Culinary school

Kitchen Tech Saturday: Online Cooking Classes

Happy Weekend, my lovelies!

The big grocery store chain in the Chicago area, Jewel-Osco, is running a Monopoly game promotion right now. The cashier hands out game pieces according to how much you spend at check-out, with some items in the store being worth bonus pieces. Of course, we’ve probably all played a Monopoly game like this before. I know that the big prize, in this case, $1 million dollars, is likely not going to happen for me. Buuuut, since they’re handing me those game pieces anyway, I always pop them open to see if any of them are instant winners or have any good coupons. So far, I’ve won a free tub of potato salad, a free Shutterfly photo book, and two online cooking courses from Rouxbe Cooking School.

Kinda crazy, right? I’d never heard of Rouxbe, so of course I went poking around the interwebs for some reviews (here, here, and here, to name just a few). Turns out, Rouxbe has a pretty good reputation for offering great classes that cover a broad range of topics, from a beginner level plant-based cooking course, to basic knife skills, to food safety. A lot of the courses for home cooks are definitely things we covered in culinary school, but for home cooks who are looking to step up their game in the kitchen, I can definitely see the benefit in investing the time and money to really dig in. If you’re interested in checking out Rouxbe, they do offer a free trial, so you can see what you’re getting into before you drop the cash for the membership fee.

Obviously, this became a big ole rabbit hole for me, and I started looking around at other online cooking schools. A lot of the big names you’d expect to see came up in my search… Allrecipes.com, Sur la Table, America’s Test Kitchen, and one of the newest, Gordon Ramsay’s Master Class. Of the first three, Allrecipes.com and America’s Test Kitchen both offer some sort of free trial period, and Sur la Table provides a short preview of each class. The Rouxbe classes, as well as the other three mentioned have discussion boards available to bounce ideas and questions off of fellow students, and the Rouxbe classes offer instructor feedback, quizzes, and an actual grade at the end, which is nice if you really need the accountability to stay on track. All of them are self-paced, which means you can fit the classes into your week at your convenience. The Gordon Ramsay version is a set of 20 lessons for one set price, but the likelihood of getting direct feedback from Ramsay himself seems pretty slim.

If you’re ready for a little more of a challenge, want to dive deeper into a particular style of cuisine, or you’re looking to fine tune your basic kitchen skills, online cooking classes might be the next step for you. I guess my advice, as someone who’s shelled out a LOT of money for culinary school, would be to really do your research to find the online classes that best fit your budget, your learning style, and the amount of time you’re willing to commit. Some programs offer full access to all their classes for a membership fee up front that let you see the full course catalog, and then an additional cost associated with each class. Others will let you pay for classes as you take them. Some will provide a good amount of instructor feedback, and for others, the feedback comes primarily through discussions with other students. This can be a great way to really hone your skills, as long as you choose the program that’s right for you.

If you’ve taken any online cooking classes in the past, I’d love to hear your feedback. What site did you use? What class(es) did you take? What the experience beneficial? Do you still use what you learned?

I’d also like to offer one of my readers the chance to take a Rouxbe class, using one of my Monopoly prize codes. You’ll have to use the code by May 30th, and then you have 60 days from redemption to complete the course. To enter the giveaway, all you need to do is leave a comment here on this blog post telling me which one of the three available courses interests you most:

The Cook’s Roadmap

Wake up! Becoming a better cook doesn’t have to be a nightmare of sifting through endless online and offline content. Let Rouxbe’s guided instruction open your eyes to understanding the “world of cooking” — a set of puzzle pieces that can be rearranged to unlock the code to tastier, healthier and more nutritious food.

Plant-Based Cooking: Level 1

As kids, we’re told to eat our veggies as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But what about quality and taste? Don’t panic. Take a step back and look at the big picture of cooking and health. This course will guide you through essential techniques and ingredients to help you incorporate more high-quality and surprisingly delicious plant-based dishes into your life.

Knife Skills

Start chopping! Learning to use a knife will radically change your kitchen experience and your health. The more comfortable you are cutting food, the more you will cut. The more you cut, the more you cook. The more you cook, the better you feel, so get chopping and change your life.

I’ll draw the winner on Friday, March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, and announce it both here and on Facebook (So make sure you follow me there, too!) on Saturday, March 18th by Noon, Central Standard Time. The winner will have 48 hours to contact me, or the prize is forfeit.

I’ve just signed up for the Plant-Based Cooking class. We’re headed into Spring, and that means all those delicious seasonal vegetables are about to start showing up in grocery stores and farmer’s market. What better way to get in that veggie state of mind?

Good luck to everyone who enters!

Inspiration Kitchens

It’s a busy morning in the Inspiration Kitchens classroom kitchen. As chef instructor Jay Bliznick walks the class through its first assignment, a basic French bread, his students begin reading through and writing down the recipe. This morning they’ll not only make bread, but also learn the process for making pate choux dough, bake several dozen chocolate chip cookies, roast chickens for chicken salad, learn how to break down a whole fish, then turn THAT into a lesson on en papillote cooking.

He encourages them all to read every recipe at least three times before they even start gathering their mise en place, to make sure they’re clear on each step. That’s a good kitchen tip for every cook, but for these chefs-in-training, it’s just one of the building blocks in a foundation of professional kitchen habits—sanitation, communication, kitchen safety—the Inspiration Kitchens program aims to instill in its students.

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Inspiration Kitchens was founded as Inspiration Corporation by a former Chicago police officer, Lisa Nigro. It started in 1989 as your basic food distribution project—handing out sandwiches and coffee to Chicago’s homeless men and women. From there, it blossomed into a program that not only gives students who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and poverty a set of professional skills intended to help them improve their circumstances, but also the social services required to set them up for success in the program, and beyond.

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The 13-week course, which includes both classroom and on-the-job training through Inspiration Kitchens’ restaurant and catering service, is free to students, but this is not a hand out. There’s a big commitment required from both sides for the process to work. Inspiration Kitchens provides the training, tools and equipment, help with transportation costs, and job placement assistance; students have to show up to class on time every time, which means they need to make sure obstacles at home, such as childcare or other family comittments, are buttoned up before they start the program. As a result, some students have had to leave the program and come back a time or two before achieving completion. The payoff for all their focus and determination can be big, though. Many students leave the program with jobs in some of Chicago’s best kitchens waiting for them.

Student Erica Payne, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, started the program in December and is close to graduation. She eventually wants to own her own bakery, making sales through a website vs. a traditional brick and mortar operation. But, she knows for that dream to become a reality she has to stick to the plan she, Chef Jay, and her counselor have worked out. So what’s next for her? More training.

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“Inspiration Kitchens is a great jumping off point. We learn the basics… They’ve suggested I go to the French Pastry Institute. They think I would do well there. Then, I want to buy some property…maybe travel before I settle down and start my business.”

Chef Jay acknowledges that for students like Erica, who came into the program with their passion already well developed, Inspiration Kitchens isn’t so much lighting a fire as it is helping to keep the flame burning through all the hard work, “They have a passion for food… they’ve led themselves to the opportunity.”

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However, it’s the students who have come into the program without a clear idea of an end result that Chef Jay sees as the most exciting challenge, “Those are the ones who I want to thrive. I want them to be able to taste something they’ve never tasted for the first time…My challenge is to try to bring out the passion that maybe has lie dormant, or maybe they didn’t even know they had.”

Inspiration Kitchens is located at 3504 West Lake Street in Chicago, near the Garfield Park Green Line stop. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Brunch and Dinner on Saturday; and for Sunday Brunch. Reservations can be made through the website. Full service catering is available for corporate events, private parties, and weddings, with event space available on site.

I graduated!

So, after taking a week to just chill out and get caught up on some sleep, I thought it’d be good to get down some thoughts about this whole graduation thing.

This might be a little long and image heavy. I’ll try not to let it turn into a novel, though.

As one of our final assignments for my Capstone class, we had to do a personal reflection… Kind of a where did we start and where do we want to end up sort of thing. I talked about watching Julia Child, and about how I was obsessed with reading cookbooks, and cooking breakfast for my dad, and strawberry milk. The good news is, I didn’t cry. But, it really got me thinking about what comes next.  I’ll get to that in a minute, though.

As I’ve explained before, in order to graduate, students are required to develop a restaurant concept.  There are three classes we took to lead up to Capstone, where, ideally, we’d be wrapping up what we’ve already been working on all along. We took purchasing, menu management, and food & beverage operations classes to help us hone in on and refine each piece of the puzzle. In Capstone, we take all that work we’ve done and get it organized in a presentable format– something we could, theoretically, show investors or a bank (along with a lot of other stuff) to help get financing to actually open a restaurant.

There’s the fun stuff, like coming up with menu items, picking silverware and dishes, and designing the layout. Then, there’s the tedious, time consuming, real life stuff that actually takes up most of the project– the demographics…

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Labor costs and schedules…

Labor

Employee policies…

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And standardized, fully costed recipes…

menu costing

It’s a LOT of work… a lot of late nights and anxiety attacks and deadlines. I was incredibly fortunate to have the same instructor for menu management and F&B Ops, because she got to know my concept really well. The basics were nailed down and looking good by the end of the menu class, which made the rest of it much easier. Not easy, just easier. I ultimately ended up with a project that took up two full 9×12, 24 page binders. I ran out of pages and had to stick entire sections into one pocket.

I also pushed myself a little harder in the menu department, and created two different versions of lunch, dinner, dessert, and beverages– one for Spring/Summer and another for Fall/Winter, so I could create some seasonal dishes.

I’m not going to post all of them here, but I’ll give you a peek at some screenshots of the Fall/Winter stuff…

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And then, on top of that, we also put together a professional portfolio. It contains, among other things, pictures of our food, examples from our restaurant concept to show menu design and recipe development, and costed menu items to show that we know how to cost out recipes. It’s something we can take with us on job interviews. It’s kind of hard to pick just 10 or 15 pictures that show what we can do, and our progression through culinary school. I honestly didn’t even remember cooking some of this stuff until I started going through the hundreds of pictures I’ve taken over the past two years.

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Amidst all that… we also have to go to several different departments on campus to get each of them to sign off on a sheet that basically says we understand we have to pay back our loans, we can’t take any equipment with us when we go, we don’t have any overdue library books, and we’ve submitted a final version of our resume to Career Services so they can help us find a job if we need them to. After all that, our Capstone instructor signs off, and then it goes to the Culinary School director to sign off… and THEN, after all that… we get our chef’s coat for graduation.

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I won’t lie. That part is pretty cool. The coats we wear in class are likely, at this point, stained and haven’t actually been white for several quarters. They don’t have our names on them, just the school logo, and none of them really ever seem to fit right. The graduation coat is lots nicer, fits better, and it’s just so white and new and pretty! I was torn between leaving it in the plastic forever and ever, or wearing it everywhere all the time.

We’re also required to pass an exit practical. It’s our cooking final that measures not just our ability to cook, but manage our time, demonstrate basic knife skills, work clean and organized, and our plate presentation skills. We have four hours to break down a chicken, complete seven different knife cuts, and then make Coq au Vin, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, glazed carrots, chateau potatoes, chardonnay chicken, rice pilaf, salad, cream of mushroom soup, and chocolate mousse. It’s a crazy morning, everyone is stressed, very few people actually do as well as they wanted, and nothing ever goes like you plan it. But, when you pass, it feels like FINALLY, the hard part is over.

Of course, it’s not, because after we get all of that done, we present at Portfolio Review. All graduates in every department, from culinary to graphic design, are given a 6′ x 3′ table to display their concept project, portfolio, examples of their work, resumes and business cards. By the time we’ve gotten to the actual venue, we were all just kinda giddy and sleep deprived. Most of us had been up all night cooking and fine tuning our table layouts and measuring to make sure it would all fit.

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I think I rearranged this whole thing at least three times before I finally got it how I wanted it. We had to turn in a table design in Capstone, but the reality of it vs. the picture we have in our head isn’t always the same thing.

My incredible, generous, patient, long suffering boyfriend came and picked me up at school so I could get my food home. (The school gives us $50 to spend with the store room so we don’t have to foot the whole bill ourselves.) We also had to swing by a friend’s house to borrow a cake plate, hit three different stores to find the rest of my display pieces, and go to two grocery stores for the rest of the food supplies. Then, I got home, inventoried everything, and started cooking. I cooked until around 1230am, slept until 4am, and then got up and did all the baking. Adam woke up to a crazy eyed lady, but he took it all in stride.

We got about 3/4 of the way to the venue before I realized I’d forgotten the deviled eggs for my display. So, we loaded everything out, and he drove all the way back home to get my eggs while I set up the rest of the table. Bless him. Seriously.

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From 10am to 1pm, we stood behind our tables answering questions from judges, potential employers, other students family members, cleaning people from the venue, and pretty much anyone else who came by to see our display. It wasn’t all that bad, except for the achy feet, and there were lots of friendly, familiar faces to help keep us from getting too bored or nervous. At 1pm, we had a little awards ceremony for culinary. They awarded first and second place for baking and pastry and for culinary. I was totally stunned when they called my name for 2nd place. At that point, it’s not really for a grade or anything, but it’s awesome to see that the judges, all instructors I’ve worked with throughout school, thought I’d done a good job.

And then, just like that, it was over. I was done with culinary school. They only do a walking ceremony every other quarter, so I’ll actually walk at the end of December, but I am officially a culinary school graduate now.

What’s next? Well… I have a lot of ideas floating around, some more concrete than others.

First and foremost is this blog. I want to get back to a regular publishing schedule. I have time during the day now to cook and write, so there aren’t any excuses not to. I am hoping to be able to start incorporating some video content at some point next year, not just here, but on social media platforms, as well. I want to have set days to publish here, as well as little quickies that will post to facebook, twitter, or instagram throughout the week. If anyone has suggestions, leave them in the comments below.

I’m hoping I’ll get to start interning in January (maybe sooner) at a local sustainable farming operation. Then, I’d like to do a little traveling to work on other organic/sustainable farm operations around the country. I’m also trying to figure out how to get the ball rolling on a pop up restaurant for the concept I created. I don’t want to commit to a full blown restaurant, ever. But, I thought it would be a great experience to actually get to serve my menu at least once. All the proceeds would go to a food/hunger related charity.

I also have a little project to work on in my hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m hoping my hometown bestie Nikki and I will get to work on it together, provided I can get my butt down there enough to make it real. I don’t want to get into details now, but it’s food related, and hopefully an opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and bring something back to the town where I spent most of my childhood.

There are so many other things in my brain right now, but that could just be the post graduation excitement so I’m giving myself some time to really focus on what really speaks to me.

For those of you who have hung in there with me, thanks! For those of you who might be brand new to the blog, please stick around. There’s lots more to come!

 

I am not a morning person.

So, I’m taking Intro to Baking & Pastry this quarter. It is on Monday and Tuesday mornings from 7am to Noon. Yeah. 7 MOTHER EFFING AY-EM. It’s kind of sucked some of the fun out of Sunday afternoons with the boyfriend, because there’s this huge “You have to go home and finish the ridiculous amount of handwritten homework for Baking and Pastry tonight” cloud looming over the whole thing. It stinks. And also, the waking up early on Monday morning so I can catch the bus to school. That isn’t fun.

Fortunately, there’s only three weeks left in the class. Also fortunately, I have managed to function well enough to learn something. Mostly, that if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to make them a pretty, edible dessert or face my immediate demise, I could now do it and save myself from death by massive head wound. So, yeah, I’ve got that going for me.

There will be a recipe coming later this week, I hope, but just to prove to you that things have been learned, I thought I’d share some photos of the work I’ve been doing this quarter.

We spent most of the first four weeks working on breads… including one of my favorites– Challah. That braid is a lot tougher to learn than you might think, but once you figure it out, it sure is pretty, yeah? I had tried Challah once before on my own and it was ok, but this time I was really pleased with the results. I love using Challah for French toast and bread pudding, so I’m glad to have finally learned how to make it properly.

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After week four, we moved on to slightly more advanced stuff. This was about when I started to figure out that I like plating desserts a lot more than I like baking them.

We made pate a choux dough… which I’ve made before here on the blog so I felt a little more comfortable with this one. We’ve made it three or four times this quarter, and I feel a lot more confident. I’m not really sure when I’ll use it again, but it’s good to have in my repertoire.

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File this one under, “I can’t imagine why anyone would do this to themselves on a regular basis.” It’s puff pastry from scratch. Granted, once it’s made you can turn it into so many things, from cookies to tarts to napoleons, like this one. But getting there… hoo boy. It felt like the never ending recipe. Make the dough. Roll out the dough. Beat the butter into submission. Roll out the butter. Cover the butter with the dough. Roll it out, fold it, freeze it. Wait. Repeat at least five times. Someday, when I have an entire day to do nothing but make puff pastry, I’ll show you how. (Don’t hold your breath.)

PUFF PASTRY NAPOLEON

 

Cake week was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually frost a cake with any sort of intent. My fallback for cakes has usually been to just frost the whole thing with white icing and then stick candy or cereal or something all over it. That, or sheet cakes, which require very little skill at all in terms of decoration.

I don’t think any professional cake decorators anywhere should be quaking in their boots that I’m about to steal their livelihoods. But, it was sorta fun and turned out pretty ok for a first try, I think.

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And that brings us to last week, which was Plated Dessert Week. It’s the week we spend a full class period prepping elements we’ve learned how to make all quarter, so that on the second day of class we can plate them all up in interesting ways and invite in all the other classes to try out the goods.

One of mine was this chocolate torte, which I garnished with chocolate sauce, salted caramel sauce, and some pepita brittle I whipped up in a hurry because it needed some crunch. Flavor-wise, I think this one was the biggest hit. I think my plating got a little sloppy, though.

TORTE

 

We also made a batch of crème brûlée. The dessert itself is already in a pretty ramekin, and I can’t imagine jacking up that lovely crispy sugar topping by putting anything else on there, but we added some interesting touches to the base plate to up the glamour factor.

HINT: If you’re ever making crème brûlée at home, do your sugar topping in three layers to get a restaurant quality crust. Lay down your first layer of sugar, brûlée it, then let it harden. Repeat that two more times, and you’ll have that lovely caramelized, crunch sugar we all love about crème brûlée.

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Until next time… Bon Appétit!

Lessons from Culinary School

Happy Wednesday!

One of the things I really wanted to get back to this year is passing on some of the stuff I’m learning in school to you all. These past few weeks have given me some really cool firsts: First time making bread that actually worked and the first time I’ve ever made my own pasta. Exciting stuff, yo!

Lesson 1: Bread

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I’ve tried bread a few times in the past. It’s come out… ok. Edible. But definitely not something I’d be proud to bring to the dinner table. This time, though, I think I’m on the right track.

First thing I learned? Be patient and be prepared. Bread isn’t all that mysterious, but I’m impatient and in the past I think I’ve just been in a hurry to get to the final product. Basic bread dough is simple– flour, yeast, salt, and water. If you can remember 2 cups flour, 1 cup water, 1 tsp instant yeast, and 1 tsp salt, you can make dough that will make a baguette, a round loaf, or even rolls, if you want.

Make sure all your ingredients are at the right temperature. If you keep your flour in the freezer, bring it up to room temp before you start. Cold flour will keep the yeast from activating. If you’re one of those people who would rather bundle up in the winter than turn up the heater, make an exception. Warm up the kitchen a little before you start mixing the dough. The best temperature for activating yeast depends on the type you’re using.

75°F–95°F (24°C–35°C) Best temperature for yeast activity
85°F–100°F (29°C–38°C) Best water temperature for hydrating instant yeast
100°F–110°F (38°C–43°C) Best water temperature for hydrating active dry yeast

Also, dough needs to be kneaded. Probably a lot more than you think. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, that becomes a lot easier. If you’re doing it by hand, remember that the dough should be smooth and elastic, and the gluten strands need to be well developed to get there. If your dough reaches a point where it just keeps snapping back on you and refuses to stretch, put it down and let it relax for a bit. If it’s still sticking to your hands and the counter top after a few minutes, knead in a little more flour.

Lesson 2: Pasta

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I really lucked out this quarter for European Cuisine. I got an actual Italian chef instructor. He’s passing along his family recipes for things like bread, sauce, and (yay!) pasta. It’s such an easy formula I memorized it on the spot.

6 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1 half an egg shell of water (about a tablespoon)

I didn’t get a chance to make my own pasta way back last year when I was taking fundamentals, so I was stoked to get a shot at it this time. You guys… it’s so easy.

Put the flour in a bowl, make a well in the center, crack the eggs into the well, add the water, and start mixing with a fork from the inside out, slowly incorporating the flour into the eggs until it all comes together. Knead it a few times, until it smooths out, then cover it and let it rest for about 30 minutes. Roll it, cut it into whatever size noodle you want, cook it in well salted boiling water for about 5 minutes and there you go.

If you have a pasta roller, or an attachment for your stand mixer, of course that’s ideal, but I experimented a little with some of the extra dough and found that in a pinch, you can roll it out thinly enough with just a rolling pin. Just takes a little work, and you should not try to roll out the whole thing at once. Just do a little at a time. Also, once it’s cut, let it hang out over the edge of a bowl, or on a sheet pan with a little flour for about 10 minutes to let it dry and relax from all the rolling. It’ll give you a better texture in the final, cooked product.

I hope if any of you have ever let either of these things intimidate you, you’ll put on your big girl (or boy) britches and embrace the challenge. I think you’ll find it’s not so complicated after all, and it can be something you’ll take pride in knowing how to do for the rest of your life.