The first semester was mostly general knowledge information, which initially had me worried. I knew a lot of the information and was concerned culinary school maybe wasn’t the right choice. But, I was wrong. I know nothing. Like with many things in life, what I knew was just the tip of the iceberg. It sets the foundation from which specific detailed focus and practical application derives from. Some of these basics include
- Knives: which knife for what, how to sharpen, and how to maintain
This might seem intuitive. A chef’s knife is the most general-purpose knife. It can be used for cutting a variety of vegetables—onion, potato, bell pepper, etc. A paring knife is best for smaller things like peeling and supreming an orange. Those are the two most common knives you’ll find in any home kitchen, but I also got familiar with the lesser known ones.
I learned how to use a boning knife on a chicken, and a meat slicing knife to carve cooked meat. Most of these jobs can be done with the same knife, but using a specific knife designed for that application makes the process so much easier, in addition to not stressing (and constantly dulling) your chef’s knife. For when your knives do dull, I learned when to use a sharpening stone vs. sharpening steel. Sharpening steel is used more regularly (before every time you cook) and the stone is occasionally (like every 3-4 months).
- Knife cuts
Knowing how to cut different sizes and shapes is essential in order to cook food consistently. But, cutting specific shapes like tourne, paysanne, or lozenge is not as crucial as it used to be. If you plan to work in fine dining or a French restaurant then you’ll definitely need to hone these skills, but otherwise no one will ask you to make potatoes into football shapes.
- Meat and Poultry
We spent 2-3 weeks learning beef and pork cuts, in addition to chicken and wild game hen. We practiced butchering the chicken and fabricating the beef and also learned the appropriate cooking method for each cut. I have beef down pat! I can name the primal cuts in 10 seconds and their associated fabricated cuts almost as quickly. Example: primal cut of the sirloin can be broken down into the sirloin steak, T-bone steak, NY strip steak, and the fillet mignon. The same method can be applied to pork, though I am not as confident.
- Cooking Temps
This is a good one and took the fear out of of cooking steaks. As expected the degrees of doneness changes depending on what you’re cooking. Technically, chicken is 180F (WHAT?), which would make a horribly overcooked chicken, but it’s also acceptable at 165F, which is still considered well done. For steaks, if you want rare ( bleu as the french would say) that’s 120-125F and well-done (please do not order a steak well done) that’s 165F+. As long as you have a thermometer and knowledge of the correct temperatures, it makes cooking meats and poultry to be juicy and tender much easier.
- Stocks, mother & secondary sauces
This harkens back to the French culinary tradition of cooking stocks for sauces, which has become marginal in modern American cooking. Before it was common place to be served a protein with a sauce, vegetable, and starch. We still have sauces, but they’re not the refined mornay sauces from a milk base and béchamel leading sauce we see. They still exist and are a staple in fine dining, but the popularity has declined.
- Not all students love food
This surprised me the most. During syllabus week a popular method of introduction was to state your name and a food you disliked. Okay, a single food I can understand. I don’t like beets, but otherwise I’ll eat anything. Also, I’m not talking about allergies, you don’t have a choice– that’s not a like/dislike situation. Anyway, some students were giving entire groups of food, like seafood or Chinese food. What? Most common answers were olives and mushrooms.
I think why culinary students, who dislike many foods, shocks me so much is because that’s how I discovered my passion for cooking. It was through trying new ingredients. These introductions and unusual pairings were a safe way for me to be adventurous. I could try a really spicy food and get an adrenaline kick without being in actual danger (fun fact this phenomena is called benign masochism).
I’m excited to see what next semester brings. Although there’s no formal cooking classes for me this semester (ugh), I’ll be learning a lot about the industry and operating a restaurant, which is also important.
Did anything on the list surprise you? Or, do you have any questions about culinary school or the classes? Let me know in the comments below.