The freedom to cook, at last, at last

This week was our first week back to school, and it was the best week I’ve had since enrolling. I overloaded myself with classes. Well, really, I’m only taking two classes this semester, but they’re intense and will no doubt suck up most of my free time. And I don’t mind one bit. They’re brilliant.

Quantity Cookery II is my second-level cooking class, spanning two days, and the best thing that’s ever happened to me in school. Thank God for this class! This is the reason I enrolled in culinary school. This is what I had been waiting for, for an entire year: someone with cooking experience who speaks to me about the whys and hows of cooking, and then allows me to apply what I’ve just learned. Thank you, Chef P.

Chef P. gave an inspiring 2-hour lecture that covered everything about the state of today’s industry. He talked about why we should be proud of our school’s program and culinary training, comparing our curriculum to some of the leading culinary schools in the country.

And he broke down cookery into its simplest terms: There are a handful of cooking techniques. Once you learn those techniques, you can apply them to anything, and when you apply them, you become a cook. Mastering those techniques is what makes you a chef. And mastering takes practice. I swore I heard Debbie Allen’s Fame speech somewhere in there, too.

Our first class was learning how to break down a chicken. He showed us once and threw us into the lion’s den with a whole dead chicken. “Break it down,” he said. Never having done this before (because they would never allow us in Quantity I, for which I still hold a grudge), I knocked it out of the park in only 4 minutes. It was a nearly perfect dissection, except for the two pieces of oyster meat I butchered when trying to remove the thigh and legs. Not bad for a first try.

Then came the great potato debate and whether to cook in cold or hot water. Chef from Quantity I told us to start the potatoes in cold water. But Chef P. told us to start the potatoes in boiling water because it shocks the flesh and keeps the starch in the potato. When I brought this conflict to his attention, he simply said, “This is how I want you to cook potatoes in my class. Outside of this class, you can cook them however you want.” And we left it at that. I realized I would have to memorize the expectations of each chef instructor, and keep them straight. A dizzying task.

Our class project is to create a cookbook. Although we have a text book, we are not using any recipes – we are being allowed the freedom to make up our own recipes/methods, based on what Chef P. tells us to cook.

My second class, Classical Cuisine, is just that. We’re learning classic techniques, but with freedom of expression. I know, can you believe it! Chef K. told us that by the end of the 15 weeks, we would master our cutting techniques, stocks, sauces and classic dishes. He would give us a protein, vegetable, starch and salad, but we would choose the cooking technique. Thank you Chef K!!!

We started with breaking down chickens in this class, too. And I was doing OK with it until R., my first semester partner, whom I adore, started chirping in my ear. I second guessed myself and left a lot of meat on the carcass – it wasn’t pretty at all.

Groups – I love my groups this semester. Everyone seems on the ball. I’m reunited with R and V from my baking class, for Classical. And Quantity II has me paired up with an experienced chef who has been working with Disney for the past five years — he’s been a great help!

R. warned me every day won’t be as great as my first days this week – to quote him, “It’s all downhill from here.”

I’m looking forward to proving him wrong. I think it’s going to be a tough, hard-working semester, but a great one.

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