Monday, August 25, 2014

From Orientation to Fundamentals

by Deja Burrows, AOS Culinary, from La Papillote
My decision, like many of the students here at The Culinary Institute of America, was easy. Our peers have thousands of great colleges and universities to choose from, but we, the future culinarians of the world, are comparatively limited in our choices, especially if we would like a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, it was quite easy for me to determine that the CIA would be my future academic home. Its fast-paced, thorough curriculum is like no other, and with the new entry date every three weeks, this school is ripe with talent, skills, and ethnic diversity. Though making the decision to be educated here was simple, post-arrival was confusing. 

Orientation, Culinary Fundamentals, and a week sprinkled with the excitement of clubs and campus activities felt overwhelming. New student orientation is a week-long lecture session in the library’s Danny Kaye Theater. Loads of faculty and staff come in to educate you on their departments, functions, and purposes. I would personally liken it to a road trip, with each state whizzing by so fast that you’re left wondering how the palm trees in Florida became skyscrapers in New York. We learned a lot about campus safety, how quickly a dorm could go up in flames, and our externship period, which seems far too close even though I just started. It’s not surprising, though, that the highlight of the week-long activities was food. 

We, as students, get to enjoy the handy work of our fellow students by eating the hand-crafted dishes that they put out in their kitchen classes. There are well-plated world cuisines tantalizing enough to excite even the least sophisticated palate. The trick is, figuring out what’s open at what time and finding the kitchen that has the food that you want to try. I have seen students sprint to the Cuisines of Asia kitchen only to find that it’s not open that day, then dash down to Cuisines of the Mediterranean only to find out they only have one dish available, and it’s frog legs, and then trudge back up to get in line behind me outside K-16, the high production kitchen, for a burger and fries. My advice to all the new students is to find out when kitchens are open, what time services start, and plan your meal times so you have a chance to enjoy all the cuisines we have to offer. Usually Farq has information fliers about meal times and what kitchens are open.

So after schedules and meal plans and dorm rooms are all sorted out, we turn our focus on the infamous Culinary Fundamentals class, better known as “Fundies.” This is a fifteen-week long basic cooking class, including techniques of French cooking, that all culinary students go through. Though the class promises to be filled with several disheartening challenges, the first, and from what I understand, the most difficult to master, is the knife tray. At the beginning of most fundamentals kitchen classes, a standard knife tray is given out, including shallots, parsley, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes, and the challenge is to fabricate this produce into the precise cuts that your chef  requires – small dice, batonnets, concasse. Mere weeks ago, I experienced firsthand the terror of a timed knife skills tray.

Our chef didn’t do a demo, instead he spoke the French words “batonnet”, “julienne” and “bruinoise,” and with a flourished wave of his hands said “You have an hour and a half, start!” I stood amongst the cutting boards and my frantically chopping classmates trying to figure out what in the world a quarter inch looked like. Then I spotted out of the corner of my eye the little green ratio book we had been given, and its lifesaving depictions of the very same cuts that I am to produce. And so I got to slicing and dicing and squaring and paring, leaving a layer of minced green parsley dust over the 15lb. hunk of wood cutting board. Finally, I had completed the challenge, and conquered the knife tray! Though when I looked down, I noticed that I had rectangles instead of squares, curved onion pieces instead of a small dice, and then just to cement my defeat I heard “Five more minutes, guys!” There was nothing more that I could do to my sad looking batonnets and incorrect dice. I faced the music, blade first. Gripping the blue tray, I headed over to the chef’s table for critiquing. I slid the tray on to the table and the rigid face which looked back at me turned into what I perceived as an expression of contentment. He nodded and examined and finally exclaimed “Not bad!” I thought, did I just hear chef say that my knife tray was “not bad”? Never in my life was I so happy to hear those words! Then again, never before in my life had I actually completed a knife tray at the CIA.

Maybe you’re post extern and think the confusions of the first week are nothing compared to the dreaded second term practical exam, or perhaps you are two days in to your education here at the CIA and are nervous for the year ahead of you. Regardless, there are challenges ahead for all of us, but look back and think of the ones you have already overcome, and smile in the face of the challenges ahead. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Evolving Our Industry One Chef at a Time

by Connor White, AOS Culinary, from La Papillote

Just the other day, I had an epiphany. Never before in my life have I had this much of an understanding of food. Right now I am the best that I’ve ever been. What an incredible feeling that is. The even crazier this is that I’m still not at my maximum potential. I still have so much to learn and so much of my skills yet to hone. I’m constantly baffled by the incredible education that The CulinaryInstitute of America instills in us. Their ability to produce such high quality chefs is something rather profound. For me, choosing to enroll at The Culinary Institute of America was a no-brainer.

Even before coming to school, I was learning how to cook the CIA way. I was lucky enough to attend a two-year culinary program in high school. My instructor, Chef Karen Mecum, is a CIA graduate herself. I was one of two students in my class to continue on to the CIA after graduating. In fact we are just two of the many students that she has funneled to her alma mater. I was lucky enough to be provided with such an excellent background in culinary, even luckier that I was being trained in CIA habits and methods early on. Chef Mecum was one of those teachers who truly valued the education of her students. She went the extra mile, training us for competitions, exposing us to different cuisines, and ultimately preparing us for our next step in our culinary journeys. I feel so blessed to have had a mentor who provided me with such a strong foundation to build on.

Once I arrived at the CIA, I immediately felt in my element. Chef Swartz '89 was my culinary fundamentals instructor. I remember on the first day he asked my class who had been to a vocational school. I, along with several other students, raised my hand. He said that we were the students whose bad habits he needed to break. I immediately took this as a challenge. Surely I hadn’t been taught anything too horrendous. Throughout that class I made it a point to prove myself to Chef Swartz. I wasn’t some schmuck and I desperately wanted to prove it. I buckled down and worked my ass off to be the best that I could be. I needed to show Chef Swartz that I was a Chef Mecum quality student, a Culinary Institute of America quality student.

For the entire class, that entire first year for that matter, I spent nearly 100% of my time dedicated to being the best that I could be. I wasn’t going to let the CIA break me. As a PM student I would wake up and make my timeline for that day’s class and finish up any homework that I was given. Then I would go to class and work my ass off. When I got home from class I would work on my homework until I went to sleep. This cycle continued for the remainder of the year. I really do believe that the chefs could see that I had potential. They, too, went the extra mile in ensuring that their students were given the best possible education.

I will be the first to admit that the CIA pushes their students to the limit. What other school can you think of whose students sacrifice the bulk of their summer to wake up at 1 AM for class? There is a lot that is expected of us and those who can’t handle the pressure are quickly weeded out. This leaves the core group of students who strive toward being the best that they can be. With that said, Chef’s primary goal is to help us succeed. They push us so hard for our own benefit. Once we’ve proven ourselves they support us and continue to push us to our maximum potential.

We are all blessed to have the opportunity to be surrounded by such culinary excellence. The Culinary Institute of America has been the key player in our successes as culinary professionals. I am extremely appreciative to CIA for all they have done for me. As a current extern, I am exposed to the reality of our industry beyond our classroom kitchens. There are countless CIA quality locations. However there are also places out there that don’t match the CIA’s high standards. As the school continues to produce such high quality chefs, the bar is being raised for our industry as a whole. The Culinary Institute of America is bettering the culinary industry one chef at a time. We are all lucky to be at the school during this time of amazing positive changes in the industry. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

2015 Food Fad

                2014 was a year of massive cupcakes, siracha, and bacon topped everything.  The chefs are always looking to the future for the next fad to hit the world of food.  Ice cream it is, but what makes this old dessert unique? Guests only wait 90 seconds!  A San Francisco company, Smitten, is using the popular technique of liquid nitrogen freezing for made to order frozen treats.  This blogger anticipates copycat companies to start popping up in the next year.  One of San Francisco hospitality consulting firm’s forecasts that the new ‘it’ dessert will be ice cream sandwiches. The spotlight is shifting from the doughnut craze dying out, and this young 2 year old company is leading the way. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Hello Readers, from me to you, I hope you enjoy a look inside the Culinary World!
-Timothy Fisher 

What does it truly mean to be a CIA student? 

It's an interesting question. Honestly, it's one that I feel never gets honestly or completely answered; whether it be because it takes awhile to really get it all down or that people just don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of the answer. Either way, the media has truly hyped up and glamorized our industry and now more than ever before has there been an overwhelming surge of prospective students looking to join our ranks at the CIA before entering the industry. 

There is quite a lot to consider before joining us that I would like to talk about, however this is not meant to be a deterrent, no, this is an account of what it takes.

Literally or metaphorically, blood, sweat, and tears go into every single day of what we do at the CIA. You might wake up for class at five in the morning or not until noon, but you will be in class for anywhere from six to eight to ten hours a day, five days a week. The expectation is that you will be ready for class early and stay late, your uniform has to be both clean and pressed, your knives absolutely must be sharp, formulas and ratios need to be memorized, your timeline and game-plan for every day is going to be inspected. We run year round, our summer break is only three weeks long with our holiday break lasting only two weeks. A three-day weekend is a gift to us.

There will be days where you leave the kitchen feeling defeated. There will be nights when you walk out onto Anton Plaza feeling like the king of the world as you look over the Hudson river. Every day your production will be evaluated, and you will be given constructive criticism that sometimes you genuinely do not want to hear.  You won’t always be told when you are doing things right, but then again... I’ve come to realize not being told you're doing anything wrong is quite a good thing. I can't even begin to explain how many times you will have to swallow your pride and say those two magic words, "Yes Chef".  Your feet will hurt, your back and body will ache, your passion and performance will be questioned weekly, the stress will become a reality.  

You will bleed, you will sweat, you will cry.

But you are not alone.

Throughout all of it, at the CIA, you will develop some of the most prodigious relationships imaginable. Your bad days might be some of their best, they'll be there to pick you up when you're down, watch you cry tears of joy when you succeed, and you better believe they will look to you when they drop the ball.  These people you meet will become friends, and then colleagues as you battle through the trenches, suffer defeat, and taste sweet victory over the course of the program.  You will dream up business plans and create possible futures with these people. You will experience some of the most amazing feelings in the world culminating in the moment you walk across that stage when you hear your name called to the sound of your friend's cheers. 

You will have something most students won't ever encounter during the educational process.  The Culinary Institute of America is the only residential college in the world that is solely focused on the Culinary and Baking & Pastry Arts. It doesn't matter if you want to be the next Top Chef, a three Michelin-Star restaurateur, the Wine and Beverage director for the Four seasons, or a Food-Network star. 

We all speak the same language: Passion  

It's something I can try to explain but it is something you will have to experience for yourself.  To truly understand it, you have to live it every day, through the blood, sweat, and tears.

I've asked a lot of my friends and colleagues if everything we go through for what we love to do is really worth it, if they would do it all over again.

Every single one answered the same way.