4 Qualities You Need To Survive Culinary SchoolAugust 28, 2018
- Adee de LeonWords
Expertly made food is usually meant for immediate consumption. It can’t be preserved the same way other art forms (such as paintings) can be. This is probably why the artistry behind cooking is often overlooked.
Also, there’s this constant argument over what can and can’t be considered art. Any idiot can write, sing, paint, or cook. That’s why we have so many bandwagon riders, pseudo-critics, hipsters, and all other poser artistes. Only nowadays, you can also find them in culinary school. Now, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from going, and I’m not judging anyone’s reasons for applying either. I’m just irked at the prohibitive costs of such, and how some people only opt for them because they can’t get a degree anywhere else. And how they get all frustrated when they find out that culinary school actually demands real work.
So before you blow your parents’ hard-earned cash on a fancy cooking course, do ask yourself if you have the following qualities.
1. Mild Obsessive-Compulsive Hater of Germs
If you’ve ever been in a professional chef’s kitchen, you may have noticed how immaculately clean and well-organized it is. Despite the “less hygienic” sex (i.e., men) dominating the culinary world, they all have highly stringent standards for sanitation and efficiency in their kitchens. And these same standards will be drilled into your head in culinary school.
The curriculum actually starts with learning how you can easily kill a customer with your own germs and/or carelessness. You will get a lot of flak for slicing chicken and veggies with the same knife, and for not wiping it (and your chopping board) after each use. You’re also required to use different spoons for tasting multiple sauces, and you can only use each spoon once. Oh, and did you know that there’s also a proper temperature for washing and storing dishes?
And of course, no self-respecting cooking school would ever let you graduate without acquainting you with the term mise en place. It’s French for “everything in place”, and that goes for all your ingredients, cookware, and utensils. It’s like when you watch a cooking show, and the host cook has all the ingredients for the dish measured out in individual ramekins. Having a proper mise en place ensures that the cooking process runs smoothly and quickly.
And God help you if you ever mess around with how your chef instructor arranges his.
2. Willingness to Work with a Team
A line cook with the superstar mentality of a young Kobe Bryant can seriously hurt a restaurant. In the same vein, talented students who cannot work well with others have no place in a culinary school’s kitchen. Aspiring chefs simply can’t be snobs, as errors in communication bring about truly disastrous results.
Working well with others means setting aside differences and egos to achieve a common goal. You may not exactly like the people you work with, but a pro chef is expected to get past that and deliver.
When instructors grade a team, they expect to see seamless coordination between the students. During exams, teams pass or fail as one. Why so? Because a customer doesn’t care about who is responsible for their food coming out late, or for it tasting terrible. They only want to have a good experience, and really have no interest in hearing about how Bob messed up the fish.
3. Being Good at Other Things (Aside from Cooking)
Did you think going to chef school would free you from the tyranny of Math? Prepare to be sorely disappointed. You go to chef school to be a chef, not just a cook. This means that someday, you are expected to have your own restaurant. And that requires a lot of number crunching since you’ll be responsible for that business’ finances (especially in the beginning, as hiring an accountant is expensive). You have to meticulously account for every cost, carefully consider your menu’s pricing, and studiously keep track of your restaurant’s bottom line.
It’s an interesting paradox that the more successful a chef becomes, the less time s/he spends in the kitchen. By that time, the chef would already have well-trained line cooks who can execute his/her famous dishes, so s/he could focus on promoting and managing his/her restaurant/s.
Marketing is another area that you need to have a flair for. You can be an extremely talented chef, but if you don’t exhibit the same skill and passion in promoting your business, it’ll be tough for you to gain a dedicated following. No one will endorse your brand if you don’t, and no one should be able to do so more passionately than you.
Selecting the proper method of promotion is also crucial. Word of mouth is good, but proper branding and the intelligent use of social networking would help you stand out faster and easier.
4. An Intense, Unwavering Love for Making Great Food
You’ll be surprised at how most culinary students underestimate the devotion that this specific trait entails. A lot of them think their love for cooking will get them through anything, until they find out that cooking professionally is totally different from cooking at home.
Remember, there’s no pressure at home. You cook at your own pace, at your comfort level. You can take breaks when you want, and no one will get mad if you make them wait. You can tweak your food according to your preference, and splurge (or scrimp) as much as you want on the ingredients.
Now, consider a restaurant’s kitchen. During the lunch rush, it gets really busy and hot. Customers come in hungry, and expect to be fed immediately. You will receive a lot of orders, and most of them have different cooking times, and varying levels of difficulty.
You are also expected to follow the restaurant’s protocols. These include being in proper attire, keeping your assigned station clean, and doing your designated job, which can be as dull as prepping vegetables. You can never just stand still either, as you need to gather the right ingredients and cookware constantly.
And don’t forget, you must religiously follow the recipes of the Executive Chef. Mess with them, and you might piss off a regular patron, or worse, infuriate a noted food critic.
Imagine doing all of that, day in and day out. The monotony alone is enough to cause some students to hate professional cooking. The years of maddening repetition (and the resulting physical pains from hard manual labor) will either make or break you.
Of course, the headaches described above are nothing compared to the ones caused by cooking for large events. Scaling up makes consistency an even bigger pain in the ass. The budgeting, scheduling, prepping, and execution of everything must be conducted like a military operation.
Oh, and preparing, cooking, and transporting food on that scale creates a lot of tricky safety concerns. Some of the dishes will need to be kept at different temperatures (to avoid spoilage), and you can’t have them sitting in the same containers, or you’ll risk cross-contamination. You’ve also got to keep your food labeled properly, as some guests might have severe food allergies. Giving one or two guests a stomachache is one thing, but sending the whole wedding entourage to the E.R. is a full-blown crisis.
Given all the difficulties described above, you should realize by now that it takes someone who really, really loves food to persevere, and ultimately succeed, in a deceptively cutthroat field. As with all things, true love demands a lot of pain and sacrifice. So, having learned all of these, would you still say that culinary school is your one true love?