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Take the Culinary Arts ProgramIt was a dream. And when you dream about going to culinary school — or at least when I did — I imagined pulling a roasted rack of lamb out of the oven, folding the perfect French omelet or putting the final touches on a tiered cake during my time here.
And while I did make all those things, I found that, for me, the more interesting lessons weren’t the sexiest lessons or the big-ticket dishes. Learning about the foundations of cooking, the why’s behind certain techniques and the ingredients themselves proved to be the most interesting and educational parts of the program for me.
Here’s an overview of some of my favorite lessons from the five modules in the Culinary Arts curriculum*:
Module 1: Herbs 201
One of the early lessons in Module 1 included a primer on herbal remedies. Chef BarbShe explained that herbs are the leaves that aromatic plants produce and that they can either be dried or fresh. She divided them into three categories: beginning, middle, and finishing. She explained when (and why!) each herb should be added to cooking. I was most interested in the lesson when we examined and tasted the herbs. I had never tasted or seen tarragon or marjoram fresh. Chef Barb encouraged us to memorize what each tasted and looked like, so that when we went to our externship site and the chef asked you to get cilantro, you don’t bring back parsley.
Module 2: Braising Overview
Braising is a favorite technique of mine. It transforms tougher cuts full of connective tissue into fall-off-the-bone tender delights, and as an added bonus, it’s mostly hands-off. This technique was built upon other fundamentals, such as mirepoix making, stock-making and searing. Braised Chicken thighs with Mushrooms & Balsamic incorporated shiitakes & creminis – oysters & portabellas. It was great to try all the mushrooms in this creamy, heavenly sauce. (On my notes for the day, I have “TASTY!” written at the top!)
Module 3: Lessons in Plating
Though I’d cooked (and eaten) a lot of delicious foods at this point in the program, this was the first time I was exposed to the art of plating. This is what the customer sees first, so we learned how important it was to balance, color and shape, as well as texture and flavor. The class was divided into teams and we made the components of several dishes, which we then assembled the following days. Chef MikeWe then played around to create our own versions. I was also surprised to discover that I really enjoy venison.
Module 4: Pâte à Choux
I was a voracious baker as a kid (yes, I owned an Easy Bake oven) and I saw all my childhood dreams come true, from bagels to pretzels to ice cream, Danishes and brioche. The most memorable lesson was when Chef Kierin taught us about pâte à choux. This dough can be used to make cream puffs, eclairs, gourgères and Paris-Brest. It’s interesting because it gets cooked twice, on the stovetop then in the oven, and the resulting pastry puffs up and is hollow — meaning it’s really all about the filling. We piped the pate choux in different shapes, baked them and filled them with hazelnut praline and chocolate and vanilla pastry creams (my favorite ingredient discovered during culinary school).
Module 5: Curing
This module covered fermentation and curing. Curing is the process of preserving food in a salt mixture, a method of dry preservation. We made beet cured salmon and it was delicious. I was surprised to find that the majority of ingredients were pantry staples like coriander, lemons, dill, salt and sugar. After letting the salmon cure in the fridge for three days, it revealed a beautiful pink salmon fillet. We thinly sliced it and served it atop whipped cream cheese. A simple way to elevate bagel & lox!
Daniel Boulud’s taste test and feedback during our last practice session before the final practical exam, where he tasted my dish, was another great moment. But you can read all about it. Here is a link to the article.
*The current curriculum of ICE’s Culinary Arts career program sees four modules as opposed to five.