What Makes a Good Culinary School Student?
Chef Kevin Schrimmer is an instructor at Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. He’s been in front of several classrooms and behind many grill lines teaching a variety of classes.
When asked what makes a good Culinary School student, Schrimmer said, “Dedication and persistence. You see people like Rachael Ray on TV and cooking looks very glamorous and fun—what you don’t see on camera is the time and the grind that comes with being a professional chef. You have to know what you’re getting into.”
Even if culinary students don’t know exactly what they’re “getting into,” chances are, they won’t mind the drudgery involved if their fundamental reason for attending culinary school is a passion for food. Passion inspires cooking neophytes to pursue an education so they might eventually land a career in the culinary arts. Passion drives chefs to develop new culinary interests that open doors to new culinary passions…and so on.
The best culinary students are highly creative. An ability to imagine tastes, textures, and smells fosters innovative cuisine that takes an ordinary dish, adds something extraordinary, and results in an entirely new taste sensation. For instance, here’s a page from Wolfgang Puck’s recipe playbook featuring pizza with smoked salmon and caviar. Sure, there’s the base pizza dough (his own, of course), but the rest of the ingredient list veers way off course with dill cream, garlic, and chili oil substituted for tomato sauce and cheese. Almost anyone can follow a recipe but it takes exceptional creativity to create a signature dish like this.
A well-rounded creative education necessitates a great deal of grunt work. Think about it: Did Luciano Pavarotti sing at Carnegie Hall after practicing for a week?
Of course not! He spent years honing his craft with rigorous training that included daily vocal exercises, coaching, language classes, music theory, and drama instruction.
It’s the same for aspiring chefs: You have to become adept at all aspects of being a chef to succeed in a professional kitchen. And that means learning every part of your craft, including the less glamorous areas.
In a professional restaurant kitchen, most chefs begin as prep cooks, the masters of multitasking. Every restaurant kitchen posts a daily chart of recipes to complete, everything from appetizers to desserts. The prep chefs are responsible for making sure all ingredients are ready for easy blending, mixing, and cooking on deadline. As a prep cook you have to prioritize so you can whip the dessert cream, julienne the carrots and broccoli for entrée garnish, chop the basil and pine nuts, and grate the parmesan cheese for the pesto sauce, all in a timely fashion.
- Quick Decisions
Many difficult situations arise in a professional kitchen. What happens if one of the burners on the stove burns out and all the other burners are being used? What can you do when you realize all the fresh halibut in the restaurant cooler has a funny smell? Two of the cooks who work with you called in sick—how will all the work get done? The kitchen drains are clogged. You have to unclog them. (If you can “get into” dealing with that scenario, you’ll be fine.)
- Handling Criticism
Maybe part of the reason you’re pursuing a culinary career is because of the Applause Factor—your friends and family members regularly rave about your cooking ability. So what will happen the first time your chef instructor announces to the entire class that your sauce béarnaise tastes like old mayonnaise? If you bruise as easily as an overripe peach, you might want to work on building your confidence before subjecting yourself to the constructive yet often less-than-diplomatic criticism of your chef instructor.
- Dedication to Practice
One day of chopping, filleting, sautéing, and boiling may seem mind-numbing. Get used to it. You’ll spend days, weeks, and months grinding your way through the “same old grind” aspects of the job of a chef. But if you have determination, patience, and the ability to “get into” all of your Culinary Schools education, you’ll be ready to unleash your passion—the same passion that inspired your pursuit of an education in the first place—in any working kitchen, anywhere.
Last Updated: 08/08/2012