Ten Things That Surprised Me about Culinary School

23 Jan

I get asked a lot of questions from curious friends and colleagues about my decision to belatedly attend culinary school. Of course, the most FAQ I get, from those who did not witness the process I went through beforehand,  is” How did you make up your mind?” I’ve written about my deliberations previously in my inaugural blog post, Linzer to Litigator. I am writing this posting to give you a glimpse of my world as student in the baking and pastry program at Johnson & Wales, and specifically to highlight a few things, both serious and trivial, that surprised me, and may surprise you, about my current undertaking.

#1 The most important tool that I bring with me to culinary labs every day is arguably not my knife kit, but my cheepo blue and white plastic TI calculator. It isn’t fancy, it doesn’t have graphing functions, and it doesn’t do any cool tricks, but it is essential. Your performance every day in baking and pastry labs is dependent on correct recipe formula conversions and knowing weight and volume equivalents cold. The school prioritizes teaching its students math. We are drilled constantly with university quizzes in addition to the quizzes and final written exams given to us by our chef instructors. In addition to math in the culinary lab, we are also required to take courses in both nutrition and menu cost control, which, you can guess, involve even more math. One of my chef instructors is a CPA and used to run the bakeries at Princeton University.  Fortunately, I love math and precision, but if you don’t, you might not be so fond of pastry school or the pastry industry as a whole. There is a reason why pastry folks are reputed to be “exact” and “fastidious.”

#2 Yes, we bake all day, but contrary to what people think, we don’t get to take food home. I have had a lot of people ask me if they can be tasters for some of my classroom creations. Sadly, I have to tell them that school policy is that we cannot take any food out of the classrom. The rumor is that certain students were caught selling cakes they made on the street and that others got sick after eating baked goods that were left in cars overnight. So the official policy is that everything stays in school. And yes, there is a lot of food that doesn’t get eaten. Some food is used for university events and orders; some food gets shuttled to the culinary labs; some is eaten by us in class; and some is donated to local food banks. But some of what we bake doesn’t keep safely, so unfortunately, there are also baked goods that get tossed. At least they go into composting and not straight into the garbage. But still, it is sad to know that it gets pitched at the end of the day, especially when such effort is expended.

#3 Somewhat related to #2, I have not gained, but rather have lost weight in culinary school. Yes, you are scratching your head you say? How is that we use the richest ingredients every day (pounds of butter, heavy whipping cream with greater than 40% fat, chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate), and the lbs aren’t packing? It is a combination of factors. First, I’m sure I would gain weight if we did actually get to take our baked goods home. Second, culinary school is a good amount of physical labor. Heavy cleaning and constant motion, and walking back and forth to school with a heavy knife kit and back pack means that I get more exercise than I did as an attorney with a desk job. I also think what I call the Boston Chicken phenomena is a factor. My first job as a 16-year-old was as a server at Boston Rotisserie Chicken. Before working there, I loved the chicken. After working there, I would find myself coming home “full” even when I hadn’t eaten anything. Constantly smelling the chicken and being around it made me feel as if I had actually consumed it. Likewise, constantly being around sweets can start to desensitize you to the thrills of sugar and butter. Sure, I sample things, and in some classes like Artisan Breads, I was required to taste everything I made in order to evaluate it for our baking journal and log, but in most classes, no one is force feeding you. And after a while, you start to crave salt and savory items to balance out all the sugar.

#4 Six hours of lab is just the beginning of the day. We are required to report to lab promptly at 7am, which for me means waking up at 5:30 so that I can make sure I am organized before walking over to school. I put on my white socks, black shoes, chef pants and white shirt underneath my chef jacket, button it with my green collar, attach my name tag to my jacket, make sure I have sharpies and pens in my arm pocket, my calculator, camera, tiny notebook, and student ID in my pockets, and of course my tool kit and apron with side towel. Once lab, a combination of lecture, baking, and quiz/test taking is done for the day, I have a menu and cost control class for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I go home, I read and study the next day for impromptu quizzes, practice some of the skills I learned (e.g.,  folding paper cones, piping chocolate filigrees and buttercream roses), review videos I took in lab of fundamental skills, research and write papers, do my laundry, and complete math homework problems and recipe conversions for the next day’s lab. I write a lot of papers in culinary school,with  topics ranging from the history, uses, and harvesting of a particular fruit to economic, political, and (yes) judicial developments that impact the price of bakeshop ingredients, to analysis of a food service operation concepts and menus. Culinary school here isn’t just about the kitchen. The school really does try to produce well-rounded, exposed and informed pastry chefs-in-training.

#5 My paranoia about being late/missing class definitely qualifies as neurotic.  When I first started culinary school, I set two plug-in alarms for the morning. This is because the attendance policy is unforgiving. In each 9 day segment, you are allowed to miss one day of class. You don’t want to miss one day of class because that is 6 hours of material that is impossible to make up, much of which will likely be on your practical exam. If you miss two days of class, you are dropped from the lab and you have to take the whole thing over. Tardiness is also not tolerated. For this reason, you just can’t get sick. Or if you are sick, you gotta fake it until you make it and drag yourself to class. One weekend when I went home, my return flight was grounded because of a mechanical problem. You better believe I did everything in my power to make sure I got on another flight leaving from a different airport later that night. I’ve dragged myself to class sick many a time and have started drinking raspberry Emergen-C multiple times a day to boost my immune system. I live in fear of power outages, so I now have a plug-in alarm, a battery-powered alarm, and I get my husband to call me in the morning since he is up any way!

#6 My feet don’t hurt from standing and moving around. In fact, it is getting to the point that if I sit too long, my knees start to ache and my legs get restless. I have heard some students complain about the standard issue slip resistant black shoes we are required to wear (with white socks only) not being the most comfortable, but buying mine 1/2 size larger and tricking them out with good orthotics seems to have saved my feet some grief.

#7 Culinary students discuss grades WAY more than law students. This was the biggest surprise for me. Perhaps it is because the average culinary student is a good bit younger (6 to 8 years) than the average law student. Or maybe it was the company I kept or the law school I went to (NYU), which was definitely not free of competition, but was more “relaxed” than some of the other top tier law schools in that way. I try to keep my grades to myself, but someone is always looking at my paper or straight out asking me.

#8 There are a lot of students in the program who profess to not like chocolate, or for that matter, other things like fruit or almond paste that you would think of as essential ingredients in the pastry kitchen. I guess they like the act of creating, but it does surprise me how many closed minds are in the classroom, although I’m sure part of this is because of the “tender” age of the majority of the student body.

#9 My work in culinary school, more than any other academic or professional experience I have had to date, is dependent upon group cooperation. Much of your final practical exam is individual, but even that can depend on your group composing certain batters or doughs. You  also find yourself enormously constrained on practical day by when other people in your group are using certain equipment or ingredients, including the ovens. Unfortunately, not all groups are created equal. Personalities clash, and not everyone organizes or executes in the same way. A bad group experience can ruin an otherwise interesting class. So what you see on Top Chef in Restaurant Wars and other group challenges is actually not far off the mark.

#10 Our culinary uniform caps are REALLY small. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a tiny head/face. In fact, my mom tells a story about the nurse’s reaction to my head size when she was pregnant with me and had a sonogram.  The nurse’s comments at the time alarmed her because she thought the nurse was implying there was something wrong with me. Well, I turned out pretty okay, I think! Just with a “petite” ponem. However, despite my head size, I do have big curly hair that resists confinement. The first day I tried on my school-issue capped, I wrestled with it valiantly, but my hair kept escaping and literally “pushing” the cap off my head. Ultimately, my solution has been to put my hair in one wretchedly tight braid, put my cap on my skull, and then tuck the braid tail into the side of the cap. Unfortunately, this makes the hat kind of tight, and added to the fact that I wear glasses, the cap starts to give me a headache by the end of most days. It presses my glasses into the side of my little head. Given that my “X-Small” chef uniform makes me look like one of the kids in the Frosted mini wheats commercials wearing adult clothes, my cap is comically small in proportion.

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8 Responses to “Ten Things That Surprised Me about Culinary School”

  1. Charmaine @ Speakeasy Kitchen January 24, 2011 at 4:39 am #

    Interesting (and amusing) insight into your days. Hang in there, J. You were made for this!

    • LaVonna May 5, 2012 at 1:37 am #

      I loved this post. I am starting Culinary school in Sept at JWU-N. Miami!! Thanks for the heads up!

      • levjoh May 5, 2012 at 1:43 am #

        LaVonna, so glad that you found the post helpful! Wishing you all the best this fall with classes!

  2. LaVonna May 5, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    Thank you! I’m so excited. I’m a 3rd year bio student right now. But I decided that Culinary Arts is truly where my heart is.

  3. Sarah July 5, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    I can totally relate!!!!! I am a student at Kendall College and absolutely love the culinary program. I have actually lost 10 lbs because I am eating fresher and healthier dishes rather than take out and baked goods. Great post!

    • levjoh July 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      Thanks for reading and for your nice comment! I am glad you are enjoying Kendall–I remember looking at the program there and being jealous I didn’t live in Chicago.

    • Lydia February 24, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

      This post was a while ago, but I’m really interested in going to Kendall, in 2014, I was wondering if I could maybe ask you some questions? I’ve talked to the representative that came to my school, but I didn’t get to ask many questions. At that point I didn’t know what to ask.

      • levjoh July 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

        Hi Lydia, so sorry that I am just replying now. I had a family tragedy earlier this year and between that and work, I kind of fell off with writing on the blog. By now it is likely too late to answer your questions about school, but feel free to write if there is anything I can still help with.

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