My Chef Alter Ego - Part III
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
I applied to the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in late 2007 and would start classes early February 2008 in their part-time evening program that met Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5pm to about 11:30 pm. As the date got closer, the school invited our student group to an orientation so that we could meet our other classmates and chef-instructors. The class was strictly limited to only 22 students. That evening when I met my fellow culinary colleagues, I was definitely the oldest aspiring student in the room. However, there was also a successful lawyer, a mom with two school-aged kids, and a high powered brand manager from a global consumer goods company. These woman had similar life and career experiences and I tended to gravitate to them most of the evening. We also had international students hailing from South America, Israel and the UK. We were a highly diverse group of individuals from many different backgrounds and levels of experience.
I anticipated my first day at FCI and when it arrived I was nervous and excited. I reviewed the lesson plan in advance, my chef uniform was pressed and ready and my fancy new black Dansko clogs were so comfortable albeit as ugly as sin itself! Becoming a student once again was humbling and the last time I was officially a student was 1992.
That first night in the FCI kitchen, I wondered if I accidentally signed up for the military instead. I’m uniformed, I have my weapons (a gorgeous set of knives, and cooking utensils), I’m wearing my regulation shoes and now I’ve received my post (a stainless steel work area with high-powered gas jets, and a French top cooking surface). Lastly, I had a strong introduction to my commanding officer - the Chef. Fine-tuned kitchens are run with organization, efficiency, attention to detail and respect for your fellow kitchen soldiers and most importantly the utmost respect for your ‘commander-in-ch(i)ef’ with replies of “Yes, Chef!” after every instruction and “Thank you, Chef!” after each critique. I was sweating bullets that night and I didn’t know what to expect and as the evening went on, I become more flustered. The professional kitchen is not the place to daydream, serious attention needs to be paid to what you are doing because it can be a hazardous place. Razor sharp knives, scalding pots, and a slippery floor can cause serious injury. Every movement must be calculated; every action must be thought out and then executed and implemented flawlessly.
That first night we learned traditional taillage (methods of cutting veggies) such as julienne, jardinière, macédoine, paysanne, and brunoise. We also learned how to prep vegetables with techniques such as émincer, ciseler, tronçonner, parer, hacher, concasser, and chiffonade. I was learning new terminology in a familiar language having studied French for four years.
We also practiced two methods of cooking vegetables; à l’anglaise is a method to cook vegetables prior to service and reheating at time of service and à l’étuvée is used à la minute, or at time of service and cooked to order.
The evening wound up around 11:15 pm and after changing back into my regular clothes, I raced to Grand Central Terminal to catch a train back to Westchester. It was a long, but rewarding day.
Here I was a new student, learning the basics, I gained a new appreciation for proper knife skills, the necessity of mise en place and respect for the professional kitchen and those individuals that work in the food industry day-after-day. I was weary and tired but knew in my heart I was exactly where I was supposed to be – in front of the stove.