Saturday, October 1, 2011

We, the students

We all look like this. Yes, even the women. It's the uniforms. OK, the shoes may vary, and the women generally have shoes that men wouldn't be caught dead wearing. But when we're crowded around tables, nobody can see our feet.

We all have black hats, kind of like large skull caps, no pirate symbols allowed. You can buy a ventilated version that's much better if you happen to be working over something hot or if the air conditioning fails again.

We have aprons, tied over our chef coats so that the coats will stay clean. That's the theory, but in reality stains know very well how to avoid the aprons.

We have chef coats, with the school logo and our names embroidered on them. Cloth buttons. Long sleeves that you have to keep constantly rolled up. OK, so if your sleeves have to be constantly rolled up, why not make them half length? Is this a carryover from when these were some kind of French army coats, before the days of Napoleon? Tradition? Think of all the things they could do with the material now used for useless sleeves. They could probably clothe half of Elk Grove.

We're supposed to all have white T-shirts beneath our chef coats. Some people cheat. It depends on the instructor. I think plain black shirts look sharp, since they harmonize better with the hats. One instructor will throw you out for anything but plain white. Others are less fussy. Normally, the shirts don't even show under the chef's coat.

The pants are really comfortable, at least for men. One woman was ready to kill something because her pants did not, would not and could not be made to fit her. Another thing that goes back to the French army, perhaps. No women in professional kitchens back then. You have a choice here: black and white plaid or black and white houndstooth. Forget the solid colors that you see in the chefs' store. They're for when you work in that trendy little Italian place, if ever.

We can wear any shoes we want, as long as they're closed. No sandals. Probably a good idea, since I'd really regret pouring hot oil over my bare feet.

Despite our uniform enforced uniformity, everyone has a different approach to class.

Some people never talk. Maybe I'm from another planet, but I would have thought that a bunch of people gathered around a table would communicate a bit more. Or at least utter a word now and then, like "umm" or "ecch". What they lack in oral skills, they seem to make up in texting ability. Every time there's a break, these silent participants who have nothing to say to any of us rush outside, whip out their phones and typically spend the entire time communicating. I have no idea what they say. I wonder if they complain about how noisy the rest of us are, or maybe what the chicken tasted like.

I wonder which people the instructor likes. The ones who talk in lab, or the ones who say nothing and just slice their onions, chiffonade their basil and grind their garlic. Imagine the silence if the rest of us were to leave. I have no idea how they would coordinate anything. Texting, maybe. Talking gives the lab class a lively atmosphere, but maybe it's too much? It seems like often the instructor would prefer us silent, so she could whisper her comments, or at least not have to shout to be heard. Maybe silence is considered more professional. I don't know, since this question never came up. Since I'm one of the noisy ones, maybe ignorance truly is bliss. Maybe I should try a day of silence and see what happens, something I could call penance for the zucchini fiasco.

Some people flunk. The instructor announced the number of failed tests, then said, "Take notes, people!". Maybe people think this stuff is easy and you don't have to study - until it's too late. You might think you'd have to study when the book weighs 7 lbs 1.8 oz (we have good scales) and is a bit over 1-3/4" thick with micro-thin pages (hmm. That's thicker than a good steak).

There are lots of things to study, too. Like learning to distinguish between a sauteuse and a sautoir. Don't ask me; one is a frying pan with straight sides, the other with sloped sides. There are a zillion herbs and spices. Cooking techniques. What temperature water when starting a stock (cold). What goes in mirepoix and in what proportions. What a spider is used for, or a china cap, or a chinois. Why was that stew meat tough and dry, to what temperature should I cook pork, and much more. It's like stuffing a huge cookbook into your head.

Most of us do fine. We discuss the subtle difference between simmering and poaching, ponder the merits of cooking en papillote. We learn to apply less black pepper to things. We still get yelled at, but it's part of the learning process, right? At least the old days of pot-throwing chefs are over, at least in this country.


  1. Just FYI... got in trouble last semester for talking during an in-class prep session. There weren't any clients around, just students chopping things. Dead silence was required. So, volunteer work (for a bit of extra credit), nose to the grindstone, chop, chop, chop. Shut up! What a way to encourage people to volunteer!