One month down, quite a few to go -which is a good thing! Aside from the necessity of a day job, there are several advantages to going to culinary school part-time rather than full-time. The most obvious advantage is having time between classes to practice knife skills and cooking techniques. But, I think the advantage we appreciate most is the opportunity to learn and cook through all four seasons.
The classes at Natural Gourmet Institute are small, capped at sixteen, which is a real luxury. Each chef training class goes through the curriculum, start to finish, as a group. Luckily, our class is full of enthusiastic team players and we seem to get along quite well. About half of the class has relocated for the program, from California and Florida and as far away as France and Guyana. The sense of camaraderie extends to the instructors and staff, creating a very supportive, family like atmosphere. While the school has produced many industry notables, the health-focus of the program seems to attract those with sincere interests in wellness, rather than aspirations of flash and stardom.
The instructors are all as solid in their instruction as they are entertaining. Many have worked with some of NYC’s best chefs. A few of them have reputations as culinary drill sergeants, in a good way. For example, our knife skills instructor —from across the room, can identify exactly why your slices aren’t coming out even and will provide a quick correction which changes everything. It’s rather impressive.
As expected, the initial focus has been on the basics. The basics of knife techniques requires reliable precision cutting 1/4, 1/8th and even the pesky 1/16th inch dice vegetables. I’m going through a lot of carrots, celery and onions. Rumour has it that it is rare for everyone in a class to pass the knife skills exam the first time. So, I practice when I can. Will I need to dice potatoes into Fine Brunois in the future? Perhaps not. But, you can’t call yourself a chef without solid knife skills and better knife skills means better efficiency.
We are also have lectures and working through what are referred to as the ‘Basic Quality Ingredients’ and ‘Basic Cooking Techniques’ series. While most of this is not new to most students, the key here is to make sure that we all learn how to do things the same way consistently.
After lecture, we break into cooking groups. Each group then prepares the same ingredients, but with different techniques. Where appropriate, each group might be assigned to come up with an accompanying sauce or dressing using a specific herb or spice. Then, when the cooking is complete, all the dishes are brought together. And just like Thanksgiving, the masses come with their plates, eager to sample. But, not before the cameras come out, We are paparazzi and the food is the A-list celebrity.
Our last class covered various dry cooking methods, such as roasting and baking. While any kitchen gets warm, the temperature that day was a sticky, humid 95°F. In this heat, we hovered over open flames and broilers to roast red peppers, which became a variety of vinaigrette-dressed salads. We roasted eggplant, sheared off its charred skin and transformed it into Baba Ghanoush. We pan toasted spices ranging from star anise to pink peppercorns.
The last assignment was simple classic, baked apples, which we had stuffed with our own various combinations of toasted spices. When the hot pan came out of the oven, the aroma of cinnamon, cardamon, star anise and nutmeg filled the air. And suddenly —it was fall.