8/26/16: Culinary School

Welcome back! Since I just got into cooking school and that means I’ve been cooking, of course I have a lot to update you on. The problem with that is classes start as early as 7:00 AM and since I love my sleep, I have to devote at least eight hours. So because I would probably need at least an hour to get ready and get to the place, that means my alarm is set for six o’clock. The last time I had to wake up that early was high school. I mean, college classes started as early as 8:30 when I went in Michigan, which I thought was bad enough. All I had to do was wake up at 8:00 and went out the door by 8:20 since I could just walk to class from my dorm.

Because classes start so early for me (7:30 Mondays and Tuesdays; 7:00 Wednesdays and Thursdays), I decided to update you every Friday, especially for this first week, since the outside world sort of hit me so suddenly after an entire year of nothingness at home. In fact, on Tuesday, I felt so overwhelmed about it that I considered dropping altogether. I had an internal panic attack to the point where I texted my best friend and a guy friend who understands this feeling, just to get some comfort–an assurance that this was normal because I was jumping into an actual life so soon. Of course, they told me all this and I felt better knowing that my assumptions were correct: that this was just a mood because I was being hit with all this responsibility at once.

I think on Wednesday, I just told myself that even if I end up deciding not to go into cooking as a career after all–well, I need to eat too, so I’ll know how to prepare my own dishes professionally. Well, even if cooking isn’t my ultimate dream, I still love to do it and I’m apparently good at it even though I’m still learning, and I think documenting as much as I can is really helping, thanks to my passion for writing.

On the very first day, I had Professional Cooking Basics with Chef Michael. He’s an older gentleman, but he’s been cooking almost his whole life, so he has a lot to teach us. When we first stepped into the kitchen to cook, it was eggs. A whole lotta eggs. We needed to make sunny side up, over-easy, scrambled, omelet, and poached eggs. Before this class, I could at least make the first three. I’d never made the latter two however. I’ve seen all of them done before, of course, but it’s different when you’re the one actually doing it.

I chose to keep them all in one plate for the sake of dishwashing (which takes place in a room called the “scullery”, which is called that because it’s just what the Navy called it and the name stuck…according to Chef Michael anyway). I haven’t had a job in the scullery so far, but since our little kitchen teams (of six people) switch off cleanup duties each day, I haven’t personally gotten a job in there. That’s why I only know how to leave dishes there unless they are knives. The rule is to never leave a knife unattended in the scullery, especially under bubbly water, so if we need to wash a knife, we have to do it ourselves.

On the day I felt down, which was only the second day in, I was annoyed by everyone. I didn’t show it or anything–I tried to be polite and open, and all that. The only thing I could mentally ask them was, How could you be so happy being here? Why don’t you feel the way I do about this? Are you really excited to be here?

Well, that feeling fortunately died down soon for me. It took a day or two, but hopefully the same thing won’t happen during Week 2, because I’m not sure I can survive seven more weeks of this. I know I just need the time to get past the bad mood each time, but there’s only so much that one person can take.

You know, it’s funny in a twisted way: I was miserable those two days, but that’s about all I can say about it. During the lectures, I was thinking of what to say for this entry once I finally had the opportunity to allow everything to pour out, but now…nothing. I suppose that’s a good sign. It might mean that I haven’t felt that way most recently, so I forgot what else needs to be said about it.

Anyway, a lot of more culinary thoughts came to mind during each session in the kitchen, like “how do the home cooks on Master Chef know what to make after receiving an impromptu dish?” There was one episode where everyone was supposed to make lemon meringue pie and I replied, “Well…I’m out. I wouldn’t know where to begin.” At the time, I still thought that the “meringue” part was just whipped cream, but no–it was just heavily beaten egg whites. I’d always thought that they get the recipes the night before to study with, which makes sense if you want to keep the show flowing well. I suppose that could still be the case, but I don’t see a lot of those chefs being good actors. Then again, it’s a reality show–some of it is scripted.

Also, in a professional kitchen, is just one chef in charge of the entire dish or are there specific stations devoted to separate tasks? I know that’s probably something I’ll learn toward the end of this semester, but it’s sort of something I’d like to know now so I have a better idea of what to expect. I suppose I could try to get back in touch with the personal chef I’ve been meaning to have coffee with, but she hasn’t responded to my previous email.

So in summation of what I learned in Week One: Monday was PCB with Chef Michael and it was mostly class orientation stuff and then a tour of the kitchens and scullery. We didn’t walk into the baking scullery since they have their own and we don’t work with baking, since that’s a completely separate class. Then we went over egg introductions and he showed us how to make these types: over-easy, sunnyside up, scrambled, omelet, poached, and hard-boiled. The latter two were done altogether in our groups since they involved one large pot (per group, I mean). I couldn’t take a photo since no phones were allowed in the entire first floor where the kitchen is and rules are rules for a reason. In this case, not only is it a distraction, but smartphones have way more bacteria than toilet seats. I actually saw the BuzzFeed video where a college professor swabbed both surfaces and the side of the petri dish which housed the iPhone’s germs…ew. They were basically having their own party. Here’s the video if you’re in the mood to be grossed out enough to never want to touch your phone again (or at least swab it clean every night with sanitizer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67S4SBuYQEw

So that’s why no phones in the kitchen! You’re supposed to wash your hands whenever you can: after you touch your face or hair, between separate tasks, even between similar foods, especially raw meat. Not only is it disgusting, but it’s a serious health hazard and we watched that video on Tuesday actually, for a different class (appropriately, it was Sanitation & Safety class) and that was the day I had my minor freak-out. Part of the reason was because my personal hygiene is already poor enough to the point where I’m wondering, what if my laziness gets to me and I get someone sick? It didn’t help that in that S&S class, the professor also shared a recent article about a chef at an Indian restaurant who never told anybody else that he switched to peanut oil and a customer specifically said “no peanuts” in his order because he was deathly allergic. I’m sure you can see where this is going, so now the chef has to spend four years (I think) in prison for that one fatality. I make mistakes like that all the time and fortunately it has never cost a life or gotten anyone sick. I know my own mind though: I’ll get lazy in letting someone know I made a little change or I don’t read the ingredients on the label of a new ingredient I want to try. In fact, I’m so forgetful that I’ll gather all this information, but never connect the dots and serve a customer something specifically said they were allergic to.

This is a lot of what I panicked about when I texted my mental blowout to my friends during break. I mean, I’ve calmed down about it since then, of course. I actually put on my Advice Columnist’s shoes and told myself to look at the big picture: if I start these germaphobic habits now and train myself to pay closer attention to the ingredients on the label, then I shouldn’t worry at all. It’ll become second nature once I step into an actual professional kitchen.

Speaking of “germaphobe”, I actually wrote that down in the Sanitation/Safety handout they passed out at PCB: they listed all the steps for a complete handwashing technique and I wrote, “Basically, think like a germaphobe.” That’s basically what you have to do, right? You want to avoid contamination at all cost, and the only way to do that is have that obsessive cleaning mentality.

The good thing about the S&S information is it’s pretty much identical between all the classes, so the quizzes over that should be a piece of cake…which I will probably learn how to properly bake in about eight weeks when I start Intro to Baking :P.

To be honest, I’ve reverted back to my old studying habits: skimming the night before. That’s mainly because I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time at night reading when the professors already assume you haven’t read it for that day anyway. I would rather devote my weekend to catching up when I’ve had a breather and can really focus and retain all the information. Let’s just hope I’m right because if not and I actually do have to read each chapter thoroughly, then…jeez…I’ve gotta man up.

Oh, by the way, you remember that highlighting technique I just started? I just highlight all the ingredients that can go into one bowl so I take up less space in the kitchen during prep time and cleanup time. Well, that’s called Mise en Place, which is French for “everything in its place”. Actually, I think what it actually means in culinary terms is setting out each ingredient with the right measurements beforehand, not the putting-it-altogether part.

Which takes me to the other thing I wanted mention about cooking professionally since both of these thoughts have been on my mind ever since I stepped into their kitchen. I never considered how similar it was to surgery. Obviously there’s never any death (for the most part), but you have to scrub in once you get to the kitchen, for a certain period of time longer than normal (in this case the soapy portion takes at least 20 seconds). There’s a lot more science involved than you think–for example, if there’s an unintended grease fire in a pot or pan on the stove, don’t panic and add water to it. Because it’s grease, it’ll just make it even worse and cause an explosion inside the contained area. Instead, try covering it with a metal top first. Then use salt because that apparently cools the temperature (which I found weird since they add salt on the streets during winter if it gets icy…maybe salt is some kind of neutralizer).

Even if you’re not confident enough to do all that, don’t sweat it (no pun intended); someone else will jump in. When cases of emergency like that happen in a professional kitchen, you find that your coworkers will help any way they can (according to the Orientation I had to attend). If there’s a fire or something breaks, other people will help out, which is awesome, since being in the kitchen is like being part of a team.

Also, in S&S, I’m a little less frightened of the class now that I know that A) the professor is so laidback that she admits that she would be singing in order to loosen up the class; and B) the actual quizzes don’t even affect our grade. It is just a review, and I’m not sure if this is her or the class I have right after, which takes place in the exact same classroom, but the professor will correct something on the quiz or homework sheet if it is apparent that we are actually trying. I forget which class this is for since both professors are women and both of these classes are lectures, not labs (kitchen sessions).

I think that other class though, Culinary Arts Survey, is going to be the most fun even though it doesn’t involve any actual cooking. It’s more of an informational class, involving history and how food affects different societies and cultures… During our first class, we learned about the importance of local vs. organic. Basically, we have to support our local farmers by buying their food because they get all the money you pay them. With that money, they can grow better products. It’s sort of a way to give back to the farming community. That’s why one of our writing assignments is to visit a farmer’s market and create a paper with no minimum or maximum limit about our experience there. We don’t have to buy anything, but ask questions and learn more about how this food is grown and prepared or what dishes it would be best used for.

There is also an extra-credit option of any food movie or documentary and writing a critique and describing what we learned. There is a complete list of options somewhere (she didn’t mention where), but I’m considering Julie & Julia. I mean, I’ve already seen it so many times because I relate to Julie Powell so well (obviously you’re aware, if you’re reading this–my very own chef’s blog about my personal cooking experience). I’m just not sure if it’d be any use to critique something I’ve seen numerous times.

I’ve never seen “Ratatouille”, so that’s another option. I really want to though. Now that I have enough money to live carefree again. (I have the house to myself for a week and whenever I do, I only get excited to get singing time because I always forget that whenever my parents go out of town for a few days or more, I get paid to watch the house and dogsit.)

So I think that’s basically all I can say about my experience with Culinary School so far. Then again, there’s probably a lot more I’ve been meaning to bring up, but I’ll remember right after I click “Publish”. Okay, if I do miss a crucial bit of information, I’ll make an actual note of it rather than a mental one, and mention it in next Friday’s entry. Or tonight’s or tomorrow’s. I’m on my own for meals, so I have to survive, which means more cooking updates.

Break an egg! Or in the case of our PCB class, break lots and lots of eggs till you’re all egged out, but get each cooking technique right!

P.S. It didn’t help that at the beginning of Sanitation & Safety, the professor said on her PowerPoint: “Pay attention. Someone’s life may depend on it.”

P.P.S. Now I’m starting to remember tidbits I forgot to mention before: I’m already starting to correct things around the kitchen and teaching my own mother what I learned. For instance: the white vinegar we should be using for cooking is dry white wine vinegar, not distilled, and I know that we use distilled for cooking because I specifically suggested white wine, but Mom said we have distilled, which is fine for cooking. Apparently, it’s not because in order to make distilled vinegar, they use wood or petroleum, neither of which are something you’d want to eat. Also, I taught her the correct way to hold a knife, and that bamboo cutting boards are one of the worst to use. I specifically remember my Knife Skills professor, Chef Mary, saying, “Nonono. Just…no” when someone asked if bamboo boards were good. They’re too weak or something, as evidenced by the broken bamboo board that we have, which is the only wooden board in the house and it actually says “Tropical Bamboo” or something as the label. I remember when I first read that after that lecture, I was like, “Huh…I guess we need a new cutting board.” See? I’m learning and passing on the education to my family, since they were just raised to know this kitchen information–they never got a formal education on it. They just did it. #TheMoreYouKnow

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