When you launch on a new journey in life, whether it be traveling to a new country, going back to school, or moving in with a significant other, you never really know what to expect. Sure, you have ideas and hopes of the future but all you can be sure of is the effort and attitude you exert in everything you do. Things happen around you, people change, but what can always stay the same is the love you carry for the things you are passionate for. I love eating food, I love cooking food, I love growing food, I love talking about food, and most of all, I absolutely love being around people who love food as much as I do.
As I first entered culinary school, I honestly thought it was a bit easier than expected. Borderline remedial, I must admit. Then, as the semester progressed, it became tougher with the accumulation of knowledge that one is expected to remember at any given moment, the early 5am wake up calls 5 days a week, and the ever increasing amount of burns located in the forearm area. I began to realize that what I knew about food in the beginning, whether from books, recipes, or (gasp) the food network, was a fraction of what I was learning in school and what would be expected to know out in the real world. Not only have I built on my culinary foundation to where I can now cook better, faster, and smarter, I now understand the reason why things are done they way they are. Call it science, call it general food know-how, call it anything that you wish but never call it unimportant.
What culinary school provided me during the first 79 days has been a revolutionary educational experience that will stay with me forever. As I embark on my second semester of school in two weeks, I revisit some of the core concepts learned during the first. I cannot wait to see what will come next!
1. Patience with People- learning how to bite your tongue and maneuver around those that do not take the program as seriously as you do. I have mentioned it in previous posts throughout the semester but working with certain people is hard. Some don’t want to show up on time so you have to do the bulk of work at your station, some don’t want to help out the team and only work on their one item in the four hour time span (frustrating!), some don’t want to collaborate on dishes and only want to do their ideas, and some just don’t want to put in the effort to do quality work (like they have no problem with having something look like sh*t because hey, we’re serving a cafeteria). The younger me would have made smart ass comments or gotten so mad it would have affected my sanity, but the older more mature Ashley rolls her eyes and keeps on truckin’. I realized a long time ago that there will always be people with poor work ethics and hard heads in the world, no matter what field of work you are in. THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! The one thing I can do is show strength and serenity and never let them affect too much. Hey, you don’t want to show up so we have only 3 people at our station and we need to make 80 sandwiches, we can do it because I know time management and the need to get work done no matter what. Hey, you don’t want to listen to my idea and only want to do yours, fine. I will help out where I can but tomorrow we will make my dish because this is a learning fair environment, not a ‘I do what I want’ one. Needless to say, breathing and keeping calm was part of my mise en place daily and I will only get better at it over time.
2. Lamination- learning how to put a lot of butter layers in dough. I must admit, I never had the urge to make croissants or danishes (ever) but now that I have learned how it is done, I kinda like it. Perhaps my lack of desire to create these products stemmed from my overall intimidation of the entire process of creating those buttery layers. I mean, who has time to sit with a rolling pin and fold butter into a dough multiple times, all the while doing it properly (which means even distribution of the right temperature butter) so you get a good product? Not me! Then I learned what a ‘sheeter’ is. A wonderful piece of machine that rolls out your dough to a specific width in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it by hand. Ah, the glory of technology (I ask you, isn’t it a wonder how those 19th century bakers did everything without this stuff? I can’t even imagine!). I truly enjoyed being on breakfast station purely for this reason. Here’s how it’s done: make the dough (which includes yeast so you are getting double leavination action: one from yeast, one from butter), pound out the butter into a flat sheet between parchment paper, roll out the dough in the sheeter to twice the length as it is wide, put the butter sheet on one side and fold over the other half of the dough, roll out the dough to four times the length as it is wide, fold over one edge of the dough to the middle then the other edge to meet it at the middle then fold the dough from one side to the other to form one big mass (you have now completed a 4-fold), let dough rest for 45 minutes, roll out the dough to three times its length as it is wide to prepare a 3-fold, fold one end to the 2/3 length mark then the other end over that (so it is 1/3 the length over) then fold over the thickest side over the thinnest so you have (again) one mass, let dough rest 30 minutes, repeat 3-fold process one more time, finally roll out the dough to the desired thickness and shape. Breath. Yes, it’s a labor/time intensive process (and this is really half of the complete method) but it is really fun when you get into it and there is definitely a sense of pride one feels knowing you made something as delicious as a croissant.
3. Food Safety Temperatures- learning and then memorizing the important temperatures and holding practices of food so you don’t make people sick. If I had a quarter for every time my Microbiology professor said ‘poop’, I would be rich. Seriously, he told us some disgusting stories as if he had to scare everyone into doing things safely so as not to make people sick. On the positive note, I now know all handling temperatures (cooked foods need to be held at 135 F or above and cold foods 41 F or below), all ‘safe’ temperatures for meat cooking (145 F for fish and pork, 155 F for all ground meats, 165 F for all poultry and stuffed meats – note: some of these temps overcook the meat but that’s why I put quotes around the word safe ), how to calibrate and properly use a thermometer, the minimum distance shelving has to be from the floor (6″ so rodents and pests can’t hide below), the temperatures of a 3 compartment dishwasher and a high temperature dishwasher, and the maximum amount of time one can reheat or cool down a food so it is not in the TDZ (temperature danger zone) for over 4 hours. I know, this is definitely not the most glamorous side of the kitchen but nonetheless extremely important to know and follow.
4. Recipe Memorization. Pastry cream, creme anglaise, pate choux, pie dough, rich short dough, meringue, and buttercream. Honestly, if I were to write out all of these recipes I would bore you and reach my maximum word count for this posT. Let’s just say that if you have all the ingredients needed and a scale to weigh them out (because now I weigh out every dry ingredient by ounces – another concept I learned from school that is #9 on the list), I can make the above items no problem. This has proved quite a skill when needing something quick for a dinner party.
5. Kitchen Lingo- saying ‘behind you’ or ‘HOT’ when walking through the kitchen. Letting people know where you are and what you are carrying is essential to kitchen safety. Burns are prevalent, cuts are going to happen, and things fall on the ground often making the floor a hazard itself. The most important thing that you can do to be a productive member of the kitchen team is to warn folks if you are coming up behind them (so they don’t make any sudden moves or can move to side to get you of your way), if you have something hot (so they don’t bump into you and get burned or worse yet, leave you standing there with something burning your own hand), or if you are coming around the corner with a knife or something hot (for this you yell ‘Corner! Hot!’ or ‘Knife!’).
6. Bread Making- Types of flour, stages of gluten development, and how to shape and bake the bread . Oh man, where do I start? This was an intense station that will stay with me for life. To make a great bread you have to understand yeast and what it needs to grow: temperature, food, and water. You have to understand each stage of gluten development (mixing period, preliminary gluten development period, intermediate development period, and the pickup period) and see the difference in each. You have to understand bulk fermentation, ‘turning of the dough’ (basically redistributing the food and equalizing the temperature), scoring, steaming, and baking of the dough and why you do each step. You have to know different types of bread and what types of yeast (or starter) they require. There is lean dough and enriched dough too, both requiring different yeast, ingredients, fermentation and baking periods, and both yielding completely different breads. A good bread is probably the most cared for thing in the world (okay, besides a baby) because it needs your attention, patience, and understanding to do successfully. I love making bread.
7. Egg Chemistry- the yolk, chalaze, thick white/albumen, thin white, and shell. Those commercials in the late 90′s weren’t kidding when they sang ‘the incredible edible egg’. It truly is mother nature’s finest gift and chef’s best friend as it can create an abundance in the kitchen. Use the yolk to emulsify a dressing (i.e. mayonnaise), use the white to create air in a cake or a frosting, or use the entire egg to add richness and nutrition to a dish. To witness a gloppy, clear mucus turn into a foamy, white, and fluffy structure is magic. To taste the decadence in a homemade mayonnaise is ecstasy. To understand how the egg parts cook (at 149 F it will produce the most delicious custardy egg, at 160 F a tender more set egg, and at 185 a completely hard boiled egg) is power. I will never go without eggs in my kitchen again. You simply cannot call yourself a chef if you do not agree.
8. The Conversion Factor- How to decrease or increase the amount yielded in a recipe. In the real world, a 6 person recipe will not suffice a dinner service feeding 100 people and will need to be altered. It’s actually quite an easy equation and only requires knowledge of ounces (see #9 below) and basic math. Here it is: New yield/Old yield= Conversion Factor. Let’s say you have a recipe that feeds 4 and you have 20 people coming over. That would make your CF 5. Now, list out all your ingredients, convert them to total ounces, then multiple each of them by 5. You now have your new ingredient measurements to make the dish a success. Go figure, all this time I thought you simply multiple or divide a recipe by the number of people to increase or decrease the yield to the correct amount.
9. Ounces- liquid and dry measurement chart memorization. 128 oz= 1 gallon= 4 quarts= 8 pints= 16 cups; 1 cup= 16 tb; 3 tsp= 1 tb. Rule is to never use cups for dry measurements ever as that is strictly or liquid ingredients. Think of a substance like flour which has the ability to be packed in tight in a cup or loosely depending on how one shovels it in the measuring device: one might weigh 8 ounces and the next might weigh 4. This is a HUGE difference in the baking process and can completely ruin the structure of whatever good you are making. Although I have improved as a baker ten-fold and become more confident in my baking skills knowing that mathematics and chemistry are on my side, I kinda feel like this has ruined some recipes for me now: I simply cannot use a household recipe that uses cups for its dry ingredients anymore. I feel so handicapped!
10. Salad Classification & Composition- appetizer, entree, side, dessert, and entremet. I have always made salads, but I never thought about the actual thought process involved in creating a successful salad for a customer. You have to think about the type of green you use if you are creating a bulk salad for a big party or buffet (cause you don’t want a wimpy one that will wilt or get soggy), you have to think about the purpose of the salad and ensure it is the right size and has the right nutritional balance (would you serve a chef salad for a appetizer or an orange and beet salad for an entree?), you have to think about the flavor profile of the produce being used and the dressing it will be served with (a nice mix of baby greens would do great with a light vinaigrette but a hunk of romaine would not), and you most definitely have to think about the appearance and presentation of the salad (are you just going to make a mound of everything or do you want to fan some items out or possibly use an edible vessel to carry it?). I think salads are an under appreciated and misunderstood creation of the kitchen for all of these reasons: there is a lot to think about to get it right and I most certainly will never take it for granted again!