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Back to School

I’ll admit it. I loved that Rodney Dangerfield movie where he goes to college to teach his son how important an education is. Sure, it’s silly now but back when I was like nine years old, it was incredibly clever.

Anyway, my first day at school was nothing like Rodney’s. I didn’t arrive in a limo. Nobody put up a “Bruce Springsteen” sign to get everyone out of line and there weren’t all kinds of ladies in hot tubs. Instead, I arrived at the back entrance to the school, also known as the students entrance. You see, the FCI runs a high-end restaurant in the front of the school and they very well can’t have us low-life and smelly students coming in and out and possibly screwing up their customer’s experience and therefore, their Zagat rating. )In related news, L’Ecole is very good and a great deal at $35 for a 4 or 5 course menu. Nothing terribly exotic, but not totally boring either and it is solid fare, well cooked.)

After arriving, each one of us was whisked up to the 3rd floor to pay our balance, get our chef’s uniforms (complete with chef’s jacket with embroidered name, checkered pants, apron, hat, and neckerchief) and pictures for our school ID (I think this means I get a student discount at the movies now!), which is needed for basically every door in the facility – you can’t go anywhere without your ID. I doubt the CIA HQ in Langley has as many secure locks as the FCI. The whole process sort of broke down at the end but we all figured out where we needed to be.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as class demographics. The class is pretty expensive for an amateur class (roughly $65/hour for 110 hours – you do the math) so I figured most would be professionals in other fields who enjoyed cooking and possibly interested in making a switch to chef-dom. This class can be used as the first class in the diploma program at FCI so maybe some are wanting to get their feet wet without making the $40k commitment just yet. I sat down with 6 others from my class and we all chatted a little bit about what we were doing there, but nobody really opened up much. One student I met started a pizzeria in Brooklyn in 2007 that basically ran itself and was doing the class just for fun – maybe hoping to learn some stuff to apply at a new restaurant in the future. Others were mostly “I like to cook”, etc.

At 5:45, we were taken to the classroom, which is basically a giant kitchen with 32 independent work stations, each featuring a restaurant quality 1-burner gas stove, oven and a small work space (maybe 36 x 30?). Each workstation faces another, so you’re sharing that 36×30 space. Around the kitchen are tons of pots and pans, plates, cooking utensils, sinks and deep fryers, convection ovens, fridges and freezers and even an immersion circulator. At the front of the class is a demonstration area with an overly large workspace including a 4 burner stove. Chef Annette was there with her two assistants, both advanced students in the FCI and went over the rules of the class – not much different than class orientation at any college.

The basic premise was “This is school. You’re held to the same standards as the diploma program. Things are hot around here. Things are dangerous. Everything is more powerful than you’re used to. The burners are 4x hotter than a home kitchen. Everyone around you has a knife and probably a hot pan. You have a griddle next to you that even when off still sits at around 150 degrees. Be careful. Don’t cut off your fingers. The first aid station is over there, etc”.

Chef A gave us about an hour of hygiene and food sanitation – all stuff you need to know so you don’t give anyone food poisoning followed by a tour of the kitchen and were presented with some French terms that we were expected to remember at some point in the future. Afterwards, the chef launched into her first demo – Taillage.

Taillage is the process of cutting vegetables into uniform shapes and sizes. Having everything the same size means that everything cooks at the same speed. A variety of French terms dictate WHICH shape and size. For example, Jardiniere means a size of .5cm square x 4-5 cm long. Everyone agreeing on this size means that multiple people can work on the same task and have the same output. We use French works here because this stuff was all invented in France and there really doesn’t exist a word in the English language that means .5cm square x 4-5 cm, though we have some smart people in this country and I’m guessing we could figure one out if it was really necessary.

After the demo, we had to go do our own six different styles. We all went back to our stations and started our cuts. We all ended up with our teammates randomly. Mine happened to be Elle (names changed to protect the innocent), a girl I’d met when we first walked in and chatted with before heading into the class. It was a total coincidence that we ended up on the same team.

Elle and I got busy on our cuts and I immediately realized she had very little experience with a knife. She quickly forgot how to hold and prepare the carrot and every time her knife came down, I was absolutely positive she was going to lose her pinky, which seemed to always be directly below her knife. I pointed this out a few times when she had questions about how to cut the carrot and she would say “Ok”, but her pinky never really moved. Same thing with the onion. I was scared for her but I didn’t want to keep giving her advice. I mean, she wasn’t paying me to teach her and I’m guessing she wanted to learn this stuff herself. In the end I decided not to look at her cutting anymore. Somehow she made it unscathed.

Another surprising aspect was how fast the time went when we started cutting. It seemed like an hour flew by and I had cut up only two carrots and a turnip.

After family-meal (yes, they feed you as part of the class – sadly they don’t include wine) we learned how to cook our carrots a couple different ways,. Nothing terribly complicated but a reminder that carrots only require a bit of butter and salt to be pretty tasty.

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