Throughout the entirety of the associate program at The Culinary Institute, whether you are a Culinary or a Baking & Pastry student, to put it quite simply, you learn a hell of a lot in just 21 months. Spending hours upon hours in the kitchens and bakeshops honing your skills and techniques is just the precursor to the rest of our lives. I could list it all out, but that would take hours and hours to write, let alone read. Once you reach the bachelor's program (If you decide to continue with it), you do find that you spend the majority of your time in classrooms, attending lectures, taking notes, studying... For bachelor's students who aren't planning on doing a concentration or in the Culinary Science program, there is only one culinary class: Advance Cooking or Advanced Baking.
As the name suggests, both classes are on an advanced level and definitely expect a pre-requisite of knowledge that you have gained throughout the associate program. I didn't take the Advanced Baking course, so I can't speak much more on that topic. But on Advanced Culinary... let's just say I learned a lot more than what you would think. Now, this particular post is not to just list off what we did in the class, it is about so much more than that, but first...
A little background
Advanced Cooking is a 10 day class, with one class a week. Each week our topic was different. We worked in teams of three or four that changed every two weeks. About half of the classes were mystery baskets, so we would walk in with only a concept of the dish requirements and no knowledge of what product we would be given. In the class itself, we would have about two hours to conceptualize, create, taste, perfect, plate, and serve the dish. Each team would have a time to present and we would all sit down to eat a tasting portion and give constructive criticism to the team. Afterwards, our Chef would take the team aside and give them his personal review of their dish and production as a whole.
This class was incredible. It was one of the first times I had ever been given creative control to utilize all of the knowledge I had acquired from my time in the associate program and turn it into something, anything. While in the associate program we learn and memorize and produce (remember, repetition IS the key to learning). The goal is to build a rock-solid foundation that we as culinarians can use to be effective wherever we go in this industry. Advanced Culinary allowed me and my team(s) to take all that and do whatever we want with it.
To put it in perspective, think about when you first start to drive a car. It seems so daunting because you have to consciously think about everything you do; check your rearview mirror, check your side mirrors, look at your speedometer, check the limit lines, quickly survey the traffic around you, check your rearview mirror again... We've all been there, but after awhile it becomes second nature to glance at your mirrors, you begin to see the speedometer out of the corner of your eye, and it all becomes part of an overall motion.
Cooking is exactly the same principle.
At first we have to constantly think and check the best way to thicken something (do I use a roux, or a slurry?); we have to look up the recipes for sauces and bases like a Hollandaise, Béchamel, or Zabaione; we have to focus intently to prepare uniform knife cuts... As time goes on all of these things become second nature and cooking goes from a strict order and formula to a fluid movement, a continuous motion that is in all honesty, a separate state of mind.
It was in this class that I had this realization of everything that I had been putting in, the hours and hours of sitting in the dormitory kitchen doing my knife cuts, the endless memorization of recipes and formulas and ratios, the repetition of skills... It all coalesced into a "Payoff" moment. It was like getting hit by a brick wall. I was making pasta for a ravioli that would be the main component of my team's dish one of the last days of Advanced Culinary in the hottest kitchen I have ever worked in with time ticking down. To be honest, I almost started to tear up because we go through a lot at CIA to be able to maintain the utmost standard that is expected of any CIA graduate. To know that it was all starting to payoff, well, there really isn't anything that feels the same.
Whether you stay on for the bachelor's program or head out into the industry after your associate graduation, you will have your own "Payoff" moment when you realize everything you have done.
Just like me, you'll probably smile in the midst of some task, sweating in the heat of production, standing in the walk-in looking around for something to put in your special that day, or moving a fork a smidge to the left on table 64 right before service begins and think
"You know, it was all worth it".
A special thanks to Chef Robert Mullooly for providing a class that became something I will never forget
"A lot of people don't understand what we do; all the love and passion we put into every bite... But that doesn't mean we can't take critique from any person, even the ones who don't get it -It's always worth listening too."