Chef is rather quick to criticize culinary school
educations, and I was eager to hear his opinion, since I started following him
before I attended culinary school and am starting to reach back to chefs and
cooks I met when studying at the Seattle Culinary Academy.
In his radio show, a few years ago, he discussed the problem
with culinary graduates. Essentially, they didn’t actually know how to cook,
and they had attitudes.
“I would never recommend culinary school,” he declares. I
look at him, wanting to protest. He goes on to say that at culinary school, the
chef instructors teach the students to follow recipes, to stick to the
classical dishes, and to stick with the basics. He says he would rather take a
cook with little experience but a lot of passion. “I can teach them how to
prep,” he explains, “I want cooks with passion. Then they’ll have the passion
to learn and create.”
Okay, seeking someone with passion, I get. It’s really easy
to spot someone who has checked out or who is just collecting a paycheck. Chef
suggests going to the same restaurant and order the same dish at different busy
times. The food served when the restaurant is slow versus the same dishes
served when the restaurant is packed is different. That’s how Chef can tell
whether the cooks have passion.
He looks at me closely. “Do you have a kitchen of cooks with
passion or cooks collecting paychecks?” he asks. He tells a story of a really
good cook who wears headphones when he cooks. Is that the look and feel of a
cook with passion? NO. Someone with passion is engaged, is pushing, is testing,
and is putting out her best all the time, especially when it’s busy.
I don’t really agree with bypassing culinary school. Knowing
the basics makes the first professional cooking job easier, because you have
heard the lingo, you’ve learned the standard cuts and classical techniques. I
never memorized recipes – I was focused on methods. The chef instructors I had
focused on the methods as experienced by the recipes. There is value in setting
a solid foundation.
I traveled to a factory one time where I was tasked with
teaching the managers there a recipe that we wanted them to prepare for us. One
step called for blanching kale. The manager put the kale, dry, in a saute pan.
Uh, that’s not blanching. An individual with a cooking background should have
recognized that. It took more time and some awkward moments to correct it.
As I tell that story, I do have a few cooks come to mind who
have graduated from culinary schools – including my own – who really don’t seem
to know the hilt from the blade of a knife. Another cooking buddy of mine
reminds me of a cook we worked with who couldn’t even break down a chicken –
forget any meat that would be more complex. Is that the fault of the culinary
program though?
Okay, so maybe what a cook gets from culinary school is what
is invested through effort. Maybe it starts at his or her passion to learn and
absorb information in culinary school. I certainly gathered as much information
and tried to ask well thought questions of my chef instructors, and I think I
benefited from attended the program. If nothing else, I sure appreciate the
life of a line cook!
Tomorrow: Chef Amadeus on culinary school graduate attitudes
and self-titled chefs