Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Working backwards, the end of my schooling

I spent the last year, August 2011 to August 2012, in culinary school.  I first got the idea from an episode of Family Matters, believe it or not.

We were living in Illinois, Scott was in her last year of graduate school and I was thinking about what it was I was going to do after he graduated.  Obviously, I'd be working but I was 26 and knew I needed to something regarding my future besides working retail.

I was sitting on the floor in front of the telly waiting for something else to come on,  just catching the end of the sitcom.  The archetypal teenage son was in the kitchen with his archetypal teenage best friend heating up spaghetti sauce.  He tasted it, made a face and asked his friend to do please do something.

What followed was a full minute of the best friend doing various, elaborate adding of spices and stirring it up.  When he was done his friend told him he'd gotten him an application to culinary school.

I thought "You know what, I could do that.  I could go to culinary school."  And I kept that in the back of my head for a long time.

Two years ago, we were headed out to the Gypsy Trailer Picnic downtown, a collection of the city's food trucks all in one spot where you could go from place to place sampling the great noshes.  It was being coordinated by the Cordon Bleu cooking school.  Scott said I was going to get information from them.  He didn't ask me.  He told me.  So I did.  I gave them my contact info.  I made an appointment and took a tour of the school.  Impressive, impressive.  I let myself get a little excited.

The admissions person told me to do my research, check out other schools and do my thinking.

So I did and I found the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.  The classes were half the size of the Cordon Bleu (or The Other School as it was referred to by the instructors) with instructors that were required to have 10 years of executive chef experience. (Executive chef is the one in complete and total charge of the kitchen.  Developing menus, making sure the quality is correct, hiring, etc. There are many executive chef/owners of restaurants)  It was less expensive and the school didn't own the company that controlled your student loan.

I visited the campus a number of times, took the tour, got to cook some and decided it was for me.  My folks like to keep up with what's going on in my life and kept posted on everything I was doing.  They very generously offered to cover the tuition my student loan wasn't going to cover.  I got my enrollment paperwork done, attended orientation, got my uniform and I was off!  My class started with seventeen.  After losing some and then gaining three from another class, ten of us completed the program.

I was telling someone about a knife skills test I had coming up when I was about a month in to school.  I explained that I'd need to accurately execute a large dice, medium dice, small dice, chiffonade, battone, brunoise, fine brunoise, paysanne, julienne and finely chop garlic.

The person I was talking do said "Wow, I thought cooking school would be easy and fun."  Was it fun? Yes.  Easy?  Not so much.

I had wanted one particular instructor, but I got the perfect instructor for me.  She graduated valedictorian from the Culinary Academy of America in New York. She was tough, demanded a high level of performance from us and kept things very challenging.  And we learned to clean!  Wow, did we learn to clean.  My class was constantly saying to each other how much we appreciated the education we were getting from Chef.

Oh, yeah.  You call your instructor Chef.  An affirmative response to something she told you to do was "Yes Chef!".  And if she tasted something you'd cooked that just wasn't up to par she'd spit it out.  Feedback was ALWAYS constructive however.  My stuff consistently needed salt.

"Needs salt."  she'd say "Needs salt.  Needs salt.  Needs salt."  I learned that when it tasted right to me, add another pinch and it'd be right.

She also had a black belt in a martial art.  We started to call her "The Ninja".  We'd be talking to her one minute, turn to ask a question and she'd be GONE.  Vanished.  Not to be found.  This was called "Ninja-ing"

The Ninja taught me to broil, grill, roast, bake, saute, pan-fry, deep-fry, poach, simmer, boil, steam, braise and stew.  How to make the five mother sauces:  tomato, hollandaise, bechamel, veloute and brown.  Then how to alter those to the small sauces, all alterations of a mother sauce.

I learned to emulsify, leave it alone, stop stirring, not look at my rice, crank pasta and turn it into ravioli and tortellini, sear a scallop, grill asparagus, how to take the trim or scraps and make them into a dish and where my talents probably lie.

I'm not that great at plating.  I don't execute what would be found at a white tablecloth restaurant very well.  Practice will help my improve in those places.  But,  I am very good at hearty comfort foods.  Meat and potatoes!  Fried chicken!  Meatloaf!  Macaroni and cheese! Lasagna!  And sweets, I'm great at sweets.  I did very well in baking. Cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, I can do it!  I'd love to go back and do the pastry program, but it will all come down to time and money.  As much as I wanted to be good at the fine dining stuff, I'm just not.  And that is perfectly a-okay. 

I will happily and honestly admit that one of my main goals for culinary school was to succeed at making a proper, french-style omelet.  And I still can't do it!  I don't have the smooth, smooth finish on the final rolled product with no brown color.  American-style, browned omelet?  No problem!  Again, more practice.

Now, I got on to a totally new chapter where I learn even more out in the real world.  Starting a new career at 41 isn't exactly a fear-free proposition.  I'm old enough to the mother of the people I'm working with.  I'm facing the fact that I have to start on the bottom, doing dishes and chopping onions.  But I like to do it.

I have no idea what I'm in for. But I'll let you know when I'm in it.

Amanda's beauty tip of the day:  Tea tree oil dabbed on a pimple will help it clear up. 

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