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The School of Gastronomy
It surprises me that when I studied at gastronomy school, they confess to me that they have dreamed of doing the same. They ask with innocent eyes, hoping to hear about a magical kitchen that transforms decent cooks into world-class chefs.
I usually bite my tongue, and instead of ranting about the rigors of culinary school, I say, "It's a lot of fun, you should do it." But that is not exactly true.
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While culinary school can be a lot of fun, not to mention very rewarding, it can also be an emotionally and physically taxing experience like nothing else. Therefore, it is important to know what you are getting into.
Tips about Culinary Schools
All of the various culinary school programs vary in length, class structure, and focus, but you can have a reasonable expectation of leaving culinary school with a fundamental understanding of the terms used in cooking.
And, if the school is good, as a graduate you will also learn how to execute dishes using those terms. If you are an occasional home cook who is thinking about going to cooking school, here are four things you need to know before taking that path into professional culinary arts.
Studying in a School of Gastronomy is Intense
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Everything about a professional kitchen (even an educational one) is easily 100 times more intense than your home kitchen. Knives are sharper, stoves are hotter, space is tighter, and everything moves at a fast pace.
Even the simplest tasks, like lighting a stove, are much more difficult, and you are expected to solve everything very quickly.
On my second day at culinary school, I asked my chef where the pots were, because I needed the water to boil to remove the skin from some tomatoes. He just looked at me and said, "You should be done with that by now," and walked away. He wasn't trying to be mean, he just let me know that the pace of his cooking was fast and that I had to catch up.
On my third day, the first thing I did upon entering class was grab a pot. You learn to adapt to the rhythm, and it eventually feels normal.
You're going to hurt yourself being a cook
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With such a pace, injury is almost inevitable (especially for beginners). Everything in the kitchen is hot and sharp, and it's only a matter of time until you cut yourself or burn badly.
Everybody does it, and you learn to be prepared for it. Before class, I would take band-aids, finger rubbers, and burning gel from the first aid box and put them in my pocket so I wouldn't waste time later while I cooked.
You too will face a lot of emotional trials, and at some point you probably just want this to end. I vividly remember calling my then girlfriend almost in tears, telling her that I didn't think she could move on.
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I was physically and emotionally drained, my hands were burned, bloody and scarred to the point of not being able to recognize them.
And at 5 PM each day, I had to quit my day job to stand in a 500 degree kitchen for six hours where an angry French gentleman would stop me every five minutes to tell me how terrible cooking was.
I was lucky to have someone in my life who was emotionally supportive and pushed me forward, and having a support system is very helpful. But just know that everyone feels this way, and you will get over it. It is part of this stage of learning.
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The kitchen will take over your life
As you think, "The kitchen is already taking over my life," this is a bit different than burying yourself in cookbooks and spending all your free time in the kitchen.
You will begin to realize that, little by little, all you think about is cooking and what is happening at school. Even your language will change as the culinary vernacular slowly seeps into your everyday life.
This is a great thing, but you should know that it is less great for other people in your life who are not as immersed in the kitchen as you are.
Once at my day job working for a tech startup, our CEO asked me if I was prepared for an upcoming meeting. I quickly said, "Yes, chef," and we both walked away a bit confused by what had just happened. Your life will look like a kitchen, and everything you start to do will be perfect behavior in the kitchen.
Learning Gastronomy Won't Make You a Chef
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Regardless of which school you attend, no culinary school will give you the golden ticket to become a chef. You'll become an evil cook, but culinary school is really about learning the basics.
You will have the skills to continue learning and push yourself to greatness in the kitchen.
But the great thing about a culinary title is that it can be used to do a lot. For example, even if you are not a great chef, you can go to most of the best restaurants and get a job (the lowest job in the totem survey, but still a job).
Or you can go into the media, writing, whatever, the options are truly endless, and having a culinary degree makes it easier for you to get into the house.
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