Today was my first day at culinary school at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and it was awesome! Food Basics, the savory portion of the culinary program will be in kitchen A for our class. Our instructor for Food Basics is Chef Eliana and we have an assistant, Joe, who is a recent grad. The class is on the small side with 6 students. I’m looking forward to interacting with everyone as we have very different backgrounds and long-term goals.
We started off with a few “housekeeping” items as she explained what we should expect, how classes will be structured. We will be learning through recipes that apply to the topic or technique the class is focused on. While each student will be assigned a recipe or to work on a couple as a team, we won’t be able to make every recipe ourselves unless we do additional work to study outside of class. Chef Eliana was quick to point out that the recipes matter less than technique. The recipes are simply a basis for learning. If we don’t get to practice a technique in class, it will come up several times in recipes and demos.
Each class going forward will start with a review of the previous class, a lecture and then we’ll move onto the kitchen and cook for our “lab”. The class ends with everyone sitting down to eat at a “family” meal, where we get to test everything that was made, critique what we liked and didn’t like, the flavors and textures we noticed and what we observed about ourselves that we would like to do better or what we feel we did well. The Chef instructors will also provide feedback to us and the class overall. Let’s get on with it!
As the lecture started and we went over general items, I took note of many key things that I’ll keep in the back of my mind throughout the semester.
- Take pictures of your work and classmates’. You will need pictures of your food for a program portfolio and pictures for others in case they aren’t able to get a picture before service.
- Mise en place will save you. Mise en place is essentially your prep work and setup to get ready to cook. If you don’t get yourself setup properly with ingredients sourced and measured along with the correct tools, you’re in for some trouble down the road.
- Wash all of your vegetables. Don’t believe the pre-washed label. You’re responsible for what you serve.
- Some sinks are for washing hands, some are for dishes, some can be used to wash food. You must be careful to use the right sink.
- Sharp items to be washed go in the “sharps” bucket. Nothing sharp goes in the sink.
- Steel you knife before each class. Your knives are essential kitchen tools.
- Think about the end product before you cook.
- Do not read recipes at the stove. If you are reading, you aren’t paying attention to what is being cooked. You should have reviewed your recipe several times to know what tools and ingredients you will need, how it will be plated and what the dependencies are.
- Recipes are not as important as technique.
- Every day we will work on our timing and communication. Working together as a team is what makes a kitchen work.
- Over communicate in the kitchen. Warn others of hot items, knives coming through, ovens being opened. Don’t get hurt and don’t hurt others.
- Food will be evaluated every time we cook. We will sit down to a meal together and critique each other and the Chefs will critique us.
- Think about plating from day 1. We eat with our eyes first. If we make a mistake, “rebrand” it. We are in the business of selling and if something tastes good and uses proper technique, that matters most as students.
- Use the appropriate sized plate for food being presented.
- Hot plates are for hot food and cold plates are for cold food.
- Our meal table must be set properly with forks, knives, spoons, and napkins in the right place.
We moved onto our main discussion and talked about some general concepts around food, cooking and presentation. Who knew, I would take so many notes on vegetables and herbs!
I enjoyed learning about how meal compositions are changing and moving away from being meat centric. We went over vegetables by their botanical categories, discussed parts of a plant and how they translate into what we call vegetables versus herbs and spices and what we actually eat. We also discussed the how some vegetables are treated like fruit and how some fruits are handled like vegetables as well as components of color, oxidation, nutrition and proper storage.
Chef Eliana described cooking as problem solving, noting that we will never have perfect conditions. Recipes are guides, not law. We must use judgement as we develop our skill.
For this class, the recipes had us employing different techniques including blanching and boiling, steaming, baking and roasting, grilling, sauteing, and sweating.
The end of the lecture focused on herbs, their proper use and storage and the differences between dry versus fresh herbs with respect to their taste and potency. We then tasted some raw herbs, described their flavors and their textures before moving into the kitchen.
Chef Eliana closed with a statement, saying we should “cook with intent, attention and always with love and affection. These are words to live by in the kitchen and with those words, we were off!
In the kitchen, everyone is given a task in addition to cooking their recipes which is either a kitchen duty or to support someone else. My job today was to check the stock items to ensure everything was at the right level. If anything was missing or needed refilling, I had to take care of that by visiting the pantry. Recreational classes take place over the weekend, and the kitchen can be in an unknown state with respect to ingredients. Today I only had to get more olive oil, salt and red wine vinegar. Other roles include kitchen management & cleanup, and being an expediter and I’ll get to play all of them in the future. We were warned to keep up with dishes so that when we were done, we didn’t have a huge amount to wash keeping us in at the school longer. We’re responsible for keeping the kitchen moving in all aspects.
As for a recipe, I had the pleasure of being assigned Chef Eliana’s least favorite, Old-Fashioned Grated Sweet Potato Pudding. The texture of the result from the recipe is something we discussed before I entered the kitchen. I read through the recipe quickly and began working on my mise en place hoping to get things setup properly. We must have our “mise” checked before we can cook.
I measured and portioned out everything I needed and got to work. After getting my station checked, Chef Eliana gave me some suggestions on how I could alter the recipe for better results which I gladly accepted. One of them included cutting my sweet potatoes into a large dice and putting them on a sheet pan to bake in the oven for a few minutes. This would soften and brown them and provide more flavor as well as a better texture. This was an early sign to all of us that changing the recipes was ok. In what seemed like no time at all, Maya, who was assigned the task of Expediter was asking me when I would be done. I had to do some quick calculations and then gave my best guess.
While my sweet potatoes were in the oven, I worked on a shared recipe with Peter, an Herbed Frittata. I got the mise ready and checked as Peter was working on his Gazpacho. Even though I thought I had a lot of time, the clock was ticking fast and I had to finish up the Sweet Potato Pudding to meet the time we had set for service with Maya. I kind of panicked and had Peter help me finish the recipe while I went back to finishing the pudding.
I had misread my recipe earlier and miscalculated the time for baking. I took the sweet potato out of the oven, let them cool and opted to change my cooking vessel from a regular 9×9 suggested in the recipe to some large ramekins which I thought would look nicer and hopefully cook faster! The problem was finding two identical ramekins that would be big enough, which I luckily found in another kitchen.
Near plating, I decided to make some whipped cream from scratch to go along with the presentation. I was totally winging it here without a recipe or ratios. As people walked by from other classes, they were quick to give advice, some that was conflicting. Unfortunately, when Chef Eliana came over to check my progress, I was told that I over whipped my cream into butter. It’s funny because I couldn’t tell, but I started over again and achieved a much better product.
Peter and I finished the frittata in the salamander (a professional kitchen broiler) and put it on a pizza peel for serving minutes before service time.
Amazingly we all finished on time and sat down to a great meal. The last few minutes felt tense, but we all breathed a sigh of relief as we took pictures of the final products, and served ourselves.
My Recipe, Old-Fashioned Grated Sweet Potato Pudding
Shared Recipe with Peter, Herbed Frittata
Fresh Green Bean Salad with Basil and Tomatoes & Garlic Basil Dressing
Hungarian Mushroom Soup
Baby Beet Salad With Mint and Tarragon
Key Observations and Learnings
- We managed to get food out on time which apparently has never happened.
- We totally failed at dishes and were left with a huge pile to clean.
- It’s nerve racking to cook in a new kitchen, but after we set out to work the nerves settled.
- Close the oven quickly after you put something in so you don’t drop the temperature. Convection ovens cool down much more quickly because the fan is blowing air around.
- Don’t panic. Just ask for help from a classmate.
- Time disappears when you’re busy
- Read your recipe fully until you know the steps well.
- Even though our class is small, we’ll be pushed to do most if not all of the recipes. Small class size is a blessing and a curse.
- Critiquing others’ work was fun and informative. We all had different points of view, likes and dislikes.
- Being critiqued by my classmates and the Chefs was constructive with lots of encouragement. We survived our first day.