Things No One Tells You About Culinary School

Before I committed to attending culinary school, I scoured the internet for advice, tips, recommendations and flat-out help. I was typing phrases like, is culinary school worth it? into Google and finding no useful information.

Let’s face it: culinary school is a huge commitment. It’s a financial mountain to climb (it is insanely pricy) and you find out very quickly if this is the industry for you or not. If not, it can feel like waste of time, effort and money. Besides, I found myself wondering if I couldn’t just learn all that technique stuff from Food Network and my collection of food magazines.

Because I guarantee there are other people out there asking the same questions, I’m going to compile a list of things I didn’t know I would face in culinary school. Hopefully this is useful for those who are frantically typing into Google, culinary school advice and CIA vs Johnson and Wales.

I’ve been there. I feel you.

1. This is not home cooking.

I’ll tell you right now: culinary school is not for people who ‘just want to learn how to cook.’ There are optional classes open the public for that, classes that are funny and charming and teach useful advice and tricks for home kitchens. Culinary school, however, is trained to educate future chefs. The students are being launched into the industry with all the information needed to kickstart a culinary career. If you just kinda want to learn how to cook to impress the neighbors at your next dinner party, don’t invest all that time and money into culinary school. Trust me.

2. Classes are 90% cleaning, 10% cooking.

This is not a bad thing! You learn how to cook, sure, but once the demos and the practical kitchen days are over, you have to clean top to bottom. And by “clean” I am referring to using bowl-you-over asphyxiating oven cleaner, potent degreaser and plenty of sudsy water. Every dish you dirty has to be scrubbed. Every surface you use has to shine. And every move you make has to be efficient–don’t waste time cleaning. Just get it done.

You’ll get to know how to clean and store industrial equipment, how to scrub the tiniest nooks and crannies and the proper way to clean your pots and pans.

(This becomes useful in home life, as you will find yourself doing dishes with gusto and knocking out equipment with ease.)

3. Say goodbye to your forearms.

And your fingers, while you’re at it. Cooks start to develop superhuman hands after a while simply from being around all that hot, sharp equipment. You will burn your forearms countless times, and they’ll scar. You’ll also be proud of those scars because they show you beat that screaming hot oven or pan. You will compare them to others and talk about your battle scars like they’re medals.

(You will not share stories of stupid things you did to get burned, like grabbing a hot pan with a wet towel–heat travels faster through a wet towel, turning to steam and burning the shenangians out of your hands–or learning how to use a knife without looking at your cutting board. That’s common sense. Keep your dumb mistake stories to yourself.)

4. You’ll develop a Kitchen Voice.

A kitchen voice is loud, concise, urgent and practical. Even if you’re small and quiet, you will learn quickly to fight for your voice.

Terminology will start to come easily to you, phrases like, “Hot behind!” “Sharp!” “Behind you!” will merge into your everyday life. “Heard!” will become a popular response, even outside the kitchen.

It becomes apparently very quickly that if you don’t tell someone–loudly– that you’re coming behind with something hot, sharp or potentially easy to drop, someone could get hurt or yelled at, and you don’t want it to be you.

5. The classmates are weirdos.

The best possible weirdos, of course. (And maybe some of the worst, you can never really tell.) Culinary is an art, and like all arts, the people can be a tad bit off-kilter. There are the young and ambitious fresh-out-of-high school students ready to take the culinary world by a storm, the vocational-school types who never really aced (or passed) high school but can work with their hands, and there are the career changers who want a fresh career and are willing to work hard at their second chance.

They might be strange. They might be all ages and come from all backgrounds, but everyone has the same thing in common: food. You can learn a lot about people by their styles of cooking, and that variety will help your own cooking grow. They’re some of the best people you will ever meet.

6. The Freshman Fifteen is more like the Freshman… Thirty.

When you make food the focus of your life and education, it starts to show. At my school, it hits everyone right around Baking and Pastry class. French cuisine is nearly all butter and wine, and as you can imagine, it takes a toll. I’m warning you now: you can’t go to culinary school and not gain weight. It just doesn’t work like that.

7. Dining out will never be the same.

Restaurants become places of interest. The staff suddenly becomes interesting, swinging kitchen doors start to catch your eye. And, probably most significantly, you can look at a menu and think, I’m paying HOW MUCH for THAT? You start thinking in terms of food cost and value for what you’re ordering. It can’t be helped. And you’ll be terribly conscious of safety and sanitation after learning exactly how terribly the results of poor sanitation can be.

On the flip side, you start to appreciate food so much it changes the whole dining experience. You can appreciate a fresh loaf of bread when it hits the table. You can beam with glee over a perfectly-cooked steak. You can eye a meal and think, “I can make that, easy,” or “Wow, what genius came up with that?”

8. You become a darn good cook.

A mostly-empty refrigerator becomes a Chopped challenge. Once the basic techniques are engrained in your subconscious and muscle memory, you can master pretty much anything in your kitchen.

People will also want you to cook for them.

They will be embarrassed to cook for you, thinking you’ll judge their food. (In reality, you’ll just think it’s nice someone cooked for you for a change.)

Torwards the end of school you’ll be able to look back and think, I remember when I was learning how to make a brown roux. How quaint to think I didn’t know how.

9. The school you choose depends on your preferences.

The Culinary Institute of America is the top culinary school in the US, and it has so many celebrity chefs in the industry it is unreal. They teach everything you need to know and it looks fantastic to have graduated from the CIA. But it is insanely, tremendously pricy. Essentially, you’re paying for the name. Cooking is cooking across the board, the same techniques apply no matter where you are. The CIA just looks bright and shiny and has lots of impressive grads.

Johnson and Wales (affectionately referred to as J-Wu) is along the same lines. It looks nice to have graduated from their university, but you’re learning the same information you can get anywhere else. They offer other programs as well, so they’re not strictly culinary. There are quite a few scholarships available for them, but the price tag is still high.

Le Cordon Bleu, unlike J-Wu, is strictly culinary and pastry, also offering hospitality programs. I myself am a Le Cordon Bleu student, and I absolutely adore the school. Their Career Services department alone is phenomenal–they place students in jobs even after graduation. The door is always open. And again, it’s the same information that is available at the CIA or J-Wu, but the price tag is significantly lower.

(Although they do tend to market to the extreme–lots of phone calls, lots of flyers. It was a turn-off for me at first, but it worked out in the end! They have wonderful enrollment advisors.)

I hemmed and hawed and wracked my brain for the answer on where I should attend school. Since attending Le Cordon Bleu, there is no doubt in my mind I made the right choice. It may not be the right fit for you– I’m not trying to push LCB on anyone. But I have never had an issue with them, and I have gotten a great education. I love my chefs to death.

Side note: a lot of this depends on your goals. My goal was to work at Disney World in a culinary position, so I chose the Le Cordon Bleu Orlando campus. I was hired a month after starting school with Disney, who recruits directly out of the school. I’ve been at Disney over a year, and I met a lot of students that were working on Externship from other schools that were in the same position that I was–a position that was my springboard, rather than my final destination.

Instead of reaching Disney on externship as my final goal, it was my first culinary job right off the bat. Attending LCB Orlando was, for me, the right thing to do.

10. This might not be the industry for you.

The culinary underworld is full of artists, but it’s also full of knives and fire. It requires the ability to lift heavy things, have great endurance and not mind endless hours on your feet. Working on weekends and holidays is part of the job. There’s not a lot of sunlight or free time in the kitchen, it’s a hot den full of shouting people. Chefs are not always friendly people, and this is a territorial and cutthroat industry where you have to earn your way to the next stop. Don’t expect to slack off and get anywhere. It requires plain, old-fashioned work. It’s not easy. But many thrive off of the tension and insanity of working the line, and it’s an adrenaline rush like no other.

You will learn very quickly if this is the industry for you. It’s smart to do your research before committing to culinary school and make sure you’re headed the right direction.

11. You’ll develop an unhealthy obsession with knives.

Bragging about your new eight-inch santoku knife is a way of life. A new knife inspires the kind of joy reserved for marriage proposals and climbing Mount Everest.

Additionally, you will begin to smell like food all the time. (I didn’t really want a subhead for this one, but it’s true.)

Ultimately, culinary school is one of the best decisions you could ever make.

The sense of pride that comes from being a part of a kitchen staff is unparalleled. Chefs and cooks are tough. And they are highly skilled. (Knives? Heck yeah.) This is a wonderful decision to make, and since I’ve attended culinary school I have never once doubted I made the right decision.

If you’re ready to dive into a fastpaced and insanely wonderful industry, this is the way to do it. I hope I’ve answered at least a few questions for anonymous researches out there like I was.

Bon Appetite!

Unashamed Old Lady In Training

Last night, during the Food and Wine Festival, where I was stationed yet again in Patagonia (five days straight! I’m an empanada master!) I was able to meet some new Cast Members who were a part of the Disney College Program. We ate lunch together while I shamelessly asked them questions about their Disney experience like I was some sort of interviewer. I love learning about why people come to work at Disney.

Partway through, one of them looked down at my lunch –a large salad with almonds, tomatoes, cucumber slices, mushrooms and dried figs — and asked quite frankly,  “Why are you eating… old lady food?”

“Old lady food?” I repeated. I looked down. My salad looked unassuming. There was a side of tabouleh salad and a cup of coffee.

“Are those prunes?”

“Figs! I like dried fruit.”

There was a beat of silence before, sarcastically, someone asked, “Do you knit, too?”

My lack of response was answer enough. They started to laugh. I tried to elaborate– I can only do scarves. I’m working on hats. But no one would listen. Knitting, to them, meant I was practically a grandma.

I returned to my kiosk, chatting with one of the workers as we plated. “Hey!” I said,  “If you have an empanada-shaped pinata,  is it an em-pinata?”

I was met with blank stares.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he said, seriously but not unkindly. “That wasn’t funny. That was old lady humor.”

So I had to set the record straight. “I thought that was clever,” I said. “I’m not afraid to admit I knit, I eat prunes and I like cottage cheese and I watch black and white movies more than any other kind. My favorite TV show is Bewitched. I bet you don’t even know who Elizabeth Montgomery is, and that’s a shame. I bake cupcakes for people who are mean to me and that’s how I make friends. And if I want to joke about having no empanadas in the window, I totally will.”

(My other empanada joke goes like this: if we have no empanadas plated, we have. … empa-nada! Get it? Nada, as in no more in Spanish, which fits because I’m in the Patagonia kiosk.)

Let’s face it though. I think I am an old lady in training. I jumped light years ahead to the time of life where I complain about Kids These Days and can’t work the internet. My coworkers totally have a point.

But that’s okay. I’ll just knit cozies for my cups of tea and watch The Dick Van Dyke show. If you want to laugh at my jokes and eat cupcakes, come on over! It’s bound to be a wonderfully low – key time. (No shame.)

It’s Festival Prep Week! *Scary Music Here*

It’s all coming back to me now.

The heat! The sweaty grossness! The dirt and grime and long hours!

I have a tendency to romanticize the past, make things that were difficult all so wonderful and rosy in my mind. And the Food and Wine Festival is no different. Only here’s the thing: the festival has a weird effect on Cast Members. Everyone is a walking-talking-working zombie at times, but when the Festival ends, everyone is sentimental and absolutely enamored by the events that have just occurred.

I won’t lie. I am charmed by Epcot. I think the Food and Wine Festival is the best experience in the world.

But it’s so hot. It gets so hot you forget what it’s like to feel A/C. Sometimes you’re so hot that you even forget that you’re hot until someone opens a cooler and you feel a nice breeze and you just want to move to Antarctica on the next available flight.

This year I’m working under a new team of chefs, and they’re… um, intense.

And if you haven’t heard of Chef Jens, the Executive Chef of Epcot, let me just tell you that man strikes fear into my very being. (When he shook my hand today and welcomed me back to the Festival, it was all I could do not to just throw out a slew of, “YES CHEF! HEARD! ALL DAY!” and run across the kiosk. As it was a managed a surprisingly cool, “Yes, Chef, thank you Chef.”)

My new chef team is based out of the Norway kitchen (Akershus, the princess dining in the Norway pavilion, is a name that everyone has a hard time pronouncing, so we just call it “The Norway Kitchen” to keep it easy.) They are, for the next three months, my immediate superiors and nothing that goes on in my work life occurs without their explicit approval. My fellow Cast Members, who will be running the left-hand side of World Showcase with me–that’s Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Florida Fresh and South Korea–are my family for the next 53 days.

I will do nothing but eat, sleep, breathe and dream of the Food and Wine Festival. I will get to know my team inside and out, and converse with nearly no one else.

“Here are the ground rules,” one of my chefs said to us today. “First, if you have family here, tell them goodbye for the next three months. You’ll get two days off a week if you’re lucky. Two, you’re being moved and placed and judged on your performance. You don’t walk, you stride. You don’t talk, you communicate. Understood? Third, this is your restaurant. You’re inviting thousands of guests over, and you’re their host. Take some pride in your work. And, lastly, don’t try to out-drink the Norwegians, or any of the International College Program Students, okay? They’ll drink you under the table. If you come to work hungover, I’ll send you home. If you come to work drunk, you’re fired. Clear?”

“Heard!”

“Yes, Chef!”

My other chef is a slim, snappy woman who has probably heard the line, “You’d make a great hostess!” as many times, if not more, as I have. But that’s where our similarities stop. She’s tough. She takes no crap. She is the most fierce chef I’ve ever encountered, as if she’s making up for her looks by being as strict and tough as possible. She scares me a little, but I also have tremendous respect for her. I kind of hope she has a little bit of mercy for me–you know, a girl-chef-to-girl-chef kind of way. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Anyway, all I can recall about last year is being thrown into the festival without hope of a life raft. I had none of the on-site training I needed. I just showed up and was told to grill lobster in Hops and Barley, my first kiosk. (Awww.) I learned the hard way last year.

This year, my new area and my new chefs seem to very adamant that we learn the menu back and forth, that we learn how everything is to be produced and that we make no mistakes and have little leeway. I, like the crotchety old grandma I am on the inside, keep thinking things like, look at these newfangled contraptions! as I look at my menu lists and listened to the safety spiels. I was actually given a tour of the kitchen. I was shocked. (Where was I last year? How did I miss all the important stuff like, where do we store the food?)

As the chefs educate everyone on their jobs and the upcoming 53-day culinary boot camp that is Food and Wine, I find myself nodding along like a redundant bobblehead. Of course, the second I realize I’m doing it, I stop, because I don’t want to be that guy” that thinks he/she knows everything. I detest those people.

So I stand, in the front, trying to look both eager and serious at the same time. It’s hard, because on the inside I’m jumping up and down and skipping and singing and thinking, “Yes! I’m back at Epcot! Oh, how thrilling!” On the outside, I’m just trying to keep my, “Yes, Chef,” as even and monotone as possible, because I’m pretty sure everyone would think I was crazy otherwise.

As it stands, folks, there are FIVE days until the official opening.

Less than a week.

Are you ready? I’m ready. I was born ready.

LETS DO THIS THING.

 

Ten Days Until Food and Wine!

The leaves are changing (in places that are not Florida, I am sure) and the Pumpkin Spice Latte has made a reappearance at the local Starbucks. I personally adore these delicious pumpkin-caffeinated beverages, but have not ordered one out of respect for baristas who hate making PSL’s. (My best friend is one. I did this for you, Miss Barista. I’ve sacrificed my autumn goodness out of respect for your kind.)

Anyway, other than the season starting afresh with all sorts of autumn feel-good nostalgic memories, this is the best season for one simple reason.

It’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival time.

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It is the absolute BEST time at the best place in all of the Walt Disney World Resort, and that’s saying a lot because WDW is the size of Manhattan. Sure, you can make/buy food that is just as delicious as what we serve, and you can even buy the unique varieties of alcohol we distribute here. But can you ever come close to replicating the feeling of the warm evening air, the twinkle lights, the laughter and the music of World Showcase in the fall?

I’ll answer that right now. You can’t. Because the best cocktail we serve doesn’t have anything to do with the alcohol–it has to do with the perfect blend of atmosphere, experience and music, shaken–not stirred–and served in a sparkling glass.

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My favorite kiosk last year! (I own the photo)

Bear in mind I am not being paid by the company to say any of this. I truly believe it because I’m cheesy and full of it. And I have good reason to love Food and Wine. My very first job (ever-ever) was the Food and Wine Festival, and it was my dream job. It was hard. Guests have it easy–relax, knock back a few cocktails, sip a few beers, eat some sliders, hop from kiosk to kiosk and watch the fireworks explode before retiring to a luxury hotel on property. Cast Members, on the other hand, get to spend eight to twelve hours a day in the searing Florida heat, clothed head to toe in long, unbreathable costumes, leaning over grills in kiosks that reach upwards of 90 degrees, all while plastering that ‘Welcome to Disney!’ smile on their red, borderline-heatstroked faces.

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Some of my fellow Cast Members from last year’s festival! (I own this photo)

And you know what? We love it.

Because we have a chance to put smiles on your faces. Also, we have a blast back there. You would not believe the people I’ve met! My fellow Cast Members, who are in Culinary Boot Camp serving thousands of plates an hour, become family. We’re spending 56 straight days together crammed into kiosks the size of a postage stamp. We get to listen to Illuminations: Reflections of Earth for 56 nights straight. We’ve got that song memorized. I can snap my fingers to every crackling firework shell.

Today, as you may have guessed, was my big training day for Food and Wine. I’ve been ‘deployed,’ in Disney terms, from my ‘home location’ of Columbia Harbour House, Magic Kingdom, to Epcot for the duration of the Festival. I left today’s Festival Overview totally pumped, which is kind of lame because I’ve seen this all before and it can get a little boring for normal people. I, on the other hand, was trying to wipe the ridiculous smile off my face so I didn’t look entirely crazy.

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Last year’s festival! (Again, my photo.)

Walking into Epcot just feels like home. It’s a system I understand. It makes sense to me.

My kiosks this year will span from Mexico to China, to the left of World Showcase. This is a fun and new experience for me, considering last year I worked the back half of the festival, from Germany to Morocco. I’m looking forward to a change of scene and meeting all the new and wonderful people I know I have yet to encounter.

It’s going to be hot. And busy. And a serious workout. But the food is going to be delicious, and the experience is going to be awesome.

So, with just TEN days to go (nine, if you count the not-so-soft opening on the 18th) until the Festival starts… who’s ready for some Food and Wine Festival fun?