The Unexpected Things I Learned in Culinary School

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Sara Medlicott, ICC Librarian reflects on her experience in the Culinary Techniques class. 

Working at ICC, I am completely surrounded by folks who know kitchens. Even ask staff who aren’t in whites – manyare alums, or got their start in the restaurant world. Although I’ve learned a lot about our program, I knew I could best serve my patrons by actually jumping in myself. I enrolled in the winter Culinary Techniques course. Culinary Techniques is a 110 hour course that basically condenses level one of our professional program. I love to cook at home but I have never tried on a professional level before and I’m always seeking to improve my skills. Did my skills improve? That’s a given. Just by speaking casually to our staff I’ve learned which wines pair well with Taiwanese food, how to improve my banana cream pie and a great alternative to mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving (shout out to Vanessa, our wine coordinator, Chef Kir and Rob, our director of education.) So I knew in a class I would truly learn how to cook. Throughout the awesome course with Chef Will, I developed a few extra skills that will serve me outside of the kitchen.

class pic

Chef Will is exactly the kind of captain you want at the helm. He’s no nonsense but incredibly supportive, patient and hilarious. He’s the kind of guy who can execute a perfect aspic or do some five star super elegant plating all while without taking himself too seriously. Chef Will had all kinds of real world anecdotes; from coming up in the restaurant world, to teaching with old school French chefs, to starting and operating his own food business, which enriched our understanding of each class topic. He also set up great extra demos to enhance the curriculum. It was really fun arriving at class prepared for the set recipes and being surprised with salmon to cure or oysters to shuck. Here’s how the culinary skills and techniques have been translating to life outside the kitchen.

1. SPEAK UP When you are in a busy bustling kitchen, there is no time for the quiet pleasantries I’m used to; “oh, pardon me, can I squeeze by” does not fly. I quickly adjusted to “HOT BEHIND” and learned not to jump and more importantly to get the heck out of the way. So far it has served me well in the real world, try it when you’re trapped behind a throng of tourists on the train at 42nd street.

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Kelvin, flambeing like a pro

2. WORK AS A TEAM If I’m cooking, I typically prefer to cook alone. I put on some music, get in my zone and get it done. On the first day of class we selected our partners and lucky for me our talented storeroom coordinator, Kelvin was taking the class at the same time, so I had a familiar face to partner up with. It’s a huge adjustment to negotiate working with another person in that setting. You need to find a way to divide up tasks and do it all very quickly. Of course Chef Will had a trick up his sleeve and just when were were getting comfortable with our partners, he switched it all up by drawing names from a pot. We had to start over, figuring out how to best divide tasks with the new partner – just like you would in a professional setting.

3. OR ALONE But hey life happens! It’s not always easy to make it to a night class, two nights per week. So we all had the experience of working on our own a few times. When my day came, it was fish day and all the recipes seemed completed, involved and overwhelming to me. “Is anyone on their own? Oh Sara? You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine?” What can I say? “Yes, chef!” Even on your own you are never really alone. Our assistant chefs were right by my side any time I got in a jam.

That flounder!
Fish night!

Chef Phillipe is like that brilliant kid at the top of the class who will help you with your homework but only if you help yourself, “Sure I can cut these for you but which knife do I use? What size should they be? I don’t know inces, what are inches? Tell me in metric!” While Chef Joe is more like your friendly older brother, “Yeah that will be fine, just throw them in,” and Chef Jose has that personal trainer approach, “No, you need to whisk faster you’re not doing anything there, come on!” he makes you work hard, but at the end of the night you feel great about it. We have such an awesome staff here it was cool seeing how they operate in the kitchen and learning everyone take on the curriculum. Each chef has a personal touch to add.

4. TOUGHEN UP But back to that fish night. Here I am faced with an UGLY flounder staring at me with those beady little eyes. I made it through that recipe, but too slowly, so when we got to the trout I had to rush. I pulled on fresh gloves because fingers that smell like fish are, as Chef Will says, “Not a good look.” When I went to clean my knife I sliced right through my thumb. I usually don’t think of myself as a wimp, but I immediately burst out crying, “Oh no!” Chef Will came rushing back, “Is it bad?” I wailed, “YESSSSSS’ He took look, “Oh, no you’re fine, you don’t need a stitch for that, Chef Damien can you help her out?” So I tried to chill out but I could not stop crying and poor Chef Damien got stuck on nurse duty all the while doing a comedy routine to get me to relax. “There, there, you can cry on my shoulder but then I’ll be in real trouble with my wife when she sees all that mascara!” Chef Damien also taught me to always clean my knives with the blade facing away from me. The second time I cut myself, I didn’t cause a scene, just quietly and quickly bandaged it myself. And I’m proud to say the third time I didn’t even notice! While they are always at ICC, the Chef Damiens of the world aren’t always around at your low moments in real life, sometimes you just have to toughen up and take care of it. Word of advice, never seek pity from Chefs about your kitchen injuries. The week of my fish fiasco I saw more scars and heard more kitchen horror stories than I have my whole life.

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Sporting the dreaded “finger cot” colloquially known as the “finger condom” following injury 2

5. MISE EN PLACE If you read this blog, you’re probably familiar with the French term mise en place or putting in place. It’s a bit of a mantra around here. It’s the first thing we learned and it was reiterated in every class. I think it goes without saying that when you get in the habit of gathering everything you need before you begin cooking, your cooking improves. Another funny thing happens. I’ve been putting my whole life in place. I started organizing my weekly tasks. My mornings go a lot more smoothly when I have put everything I need for the day in place. It occurred to me I should be cleaning my make up brushes as often as I clean my knives.  I’m not the only one, check out this article, it’s a phenomenon! http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/08/11/338850091/for-a-more-ordered-life-organize-like-a-chef

And if you are considering ICC but you’re on the fence about it, I would highly recommend Culinary Techniques. You start to get a feel for what the professional program is like and you can transfer in if you meet attendance requirements. Even if you decide culinary school is not a good fit for you, you will come away a stellar home cook and meet fascinating people. I’ve already been invited to an Egyptian feast and gallery rooftop party – what could be better?

Seriously flambeing
That’s the “Chef Will is gonna kill me if these flames get any higher” look
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