Monday, February 08, 2016

A (not so) typical week at culinary school

It's difficult to detail a typical week of culinary school because every week is filled with new techniques, recipes, and challenges.  When I finally made the leap to start my culinary program, I was ready to give it my all and get the most out it.  Fast forward four semesters later and it has been a whirlwind of acquiring many new experiences and skills, with the bonus of gaining professional colleagues, inspiring instructors, a gang of new culinary friends, and more kitchen equipment than I ever thought possible. (Seriously, so much kitchen equipment.)  Like any school experience, the sleep deprivation can get the best of us sometimes, and we do our best to keep a balance.  After all, we're handling hot oil, knives, and fire every day, so it's best to be well-rested and alert.

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.
As predicted, their front of house won our hearts and the back of house, our stomachs.
For the occasion, I gifted my friend an 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: The school week begins
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!
After our instructor leads the demo, my classmates and I poach and grill the results so they can taste it after their tour.
Despite the busy nature of this week, these volunteer opportunities at school are really rewarding and some of my favorite memories.  We clean up by the early evening, and then I re-focus on my cake project.  Throughout the semester, our Pastry Arts class has explored the intricacies of cake design and construction, lessons which will culminate in the production of a wedding cake on Friday.  While I have put a lot of time into my cake, I still feel like I am running out of time finalizing some last details.  I head to an industry supply store to get a few tools I need for Cake Day, then type up a production list so I can stay organized heading into the morning.  I also scour the internet for research on royal icing, a last minute addition to my cake design.  I review some baking textbooks, watch some YouTube icing videos, and make some icing batches.  At some point, I reason with myself to stop the royal icing madness and go to bed.

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.
To prepare for each lunch, we rotate through various stations during the semester: from the pantry to the bakery to the hot line. We all have our comfort zones, whether savory or pastry, but this gives us the chance to become more versatile cooks.  Today the menu is Texas-themed, and my lab partner and I are assigned to help at the vegetable station, where we produce mashed potatoes, cowboy beans, creamed corn, and roasted baby pumpkin wedges for service.  After service, we take a moment to celebrate our teamwork and exchange high fives-- but just a moment, because now it's time to prepare for Cake Day.  We'll present our cakes to a group of judges, so I pick up a tablecloth and a mini easel for my display table setup, plus some extra ribbon for my cake base and a styrofoam cake dummy for last minute practicing. In a true case of over thinking things, I head to a restaurant supply where I get some gum arabic to experiment with, because I read that it can help stabilize royal icing.   Later, I practice buttercream piping and make one more final batch of icing.  Finally, I pack up my presentation supplies, extra towels and aprons, and anything else I might possibly need for production day.

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.

To make it more challenging, we were assigned a specific color palate to work with based on imaginary clients. We arrived to the classroom around 7 am and had to present our cakes for judging at 1 pm.

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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

kitchen commandments

When I worked overseas, I had dreams of moonlighting at a restaurant in the great European tradition of culinary apprenticeships.  During my travels, I crossed paths with many cooks, bakers, brewers, and passionate food industry professionals.  I did plenty of cooking with locals, had some epic international potlucks and picnics, and tasted every foreign ingredient I could.

an international potluck in Copenhagen's Nørrebro neighborhood

a bakery's organic bread offerings in the city center

a traditional Danish Christmas lunch in the Copenhagen suburbs

a sampling of herring at a Slow Food event

I attended food festivals and conferences, took cooking classes, and immersed myself in culinary experiences.  But I never found that ideal professional apprenticeship opportunity.  I realize now that this is a classic "if I knew then what I know now" scenario.  Since enrolling in culinary school and gaining industry experience, I can now knock on the door of any kitchen armed with a stronger knowledge base and higher confidence level.

Thanks to school instructors and industry mentors, I discovered there are certain universal rules you can apply to all professional kitchens.  Here is a short (although not exhaustive) list of kitchen commandments.  While these tips are mostly common sense with a dash of industry insight, I hope this content is helpful to those just starting out.

1. Always leave a kitchen cleaner than you found it.  Work as clean as you can, establish good habits, and treat your cutting board like a pristine surface.  And beware when picking up large stock pots: if they are scorched underneath, they will put a big black stain on your white chef jacket when you pick them up.  Classic rookie move (and I have the bleached chef's coats to prove it.)

2. Use every drop of product possible.  If you ever have your own business, you'll think about every cent that goes towards your food cost, and the most thoughtful employees do this too. So scrape each and every last drop of nutella from that nutella jar before you throw it away.

3. Be willing to embarrass yourself.  No one is born knowing how to filet a fish.  Be willing to ask questions, admit what you don't know, learn from your mistakes, and embrace these humbling experiences with open arms.  A kind restaurant colleague recently told me, "All chefs have screwed up way more than they've gotten it right."  It takes a lot of practice to get to where you need to be, so find beauty in the frustrating but ultimately rewarding process.

4. Invest in high quality slip-resistant shoes.  You're going to be on your feet a lot.  A 50-year industry veteran once told me, "you can be cheap with other things, but not with your shoes."  As much as you can afford to, spring for the good ones with lots of support.  

5. Mise en place.  It's a way of life.  Prepare your ingredients in advance and stay organized. And remember that recipes can only take you so far-- you must also evaluate what you produce and know how to fix it if it's not right.

6. Take notes.  Whenever possible, ask your chef how to do something only once. Always defer to how the chef you are working for wants the task done, even if a previous boss or teacher taught you a different method.  Keep a little notebook in your back pocket and make it your kitchen bible.  (For the record, my favorite kitchen notebooks are Moleskin's hard cover pocket size and I stock up on them when they go on sale.)

7. Learn from everyone.  Respect each job in the kitchen.  Especially if you want to be running the show someday, know how to work the dish machine, how to clean the fryer, and observe the way everything works in the operation.  Be a sponge, absorb everything, and show appreciation for your kitchen teammates.

8. Respect your knives. Never try to catch a falling knife, it's a losing game.  Keep them sharp.  And be careful not to leave blades hanging out in a sink where they can injure someone.  The most common knife you'll use is an 8 inch or 10 inch chef's knife, so it's practical to invest in one of those. And don't break the bank with your first purchase: you can get a decent starter knife for under $40.

9. Be vocal.  Make yourself seen and heard in the kitchen, or else you're going to get cut, burned, or otherwise injured.  Say "behind" when you're walking behind someone, "hot" when you're carrying hot pots and pans through the kitchen, or "sharp knife!" if you're walking through the kitchen with sharp objects.

10.  Walk faster!  Make your trips within the kitchen as efficient as possible and have a sense of urgency.

Finally, be bold and use common sense.  Julia Child offered the best advice when she said: "The main thing is to have a gutsy approach and to use your head."