On Friday I graduated from culinary school after six months of nonstop eating and countless loads of laundry — and having learned more than I ever thought possible.
A guest speaker, the head chef at Acquerello, came to class recently and said something that I may never forget. She said next time you’re feeling bad about your life, think about where you were six weeks ago. And six months ago. And six years before that. Then whatever seems like such a big deal now may start to feel pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of the progress you’ve made.
That idea has never felt more pertinent than it does now, as I realize the treasure that these past six months have been. So now, a look back.
10. It’s Okay to Play with Your Food
It’s no secret that half the fun of fine dining is in the presentation. The French clearly have a sense of humor when it comes to plating, so why shouldn’t the rest of us?
9. Make Your Own Bread and Pasta, and Say Goodbye to Your Therapist
Mix the dough. Let it rise. Knead. Let it rise again. Proof. Score. Bake.
There are so many reasons not to make your own doughs from scratch, starting with: Who has the time? But sometimes you do, and it’s worth the effort. I never feel more at peace than when I’m rolling out sheets of fresh pasta, touching the dough with my fingertips and dusting it with flour.
My instructor always says that the care you take with your food determines the end result. Treat yourself.
8. Waste Not, Eat Bread
In a professional kitchen, you aim to waste nothing. If duck breasts are on the menu, the bones are going in the stock. Butternut squash soup? Garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds. When food is money, professionals learn to be resourceful.
The French use a suspicious amount of bread in their classic dishes, and it’s no coincidence; bread was one thing households always had leftover. Thus, dishes were born to use up stale bread. We all love bread pudding, but there’s a reason recipes call for “day-old” bread.
Judy Rodgers is the brainchild behind Zuni Café‘s famous Whole Roasted Chicken with Bread Salad, a version of which we made in class (above). See those croutons? Rodgers once said she dreamed of writing a cookbook solely devoted to using up leftover bread.
And if you’re not feeling creative, you can always make breadcrumbs. They freeze beautifully.
7. Chocolate Is a Necessity
Few ingredients are more difficult to work with than chocolate.
If chocolate is in the dessert, I can count on some stains. It’s sticky. It seizes if it gets too hot and stays lumpy if too cold. It doesn’t hide mistakes well at all, and it melts at body temperature. Don’t even get me started about making chocolate garnishes.
That said, chocolate has a peculiar way of coating your tongue when you take a bite… And all is forgiven.
6. Don’t Panic: You Can Fix It…
If your soup is too thick, add some stock. If the sauce is too salty, swirl in some butter. If you broke your beurre blanc, bring it back with some cream.
The reality is that short of burning your vegetables or overcooking your meat, it’s hard to ruin a savory dish completely. Seasonings may always be tweaked, and I’ve come to see that cooking is as much about damage control as it is about succeeding the first time around.
5. … That Is, Unless You’re a Pastry Chef
Soufflés, custards and confections aren’t quite as forgiving. Precision is key.
4. Cooking Is a Contact Sport
Fact: When 13 people share 2 small kitchens every day, when they are trying to beat the clock, when they’re all working on different recipes at once… Life can become messy.
Physically messy, of course, when spills are involved, and even dangerous. Come into my school any hour of the day and you’d hear people yelling, “Behind you! Hot pan!” in a frenzy.
Also, this is no home kitchen. Leaving a dirty pan on the stove, keeping a messy station and failing to take out the compost are sins punishable by death (read: severe disapproval).
However, the mental and emotional challenge of constant teamwork is much more rewarding. Few efforts leave me more satisfied than walking away exhausted from a four-person assembly line in which everyone is working deliberately toward the same goal: a perfect plate.
3. Pastries Only Look Sweet
A divide exists between sweet and savory, and the chefs who specialize in each. The savory folks are all about hustle and multitasking, but when it comes to pastry, precision and focus reign supreme.
Don’t be fooled: cake decorating is no, well, piece of cake. It takes a steady hand and an otherworldly confidence not to taint your masterpiece, not to mention an exacting attention to detail. The pastry chefs I’ve met over the past six months are some of the most impressive cooks I’ve had the pleasure to observe.
2. Live to Eat
I honestly believe that the number one thing you can do to make yourself a better cook is to taste, taste again, and then taste again. Add salt and taste again; squeeze a few drops of lemon and taste again. The better you understand how isolated seasonings and ingredients affect the flavor of a dish, the better your palate will become, making you more adept in the kitchen.
Taste everything. Fish mousse, smoked salmon soufflé and beef heart are not a few of my favorite things, to say the least, but I tried them all — and cooked them. I even ordered tripe out at a restaurant, and I might do it again. I tasted 15 dessert soufflés in one day (tough job). This education is just as much about comprehending flavors and textures as it is about learning technique.
Yes, I ate a lot of food, and I enjoyed the vast majority of it. In the end though, you’ll benefit so much more if you step outside your comfort zone and really think about what you’re eating.
1. Just Cook
I could have cried when my instructor told our class we wouldn’t be allowed to bring any recipes into the kitchen after Christmas. In reality, that independence was the most valuable thing she ever taught me.
Recipes are guidelines, and in a course like mine they can become a crutch. When I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, I clutched those recipes and read every word.
Keeping them out of sight and out of mind was surprisingly liberating, and it taught me to trust myself. How much white wine do you add to a braising liquid? Try a few glugs. Use your instincts and common sense, have a little faith in yourself, and I promise it will all turn out fine.
And if it doesn’t… See Lesson #6.