By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry and Culinary Arts Student
For any reader who doesn’t know me personally (most of my readers, I’d hope), I got to go through the Pastry Arts Program at Auguste Escoffier with my wife. Before that, we spent six years in the Navy, working periodically with all five branches of the military and experience the myriad rules and regulations each one brings to the table. During our time in the PA program, one of our favorite games to play after a long day of baking was “This is like the military, but…” Using that as inspiration, I thought I’d present you all with a list of four ways pastry school is (and isn’t) like being in the military.
1. Uniform regs and inspections
Similarities: Every day before you get to do anything in the kitchen, you will get inspected. If you don’t have all your uniform items, you won’t be allowed in that day. This includes your pen, sharpie, thermometer, notepad, ID card, skullcap, apron, and towel. It’s also in your best interest to iron your jacket and apron, though you won’t get kicked out for looking wrinkly. It might not be a terrible idea for you to shine your shoes (if they will take a shine), especially if you have Chef Greg as your instructor.
Differences: You will probably laugh at least once during lineup. When we were in fundamentals with Chef Suzanne, she usually had us rolling prior to class starting. And while facing movements will probably get a chuckle or two out of your instructor, you’re better off without them. Also, anyone who has ironed regularly will tell you that creases are the hardest part of the job, and they aren’t necessary during these inspections. You basically just have to have everything and look presentable. And nobody’s going to scream at you (regardless of what Gordon Ramsey might portray on television).
Similarities: While you can screw around a little bit in the kitchen, it’s a dangerous place and you have to maintain a fair amount of discipline. The knives we use are really sharp, and so a professional atmosphere is important for safety. Many (if not all) of the chefs also require that their orders are responded to in some way (usually with a “Yes Chef” in one voice) in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Differences: You can screw around a heck of a lot more than we could in uniform. So long as safety regulations are adhered to, you can tell jokes, hear stories, catch gossip, and really get to know your classmates while you’re working. One “game” our class had was to sort of mush our leftovers (which could not be reused or held) into a big gross mound and take pictures. That was always good for a laugh. But class is like any professional environment—you can have fun as long as it doesn’t affect production.
Similarities: In the Navy, we used to have what is called the “Plan of the Day” or “POD”. It basically spells out everything that is going to be done that day by the minute, starting with “wake up” and ending with “lights out.” The production sheets we use in the classrooms are very much similar to this, and are a great help early on in the program when you’ve finished your task and don’t want to stand around doing nothing. There are also “team chefs,” or student leaders that coordinate half the class in order to ensure that the day’s tasks are done (and get some management experience that will help quite a bit out in the industry).
Differences: While the chef’s word is law in the kitchen, it is by no means like having a drill instructor (or in the case of the Navy, a Recruit Division Commander) in your face all the time. Unless you’re breaking safety rules, the chef is often more of a guide, demoing skills you’re unfamiliar with and answering questions as you work through your tasks. There’s very little, if any, shouting (a huge difference from the military), and the organizational structure gets more and more lax as your skills build, leaving increasing room for creativity.
4. Teamwork and Camaraderie
Similarities: I’ve met some of the best friends I’ve had in the Navy, and while at Escoffier. After thirteen years of work experience ranging from janitor to management, I can say I’ve worked places where your co-workers ignore you and you’re pretty much alone. This is the opposite of that. And not to badmouth the military, but since you’re not in direct competition with your classmates, there’s a lot less animosity between you and your friends and the esprit de corps is very much felt.
Differences: As I implied at the end there, the lack of animosity makes the friendships in culinary school much easier to make. So long as everyone works hard, classmates tend to raise each other up rather than pull each other down. When you’re having a bad day, your partner will probably cover for you, and vice versa. If you stress out during tests, your classmates will probably help you calm down, and if you’re not a naturally serious person, your classmates will help you “grim up” when it’s time to get down to business.
This list could go on and on, but the best way to describe it is that Auguste Escoffier gives you all the best parts of military life with none of the downsides. You get the friends, but not the deployments. The skills, but much less of the stress. The networking, but not the 4 year commitment. Ultimately, I like to describe it as “how I imagined the military before I joined”, which has been a great experience that I’ll miss after I graduate.