Culinary School Confidential: Fashion and Gear

I promised to give you all a peek of my new gear last week. As it turned out, we returned home from our wedding in Palm Springs on Monday morning (pictures are up on Flickr), I had just that day to get a few things together, then I started right away on Tuesday.  Our trip was great and we had an awesome time at the wedding, but  I felt a few steps behind all week as I adjusted to the new schedule and got everything in order at home.  I had a bit of a chance to get organized last weekend, so now without further adieu, I give you the culinary school fashion and gear show.


This very sexy number is my uniform:

Included in this fashionable ensemble is my chef's coat, neckerchief, pants , apron,  and hat  -- but no toque yet -- we get that at graduation.  Everything is white, except the pants, and you're supposed to try to  keep them white, despite the fact that you're constantly juggling food and liquids.  Usually when I wear anything white, it immediately ends up stained and spotted, so I've been quite impressed with the fact that I've managed to maintain my uniforms in relatively clean. (It's likely that I just jinxed myself and will soon end up with a pot of sauce all over me.)  We also always have a side towel or two tucked into our aprons for clean up and to hold hot things.

When Auguste Escoffier designed the modern kitchen brigade system --which organizes everyone on the cooking line in rank under the head chef--  he based it on the military, so it make sense that everything is made to look very unisex, plain, and devoid of individuality . In addition, we must always have our hair up and back -- which of course makes sense, because nobody wants hair in their food. We can 't wear jewelry,  because it can get caught on things and tracks germs. We  also change into uniforms in locker rooms so that we're not bringing in germs off the subway. We're not allowed to wear perfume either, because the smell can screw with your palate. The same thing goes for lip gloss.  No nail polish, as I mentioned in an earlier post, because it can flake off into the food.  (I have to admit that I'm missing the polish since my nails are starting to crack and flake from all the increased hand washing.)  All the rules make sense but leave me feeling a little stripped of my femininity.  Most of the time I'll wear a little bit of eye make-up, even though it make no sense at all, just to retain something a little bit girly.

There was one part of the uniform I was excited about -- the shoes. Shoes have to be black, closed, and have rubber soles. Among the list of recommended shoes were Dr. Marten's.  Now, when I was 15 years old, in the mid-90's when grunge was in, Dr. Marten's were in style and I wanted a pair SOOOO badly. They're expensive and we lived in Florida, where they were hardly practical, so my parents wouldn't/couldn't buy me a pair.  The best I could do was to get an off-brand pair (or "bobos," as we called knock-offs in Florida) from Payless.

Around that time, my parents took our family to London and Paris for my quinceaƱera.   In Convent Garden there is a huge a Dr. Marten's store and I remember staring into the window longingly at all the cool boots. Yes, I realize that I was pretty damn lucky to have gotten the trip, and don't really gripe not getting the shoes back then, but nonetheless, I couldn't pass up the chance to get the shoes now and fulfill the dream of my 15-year old self -- even if they're no longer really in style.  Plus, I still think they're kind of badass, and I could use a little edge to help kick-ass in the kitchen.

A dream 15 years in the making.

So, here is how the super fashionable kitchen look comes together:

Study Materials

At orientation we received these two cookbooks along with the first of our textbooks.

The cookbooks are gorgeous, but really we work completely out of the textbook. Each night there is a lesson which includes a few recipes.   For class each day we have to have the recipes copied onto index card for reference as we work, since they take up a lot less space than the books and fit right in our pockets.

The recipes in the cookbooks are slightly different from the versions in our texts, but there is a version of pretty much each dish we do along with explanations of the techniques. For anyone wanting to learn at home, they're expensive, but considerably less than the program and quite nicely illustrated.

The Gear

Ok, now let's move on the the really cool stuff - the knife bag!

Our Mercer Knife Bags.

It's actually more than just a knife bag -- it's a very complete kit with three divided sections of tools including spoons, whisks, pepper grinder, peeler, thermometer, and a lot more.  Plus, knives of course.

Let's face it, knives are cool.

The 9-inch chef's knife that came with the kit, however, was way too big for my mini-hands and I was having problems with control. So, last weekend I went out and got a 6-inch chef's knife that fits my hand much better. The Chef instructors recommended not getting a super high-end knife at this point because we're likely to wear them out, but to opt for one a little more in the middle -- and when it comes to knives, that's still pretty pricey.  I got the one pictured above from Lamson Sharp, which has a nice feel and a good curve to help with a flowing rocking motion. Further down the line, I might gift myself something really schnazzy.

A few people have asked me what knives they should invest in, considering that they do tend to be pricey.  The truth is you really don't need a lot.  I've always heard that you really only need three and it's better to have the three good ones, than whole set of mediocre/cheap one.  I have to say that I would agree with that. Greg and I were gifted a beautiful set of Henckels a while back, but we really tend to use the same few knives. After being in school for two weeks I agree even more, as in that time I've used exactly two knives.  

 Chef's knife, serrated knife, paring knife, and kitchen shears.

You need a chef's knife that feels very comfortable to you, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife -- and I would spend on them in that order.  Chef's knives can be expensive, but it's your workhorse and you use to do all your chopping and dicing, and even some butchering.  Paring knives are used for finer dicing and for shaping vegetables --  but you don't have to worry about shaping so much at home. I know I never worried about it before.  The serrated knife doesn't get used as often, but it makes a big difference in not squashing bread when you cut through it.  Add to that a pair of kitchen shears and a vegetable peeler and your cutting needs are pretty much covered. This is one area in which brands really do matter, so if possible stick to the reputable one -- at very least for a chef's knife.  In terms of Western-style knives,  Henkles and Wusthofs are considered two of the best, although there are other good ones. (A lot of cooks like Japanese knives, but I have not yet had the pleasure with working with them, so I really can't tell you anything about them.)

Honing steel, chef's knife, santoku knife, serrated knife, paring knife, and kitchen shears.

You will also need a honing steel, which helps keep the edge straight and sharp longer. In the picture above, I also included a santoku knife, since some people prefer this to a western chef's knife and it is another option to consider. The final issue is housing and many sets come with a wood block like the one pictured, but I've also seen some cool magnetic wracks to hang on the wall and drawer organization systems. It's really about whatever works for you, just make sure to store them properly to keep the blades sharp and avoid accidents.

This brings me to the cut count.  The final item missing from my kit is a decent set of knife covers for storing them in the kit-- they just happened to be out when I went to buy them at the store. (When I get them, I plan to get these nifty ones from Bisbell.) The covers that came with the knife bag aren't really meant for permanent use and are super flimsy. One happened to slip as I was taking a knife out last weekend and I got pricked -- so that brings the cut count to two. It was really no big deal, but it does make the point that you need to be careful.

Cuts aside, knives really are cool and a good, sharp set makes all the difference. If you've been working with dull knives for a while and pick up a good one, you'll notice the change right away and suddenly you'll find yourself putting in a lot less effort for a lot more work.

Do you have favorite knives? People get passionate on this subject and a few of you have already shared your faves with me. I absolutely want to hear about them.   Likes I said, I think I might gift myself something fancy down the road.


  1. Great Blog! I just came across your blog, and am SO thankful for it. I, too, am switching careers and starting the Culinary Arts program at FCI in October. I look forward to reading it, so I have a better idea of what's ahead of me. Thanks for posting!


  2. Thanks & good luck! Maybe I'll see you around the kitchens. ;-)