My culinary program is accredited by the American Culinary Federation and combines practical cooking classes (starting with the classic French mother sauces) with academic content (industry-focused business math, management, sanitation and nutrition.) As you progress in your studies, the classes intensify, so at this point I'm in the thick of it. The pace of balancing work and school commitments can be exhausting, but it's a huge motivator to be surrounded by many hard working classmates juggling the same priorities and goals. No matter how hard you're working, there are countless other people next to you working just as hard. There is always someone working more hours, commuting further to class, and balancing more jobs-- I am in awe of many classmates and they definitely inspire me to be better every day. As one of my teachers says, working at that high level is what it takes to stand out among all the other white coats!
Each week, our email fills up with potential jobs, volunteer opportunities, and extra credit options. Plus, we are surrounded by a wealth of quality culinary content at this moment in history, and keeping up with it all feels essential. Do I listen to the newest episode of Radio Cherry Bombe first, or check out that interview from the Splendid Table? When am I going to get around to really reflecting on my thoughts from that recent Lucky Peach article on "happier kitchens"? Plus, find time to catch up on Mind of a Chef, finish reading Skirt Steak, follow the current commentary on no-tipping policies, check out some videos on ChefSteps, and study my new copy of Magnus Nilsson's Nordic Cookbook?! It's a bit overwhelming until you remind yourself you are lucky to be immersed in a subject you're so passionate about. So I proceed with this disclaimer: instead of describing a typical week, I'll describe one recent week of simultaneously wonderful and stimulating yet demanding culinary school madness from last semester.
Monday: Industry night out
It's the Monday before all the chaos of the week will begin. Since last spring, some classmates and I saved up for a meal at Shirley Chung's Twenty Eight restaurant in honor of a friend's birthday. Miraculously, four of us found a time to meet when we did not have work or school.
ice cream cookbook since ice cream experiments are his passion project. The best kept secret of culinary school is that you will gain a network of people who will wholeheartedly encourage and inspire you to nerd out about cooking. When you have a habit of midnight cooking experiments like I do, it's nice to have friends who get it.
Tuesday mornings we have Menu Planning & Purchasing, where we learn about everything from purchasing ingredients and equipment for a restaurant to menu design. After class, we meet up with a chef instructor about our plan for Wednesday, when a group of us will volunteer our help at a sausage demo for some visiting local high school culinary students. I grab a quick lunch, change for work, then head to the restaurant (about 45 minutes away) for my Tuesday night shift. Tuesday nights are slower compared with weekends, so if I'm lucky I can get to bed by midnight and (through the power of coffee) be ready for our 7:30 am lecture. To help with the quick turnaround, I have applied the kitchen principle of mise en place to everything in my routine. Work clothes and school clothes are mised in advance, same with my work knife kit and school tool box. I quickly do some last minute brainstorming about my morning lab, make sure my recipes are ready to go, and fall asleep.
Wednesday: Garde Manger day
Wake up, drink coffee, repeat. I arrive at school at 6:30 am to start preparing for the afternoon sausage demo. Working the night shift followed by an early morning at school can be brutal, and in these times I reminisce about the rush of excitement I felt when I first put on my school chef whites. I know I will miss school when it's over, and that moment is fast approaching. For the sausage demo, I cut the pork into long strips to grind, put the sausage attachments in the freezer, and clean up just in time for our 7:30 Garde Manger lecture. After lecture, we jump straight into a cooking lab, and then straight from there into preparing for the sausage making demonstration!
Thursday: Don't Mess with Texas Day
Each Thursday, our Culinary 3 class works together to produce a 3-course themed lunch menu that is then served banquet style to the public. Before service, two student sous chefs must complete a culinary demo based on the week's theme.
Friday: Cake Day
Cake Day is finally here. This is my first attempt at a professional wedding cake. Learning the elements of cake construction and design is a bit like learning a foreign language.
Over the course of three labs, we baked, froze, and filled our cakes, then the final Cake Day was reserved for all decoration elements including icing, fondant, adornments, toppers, and any other details that went into our final designs. Most of us worked straight from 7 am to 1 pm with an intense focus on our cakes. At the end of the day, I was proud of what I produced, especially considering my complete lack of professional cake experience. However, the perfectionist in me longed to have just one more hour to make my cake more polished instead of rushing through the final stages of the design.
While I didn't make a perfect cake on the first try, I learned an incredible amount about the fundamentals of cake design. Beyond pastry arts, the exercise was a great lesson in time management, production, and execution. I knew our class would run late that day, so thankfully I had requested the night off from work and took the evening to recover from the perils of cake production. Since the finished product was for a fake wedding, my various extended family members were the recipients of several cake wedges!
Saturday/Sunday: Time to completely switch gears and get ready for my night shifts at the restaurant. Cake day might as well be a distant memory at this point-- it's time to feed the masses!
And there you have it-- the not so typical, very amazing, somewhat exhausting, and extremely rewarding week in the life of a culinary arts and baking student.