My Painful, Wonderful Year at Culinary School
Or, how I learned that I'm a burner, not a cutter, when I put my career on hold to attend Johnson & Wales
Last August, I walked into my first college class since graduating from Queens University in 1993. This time, instead of sandals and jeans, I wore a full uniform and carried a bag of knives. I looked around the Intro to Baking and Pastry lab at the other students in their crisp, white coats and checkered pants. Most were eighteen or nineteen years old. I thought to myself, "Sure, you love to cook, but do you belong here?" And then my first instructor, Chef Armin Gronert, locked his gaze on me.
"Miss Adams, what are those in your ears?" he asked in his clipped German accent, eyebrows raised. "I know they are not earrings, because that is not part of your standard uniform." Yes, this time around, college would be very different indeed.
You know you've finally learned a foreign language once you speak it in your dreams. In culinary school, your dreams turn to hollandaise, proper poaching temperature, and the consommé method. The occasional nightmares about lost fingertips and massive burn scars creep in. When you open your eyes in the morning, often before they open, the same three words pop into your head. Mise en place. It's a French phrase meaning "everything in its place" and, during an intense year at Johnson & Wales University, it became my mantra.
Nearly a year before beginning the program, I lost my father very suddenly. His death affected me in ways I struggled to comprehend. For eight years I had owned a successful communications and video consulting firm. I enjoyed my work and my clients, but something was missing. I wrote Jump! on a sticky note and slapped it on the side of my computer monitor. I studied that word every day. "Living is learning," I thought. "And if you're not living on the edge, then you're just taking up room." So I jumped.
In June, I called the school, took a tour, and applied on the spot to begin classes in August. I got back in the car with an armload of financial aid and school loan applications and no earthly idea what was to come.
I imagined days in the kitchen, learning the secrets of preparing masterful dishes from master chefs. On good days, that happened. Other days were a blur of churning out dish after dish with little direction, owing to the number of students competing for an instructor's attention.
I learned more about the industry than I ever expected. Curious how successful restaurants decide on a location and menu? It can be as complicated as launching a space shuttle. Ever wonder why some cuts of meat are so much tougher than others? It all depends on which part of the animal they come from and how much work that particular muscle does. Want to know whether you can still eat that rice from the Chinese takeout you left on the kitchen counter for a few hours? Trust me. Don't risk it.
I signed on for an accelerated program, which allows students with a bachelor's degree to complete the culinary arts associate's degree in just one year. Most students take either culinary labs or academics each term. I took both — academics in the morning followed by labs each afternoon and evening. It often meant twelve-hour days at school.
In between, I memorized measures, formulas, and the names and symptoms of dozens of food-borne illnesses. I spent hours reading and doing homework. I took test after test after test. I wrote dozens of papers on the history of garlic, the impact of fuel prices on food cost, the return of rye whiskey as a trend in cocktails, and the many uses of agar agar, a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of red algae.
I took part in discussions on farm subsidies, molecular gastronomy, genetically modified foods, and the volatility of the international food market. I attended lectures ranging from the sublime (world-renowned chef Alice Waters) to the ridiculous (a sales representative of a major fruit distributor who seemed more like a greasy salesman trolling for future customers).
I studied under people who have excelled in some of the best restaurants and resorts in the world. As a student not looking for a traditional culinary career, it wasn't always relevant, but it was almost always entertaining. We heard horrific and hilarious stories that would have never passed the lips of professors at more traditional universities. And then we cooked. Boy, did we cook. But first, we baked.
In that first class, we spent nine days covered in flour, making rolls, breads, pies, cakes, pizzas, quiche, Danishes, and croissants. For the record, a single croissant has more than 150 individual layers. I believe they should cost $10 each, and I would gladly pay it to never make one again. Baking was not my strong suit.
Next, our class moved on to Soups, Stocks, and Sauces and then whizzed through ten more classes before winter break. Every lab in the culinary program runs nine days, about six hours each day. Imagine trying to learn classical French cuisine in nine days. Merde! International Cuisine encompassed Asia, Africa, South America, and the Mediterranean—in nine days. That means one day for all of Italy. Impossible in any language.
As a born perfectionist, frankly I struggled. In my former career, I knew what I was doing. I was confident, never missing a detail. As a student, I questioned everything about my abilities. I had started my career producing live television news. Surely I could braise a lamb shank and make a solid sauce. As a student, though, that all goes out the window. "Forget perfection," I thought. "Just keep stirring!"
By design, the classes are broad brush strokes with a focus on learning the foundations of cooking techniques: sautéing, frying, broiling, grilling, braising, stewing, and so on. We picked up plenty of random fun facts and cool tricks along the way, which only reminded us just how much more there was to learn. And then there are knife skills. I relearned how to hold my chef's knife properly. I learned the exact cuts for julienne, batonnette, brunoise, macedoine, and countless others. I practiced on potatoes and carrots until my fingers cramped. I turned asparagus spears into tiny football shapes. Well, sort of.
My saving grace at Johnson & Wales came in the form of another student who happened to be placed in my first class rotation. Claire was twenty-nine and had just moved with her husband from Manhattan. Like me, she had a passion for food, and culinary school seemed like a natural step to make the career leap from environmental scientist to chef.
Claire was my sanity stick. We signed up for the same classes each term to ensure there was always a voice of reason just a table away. We bonded over the real, mutual stress we felt over, say, making a perfect paella or remembering the name of the azuki bean. Just a few months earlier we had been dealing with clients, deadlines, budgets, and, in her case, national security issues.
One afternoon, exhausted and filthy, we watched a group of well-heeled businesswomen walking along Trade Street, chatting and laughing. They carried handbags and laptops as we carried bags of trash to the dumpster on the first floor. We were both thinking the same thing. Claire turned to me and deadpanned, "Sure, they may be going for happy hour cocktails, but we have better shoes." Looking down at our grease-covered clogs, we burst into laughter, dumped the trash, and headed back upstairs to scrub some more pots.
Our academic classes ranged from nutrition and sanitation to menu planning and cost-control analysis. Inexplicably, we were also required to take Introduction to Career Management. We spent an entire semester on concepts like résumé writing and interview skills. This was, by far, the biggest waste of my very expensive degree. Johnson & Wales prides itself on being a career university. Unfortunately, the curriculum is so rigid that I had no opportunity to add, say, a class in French language or food writing, something that could be beneficial to the new career path that was beginning to take shape in my head.
Rigid is the point, I imagine, when preparing students to enter this industry. There is a military-like atmosphere at the school. I can't count how many times we heard, "Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance!" Sometimes it was spoken. Sometimes it was yelled. I felt so badly for a young student who took a verbal flogging one day, having forgotten that rice will cook to about three times its size. He stood next to that tiny, overflowing pot, stammering, "Yes, Chef. Right away, Chef. Never again, Chef."
Attitude was everything. Come to class with a bad one and you might get dismissed for the day. Most of the students worked with purpose and drive. There were a couple of culinary stars in each class: bright, unflappable, amazing cooks who will no doubt run fine restaurants one day. Then there were the students who didn't seem to know why they were there at all. One student forgot to bring a hat, apron, or even a knife kit to class most days. Another refused to taste most of the food, even the dishes she had cooked. (I mean, it's culinary school. Try the freakin' sweetbreads, already!)
Claire and I talked constantly about our indoctrination into this bizarre world. Over beers after class, we reminded each other that we still had real lives; that we should stop stressing over grades and projects. Then we would talk about how stressed we felt.
Admittedly, being graded by chefs with twenty or thirty years' experience makes you as self-conscious as drinking red wine on a date with a dentist. It was so easy to get bogged down in technique and memorization. For a while, I forgot that I actually liked to cook, opting for salads and yogurt at home to avoid the stove. My friends made vague inquiries about the long, lost dinner parties that I threw "BS" — before school.
I finished my first two terms just before Christmas. Around this time, I realized I was fully and completely a culinary student. My old life was gone. Here's how you know: At an elegant wedding reception, you instinctively cough into the elbow of your sleeve, rather than politely into a napkin. After using a squeegee nightly for five months, you seriously consider installing a floor drain in the middle of your own kitchen. You trade in the word recipe for MOP (method of production). You tell what you consider to be an interesting anecdote from meat-cutting class to a horrified friend about to bite into a juicy New York strip. Apparently, the details of how a cow is killed with a bolt gun to the forehead just before it's butchered is not acceptable table talk for normal people.
I also learned I was a burner. I remain covered in small battle scars. Working a crowded, scorching-hot line with a dozen other students lends itself to small accidents. We were taught to sprinkle flour on the handle of a hot pot to warn others. That didn't always happen. I got used to it. I did have to visit the nurse once for a serious burn. I don't think I had actual, detectable fingerprints for a couple of weeks and pondered whether I could get away with bank robbery during that time to help offset my mounting school debt. I have a theory that culinary students are either burners or cutters. (Claire was a classic cutter.) A scant few are both. I didn't see them around campus much after the holidays.
Our sophomore-level labs started in January and, as we progressed, so did the quality of the products we used. As a freshman, you work with fried chicken, not foie gras. As a sophomore, a chef might hand you a few hundred dollars' worth of beautiful ingredients and leave you to it. So if you were assigned the lobster entrée for forty, it was yours and yours alone to screw up.
We eventually served more elaborate courses to full dining rooms. The focus on timing and plate presentation were much more akin to a commercial kitchen than a classroom. I improved in both as the year progressed, but many of my plates bore an uncanny resemblance to Wilson, Tom Hanks's crude volleyball buddy in the film Castaway.
Our class spent one gorgeous spring day outside carving ice sculptures. Creating art with power tools is as difficult as you might imagine, especially with the afternoon sun melting your work as fast as you make it.
Every nine-day lab ends with both a written and a practical exam. My final practical at Johnson & Wales was in Garde Manger, a course in cold foods, smoking, curing, pâtés, mousse, terrines, and a host of other topics. For the practical exam we had to compose an original salad and six portions each of two canapés in one hour. The goal is beauty and simplicity, which tends to require a great deal more technique than you might expect. Also, being the end of the school year, ingredients were in short supply, so we had no way of knowing exactly which products we might have on hand that day. Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. Sure, okay.
It was one of the fastest hours of my life, culminating in a true Iron Chef-like experience. I walked in, assessed my ingredients, made my menu, mise en place'd my station and got to work. I had just put my first reduction sauce on the stove when Chef Paul Malcolm, a true talent, called out, "Thirty minutes." What? I glanced up at him and he was almost giggling at the panic ensuing around him.
When he called time, I was still plating. My canapés were a success. Chef Malcolm studied my salad of pear and pickled red onions with blue cheese, roasted walnuts, and citrus-mint vinaigrette and declared it "a fine attempt." I didn't point out its Wilson-esque qualities until after he had assessed my grade.
With my whirlwind year at Johnson & Wales over, it's time to mise en place what's next. I won't be cooking in a restaurant kitchen, but I have a healthy, worshipful respect for those who do. I'm working to combine my two careers, weaving old passions with new skills and new passions with old skills. I developed unexpected interests as a result of my school experience — global food shortages, nutrition, sustainable farming. I'm now much more curious about where my dinner comes from before it hits my pan or my plate.
Many people ask, if I could do it again, whether I would pursue my degree at Johnson & Wales. I would. I'm glad I jumped, and I think Dad would be proud too. When other people ask me whether they should take the culinary school route, here's what I tell them: if you have a passion for cooking, indulge it. Experiment, read, take a few cooking classes. Unless you want a specific career in the food industry, you most likely don't need the degree. Many successful chefs don't even have it. If you're one of those people who always dreamed of running your own restaurant and would like to turn an actual profit, I offer the advice of so many of my instructors: think breakfast, not beurre blanc.