Just a week ago, I graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine. The past year has brought me closer to food than I ever previously imagined. Read on for my reflections of this experience:
At first, I was scared – scared that I wouldn’t meet the mental and physical demands of culinary school. Waking up early to attend 7 a.m. class, learning knife skills, cooking techniques and how to survive long, stressful hours on my feet was nothing that four years at Johns Hopkins could have ever taught me.
Yes, I said 7 a.m. class. We were expected to arrive at least thirty minutes early to change into our uniforms and assist the chef with prep before his demonstration. Of course, there were the students who arrived an hour early. What time did they wake up? 4 a.m.? I am without a doubt passionate about my career choice, but I also can’t function on too little sleep.
Adjusting to my new schedule was very difficult for me. During the first few weeks, I barely slept because I was so afraid I would oversleep my alarm. There were times I was so exhausted, I took the Metro instead of driving because I probably would have fallen asleep at the wheel. Somehow, I made it on time every day. I never missed a single class, either. I may have had to drink five cups of coffee to stay awake, but I was there.
Despite my dedication, I felt that many of my classmates were better cooks than I was. I struggled to slice an onion, brown a chicken and separate an egg, while to others these tasks appeared effortless. Finally I came to a realization – none of us were born pitting olives or rolling beautiful puff pastry. We all had to learn somewhere. I was one of the few students who had come to culinary school without any previous cooking experience. Now, it was my turn to learn.
We covered every technique and dish imaginable in the six months of classes I took. Because we covered so many topics fairly quickly, it was nearly impossible to achieve perfection on every single dish. This was often frustrating.
During my externship, I realized that perfection eventually comes through repetition. I worked garde manger for nearly six months straight. Over this time, I’ve probably separated over 400 eggs to make tempura batter. And I’ve probably sliced even more onions. And yes, I can now do these tasks easily. Excuse the cliché, but practice makes perfect, no?
L’Academie also taught me the four essential flavors – salty, acidic, bitter and sweet. Ideally, a successful dish balances these flavors. I am now much better at recognizing what flavor a dish is lacking, and what I can add to improve it.
So here I am now, with the cuts and burns on my hands and arms to prove that I’ve survived a year of culinary school (scars give character, right?). I’m enjoying work at my externship site, a fine dining D.C. restaurant, but I am excited to see where my developing food writing career takes me next!