The Thick of It

I do freelance writing for some online culinary sites about the ins and outs of culinary school, which is kind of ironic since I’ve never been myself. After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in Anthropology and Women’s Studies, I discovered I had a talent for cooking, a hobby I’d always enjoyed. So I spent the next ten years cooking to pay off student loans for a degree I never really used. The idea of paying for more school–any school–seemed crazy.

Besides, I always thought, why pay for something I can get paid to learn on the job? Every kitchen I worked in gave me plenty of culinary education in the form of countless lessons in cooking and people skills, and running my own catering and personal chef business taught me about marketing, bookkeeping, and leadership. But as I grow older in the culinary arts world, I am more aware of what I do not know. Doing the required research to write these articles about culinary school has made me rethink the benefits of a professional education.

For instance, when researching culinary school curriculum, I discovered that you can take an entire semester length course in hydrocolloids, the thickening agents that form a gel when they come in contact with water. Some chefs use these agents with comfort and creativity in their everyday repertoire. I on the other hand, made two colossal mistakes in the past using hydrocolloids that sent me down the river of deNile where I convinced myself that I didn’t really need to know how to use those ingredients anyway. With the exception of roux, I’ve generally stayed away from thickeners.

First I tried to make a lemon pudding with agar agar (made from seaweed) for a vegan client’s birthday, misunderstanding the critical difference between the powdered and flaked varieties. I waited till the very last moment to invert the pudding onto a plate to serve it only to discover that it was the texture of a large rubber ball. I ran out and got some lemon sorbet, my face as red as the raspberry coulis I had made to go under the pudding.

The second big oops I made was years ago when I tried to make an extremely large batch of chocolate pudding for a group of 400 in an attempt to use up a bunch of non-fat milk before it went sour. I used the tilt skillet to cook the cornstarch custard, but it never thickened. I had to throw out 16 gallons of spotty chocolate milk and scrub the brown crust that had formed on the skillet from cooking it for so long. As it turns out, it’s the fat that allows the pudding to thicken. I learned that, as well as the fact that I should never attempt something new on a large scale.

Chefs that know how to use hydrocolloids are taking advantage of them to create variations on recipes. This creative chef I once read about in the New York Times Wylie Dufresne, once used a combination of xanthan gum and konjac flour (from a Japanese tuber) to make “knot gras”, a foie gras with an elastic texture that allows it to be served tied in a knot. I don’t know if that’s quite my style, but maybe I could learn a thing or two in culinary school.