of creaminess, I could have gone as far as a ratio of 2.5:1.  At 3:1, as the chef had advised, the risotto would have been come a soupy mess.  When we were on a conference call yesterday, Chef Dennis Littley shared with me the advice that he was given as a young chef, “Feel the food.  It will tell you what it takes to make it complete.”  Risotto is definitely one of those dishes that does just that.

Buon appetito!