Beyond Cooks

A Letter to Culinary School Students

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Written by Korsha Wilson

IMG_1475Dear Culinary School Student,

Congrats! You have decided to pursue an education in culinary arts or baking and pastry arts at one of the 578 accredited culinary programs currently being offered in the United States. You obviously love food and are rounding out your knowledge by learning classic techniques that have been the basis of fine-dining for a very long time. Whether it’s a certificate program, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, you will learn skills that will act as a foundation for your career. 

You may want to work in a restaurant someday. Well, that’s an excellent choice since this is a very interesting time in restaurants. The traditional white tablecloth, fine dining experience is now part of a bigger world of dining that includes pop-ups and fast casuals, and “fine casual” restaurants; there are a lot of possibilities.

It’s also an interesting time in restaurants because a lot of restaurants don’t have cooks. This lack of cooks in restaurant kitchens, a.k.a the “chef shortage”, has led some people to look at culinary schools and debate the merits of it. You may have even read one of the many articles covering the “culinary school debate” with chefs, restaurateurs, and culinary school administrators all weighing in on the pros and cons of spending time (and money) on a degree in food. In most of these  articles, the opinion that is missing is that of the young people who decided to pursue a culinary education and are trying to put a culinary arts degree to use in today’s economy.

Well, that is where chef Marc Sheehan and I come in. We’re both culinary school grads, trying to make a living and a career in this very interesting time for restaurants. Chef Sheehan is the executive chef at Loyal Nine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a restaurant that specializes in east coast revival cuisine. They recently earned a nomination from Bon Appétit as one of the 50 best new restaurants in America.

Together we came up with four pieces of advice for you on how to get the most out of your education and work in the industry after graduating.  

Have an Idea of What You Want After Graduation
Chef Sheehan graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2009 with an associate’s degree in culinary arts after graduating from Holy Cross with a degree in history. I graduated with the same culinary degree from the same culinary school in 2007, about 7 months before chef Sheehan started his program. Having a food career that didn’t involve being a chef was still a new concept. Culinary school has since become a training ground of sorts for careers both inside and outside of a restaurant.  I went to culinary school with the intention of becoming a food writer. For chef Sheehan, culinary school was training for becoming a chef. For both of us, this impacted what we did outside of culinary school.

Chef Sheehan, worked in restaurants before and during school which gave him a better understanding of the realities of working in a restaurant post-graduation. “I was basically in class five days a week, and then I would work 3 days a week. So, that was great because it helped get me my first job right out of school and helped me be able to start on the line instead of garde manger because I had already done that,” he remembers.

For me, working as a writing tutor while attending classes was a great way to keep my end goal in mind. I also tried to connect with as many food writers as I could including one time where I snuck into an event because Ruth Reichl would be attending. I don’t advise that.

Try to keep your end goal in mind and know that some things will not work out and those things will still be valuable lessons. I took an externship at a restaurant working on the line and sucked at it but I don’t regret it. It only confirmed that my heart is in writing about food.

IMG_1470Take a Break From Listening to Other People
Every once in a while, take a break from that chef-heavy Instagram or Twitter feed and read a book; preferably one
without pictures.

When I went to culinary school there was no Instagram or Twitter and Facebook was in its infancy. The way that I learned about food outside of the classroom was by going to restaurants- all kinds of restaurants. A mom and pop Thai restaurant can spark your imagination just as much as the restaurant in New York City with the four-star review. Be open to experiencing food from everywhere.

Chef Sheehan learned to explore the world of food by looking at restaurant menus online. “In those days, there weren’t pictures with every dish,” he says. “So, I would look at a menu and be like ‘ok, what’s boudin noir?’ and look at a cookbook with that recipe and try to learn from that.”

Constantly taking in other people’s interpretations of a dish or cuisine via social media influences the way you think and interpret food. Challenge yourself to imagine how dishes taste and what they look like and think about how you would create it. Chef Sheehan likes looking at old-school British cookbooks for this reason. There are no pictures and his imagination and experience have to work to help him formulate a mental image of what the final product is.

Know That You’re Not Going to Get Your Way For a While
After graduation it can be pretty tempting to expect the doors of the restaurant world to just open up to you. Chef Sheehan sees graduates that try to tell him how they cooked elsewhere and constantly has to remind them that they are just starting out. “Culinary school kids need to know that they may have cooked duck one hundred times somewhere else, but you’re going to learn how we cook duck here and eventually, you’ll be able to cook duck the way that you want to cook it.” It’s going to take a long time but eventually you will get to do things your way.

Also, know that you’re going to fuck up a lot. Where you’ll gain points with any person you work with is how you go about fixing your fuck ups. “A lot of students want to have a conversation with me about why something is wrong or why it can’t be served,” chef Sheehan says. “The immediate thing is, how long is it going to take you to redo it.”

You Get What You Give
Like anything else, you will get out of culinary school what you put into culinary school. The chefs that you admire put in a lot of work to get to where they are and to stay there. Class is not the only way to learn about food and there are things that you can do to take learning into your own hands. For example, you could go to farmer’s markets and talk to vendors about what they grow. Or find out if there are any local food producers near your school and see if they’ll let you do a tour. “If you get the opportunity, travel,” chef Sheehan says. Travel forces you to look outside of yourself and see how other cultures do things and that is an invaluable lesson. Travel wherever you can.

Culinary school is not going to give you more than what you make of it and it’s going to take a lot of hard work over an extended amount of time to get to where you want to be. You’re going to graduate knowing the basics of cooking and it’s your job, once you’re out of school, to continuously practice and build on those basics. When you get your first restaurant job, remember that the line cook next to you, your chef, the front of the house manager, the server, the dishwasher – all of those people are your teachers too.

In closing, here’s a quote from Jose Andres:

I started culinary school at a very young age, and really I wanted to be out working, cooking, more than I wanted to be in a classroom. You could say I wasn’t a very good student – I wanted to be a student of life and experience.”

Good Luck,
Korsha

About the author

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Korsha Wilson

Korsha is a contributing editor for the Industry Press and a freelance food writer. She loves hospitality and is obsessed with the restaurant world and the people that work in it. She loves salt cod, Old Bay seasoning and french fries.

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