My Tips for Culinary School Students

Now that culinary school is all wrapped up, I'll pass on few little tips and insights I picked up along way for future culinary students.

1. If you’re on time, you’re already late. 

One of our first chefs told us this early on, and for the most part, my eager beaver class took it to heart.  Class starts at 9 a.m., but most of us would try to be there by 8:30- 8:45 a.m. I’m not a morning person, however, in this case I really made an effort to be there as early as possible.  This allowed me to take my time a bit while getting set up in the morning and arranging my mise en place while the caffeine from my morning coffee was still working its way to my brain.

2. Invest in Aquaphor.  

Handling food requires constant hand washing and this definitely takes a toll on your hands.  I slather this stuff on constantly because not only does it moisturize, it helps heal all the nicks and cuts.

3. Buy a knife roll.  

Schlepping a full knife kit back and forth from home to school and back again can leave you feeling like a pack mule.  Get a smaller knife roll to carry the basics you want to use at home and leave the rest in your locker. It will definitely save your back a few aches and pains.

Mine looks like this:

4. Practice.  

A lot of people go into this with restaurant experience, but just as many of us go into it without any at all.  For those of us who begin from scratch, it can take a while to get comfortable with all the new skills.  I’m also not particularly fast and manually dexterity doesn’t come naturally to me.  The only way I could find to get comfortable was to practice a technique repetitively at home . . . usually in front of the TV.  Doing something multiple times in a row-- be it chopping carrots into macedoine, turning potatoes into cocottes, filleting fish or butchering chicken-- was the best way for me to learn the tasks rhythm and build up motor memory.   

The same thing goes for complete dishes. The more times you make a dish, the easier it becomes.   This can get expensive, and in New York not everyone has the kitchen space to do a lot of cooking at home, however, if you do have the means, practicing at home can also be fun.  When there was a dish I wanted to practice, we’d often invite friends over, pop open a bottle of wine, and share the love. 

5.  Be patient with yourself.

 Easier said than done since I wasn’t very good at this. Like I said, I’m neither fast, nor manually dexterous, and cooking in a kitchen requires both.  I also have a tendency to frustrated with myself when I’m not picking something up as fast as I think I should be, which is most of the time.  I almost always think I should be better. However, that thinking rarely helps and I usually did much better when I managed get out of my head and relax.  

6. Sing “The Lady in Red.” 

In level 3, I did a lot of the above-mentioned flustering about. My friend Julia suggested I try singing the “The Lady in Red” to myself, as it is pretty impossible to sing that and be overwrought.  It kind of just makes you slow down and sway.  Perfect for getting out a frantic mental loop.

7.  Clean it up, sanitize.  

This was drilled into us by one of my favorite Chefs, however, almost every Chef would stress organization and cleanliness in one form or another. Obviously, you don’t want to get anyone sick. However, keeping your station organized also helps keep you on track.  Also, whenever I’d start to get flustered, I found that taking a second to clean up and reorganize was another good way to get myself refocused.

8. Sometimes screwing up is a good thing.  

If you break a sauce a few times, you learn how to save it. If you burn something, it will stick in your head the next time to control the heat.  Sometimes a small mistake can even lead to learning a better way of doing something. You learn how ingredients react under different conditions, which will help you manipulate them better. Just make sure to pay attention to what you’re doing, so that you don’t make the same mistake over and over again.

This brings up another reason to practice at home if possible. You can feel free to screw things up as much as you without time constraints or worrying about blustery Chefs catching your mistakes. 

9. Take it all in, then pick what works best for you.  

Ask a group of Chefs how to execute a particular technique, and almost every single one will give you a different answer and swear that theirs is the only way to do it. This can be frustrating, especially in the beginning when you're still trying to get your bearings. However, seeing and trying the various methods will help you find the best one for you.

10. Volunteer.  

I did A LOT of volunteering during my time in the culinary program, and I hope to continue now that I'm done. I decided not to look for an internship to do simultaneously as I wanted to focus on school.  However, I still wanted to maximize my time and learn as much as possible, so I started volunteering to help with demos and classes at school, for events, at the James Beard House, wherever. (Click here and here to read about two event I helped with.) Volunteering allowed me to do something constructive, while making up my own schedule. I also just really enjoyed these experiences and I learned a ton from doing them.  In this way I met a lot of different Chefs and picked up something new at each event.   I honestly believe I learned as much from participating in these events as I did in class and they were a ton of fun.

11. Have a good time.  

A few days ago I found a note that Greg wrote me on my first day of class.  In it he reminded me to immerse myself, engage critically, and above all enjoy myself as this was my dream.   He was right. Going to culinary school had been a dream of mine for a long time, and I think sometimes I forgot that.  I kind of wish that I’d been able to remember that in those moments that I drove myself a little crazy. However, if I hadn’t driven myself a little bit crazy, it just wouldn’t have been me.  By pushing myself hard, I think I did get all the more out if it, but a couple of chill pills would have been good every now and again. Nonetheless,  I loved my time at FCI and it was an AMAZING experience.

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