Life As a Culinary Student: The First Week

When I started researching my thesis on "French culinary criticism" back in 2009, I didn't know if I'd ever find work in food, let alone have the chance to attend culinary school. But in 2012, after a few years freelance writing for various food publications, I found an amazing full-time opportunity as the Social Media & Content Manager at New York's Institute of Culinary Education. Most recently, the opportunity to enroll in ICE's award-winning Culinary Arts program has proved the "cherry on top" of this incredible professional experience — and I'll be blogging about it every step of the way.

The first thing you learn in culinary school is that being a chef is far more complex than most people realize. From your white commis cap down to your stiff-toed shoes, everything is designed for safety, efficiency and cleanliness. In fact, sanitation is the first subject you’ll tackle, learning how factors from temperature to humidity, pH to protein content affect the safety of everything we cook. That may sound boring, but once you’ve studied the many ways improperly handled food can lead to illness, it’s pretty fascinating how rarely we all get sick!

Testing out my chef’s coat and setting up my knives for class

Testing out my chef’s coat and setting up my knives for class

Beyond worrying about proper heating, refrigeration and cleanliness of the products you’ll serve your guests, you also need to learn how not to harm yourself in the kitchen. As culinary students, our tools are our trade, and we’re dealing on a daily basis with fire and knives.

In fact, it’s only when you receive your knife roll that being a “future chef” starts to sink in. Laser-sharp, these knives are our best friends and worst enemies. Ironically, the sharper the blade, the safer you are cutting up your mise en place or filleting a fish. But even the smallest knives have a big bite—I got my first culinary school cut by nicking my thumb with the tip of a paring knife. 

Medium dice carrots and my first culinary school cut

Medium dice carrots and my first culinary school cut

As our first hands-on knife skills challenge, Chef Michael Garrett taught us to wield our massive 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knives to break down oddly shaped carrots and potatoes into small, perfectly square, half-inch cubes—a process chefs call “medium dice”. It’s a frustrating skill to get the hang of, but as you go through the patient repetition of crafting each little square, there’s a deep sense of satisfaction to the process.

In addition to honing our knife skills, our first days include learning about raw ingredients. First up, herb identification. Have you ever tasted fresh marjoram or chervil? Even as an accomplished home cook, I hadn’t. But the most shocking herb to taste raw might just be oregano—it’s essentially a fuzzy fireball! From there we moved on to cheeses (which might be the most indulgent day in all of culinary school). From fresh ricotta and tangy buffalo mozzarella to creamy French explorateur and funkier chunks of pont-l’évêque or taleggio, we tasted flavors from all over the globe and still had only skimmed the surface of cheese world.

Herb Identification

Herb Identification

We also dove into oils and vinegars, tasting them on their own and experimenting with various vinaigrettes. We also learned to “emulsify” these concoctions, adding and whipping the oil gradually to create a thicker texture, somewhat similar to that of the salad dressing you buy in stores. Best of all, we learned to make the mother of all emulsions, mayonnaise, from scratch.

Chef Michael Garrett schools our class in the art of mayonnaise.

Chef Michael Garrett schools our class in the art of mayonnaise.

From the choice of our ingredients to the precision required for each preparation, our day-to-day work as culinary students is all about learning to be focused and to multi-task. We carefully craft dishes—sometimes in mere moments, sometimes over the span of many hours—that our guests will enjoy for just a few minutes. Everything is a balance of time and precision—do it fast, but do it right— and the line between success and failure is about as thin as it gets.

You would think it would take a very specific kind of person to do this job, but our class couldn’t be more diverse. From former marketing executives to recent high school graduates, medical professionals to fashion photographers—we all have the same passion. True, some of us will end up in restaurants, while others will work in food media, launch their own small businesses, or any number of possible futures. But we’re all here because we love working with our hands and learning to craft the only kind of “art” that humans can fully interact with: food.

Read more about my adventures at ICE at blog.ice.edu.

eating on the outskirts: gotham west market, nyc

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

When it comes to Manhattan neighborhoods, Hell's Kitchen has long been dismissed for its proximity to the over-stimulation of Times Square. But for food lovers in search of a taste of old New York and ethnic cuisines, few communities provide as much fodder for the senses. 

Since the opening of the West Side Highway bike path, traffic to the area has only become more frequent—and famished. Add a dash of quirky hotels and an influx in luxury condominiums, and it was only a matter of time until someone put a decisive stamp on Hell's Kitchen's culinary landscape.

Alcachofas & Cucurucho de choclo frito at El Comado

Gotham West Market opened with a bang, promising everything from the world's quirkiest ramen to an outpost of one of Brooklyn's most beloved culinary shops. Launching at least three avenues from the nearest subway station hasn't done the market any favors during this unusually chilly winter, but intrepid eaters will note that it's well worth the trek. 

When I visited for the first time, after work on a Tuesday, the space felt spacious, modern and chic'ly casual. Communal eating areas allow friends of varying tastes to mix and match their orders, while counter seating at such spots as El Comado (a new outpost from acclaimed Tertulia chef Seamus Mullen) provided a seamless experience for aficionados of one specific cuisine.

We started snacking with a paper cone of cucurucho de choclo frito - "crispy hominy sprinkled with chili, lime and cilantro". If movie theatres and ballparks started selling this instead of peanuts and popcorn, they'd never have trouble filling seats. Like a less tooth-cracking version of forbidden unpopped corn kernels (doused with a mildly lip-numbing blend of salt, lime and chili) it was one of the most satisfying crunchy snacks I've ever encountered.

Gambas al ajillo at El Comado

After that addictive start, we couldn't help but dive deeper into Mullen's menu with alcachofas (lightly fried artichokes tossed with arugula, sage, lemon and garlic aioli) and gambas al ajillo (ruby red shrimp fried in olive oil with garlic and guindilla). Satisfying enough for our hungry winter palates, yet ripe with warm weather flavors, these arguably simple dishes put the standard roster of Spanish tapas to shame. Nothing was muddled or masked; every note was refreshing and absolutely necessary to the success of the dish. It's no wonder that of every restaurant in the place, the bar at El Comado was always bustling.

But the most famous resident of Gotham West is arguably the first American outpost of Ivan Ramen. Initially launched in Japan by a "jewish kid from Long Island", Ivan Orkin's curious rye-based noodles are only the tip of the creative iceberg. His classic shio and shoyu broths offer an exceptionally clean, light flavor—but for those seeking something more pungent, the roasted garlic mazemen is the must-eat menu item. Seriously funky, with the slow-roasted sweetness of countless cloves of garlic, the broth was unctuous—almost creamy—with complex flavor. Yet surprisingly, Orkin's bowls (while more than satisfying) are far from gut-busting. In fact, his style is different enough from the many respectable, traditional ramen outposts that it doesn't require a "better or worse" comparison. Whether you call it ramen or just plain innovation, the persuasive end result doesn't call for extended analysis.

Ivan Ramen at Gotham West Market

Admittedly, these are only a few of the exemplary tastes you could seek out at Gotham West. For one, Caroline Fidanza's Little Chef is sure to be enticing (her quirky flavor pairings and addictive foccacia at sandwich shop Saltie are reason enough to move to South Williamsburg) and carnivores are sure to enjoy the offal options at Cannibal. But it's really the community, the mash-up of all these different perspectives on food and the future of New York City, that make Gotham West worth a visit. So screw the snow and cold. Get there before the fair-weather bikers beat you to it.

Gotham West Market
600 11th Avenue
(between 44th and 45th)

edible outcast: celery root

This winter, I was asked to write about winter vegetables to Interrupt Mag's DIY issue. I opted to feature the veg I would argue is the most under-appreciated: celery root.

"The first time I ever saw celery root was in a market in Paris. Marked céleri-rave, it was undoubtedly the ugliest vegetable I had ever seen. Off-white, knotted and scraggly, it was the Quasimodo of the food world. And yet, when winter came, its name began to appear on chic menus throughout the city—not to mention in cooking magazines.

The first time I bought celery root (also known as celeriac) was to prepare a chestnut purée. I found the recipe in a magazine called Cuisine et Vins de France, whose dishes ran the gamut from elaborate terrines to one-pot French peasant food. The chestnut puree was on the simpler end of the spectrum, and when the mix of flavors failed to impress, I associated the fault with the stranger of the two ingredients. In the meantime, I sampled a number of exemplary céleri-rave dishes in the restaurants of the capital, but I never invited the gnarled root back into my Parisian kitchen."

Read the full article at Interrupt Mag