5 Things I Learned From Culinary School

The culinary arts program has been a very rewarding, yet stressful, experience for me. I have learned so much from some of the best chefs in the world. I’m not sure how other culinary schools are like. The one I attend is set up where each class is 5 weeks long and we take one class at a time. Which is great because this ensures that I will be able to focus on each class. The products we make are sold to paying customers. We have both a cafe and restaurant. I will share a few things I learned and I hope it will be beneficial to you.

  1. Mise en place. This is probably the most important thing I have learned. You might have even heard it thrown around here and there on the food network channel or among cooks and chefs. I know I heard Rachel Ray throw that word around on “Worst Cooks of America.” If you haven’t heard about mise en place, it means “everything in its place.” It refers to getting everything prepared and measured out before you begin. This also includes having all of your tools set out before you begin and being mentally prepared. I had a chef explain that getting yourself mised out helps save you from looking like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Based on my experience, he was correct about that. I was not mised out and I spent 30 minutes running around the kitchen looking for ingredients and tools. I truly looked like what the chef described. Just so you can learn from my experience, please buy your own tools. I went the longest time without my own whisk and spatula because some friends told me I won’t need any since the school provides a few. That’s true….to an extent. Sometimes the tools you need get misplaced or lost. Or others are using them. Honestly, it just saves you a huge headache to buy everything you need—even a lemon juicer and mandolin. You think you won’t need it but you will. Trust me, it’s a pain trying to look for a whisk when you have 20 minutes on the clock and you have to whisk a Hollandaise sauce for eggs benedict. Every second counts. Which leads me to my next point.
  1. Time management. Have you ever watched the cooking competitions on the food network channel? Have you ever noticed that when the host says there’s only an hour or two left, everyone panics? I used to wonder why they panicked. To my inexperienced mind, I assumed an hour was plenty of time to get a lot done. After having three timed practicals this past semester, I now understand why many of the competitors panic when they are told they only have an hour left. An hour might seem like a lot. But it passes by really quickly. Before you know it, time is up and you still have your flan in the oven. Just a tip, no matter how much you yell at something to hurry up and cook, it’s going to take its sweet old time.

The ability to manage my time spent in the kitchen is something I still struggle with. This is mainly because I am expected to multi-task. Depending on what I’m doing, I may not always be able to do so. This is mainly due to me not wanting to make any mistakes because I am a huge perfectionist. For example, my caramel sauce crystallized on me once. Because of this, I created the bad habit of hovering over it like a mother hen to ensure no crystals formed on the edges of the pan. I would have my clean brush ready on hand to brush the sides down with water. It was like watching water boil. Don’t do what I did. Keep an eye on it but don’t hover over it. Work on something else as you wait for the sugar to caramelize to a beautiful color. And anyways, caramel doesn’t really require you to do much, besides brushing the sides down every once in a while. But I digress. From what I have learned, the best way to manage time is to create a task sheet of what you’re going to do that day. It helps with being mentally mised out. You won’t sit there panicking on what you’re supposed to do next. It helps you have a clear mind so you can focus on your job with as little anxiety as possible. Having a task sheet has really aided in keeping me calm during my practicals. It has helped me figure out where I can do more things at once to save time. And well, practice. The more you do something, the better you get.

  1. You are learning when you are out of your comfort zone. A chef actually said this to my class once. He said that if you’re not out of your comfort zone, you’re not learning. Which honestly, it makes a lot of sense. If you’re doing something you’re comfortable with, you’re not growing or improving at all. You’re improving your skills when you’re doing something that completely terrifies you. And it will happen to you. It’s happened hundreds of times to me.
  1. Work Hard. Don’t stand around. Culinary arts schools are tough. It’s demanding and stressful. I won’t lie to you and say it’s easy. But as cheesy as this sounds, as long as you work hard and put in effort, it’s worth it. You learn so much. When you’re done with your project, don’t stand around with your arms crossed. So many people have gotten yelled at for doing this. When in the kitchen, get out of the habit of crossing your arms. Seriously, just don’t do it. I don’t know how other places are like. Based on observation, don’t do it. If you’re allowed to, scale things out for tomorrow. Move around the kitchen and offer your help to others. Some people might be doing different things than you. Keep an eye on what others are doing. This will help you for when you get to make the same thing as them. A chef told me that a true chef looks at what others are doing and learns from them by watching.
  1. You have the skills. I used to be a self-taught home cook with no restaurant experience under my belt. Culinary arts was a daunting field where I questioned my own sanity. I questioned why I thought I would be able to handle culinary school, let alone a restaurant. But as I went through the program, I realized I actually do have the skills. You just have to believe that you can do it. It’s kind of like having confidence in your own abilities. Cheesy, I know. But it’s true. There will be others with more experience than you. Every time you think you’re good at what you do, there will always be someone who can do it better. Don’t pay attention to that. Focus on your own thing and don’t allow yourself to get distracted by others. I know this sounds like I’m sort of contradicting what I said earlier about watching what others are doing. But what I mean here is to not allow yourself to get intimidated my someone else’s skills. I’ve been there and it sucks. It reminds me of when I first entered the program. One of the chefs said to just keep our heads down and focus on practicing our knife cuts and stock making. I realize now that he didn’t want us to get intimidated by one another. He just wanted us to focus on our task and learn how to improve our speed to pass our practical.

I hope I didn’t scare anyone away. I do believe in being honest. This program has been very rewarding and I work with some amazing chefs. I wanted to share my experiences so you can learn from my mistakes. Everything I wrote was based on things I struggled with and screwed up on. It’s something I feel that others could use to help them on their journey through the culinary arts field. You will sweat and struggle in the pursuit of becoming better at your job. But if food is your passion, your struggles will be worth it in the end.