Life as a Culinary Student: The Recipes of Iconic Chefs

As I round the corner on the last lap of culinary school, it’s amazing to consider how far my classmates and I have come. Less than eight months ago, many of us didn’t know how to tell the difference between oregano and marjoram. Today, we’re tackling the recipes of the greatest chefs of our time.

After working through a seemingly endless array of techniques, our class has arrived at the point in our program where we spend five days crafting menus by five incredible chefs: Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless and Ming Tsai. Yet, despite the caliber of these culinary leaders, I didn’t initially feel excited about these lessons. Of course, I have immense respect for all these chefs, but, as a student, I have typically found that I learn more by studying a general concept than by following a recipe.

But oh, how I was wrong. Just like any line cook who has worked under a truly great chef, “merely following a recipe” turned out to be quite the lesson in and of itself.

When you’re attempting to recreate the classic dishes of these chefs’ fine dining establishments, recipes that might traditionally consist of three to four steps often require six, seven or even 17 steps to accomplish. Now, certainly you might ask, “If they’re such master chefs, shouldn’t they be able to accomplish delicious dishes moreefficiently?” The answer is yes—but these chefs aren’t just working fast, they’re actually redefining the limits of delicious.

Mario Batali’s Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads

Mario Batali’s Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads

Take, for example, Mario Batali’s Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads: Chef Batali doesn’t use just one type of onion, he uses four! Any good cook knows that shallots, white onions, red onions and scallions all have different properties, and Batali uses each to build complexity and interest in what could have been just any rustic offal dish. What’s more, he’s demonstrating a very clever chef skill: using multiple related ingredients in a single dish.

The other chefs’ menus proved just as educational. Both Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller’s recipes required me to reserve the cooking liquid leftover from steaming shellfish. Despite having frequently cooked clams or mussels before, I never previously considered transforming this cooking by-product into the base for a flavorful seafood soup or the starting point for a chowder-like sauce. In both cases, the results were brilliant.

Reserving the liquor of steamed mussels // Daniel Boulud’s famed “Billi Bi Cressonière”

Reserving the liquor of steamed mussels // Daniel Boulud’s famed “Billi Bi Cressonière”

In short, these lessons were “aha!” moments for me on two fronts. First and foremost, they increased my respect for not only these chefs, but also for every line cook who has ever worked in a fine dining establishment. Second, they conveyed the importance of a well-written recipe, both as an effective guide and an educational tool.

As the end of our program draws near, and we enter into lessons in which we will devise our own creative recipes, I have already begun to apply the lessons that I have learned from these culinary masters—and I can say with confidence that learning to cook a great chef’s signature dish is 100% more satisfying than simply ordering it at a restaurant.

Interested in checking out culinary school for yourself? Click here to learn more about my program at the Institute of Culinary Education.

To Garlic, With Love

Of all the unattractive things that men have said to me on dates over the years, two stand out in my memory: (1) "I'm allergic to octopus." (2) "I don't like garlic." (Now to be fair, I've never avoided dating a man due to his culinary preferences, but garlic haters are crossing a defining line.)

Photo Credit: Saveur Magazine. For more garlic love, visit: http://www.saveur.com/article/ingredients/types-of-garlic

Photo Credit: Saveur Magazine. For more garlic love, visit: http://www.saveur.com/article/ingredients/types-of-garlic

While others' food vices might consist of champagne or chocolate, I covet the roasted (or not so roasted) cloves that other cooks might discard in the trash. In culinary school, I'd even steal leftover, lonely cloves from other classmates  sheet trays. Golden brown and roasted through, I can easily eat a whole head in one sitting. I'm too addicted to worry about the after effects. 

But I wasn't always so bold about my unabashed love of garlic. It actually wasn't until I learned of this aromatic's health-giving properties that I fully owned predilection for popping cloves. It was during my time working at a holistic nutrition school that more than one colleague offered up stories of surviving trips to India unscathed by the notoriously aggressive "delhi belly" or related ailments. How did they do it? Garlic—one to two raw cloves a day. Being both curious (and romantically unattached)) at the time, I eagerly experimented with taking raw cloves before bedtime. Not only did it make my stomach feel better after over-indulgent outings, but it boosted my overall energy incredibly. What's more, I discovered that by chopping the garlic finely and swallowing it like a pill (i.e. not chewing it at all), I could avoid any overly fragrant side effects.

Garlic scapes, shaved into ribbons and stir fried with broccoli rabe.

Garlic scapes, shaved into ribbons and stir fried with broccoli rabe.

The more I practiced this incredible garlic cure, the more I began to indulge my penchant for cooking with garlic. I sought out black garlicgarlic scapes and even purple varietals. I devised extra-garlic'y recipes for caesar salad or roasted veggies. And eventually, I lost any sense of shame about my garlic cravings. In fact, I've met some garlic addicts far more bold than I, who will crunch on raw garlic because they like the pungent burn.

Now, this is hardly the most attractive habit for a young lady to disclose, but I've learned that I'm one of many, many garlic lovers out there. True, some people are overly sensitive to this particular species of allium, but it's always worth a try.

Here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy a wide range of garlic varietals:

  • Roasted soft or hard neck garlic: snap the neck or slice off the tips of the head. Roast at 400F on a sheet tray until cloves are soft and golden brown. Spread on bread or just pop the cloves like candy.
  • Garlic scapes: shave with a vegetable peeler into long ribbons and stir fry with bitter greens. (Click here for full recipe.)
  • Fried garlic chips. Slice garlic thinly. Pre-heat oil to 300F. Fry cloves for 12-15 minutes until crispy. Strain, let dry and sprinkle on anything you like!
  • Black garlic: Use this sweet, soft fermented garlic to add a less harsh, umami flavor to your stir fry of choice. 
  • Garlic oil: Bring 3-4 cloves to a simmer in one cup of oil. Turn off heat and let cool. Use as a dip for breads or for future cooking projects. (It is also an excellent ayurvedic remedy for colds. During the winter season, drip a few drops into each ear before bed. Place a cotton ball in each ear to prevent the oil from leaking out while you sleep.
  • Raw garlic: For a cure to digestive ailments, chop up one clove garlic very fine. Place in a shot glass. Fill glass 2/3 of the way with water. Swirl and throw back garlic. (Swallow, do not crunch with teeth.) Repeat until you have swallowed all the garlic.

Life as a Culinary Student: Man Your Station

When first starting out in culinary school, my classmates and I were all performing the same task. Each station set with a cutting board, chef’s knife, paring knife, boning knife and vegetable peeler. Each student holding an onion to dice, a rack of lamb to French or a pile of potatoes to tourné.

Eventually, as we moved on to different cooking methods—learning to sauté, braise, grill, roast and fry—we worked in teams of three or four. The real test here was learning to communicate within a group, delegating who would break down which vegetables and proteins; measure out spices, wine or oil; and most importantly, who would make sure nothing overcooked or burned.

Yet now that we’ve moved beyond basic techniques to the regional cuisines of France and Italy, the whole class is working together as one collaborative group. Manning one of three stations—garde manger, entremets or main dishes—my peers and I are no longer responsible for the creation of a single recipe from start to finish.

If stationed at garde manger, we’re responsible for breaking down vegetables, crafting handmade pasta and other various cold or preliminary preparations. The entremets team is responsible for hot sides or the supporting elements of main dishes, from sautéing mushrooms or braising artichokes to brewing soups and crafting sauces. The cooks responsible for main dishes are the kingpins of proteins: breaking down flounder, de-veining shrimp and grinding meatballs, then sautéing, frying or roasting as needed.

In the beginning, there was concern among the ranks that we would learn less by only preparing one or two components of each dish. Yet, to our surprise, this style of working has far surpassed all our expectations. We’re not just learning to chop, whip, butcher, sauté or bake—we’re learning how to trust (and how much to trust) the members of our kitchen team.

In short, we’re learning the skills it takes to survive and thrive in a restaurant—from how to communicate when we need help and when to lend a hand, to timing our tasks so that we can keep the whole kitchen on schedule. And, in the process, we’re realizing that our technical skills are only 50% of what it takes to be a great cook—and maybe 10% of what it takes to be an extraordinary chef.

Not to mention, we’re mentally training for the repetition of professional kitchen work. No longer chopping a single onion or frying just three portions of fish, we now cook in bulk. I’ve personally cleaned and cooked enough artichokes, calamari, pasta or soup for a party of thirty. It’s amazing how long it takes to roll and shape farfalle when your end goal is serving a small army!

Beyond scaling up our efficiency, streamlining our communication and refining our technical skills, we’re gaining an appreciation for the battles fought and won each night at a successful restaurant. You start with a motely crew of strangers with different strengths and expectations and train them to work like a seamless team—executing at the highest level, over and over again. The fact that so many excellent restaurants and food businesses exist is a sheer miracle—a miracle that, one day, my classmates and I hope to help create.

To learn more about pursuing a career in food, visit ICE.edu