Culinary School Confidential: Chopping Through Week 1

Vegetable Cutting Practice
They're not uniform yet, but I'll get there.
Practice, Practice, Practice!

I’ve been chopping away for a week now.  Four days of class, to be exact, but I plan to practice chopping through the weekend.

Greg is actually extremely excited about my future knife skills.  I tend to like a really rough chop for most cooking, and he prefers finer cuts.  He’s thrilled that everything will likely have a fine cut to it from now, if only because I need the practice. However, we’re not there yet and the veggie cutting skills are definitely a work in progress.

As expected, knife skills are challenging for my tiny, uncoordinated hands.   We are supposed to chop vegetables into various sizes and shapes – this is called taillage. Whatever the cut though, the idea is that the pieces will be uniform in size so that they’ll cook evenly and look pretty.

 For more on the specifics of taillage, check out this site. It has a good list of the different cuts, along with a lot of other terminology and techniques I'm dealing with now.

My cuts are anything but uniform. I also have a lot bad habits built up from years of unregulated chopping; the way I was holding my knife was all wrong. I’m working on it though. I spent a couple of hours chopping yesterday, and will do so again today, and I suspect I will spend many more hours chopping over many days to come.  Hopefully, my chops will improve.

I’m most worried about tournage. I was warned about tournage. I was told this would make me crazy and I suspect this will be the truth. Tournage – or turning vegetables – is the process of carving vegetables into the shape of little footballs or bullets.

Here is a video if you care to look.

They make it look really easy. They're full of crap.

My little nuggets were quite sad. They didn’t really look like footballs and they certainly were not all the same size. It’s going to take a lot of work for me to get this technique right.  The thing is that I’ve rarely if ever seen vegetable cut in this fashion at a restaurant. Moreover, cutting vegetables in this manner creates a lot of wasted product, so I doubt I would need the specific skill very often no matter what I end up doing. One of our Chef instructors teased me that I looked angry at my potato as I worked on it.  I can’t say he was wrong. Still, I understand that learning the technique will give me better overall knife skills  . . .  or so I will tell myself as I practice to keep from cursing the vegetables. I will liken it to Mr. Miyagi forcing Daniel-son to wax-on, wax-off in order improve his overall practice.

Beyond my problems with basic knife skills, the greatest challenge has been adjusting to a whole new way of thinking. Usually, I’m pretty good at thinking through a process and setting up for it, and honestly I thought this part would come easy-ish to me. However, there are so many new factors to consider.  Is the pan the right size for what you’re cooking? You just set that pan down on your cutting board; well you’ve just cross-contaminated the items. Did I just subconsciously scratch my forehead? Well, now I have to go wash my hands lest I spread germs.  Should I turn up the heat a bit so these onions sweat faster? However, if I do I have to be sure they don’t caramelize, it’s not supposed to have any color. There is not supposed to be any crunch and there is still crunch, but I need to speed things up – I’m running out of time. And it goes on and on.

I felt like a spaz more than once this week.  I was hit by insomnia on Wednesday night, so I really felt off my game on Thursday. Although I got sleep that night and felt better, I must admit that I don’t think I had all that much more game on Friday. During the course of the week, I dropped my knives one day and the next burned my onions right in front of the Chefs.  I was manning two pans and the onions were doing fine, so I turned my attention to the carrots for a moment. Twenty seconds later the onions were starting to char. The Chefs showed me how to fix this, but then I forgot to add them to the plate before taking my finished product up for inspection.  Oy vey!

Veggie Plate
The veggie plate that gave me so much trouble -- after I went back and replated with the onions. I've never worked so hard on veggies in my life. If they don't all look stupid, it's probably because some were cut by my partner and we cooked them together. I will certainly appreciate the veggie sides at restaurants more from now on.

Still, I’m fairly confident this spaciness will improve overtime -- as I said, I am normally pretty good at multitasking.  I think it might just be like learning to drive a car. When you first start out, the number of new things you have to concentrate and focus on at once are kind of overwhelming, but soon enough they become second nature.

In the meantime, luckily the one thing that doesn’t fluster me too much is getting scolded at by the Chefs. On occasion I’ll be a little like a deer caught in headlights when asked a question, but years of being in the Entertainment Biz have given me a sufficiently thick skin so as to not be overly sensitive.  For the most part, even though the Chefs have been stern, I understand where they’re coming from when they correct us and try to show us how to do things better.   I know the yelling has gotten to a couple of people already and I doubt I’m immune. I could definitely see how if I start off feeling low one day, a bit of yelling might get to me – however, so far I’ve been able to keep a good attitude and I have no problem with chanting “Yes, Chef! Thank you, Chef!” all day long.

At the end of the day though, as stressful as this boot camp style training can be, it’s still fun because I love playing with the food and learning new tricks.  And even though there is so much new to think about, it’s all fascinating to me. During the course of the week, we got to do some product tasting and I caught a great lecture after class on food styling. We had one day on sanitation, and I even found that extremely interesting.

Moreover, I ended up with some pretty tasty dishes. Were they perfect? – certainly not, but tasty all the same.

Ratatouille. My partner and I overcooked the eggplant bit, so the color is a little off. 
We also used a little too much oil, which we strained out at the end. All of that said, it still tasted pretty good.

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Timbale 
Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Timbale with apples. This one turned out quite well. 
The only comment we got was that we needed a little more acid in the dressing

Additionally, so far I like my class well enough. I was kind of worried that I would be the oldie in a sea of recent college-grads.  We are a small class, and while we definitely have a few youngins , on the whole the group has a nice mix to it with people from lots of different backgrounds. Plus,  I’m certainly not the only career changer, so I don't feel too old.

I think we’re in for an adventure.  Now, if only I can get these knife skills in check.


Cut and Burn Count : 1 cut

I was sooo excited because I got through the entire first week of class without drawing blood. Then I went and but sliced hand when my knife slipped after I lost focus for a moment while I practiced yesterday.

Greg wanted me to use the first pic for the gore factor, but the cut really wasn't very bad. It stung for a second, but didn't hurt much otherwise. However, it was a bleeder because it was in the fleshy part of my hand.

P.S. I know my mom is going to hate this section of my blog. Sorry Ma! It's really not too bad.

For those friends/readers who have told me they're excited for the vicarious culinary school experience, if you want more or would like to get another perspective, check out the blog of one my other new friends/classmates who is also tracking her journey: http://www.annadais.com/ 

For a funny article on the silliness of tournage, check out this one out on the Huffington Post.


  1. Yay, you really are blogging culinary school! Great week one post! I am praying for all your fingers to come out of culinary school in tact. Way to go with your thick skin and finely chopped veggies!!!!

  2. congrats on getting through your first week of culinary school!! just think of that scene in Julie and Julia where JC is chopping onions all day. you'll be a technical whiz in no time :D props on showing some of the bloody side of things too. looking forward to your next posts!!

  3. Those dishes look mighty tasty! Congrats on making it through week 1.

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  5. Could you get a knife that's better for small hands? Or do you guys all have to use a standardized knife for class? I have small hands and use a Global 8" chef's knife. I like the 50/50 balance and the handle is very comfy for me. I'm also a huge fan of the Kyocera ceramic santoku because of the handle size. (this is Rossanna, btw!)

  6. Thanks everyone. Myasorubka -- yes, I definitely went out this weekend and bought a smaller knife and it's much better. Knife and gear talk is coming soon.

  7. Ay mama, I felt the pain w/ your cut there. Great post!