Looking Back Part 2

I suppose in retrospect it was all worth it. Though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time.

The early mornings, getting up before the sun to commute to Seattle from my home in University Place/ Tacoma. The theory classes filled with drivel I would never use again if I should cook for the rest of my days. The right evil European Chefs that dominated the schools instructors with iron fists and tall hats. The various unexplained instructions or directions, when asked for clarification you got was a dour look and a curt answer.

You can see why a sissy such as me would be more than a little apprehensive during my first week in culinary school. It was bloody scary! But I was resolute, bound and determined to carve a living out of the rock of culinary arts, even if it killed me! From a young age I’ve always loved food, and had shown aptitude in preparing. The knife felt right in my hand, the cutting board a natural stage with which to execute my edible opera. And thanks to my first real shot, given to me by the man I would work for almost 8 years. (Truly astounding in a day and age where turn over is a way of life not just a passing annoyance.) I was on my way to being what I wanted, a chef.

Like most immature prats, my biggest gripe was the outfits. White?! Really!? You would figure where one wrong move and you’re covered in any number of sauces, powders, or concoctions WHITE would be the last color our profession would choose as its standard color. And believe you me; I’ve retired many a chef coat that had slowly gone from pristine white to “not even all the bleach in the world can save it now” gray. Especially in the beginning, when it seemed like the majority of what ever I was chopping had been done by me bashing my chest on the board instead of my knives. (And as my pantry instructor will attest, my knife skills were on par with such an exaggeration the first time I took his station.)

But I made it through my first week, and I made a list of the thirteen things every culinary student at SSCC should know to survive that first quarter to see if you’ve got what it takes to survive the two years it takes to get that degree.

1)      Hats equal power: It took me two days to realize why the first quarter theory instructor had such a hard on for me. I kept wearing a hat to class. The syllabus we got before enrolling said all men must have short hair, girls can have hair above the collar. So I chopped off about a food of hair and showed up Winter Quarter with what little head protection my wardrobe offered at the time. I later came to find that rule isn’t enforced and spent the next two years growing back my tail from a buzz cut. But the point is, the taller the hat, the more power you have in the kitchen. This also means you’re more likely to be bothered with stupid questions or blamed if something went wrong near you. This is why the few times I did lead a station, I always kept a back up short hat that all the less quarter students wore. Besides, it made’em work for their info.

2)      Always do your theory homework: The instructors have an unnatural ability to call on you for the one question that day, for the one page you didn’t read because you went to bed 20 minutes early. It is through this same form of suffering telepathy that they will have you present your report/findings/test scores on the day you pulled a double at work and had just enough time to crawl into your whites and not call in sick that morning.

3)      He who controls the stock room, controls the kitchen: I fondly remember having Inventory, Operations, and Ordering at the start of all my quarters. And it served as a staunch reminder that if you don’t plan ahead you will get screwed. The cooks in charge of the stock room have nothing better to do than count off things and clean so watching your suffering take place is a welcome respite. It’s also a good lesson for “real life” cookery. “If you don’t order it, you can’t make it, and can’t sell it.” Besides, I hate giving those bastards the satisfaction of filling my requisition in their own sweet time.

4)      We are all suckers for a “free meal”: We wake up hours earlier than usual, often skipping breakfast and work with food all day. So when we get our lunch break we often go overboard and chow down everything in sight. And despite Preps best attempt at keeping up, the last 10% of students often had to settle for the stale pastries from Baking and the extra melon bits from Pantry. So it always pays to be extra nice to the Prep lead and have him give your team a high sign when they’re about to open the trough for the pigs. Not only will your team like you for it, you might actually get to eat something other than wilted spinach and that failed potatoes O’Brian experiment.

5)      Label everything: Chef Hawley, god bless is fat encrusted heart, taught me this lesson well my first quarter. You see, he would go through the four reachins Prep had to it’s self and pull out anything that wasn’t labeled and obvious in terms of what food it was, hand out the tasting spoons, and make us sample the mystery food. Mostly sauces mind you, but a burnt beef reduction meant for Sauce the next day was gawd awful cold. And he never failed to get us at least once a rotation, at least until it was my turn to lead that station. It wasn’t until I caught him tearing off a label that I had put on some salmon fume the day before that morning on my way to change in the locker rooms did I understand the extent to which the man was dedicated to learning, and suffering. Needless to say I didn’t squeal, but I didn’t have to dig in with a spoon either. Some lessons have to be learned.

6)      The first quarter is the hardest: For many reasons, but primarily because their job is to weed out all the people that can’t or won’t hack it in the field. We’re trained from day one to go straight from their kitchen to one where we get paid. And we had lots of folks from high schools and worker retraining grants that were just dabbling in the field and had no intention of using the knowledge wasted on them. So of course the instructors don’t know if you mean it or not, and some times you don’t know either. So they pressure you again and again until you finally snap and they watch your response. If you didn’t break down into tears, quit, or hit them, you earned their approval. That first quarter is a crucible, and if you can survive it you can build the skills in later quarters to survive anywhere on earth. (Provided you have the meanest grasp of the local lingo and have the tools necessary to do the job anyway.)

7)      UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU BUY TOP OF THE LINE KNIVES WHILST IN CULINARY SCHOOL: I can’t stress this enough. If you go to the CIA or Cordon Bleu and they force you fine, you’re stuck. But if you went to a smaller school like me buy them sharp and keep them sharp, but don’t break the bank. You will MANGLE those knives learning how to use them, and often times not care for them properly while juggling other projects and learning. Save the expensive Germane Steel or Japanese Terra Cotta until after you have the skills to wield them competently. You pocket book will love you for it.

8)      Pay attention to everything: Just because you think you’ll never be a baker take your Baking and Pastry rotations seriously. I didn’t and regret it to this day. Just because you don’t want to make cookies for a living doesn’t mean the skills learned there couldn’t be applied elsewhere. The same goes for all the fancy old school stuff you learn in Pantry and Garde Manage. Retro is always in style and you‘ll never know when making Pate en croute might come in handy. I took away skills that would help me in catering, because that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Two years later, I end up working in restaurants for three years. Having to remaster a lot of stuff that was up for grabs the first time. Also, hang on to all your old packets, notes, and diagrams. That’s more valuable than any cook book because it gives the same knowledge written in your own words, hence easier to understand.

9)      Age means nothing: They could look 12 and have already been in the industry for five years, taking these courses to get their degree for resume purposes. Or they could look 60 have never wielded anything more complicated than a knife and fork at Thanksgiving because they got laid off from Boeing and need a new profession. I was constantly underestimated by my peers because I looked like I was in my teens but carried myself like a well learned individual. (Though it was annoying to get invited to bars again and again when I didn’t turn 21 until AFTER I graduated.) Some of those old farts especially, who had lived the high life up until they couldn’t oversee the riveting of wings anymore and had to work for a living again. When I tell you to cut the fucking carrots a certain way I mean it for a reason, not because I have some sick power fantasy. (Though it does feel good.)

10)  Culinary school is not the be all end all of learning: In fact, once in the field proper you may learn that some of the things you’re doing are inefficient and out dated. Or perhaps the chef there has a specific way of doing things and your way isn’t welcome. I found out the hard way that there is a stigma that if you have a culinary degree those that did OJT (On the Job Training) will think you a pompous, condescending ass. (Which I find unfair because I was a pompous condescending ass long before enrolling at SSCC). So be prepared to change, adapt, and learn until you roll up your knives for the last time and close that kitchen down forever.

11)  Never ask when something will be done: You will never get a straight answer, its part of the learning process. You can receive estimates now and again but they don’t want you holding to them like doctrine. There are always variables, and they’re trying to teach you (in their ass backwards and infuriating way) to watch the food and learn the signs of peak doneness and flavor. Though I would be lying my ass off if I didn’t relish it as much as my instructors to give that answer to some one that hasn’t learned this rule yet.

12)  Watch your fellow chef: Often times they have field experience that not even those aged and well learned instructors have. Being out of the active field or retired in some of their cases makes some of their knowledge stale. We are always inventing new ways and methods of doing things. Even in an age where you can get just about any food product year round there are only so many ways you can combine them all. So methodology and application take up the creative slack. I’ve learned countless tips and tricks from my subordinates and incorporated them into my own style to make a more efficient whole. Heed the old adage, “Even a fool knows something you do not.”

13)   Never refer to a chef as “sir”: It took me years to figure out why this is so. I was always raised with the practice that if you are to show some one respect you refer to them as Ma’am or Sir. But our years of murky history and skullduggery origins make us leery of authority, even when we ARE that authority. So we choose the title Chef, like Doctor. This is why even though this blog is Chef Dudley, and that’s what my business card says, I do not consider myself a true Chef. I don’t have all the skills and abilities to be considered as such in my mind and feel that the title is thrown about FAR too easily these days. Just because you’re in charge of food in a place doesn’t make you a chef. Just as such, if you own a place that serves food you are not a chef. A chef is more a state of mind and a life style than a title, and it seems many of us in the field have forgotten that and pretend to greatness neither warranted or earned. So if there is a 14th rule it would be to be humble. There’s always some one out there that knows more and has more, just don’t live in fear of the bastard. He could be your dishwasher for all you know!

So that’s it, the culmination of my first quarter there at SSCC. Fond memories earned through hard work, and a general loathing of unemployment. If you asked me to do it all again I probably would go for it. Who know what I would learn on a second round or what they’ve incorporated into the curriculum since leaving their halls for the wild. I may even go back some day to compliment some business training to own my own business down the road, but that’s still a few years away. I know a lot of folks that did other programs in the area and if you’re reading this, add your own experiences. I’m just one guy with one view.

Kitchen’s closed.

-KM CD

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