What I learned in culinary school

When I attended culinary school in the 1990s the Food Network was still somewhat new and star chefs were just beginning to proliferate beyond Julia, Jacques, Paul Prudhomme and the Galloping Gourmet. Emeril Lagasse was well known, and there were Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, aka the “Two Hot Tamales,” on TV but most chefs of any renown stayed in their restaurants and sometimes wrote cookbooks. (I might have included Jeff Smith, public television’s Frugal Gourmet, here except that he was snotty to me once in Marshall Field’s when I tried to give him a compliment. He had his chance and he blew it.)

Most of my classmates aspired only to open a restaurant with their name over the door. Chef-instructors consistently tried to expose us to alternatives in the cooking world – hotels, hospitals (regular schedules!), country clubs – but everybody wanted a restaurant. (Everybody except me. I have neither the head for business nor any interest in it.)

I entered school with a fair set of culinary skills, so little of what I was exposed to seemed foreign, but still I learned a lot and the chefs were a diverse bunch. The Foodservice Sanitation class was enlightening. (Quiz: What are the four safe ways to thaw frozen food? Answer below.)

There was Chef Péladeau, the tall French-Canadian who implored us to cook “wit’ love, always wit’ love.” There was the world-class bread baker who knew disappointingly little about pastry. (He said in class one day that Mont Blanc meant “white food.” I raised my hand and suggested that he was possibly thinking of blancmange, but he only leered at me and didn’t respond.) There was the cake guy resembling Count Basie who’d spent a career on the rails cooking for executives of the Union Pacific.

When I think now about what of real everyday use I learned in those two years it doesn’t look like much but these tidbits really help to make my experience in the kitchen enjoyable. Maybe there’s something here for you.

1) Put a damp paper towel beneath your cutting board to keep it from slipping.
2) When you’re chopping cilantro there’s no need to bother removing the leaves from the stems. It’s the only herb for which that’s the case.
3) When you beat egg whites or whip cream in a stand mixer, stop before you think they’re stiff, remove the whisk attachment and hold it in your hand to finish the whipping. You’ll stay in better control that way.
4) When icing a cake, apply a crumb coat first and you’ll get a more attractive result.
5) Stuffed French toast impresses people. Between two slices of bread spread preserves, or maybe peanut butter and bananas, then dip the little sandwich into your egg mixture and fry it.
6) After you peel shrimp, use the shells to make either shrimp oil or shrimp stock, both of which are awfully useful in soups and sauces.
7) The darker you cook a roux, the less thickening power it has.
8) When making espresso, the rule is “No crema, no serva.”
9) An omelette takes less than a minute to make. Slide your little pan from front to back while stirring with a spatula in a circular motion with your other hand. It will set quickly. Just before it’s done, scatter in your cheese or sautéed mushrooms or whatever and immediately tilt your pan over a plate. Help the omelette gently to the edge of the pan, then let it roll onto the plate, and you’ll end up with a nice little oval.
10) If you’re serving poached eggs for a group, you can poach them ahead of time and keep them in a bowl of cold water. At the last minute, slip them into simmering water for half a minute or so to warm them back up.
11) Beurre manié is a much nicer way to thicken a sauce than a slurry of water and cornstarch.
12) Speaking of sauces, they taught us that using clarified butter to make Hollandaise makes it a little less likely to turn.
13) Pretty much anything that requires lemon juice will be improved by the addition of grated lemon zest.

I’m sure there’s more that I learned at the Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago, whose acronym CHIC embarrassed me, but that’s what I’m remembering right now.

Among my fellow students was the young black woman from Toronto who hated being referred to as African-American. “I’m Canadian!”

There was the guy from a Mexican family who only wanted to cook Mexican food. Every time he was asked to create a dish he cooked Mexican food. Mexican pasta, Mexican chicken, Mexican banana bread. An instructor asked him one day why he was in school if he only wanted to cook things he already cooked. “I’m Mexican. That’s what I cook.”

There was the vegetarian girl who never tasted her meat dishes but did a decent job of assessing doneness by touch and had no problem trimming racks of lamb, grilling steaks or sautéing duck breasts. During our Fish & Poultry class, though, when we were required to cut up chickens, she freaked out at the point where you pull the thigh outward from the body and it snaps. The sound jarred her so that she ran into the hall more than once to throw up. We were grateful that she left the kitchen first.

Culinary school was a lot of fun, even four days a week at 7 a.m. I graduated with high honors and cooked for a living for a while but don’t anymore.


Quiz answer: 1) in the refrigerator, 2) under potable running water no warmer than 70º, 3) in the microwave, but only if you’re going to finish cooking the food right away, or 4) by cooking it, such as when you put frozen fish sticks in the oven.