By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry and Culinary Arts Student
So this is the end of my first month of the Culinary Arts Program, and I thought it would be fun to give a rundown of everything we’ve been up to so prospective students won’t stress out so much when they finally don their maroon jacket. Don’t let bloggers like me fool you, it’s intimidating the first time you step into a production kitchen, and if you’ve already spent some time in the industry, I’m told it can be intimidating being graded. But don’t fret! Here’s what you can expect:
This week is 100% classroom time, similar to classrooms you’ve no doubt spent a chunk of your life in at some point. The lecture topic, after introductions and chef expectations, is ServSafe. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a national certification that means you’re permitted to handle food. Depending on how good you are in the classroom, this could seem like a mountain of knowledge you’ll never conquer, as there are temperatures to memorize, diseases to learn about, and chemicals to become familiar with. You’ll also hear the phrase “fecal-to-oral transmission” way more often than you’re comfortable with.
It’s also tough if you’re not familiar with government briefs. Because there are so many rules governing the teaching of ServSafe, it’s really not possible for the chef instructors to make the material fun, engaging, or exciting. I sat through so many of these kinds of briefs in the Navy that they don’t really affect me anymore, but if you’re prone to daydream, find a way to make yourself focus—caffeine, frantic note-taking, whatever it takes.
But the knowledge is easier to get into your head than you realize. I’d recommend flash cards if you have trouble with memorization, but whatever method you have for studying is going to be best for you. I’m not allowed to know what my classmates scored on their ServSafe exam, but as there were no serious breakdowns, I’m guessing everyone passed.
After this, there’s a talk from the folks at career services encouraging everyone to get cracking on their externships as soon as possible. I don’t think it’s possible to emphasize this enough. Unless you want to work the line at Applebee’s, start looking right away. The week ends with mock interviews from your chef instructor. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been through every kind of interview you can name, and am pretty good at them. If you’re not, this is a great opportunity to pick the brain of someone who’s been on the other side of the hiring desk.
This is your first week in the kitchen, but it’s kind of the kiddie pool of the culinary world. There’s still a great deal classroom time, where you learn about all the equipment you’ll be using, and the tools in the kit you’ve been issued (this happened in week one, but I hear it varies from time to time). A great deal of kitchen time revolves around safety—where the fire extinguishers are, what to do if there’s a massive fire (it’s never happened as far as I know, but better safe than sorry), where the first aid kit is, and so on.
Most importantly, you get to use your knives for the first time. Yes, there’s a specific way to use them, and yes, it’s super effective. I had an unfair advantage over my classmates because I’d gone through knife skills in Pastry, but everyone caught on pretty quick.
But you also learn recipe portioning and food costing, which (unfortunately for many) means dusting off the math part of your brain. But take my word for it—it’s not as hard as it seems at first. Your chef instructor will also give you some culinary history, starting with Boulanger past our namesake, and on to the present. Expect to learn a TON of French terms. The week ended with stocks, emulsions, and thickening agents. I suppose if it had been a normal week, it would have ended with a practical exam. But, we had Spring Holiday on Friday, and so this was only a four day week.
Aced my knife skills test, and got an A on my written exam the next day. That was a relief, because I do not test well anymore. But we continued our work with knife skills, as well as making more stocks and applying our knowledge of thickeners to making the mother sauces: Béchamel, Hollandaise, Espangole, Tomato, and Veloute.
This carried on into Soups, which I’ll admit, I do not like. Not this chunk of the curriculum, I mean eating soup. It’s just not my thing. But in fairness, these soups are pretty tasty, and you learn a lot about using them in a business setting. Chef Robert (our instructor) used the potato scraps from our knife skills practice to make a potato soup, showing just how versatile this medium can be.
Next was Potatoes, then Pasta and Polenta. Chef Suzanne went out of her way to teach us to make fresh pasta while we were in Pastry, but I definitely feel I have a firmer grasp of it now. Polenta and potatoes were also fun, but as a warning, “sensory analysis” (where you eat what was made that day and talk about it) can be kind of grating this week, as a plate full of potatoes is hardly a meal. It’s important to learn how to talk about food though, so take this part seriously.
Unfortunately, I was struck down with a fever, sore throat, and swollen glands on Friday and so missed Grains and Legumes day. I read the chapter in the book though, so I think I can muddle through with Chef Robert’s help in the future.
I was correct. My rice pilaf turned out pretty well (with the help of Chef Robert’s house-made curry powder). And while he was guiding me for several steps, I was able to operate on my own for part of the process, which I’m proud of. I also aced my Hollandaise Practical and successfully processed a chicken into thighs, drumsticks, wings, and breasts. All in all, it was a good day.
Unfortunately, my writing schedule means that I’m writing this on Monday, so even though you’re reading this later in the week, I haven’t actually experienced Tuesday through Friday yet. We have a written test tomorrow, and we’re learning all the ways you can cook a chicken. Tomorrow is roasting, Wednesday is Sautéing and Braising, and Thursday and Friday are Frying and grilling. I’m not going to lie, I’m still intimidated by the deep fryer, but hopefully I’ll get over that in a hurry. You’ll find out how I do in a month!