ICE alum Brian Duncan smiles

Three Crucial Habits You Should Learn In Culinary School

Executive Chef and ICE graduate Brian Duncan reflects on the most valuable lessons he learned from school

Courtesy: Brian Duncan

Within a curriculum at the Institute of Culinary Education, students are typically in a cohort of about 12 to 16 other students with whom they’ll spend the duration of their program, day in and day out. While students come to ICE with all manner of different backgrounds, experiences and aspirations, working together with such a varied crowd is a huge part of the educational experience, and one that enriches the program immeasurably.

During my own culinary school experience at ICE in 2011, one fellow student stood out as someone who would likely have many opportunities in the culinary realm. He stood out not necessarily because he had the most experience coming in or the biggest aspirations, but because he demonstrated daily that he was taking the process seriously and getting the most out of it as he could.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Brian Duncan, now the Executive Chef of Houston’s Second Baptist Church, where he oversees all food and beverage operations for six campuses, including two full-service restaurants, a full cafeteria kitchen that feeds 1,000 students daily and a high volume coffee bar, as well as seasonal holiday parties and programs serving dinners to underprivileged families. On top of which he still maintains his own private catering business and is now the father of three young children.

During our conversation it occurred to me that many elements of Chef Brian’s success can be traced back to our time as culinary students at ICE, and the good habits he developed then that continue to serve him to this day.

Related Reading:Should I Go to Culinary School?

Humble Yourself

Many students now attend culinary school because they already have a passion for cooking — and already believe they are good at it — but one of the most important things that culinary school asks of you is to humble yourself, because regardless of how much you think you know, you’ve probably got some unlearning to do.

Chef Brian’s interest in culinary school began when he was a college student at Baylor, when he started doing pizza nights for his roommates that quickly turned into weekly occurrences for upward of 50 people. One thing that struck me about his story is that his love of those pizza nights was less about showing off (which I freely admit I am still guilty of when it comes to making dinner), but more about the enjoyment of other people.

“The greatest feeling was watching people eat my food and their reaction to what they were eating,” Chef Brian says.

This innate understanding that being a chef is less about you and more about the guest experience is one that he brought with him to class every day. Chef Brian’s attitude was never about needing to prove to someone that he already knew or could do something, but was respectful and open to instruction and improvement.

“Culinary school is the best thing I've probably ever done,” he says.

“Culinary school is the best thing I've probably ever done.”

Chef Brian said that the majority of culinary school is about the basics, not about elevated dishes and techniques, a reality students sometimes struggle with.

“We learned a lot, but the majority of culinary school is making sure you can dice the potato and make a sauce and figure out to correct if something’s too bitter or too sour,” he says.

His attitude also served him well during his externship at A Voce with legendary chefs Missy Robbins (who is an ICE alumna) and Hillary Sterling. He’d been two days in the prep kitchen when he was suddenly thrust into dinner service on a Saturday night after someone else had walked out. One of the first challenges he faced was being charged to remake a dish that had been dropped, and when he said he’d need five minutes to refire it, Chef Missy challenged him to get it done in two.

“And so I watched her assemble this dish,” he says. “And I was like, all right, I’ve got a lot of work to do, but that's where it took off, and that's when I really started having fun doing this.”

On another occasion Chef Brian had an entire batch of orange zest slices trashed because they were deemed not thin enough.

“I find myself today putting orange zest on everything because now it's fun for me, but I’m still hard on myself," he says. "I'll be cutting it, and I’ll think, 'This looks terrible.' And then I'll throw it all away and start over again.”

Take Notes

We had a curriculum packet for each module of our culinary education that covered what recipes we’d be doing on a given day, but were tasked with re-writing them on notecards as homework each day before the lesson in order to ensure we’d read and considered them before we started cooking.

Read More About the Culinary Arts Curriculum

Chef Brian was one of few students who was always prepared with this detail, on top of which he continued to take notes during instruction. Note-taking is not as easy to do in a kitchen classroom as it is in a lecture hall, but this is one habit that Chef Brian had reason to put to use in a high-level position after leaving NYC to move back to Houston.

Taste of Texas is one of the largest steakhouses in Texas, and Chef Brian was offered a position there by family friends after successfully helping them pull off some catering events for none other than baseball all star Roger Clemens.

“My initial job was to go through every single item on their menu and try to figure out how to make it better by using stuff that they already had,” he says, which was no small feat for a beloved, high-volume restaurant with 40 years of history that wasn’t necessarily interested in adding new ingredients to their inventory.

While menu development isn’t part of the standard culinary school curriculum, Chef Brian’s diligent approach to note-taking was a habit that came in handy, allowing him to be meticulous when it came to experimenting with the almost 50 items on the Taste of Texas menu, including appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, sides and plated dishes, in addition to their famed steaks.

“I've got a notebook full of notes that I took on every dish over there,” he says.

Be Open to Unexpected Opportunities

“It's kind of in our blood to work at a New York level of excellence, and I never ever, ever, ever thought I would work somewhere like a church,” says Chef Brian, of his current position at Houston’s Second Baptist.

His openness to the idea of something unexpected or different than what he thought he was looking for, is both something that started during culinary school, and also one that has helped him find positions that have both continually challenged him as a chef and have been lucrative. Depending on your program, culinary school is only a commitment for four to five hours a day, meaning that many students seek work or continue to work while in culinary school. I spent my own time working front-of-house in a restaurant, which I had never done before, but which I thought would serve me when it came time to cook full-time. (Spoiler alert: I stayed front-of-house and now I’m a food writer.)

Chef Brian, on the other hand, was committed to finding a cooking job, despite not having professional cooking experience.

“I remember that when I first moved to New York, trying to find a job was impossible, because every restaurant requires previous experience, but how are you supposed to get experience if no place will hire you?” he says.

This eventually led to him taking an unpaid position cooking at an Italian trattoria in the Theater District. He reflects on the difference in climate between the trattoria and A Voce, where he ended up doing his externship, as both having been valuable to his overall education:

“They’re both Italian restaurants, but completely different ends of the spectrum. At A Voce I plated with tweezers, and Tre Colore was about getting plates out as fast as possible and making sure they’re clean,” he says.

But his “say yes” mentality to diverse experiences is what moved him through the entirety of his career, so that when one of the bosses he had in high school said he was looking for a chef for a large church organization, Chef Brian’s response was, “are you offering me the job?” That was nine years ago, and now he says, “there's nothing better than what I'm doing.”

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