You know that feeling you get when you try on an outfit and it feels like it was custom tailored just for your body? Like, “No one else would ever look this good in this outfit?” type feeling? Well, when I received my chef’s uniform for my culinary arts program at The International Culinary Center (ICC), I looked at the black-and-white checkered pants and chef’s coat and thought to myself, “I’m going to look like the real deal.” But then I tried it on.
The look on my boyfriend’s face when I gave him a fashion show of my new attire snapped me back to reality. I think his exact words were “You look like a 12 year old.” A quick check in the mirror confirmed it. I’m swimming in my uniform. My pants are rolled on both ends, my jacket could swallow me, and I’m just glad my hat doesn’t slip over my eyes (thanks to my bun holding it in place). It’s as if I was back in elementary school art class when we had to wear a makeshift smock out of dad’s old business shirt. Except this time I’m supposed to look smart and well groomed.
My bulbous outfit has me worried today—my first day of school—because Chef Candy Argondizza, vice president of culinary made a point at orientation to look sharp. Picking up my apron like an evening gown every time I take a step isn’t a move in the right direction. But when class commences, I realize I’m not the only miniscule student (just one who wasn’t smart enough to get her uniform tailored).
We all head to class together to meet our professor, Chef Dominique Payraudeau, who is classic French. He wears a tall toque (chef’s hat) that allows some of his shaggy hair to peak through the edges. And when he opens his mouth, everyone perks up to make sure they catch every sentence because his words are laced with a thick French accent. It makes the atmosphere more authentic to be standing in front of a chef who hails from Paris and demands 110 percent of your attention.
Our first day revolves around getting familiar with a professional kitchen and learning the lingo. Chef asks a question? Students must respond in a “Yes, Chef” or “No, Chef” format so he knows you’re listening. He holds up a series of pots asking us if we know what they are called. “No, Chef,” is the general consensus. (Do you know what a sauteuse or a sautoir is? Neither did I on my first day.) Almost all of our vocabulary is in French, and for our Texan students, I can hear them repeat each word Chef says under their breath trying to nail the pronunciation.
When we get back to our workstations (we all work with a partner), we learn that we’ll be learning taillage, or how to cut things. Today we’ll be cutting carrots, turnips, and onions. Our first assignment is to trim off the edges of each vegetable and peel them. Once Chef adds a time restraint (5 minutes), people start to panic. You’d think he asked us to prepare beef bourguignon or something. Peelers are trembling as if we’ve never peeled a carrot before in our lives. (Chef must find us all very amusing.) That was the easy part.
Chef then demonstrates specific types of cuts. Julienne, Jardinere, Paysanne—all French vegetable cuts that prove the French can be anal. We spend all day practicing the difference between a half-centimeter width and a one-millimeter width cut. By the end of the day the fleshy pad on my pointer finger is screaming from my knife. I feel like I’ve been officially baptized into culinary school now that I have a knife blister and still have all ten fingers.
TIP OF THE DAY: The way you hold a knife is personal preference, says Chef Dominique, but you want to make sure you have a firm grip. Don’t just hold the handle of a knife. Hold it where the handle meets the blade, and I keep my pointer finger and thumb on either side of the knife for more stability.