By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry and Culinary Arts Student
The list of things you learn in the kitchens at Auguste Escoffier is pretty long. In the Pastry Program, you cover the topics ranging from “Where do they keep the vanilla?” to “What additive stabilizes foam so that you can freeze it?” The volume of knowledge in the curriculum is fairly staggering, and you will come away with a lot of technical skills that would be hard to acquire solo.
But what about the stuff that’s not in the curriculum? You know, the things that aren’t listed in the student guidebook that you will know by the time you graduate? I came up with five things you will inevitably find out before you’re given your white toke.
5. How well do you really handle stress?
I’m not going to mince words—class at Escoffier is stressful. This is especially true at the start, when you don’t know your classmates very well, you’re not sure where equipment and ingredients are, and you definitely don’t want to look stupid.
This is compounded on test day. Tasks that you’ve performed flawlessly in the past suddenly become huge burdens under the paranoia-inducing eye of your chef. For example, Chef Suzanne has a habit of looking over your shoulder during a test, watching you work for a few minutes with a perfect poker face, then walking away. While on an intellectual level I knew that she was just getting a closer look at my technique, the little crazy man in my head always started screaming “YOU SCREWED UP!!!”
And while the stress never really goes away, your ability to wrestle with it will increase with time. The little crazy person’s voice gets quieter and quieter until it’s barely a whisper during your final, and you are throwing together dishes in four hours that would’ve taken you a week when you started.
4. How well do you really work in a team?
Teamwork is one of those skills everyone kind of assumes they have. “I can work. My classmates can work. Easy enough.” But anyone who’s been part of a team that works well together will tell you that it’s never easy to work as a cohesive unit. Sure, everyone’s really helpful and energetic on the first day in the kitchen, but what about day ten? Day 50? What about when your cat refuses to let you sleep at 3am (a common issue in our house) and you’re exhausted? Interpersonal drama, exhaustion, general snippiness, and a variety of other little snags could jam up your well-oiled machine.
Chances are good that most of these snags will be smoothed over by your chef-instructor. They’ve got enough experience running a kitchen to see them before you even realize they’re there. Chances are also good that if you’re not great at team work, you will be. By the end, you will find yourself helping your classmates without them having to ask, and you will find things on your workstation that you didn’t even realize you needed, but the person next to you did.
3. How well do you really take criticism?
You’re not going to do everything right in the kitchen. Yes, this seems like common sense, but it’s surprising how high your standards are for yourself. Some of your classmates may have more kitchen experience than you, and they’ll blow through knife skills while you’re struggling to get through your first potato with all ten fingers.
But the real test of your skin’s thickness will be after you’ve overcome those hurdles and start designing dishes of your own. Sure, your citrus cheesecake with dulce de leche mousse and citrus gel might look like a good idea on paper, but is it really? And sure, you just worked your butt off to crank it out in four hours, but did you really do everything right? Because if there is any room for improvement, your chef will let you know. The important thing to keep in mind is that, once you reach a certain level of skill, that criticism is how you learn. Which is easy to say, but hard to take to heart.
2. How well do you really handle setbacks?
You read the material the night before. You wrote out a production sheet. You transcribed the recipe into your notepad. You’re a solid student and are as prepared as you can be. But after the first hour, after you’ve finally gotten your cakes in the oven, you realize the cup of sugar you put into your batter was really salt. This is an extreme case, but you will suffer setbacks in class. You will feel stupid, and you will feel like you’re letting everyone down, and at some point you’ll probably feel like the class would be better off without you.
During our cake project, my team was doing a Super Mario Bros. themed cake. Amanda Simon, one of my teammates, had spent a good portion of a day making a Chomp with a long chain out of gumpaste, which we had left to dry overnight, and looked amazing (she’s really talented). As we were assembling the cake, I accidentally dropped her chomp, which fell two and a half feet onto the corner of the workbench and nearly flipped onto the ground before I caught it. It didn’t break and my teammates forgot about it instantly, but I spent the better part of an hour kicking myself for such a boneheaded move. But these things happen, and you have to get over them quickly in order to not become a liability for your team.
1. How much do you really want to be a chef?
The Food Network makes the food industry seem glamorous. Bobby Flay will face off against someone on Iron Chef with elaborate tools and fancy camera angles, ending in a meal with grateful judges at an elegantly decorated table. But when you’re elbow deep in dirty dishwater, your back aching from too much bending over, with visions of mopping, scrubbing, and scraping dancing in your head, your resolve is really put to the test.
This isn’t to say being a chef isn’t fun. There is artistry, creativity, and excitement to be sure, but there is also tedium, boredom, and sweat. The rewards in being a cook are at the top of a hill that can be really steep at times, but if you really want it, the accomplishment is all the sweeter for it. Yes, pun intended.