lessons

Love Notes to Culinary School by Anne

I've had almost a year post-graduation to reflect on my experience of culinary school, and it's almost been enough time to clear the weird post-school haze out of my brain. There was so much focus, angst, passion, apathy, tomfoolery, testosterone, and Sriracha sauce behind the scenes.   Soon I hope to share useful or interesting info and ideas from school that I learned along the way but was too harried to sit down and jot out, let alone photograph.

But meanwhile, for today, here are a few pictures.  I've had the joy of being "allowed" around campus with my camera.  I hoped to give a sense of what life is like at Seattle Culinary Academy when people are in the zone.  It's a great school--in my opinion, the best one around here.   I love the fact that we didn't just learn traditional French cookery, although that was one component.  Where else in the world would I have an intense, high speed opportunity to learn about and cook different cuisines around the world, from Japanese to Oaxacan to Middle Eastern?

Then, of course, there was the sustainability component.  At school they had classes on sustainability in the world of food.  This focus ranged from farm to restaurant to policy-building.  The classes--and the instructors' passion--were key to the quality of the program, in my opinion.  They were inspiring and motivating.  There were farm visits, growing our own greens in the campus greenhouse, and practicing nose-to-tail butchery (using the whole animal).

We learned fundamentals, such as making a good stock, sauces, and how to season properly.

bakeshop.spreading
bakeshop.spreading

I know less of the pastry side of things because the program is separated so that you select culinary or pastry for your focus.  I did have several rotations in the bakeshop (or as the culinary students called, it, Bakation. It really does have a balmy, dreamy vibe in there).  However, my friends in the program liked it as well.  It's just a completely different experience, the two programs-within-a-program.

One thing that impressed me about the chef instructors is their desire to see us succeed beyond the program.  In other words, if people needed a job they would definitely look to the instructors, who would help them find leads using their own connections in the industry.  They weren't just great teachers, they were mentors.  People sort of gravitated towards their favorites.  One of mine is pictured below, preparing for a modernist cuisine lesson.

It wasn't my favorite part of the program, but we also did "Front of House" training (i.e., serving the guests/customers in the two restaurants the school runs).  I used to wait tables, and how in the heck did I do it?  I must have changed.  Some people really do an amazing job of it, making it look effortless--they appear gracious, friendly, and thoughtful.  I only hope that I appeared that way, but inside I felt awkward, physically uncomfortable, and grumpy.  There is a real psychic toll that it takes, and I don't even know why.  Guests would be perfectly nice, and yet by the end of the shift I would be gasping to get out of my uniform like it was made out of lead.  Anyway, I have a true respect for waiters that I only thought I had before.  In my opinion, being in the kitchen was better, but front of house workers can make or break a restaurant.

One of my favorite parts of school, that I wish I could keep doing forever, was experimenting and recipe developing.  What a fun job it would be to create new, delicious dishes out of a given palate of flavors.   It would be a bonus if I could do this with healthy, sustainably grown, beautiful food.  I've had a little bit of a chance to do that out of school for my various jobs, so that feeds me, so to speak. 

Gifts by Anne

IMG_9761
IMG_9761

The picture above--of my daughter and me enjoying a creation that took patience and several days to create, has nothing to do with the cooking I've been doing this week.  That picture would be a blur. Second Quarter's Practicum--our main class--is called "Quantity Cooking."  As I've said before, we're cooking for all the culinary students at our school.  Before knowing anything about the school, I assumed it would be more like banquet-style--creating enormous vats of food and spooning portions from chafing dishes over sterno flames.  This is not the case.

Instead, if you're making entrées, you need to time it so that you churn out several at a time, because the students come at anytime between 11 and 12:30.  Is there a regularity to their arrival?  Not really.  It's all based on what's going on in that class's reality that day.  Sometimes they come in for lunch in waves, and other times they trickle in like a leaky faucet.  Sometimes we have too many plates available to be picked up, sometimes not enough.

This makes it more of a challenge to feed them fresh, hot food.  You should see how quickly a plate of perfect pasta can dry out under the lamp.

Swedish Meatballs were a perfect first-day item to serve.  Now there's some banquet food.  If I had to, I could have cooked them all at the same time and served them in a hotel pan over the course of an  hour and a half, no problem.  The Mediterranean-Style Quinoa Wraps were also a great make-ahead, and they seemed to go fast, too.

The Fusilli with Italian Sausage, Roasted Tomatos and Braising Greens? Not as easy, because there was last-minute sautéeing involved.  The Salmon en Papillote was another toughie.  Sharing ovens with other people can get tricky, especially with fish.  Especially if people change the oven temp for their own dish--while your fish is cooking in there--and you don't know it.  Especially if your papillote (parchment envelope) is the size of the Goodyear Blimp and your portion of salmon is just shy of 4 ounces.  Note: if you make that recipe, make sure you make an envelope that is proportioned to the fillings, otherwise it will dry out (or leak)!

Anyway, not a single dish I made ended up tasting as good as when I make it at home.  Big surprise!  Actually, it was a big surprise.  But the other big surprise is the positive feedback I got for dishes anyway.   People liked each of those menu items, and took the time to tell me so.   I had to battle with myself to keep from blurting, "Really?!" or "It's usually waaaay better."   A few times, with some of my friends, I did admit that it's usually better when I make it at home.

BUT!

Julia Child's wisdom, to never apologize for your cooking, is great advice.   At bare minimum, you diminish their enjoyment of the food by criticizing it.   So most of the time, when someone said they liked my (dry, but on-other-occasions tender and juicy) salmon, I would try to just smile and say, "Thank you."  Because just as my food was a (hastily wrapped) gift to them, their kind words were a gift to me.  So I should just take the valentine and smile.

Today's the last day I'm on the "student entree" rotation, which means the food I'll cook for the rest of the quarter will usually be recipes assigned to me, rather than ones I bring myself.  Today I'll have another chance to be gracious and grateful.  My goal today? No apologies or explanations.  Only thanks.