One day in early 2016 we were having a meeting in the office, going over projects we were currently working on. One of our clients is a university, and the culinary section of their site was mentioned. It’s all a blur from there.
The next week I was touring the culinary school and seriously considering enrolling. The administrator was awesome and knew exactly when and how hard to “push” me. She was so enthusiastic about the school and about me attending it. I was introduced to some of the chefs and instructors and was able to see the kitchens and classrooms.
After having a lot of conversations with my client, my team, my family, and my husband, I enrolled to start going full time in the spring of that year. It was the first time I could remember doing something (this big, anyway) completely for me, and I was ecstatic!
I have always loved cooking and it’s probably the best thing I do. I had considered taking cooking classes but never considered going full time. Everything seemed to fall into place and so in May, I enrolled, purchased my uniforms, and was issued a set of knives and books.
The schedule was four days a week, from 12-5 pm for sixteen months. There was a week off during the summer, a week off at Christmas, and federal holidays. It was two days in a chef uniform, working in the kitchen, and two days in a “front of the house” uniform for academic days, in the classroom. We had to keep our hair pulled up and out of our face and limit jewelry to small earrings. No long nails or nail polish.
I went to work in the morning and left at lunchtime for school. They are pretty strict about being on time as well as not missing class. Even if you had to miss class and made it up, it prevented you from having perfect attendance. I know, but these things are important to me!
Jump in with both feet!
I loved it. I loved every bit of it. I enjoyed the structure and routine. I loved the chefs and instructors. I obviously enjoyed being in the kitchen and surprisingly, enjoyed being in the classroom. There was a lot of studying and a lot of practicing knife cuts!
Not long after I started I signed up for a competition event at the school. Round one started with (students) cooking a small finger food by themselves. There was a wide range of ingredients you could choose from and it was timed. It was then blindly sent back to the room of chefs who had a system for choosing their favorite dish. The chef would then be matched up with the student who made the dish they picked.
Rounds two and three were each team being given a basket of random (and at least one unusual) ingredients. Their dishes were judged by a selection of people in the industry. Chefs or restaurant owners maybe, usually previous students.
There would be an elimination of students in the first round and of teams in the second round, with a winning team chosen at the end of the third round. So not everyone made it to the second round and not everyone made it to the third. I made some lightly fried shrimp with a pineapple salsa. I served it on a spoon, with the shrimp on top of the salsa. I made it to the second round!
A chef from another school chose my dish. I don’t remember what the unusual ingredient was or what we attempted to make, but we didn’t make it to round three. We were disappointed but wow, what a cool experience. It was why I went back to school, to push myself, and it was a great start to this adventure.
Raise the Bar
The next sixteen months was hard but so worth the effort. The curriculum is to prepare you to work in the foodservice industry. From knife skills and mise en place; sanitation certifications, and how to recommend wines. Culinary math, the mother sauces, cooking techniques, and nutrition. I learned how to clean fish and proper plate presentation. Baking, meats, how to manage a restaurant, and how to prepare international meals from around the world.
The chefs were amazing. They were patient and supportive and full of knowledge. I had a few favorites, but I really did love them all. In my first class, I had “Chef B”. His was the only class that I didn’t get an A in, I got an A-. I razzed him about this throughout the entire program because, in the end, it prevented me from having a perfect grade. He was a favorite and set a great example of how to work in this culinary environment and was always supportive of us.
Go for the Awards!
I made every effort to do my very best in school. For starters, it was a lot of money. It was full time and required a lot of time on evenings and weekends for studying, practicing, writing. I did some extracurricular activities as well, like volunteering at the food bank, working for a chef during an evening class, helping in a food show, and working a catering event for another.
There were quarterly awards given out for perfect attendance and excelling in a particular class. I didn’t win them all, but I did get a few. On the last day of my last class, I cried. Through most of the class. Partly because it was the last day and partly because I screwed up the very last dish I was responsible for making.
Improvise when necessary
The final course was preparing meals for guests. There was a class in the kitchen and another in the front of the house, serving the food. On the very last day, I was responsible for making the desert for our guests that day. I could make anything I wanted so I decided to make cream puffs with a raspberry compote.
I had learned to make the cream puffs in a previous class and had even made them at home to practice. I mixed all of the ingredients for the pate a choux and put the puffs in the oven. I made the cream and the compote and was waiting for the puffs to be done when I realized something was wrong. They weren’t rising the way they were supposed to. I took the tray to my chef and Chef B happened to be there and they both asked me a bunch of questions to help me figure out what was wrong.
I went back to my work station and realized there was a big mound of butter sitting there that I had no use for. THAT was it. That was what happened to my pate a choux. I didn’t add the butter. I know, right? Holding back the tears, I told my chef what I had done. We tasted one and it tasted good, it just didn’t puff up. So she made the suggestion I cut the top off of each one, put the cream and compote on top, and even suggested a new name, Raspberry Beret.
The reviews were great! Everyone loved them and didn’t realize they weren’t “right”. Class ended that day with me telling my chef I wanted to start the entire program over from day one. I missed it already. All of it.
Be proud when you get it done!
I graduated with honors the same year both of my sons did. We went to one graduation and a week later we went to mine. It was a pretty incredible experience and I’m so glad I did it. It gave me a new confidence, not only in the kitchen but in myself. I got out of my comfort zone and did something completely on my own, and I did well!
Have you ever thought of doing something completely different and out of YOUR comfort zone? What was it? HOW was it?
Until next time,
P.S. You can check out more of my culinary portfolio here.
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