Culinary curriculum, my planned course of study

Superior skills are acquired through tried and true methods and adherence to learning as a process, not as an arbitrary conglomeration of tasks and experiences. The ultimate expression of this was the Spartan Agoge, the iconic process for which I base my transformation.

It is possible to become a great cook and perhaps attain the level of experience and knowledge of a chef through trial and error, but that’s not efficient; I work a full-time job in Advertising and can’t afford to be anything but efficient in my learning process given my limited time outside of work. Learning from others’ experiences as well as building on a solid foundation are the key to success in any field. For this reason I have set out to develop a core curriculum for myself to build a solid base of knowledge from which I can grow. This may seem like I am contradicting myself in that I am not launching head first into a career shift or institution of learning where a plan has been set for me, refined year after year and implemented based on experience and results, but my reasoning is that I would like to do some independent research and studying to survey the land to understand what direction I would like to take and also to understand where my journey may lead me. I need to know where I want to start and more importantly when I will consider myself to have reached my goals. To me this is like going to elementary and high school. You learn a little bit about a lot of things on a very superficial level. Once you graduate you are hopefully equipped with the basic knowledge needed to make an informed decision about your future and take direction with your life  that will set you out on a path that is more defined.

All this amounts to the fact that I must structure my learning to have any hope of adding more to my life than a nice book collection. I must also include milestones to measure my progress while varying my experiences and adhere to a timeline. After much thought and consideration I have settled on the following curriculum for myself understanding that it can change as I move and gain more experience.

Required Reading:

I will start with the basics again. I will re-read Alton Browns two books I’m Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0 and I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking to gain a deeper understanding of its contents. After completing those books, I’ll move on to Shirley O. Corriher’s Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed. After fully understanding those texts I will complete my studies with Harold McGee’s treatise on cooking and the Culinary Institute of America’s curriculum “bible” On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I don’t own McGee’s book and will have to acquire it. I plan to read a book a month with the hope that there will be many topics and concepts that will overlap with each book. The more in depth books hopefully will be easier to read as I build up my knowledge base.

Supplemental Reading:

I will read the books I purchased on the experiences of being a chef, completing one every month. I’ll start with Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford to gain an understanding of what it’s like to become a chef from an outsider and amateur’s perspective. I’ll move on to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute to understanding the process of formal education in the culinary world as he outlines the training process at the Culinary Institue of America. Finally I’ll read Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection to understand the arduous process of obtaining the rank of Master Chef as judged by the CIA. I have heard great things about two books that I am going to consider as optional reading for my foundation. One, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin and the other, White Heat by Marco Pierre White sound interesting and I hope to get them and read them time permitting.

Experience:

Theoretical knowledge is great, but true knowledge comes from doing. I can read all I want about slicing and dicing, sauteing and braising, whipping and baking, but until I get some real experience it’s all just theory. To get hands on experience I plan to take two approaches. First, I’ll attempt to cook a new recipe a week from one of the cookbooks I have purchased. Secondly I plan to enroll in a basic cooking class. I considered many options ranging from private tutor to adult education classes in Boston and Cambridge. I settled on a six week course  entitled “Back to Basics I-VI” at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts which is set to begin on Friday March 6th, 2009. I’ve only been in and worked in a commercial kitchen once when I was in my teens as a dishwasher for a month. Actually working with food in an environment other than my apartment will be an eye opening experience that I look forward to with great anticipation. The schedule looks like this:

Back To Basics I-VI
Class I 03/06/2009 Knife Skills
Class II 03/13/2009 Eggs
Class III 03/20/2009 Stocks & Soups
Class IV 03/27/2009 Braising, Stewing, Blanquettes, and Fricassees
Class V 04/03/2009 Roasting, Grilling, and Sautéing
Class VI 04/17/2009 Sauces

Interviews:

During my four and a half month learning process I have set a goal of interviewing two chefs about their lives and experiences. In order to get a broad exposure in person I will interview a chef new to the life and one with many years of experience.

Timeline:

I plan to complete my self-induction into the world of Culinary Arts by June 30th of this year at which point I will consider moving on to more advanced classes and reading. I have a feeling I will need to read McGees book several times to truly absorb even some of its concepts so this is a bit up in the air. I would also like to acquire hands on experiece in the real world in some aspect related to food. The position and experience I will seek are unknown for now although but is likely to change as I learn more.

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2 Comments

  1. Eric,

    Congrats to you on embarking on your own journey of culinary education. So glad to be reading up on the adventures of another CSCA’er. I will be assisting in some of the recreational classes this summer so perhaps we will cross paths. My recent reading list is very similar to yours….McGee’s book is tremendously dense but it is a great reference to have. So many of the concepts in his book are covered in my classes.

    I had a hard time trying to find decent wage statistics. I started with the Bureau of Labor Statistics website… bls.gov, which seems to indicate that entry level cooks should expect to earn somewhere around $10. I’ve read (can’t remember where) that executive chefs can make anywhere between $50 – 90k but that depends on many factors, including location, type and size of establishment, work experience etc. The starting wages certainly are a far cry from what career changers like you and I have become accustomed to in our previous careers. That’s why I think it makes sense to be a ‘well rounded’ career changer and be willing to wear many hats, so to speak. That’s one of the many reasons why I started my own blog, perhaps I can use it as a starting point for freelance writing. Same thing with photography, perhaps I can do some of that on the side while enduring the lean years while working as a line-cook.

    Good luck to you on your path, I think it’s great. I also linked to your blog and look forward to reading your updates.

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