culinary institute of america – the boot camp, day two
Day one of the Skills Development Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America was topped off by a wonderful meal at Escoffier, the fine dining restaurant at the Hyde Park campus. The three-course meal was served to us by culinary students, and our main server was graduating from the CIA the following day. Later, I drove back to Winnie’s house, over the winding roads through the Hudson River valley, in the dark and through the rain, my mind playing back a highlight reel of the day. My shoulders were tight, filled with tension. I was physically and mentally exhausted but I also felt a sense of exhilaration.
I slept hard that night and I awoke at 5 am, wide awake and ready to spend the day cooking.
Day two of boot camp started off in a very similar way to day one, with the exception that I knew exactly where to park and I showed up in chef’s whites. We had breakfast in the massive dining room in Roth Hall, which used to serve as the chapel when the CIA campus was a Jesuit seminary. We ate as a group, seated at a long dining table alongside culinary students and their instructors. Unlike the day before, this morning we didn’t make the mistake of sitting at the professor’s table.
I had wondered why we had so many stares from the culinary students at breakfast that morning before.
Chef Bruno lectured to us for an hour on dry heat cooking methods, this time without fats and oils. We learned details about moist-heat cooking methods – such as braising and poaching. And, like the day before, we reviewed the recipes we’d be making that morning. Unlike the day before, though, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the tasks ahead. We had all done our homework – we’d read the recipes the night before, or in the morning at breakfast. Latoya and Rose and I formulated a game plan. We knew what steps should be done first, what parts we could make ahead, and what components of the recipes needed to be saved for the last minute, just prior to service.
We were given a break before heading into the kitchen at 8:30, but none of us took it. We went straight into the kitchen and started gathering ingredients and pots and pans.
We were ready to cook.
My group, Group 2, was assigned to prepare grilled lamb chops, creamy polenta, ratatouille, and vanilla ice cream. Working as a team, we divided duties and got to work. The ice cream had to be made first since it needed time to chill prior to serving. The polenta could be made ahead then kept warm prior to serving. Unlike the usual method for stove top polenta, Chef Bruno suggested we transfer it to the oven instead. The ratatouille required lots of chopping, but despite the long ingredient list, it was a simple recipe to make and could be made ahead. The lamb had to be grilled shortly before serving, but because there were so many lamb chops, we could finish them off in the oven after searing them on the grill.
And, my what a grill. I’ve never used a grill before – I have this mental block to using that piece of equipment, and I always defer to my husband. After working with the professional kitchen grill, which was so hot that I was worried my eyebrows would be singed off, I am no longer scared of the backyard Weber.
The time allotted to us was the same as the day before – 8:30 to 12:30 – but we worked with a rhythm that we didn’t have the day before. I did not have those same feelings of being overwhelmed and in over my head. I felt comfortable with the time, comfortable with my group. We worked together well, and we finished with plenty of time to spare. We had time to step out of the kitchen for little water breaks or bathroom breaks. We had time to pull out our cameras and time to chat with Chef and his teaching assistants. When the time came to plate our dish, we were ready, and it was a success.
I went into the boot camp experience with an open mind and no set expectations. I just wanted to learn something new. I wanted to brush up on my knife skills, and hopefully learn some basic cooking techniques in the process. Everything I know about cooking has come from reading and practicing on my own, and I’ve never felt comfortable with my skills as a cook. I wanted to improve those skills and maybe gain some confidence along the way.
I came away from those two days with a whole new appreciation for what it takes to work in a professional kitchen. Besides the simple logistics of maneuvering in that space and using the equipment effectively and without injury, I learned about cooking as a team. For a home cook who is used to cooking alone, team cooking was a challenge for me that first day. I’m so used to doing everything, that having someone to divide the tasks with was actually harder than I expected. We found our groove on day two, but it took practice and effort.
Mastering the timing of meal preparation – understanding what can be made ahead and what needs to be cooked at the last minute – was also an unexpected bit of wisdom that I gleaned. Timing is crucial in a professional kitchen, and only after having to obey that timing do I have a better understanding of what it takes to achieve it.
But the most important thing I took home with me – besides the gorgeous set of starter knives, the white chef’s jacket (now stained with lord knows what), and sore legs – was the knowledge that I’m actually pretty good in the kitchen. I can hold my own and not make a fool of myself. Along with improved knife skills, I found confidence on day two.
By God, I can cook.