Interview at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

that was fast! I had just dropped off my application to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts when my phone rang while I was in the checkout line at the supermarket. My heart sank when Denise in Admissions told me she was calling from the school. I quickly asked if I had forgotten anything in the application, the application I knew I had triple checked. As it turned out she was free and asked if I had time to come back for an interview. This was great news and definitely better than finding out that I had forgotten something.

I returned to the school about 30 minutes later and we spoke for a while, I answered some questions about my background, motivations and goals and even had to write a short narrative about my most memorable food experience. I left even more excited about things to come. I should hear back next week and hopefully with positive news. Fingers crossed, this blog is about to get a lot busier.

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I’ve Applied to Culinary School!

In 2009 I started out the year with a daunting goal, the goal of learning how to cook, the impetus for this blog. I later enrolled in a Basics class, starting with Knife Skills at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in March of that year and over the years have pursued additional classes there and other places. More and more I’ve tried to immerse myself in the world of food, something which has become part of my identity and personal brand. In 2010 I considered applying to culinary school and did some initial research. Ultimately, I ended up starting my own company, leaving little time for blog entries, but not deterring my desire for cooking or additional learning. The gaps in this blog are clearly evident, but my skill has improved over the years undocumented. In January of this year, I sold my company to a company based in New York and as part of that I had to do some transition work. With the work coming to an end, the goal of applying to and attending culinary school quickly became a reality again which brings us to today. I have officially applied to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts to start in January!

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Application

I dropped off my application personally as I live very close and hope to hear back soon. Orientation starts on January 6th and classes begin shortly after on January 12th. If I am granted admission, I plan to document my experience and learning (the good and the embarrassing) to provide insight into the program and to help me solidify what I have learned. More updates to come shortly!

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Ratio, Method and the Difference a Pan Makes

“Rebuilding” a kitchen and improper planning sometimes result in lessons learned. Sometimes that lesson is simple, follow the directions.

I like making pound cake. For one thing it’s simple. It’s also a quarter butter and a quarter sugar. The rest is just a matter of necessity. I’ve definitely experimented with size and shape before, but it was more calculated versus a last minute decision. The great thing about ratios is that you can scale up or down pretty easily. In baking, a key component for cakes is the pan in which they are baked in. Not having a loaf pan, I opted to pour my batter into my nine-inch square pyrex pan and hoped for the best. The problem here was that I was now baking in a new oven, with a new pan shape and had to figure out what my new cook time would be. That aside, the one thing I didn’t account for was the pan depth. The batter of course was quite spread out and as a result, the finished product was more crust and less soft and buttery cake. Pound cake requires a particular depth to crust ratio for success which this end result didn’t meet. As I commute back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ll have to bring down a spare loaf pan for my next batch.

Square Pound Cake

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Food Memories

Some food memories stick with you for one reason or another. Sometimes the reason is not explainable and other times it’s crystal clear, serving as a reference point to a period in our lives that we hold dear. I was barely 10 when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away. She often stayed with my family for long periods of time taking care of me and my sister. She would pass the time with us by playing games and cooking. The house always smelled amazing. She was adept at cooking many delicious Latin meals and basic food items like rice and beans or fried sweet plantains. The fall before she left, for whatever reason, we grew a bit of corn in our back yard garden, enough for a few meals. While different than corn from Honduras (where my mother’s side of the family is from), she took it upon herself to use some of the corn to create corn tamales or as they are knowing in Honduras, montucas. I remember peeling them open after they had just been cooked, the steam escaping and the sweet aroma of the corn escaping into the air. We devoured them instantly. The semi-solid, slightly creamy tamale, a combination of sweet with a bit of salt was amazing. It was one tradition that my mother didn’t pick up before moving to the US and as a result I never had the likes of it again. I would ask my mother every so often if she would attempt to make it, but without any basis or experience for making it inevitably she didn’t know where to start.

Cultural heritage and tradition are just as much a part of if not entwined with cooking as the ingredients. Meals start with a blank canvas that is shaped by the experiences, traditions and tastes of those who cook. I was listening to an episode of the podcast, Chef’s Story. During the interview, Chef Joe Viehland stated, “if you don’t cook with flavors from your childhood, you have no frame of reference.” In some ways I agree with this. When I cook, I’m often drawn to using ingredients like tortillas or plantains and spices like cumin to shape my meals. I believe that you can learn and develop perspective for new flavors, although it may take more time and effort for them to feel “authentic”.

Last night I visited my parents’ house to see my mother’s stepmother, Bella. She was on vacation and visiting the Boston area. While making plans, my mother said that she was running to the grocery story to pick up corn to make montucas. I smiled. I wondered if I would finally relive the taste memory that I had longed for. We sat down for dinner. I happened to sit in my childhood chair location. To my delight, Bella served up some amazing montucas.

Bella's Montuca

 

Each bite brought me back to that day when I first tasted my grandmothers. This time around, my mother was around watching and learning. It’s funny, as Bella made the same remarks about the corn being different, more sweet and watery than the savory and hearty varieties found in Latin America. Despite the differences, the end result was right for me. This was my memory and I know I’ll be there at the stove, watching and learning when it’s time to make them again to keep that memory alive.

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Pasta & Ratios, What A Difference Ingredients Make

I bought a pasta roller to compliment my KitchenAid and finally had an opportunity to use it. I keep the machine in New York while I have my KitchenAid and attachments in Somerville. As much as I would like to travel back and forth with my mixer, it’s not a practical option of course. I haven’t made pasta since taking classes at Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville about 9 months ago, and as a result I pretty much forgot what to do. I didn’t have my class recipes on hand and turned to Ratio for some guidance. Having documented successful attempts before (Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Pasta , Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – More Pasta) I was confident in the ratio and experimentation based on what I learned during a class at Dave’s.

Just before heading to the gym last night, I decided that I could make some pasta dough and have it rest in the fridge while I completed my workout knowing that when I got back I would be tired and hungry and wouldn’t want to wait for the dough to rest in that state. Cooking for myself, I decided to cut the recipe down by a third. I love pasta, but didn’t want to be a glutton. What could go wrong using a ratio? I would soon find out.

I replaced half of the measured all purpose flour with Semolina. We used a combination of Semolina and Durum at Dave’s, roughly a 50/50 mixture is what I remembered. I really enjoyed the texture and taste of that pasta, some of the best I’ve ever had, and was hoping I would come close despite the use of all purpose flour. This wasn’t to be.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Flour

As I made the dough, I could sense that the texture was naturally different. This wasn’t a surprise given the use of a different mixture of flour, but I realized that I had forgotten what it was supposed to feel like or wondered if I could know what it should feel like given a combination I had never used before. While kneading I used the all purpose flour on the counter and soaked up quite a bit.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Kneaded Dough

When the visible air pockets were gone, I wrapped the dough in plastic and put it in the fridge, heading out for my run.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Rested Dough

When I got back, I broke out the machine, and took the dough out of the fridge. It looked and felt different, not quite smooth and springy, but I had yet to reach the moment of truth.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Rested Dough

I cut the dough into portions that I could easily feed through the rollers and started rolling. Disaster struck. The dough did not hold together. It was rough, filled with holes as it spread out and generally fell apart. No matter what I tried, adding more all purpose flour, adding more oil, kneading, it simply did not work out for me.

Plan B was a box of pasta in the cupboard and some leftover sauce I made with cherry tomatoes from the farmers’ market in Union Square. The sauce was definitely a highlight. The tomatoes were amazing.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Boxed Penne Pasta

Not all of life is success and learning often comes from failure. I’m confident I can nail the pasta with some changes to the ingredients and ratio of them. It’s obvious that not all flours are created equal or will behave the same way. At least I have a baseline to work with having tried this time.

 

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A Return To The CSCA

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

Given my Boston roots and recent visits to other schools (ICE and ICC), I keep circling back to attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. It’s size, location, and focus, seem like a great fit. Over the past few months I’ve been communicating with the admissions staff regarding the school’s programs, Culinary and Pastry, trying to decide which track makes the most sense. Much of it is a personal decision as much as a career one. The decision between a certificate and the professional program is also one that I’m considering.

Yesterday I visited the admissions office to get more perspective and to ask more pointed questions I’ve been wrestling with regarding what’s next. The conversation was easy, informative and gave me better insight into the program. Fingers are crossed as to how the next few months will unfold. Based on work commitments, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to start with the January class or if I’ll have to wait for May. The prospect of school is still as exciting as it ever was and I have a lot of thinking to do around applying.

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Ten Skills Every Cook Should Know Class at Sur la Table

Keeping up with the learning theme, I signed up for a cooking class, 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know at Sur La Table in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen on 57th Street. The class seemed basic enough to give me a sense of what a class at Sur La Table was like without being too technical. I had seen classes advertised on their site and noticed kitchens in a few of their stores and was excited to give them a try.

After singing up, I wasn’t sure how hands on the class would be, how skilled the instructor would be or what I would be learning with respect to the “10 skills”. I assumed that they would be basic things like knife skills, sauté, braising and a few other cooking techniques. To my surprise and delight, the class was more well-rounded and was very hands on. The goal of the class was to complete a meal with team members using the following skills.

  • Vinaigrette
  • Pan Roasting
  • Pan Sauce
  • Blanching
  • Sauté
  • Pesto
  • Whipping Egg Whites
  • Roux
  • Soufflé
  • Coulis

These skills were used to create a truly tasty meal of:

  • Spinach Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
  • Pan Roasted Chicken with Sage White Wine Pan Sauce
  • Sautéed Asparagus with Basil Pesto
  • Chocolate Soufflé with Raspberry Sauce

I would say that most people in the class were of average skill, loved food and were very familiar with the school. The time flew by as were guided by the chef instructor Jessica and her kitchen assistants. We used induction stovetops in addition to the main stove which was very cool as I had never used them before. They were so easy to use and are even easier to clean.

All in all, the class was a great experience and the meal was delicious. I would definitely attend another cooking class again. It was very different from a commercial kitchen setting and felt a bit more like a home kitchen.

Here are some pictures I took throughout the class to document the progression and composition of the meal.

Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Classroom Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Mise En Place Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Mise En Place Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Making Pesto Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Making Pesto Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Asparagus Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Grilled Asparagus Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Melting Chocolate Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Melted Chocolate Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Whipping Egg Whites Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Whipped Egg Whites Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Prepping Chicken Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Cooking Chicken Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Shallots for Pan Sauce IMG_6024 Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Making Pan Sauce Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Salads Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Meal Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Plated Meal Sur La Table NYC Cooking Class - 10 Skills Every Cook Should Know - Chocolate Soufflé

 

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International Culinary Center (ICC) Open House

After leaving the open house for Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), I went home and signed up for the next upcoming open house at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York which happened to be last night. Being near the office, it was a quick walk on a great summer night. As a top rated school, originally opened as the French Culinary Institute, I was interested in comparing the two with respect to approach to teaching, classroom setup, resources and how they “sold” themselves. The ICC definitely touts a long line of successful grads in the professional world as well as affiliations with the tops chefs in the field.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Entrance

My arrival and greeting were a bit different. When I walked in, I entered what appeared to be the admission office section.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Admissions

I was shown into a room with applications and binders describing the various programs available at the school. It was after finishing the application that the tour began. We were a group of about 15 and were taken around the school to see various classrooms for culinary, pastry, bread baking and general use.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Class International Culinary Center (ICC) Class International Culinary Center (ICC) Class International Culinary Center (ICC) Class International Culinary Center (ICC) Class

During the the tour we stopped by a wall of handprints. They reminded me of the molds my mother made of my and my sister’s hands when we were babies. It represented a closer personal connection with chefs the school is affiliated with through instruction whether part of the faculty or through events that have been held.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Famous Affiliated Chefs

The hallways of the school were adorned with showpieces made by the pastry students. They produced some truly impressive work.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Show Pieces International Culinary Center (ICC) Show Pieces International Culinary Center (ICC) Show Pieces International Culinary Center (ICC) Show Pieces International Culinary Center (ICC) Show Pieces

At the end of the tour we were lead to an auditorium. Previous tours were already seated and watching a short video about the school. Instead of a live demonstration, we were provided with an assortment of appetizers and pastries, and at the end of the line we could get something from the bar. This open house definitely felt smaller and less “grand” than ICE.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation

As the film came to a close, opening remarks were given by none-other than Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the Founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center (ICC). It was tremendous to hear her booming and yet soft charismatic voice in person as I have recently come across her Chef’s Story podcast and listen to it every day on the way to and from workHer address to the crowd was personal and impassioned. Her love for the school, cooking and teaching came through as it does for any founder who has found their calling. As she spoke out, her words stood out, stating “Schools are different. They have personalities. Our personality is grounded in authenticity, technique, respect for the kitchen, incredibly professional chefs and teachers…all here for one mission, to help you succeed in your dream.”

International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation Dorothy Cann Hamilton

An overview of the culinary programs was given by Chef Candy Argondizza, the head of the culinary program while an overview of the pastry, cake and bread programs was given by Chef Jansen Chan, director of Pastry. The overview and level of detail provided was really great. The smaller group size in the auditorium allowed for questions to be easily asked and answered by the staff. The techniques and comprehensive levels that each student must pass through to obtain a diploma are amazing. Both chefs made each program equally exciting. I can’t imagine having to actually make the choice.

Instead of a live demo, a live person and graduate of the program, Dorina Yuen of Oro Bakery and Bar came in to talk about her experiences at the school and post graduation. The post school success story was a great way to validate the program and through Dorina’s story it was great to get a sense of the many facets, twists and turns a career can have. As a former employee in Finance, Dorina found her calling in cooking and enrolled in the school while still working when she started her culinary journey. She’s worked in many kitchens and has found success building her own brand.

International Culinary Center (ICC) Presentation Oro Bakery and Bar

International Culinary Center (ICC) First Curriculum Outline 1984While the food didn’t give me the best overall impression of the skills learned, the tour, small auditorium setting, overview of the curriculum and skills learned along with story from a past student rounded out what an experience at the International Culinary Center might be like. On my way out I noticed that a book was provided to guests, Love What You Do: Building A Career In The Culinary Industry written by Dorothy Cann Hamilton herself. It was an interesting touch, as it’s essentially a workbook on making a decision to enter the world of culinary and deciding whether or not it is for you.

I’m glad I made the trip. There is so much to consider with respect to actually enrolling in a program, continuing on in one off classes and learning through my own endeavors. This is an exciting time for me.

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Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House

Living part-time in New York, I’m lucky enough to be in a culinary center of the world. As such, some of the best culinary schools can be found within a short distance of both my office and apartment. The Institute of Culinary Education is one of them, currently on 23rd street (and moving to a larger location at the end of the year). I’m considering taking classes and as well as the idea of a professional program there and decided to sign up for an open house. I had previously visited at the beginning of the month and met with an admissions counselor and was afforded a tour and a great overview. The Open House seemed like another great way to gain insight into the school, staff, and curriculum.

The school has a rich history in the world of culinary education, especially in New York. As one of the “original” schools, it was started as Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and grew over time. Upon his passing, the school was purchased by an entrepreneur with a love for cooking, Rick Smilow and has grown into the massive force it is today.

I arrived just before 6pm and headed up to the top floor for the open house. From the minute that the doors opened up, it was showtime. I was actually blown away. I was expecting a brief talk about the programs offered and then a discussion about admission requirements. What I walked into was an event production. After I passed the greeting table I was welcomed to a bar and offered a drink from a selection of beer and wine.

Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Entry Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Entry

Just after the bar followed an appetizer selection of meat, cheese, bread, fruit and crackers.

Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Appetizer Line Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Appetizers Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Appetizers

Guests (yes, this is how I felt) were seated in a larger room just off the main entrance at chairs facing, not a stage, but a demo kitchen with mirrors. I was pretty excited at this point and happily enjoyed my crackers, bread and various cheeses and cure meat.

The opening remarks provided for an overview of the school, the programs and allowed for some early Q&A with the guests addressing admissions or chefs. The overview was very informative.

First up was a demo for the dinner entree. We watched the preparation while we were served the finished product, duck, mango salsa and polenta. Not too shabby.

Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Culinary Lecture and Demo Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Culinary Lecture and Demo

After the culinary demo, we were the introduced to the pastry demo given by a former sniper turned pastry chef. Pana cotta with some foam and crystalized sugar adornments. Very tasty in deed.

Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Baking and Pastry Lecture and Demo Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) Open House Baking and Pastry Lecture and Demo As I said before, I was favorably impressed with the school overview. After reflecting on the evening and the event, the “New Yorkness” of the open house made sense. Everything is a hustle in the city and a good show is a requirement. That said, it demonstrates the serious approach to food and learning that ICE has and provides for glimpse of what you will be exposed to should you decide that it’s the school for you.

The school is growing tremendously as is evidenced by moving to a larger location as mentioned above. With 20,000 inquires and 700 students per year, it’s a powerhouse for the New York culinary scene and beyond. I’m glad I attended and appreciate the time spent with me as well as the numerous follow-ups.

Here are pictures from my prior visit with an admissions represenative:

Lab Rooms

Institute of Culinary Education Lab Institute of Culinary Education Lab with Class Institute of Culinary Education Lab with Class

Library and Chocolate ShowpiecesInstitute of Culinary Education Library with Chocolate Project Pieces

Lecture RoomInstitute of Culinary Education Lecture Room

 

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Food media has become more prevalent and as such chefs hold an interesting status in society in the US and Globally. The perception of the role has changed to those on the outside and to those who call it their job. Chefs in modern day media are idolized, elevated a million times higher than ever before. Those at the top of their game and recognized by others as figures to emulate, spend their careers perfecting their craft. Jiro Ono is a master of sushi and precision. He is a chef to idolize and is the subject of a biographic film from 2011, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, directed by David Gelb.

Jiro demonstrates that while some of the duties or views of a chef have changed, most have not.

  • The chef is boss.
  • The chef is responsible for everything that gets served.
  • Quality and the experience are of the utmost importance.
  • Excellence takes practice and discipline.
  • No matter how far you have come, you are only just beginning and just learning.

This film provides a glimpse into what is required to become a three-star Michelin rated restaurant which Jiro and his team have achieved at Sukiyabashi in Japan.

A meal at Sukiyabashi can cost about 30,000 Yen (around $300) and is fast, lasting about 15 minutes. Arguably the most expensive meal you’ll ever eat and yet his patrons say it’s worth it. They don’t serve appetizers, only sushi. They’ve mastered that.

According to food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto as stated in the film there are five attributes to a great chef:

  1. First, they take their work seriously and consistently perform at the highest level
  2. Second, they aspire to improve their skills
  3. Third is cleanliness. If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean the food won’t taste good.
  4. The fourth is impatience. They are better leaders than collaborators. They are stubborn and insist on having it their way.
  5. And finally, a great chef is passionate.

Jiro has all of these attributes. He is a perfectionist.

The film was fascinating to watch as I gained insight into this great chef. Each day starts with tasting the ingredients, making adjustments and ensuring everything is perfect for service. If the food is not up to par, it won’t be served. There are no shortcuts. He buys his fish from specialists, experts in the type of fish that they sell. The entire process of creating food is about process and repetition.

Jiro’s mind works on perfection all the time. He recounts that as his career evolved, he would literally make sushi in his dreams and wake up with new ideas. As the title implies, he literally dreamed of sushi. His dreams make him the best. He doesn’t care about money. He wants to make better sushi. He wants to make the best. That’s what he keeps striving for and undoubtedly what keeps him going. For Jiro, when nobody but you know something is not right, that is perfection, pride. being the best.

Jiro says, “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food.” The quality of ingredients is important but you must be able to develop a palate to discren the good from the bad. “Without good taste you can’t make good food”. As he rose to prominence he educated his palate by eating a variety of foods, just as he does now. Could this be an excuse for me to eat out more?!

3 Michlen stars is no small feat.  To paraphrase Masuhiro Yamamoto in the film, it is said that for a restaurant to earn that many stars it is worth it to travel to that country just to eat at the restaurant. Jiro is always seeking perfection and I wonder if he’ll ever feel he attained it. Probably not. What’s harder to think about is that this film is about his sons and sushi and passing the torch as it is about him. The task and difficulty of living up to expectations are enormous.

The lessons observed for greatness can be applied to any profession. As I think about the hours of practice in the kitchen and the hours of learning outside of the kitchen, I can see how I’m still at the beginning of my learning with respect to cooking as well as other areas in life. I’m glad I was able to sit down and watch a biography about such an incredible life and would recommend it to anyone whether starting out with food or even those who are highly advanced knowing they have so much to learn.

 

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