The Making of a Chef
The bundle waiting for me on the couch had been secured with butcher's string and looked as ordinary as laundry. I tucked it beneath my arm and strode out of the office and through Roth Hall, the main building of the Culinary Institute of America, slipped into a bathroom, and closed myself off in the farthest stall. I removed my sweater and jeans and stuffed them into my leather shoulder briefcase. I untied the bundle, shook out one of two pairs of houndstooth-check trousers, and stepped into them, then buttoned the immaculately white, double-breasted chef's jacket over my white T-shirt. I jammed the extra set of pants into the briefcase along with my street clothes, snapped it shut, grabbed my black overcoat and knife kit, and pushed out of the stall.
I stopped at the mirror. I had not been in a uniform since high school football and I sent myself an ironic lift of the eyebrows, then an uncertain shrug. The figure in the mirror--dressed as a culinary student--looked like me and did not. The figure seemed more a secret sharer. I could not dwell long on this uniformed other self--I had only a few minutes to find K-8, the Skills kitchen run by Chef Michael Pardus.
I hustled down a dark brick corridor--to my right a long, glassed-in kitchen, to my left display cases inlaid into the brick facade. I turned left at Alumni Hall, the main dining room, once the chapel of this former Jesuit monastery, strode past a dishwasher's station, and turned left again. Thefirst kitchen on my left was K-8 and I would arrive, thankfully, a minute or so before two, when this class was scheduled to begin.
I stepped through the doorway and eighteen pairs of eyes cranked in my direction.
Chef Pardus halted in mid-sentence. The seventeen students, already lined at attention along four large stainless-steel tables, two on either side of the room, regarded me curiously. Chef Pardus wore the standard chef-instructor uniform, similar to the students' but with fancy round white buttons on his chef's jacket running up each breast, green and gold stripes along the collar, a green name tag pinned above his breast pocket, and a paper toque that was an inch or two taller than the students'. He was trim, measured about five feet ten inches without the hat, which revealed a few light brown curls kept well above his collar, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.
"Michael," the chef said. We'd been introduced the previous week, and he had given me course information and homework assignments.
"Yes, Chef," I said. "Sorry I'm late."
"You're number eighteen. I've put you at Table One." He pointed to my spot, smack in front of him at the head of the class. He stood in front of a beat-up, circa-1960 metal desk. Behind him on the board in bright ink marker he had written:
2# mirepoix 2 tomato concassé 1 sachet 1/2 minced onion
I took my spot and shoved my belongings on the shelf of the steel table.
"Do you have a hat?" Chef Pardus asked.
"They didn't give me one," I answered
"You need to have those in this kitchen. I'll call central issue in a minute and see if we can hook you up." Chef Pardus seemed a little annoyed. I was late and my uniform was incomplete.
But I was here, and that's all that mattered now, the physical fact of my presence. This was a physical place.
I'd made it to Culinary Skill Development One, the first kitchen in the intricately scheduled curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America. It was a move I felt that, in some ways, had been foreordained a decade earlier.
Shortly after I graduated from college and began work in New York City, my granduncle, Bill Griffiths, wrote a letter to me outlining some definitions of art, and in doing so, he described a meal he'd had at Gallatoire's in New Orleans decades ago. "The total meal involved many things," he wrote, "but what I have never forgotten is the potatoes. There were no fancy sauces, no tricky seasonings, no admixture with other ingredients--just plain small cubes of potato cooked in such a way that the surfaces were delicately crisp and crunchy and the inside, rich, smooth, and flavorful. One was simultaneously aware both of exquisite texture and marvelous taste. The lesson it taught me was that the chef hadn't used the potato as a basis for displaying flashy, flamboyant skills, but had placed his skills as an artist in the service of the potato."
I found a fundamental truth in these words and I wrote the last sentence on a three-by-five-inch card and stuck it to the wall beside my desk.
Nearly ten years after my uncle Bill wrote those words to me--faded but still affixed to my wall--I intended to learn how to cook and to write about how one learned. And I hoped to use my uncle's words regarding art and potatoes as a kind of lantern to light my way. I would not strive to learn the sort of stuff being photographed for food magazines, but instead how to make the kind of potatoes Bill had described.
My goal was both humble and presumptuous: I wanted to learn how to put myself in the service of the potato. This was to me the key phrase, in the service of, the axis, the unmoving shaft, of a statement with many ramifications. Is great cooking really art? Are chefs artists? What is wrong with flash and flamboyance? How could the lowly potato become so important in a meal as to be the one thing my uncle remembered decades later?
Also, I love to eat potatoes.
Given these two qualities--the desire to learn to cook and to write about it, with all the notions of artistry, history, gastronomy that inevitably orbit this learning, and a simple and perhaps atavistic love of eating--I hadhatched a plan to attend the Culinary Institute of America, the most prominent cooking school in the country, a food-knowledge mecca. What did they teach here? According to the Culinary Institute of America, what did a chef need to know above all? What was the inviolable core of a culinary education? What were the secrets of truly great cooking?
All this I wanted to know, and I'd come here to impersonate a student. I would learn to cook as though my future depended on it. When I entered Chef Pardus's Skills kitchen I stepped into a new world. I would learn what it took to be a professional chef. I would start at the beginning, and the beginning of Culinary Skill Development was stock.
"Making stock is one of the primary purposes for being in this class," Chef Pardus said as we began our tour of the kitchen. Our first stop: the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were the steam kettles. The three enormous tanks, each a hot tub for one, were bolted to steam pipes and accommodated by two water faucets. Each day, the center kettle would be filled with 120 pounds of chicken bones, 221/2 gallons of water, and 15 pounds of mirepoix, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley stems, and thyme wrapped in cheesecloth and called a sachet d'épices. This combination would yield 15 gallons of chicken stock by the end of class, to be cooled, labeled, and stored before lecture.
"You want to cook stock at what?" Chef Pardus asked.
Several voices called out, "At a lazy bubble." Everyone in the class should have learned this from the video assigned for homework. The library contained about twenty-three hundred videos, some of them made for television by the Culinary Institute--Cooking Secrets of the CIA, a cooking show featuring individual faculty, had recently begun to air on public stations throughout the country--but most were utilitarian, made solely for the students, such as "Making Brown Stock," "Shucking Oysters," and "Calf Slaughter."
"Right, a lazy bubble," Chef Pardus repeated. "A few bubbles breaking the surface every few seconds. Why? Because we don't want to emulsify the fat into the stock and stir up other impurities. We're looking for clarity here."
Chef Pardus squatted at the end kettle's spigot, opened and closed it, saying, "Make sure this is closed all the way or you're going to have wet shoes." He turned the knob on the steam pipe and the kettle began to clank like an old radiator as its jacket filled with steam. Chef Pardus hefted alarge white tub from table to kettle and dumped its contents, forty pounds of beef bones. He pushed the faucet over and turned the water on.
"We're going to blanch the bones first," he said, "to get rid of impurities, mainly blood. The water's going to get a rich, funky, gray color. We'll skim that off and then we'll empty it. In Skills One, I want everybody to make stocks to measure. By Skills Two, you can do this by sight." On an easel to the left of his desk was a large pad of paper with the stock ratios on it--water to bones to mirepoix to tomato. For the first three weeks, Pardus wanted us to measure in order to know how high seven-and-a-half gallons of water rises above forty pounds of beef bones. "After four hours, we're going to add what? Mirepoix, right. An hour before finishing, the sachet d'épices." The stocks would be about 145 degrees when we strained them, he said, and we would cool all stocks--typically thirty gallons a day--to 70 degrees in two hours and to 45 degrees in four hours, as sanitation guidelines require. "But don't worry," Pardus said. "We can go from kettle to cooler in eighteen minutes. The record I think is sixteen minutes."
"Make sure you skim the fat before you cool it," he added. "If you forget, and you're making consommé, your classmates are going to hate you because you dropped the consommé grade by two points."
He introduced us to the ovens. Two banks of ranges ran nearly the length of both sides of the room. "When you come in, make sure your oven works. Students don't light pilot lights. We have someone come up from maintenance. If you do it wrong it will blow you across the room." He crinkled his nose and grinned. "It's kinda scary. You lose all your facial hair."
He then addressed the burners and cast-iron flattops, particularly the latter: "You don't always know if they're hot. If this were hot," he said, feeling for heat, then pressing his palm to the black metal, "my hand would probably stick to it. These get very hot, and you'll need to use tinfoil rings to regulate the heat when you've got a lot of pans going."
Chef Pardus returned to the beef-stock kettle, which had begun to steam. Behind him, taped to the wall, a giant piece of paper read:
A great stock is judged by
"A lot of blood is coming out," he said, peering into the enormous kettle. "As soon as it comes up to temperature it's going to turn gray."
Chef Pardus continued the tour of the kitchen, moving clockwise past the ranges to the sinks, three basins for hot soapy water, hot rinse water, and cool water with sanitizing fluid. The sanitation steward, a position that changed daily, was responsible for keeping them clean, not easy when eighteen people are making béchamel sauce. Before leaving the sinks he said, "Please help everyone out here if you're not completely in the weeds. You'll get a lot more out of this class if you're not here washing pots all night."
The food steward, the other position assigned daily, and the sanitation steward were responsible for making sure people helped out. "They are second in command," Pardus said. "They are the sous chefs in this kitchen. If they ask you to do something--if anyone asks you for help--you don't say, 'I'm too busy, I have a headache, my dog ate it, I lost it in the sun.'" He paused, scanned our faces. "You say, 'O.K.'"
We passed the ice machine, which faced the huge maple cutting boards we would be using; passed the dry storage, where food that didn't need to be kept cold was located; and then went to the cage, which was the size of a large closet and filled with stock kettles, food mills, china caps and chinois, ladles, skimmers, colanders, Robot Coupes, and one giant ladle that we would use for shoveling steaming bones and vegetables out of drained stock kettles. He held or pointed to each item. "This is a solid spoon," he said. "This is a slotted spoon. This is a perforated spoon." He alternately held up the slotted and solid spoons. "In some places they call this a female spoon. They call this a male spoon. If you're working with a guy who spent his formative years in Nazi Germany, he may start yelling, 'Give me a female shpoon, give me a female shpoon!' And you better know what it is. But--it's ancient history. We don't use that term here, but you should know what it is."
He held up bain-marie inserts, hotel pans, and spiders.
Sensing that the large, carbon-encrusted roasting pans he'd put in the oven earlier were hot, Pardus pulled two tubs of veal bones from the reach-in, to the right of his desk at the head of the kitchen. The bones had been delivered Friday and sat for the three-day weekend. He smelled them, turned a few in his hands, scrutinizing them. "These are a little off, but I think they'll be O.K.," he said.
Adam Shepard, a tall thin student with a narrow face, sharp nose, and dark hair, asked, "Is this a flavor issue?"
"Yeah, we're talking flavor here. We're going to be cooking it so we don't need to be worried about any residual toxins, like, I don't know, staph toxins. It would just have an off odor."
He removed one hot pan from the oven and poured Wesson cottonseed oil from a large white jug into the pan. "It's the cheapest oil you can buy. We use it only for this." He dumped half the tub of bones in. They hissed as they hit the oil. "You want an even layer, not stacked. Why is that?"
"So they caramelize evenly?" one student asked.
"Well, yes," the chef said. "But you could get that by turning them frequently." He waited. "The reason is that the bottom and top layer would caramelize but the middle would sweat and release liquid, and the liquid would form at the bottom of the pan. So instead of a good fond, you'd end up with a crust of blood and coagulated protein. Don't try to squeeze eighty pounds of bones into three pans."
The final stop on the tour was the pot room, filled with sauteuses, sautoirs, marmites, sauce pots, rondeaux, and plastic two-gallon stock containers. He held up a sauté pan with sloping sides and asked for its name. "Sauteuse." He held up a pan the same size but whose sides were at right angles to the bottom. "Sautoir."
Chef Pardus returned to his desk and said loudly and with finality, "This is your kitchen for six weeks. Keep it clean."
It did seem to me a fine kitchen, spacious and bright. It measured thirty-seven-and-a-half feet by twenty-six feet. The two Hobart reach-in coolers--one for the A.M. class, one for the P.M.--at the head of the kitchen included an exterior digital read of the internal temperature. The reach-ins faced one end of a long bank of Garland ranges comprising three sets of four burners alternating with three large flats above six separate ovens. Across the kitchen were the Wolf ranges, seven burners lined side by side, behind which were seven flattops. This side also contained the deep fryer, which remained empty and covered for all but one day of this class. Two industrial extension cords hung from the ceiling. There were three separate sinks, one just for cooling stocks, as well as a giant ice machine. Even the cutting boards were substantial, three inches thick and weighing, I'd guess, twenty-five pounds. You had to use both hands to carry them to your station.
A kitchen like this costs about $330,000 to equip. There were thirty-six others scattered throughout the Culinary.
Chef Pardus instructed us to distribute chairs around the tables and we sat at our stations. "I'm Chef Pardus, but if you see me at Gaffney's orwandering around Woodstock, call me Michael. I graduated from here in 1981. I got my bachelor's in, I don't know what it's called, management and hospitality, something like that, from Johnson Wales--boo hiss, boo hiss." He smiled. Johnson & Wales University, while not devoted solely to the culinary arts, is among the Culinary Institute's biggest competitors. "I began teaching here last July."
Michael Pardus, thirty-seven years old, had spent much of his cooking career in high-end French restaurants and had watched most of them go under as the appeal of French restaurants faded. His last position had been executive chef of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma. He loved northern California, decided that was where he wanted to end up, but he didn't want to be cooking fourteen hours a day. Not far from him in St. Helena, the Culinary Institute of America's new facility called Greystone would soon be opening. There, he decided, was his future, and he began a long-range plan to earn a teaching position at the Culinary's West Coast campus, built within a nineteenth-century winery and serving only professionals in the food industry. The first step was to apply to his alma mater in Hyde Park seventy-five miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. The school gave him a shot at the chef's practical, then offered him a job; he packed his car and headed east. He intended to show the administrators at the Culinary that he was willing to do anything to earn a position at Greystone.
He sat on the desk and tried to get to know his new students. He pointed to a big guy with thick dark hair, Lou Fusaro, the oldest student in the class at thirty-seven. "Why are you here?"
Lou said, "I don't know, really." There seemed a genuine plaintiveness in his voice, a concern: it wasn't that he hadn't thought about it. Lou was a longtime resident of Poughkeepsie, immediately south of Hyde Park; he was married, had three children, and had for years been a manufacturing operator in the shipping department at IBM, a company that once girded the local economy here. Lou could watch the dynamics of his future changing by the year. Computers kept getting smaller and smaller, requiring fewer people like him to ship them; Lou said while he was there computers that once filled a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot room had become desktop computers. Clearly, IBM would not provide the stability he needed. His father had owned a bar with a kitchen and in the early eighties he'd owned a sandwich shop; this satisfied the Culinary's entrance requirements, but practically speaking, he had zero kitchen experience. He scarcely knew how to hold a knife. At last Lou said, "I guess to see where I fit in."
Chef Pardus nodded, said that was a good reason to be here. "How about you?" he said, pointing to one of the youngest in the class, Matt, not yet out of his teens. Matt simply said, "I don't know," and that was that. Chef Pardus said there were many reasons to be here; one of them might be to increase your skill level. Happy to have been supplied an answer, Matt nodded and said, "To increase my skill level."
Each of these students had been here for nine weeks already, since shortly before Christmas, in an incoming class of seventy-two. Everyone had begun with fourteen days of Introduction to Gastronomy and Culinary Math. Then they had had seven days of Sanitation and Nutrition, seven days of Product Identification (learning about produce, evaluating quality, buying it, and studying food purchasing)--six-and-a-half hours of class, then two hours of Culinary French in the evening. They moved into Meat Identification next, learning the muscular and skeletal construction of animals, and after seven days they had moved to the basement for Meat Fabrication, where they would practice their subprimal cuts, their boning, their Frenching.
Bob del Grosso, a slender forty-one-year-old with a narrow face and dark features harkening back to his family's roots in Italy, taught Introduction to Gastronomy to everyone who entered the Culinary Institute of America. His résumé was filled with Connecticut restaurants: line cook at the Black Goose Grill in Darien; chef at the Lakeville Cafe; at Le Coq Hardi Restaurant in Stamford, he was, variously, charcutier, first cook, sous chef, and finally executive chef. Del Grosso was also a trained micropaleontologist, with a master's from CUNY at Queens College. A booming oil industry had ensured plenty of jobs in his field, but as he was considering a Ph.D. in micropaleontology in the early 1980s, the oil bubble burst and his future grew cloudy. He gradually became so anxious about what he would do, he couldn't sleep and took to pacing. One morning he fell asleep on the living room floor. When dawn came, he was awakened by a beam of light in his eyes. "I had an epiphany," he told me. "I thought, 'I can cook!'"
Del Grosso taught in what appeared to be an old-fashioned lecture classroom--with posters of fish, vegetables, and pasta shapes taped to the wall, an extended blackboard, long curved multileveled rows of permanent seating. When he began teaching the course he was amazed to find out how few people even knew what gastronomy was. "Astronomers know whatastronomy is," he said. "Physicists know what physics is. But people who claim to be gastronomers, or gastronomes, don't know what gastronomy is." Del Grosso stood before the rows of seats and talked, questioned the students, paused, squeezing his chin thoughtfully, a near caricature of Ed Sullivan, in what seemed an endless digression on food. The course did have an agenda and schedule, beginning with the notion of etiquette, and moved from there to the history of the chef in French cuisine, into nouvelle cuisine, followed by the contemporary scene, Alice Waters, and the chef-farmer connection. One class was devoted to the question "What is food?" and the final class addressed the ethics of food production.
"Let's identify the process of nouvelle cuisine," he would say to his class. "Not an easy thing to do. My belief is that you must cook to the essence. Think of nouvelle cuisine as Socratic cooking. How many of you have read Plato?" About a half dozen hands rose in a class of thirty-six. Del Grosso briefly mentioned The Republic, the allegory of the cave, and the notion of Platonic forms. "There is a perfect form of the salad," he said. "Say you're a Socratic cook and you want to make a hamburger. You would begin the process by posing a question: 'What is a hamburger?'" He posed this to the class. One intrepid student offered, "A round patty of ground beef put between toasted buns." Del Grosso clarified: "Round? Let's call it disc-shaped." A lively discussion of the hamburger followed. The point, del Grosso said, was to get them thinking critically about food. Many of the students had little education beyond high school, and many, whether from the armed services of the United States or having worked only in kitchens, were not used to this sort of thinking. "A chef should be Socratic," del Grosso continued, "questioning everything, including the placement of the silverware. Cooking to the essence," he said with a flourish. "'What are you, beef?!' Cook to your answer. It's a very different way to cook. It requires a lot of thinking. I'm not going to encourage you to cook this way all the time because I don't. Imagine if every time you cooked an egg, you had to ask, 'What is an egg?' But it's useful to do so every now and then."
This course aimed to introduce the students to the culture upon which the school was based--and that culture had its roots in classical French cuisine. But his was a class, by design, of rambling. Del Grosso would expound for fifteen minutes on Celebration, the Walt Disney Company's planned town. And when a student mentioned the word "confit," he stopped the discussion of Gault and Millau, the journalists who coined the term "nouvelle cuisine," to ask if everyone knew the word "confit." Sensing thatnot everyone did, he began with the meaning of confit, and confitures, the history of confit, its purpose of preservation, and concluded with a small discourse on how he personally prepares confit de canard.
After describing his dry marinade and the cooking of the confit, del Grosso explained that he stores the duck legs, submerged in their congealed fat, for at least two weeks, preferably in glass jars, but plastic will do if you're in a restaurant kitchen and don't want glass jars all over the place. After two weeks, he would simply remove the legs from the fat, wipe them off, pass them under a broiler or salamander to crisp up the skin and heat the meat some. He would then serve them with potatoes that had been fried in clarified butter, along with deep-fried parsley. "Have you had deep-fried parsley?" he asked. He closed his eyes and said, "It's a miracle."
Such a class seemed spiritually at odds with Culinary Math, which took up the other half of an incoming student's day.
Homework questions: Convert twelve quarts and twelve tablespoons into a single unit of quarts. How many cups are there in four pounds of honey? You are catering a function of 350 people; you estimate that each person will eat three quarters of a cup of potato chips; how many pounds of chips should you order?
Such things were important to know. A pint is not a pound the world round. A pint of ground cinnamon, for instance, is only half a pound; a pint of honey is a pound and a half.
"You will be doing a lot of conversions when you get to Skill Development One," Julia Hill told her class. "If you're not comfortable with conversions, get comfortable." Hill used to be an accountant. She left that profession to become a restaurant manager. Eleven years ago, she arrived at this school to take a continuing education course and never left. "The moment I set foot on this campus," she said, "I knew this was where I belonged."
Her class, a review of math applications relevant to the food-service industry, was an interesting series of puzzles. When possible, she would have students bring their knife kits, hard black briefcases filled with tools. They would take apart pounds of carrots in problems addressing "as purchased quantity" and "edible portion quantity." The class began with three days of basic math, fractions, decimals and how they behaved, then moved into conversions, cost, costing recipes, ratios, and lastly alcohol measurements.
"The definition of 'cost' in this industry," she told the class, "is: cost is what you use, not how much you bought it for." Cost, therefore, was an idea, not necessarily an absolute. But this was about as close to the world of ideas as the class got, and many were glad for this. Some loathed del Grosso's class, but loved the concreteness of Culinary Math. Others hated both classes and spent nine weeks longing for the kitchen.
This was A Block. The people in it were called A Blockers. Their average age was twenty-six, and 10 percent of them would drop out. Twenty-five percent of them were women, 12 percent were minorities. A Blockers wore street clothes, but were requested to dress in light shirts, dark slacks or skirts, and dark shoes. B Block, which included sanitation and nutrition, followed A Block, and C Block--Meat Identification and Fabrication--came after that. This never varied; every graduate had gone through the school this regimental way since 1976, when the Culinary shifted to what it called a progressive learning year, though the curriculum itself expanded considerably during the following two decades. Each block, fourteen class days spread over three weeks, built upon the previous block.
This idea of building on the knowledge and skills learned in the previous class is the overarching agenda and method at the Culinary. A student doesn't enter the first kitchen until he has a basic understanding of sanitation (including, for instance, why stocks need to be cooled quickly). In Skills, students learn to sauté one chicken breast so that in the next class they can sauté sixteen of them fast. This idea carries the student through thirty weeks and seven different kitchens to Garde Manger, the final class before externship. After externship--a minimum of eighteen weeks' paid work in the industry, at restaurants, hotels, food magazines, or even the TV Food Network--they ease into the cool kitchens of baking and pastry. They then spend six weeks out of their whites in a lecture hall, learning about wines and menus, restaurant planning, and restaurant law, after which they move back into the kitchen for the final chunk of their degree, which concludes with twelve weeks in the school's four public restaurants, half the time as cooks, half the time as waiters.
The curriculum is logical in conception and relentless in practice. Life here is marched out in three-week intervals and there is no stopping. Once every three weeks, the halls fill with parents and relatives of seventy-two graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, and the following weekseventy-two new students begin Gastronomy. Every three weeks seventy-two students leave for their externship, and seventy-two return. The school allows itself a two-week break in the summer and winter. There are no classes on Sundays. Other than that, the place never shuts down. The first class, A.M. Pantry, or Breakfast Cookery, begins at three-fifteen in the morning, about four hours after the last class of the previous day ends. There are twenty-one blocks in all, eighty-one weeks including externship, or roughly two years, depending how long one spends on extern. The total cost, including a dormitory room, is about $34 thousand. If a student has more time and money and stamina, he or she can spend two more classroom years here, what will then be considered junior and senior years, and graduate from Culinary Institute of America with a bachelor of professional studies degree.
But there is more to the Culinary Institute of America than these seventy-two students graduating every three weeks no matter what. The Institute has become, in the words of one food journalist, "a paragon of culinary education." When the CIA does something--whether adding a new class, opening a new restaurant, or producing a new book--the $313 billion food service industry watches. While it's never been known for creating legions of cutting-edge chefs, and its graduates are often criticized en masse for thinking they know more than they do and demanding more money than they're worth, the CIA is nevertheless often called the Harvard of cooking schools and boasts many famous graduates: Jasper White, Waldy Malouf, Chris Schlesinger, Dean Fearing, Susan Feniger, Rick Moonen, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, and Todd English, for instance, are CIA alumni. Through its continuing education programs and new California campus, it educates thousands of industry professionals every year. Its several cooking programs outside the United States make its impact international.
Opening in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute with an enrollment of fifty men, and moving to its current campus in 1972 to accommodate an enrollment of more than a thousand students, the school now enrolls more than two thousand students each year--some just out of high school, others middle-aged and beginning second careers. Tim Ryan, senior vice president of the Culinary, with telling understatement, told me, "We're a food and beverage place." But the Culinary is in fact the oldest, biggest, best-known, and most influential cooking school in America, the only residential college in the United States devoted solely to the study of theculinary arts. It employs more than a hundred chefs from twenty countries. This brick monastery on the verdant banks of the Hudson River contains more food knowledge and experience than any other place on earth.
Chef Pardus slid off the desk and stood. "This class," he said, "is to provide a culinary foundation for the rest of your time at the CIA and for the rest of your culinary careers. If you don't know what mirepoix is, what demi-glace is, what cuisson is, and you go to work in a high-end restaurant, you won't be taken seriously." The school, he said, gave you "a professional language," a standard. "If I ask David"--David Scott was at my table, a tall, clean-cut Californian in his mid-twenties with short dark hair--"to panfry a pork chop, and if I ask Lou to panfry a pork chop, I want to make sure they have the same idea about what a pan-fried pork chop is. It's got to be part of you."
Pardus went over the uniform policy, codes of dress, hygiene, and courtesy. "You know the rules," he said. "I don't want to lecture you."
"We've got quite a few women in this class," he said, five of seventeen. "This is good. A lot of guys here need to learn how to work with a woman on an equal level."
Pardus walked to the steam kettles and ran through homework policy while skimming mats of gray foam off the blanching beef bones. "If you don't have your homework, I don't care why. This is college, this isn't grade school." Four two-page papers would be due during the next three weeks (brown veal stock, derivative sauces, emulsion sauces, and starches); comments on assigned videos and regular costing forms must be completed.
Each student had the chance to earn seventy-five points a day on daily preparation, attitude and teamwork, knife skills, the assigned soups and sauces, timing and sanitation, amounting in the end to half the final grade. You pretty much had to not do your knife cuts to get a zero on these, but if all your food was not finished by six o'clock, points were deducted. If you didn't present your food to Chef Pardus by six-thirty you received zero points because by six-thirty, he said, "your customers have left and your food isn't worth anything."
He reminded everyone to carry knives held down and at our side, no horseplay, no throwing things. And a word about side towels. The Culinary imported these sturdy items--gray-and-white-checked cotton cloths that students tuck into their apron strings--from Germany because it couldn'tfind acceptable ones in the United States, and they were excellent tools. At this stage in a student's career, the towels were crisp and clean, all but new. "Side towels are not for wiping your board," Pardus said. "They are not for wiping your knife, they're not for dabbing your brow. They're for grabbing hot things. Things are going to be hot. Anticipate it, expect it."
"You're going to be lifting a hundred and twenty pounds of bones a day," he said. "I don't want to remind you, bend your knees. If you're going to be in this business, you're gonna need a strong and healthy back."
"I want these floors kept clean. If you see something on the floor, pick it up. I don't care if you didn't drop it. It's your floor; keep it clean."
The chef demoed everything. His first demo was peeling a carrot. I didn't think one way or another about this, though I'd heard people complain that the Culinary Institute of America makes everyone learn how to chop an onion, regardless of background, and that this was somehow an onerous circumstance. I knew how to chop an onion, but I honestly didn't mind watching how someone else did it. And there was always something to learn, even about peeling carrots. Pardus didn't hold the carrot in the air to peel it; he rested the fat end on the cutting board, rotating it with his fingertips. This was faster and conserved energy. If you were peeling twenty pounds of carrots, it would make a difference. And you wanted to be fast. If you were paying diswashers five dollars an hour, and they were peeling carrots for you, Pardus said, "you've got to be able to show them how, you've got to be able to beat them in a race."
We stood around the chef, who stood facing us at the head of Table Two, watching him peel a carrot. Somebody asked if it was necessary to peel carrots at all if they were going into the stock.
Pardus stopped peeling and said, "Do you peel a carrot? Some people don't. I like my stock to taste as clean and fresh as possible. My way is not the only way to do things, but I've found that people who don't peel carrots don't do it because they're lazy." He smirked. "Put the peels on their salad if they like peels so much. You want to eat this?" He lifted the clump of dirty limp peels from the cutting board.
Everyone would cut two pounds of mirepoix, one part each of celery and carrot, two parts onion. And we would do this every day for the next six weeks. This mirepoix would flavor the stock we made each day.
Next he demoed tomato concassé--chopped tomato. He already had apot of water on the stove boiling to loosen the tomato's skin. It was the middle of February and the tomatoes were pretty firm so he suggested forty-five seconds in boiling water, then into a bowl of ice water. Every table had a bowl of ice water on it for shocking tomatoes. Chef Pardus peeled the tomato, removed the seeds, chopped it, and told us, "That's tomato concassé. That's it." He instructed us, when mincing an onion--every day we would mince half an onion and thin slice the other half--to make the initial cuts as thin as possible, so you didn't have to overwork it later and smash all the juice out of it. The mince should be dry and bright, not gray and soggy. Peeling and mincing garlic and shallots was next, parsley fine-chopped but he didn't want powder, and finally the annoying tourner, a vegetable cut in the shape of a football. We would keep our fine knife cuts in small paper cups and hold these in a hotel pan along with our two pounds of mirepoix. At the end of the day our various cuts would be combined in plastic bags.
On this, our Day One in Skills, Chef Pardus dismissed us to our tables and we began our standard daily mise en place. Even though he had given us a tour of the kitchen I didn't know where anything was, and I circled around looking for a bowl for scraps, a hotel pan (a deep rectangular steamtable insert), a roll of brown paper towel. I asked Paul, who appeared to know exactly where everything was, how he knew and he said, "I don't know. I just do."
For the next couple of hours, as we did our cuts, Chef Pardus would correct our hand position on the knife. We were not to grip the entire handle of the knife like a hammer, we were not to extend an index finger across the top of the blade; we would grip the blade between index finger and thumb and with the rest of the hand grip the knife's handle. There was no other way to do it. If Pardus wasn't showing someone how to grip a knife, he was telling people to clean up the mess at their station or to look at the mess on the floor at their feet. Then he would say, "I do more talking on Day One than on any other day. In a week this kitchen will be humming."
I had been loaned a knife kit by the Institute. It was, I sensed immediately, a powerful possession. The bag contained a twelve-inch chef's knife, a paring knife, a boning knife, and a slicing knife--each with a rosewood handle--a digital thermometer, a pastry brush, some pastry-bag tips, a two-ounce ladle, and a small pepper mill. As we all got to work, the chef, looking a little concerned, said quietly to me, "Are you O.K.? Are you comfortable in a kitchen?" I told him sure. About two minutes later, havinggathered most of the items I needed, I reached for a scrap of cheesecloth to my left. My chef's knife lay flat on my board between my hand and the cheesecloth. As I reached, the tip of my ring finger hit the blade. The knife had been sharpened so well that it didn't move when I hit it; my finger simply slid into it and I had a clean cut. A sharp knife is a safe knife.
To be the only person in the class who had not worked in the industry and to cut yourself almost as soon as you produce your knife is embarrassing. I wanted to avoid calling attention to myself; I also wanted people to think I knew what I was doing. The chef was nice about it, said it was good luck to cut yourself the first day. "Go wash your hands. I'll give you a Band-Aid." He retrieved a bandage from his desk drawer. He also gave me a finger cot, referred to as a finger condom because that's what it looked like and how it worked. It covered the bandaged finger completely, and it did not impede me further as I executed my standard daily mise en place. Bianca Rizzo, twenty-one years old, from Queens, stood beside me doing the same. Greg Lynch, thirty-two, and David Scott and Travis Alberhasky, both in their mid-twenties, stood across from me, their backs to the stoves. All three had worked in kitchens before, and Greg had turned down a promotion to become head chef at a Vermont bed-and-breakfast shortly before he left for the Institute. He was here for one reason: money. A diploma from the Culinary would translate into bigger salaries down the road, and he hoped to get a fairly quick return on his thirty grand.
Each day, then, we would chop our two pounds of mirepoix (named, as so many things are, after an eighteenth-century Frenchman, in this case a field marshal named Duc du Lévis-Mirepoix, whose cook flavored his sauce Espagnol with it). We would slice half an onion, keeping our fingertips tucked in to go fast without bloodying the onion--"Keep your fingers curled back and your thumb tucked behind your fingers," Pardus said. "I'm telling you right now, someone here is going to slice their thumb chopping parsley because they didn't keep it tucked behind their fingers." You could literally lose sight of your thumb squeezing a large bunch of parsley to begin fine-chopping it. We would concassé two plum tomatoes and make a sachet d'épices from a square of cheesecloth in which we enclosed five or six peppercorns, a bay leaf, a thyme sprig, and several parsley stems; garlic is often included in a standard sachet, but Pardus asked us did we know how the stock would be used? Would it be reduced to glace and used for a sauce, and would that sauce want garlic? This is how he wanted us to think in his kitchen. We would give him two turned vegetables. He would alsoinclude a couple of special cuts, paysanne and batonnet carrots, for instance. Before six o'clock we would approach the chef like Oliver Twist stepping toward Mr. Brumble for more gruel; the chef, seated at the desk, would glance up through his gold-rimmed spectacles to see your face, then look down, paring knife in hand to flick through the minces. "Your diced onion looks good," he told me on this first day. "Mmmm, your shallots look a little uneven." He was able to produce various sizes of mince on the blade of the knife as evidence. I nodded.
Uniformity, in shallots as in everything, was an indicator of excellence. My sliced onion, for instance, was too thick but the slices were uniform and that was more important. He lifted one of my turned carrots. This was a tough little cut, and the carrot was especially difficult to curve a knife through; you could easily whittle them to nothing looking for that perfect seven-sided football. "Not bad," he said. "They need a little work, but not bad." I took the hotel pan away, and Chef Pardus crimped behind some lifted papers to scratch out my score from a possible fifteen.
The products I brought to him in my two-inch-deep hotel pan were written on the board each day as SMEP, or standard mise en place. After six o'clock, the time by which everyone should have taken his or her hotel pan to Chef Pardus for their daily knife-cuts grade, all would begin dumping their minced onion in the minced onion bag and the sliced onion in the sliced onion bag. The class's combined mise en place would amount to thirty-six pounds of mirepoix, big bags of all the other minces, chops, and dices, and eighteen sachets d'épices.
I was here to learn the basics, and certainly it didn't get more basic than chopping onions and mincing parsley.
Dinner was at six-thirty. We had each been given tickets that told us which kitchen to go to and told the sous chef at the kitchen that we were entitled to eat there. Our kitchen, K-8, ate at K-9, Chef Smith's kitchen next door. Rumor was that Chef Smith had been a marine. He looked like a marine--chin tucked, stone-faced, hands behind his stiff back, moving only to pop a green bean in his mouth to check that it was done--reviewing the troops in his Introduction to Hot Foods class, which immediately followed Skills. This was the first production kitchen, the first time students cooked for their peers. Our Skills class stood at the end of the line and waited in the hallway. Intro meals were classically based: two vegetables, a starch, a protein item, and a sauce, four different plates, one for each station--grill, sauté, roast, braise--along with a vegetarian plate. Roastchicken with a jus lié, for instance, would be served with gaufrette potatoes, sautéed spinach, and glazed carrots; veal blanquette would be served with chive mashed potatoes, batonnet root vegetables, and green beans, and would be called "braise." If you asked for it, the student sous chef would shout, "Fire one braise!" and the student on braise would shout back, "Firing one braise!"
We would then walk our plates down the hall, turn right, and walk through another hall to the dining room, called Alumni Hall, a long room with a high vaulted ceiling, the chapel of this former Jesuit monastery. Large alcoves were used for more tables, and tables lined the altar platform, now called the stage. Stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ surrounded you while you ate.
That night I dined with Erica, a youngster of nineteen, from suburban Philadelphia. Erica was short and had abundant thick brown hair that stayed wrapped in a bun and covered with a hair net as the dress code demands. Her face was almost perfectly round, and she had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. They were so blue, with a sort of shimmering, crystalline depth, I thought for sure she wore colored contacts and I asked her as we stood in line in the hall outside K-9. She said she wore contacts but the blue was natural. "Why," she inquired, anxiously, "do you like my eyes?"
"I think your eyes are incredible," I said. "They're the bluest eyes I've ever seen."
She smiled and said, "Do you really? Oh, thank you. I love it when people say nice things about my eyes. David, do you like my eyes?" She batted her lids at him.
"Yes, Erica," David said. "I do like your eyes." He rolled his own, and Erica thanked him and smiled.
We got our plates--I was lucky enough to get one of the last sautés, the veal--and sat down with Erica, Lou, and Greg. Lou told me about IBM, where he worked part-time, from about seven in the morning till eleven. His wife, a nurse, worked nights. Lou would take the kids to his wife's parents' house at around six, where they waited to go to school; Lou would return home at eleven-thirty, have a bite to eat and a quiet moment to study before leaving for the Culinary at around one. Most nights he'd be home before ten. Lou was the oldest in the class and had perhaps the least kitchen experience. He scarcely knew how to chop an onion. Greg Lynch--divorced with two kids; on weekends he'd drive to Vermont to be with them--had done factory work after high school, then moved to kitchen work; he was fast, hecould cook, and he made it clear he was putting up with these basics simply for the sake of the degree. Erica had spent half her senior year of high school at a technical school learning kitchen skills, then worked about a year at a bed-and-breakfast on the appetizer station; she'd struggled to convince her parents that kitchen work was a viable career choice. Her eventual goal was to teach.
Dinner was over quickly and we were back in the kitchen before seven-thirty, cleaning bowls and pans, straining the stocks, and shoveling all the steaming bones and cartilage and soggy mirepoix into the big blue bin of compostable waste. The brown veal stock would cook slowly overnight and be strained, cooled, and stored by the students in the A.M. Skills class, which ran from seven to one-thirty.
When the kitchen was clean, when aprons had been untied and rolled up and stuffed in backpacks, paper chefs' hats had been doffed for the evening, and knives were secured in their hard, black CIA-issued briefcases, chairs were once again unstacked from beside the dry-storage cage and set out around the tables. We sat for lecture in the large bright clean kitchen.
Day One lecture concerned stocks. We had already made gallons of stock today--or Greg had; he seemed to be doing all the stock work today, hustling around the kitchen like a scrappy little point guard in a blacktop hoops game--and while the brown stock would simmer all night, the white beef stock we'd made had not had sufficient time to cook. So as Chef Pardus explained how to label the stocks (stored in rectangular two-gallon plastic containers), he noted, "A good white stock should simmer about five hours. Tomorrow we're going to use the weak stock instead of water."
Chef Pardus began his lecture by reading from the paper taped to the wall. Typically, he would carry a wooden spoon while he lectured, spinning it in the air as he talked or using it as a pointer.
"A great stock is judged by," he paused, "its flavor." The first bulleted item is, of course, crucial. Does it have a good clean taste, a taste appropriate for the bones and aromatics that have cooked in it? The second item is clarity. You did not want a muddy stock, especially if you were going to use that stock for consommé, as we would soon be doing. Color, too, is to be evaluated; a brown stock should be brown, a white stock white (as opposed to gray), and chicken stock should be a pale yellow. Body: "Texture in the mouth," Pardus explained. "If it feels like water in your mouth, it doesn't have body." And finally, aroma. A brown stock should have a roasted aroma, chicken stock should smell like chicken, and white stockshould have a neutral aroma, and the aroma should always be clean and fresh.
"You should judge a good stock by these criteria," Chef Pardus announced. "And if it's not a good stock, you should be able to figure out what went wrong according to each one." If your brown stock lacks color, for instance, perhaps you didn't caramelize your mirepoix well enough. If there's no body, perhaps you used too much water and the gelatin was spread too thin, or you didn't cook your bones long enough to release all their gelatin. Knuckles, bones with abundant connective tissue, release a lot of gelatin but are less flavorful; bones with a lot of marrow have good flavor but the marrow can cloud the stock. A good mix of bones was therefore optimal. With every stock every day, he wanted those in charge to bring a sample of the stock to him and he would evaluate the stock aloud using all these criteria.
Chef Pardus admitted that there were many ways to make stock, many good ways, but said, "We're going to do it the K-8 way." And the K-8 way was the official CIA way--also known as The Party Line--which was spelled out in the Institute's The New Professional Chef, a huge cooking textbook.
Pardus used a large flip pad on an easel to lecture from. He performed each lecture once every six weeks, and the reusable flip pad saved a lot of writing on the board. A chart of stock ratios was the first thing on view; I copied it on the inside cover of one of my notebooks. Pardus flipped a page, pointed with his spoon, and said, "Stock is." He paused. "The foundation for all classical French cooking."
Fond de cuisine, foundation of cooking. "It is to the production of perfect stocks that the sauce cook should devote himself," wrote Auguste Escoffier, the great French chef and writer, "the sauce cook who is, as the Marquis de Cussy remarked, 'the enlightened chemist, the creative genius and the cornerstone of the edifice of superlative cookery.'" The spirit and name of Auguste Escoffier presides over the Culinary Institute much as Buddha presides over Eastern philosophy. His 1903 book, Le Guide Culinaire, eventually translated into English as The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery (known at this school as either Le Guide, or the bible), is an extraordinary accomplishment in its thoroughness and philosophy of cooking. Escoffier was born in Nice in 1846 and, after establishing himself as a cook, was invited to work at a hotel in Switzerland in 1884 by a formerheadwaiter who had moved into hotel management named César Ritz. The two fellows hit it off and went on to open the Ritz in Paris in 1898, and eventually the Carlton in London.
Escoffier, while providing about two thousand recipes, never abandoned his focus on basic culinary preparations, such as stocks. "These culinary preparations," he writes in the second paragraph of his book, "define the fundamentals and the requisite ingredients without which nothing of importance can be attempted." There seemed to be something humble in his hubris--without which nothing of importance can be attempted. Furthermore he named these basic preparations, ticked them off like items on a grocery list without which nothing of importance--nothing, mind you--could be attempted. There were thirteen. Of these thirteen he set apart a primary group of eight preparations that were composed of three broad categories: stock, roux, mother sauces. That was it, the basis for the art of modern cookery, and the reason I was here.
I was never one to get all goosey about recipes. Recipes were a dime a dozen. You could follow them for a hundred years and never learn to cook. I was after method; I wanted the physical experience of doing it, knowing what the food should look like, sound like, smell like, feel like while it cooked. I had made my own stocks and had talked to various chefs about their stocks, but at the Culinary Institute of America I would learn the classical preparation of stock, the foundation, the bedrock of classical cookery. If you didn't know how to make a great stock, if you didn't even know what a great stock tasted like, you were doomed to mediocrity in the kitchen, at best, and at worst, ignorant foolishness.
Certain facts concerning one's own behavior and choices in life can only be understood in retrospect. I rented our home in Cleveland, moved virtually everything we owned into my father's house, and transported my wife (a photographer who had paying clients in the city we were leaving), our daughter (not yet ambulatory), and myself five hundred miles to a one-bedroom garret above a garage in Tivoli, New York, a Hudson River Valley town with a one-to-one human-cow ratio. I had done all of this, I eventually realized, in order to learn how to make a superlative brown veal stock.
The physical principles that bring about a brown veal stock are no different from those of other stocks. Water heats bones. The bones (andthe meat scraps still connected to them) release protein, vitamins, fat, gelatin, mineral salts, and lactic and amino acids. The vegetables, herbs, and spices release pectin, starches, acids, and sulfur compounds. The younger the bones, the more connective tissue they'll have; connective tissue is made up largely of a protein called collagen, which melts into a substance called gelatin, a gluey protein, and this gives a stock body. When you cook meats, you caramelize the savory juices and meat proteins; their taste becomes liquefied in the stock. The vegetables caramelize, their sugars brown, and this, too, liquefies. Add the mirepoix, throw in some tomato product that is cooked till it becomes a deep rich brown, pour cold water on it, and heat it very, very slowly--till it's just hot enough to release a couple of bubbles to the surface every few seconds, without any other movement--and tend this mixture for hours and hours, skimming frequently, and you'll have a flavorful, brown, nutritious liquid. Degrease it, strain it, degrease it some more. Then it is done.
You would never want to eat this stuff plain, and it doesn't smell very good either. Roasted chicken stock tastes moments away from a tasty soup; beef stock tastes like beef. A perfect brown veal stock has what is referred to as a "neutral" flavor. This is a kind way of saying it doesn't taste like anything you're used to eating or would want to eat.
Neutrality, however, is the key to this stock. You can do a million different things with a great veal stock because it has the remarkable quality of taking on other flavors without imposing a flavor of its own. It offers its own richness and body anonymously. When you reduce it, it becomes its own sauce starter. You can add roux to brown veal stock for an eventual demi-glace and with a demi-glace, you can, in about thirty seconds, create any of a hundred distinct sauces in the manner of Escoffier.
If you are truly insane, take this perfect brown veal stock, this gold, this liquid heaven that you have simmered for hours and hours, and dump it over freshly roasted veal bones, and later add some deeply caramelized mirepoix and browned tomato paste. Simmer it slowly, slowly all over again. If you have made perfect moves throughout, you will have a superlative brown veal stock.
The first day in the kitchen was nearly done. Chef Pardus reviewed the method for making white and brown stocks. When he said the word "pincé" (which is what you're doing to tomato paste when you cook it till it'sbrown), his gold-rimmed glasses rode up high on the crinkles on the bridge of his nose. Pardus was not even-toned. He italicized words as they left his mouth by making his lips do all sorts of contortions. For instance, when he talked about other stocks and uses for stocks--fumet, court bouillon, bouillon versus broth, essence--and he got to glace, he would say, "Glace is a highly reduced stock. What you do is you take a gallon of brown stock and you reduce it down to a cup, and when it cools it's hard as a Superball. That's glace." He began the word "Superball" with his lips pursed out beyond his nose, and by the time he got to the l sound, his lips had tucked back inside so all you saw was a vague white rim where his lips should have been. This made his consonants really pop. It also made you want to try bouncing some of this glace off one of these stainless-steel tables we'd been chopping mirepoix on all day.
I departed K-8 alone and strode past the former Jesuit chapel-turned-dining room, down the back steps of Roth Hall, through the empty frigid quad, down more steps, and into the vast parking lot on the edge of the four-lane expanse of Route 9. I was in cooking school. Look at my houndstooth-check trousers, my big black heavy-soled shoes, my knife kit in hand, my leather briefcase over my shoulder--the symbolic combination of school and kitchen. I was going to learn how to make a perfect brown veal stock, the reasons it became perfect, and everything that followed from there.
THE MAKING OF A CHEF. Copyright © 1997, 2000 by Michael Ruhlman. Introduction copyright © 2009 by Michael Ruhlman. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.