As long as I live, I will never forget that first day of culinary fundamentals. My Chef, I’ll call him Chef G. Had all 21 of us (in two weeks it would drop down to 13) in the “classroom” portion of the kitchen (an open space with foldable desks and a projector). We sat down and he began to play a little PSA. It was a young girl, about my age, talking about how she had just become a Sous Chef and was going to get married in just a few weeks. As she was talking she was lifting and carrying a big pot of oil. And then she slips. The oil was burning hot. And she’s screaming. The screen goes black. She’s still screaming over the audio.
I can’t remember what the words on the screen were, but I remember what Chef G. said, “You are the most dangerous thing in this kitchen. Not the stoves, knives, or open flames, it’s you.”
WELCOME TO CULINARY FUNDAMENTALS AT THE CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA
Culinary Fundamentals is the biggest course you take your first year. A 15 week program that meets 28 times. My skills Chef was tough, but fair. I would guess he was in his late 30’s, married, and has earned every bit of respect he commanded at the front of the room. He doesn’t come across as prideful or overly self-important. Rather, he believed he was on the same team as the students, sort of like a coach or team captain, his success depended on ours.
Culinary Fundamentals for Culinary Students is the Organic Chemistry for Biology majors. It’s the weed out class for the lazy and dumb but it’s the joke class to the super knowledgable.
Every day I went into Culinary Fundamentals thinking, today will be the day! I’ll cut perfect cubes, I’ll show up all those Asians with their precision knife skills and clean work stations. Okay, may not show them up but at least be able to compete. Knife skills were tough for me, and my Chef was a tough grader. Worse, he knew I cared so I think he gave me worse grades knowing I’d only try harder. I did, but it also devastated my morale.
The great thing about having Chef G that first semester was that nobody handed me anything. I got no sympathy or pity. I was never given an “A” for “effort”. I didn’t want that. I wanted to become better.
HOW IT WORKS
The basic timeline for the class is this: You walk in, hand in a copy of your timeline for the day based on what the recipe was. Your timeline had all of the ingredients you would need in the proper amounts, and how you would prep in 15 minute increments for the entire 6 hour (if you were lucky and good) class. Then, you began your team jobs.
The class was divided into teams on the first day. Each week the teams would change jobs in a rotational manner. Team A was stocks, Team B was Sanitation Team C was Food Stewards Team D Production. Unfortunately somehow my team and I got stuck on stocks more than any other team. Every day each fundamentals class made chicken stock and vegetable stock and every other day we made beef stock. It consists of weighing and cutting the mirepoix (50% onions, 25% carrots, 25% celery) for the amount of bones we had, weighing the water, skimming throughout the day, and of course then straining and bagging at the end of the day.
Regardless, we would go into our duties. Sanitation team put out pots, pans, sanitation buckets, filled the tri-bin sinks, etc. The stock team, prepped the stocks for the day. The storeroom team would wash all the produce, bag or store the items. The ingredient list team would have their own list of all ingredients needed for everyone in the class and create a little “bin” (aka the flimsiest aluminum foil Tupperware) that two people would share with all of their mise-en-place for the day. Whenever team K was on this job, it was particularly messed up. Nobody ever had enough of what they needed or they had way too much.
Once all of the initial prep work was done, Chef would perform a demo. He would show us the beginning steps of what we needed to accomplish. How things worked, ask us questions to see if we did the homework etc. Then, he would send us off and we were supposed to replicate exactly what he did. This sounds simple – it’s not. I can’t tell you why exactly, perhaps it was because often enough our mise-en-place wasn’t in place, or because I had an over-zealous station partner that would quite often use my mise-en-place up so I was constantly searching for things.
Chef would give us a time where we would have to accomplish everything he did, ideally, and then he would complete his demo. At that point, we would have to lower our burners, or turn them off and stop cooking. This is a problem if you’re behind and still on a timeline.
He would show us how to plate if needed, and then we would be off. We had to be done at a certain time and within a certain window. The teams would present in a rotational order (so that Team A wasn’t required to be done first every week) depending on the week.
Day one was tough – as expected, but it was a learning day. Chefs won’t go easy on you, but they explain a lot so it’s like a softer-lead in to the course. Day two, was a completely different story. The training wheels were off and it was go time – and I had no idea what I was in for.
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