Today was a big an exciting day for me with respect to advancing my culinary skills. I attended an information session at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind about checking out some schools and investigating further how far I want to take my studying and learning about cooking. I could never have imagined just months ago how deeply this interest would take a hold of me.
When I walked up to the school I noticed a different feeling. I approached more confident and at ease since I had already taken a basics class at the school and was familiar with the surroundings. I entered, took my seat and waited for the session to begin. Prospective students filed in, each inspecting every other person as I was, wondering what their story was, reason for being there, perhaps wondering if we would be in the same classes along with a multitude of other questions that ran through our heads.
The session was headed by Executive Director, Chef Roberta Dowling who founded the school 36 years ago. As she started to talk I was eager to learn more about the school. Interestingly enough, the tables were turned and each person had to introduce themselves stating their name, current occupation if any, and desired course of study.
She described the school as a kind of family, different from other larger institutions in the industry. The jovial and high-spirited chef made you instantly feel at home and you could just tell that she loved this school and what it offered its students. She described most student as career changers, those just out of high school atypical and assured us that people graduating from the program don’t go on to be line cooks. This was serious business for people with high aspirations and a love of cooking (which includes the pastry program as well). The program is modeled after traditional European-styled training, offers small classes with a maximum of 15 students per class, and a hands on approach, making everything from scratch; no pre-made dough or worse number 10 cans would be used here except for tomatoes of course when required. Students gained an average of 11 pounds through the program without question provided that you still exercised. Not so bad. Fail to keep up your exercise program and in an extreme case you could gain up to 85 pounds. Yikes!
Another unique advantage of this program is the flexible scheduling, allowing students to enroll in either a certificate program or professional program with flexible class days totaling 19 hours per week. This allows you to keep your full-time job and even take classes on weekends if that is what you choose; you pick your most convenient days and that’s your schedule for the program. Classes usually have 1 instructor and up to 2 assistants allowing for a lot of personal attention. The world was looking pretty rosy now. Everything was sounding great until reality set it.
Anyone choosing this program does so for their love of cooking. You would have to of course given the significant cash outlay and time commitment for any one of the programs. As she went into detail, the obvious differences from the recreational program I was a part of became even more obvious. Yes there would be homework. There would be required uniforms and class materials including a knife kit. The days would be long and tiring, and as any curriculum would have, there would be examinations.
To this point along with my 6 week Basics class and self-prepared meals at home have been studying leisurely reading and acquiring knowledge through books, while even taking notes. The culinary programs would have written tests as well as a required practicum, something I have never been faced with. This was the punchline you weren’t ready for. The gem missing from the catalog, brochures and web site descriptions.
For the practicum, students would be required to have obtained and assimilated all of the knowledge learned in class and through study at home. Then each student would arrive and find a table with cards equaling the number of total students in the class placed face down on the table. At random, they would pick out a card and find their assignment for a food preparation they would have to create with one big surprise (to me anyway); the card would have have the item to make written on it with the ingredients and the measurements, but a key thing would be missing, the recipe! Students would have to write out the recipe and then present it to the instructor. They would be graded and any major errors which would prevent the student from producing the item given would have to be corrected before they even entered into the kitchen. Students are also graded on their choice and use of equipment, mise en place and their final products and presentation. My heart started to pound. For the mid-term (final for the certificate program which is just the first half of the professional program) this is what was required? To make matters worse, as part of the final practicum for the professional program the process for examination is the same except that measurements for the ingredients are left out. You have to know your stuff and you have to know it cold. This is real culinary knowledge. After the initial shock to my system, I became excited again. 37 weeks of education would give me this knowledge.
Many thoughts began to form in my head. I had questions about which program was right for me and how much depth I actually needed to satisfy not only my curiosity, but my new found passion in the culinary world. What level do I need to get to? What are my real goals? Do I want to change careers or just enhance my culinary knowledge as a hobby?
At the end of our session, we were invited to sample some student cakes and to tour the kitchens. I had the brief opportunity to speak with Chef Dowling, a dynamic and warm personality, about her story. Her deep connections to cooking were immediately apparent. Her great grandmother a chef, her mother being a great cook came to mind quickly when asked how she developed a love for food. She was fortunate enough to experience transatlantic travel at a young age where she was exposed to a variety of foods enjoying many sights, tastes, and textures. She studied in Europe and from what I gather and observe seems to have modeled the school’s program as a way to emulate her experiences with learning the culnary arts to her students.
While touring the kitchens were introduced to some students and got to see their amazing final projects. All were friendly, inviting, and proud of their projects. They had learned so much during their time at the school and felt well equipped to face the challenges of the professional culinary world. I was inspired.
We were also given the change to view student created portfolios, a program requirement. Each student is required to bring a camera to class to capture their progress and detail and show to the world what they are capable of producing and what they have learned. Each page turn of what could be described in some cases as mouth watering food porn further inspired and excited me. All of this is in reach.
As I do some soul searching, visiting other schools and learning about their programs is probably a good idea even if they only re-enforce what I am not looking for. I am favorably impressed with the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and feel fortunate to have the possibility of taking part in their unique and flexible program.
Over a decade ago I was making my first educational inquisitions. It’s funny how similar this process is starting to feel and how I am getting closer to a new chapter in my life.