This was me a year ago, on the day I received my culinary whites in the mail. I was young, fresh-faced, and had no idea that within a year, the experiences I had in the kitchen would change a lot about me. I didn't know what cross-contamination was, I had no idea of the existence of spaghetti squash, and yet, I still wanted to learn enough about the culinary world to open up a restaurant/record shop in one of two cities: The Bronx, NY, or Santa Barbara, CA. Some days, the three chefs, Tony DeVincenzo, Cathleen Ryan, and Vinny Pesce, can seem like mean people, and while there is a God-awfully huge amount of mean chefs in the world, the only thing that they really want their students to do is well. Over the course of the last year, I have been taking photographs of the kitchen, the food I've been making, and even things as simple as the program's original recipes to copy down into my database. Along with the portfolio that every other student in the academy has to keep, these photos will remind me of my earlier years. While I can't know quite for sure what kind of a person I will be once I graduate, I do know that as long as I keep a good attitude, a culinary career is right in front of me.
Freshman Year: The Prelude To The Prelude to Life
In October of 2015, Chef Tony's second and third period freshman class were told that they would go into the kitchen for the first time, to practice knife cuts. A large amount of book work and review was needed for this momentous day. On that first day, I was so stoked, I could barely sleep the night before. But when I walked into the kitchen and actually began, it felt like a Bob Dylan concert: The only bit of excitement I got out of it was that I had the ability to say "I've worked in the kitchen before." As the year went on, things progressed rapidly. Within literally a month, I had learned the recipes for potato pancakes, a vegetable medley, and cakey cookies.
After New Year, a breakfast unit began, and my class began to learn the recipes for ever-so-basic things, such as eggs in a basket. Eggs in a basket is a piece of toast with a hole in the middle large enough to crack an egg into while in a frying pan. I, especially, was enjoying the basics, and I eventually became pretty certain that not only did I want to keep learning the culinary basics, but that I want to take up a career in the culinary business.
Then in March, I broke my leg in three different places.
I had to have surgery, and needless to say, I was hobbled on crutches for about two months. This being, I had to miss out on a lot of breakfast meals, and as soon as I was able to walk again, the sandwich and salad unit began. As disappointing as this was, the new unit was a new experience, and the only way that I'd miss it was by breaking my leg again, but this time, bad enough for amputation. Of course, the first things that were made were BLT sandwiches, potato salad, and even a cranberry vinaigrette for a Caesar salad. Exams began before I could even blink, but I exempted because I took the mid-term, and did well in this semester. At the end of last year, I looked back on all of the pain I went through, but knew that my sophomore year in culinary would be infinitely better.
Sophomore Year: Welcome To Reality
At the end of freshman year, I looked back at it, and thought that high school was going to be a breeze.
I was so wrong.
Sophomore year really gives you a taste of what you can expect in life - Teachers are stricter, assignments have earlier turn-in dates, and the pressure continues building until you have a complete mental breakdown. But next to the impossible geometry and the way you're studying The Great Gatsby, there still is another year of culinary ahead. Chef Tony teaches freshmen only, but that doesn't mean that you will never see him again. There are two semesters in a school year, which means that you will have two chefs to give your attention to. Chef Ryan and Chef Vinny are both trained and highly experienced chefs who have worked in many different restaurants around America. Chef Vinny's standard culinary class takes place in the Ryan Wells Kitchen, and Chef Ryan's baking and pastry class takes place on the other side of the Publix kitchen, next to where the freshmen cook occasionally.
Typically, Chef Vinny spends four out of five days in the kitchen, and teaches in his building 41 classroom on Mondays. He rarely gives tests, and gives over 100 points for kitchen etiquette weekly, so as long as you don't horse around in the kitchen, and have your uniform of course, there's really no excuse to do poorly in his class. Chef Ryan, on the other hand, has a class with about the same toughness level as Chef Vinny's. She often gives tests, more than Chef Vinny does, but always is willing to help out a student if they're stumped. Baking has been a huge part of her life for years on end, and she is actually the only remaining original teacher in the program since its 2009 opening.
Chef Vinny always tells his students that no matter what, he treats all of his students like they are employees, not children. This does not mean that he's going to call everyone no-good beasts of burden - If somebody screws up, he shows them the proper way to do it, or if it's bad enough, he shows them how to improvise with something else. Earlier this year, I accidentally took some potatoes out of the steamer before they were cooked all the way through. Chef Vinny was, needless to say, upset, but he then told me to cut them into smaller pieces, that way, they would still be edible for the potato salad they were about to go into. Even so, I still have another semester ahead of me, but this time, I'll be with Chef Ryan.
Special Guest Demos
As amazing as they are, three chefs can't be a student's only source of knowledge. Every few months or so, one or more chefs, primarily from universities, come into the Outback room at the academy and tell us about their careers, show off some mad skills, and even answer our questions. Obviously, we can't get big shot chefs like Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse in to demo, due to their busy schedules, and of how much work it would take to even get in touch with them. The chefs we do get, however, have done some pretty wicked things in their career. Last year, one of the chefs from Johnson & Wales University came in to tell us about not only her career, but also about how amazing J&W is. She got to work in Disney as a student, and once cooked for Prince himself.
While all of our demos are food related, not all of the guests are chefs. Our most recent one as of today was a former journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, who wrote a book called Cookie-Licious. Her name is Janet Keeler, and while she is an amazing cook, she was primarily a food photographer. After a conversation with her while she was walking around and answering questions, she was so impressed with my interest in her career, she gave me a free and signed copy of Cookie-Licious, which is a $20 book at Barnes & Noble. That day, I learned that something great can happen, if you show a little interest in something.