In my “What I Learned in Culinary School” series, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks that I learned from two years of working with some of the country’s best chefs. This will include big things like learning to work efficiently, and small things like how to cook bacon perfectly. All of them will be applicable to your home kitchen, making you a faster, better, and more confident cook.
I always wanted to start a blog in culinary school, but I just never got around to it. It would have been a natural fit, with a TON of fresh content each day, so I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do it. But, after waking up at 4:30 am and going through a long, grueling day at school, by the time I got home in the late afternoon, I was beat to hell. If I was feeling extra motivated, I would drag myself to the gym to try to counteract the ten million calories of food I was forced to taste each day. Other days, I would just take a nap, wait for my husband to get home, make dinner, and then go to bed and start it all over again. Needless to say, the culinary school blog just didn’t happen.
Now that I finally DID start a food blog (albeit, almost a year after I graduated), I figured it’s better late than never to start sharing some of the things I learned from my time in school. I shared The 5 Most Valuable Things I Learned in Culinary School in a guest post for Yummly last week. To be honest, it was hard to narrow it down to just 5, and I couldn’t do it! So, I’m back today and I’ll be back next week with two more lists of other great things I learned. These will be general big-picture things I learned that have really helped me out in the kitchen. After these posts, I’ll start sharing some more specific lessons – how to work with certain ingredients and equipment, how to design plate presentations, etc. Now, without further ado, the next 5:
With 300 students raiding the refrigerators and storeroom each day, sometimes you just couldn’t find the one ingredient you thought you needed. Well, you had to finish the dish you were assigned nonetheless. No lemons? Use limes. No couscous? Use quinoa. No pine nuts? Just use some almonds. I now use this strategy all the time at home. I love finding new recipes online and from magazines, but I don’t always feel like buying a bunch of new ingredients. Once you get the hang of letting go of trying to make each recipe to the tee, and start substituting when you can, it becomes second nature. Why did I use the photo above to illustrate this point? Because the chef instructor wanted me to puree some tomato sauce by passing it through a ricer. Not wanting to get my white coat all dirty, and because I didn’t have a baby’s bib….I substituted by tying an apron around my neck and calling it a bib. I look gross in this photo, because 4:30 am was too early to put in contacts or mess with makeup. Sorry.
Do I “plate” every single dinner I serve to my husband and I in a beautiful fashion? Absolutely not. But for special occasions, presentation will make such a big difference. It takes just a little bit more time and effort, but the rewards are huge. Just take a look at the cheesecake above. I could have left it plain or decorated with all one fruit, but because the school had an endless supply of fresh fruit on hand, I really went for it, and used everything. Even if you just used two or three different fruits to decorate a cheesecake, it would be that much more special than a plain version.
These ravioli took me like six hours to make. I made the filling (broccoli rabe, pine nuts, ricotta) from scratch, and then made homemade pasta and sheeted that out. Then, I filled and cut each ravioli. Sure, I was new to making homemade pasta, so I was probably less than efficient at it. But still….six hours. And I’d be extremely lucky if there were 100 ravioli there. They were served as part of a buffet dinner, and they were gone in less than an hour. So much work, for so little.
On the flip side, once a week for a semester, I went to Wine & Spirits class. Sure, there was a sort of boring lecture, quizzes, tests, and a 20 pound book about all things wine to read. But, each week, there was also a tasting. We had 3 weeks of beer, then 12 weeks of wine from around the world, then a week of scotch tasting. Yeah, Monday nights weren’t too shabby. Plus, we didn’t have to wear our uniforms to this class (possibly the best part).
That’s me and my friend the octopus. How did this happen? Well, for my final exam of my final class of school, each student drew the name of a country out of a hat, and was required to make a complete meal from that country. I drew Greece, which was great – l.e.m.o.n.s. However, I procrastinated and then procrastinated some more on planning my menu. One day, the chef went around the room and asked everybody to tell him their menu. Having done very little research, I blurted out “Octopus!” because I had read somewhere that octopus is prepared often in Greece. Well, I was then stuck actually butchering and cooking a whole octopus. I was nervous, but after some research and a little bit of trial-and-error, my braised octopus with lemon and oregano turned out great!
For more tips and tricks from my school days, be sure to check out my culinary school archive.