New Blog For Chef Training

This blog has always been about self-training and learning. As a result, I’ve created a new blog On Becoming A Chef, to chronicle my journey from enthusiastic cook to chef. The first step in this process has been enrolling in culinary school at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and you’ll find a detailed account of my studies, learning and experience going through culinary school. This blog will continue to figure posts about learning at home, in recreational classes or general observations about food. I hope you enjoy them both.

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Orientation at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

Last night was hopefully the second easiest night I’ll have in culinary school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. The easiest night I hope is graduation! I got to meet my classmates, most of the staff and finalize details like taking a picture for my student ID. I was also given my student binder with syllabus, recipes for the program and student handbook. All that remains is finding the right shoes, non-skid closed toe shoes appropriate for the kitchen. I can’t wait to start next week. It’s all very surreal.

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Call the tailor, I’m almost ready

Culinary School Gear

Things are definitely getting real now. I showed up at school today for a fitting which was pretty exciting. On my way in, I was greeted by Matt, another admissions staff member I have been working with over the months. He showed me downstairs to purchasing to be fitted for my uniform. I tried on a few jacket sizes, pants and t-shirts, and narrowed them down to what fit and felt best. The jackets for students will all be embroidered with names, but I was able to bring home the rest including my knife and tool kit and books. Going through the process, and getting all of my stuff made all of this even more real. I’m so close to starting class. The payment of tuition definitely grounded it if all the stuff I had to carry home didn’t!

With orientation right around the corner next week, I’ll be starting classes including my knife seminars where I’ll ultimately pick out my chef’s knife after trying out a few sizes and styles.

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I’ve Been Accepted to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts!

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Acceptance Letter

Great news to share, I’ve been accepted to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in the Culinary Certificate Program! I arrived home today find a packet in the mail with an acceptance letter and relevant school information. I’m super excited!

Based on the guidance from many people I spoke with at the school, I applied to the Culinary Certificate Program. This will enable me to get a solid grounding in cooking and baking along with seminars covering a variety of topics each week. The school allows students in the Certificate Program which is essentially the first half of the Professional Program to opt into the full program at the halfway point during the semester. The class is a mix of students in either the Certificate or the Professional program. There was no risk and starting this way enables me to immerse myself in the program and then continue or even switch over to the Certificate or Professional Pastry Program if I choose.

Over the next week I need to be measured for my uniform, and take care of other administrative items. Orientation is January 6th, 2015 with school starting on January 12th!

I also know that our texts will be On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals (5th Edition) by Chef Sarah Labensky, Priscilla A. Martel and Allan “Skip” M. Hause and On Baking (3rd Edition) by Chef Sarah Labensky, Priscilla A Martel and Eddy Van Damme. Surprisingly these books haven’t made it on my shelves yet, so they are welcomed additions. On Baking was recommended to me by Bonnie Slotnick of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in the West Village of New York City when I popped into her store this summer, so I’m pretty interested in reading it.

Even more to come as the program starts. Stay tuned.

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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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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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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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Visiting the New England Culinary Institute

NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar
NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar

This weekend I took an extended three day weekend trip with my family to Vermont. We haven’t had the opportunity to take our usual week or longer family trip this year so going up north to visit Burlington, Vermont and the surrounding towns looked like a fun way to kick back and relax before summer’s end.

Forty years ago, my mother came from Honduras to study on an academic scholarship to Vermont College, located in Montpelier. While a student, she met my father a professor at Norwich University and the rest as they say is history. My sister and I of course are evidence of that.

Since we were going to be passing by Montpelier on our way up to Burlington I thought it would be fun to combine a visit to the New England Culinary Institute, also known as NECI for short, while also visiting what was the campus of her college which no longer exists, and how now become part of NECI and other institutions such as the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both of my parents were eager to visit the small town to relive old memories and retell old stories that are part of our family’s history. While touring the Institute we could also eat at the school run restaurant in town and the one on Church Street in Burlington. She was really excited by this and so I called the number on the NECI web site to get information about tours, the school and the restaurant and also to do some research to see if her dorm was still there.

When I called the number I asked the woman on the phone about tours. She politely informed me that there weren’t tours of the school available and that it would best to seek out students on campus to talk to them about their experience. This didn’t seem right to me. What kind of sales pitch was this? I didn’t want to spend a lot of our vacation time on a treasure hunt for buildings and students. She also was unfamiliar with the specific dorm I was looking for, which as it turns out was part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, 100 yards from the New England Culinary Institute admission building. I began to wonder where the call center for the toll free number I had called was located. The school wasn’t that big was it? She also corrected me when I mentioned my intention of wanting to eat at the Institute’s restaurant in Burlington. Apparently that had closed down a couple of years ago too, but she was eager to point out the truly fabulous food at the Main Street Bar & Grill, the restaurant run by the Institute and its students. The loss of their flagship restaurant was not a good sign especially in the fast growing city.

Saturday we arrived and within a few minutes of driving around we found my mother’s old dorm and her room. That was easy. We walked around campus and viewed some of the buildings owned by NECI while also viewing some of the buildings that belonged to other institutions. My mother was excited and happy and we were all getting hungry. It was time to eat.

Mom's College Dorm
Mom's College Dorm

We made the short drive down the hill to the Main Street Bar & Grill. We had been here before many years before to eat and had a pleasurable experience although on that trip we didn’t actually drive around Montpelier as we had this time.

After a short wait for an outside patio seat we sat down and ordered our meal. Our waiter, Joshua, a student was friendly and welcoming and overall did a great job especially given the fact that he was a culinary student and only serving as part of the curriculum rotation. This is pretty much where my praise ends. Overall everyone felt that the food was pretty good but really under-seasoned. I had flashbacks to the basics cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where Chef Angie told us that new cooks generally are afraid of using too much salt and usually under-season their food. Was this day one of the rotation I wondered? The dressing on my salad lacked taste as did the other components of my dishes. The dessert was in fact the best part of the meal which is fortunate because it is the last impression a restaurant gets to make on a customer, but also unfortunate as my aspirations involve the culinary program and not the baking and pastry program.

Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Plating was another thing I noted. While we were only eating lunch, I was expecting more for presentation. My appetizer and main dish appeared as two distinct dishes while the dessert was already melted and lacked color. While not at the heart of culinary training, this is something that is important to me; a well plated dish evokes emotion and clues you into what you are about to taste. As far as showing off technique and skill, this just wasn’t doing it for me.

I asked our server about touring the facilities. He kindly informed us that we could walk to the back of the restaurant and through the back door to view classrooms and the rest of the facility. Once we were back there I was let down again, looking at the small drab classrooms. They just didn’t look inviting, and in contrast to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts they were completely removed from the cooking setting entirely. While having an on site restaurant is a plus for any culinary school the complete separation from the classroom and kitchen didn’t feel appropriate. I also wondered where the rest of the school was. Was that the wrong question to be asking? Was this all there was?

After finishing our meal, we left to walk down the street and get a sense of the town. My parents walked and noted how much things had changed and how the area had grown and modernized. I saw a town only slightly more populated than where I grew up, a stark contrast from living in Boston, a world class city with neighborhoods and numerous cultural culinary influences and establishments. We visited the student run baker, La Brioche and sampled some of their baked goods and pastries. Delicious. Another home run for the baking and pastry program.

NECI, La Brioche
NECI, La Brioche

The New England Culinary Institute was the school were famed Alton Brown matriculated. I had high expectations of what the school had to offer after reading it’s web site contents and given the aptitude and success Alton Brown has attained. I left the school feeling disappointed and yet I don’t think my high expectations were misplaced especially since I have fond memories of eating at NECI restaurants in the past. I wonder what had changed, but left clearly feeling that if I did decide to pursue culinary school, this place wasn’t for me.

I may not have seen all of the buildings, fancy kitchens and labs the school had to offer, but as a someone interested in the school it just seems like I could have gotten more out of my visit with a little friendly guidance and key points of differentiation to focus on. I know when I have guests I do my best to make them feel welcomed and answer all of the questions they have. A school where I could potentially spend a large amount of my hard earned money would do well to have a similar philosophy.

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