Friday, September 14, 2007

A Culinary Student's Conundrum

By The Foodist

I was going to finish my three part series on kitchen equipment, but over the last few days I've had a kind of epiphany. Ok, not so much and epiphany, as say a major stick up me bum about a particular issue that's been eating at me for some time.

Why is it the culinary students think that the only thing to learn in culinary schools is how to hold a knife, cook a chicken, and make some stock?!

This is driving me near bonkers trying to figure it out.

Now given the average age on the CIA campus is 23 (Last I heard at least) that would lead me to think there was a little more mental maturity about the educational process, but jumpin jimminy christmas am I just a little tired of hearing "Why do I have to learn this stuff, I'm going to be in a kitchen cooking."

Ok, here's a little info for you.

First off, more then half of you won't be in a kitchen three years from now. Secondly cooking, very much like life, isn't just about what your doing right now its also about where it comes from and why we do it. Thirdly, you cant honestly tell me that if you love food you just want to know how to hold that knife correctly?!

Everyone, it seems, wants to be the next Ferran Adria and create some new culinary wonder to make them rich and famous. All the while never paying attention to why you first need to master the basics and learn how they came to be the basics. If you walk through the halls and ask any random student who Antonin Careme was there may be a handful of students who know who he is. Ask them what he did and I would bet the $2.26 in my bank account that the most they could tell you was he made Napoleons wedding cake.

Ok, so they don't know some ancient food history, fine. No one expects every culinary student to brush up on the 18th century while they learning stock ratios and how to make hollandaise. But should they care about it? yes.

We are so involved in catching our episodes of 30 minute meals and Hells Kitchen (Oh which reminds me a current CIA student is out in LA right now participating in the 4th season... Good Luck Christina, please make us not look like complete idiots...please.) that we aren't looking over our shoulders to see what it took to get us here.

We have a wealth of knowledge at our disposal here. Countless texts and experienced minds to pick at. Yet, it seems the student body seems less and less willing to ask the questions, probe for answers, and research "Why" then ever before. We want to spend more time trying to get the chefs to like us, compare the newest shiniest sharpest knife, and dominate the kitchen in some alpha wolf competition then to notice how much we could truly learn about food, culture, and why we eat what we do.

I took a poll this week on my blog asking if people thought cuisine was dying out, and after talking with students around campus realized that to understand exactly what cuisine is you would have to know where it comes from, what makes it up, why it came about, and who was doing it. None of which seemed to matter to students, except if it comes from Italy it must be Italian Cuisine.

My hope is that we have an epiphany, as students, as teachers, as foodies to realize its just not about how to make that stock, or cook that chicken but also why we do it that way, and who taught us this grand way of creating what we consume


JunkyPOS said...

"Ok, not so much and epiphany, as say a major stick up me bum"

K...I can't resist. That epiphany certainly could be construed as a conundrum. I don't see the analogy meself. YIKES,,, HA! each his/her own as can be said...

Sorry Bob...

The Foodist said...


The use of the word Epiphany was used in context of something hitting me suddenly.. ie the issue to be addressed.

The conundrum to the culinary student (ie me) is how we can spend so much time and money learning at an institution and not care why the things were learning are the way they are.

the use of the word Epiphany and Conundrom are used in two seperate contexts. Perhaps the wording could have been done better, but i choose to word it the way I did because I thought it amusing to go from epiphany (Almost angelic in origin) to "stick up me bum" (less.. shall we say classy).

I hope that clears the air for you

Chef Sean said...

Not being an expert on such matters, I hardly feel qualified to comment. However, I feel that the crux of the issue just might be the explosion of the "celebrity chef" occupation.

From my perspective, I am ready to cut from my present (relatively lucrative) career to attend CIA and learn absolutely everything I can about cooking. In my current work, there is no love. No inner sense of worth. No happy feeling at the end of the day. The light has gone out of a once pleasant career.

I've read the stories (from Ruhlman to Bourdain to Pepin to White) about the dark side of kitchens. Under that darkness, however, is a bright inner core of cooks and chefs who truly love what they do and do so with a passion.

In today's media fueled, get-it-fast environment, many culinary students may likely feel that stardom is easily attained. This bears striking similarity to the get-rich-quick types or something-for-nothing crowd. Everything comes with a price, and the price of a culinary career should certainly include a nice dose of the history and why-things-work.

Ruhlman wrote in, "The Soul of a Chef," that Thomas Keller worked to refine his hollandaise sauce until it was perfect. Two years of work. This sort of dedication can only come about when one holds true passion for what they do, not simply as a means to get a television program.

Call the attitude of those students simple immaturity. I do. At 34, I may be above the average 23 years of age for CIA students, but I know why I want to cook and I want to know why food does what it does when cooked.

Other career paths require an understanding of underlying foundations. Physics, chemistry, mathematics. Even subjects like literature require understanding of other works, historical or otherwise. Heaven help us if we get political science students who don't bother to learn Machiavelli, Locke, Mills, Jefferson, and Marx. What sort of skill would one have without fundamental knowledge?

If I had the power, a culinary education would certainly include a course in culinary history. As an educator, I would hope your administration board would allow you such a voice.