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. 

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