The Culinary Institute of America: Term 1

Nearly a year has passed since my last update on Peppered Salt. Today that changes. So where have I been for the last 11 months? I have been busy, very busy. We sold our house, packed our belongings, found a nice apartment, and moved to the Hudson Valley in New York. We even figured out our job situations. For me it was resigning and transitioning to a freelancer writer; for my wife it was a telework schedule agreement with her employer and monthly trips back to Maryland. We managed to get our financing in order, and even without my regular income, we can still shop weekly at farmers markets and explore the many interesting restaurants in our new home. A lot has changed in a very short period of time, and chief among those changes is that at the age of 33 I am once again a college student! In April I began studying culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. With one semester under my belt, I finally have some free time to update my blog and share with you my experience of term 1 at one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the world.

The first term provided an excellent introduction to everything from food safety and nutrition, to the fundamentals of French cooking, and even the history and culture of food and cuisine. I learned how to properly make stocks and broths, the difference between the two, and even how to clarify said liquids into crystal clear consommé. I learned how to roast, braise, sweat, sauté, sear, poach, and fry; however, we only scratched the very, very basics of each technique. In the coming terms, my classmates and I will rotate through several different kitchens, including à la carte, high volume production, Asia, America, Mediterranean, and banquet to refine our practice and learn more techniques relevant to each cuisine.

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The program follows a strict and rigorous schedule. As a p.m. student, my group typically has afternoon classes from 1:30 to 8:30 or 9, although some of our academic courses start at 10:30 a.m. During orientation, which took the entire first week of classes and introduced us to the many facilities and supports available to students, we learned about the strict attendance and dress code policies. For an adult student, the orientation was largely a waste of time and the excessively strict policies, like miss three classes and you automatically withdrawal from the course (resulting in fines and likely pushing you to a completely different set of peers because of that strict schedule) seems out of touch.

Without ranting too much about some of the Culinary’s draconian rules (I lied, full rant ahead), I will simply say that I get the policies are mostly for first-time college students, many of whom are fresh out of high school, but for an institution that prides itself on creating successful career changers like myself, I feel the school would be better served simply increasing acceptance expectations to wade through those students that are not fit to get to class on time or make sure they wear the same uniform every day. Because in my group of 20 (I share the same classes with this group and will with most until graduation next year), about half regularly missed classes, were late with bogus excuses, didn’t complete their homework, or failed to comply with the very basic dress code (you get your uniform, knife kit, and bag during orientation and are expected to wear the same thing every day, literally, the same thing every day… how hard is that?!?). The Culinary prides itself on creating professional, keyword here is professional, young chefs who will one day become industry leaders. So far in my group only about half have that whole professional thing going; these are the ones that will make it far even if their skills in the kitchen are still developing. Perhaps I’m too harsh on my younger classmates, but going back to school took a massive life change for me and my wife and it’s frustrating beyond belief to have to rely on people who don’t act like they want to be there.

Besides my obvious frustration with some of the school’s policies and the lack of professionalism from my classmates, I have to say that the past few months have been the best time of my life. Every day I learned something new about food, cooking, and the culture surrounding food. Every day my click of friends and I talk about food, from places we want to extern, to celebrity chef cameos on campus, to the classes and chefs we simply cannot wait to experience. The Culinary has a lot of mottos, and my favorite is “Food is Life.” At the Culinary, food truly becomes your life.

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I have a lot of friends and family interested in the program so I figured I’d give an overview. Here is a rundown of how the program works:

  • Students are grouped together based on when they enroll and they stick together with this group until graduation. There is a rolling admissions and graduation process that has new students arriving, graduating, leaving and returning from externships every three weeks. Literally every three weeks there’s a graduation, another week there’s a brand new group of students starting, and another week there’s a group leaving and returning for externship. Intense, right?
  • The first term is an introduction to cooking and working in a kitchen. For the most part, students spend about half their time in academic classes like food safety (where students are required to pass a ServSafe Exam), culinary math, nutrition, and product knowledge. The other half of the time is spent hands-on in the kitchen in a 28-day culinary fundamentals class. This is the class where you learn the very basics from knife skills to plating and working together as a team. It starts slow with simple stocks, soups, and sauces, but by the end we were making complete meals (a protein, starch, sauce, and two vegetables) every day.
  • You get a grade for your performance, both professional and skills, every day. Literally, every day you are judged on your knife cuts, how hot and well-seasoned your food was during evaluation, and how well you worked with your team. You are even graded like this in your academics.
  • Your first chef instructor is likely the one you’ll remember the most. That is because you are with this chef through your entire first term, 28 class days, over 15 weeks. All of your future kitchen classes are 14 days split over 3 weeks. Remember that whole 3 week thing? That extends to your class schedule after Term 1. We had an absolutely incredible French chef, trained in France and with tremendous experience working in New York City kitchens. He was patient and understanding, funny and inspiring, and pushed those of us with more experience to become kitchen leaders. We’ll miss him, for sure.
  • The food made in all kitchens is cycled through campus to feed students and staff. From the stocks made daily in fundamentals to à la carte meals, nearly everything students make gets served. Once you enter production kitchens (those start in term 2), every day you serve fellow students like you are working a very, very crowded restaurant kitchen. It is an ingenious idea that is actually executed quite well.
  • Outside of your regular academic and kitchen classes, students are required to do a 15-week externship in term 3 (technically that’s all you do in term 3). There are thousands of approved externship sites across the country, even international opportunities, and students are expected to secure the externship on their own like they are applying for a real job. Students are generally paid during their externship and the goal is to give real-world experience to the cooking school techniques.
  • In the last term, students work in the Culinary-owned restaurants. This is the first time students serve the public on campus. Students work both the front and the back of the house; it’s required for graduation, so cut the awkward server some slack, it may be the first time serving real people and not classmates.

There is a lot more to write about, but this blog post is already longer than I intended. I guess that means I’ll have to write more posts about my experience as a career-changing, adult student. I simply couldn’t find time to make any posts during first term. Between studying for exams and freelancing, there wasn’t enough time in a day, week, to write for Peppered Salt. But I am on a three-week break (three weeks, get it?), so I have plenty of time to put this experience down in words.

Stay tuned for more!

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4 comments… add one
  • Tricia Offutt July 31, 2015, 2:47 am

    Adam, what an awesome adventure! I’m so glad that you and Mrs. Peppered Salt took this risk. Sounds like an incredible ride so far with a lot of practical, hands-on learning, very fast paced. I look forward to hearing more as your journey continues!

    Reply
  • Janet Eckhaus July 31, 2015, 4:00 am

    Wishing you much success! Going back to school as an adult is an interesting experience. I did it and could appreciate your frustration with younger just out of high school classmates. Would love to sample your creations! Good luck!

    Reply
  • Ronnie July 31, 2015, 5:40 am

    Congrats on completing your first term! I totally get what you’re saying about the just-out-of-high school kids. I had the same frustration when I went back to school at age 38. Say “hi” to the missus for me!

    Reply
  • Wangui August 1, 2015, 5:24 am

    You’ll definitely shine over there. kudos to a serious foodie! Next step: food network top chefs:)

    Reply

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