Everything I learned about baking, I learned from Alton Brown

Tomorrow is my last baking and pastry class, and next week is my final exam. No practical - just a written test.

I've been pretty hard on Chef about not grading us on our cooking abilities or technique. I suppose I had lofty thought bubbles of Chef admiring my baking skills, running down the hallway with polenta cake in hand, singing my praises and passing my name on to everyone as best student ever.

Yeah, right.

But after he explained himself last week, I get it, and I appreciate it. Because we cook in groups, and we can't control what others in our group are doing, he grades us on class participation, our binder project (a recipe book we create throughout the semester with all of our recipes and photos of food we cooked), our bi-weekly tests, and final exam. This way, if someone in the group isn't pulling their weight, they won't bring the lot of us down in their fiery ball of failure. And I applaud that.

My group parters, R and TR, are young, and I don't think they take culinary school as seriously as I do. They're always sick, hung over, coming down from a misc. high, talking about partying - definitely not my scene right now. They're great kids, fun to be around, are kind-hearted, but certainly do not share my work ethic. And when I was in my early twenties, as they are now, I suppose I didn't share that work ethic either.

But, I do have to say that Chef isn't as crazy as I thought he was. There is a method to his madness. A method I finally understand. And a method I'll experience again with him next semester.

In retrospect, my first cooking class at Valencia was OK - a 50-50 mix of pleasant surprises and frustration. As described, it's definitely a career program. By that I mean you need to know a bit about cooking before you enroll or you'll be lost. In this class, I received more of a "do this" approach from Chef, rather than the "do this, and this is why you do this" I was hoping for. I had to learn a lot of the "why" on my own.

If I had not read Alton Brown's book, "I'm Just Here for More Food" long before I enrolled in culinary school, I probably would still be trying to figure out why my cake didn't rise or why my creme brulee curdled.

And while it's fair to say that everything I learned about baking, I learned from Alton Brown, it's also fair to say that his book never fully made sense until I was able to apply that information in baking and pastry class.

I proved, at least to myself, that education alone is not enough; reading on your own and self education is not enough; and working in the industry is not enough. To truly learn the culinary craft and master it, you must immerse yourself in all three areas simultaneously.

I've already started cramming for next semester, which is my first-level cooking class, reading professional books from CIA and the like. To date I can cook an egg 23 different ways. I only have 77 more ways to master until I'm true to my pleated toque.