by Lead Chef Instructor George Thompson
As one of the first term culinary instructors, my job is to develop for each student a framework for learning. Our focus in the first term is to teach proper cooking methods, proper technique, the basics of understanding flavor, safety and sanitation, and culinary math.
In terms of cooking methods as they apply to a protein, a starch, and a vegetable, I try to illustrate to the students the common ground within each thing, for example the properties that chicken shares with pork when heat, or an acid such as lemon or vinegar is applied to that item. How does that action affect the protein – how does it change? In terms of starches, generally speaking (VERY generally), when you convert a starch to make it edible, you have to gelatinize it. For the most part, vegetables are made up of structured cellulose. That’s really at the core of the texture and structure of vegetables. It’s just different arrangements of the same stuff that react to what change agents you subject your vegetables to.
All basic and proper skills are relevant to the equipment utilized to deal with the product. Knife skills, in particular, are probably the number one thing any person will be judged on in the industry. So we practice as much as we can. The use of the knife is primarily how things are still done in a professional kitchen, in terms of breakdown and production for even cooking, as well as both visual and consumable purposes. It’s one thing to chop something up, but another thing to understand variations of “chop,” “fine chop,” or “mince.” There are many details involved with deconstructing materials. We start them at a basic level, and teach knife safety along with proper technique in developing these skills.
Understanding flavor is critical. When you get into things like wine tasting, you’ll talk in great detail about a variety of subtle tastes and aromatics. But in the first term, we have to be real simple when it comes out to starting with flavor. We start with the tastes – sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami. We will address aromatics, but not too in depth in the beginning. Our goal at first is to make students understand the difference between the two. The only two sensory areas people have that relate to interpreting chemistry are the taste receptors in the mouth and the olfactory receptors via the nose. Having people be able to discern between these two regions is the first step. If we can get students to then intellectualize that understanding and communicate it back to us, and then control it, that is when we know a student is well on their way to understanding flavor. For some students it comes very naturally to understand it on a cerebral or intellectual level. For others it poses more of a challenge. People are talented in different areas. My mother was amazing at balancing flavors. She couldn’t explain it to you, but could she ever do it. And then there are others who can explain it, but they can’t do it. I knew that, to be a good cook, I had to understand this.
Safety and sanitation starts with us. They have to walk out of our kitchen to the next term with a solid foundation. Our goal is to have them Serv Safe certified with the National Restaurant Association when they go on to the second term.
Culinary math is extremely important for anyone working in a professional kitchen. First term students have to know basic arithmetic, and we’ll work with anyone who doesn’t. We get into equivalents and measurements, mainly. Then we move on to how to convert measurements from one form of measurement to another, like cups to tablespoons, then converting a recipe from one size to another.
Those are the cornerstones of the first term, but we also mix in other important lessons and habits that anyone working in the industry is going to need — teamwork and communication, personal and team time management, and demeanor. The last one is the most important in my book. The best cook in the world, if he or she has a crappy demeanor, I’m not interested in working with him. I really try to convey to people that you need to have good demeanor in relation to yourself and those around you. You have to find a center within your personality in terms of what is going on around you, and that’s the challenge. I’ve seen so many people who lack natural talent in the kitchen make it successfully through this experience and this industry based on their attitude and demeanor. It’s not just determination, but attitude towards one’s self and others. You have to say “I’m gonna keep trying,” and follow through on that without beating yourself up or taking out frustrations on others.
And that brings me to making mistakes. Mistakes are often very critical to the learning process. The way I think of it is that students are paying to make them here. Some of the best learning comes from a mistake that we can then identify. It makes no sense to me to make anyone feel the slightest bit inferior or embarrassed because of a mistake. In fact, if you’re afraid of making mistakes, you won’t learn nearly enough as you could. And we try to let students know, right up front, that it’s part of the game. In terms of peers harassing them, we try to manage that as well, but we always to relate what goes on in the first term to a real kitchen. And although our first term students are not cooking on a line or selling what they are making, certain things, like the prep work and the sense of urgency that we instill, are similar. By the third term, what our students are experiencing is pretty close to the real deal, but the first term is about learning the basics.