Saturday, May 30, 2015

Culinary Graduate Switches To The Sweet Side of Life: Interview With Chef Johnson

Today, I had the privilege to interview Chef Rowan Johnson, an amazing chef, who has traveled all over the world gaining both culinary and baking knowledge. She has landed here, at The Culinary Institute of America to share it with us. Chef Johnson is a petite structured chef, but don't let her size fool you. She is a culinary powerhouse, trained in Classical French Cooking and Baking & Pastry Arts. Chef Johnson teaches IPP, also known as Individual & Production Pastries, in Bakeshop 4 here at the CIA. Individual & Production Pastries is a class where the definition is given in the name. You make individual pastries such as Macaroons, Madeleines, and Classic French Tarts; just to name a few. This class is no joke. It is demanding, fast paced, and will make you break a sweat. But not to worry. You, as a Baking & Pastry student at the CIA, will have taken four classes before you end up in Bakeshop 4 to better prepare you for IPP.

Sweet Raspberry Tart, photo credit @rowanljohnson
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries 
Throughout the interview, I asked several questions, one being "Chef, why did you choose the CIA?"  Chef Johnson said, "I wanted to go to the best of the best. I knew the CIA was the top of the line for all culinary schools, and I wanted the best culinary education I could get."

As the great Julia Child once said, "The Culinary Institute of America is the Harvard of all culinary schools."

Chocolate Petit Gateau, photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries 
Chef Johnson is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, with an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts. She graduated in 2000 and went on to work for over a dozen successful restaurants and hotels. During my interview I asked Chef, "As a student, where did you do your externship at?" Chef Johnson replied, " I did my externship at The Boulderado Hotel in Boulder, Colorado."

I did some research on The Boulderado Hotel. It was built in 1909 to promote growth in the area by providing the comfort of first class hotels. The name was created by combining "Boulder" with "Colorado"; so guests would never forget where they stayed. As the hotel opened in 1909, the first rooms where priced at $1.00 to $2.50 a day. This is proof that the CIA has many different externship options for all its students and for any dream they can set their minds to.

Individual & Production Pastries, photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries  
After graduating from the CIA, Chef Johnson went to work for over a dozen top restaurants and hotels like, Ristorante MoriniL'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Four Seasons Hotel, Gordon Ramsay at The London; just to name a few. As you can tell, Chef Johnson has had quite the amazing career and only graduated 15 years ago. Through the CIA, she was able to use that prestigious name on her resume to unlock many doors that have helped her gain her success in this demanding industry. 

Colorful Macarons, photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries  
After being in the Industry for 13 years, Chef Johnson decided to come back home, where it all started for her, and applied for an instructor position here at The Culinary Institute of America. Chef started teaching at the CIA in August 2014 with "Baking for Culinary students." This class is an introduction to baking for the culinary arts students, it teaches them the basics of baking and pastry arts. The CIA provides this class so that if you're working in a restaurant after graduation and someone calls in sick on the baking side, you, as a cook would know the basics of what to do. After teaching that class, Chef Johnson was asked to teach "Individual & Production Pastries" in Bakeshop 4, where she currently teaches second semester students all about French individual pastries. 

I asked Chef Johnson, "What do you love about working at the CIA?". She said, "The CIA has such a diverse intelligence when it comes to knowledge about food. If I have a question on something I am not sure about, I can go to other chefs throughout campus and ask for their opinion. Each Chef has many different ways of doing certain things so I can learn new techniques." 

Each chef at the CIA has worked for many different restaurants and hotels, and have picked up different ways of doing certain tasks. We, as students, get to learn many different ways of doing one thing; so we can pick the one we find works for us best. 

Tarts, photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries 
I asked Chef Johnson, "What do you love about teaching IPP?Chef Johnson replied, "I was trained in a Classic French background, so, I get to teach what is near and dear to my heart. I show students how to create and produce pastries that you would find in a classic French Patisserie."

Chef has spent many years doing exactly what she is teaching now everyday in Bakeshop 4. So, she is talented in this subject and can teach it comfortably. 

Milk Chocolate Mousse Brownie
Chocolate Hazelnut Petit Gateaux
photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries 
My favorite question to ask any Chef that I am interviewing is, "Any advice for new students coming to The Culinary Institute of America?", because every Chef has a different answer. Chef Johnson had a great response, "Start organizing recipes now. Keep all your recipes in organized binders or folders. So you can pull from them whenever you need them. Also start to build your portfolio now. Future employers love to see the food you have produced. It's good to build a solid foundation and then work your way up from there." 

Chef Johnson uses Instagram as a portfolio. She posts all her work on Instagram and tells employers to view her account. If you would like to visit Chef Johnson's Instagram to view her pictures and follow her, click on the link:

Berry Mousse Petit Gateau, photo credit @rowanljohnson 
and the students of Individual & Production Pastries 
I ended my interview asking Chef Johnson, "What is the most important thing to learn about this industry?" She replied "Always keep learning, always keep researching, and always stay inspired. In this industry you will always learn something new. There is not one chef out there that knows everything. It is always great to stay up to date with what you're doing and also what is happening around you in the culinary field. In this business, you can get bored with what your doing. But just remember that with a few minor tweaks, you can be doing something totally different."

Chef Johnson is an inspiration to me, not only because she has been successful, but because she has put her self out there and has taken risks. That's what it takes to make it in this industry. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Fish Out of Water

It's difficult to go a day without having the sturgeon in your panorama. 

John F. Sendelbach's "Old Diamondsides," was recently unveiled by Dr. Tim Ryan and estuary education coordinator Stephen Stanne of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. With over 1,700 forks, knives, and spoons, the piece is composed of the largest cutlery set you will ever find in one place. Sendelbach was thinking about more than a showy piece to place in the spotlight when he assembled this. What I don't understand is why many of us walk in and out of CIA's swinging doors without being informed of what it means to be in the Hudson Valley. 

I've been here for over three years now. Being a culinary arts student, I was required to memorize back in fish class where sturgeon is indigenous to. One test, and I could have walked out of here with an associate degree, knowing very little about the Hudson River. Being an active person, I took weekend adventures to orchards, vineyards, farmer's markets and other local events. But what about the Hudson River? What's so great about it beyond its murkish waters that come out of our taps which students refer to as "Chateau Hudson?" What about the History of this valley--how did the "breadbasket" evolve into what it is today?

For my final semester here, I decided to develop my own independent study, researching and writing about the Food, Wine, and Agriculture of the Hudson Valley. The first book I just finished reading: The Hudson: A History by Tom Lewis. It frustrates me that we have a beautifully crafted sturgeon statue shining, yet we receive nearly no education on the bigger picture of what it represents. We are perched right on one of the most influential bodies of water in history, smack in the middle of the breadbasket of New York. Being a researcher of the Hudson, I feel it is my duty to inform you of some bullet points about the river and its surrounding area.

Some facts about The Hudson Valley (because it's not just about apples and sturgeon): 

  • The Hudson is the home to a plethora of other fish beyond the sturgeon, such as large-mouth bass, perch, striped bass, shad, eels, tom cod and bluefish. In the 1640s, settlers recorded whales occupying the river as well, swimming as far as up to Troy.
  • It houses over 80,000 beavers that provided early Europeans with a fur industry to support settlement
  • The Hudson River originally had grape vines thriving off its steep banks for wine production.
  •  Explorers of the early 1600s noted that the river edge provided rich soils for the Native Americans to grow maize. Once harvested, they would mix it with meat or fish and serve it as a meal.
  • Other trees and crops bountifully grown on the Hudson were chestnut trees and sugar maples.
  • Beyond the fur industry was the lumber industry. Hundreds of trees were deforested and transported from the river's current downstream for construction. 
  • The bark of hemp trees in the valley provide a special oil used in the tanning process of leather-making. It gives a coating to protect the leather. 
  • The Hudson Valley is noted for harvesting some of the tastiest summer grains, such as wheat, rye, barley, oats and buckwheat. Some of the highest rated flours in the nation come from the valley.
  • The Hudson Riverbanks contain rich clay essential for the brick-making industry. This industry further developed society around the river.
  • The grounds along the Hudson River was the setting for countless wars that shaped our nation, such as the Peach War and the brutal and bloody Battle of Saratoga.
  • The Hudson served as the platform for monumental figures (the Roosevelts), great victories (the day the British leave and US gains control of the river), and developments (the railroad system and steam boat). 
  • The Hudson's ice harvesting industry provided jobs for farmers in the winter. Hundreds of workers chopped up the river to put bread on their tables. The ice was shipped down its frigid waters to be stored in ice houses until the warmer seasons, when foods would need to be kept cold. 
  • The Hudson is a river of inspiration for writers, poets, artists, and architects. Some of these artists were unknown (more unsolved mysteries of the Hudson), while others became famous in their craft: Washington Irving, Mark Twain, W.H. Bartlett, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederic Edwin Church, and Paul Goodman. 
  • Despite all of this, the Hudson River has battled deforestation, pollution of physical contaminants, and toxic chemicals (PCBs, and raw sewage). Habitats have been destroyed (including the sturgeon's). At the same time, dozens of organizations such as Scenic Hudson, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Hudson Riverkeeper, and the National Resources Defense Council have helped to improve the river over the years. There's still a long way to go though.

These are only a few facts about the Hudson. It just blows my mind that there is not one course running on campus that encompasses educating us on what it means to live in the Hudson Valley, what it means to to attend culinary school on the Hudson River, what it means to be the future leaders of this industry.

My hope is that by the time you finish this article, you'll look straight into the hand-blown glass eyes (carefully created with the finesse and intricacy of Jeremy Sinkus) of the sturgeon, and feel as though you understand why it's here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I should have packed to come to culinary school

Since I am a transfer student, I had already been through the whole process of coming to college and moving into a dorm before coming to the CIA. Although coming to culinary school is different than a normal university, I will do my best to try to combine the two. When I moved in to CIA, I found myself taking a trip to Target with my parents later that afternoon, buying stuff I hadn’t thought to bring. Hopefully this list will be a helpful guide so move-in day is a breeze. So in no particular order…

I wish I had packed white T-shirts, and black or white socks. Although it sounds simple and yet a little strange, it’s true. When you think you have packed enough white under T-shirts, go to the store and buy another three-pack, and here’s why. Every weekday you will be wearing your white chef uniform, and everything under that must be white, which means no showing of color, and believe me, color can be seen through the uniform. Also for example, academic classes can start at 8:45am, and ending the day with a kitchen class that ends at 6pm, so you want to make sure you have enough white undershirts to last you through the week, or until the next time you do laundry. Also, black or white ankle socks are required with uniform

I wish I had packed a mirror. When I moved into Hudson Hall, I was surprised there was no mirror in the room, and my roommate and I realized very quickly that we didn’t want to have to run down the hall to the restroom every time we wanted to look in a mirror.

Going along with the mirror, I wish I had packed command strips and hooks to hang up that mirror, posters, picture frames, coats, scarves, belts, or anything else that you might want to hang. I had not realized what good of an idea it would have been to bring command strips and command hooks, and I am still finding myself having to go out and buy more.

I wish I had packed a mop of some sort to clean up the floors with. The floors of the dorm halls are tile and can get dirty very easily. My roommate and I both have long dark hair, which shows up very clearly on a shiny white tile floor; and not that we ate like pigs, but crumbs and dirt from the bottom of our shoes would appear on our floor, leading us to mop our floor at least once every two weeks. You don’t need some fancy mop; just a simple Swiffer wet jet is sufficient.

Pack sharpies and some sort of duct tape! When you receive your knife kits, although the excitement is real, it REALLY doesn’t hit you that everyone else received the same knife kits…so just imagine when dishes are being done and 19 other knives that look exactly like yours are being taken to the sinks at around the same time! So what we did was took duct tape (mine is turquoise and my roommate’s is giraffe print; so essentially everyone had a different design duct tape) and wrapped it around the handles of each of our utensils we received in our kits. It becomes SO much easier to tell what knife belongs to whom. Here is where the sharpies come in…First of all, initial every utensil you own. Even though you will have tape, do it anyway, especially the tips (for the baking and pastry students). Also, everything you make, whether it is put in the fridge or oven, needs to be labeled. Everyone else in your class is making the same thing…so what happens when there is a rack of 20 trays of the same kind of cookies…? LABEL EVERYTHING!

I wish I had brought an iron and ironing board. A huge part of your grade here is based on your level of professionalism. I have seen people getting called out during class because of their uniform being wrinkled, and especially for the finals (for kitchen classes, we call it “Practicals” or a “Semester Showcase.” here), we are graded on our professionalism. I found myself using my roommate’s iron and ironing board for the first few weeks. Even with sticking the uniform in the dryer on the “permanent press” setting, it is not enough, and you still want to look the part.

I wish I had my social security card/passport/ID. If you plan on having a job on campus, you need what is called a work card, and to obtain a work card, you just have these forms of ID. You don’t need all three, I chose to bring all three, because I own all three. Once you get a work card, you can get hired to multiple places on campus; for example, I have three jobs. I work at the Student Commons as a facility assistant, in the Hospitality Department as a tour guide, and in the Marketing Department as a blogger. Since I am registered as a Federal Work study, I cannot clock in more than twenty hours, but the jobs here are really good at working with schedules, because they know that school is our number one priority right now.

I wish I had brought spray-n-wash and bleach. Every day we are in the kitchens, wearing whites, and especially working with food, you will get a lot of stains. Although I brought normal detergent for the every day laundry, I never thought to bring spray-n-wash and bleach for my whites. Believe me, this is something you will use.

I wish I had brought containers/plastic wrap/foil. Each day, we swipe for meals, and you receive a good amount of food here. Along with the food you choose to keep with the food in your dorm, I soon figured out that I always had food in my room, and here is why. Our dining services has a program offered to us that we can purchase a container for $5, and if/when we choose to return it, we receive the money back. I did not know that for a few weeks, so within the first week of school, I found myself buying containers, plastic wrap, and foil. PLUS, if you are a baker (such as myself), during fundamentals, Chef will usually allow the students to bring a few things home of what we made that day. (Perks of being a baker!). Plus, I would find myself swiping for a meal, putting the food in the container and saving it for later, which helped if I had somewhere to be or was not hungry at that moment.

I wish I had brought air fresheners/trash bags/paper towels/disinfecting wipes/etc. As silly as it sounds, I wish I had brought more of these and stocked up, so I didn’t have to keep buying them. These materials come in handy when cleaning up the room, especially disinfecting wipes, I believe I use those the most.

Last but certainly not least is sheet protectors. Not so much for your lecture classes, but sheet protectors will come in handy in your kitchen classes. Every day we made something different, and within our course guide that is posted online are the formulas (recipes) and you must have them in class with you. So the first day, I bring my printed recipe, and by the time I left class, there was flour, chocolate, and smudges from working hands on my recipe. I found that it is SO much easier to keep recipes in sheet protectors and organized in a binder, (so if anything gets on the formulas/recipes, just wipe them down at the end of the day).

              Hopefully this helps in packing for culinary school, and best of luck to you! One more thing, please do not make the mistake I did and bring tons of clothes (there is actually stuff in my closet that I have not worn in the four months I have been here), and other stuff you REALLY don't need; so I guess what I am saying is to not over-pack, but pack only what you need! Coordinate with the roommate different room amenities such as the refrigerator (because you can only have one), television, microwave, and things of that nature. Again, best of luck in packing, and don’t get nervous if you forget something, we all have and there is stores up the road. Happy packing!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fear Itself

“The only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you’re afraid of it.” –James Beard

Wringing my hands over my laptop for the last hour trying to decide the right words to start my first post as a CIA grad, I decided to put Mr. Beard’s words up instead of mine because he knows more than me. He also makes a handsome scapegoat.

Being a CIA graduate has brought recognition, appreciation, and significance to my first year out of college. I’m speaking as a graduate on this forum where I’ve formerly only spoken as a student, and I feel pressure to present a polished and meaningful portrait of “graduate” life. The truth is not polished and sometimes it was hard to view failures as meaningful.

But at this moment, the floor length windows in my apartment are open and my curtains ripple with each car that passes. I am at my kitchen table in my own apartment, living in a town that I love. I'm off today, but tomorrow I go back to the restaurant where I dreamed of working. This scene would’ve saved me tears, anxiety, frantic phone calls home, and lost sleep worrying that I would find an answer during my final days as a student at CIA.

Its been a year now since I’ve graduated and scribbles on old receipts are my records of the lessons, trials, and successes that I’ve created and encountered over the past year. I still don’t have the answers, and don’t really trust those who think that they do. But I do have stories. We’ll start at the beginning…

January 2014, my roommate and I left Poughkeepsie two days after graduation to drive cross country to Seattle. We stopped at friend’s, family’s, and fellow CIA grad’s houses along the way. Drinking, eating, and laughing our way across this country was the unexpectedly wonderful piece to closing the “college” chapter of my life.

I headed to San Diego and southern California was kind to me in its sunny, sparkling ocean, and warm breezy way. I connected with fellow CIA grads, tapped my professional networks, wrote more cover letters than I did for my externship, and then left town at the beginning of March. It wasn’t the right fit. That experience will be one in an ongoing tale of knowing when to hold em’ and when to fold em’.

I returned to my parent’s home (something I swore I wouldn’t do) in northern Virginia where I took a temporary job as a cook under a generous Chef who took a chance on me and made me a member of his team for seven weeks because we knew that….

At the end of April, I would jam my Mazda Protégé to the brim and drive up the east coast to my very own apartment in Rockland, ME.
My drive included one overnight pit stop where I slept on the couch at my CIA classmate and late-night-sushi-eating-friend’s home outside of Boston where we talked about CIA, the “real” world, and the uncertainty of life. She related to many of my struggles as we shared embarrassing stories about our co-workers, ate soft serve ice cream, worried about our futures, and drank beer. I hope Rachel stays around forever because life is more fun with her by my side.

From May to January 2014, I cooked under CIA graduate Melissa Kelly at her restaurant Primo. I ate more lobster in seven months than my entire family has consumed in their lifetime. I danced under the streetlights on main street at the Atlantic Blues Festival during a warm night in July. I shucked oysters every Thursday and Sunday night for our $1 oyster special. I learned about utility companies, renter’s insurance, and taking the feet off of a couch to fit it through an entryway. I cried myself to sleep because the fear of failure or disappointment can be crippling when its coupled with distance from loved ones. I relished in the genuine DIY spirit that elevates Maine from an isolated, rugged state to an independent, fascinating landscape filled with artisans and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I copied recipes, ideas, and order lists frantically into my crumply back pocket notebook. I drove to the lighthouses on my day off.

I worked for a Chef who wears overalls, has an uncompromising commitment to quality in her food and her employees, and shares her heart in an honorably intimate fashion through her restaurant. I cooked some of the best meals at my apartment between the hours of 1-3 am after a long night of botched call-backs and rushed bathroom breaks. I experienced the inspiration that can be drawn from incredible products. I butchered a lot of chickens and fed pigs that later became food. I developed a fierce respect and sense of protection for my overall-wearing chef. I made dishes with herbs and vegetables whose names were foreign and exciting to me. I worked with a team of highly skilled, passionate, inspired, diverse, and hard working people. And I left a lot of family meal in my lowboy.

And then after Primo closed their doors for the winter on January 5th (we re-opened on May 1st, come eat with us!), I flew to Chile to work for a CIA grad/Primo alumna at a fly-fishing lodge in Patagonia. Her refined palate, their tough as nails work ethic, and a shared entrepreneurial spirit led Anna and Frans Jansen to a small town in Southern Chile where they built Martin Pescador Lodge's series of breathtakingly beautiful fly-fishing lodges with fantastic food.

“We’re a fishing lodge first, but we serve really great food,” Anna smiled at me one day as we stood together at the stove. It’s a seemingly humble mission, but one that I enjoyed embracing each day with enthusiasm, an open mind, and a sense of adventure. There was no Sysco truck, no purveyors, and no celery. But there was some really beautiful food.

I thought that I would receive all the answers when I received my diploma, and I didn't. I still have more questions than answers, but I also have time behind me to give me clarity about which questions still need answers. There is something exhilarating about watching a story unfold and anticipating the next development. We missed that chance to share the developments of a my first year as a CIA graduate as it happened over my past year. But hindsight is 20/20 so that can be a compelling story too.

Up-next: Finding Mr.RightNow

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Egg? A Good Source of Protein or an Amazing New Place For Students to Go On Campus?

As a student at The Culinary Institute of America, you don't think twice of hearing a new building being called "The Egg" because the egg itself is the basics to every food. The Egg at the new Student Commons is a ground breaking new hub for both baking and culinary students. This new facility is going to have a grab and go style of food along with "The Line", which is a production kitchen known for cranking out food at high speeds. The Egg is modern and sophisticated and will certainly be the new place to go on campus this fall.

The Egg is expected to be fully completed, with a grand opening ceremony this fall; specific dates will be announced later on. This past week I was able to sneak a peak of the new building on campus and take behind the scene pictures. When I walked in, I was truly blown away by the professionalism and the quality of work the school has done for its students. I was able to start my tour by going into the brewery, which is in partnership with the Brooklyn Brewery Company. This unique set up allows for brewing classes to be held inside and also allows students over the age of 21 to purchase handcrafted drinks from within.
Brooklyn Brewery Partnership With CIA

Brewing Tanks
The next stop on my tour was "The Line," this kitchen will be responsible for turning out plates at a fast pace for hungry students on campus. This kitchen is also known as K16, which is a production kitchen in Roth Hall but will be moving to The Egg when construction is complete. This is the last class you take before going on externship here at the CIA. The state-of-the-art kitchen is equipped with the finest equipment known to chefs, The Line has char grills, salamanders, deep fryers and all stainless steel Vulcan Appliances. The kitchen is also equipped with conduction and convection ovens, Induction burners built directly into the buffet style line, and a floor model Hobart mixer for all the baking needs. I can not wait to see these kitchens in use and imagine the food the CIA can cook in them.

"The Line"

State of The Art Kitchens

As I made my way through The Egg, I stumbled upon some luxurious couches and when I sat down they were everything I was dreaming of. The Egg has seven lounge areas with these luxury couches, arm chairs and cocktail tables for all your socializing needs. There is also a library with a free book exchange, a fireplace where you can read books while keeping warm, and a stage for open mic nights, karaoke, comedy shows, cooking demos and more. The Egg has everything you could possibly want -- from college entertainment, food, and comfortable couches. Just to name a few more incentives if you're not already hooked and counting down the days until The Egg opens, there is free high speed WiFi, state-of-the-art surround sound, and over 50 charging stations for all your electronic needs.

Inside The Egg

Me Enjoying The Luxury Couches
Charging Stations Everywhere

When I was on the tour of The Egg, something caught my eye and I walked over and it was a sparkling water station and it just blew my mind that us as students would have access to sparkling water with the push of a button for free. This new modern building is highlighting the direction the CIA is taking, as times change everything becomes more modern, starting with the Marriott Pavilion and now to The Egg. As you walk through the new doors you are immediately drawn to life-size trees scattered throughout the entire floor plan. I get excited just writing about this new experience, I can't imagine other students faces when everyone is allowed to see the newest building on campus with all its luxurious amenities. One of the biggest features is a market place for fresh and seasonal ingredients for students and faculty to purchase. These ingredients can be bought from The Egg and used to cook back in your residence hall kitchens with friends. Now, I know this is a lot to take in because there are so many new things happening but, I promise this new experience will be the focal point of the student life here at The Culinary Institute of America.
The Café

Finishing last Minute Touches

Life-Size Trees

My last stop on the tour of The Egg was The Cafe, This unique dining service is powered by Restaurant Associates, which is in partnership with the CIA. This complex kitchen is in the heart of The Egg, facing directly in the middle of anything and everything that is going on around it. The dining services here is similar to the Grab and Go concept and customizable options like, pizza, sandwiches, and sides. The existing Plaza Cafe will no longer be open when The Egg is opened later this Fall. The Cafe will take the place of the Plaza Cafe with more options for food. This tour was an amazing opportunity for a sneak peak of the newest building on campus and I am glad I get to share this experience with you guys. As the grand opening dates get closer I will keep you guys informed of more information that comes my way, until then contain your excitement for The Egg; it will be here before you know it.
"Grab & Go"

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Lets Talk About the Fundamentals: Interview with Chef Egan

This past week I was given the opportunity to interview with Chef Kristin Egan, a Baking and Pastry Techniques Chef here at The Culinary Institute of America. Baking and Pastry Fundamentals is the first class you take here at the CIA, if your enrolled in the Baking and Pastry program. "Fundies" as the students call it here is the basic knowledge you will need to know before moving on to other specialty classes like, Cakes, Breads, and Individual Pastries. During these 15 weeks, you'll get to learn the ins and outs of how we run a kitchen here at the CIA. You will also learn how to properly make cookies, pound cakes, doughnuts, sponge cake, and even creme brulee. These first 15 weeks are essential, try to learn everything you can and ask as many questions as you want; this first semester can determine your success for the rest of your time here at the CIA.

Cinnamon Sugar Cake Doughnuts 
Chef Egan & I
Marbled Pound Cake
During the interview I asked Chef Egan, "When you were my age, what did you wanna do with your life?" and she said, "I closed my eyes and asked myself, what do you wanna do with your life Kristin Egan? and at that moment I knew I wanted to just be in the kitchen baking." Soon after that thought she began applying to culinary schools and quickly stumbled upon the CIA, the next day her and her mother scheduled a tour to visit. I asked her "what is one thing that you thought made CIA stand out over other schools?" and she said, "When I looked inside the bakeshops, I saw a big piece of marble on every station and I knew at that point that this school was prestigious and was the top of the line for culinary schools" Here at the Culinary Institute of America, we use marble for many different reasons, we will use it to cool something down quickly, like pastry cream because marble is a good conductor of heat or to temper chocolate using the tabling method.

 As a prospective student I was always looking for advice from the previous blogger's before I came to school. So I asked Chef Egan, "What do you think students should know before attending the CIA?" "Understand that they are getting into an industry that is challenging and difficult and that you should work in this industry in some way, shape or form before coming to school just to make sure this is really want you want to do" she said. I worked at a local bakery in my small town, before coming to school and it has helped me tremendously adapt from a home kitchen to a professional working kitchen. Please don't think you have to know everything about food before you come to school, it's called school for a reason. You are going to mess up and your going to make mistakes but you'll learn from those mistakes and every failure will make you a better chef.

As you make your way from kitchen to kitchen or bakeshop to bakeshop there are certain rules depending on the chef, but there are some rules that apply to every kitchen at the CIA. "Chef, what are some rules that apply in every kitchen, not just here at school but even out in the industry?" I asked. Chef said "be clean and have a plan before you walk into the kitchen, when I worked in New York City in a restaurant I would always have a game plan ready and it made my day go a lot smoother and I was able to have fun while working. Another thing is, every chef is right even if you know the chef is wrong just say the famous words YES CHEF and go back to work". When you come to CIA, which we are all hoping you do, so you can join this amazing culinary family the most frequent words to come out of your mouth will be YES CHEF. Even when I am not in kitchen classes I call my academic professors or even when I go home to visit family I always respond with YES CHEF. They are the words to live by, the words that will keep you afloat if the boat is sinking and the words that will change your life forever.

Chef Kristin Egan graduated from the CIA in 2005 and started teaching Baking and Pastry Techniques here in 2014. I told chef, "You graduated only nine years ago from this institute and are already back teaching. That's a pretty impressive turnaround, I wanna know how you did it?" "I always wanted to come back and teach here one day, and I always stayed in contact with my previous Chef, Peter Greweling, and one day he told me to come take the instructors exam, but I didn't think I was ready and he said it's worth a shot, so I took the exam and passed. If I could give one piece of advice to students before they graduate it would be to stay in contact with old chefs because they are incredible resources." The chefs here are incredible resources, many chefs here are Certified Master Chefs (CMC) or Certified Master Bakers (CMB). Pick their brains, ask as many questions as possible and learn as much as you can. In this industry you can learn something new everyday if you want to.

I ended my interview by asking Chef Egan, "What is the number one thing for a young cook coming in this field to know?" and she said, " It is not your job to create new recipes or to reinvent the wheel after culinary school, your job as a young cook is to do exactly what your chef tells you to do. If you do this, you will be successful one day". On day one, Chef Egan chiseled these words into my brain and now every day I walk into bakeshop 3, I know that I am going to do exactly what she tells me to do because I know one day I will be successful just like she is.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Blogs from the Other Side...of Education that is.

So, I’m back! Here I am, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America out and about in the real world, filled with new knowledge and new experiences to tell you about! For those of you who do not remember me from my time at CIA, let me take a few moments to introduce myself.

My name is Kristin McGinn, a somewhat recent alumna of The Culinary Institute of America. I spent almost four years at The Culinary earning both my associate and my bachelor’s degrees. My associate degree, my first two years at the CIA, was in Baking and PastryArts. The second half of my career at The Culinary was spent as one of the first eight students earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Science. While at school, I was highly involved in many activities including Women’s Volleyball, Dean’s Council, Student Ambassadors, Graduation Committee and, of course, Student Blogging amongst others. Although I loved every moment, the time still came to leave CIA and I graduated May 1st 2014.  From there I moved on to complete an internship at a large food company, but I will get into more of those details later. First, more about why I am here…again.

Throughout the four years I was at CIA, I remember hearing many students say they could not wait to be done. They could not wait to be finished with classes, homework assignments, reports, and everything that came with being in college. Their eyes were on the prize and nothing else; they looked forward only toward getting a job.

But as the time came closer to actually leave, I heard less of these comments coming from my colleagues. With the end of school in sight, it became apparent that making the jump from school to job was not as automatic as students hoped it would be. I mean think about it, our whole lives up through college are planned out. When grade school is over, you go to high school; when high school is done, it’s off to college. When college is done, well, it’s off to the real world and we're on our own. Our first job after college is the first thing in our lives that is not pre-planned for us, it is only natural that it causes people to be flustered. Where will I end up? What will it be like? What if I don’t like the people I work with? Looking forward into the great unknown it seems like there are a million things to worry about! The last few months of school were overshadowed with an eerie silence as everyone focused all their energy into finding that perfect job.
I was sitting in Apple Pie Bakery Café one afternoon, trying to put my own future together, when I realized something. Every class that goes through the CIA has to eventually face the process of job hunting and preparing to leave the CIA. Based on CIA’s great track record, each class has been more than successful at doing so. Yet, with each graduation, students take the tools and tricks they may have used to find a job, leaving the next class to again fend for themselves in the job market like the class before them. If we could find some way to learn from the class before us, then maybe some of the pressures of the real world could be lifted off our shoulders. Going into the future with some tricks and some reassurance could surely make the transition from school to reality smoother.

But how, I thought, could we pull this off and how could I help? Cue my blogging experience. While going through the bachelor’s program at the CIA, I was a student blogger. I found it to be a fun and rewarding way to help give potential students a glimpse into the life of a CIA student. As my time was almost up as a student at The Culinary, I realized I did not want to stop there. I wanted to be able to reassure the students following after me (and of course their parents) that their lives after CIA would be successful. After a short meeting with the right people and a little maneuvering, we made the existence for this alumni blog possible.

My new mission with this blog is to shed light on life after CIA with focus on, of course, that first job after school is over; how to
find it, how to get it, and what it may be like. I plan to fully discuss all of the great career resources that CIA provides its students with and how I have learned to use these to my advantage. I will also talk about some hints and tricks that I have found to be useful out in the real world. Most importantly, in my opinion, I hope to show that our industry and our art demands what is commonly called “lifetime learning”. Regardless of where you are in your career, there are always opportunities to gain knowledge on our craft. I hope to share some of my learning experiences with you here and assure you that they can be fun. After all, being out in the real world does not mean that life becomes completely boring!

It is good to be back and I am really looking forward to sharing some real world experience with you all! Until next time! 

Friday, May 8, 2015

When Life Gives You Lemons: Sorrento and Citrus Fruit

I have a lot of connections with Italian food.

First of all, my Grandma Fenton was Italian. I can still remember getting my hands dirty and making manicotti, stuffed shells, and lasagna with her as a kid. My hometown has a high Italian population. One of my best friends, Josette, has an extremely Italian family, and every once in a while, she has our group of friends over her house for dinner. I'll never forget the first time I went over there for a family dinner; I was loosening my belt for the courses that just kept coming. My first job was in a small, local take-out pizza joint with seven tables. My externship was in an upscale Italian Restaurant, where I worked my way up to being a main line cook. I took Italian as a language for two semesters at the CIA. Italian cuisine and culture has always been around me.

Let me just go back before I move forward. In high school, I was graced with the opportunity to take a trip to Paris and Italy. We worked our way south from Milan, to Florence, San Gimignano, Rome, Sorrento, and Capri. Although I loved that trip, I regret to admit that food wasn't the main focus of our itinerary.

What I love about Italian food is how widespread the cuisine varies between the different regions. Cuisine is derived from locality and seasonality; I support it. This helps local businesses and avoids deepening global warming through excessive imports. What you find in the northern regions near the Alps is a completely different story than what you will find on the southwest coast of Italy. Although I would love to write about every single moment of my Global Cuisines and Cultures Trip to Italy, that would be slightly obnoxious. So I'll just focus on one afternoon in Sorrento. Upon arriving where I had been nearly five years ago,  I couldn't believe what I missed the first time: lemons, oranges...and more lemons and oranges.

It was an overcast day; the rain was coming and going as it pleased. The tour bus pulled down a main street of Sorrento. I have never seen a citrus tree in person before...if I have, I don't remember it. All I remember of Sorrento the first time I went was the beautiful view of the island of Capri from just outside of where we stayed. I remember the pasta fagiola that was served at dinner, made with various noodles from the inn's cupboard. And while all of that was lovely, my seemingly scattered attention span missed the best part. This time, I was sure to stay on top of all things related to food.

Our guide, Carlotta, had given us a brief lesson on Sorrento's citrus fruit on the bus ride over. Geographically, Sorrento sits on the southwestern shore of Italy. Much of their cuisine revolves around seafood and citrus. Years ago, sailors and fishermen would come in from long periods at sea, carrying back the stink of fish, saltwater, and a Vitamin C deficiency known as scurvy. Scurvy was commonly widespread among fishermen because the fruits and vegetables (with Vitamin C) were perishable and wouldn't last more than a few days on journeys. As this deficiency became a major concern to Sorrento's seafood industry workers, citrus trees began to be harvested on a larger scale. Today, citrus fruits are not only used in recipes (such as lemon sauces, orange zested desserts, limoncello, etc.), but also in cosmetology--the essential oils are integrated into lotions, make up, and other products.

 Down the crowded sidewalks we strolled, searching for a bus to transport us off to lunch by the shore. As we walked, we passed dozens of trees that cradled fresh oranges and lemons. I knew that Carlotta had said that the fruit by the street was bitter, but like George, I was curious--I didn't hesitate to try an orange. Carlotta was right, they were bitter. Except at the same time, I've never had so much orange juice in my mouth at once. It was like one of those dramatic juice commercials, where a curling wave of fruit and juice sweep you away into bliss--but now, it was actually happening.

Stands were crowded with baskets of fresh citrus fruits. There were enormous lemons that were the size of grapefruit, and some smaller versions as well. The larger sfusati lemons can be very tart, however, their skins can be peeled and candied for dessert garnishes. The smaller sfusati lemons are used for limoncello, a digestive alcoholic beverage created by soaking the zests typically in rhubarb alcohol (which provides outstanding flavor for the product). We actually went to a limoncello factory later that day, and learned about the production process. What I didn't realize was that orange zests can also be made into a version of the drink, called arancello. Citrus fruits of this area are also incorporated into seafood dishes, such as the one we ate at lunch.

There we sat in the small seafood restaurant as the rain fell onto the sea's surface just outside the window. My fillet fell apart like butter--it was fresh, flaky and sweet-smelling. As I took my first bite, I tasted years of tradition; the lemon juice in the light, tangy sauce teased the back of my palate in a comforting, melodious sequence. That day, I had finally tasted the culture of Sorrento in my lunch. I was overjoyed--I finished the entire plate, eagerly hungry for more.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I Chose to Come to The Culinary Institute of America

With this being my first blog assignment, I can remember receiving the email on what to write about, and how I felt upon receiving it. I opened my email on my phone and read the question “Why did you come to The Culinary Institute of America?” While reading that, I was walking up the hill to class; the sun beating on my face, my left hand grasping my knife kit, and my carefully pressed uniform on my back; I looked up and saw our main building (Roth Hall) standing tall as the highest and most acknowledged point on campus. I could not help but smile. My mind was reverted back to the day I received my acceptance here to CIA and how excited I was that I would soon be a part of the family of those who attended the best culinary school in the world. After being here for a few months between being submerged in the atmosphere and establishing a rhythm and schedule to my life, it was almost a challenge to envision myself not being here. The answer though to the question “Why did you choose to come to the CIA?” was not far from my mind or my heart.

             I am a transfer student and I previously attended Baldwin Wallace University to study Music and Education. Although I was very happy with where I was in my life, there was something that I still felt missing in my heart; at the time though, I was not sure yet what it was, I guess it was just one of those things one cannot put their finger on. While at this school, I changed my major seven times, trying to find what was right for me and where exactly I would fit in; I admit, it was a struggle. One afternoon, I was taking a drive with a close friend, just talking about how I was feeling about the situation. He had knowledge that I had a love for food, especially in baking, and knew that I had previously thought about culinary school as a young child, but ended up putting it in the back of my mind as a pipe dream. He said to me “Why don’t you consider culinary school again? You love baking and I think you could do really well with it.” That moment turned on a thousand light bulbs in my head, it was like the circuits in my brain of my childhood dream connected again. That evening, I researched the “culinary world’ and all it entails; I found myself with the more I read, the more I didn’t want to stop. I was hooked.
            Within my research, I found that the name “The Culinary Institute of America” appeared everywhere; from reviews, alumni, prestige, recognition, restaurants; the list goes on. I looked more into the CIA, and this place of study entered the top of my list. I devoured every word on their website; from blogs, information, research, facts, student spotlights, class descriptions, and chef backgrounds, I read every word that I came across.  What really sold me was the tour I attended. Our tour guide was Eric Jenkins, who worked in the admissions department. Every word he spoke was more passionate than the last about the school, and his excitement and charisma was more contagious than the flu. As I ventured through Roth, every stop we made had my eyes growing wider with awe. I stood there and watched the students work and secretly envisioned myself wearing that uniform and doing what they were doing. It seemed like every thirty seconds, Eric said something new and interesting about the school, or the aroma of thirty freshly baked loaves of bread whizzed by on a tray balanced on the shoulders of a student. I couldn’t blink because my eyes were full of amazement; this place seemed like a whole different world. That moment, I realized that I wanted to experience this magic for myself, I wanted the expectations of the CIA on me, and I wanted to be held to their standards; so I rolled up my sleeves and made it happen. 

Touring The Culinary Institute of America

Just like the other students and chefs/staff, it is assumed that we all have one love; that love is food and everything about it. Here at the CIA, before starting and before even applying, it was very potent that this principle was in place. I knew that by coming to the CIA, I would not only obtain the knowledge of how to cook the food, but I would also experience classes that would teach me why the food is cooked as it is, why the ingredients and cooking methods work together as they do, how different people of different cultures cook/eat these foods, and how to take these foods and turn them into successful productions or businesses. I knew that coming to the CIA would take the capabilities of my mind and expand them to levels of thinking that I had no idea were possible. I knew that coming to the CIA meant being held to standards of many sanctions such as appearance in uniform, actions, and academic standards. Just like anyone though, starting my studies here came with a few nerves and butterflies in my stomach, but looking back I would not have changed my decision. If I could summarize into one sentence on why I came to the CIA; it would be that I wanted to be part of the growing and ever-changing field; I wanted the experience, the standards, the magic, and the family. 

Few of the over 48,000 alumni family I aspire to be a part of one day!