I can now cross off Culinary School from my bucket list. I spent a grueling nine months on my feet over a sweltering stove; working during the day then going off to cook for five hours, dragging myself home at midnight and passing out just to start all over again. It wasn’t just because it was something to cross off a list. Otherwise, I would have given in to the temptation to throw in the towel long ago.
I went for a number of reasons, but primarily to push myself to be even better. My life-long pursuit of perfection has always been my greatest strength and worst weakness, and anyone who has followed my instagram feed can tell you that I will make something over and over again with tweaks to the ingredients and method to perfect it. #macarons
In the end, I took away more than useful skills and better kitchen intuition. I collected memories along the side of the road on this journey, and seem to have picked up an oddball gang of hitchhikers who I now call family (congratulations Chef Nora, Chef Jon, Chef Nick, Chef Zack, Chef Kelvyn and Chef Hassan!).
“What is culinary school like,” you ask? Let me show you snippets of my experience through photos, and give you a peek into my mind through this self-reflection essay assignment that I submitted 4/5 of the way through the International Culinary Center (ICC) Classic Professional Culinary Arts program.
Culinary school cursed me for life. I used to have high standards. My friends would rave about how good a meal at the new restaurant was or how delightful the cupcakes are from the shop that had a meteoric rise to fame because it was featured on a television show. All the while, I would just smile and mentally tick off everything that was lacking: it was salty or dry or bland. Maybe it was because I knew my way around the kitchen or because I was very thoughtful about every spoonful: taste each component separately, identify the tastes, temperatures and textures, then eat it all in one bite and repeat the analysis. Whatever the reason, my standards were higher than most.
As I progressed through culinary school, things became worse…my standards climbed even higher. Dishes that I used to be so proud of and meals at my favorite restaurants are now just lackluster. I find faults in what I used to love because my palate has evolved and because I am now capable of more. These days I have to hunt further to find that amazing meal that leaves me floored. I have to strive harder to create dishes that I am happy with, which are few and far between. But in a perverse sort of way, I am proud to have these higher standards. I am proud of the newfound palate and culinary skills that I developed at ICC.
Hand-in-hand with my standards stepping up, my definition of “simple” has too. Years ago my fiancé and I watched Julie and Julia. We left the theater so inspired that we bought the Julia Childs cookbook on the way home with the intention to make her Beouf Bourguinon. Sadly, it was just that…an intention. We never made it. The recipe was daunting, and with references to multiple other pages it was really a recipe of recipes. I got tired just reading it, forget making it! And so it was probably fate that I pulled the Potage Cultivateur and Beouf Bourguinon dishes out of the hat for my midterm exam. After banging out Beouf Bourguignon along with fresh pasta, stock from scratch and another dish with intensive knife work with the pressure of time constraints, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming anymore. My expectations of what I can throw together for a weeknight meal are leagues beyond those that I had in the past.
On the other hand, my creativity has worsened. But I kind of expected that going in to this. I have been balancing a full-time office job and culinary school in the evenings so I haven’t been home enough to cook when I am not in school. I used to create and play with food ideas, but these days I haven’t been flexing my creative muscles; only having time to drill into memory the proper classic techniques. And as with any other part of the body, when I don’t exercise my creativity muscle it weakens. My mind is now trained to follow very specific culinary rules. In one of the rare occasions when I was able to cook at home, I decided to make a vegetable soup. Without even thinking about it, I ended up cutting my vegetables into macedoine when in the past I would have just done a rough chop. Once I realized what I had done, I chuckled. It was funny, but it also made me a bit proud that my improved culinary skills are starting to become second nature.
One of the reasons why I decided to go to culinary school was to create a foundation for my culinary creativity. It may seem odd to want to learn the rules in order to become more creative, but how can you think outside of the box if you don’t even know where the box is? And so I find myself in the transition stage, where I have studied the rules so closely that following them has become automatic. But I’m optimistic that after finishing culinary school and having more time to play and experiment again at home, I’ll end up even more creative than when I started my journey. As they say, sometimes you need to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.
To further contradict myself, despite everything I just said about how my skills have improved…I will walk out of these doors more humbled than I was when I walked in. The most important skill I have learned at ICC is one that is not explicitly stated in all of the brochures: awareness. I am now aware of the carefully conducted orchestra required to create the dish in front of me at a restaurant, aware of the nuances of beautiful plating, aware of how much I can learn by studying and observing the work of culinary greats such as Paul Bocuse and modern-day masterminds such as Heston Blumenthal, aware of the personality required to succeed in this industry–which I’ve concluded is three parts adrenaline junkie, two parts meticulous precision and one part mad scientist. It is that awareness that humbles me because I realize how far I still have to go, and that graduating from culinary school is not the end…it is just the beginning of a long and wonderful journey.