plated dish made by culinary students

What I Learned in 2015

Life as a Culinary Student

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s incredible to look back over my last six months as an ICE culinary student. I’ve gotten my hands dirty with knife skills and butchery, learned the full range of hot and moist cooking methods, and even journeyed through the cuisines of France, Italy and Asia. It’s challenging to choose just a handful of my favorite moments from the program thus far, but below I’ve compiled my top five culinary school experiences of 2015.

professional kitchen - institute of culinary education

Learning to work in a professional kitchen environment

Chef Mike Garrett has a unique approach to the third module of ICE’s program, which focuses on international cuisines. He chooses to make his classes work in a brigade system. In short, the brigade system is how traditional European kitchens are organized. Teams execute specific tasks for all the dishes on the menu, as opposed to a single chef cooking a dish from start to finish.

Throughout Mod 3, our class rotated through three different stations: garde manger (salads, cold appetizers, etc.), entremetier (sauces, soups and stocks) and mains (meat fabrication and cooking, as well as the plating of all final dishes). It was interesting to see how we came together to create the dishes as a team and to experience the coordinated efforts of a professional kitchen.

Trying new foods

This will probably sound like a crazy statement, but I’ve never been a big fan of Italian food. (I know, how dare I say something so controversial!) I’m not sure why, but I’ve never been interested in pasta—unless it was mac and cheese. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed our lessons on regional Italian cooking.

I didn’t know that Italian cuisine varied so widely by region, and by the end of our section on Italy I was converted. It also taught me to be more open-minded when it comes to trying new things and to throw away prior notions of what specific types of foods should be. For example, Italian food isn’t all pasta and tomato sauce. One of my favorite dishes we made was polenta con sugo di porri: a beautiful Italian meat sauce served over polenta.

Getting a chance to flex my creative muscle

At this point in the program, we’re still primarily following recipes to learn techniques—so I was thrilled to learn that we would get to improvise and create our own rolls during our sushi lesson. Sushi is one of my favorite foods, and I’ve wanted to take a sushi class for a long time. I had so much fun experimenting with different ingredients, and getting to chow down on all the awesome sushi at the end of class wasn’t so bad either.

Discovering new techniques

Our lessons on international cuisine were fairly eye-opening, but there was one technique in particular that I was very excited to learn. During our studies of Asian cuisines, we learned how to cook with a wok. I had seen this style of cooking in Asian restaurants but never understood how versatile it could be.

You can use the wok to saute, fry, stew and braise—all of which we did during our lessons on Asia! It was interesting to see how this simple tool could be used in so many different ways: from soups to fried egg rolls, the wok really can do it all. Family and friends—if you’re reading, a wok is definitely at the top of my Christmas list!

asian mise en place

Putting my new skills to the test

Though I frequently cook for myself outside of class, I hadn’t tested my skills on other people until I went home to South Carolina for my mom’s birthday in November. That weekend, I not only prepared a few dishes for our weekly tailgate (shout-out to Chef James, who gave me an awesome porchetta recipe!), but I also cooked a fancy birthday dinner for six guests.

After a quick lesson in regional grocery shopping—the butchers back home didn’t offer chicken supremes, a bone-in cut we learned to fabricate in class—I was able to whip up boneless breasts with a Riesling reduction. It was the first time I’ve attempted this kind of plated dish for multiple people, so I was thrilled to see that everyone enjoyed the meal.

My secret to success? Mise en place and a detailed timeline for prep. These experiences helped solidify my confidence in my ability to take what I’ve learned in class and put it into practice on my own. 2015 has been a whirlwind of new experiences in culinary school.

I know 2016 will bring even more adventures, including intensive lessons on pastry techniques and charcuterie, an externship where I can put my skills to the test and a clearer idea of where I belong in the culinary world. Overall, I’m so happy with my decision to pursue my passion for cooking, and I look forward to putting my education into practice in the new year!

Click here to pursue your own culinary adventures in 2016.

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