My Time As a Culinary School Instructor

Headshot3It wasn’t that long ago that I was a guest instructor at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. It was right when Le Cordon Bleu partnered with culinary schools to bring their certification to schools outside of Paris and it meant I got the surprise honor of being the first vegan instructor to teach in the Le Cordon Bleu program anywhere in the world. Pretty cool, especially because I am not a classically trained chef. During my time there, I learned a few interesting things, some of which were about culinary school in general and some specifically about vegan food in a culinary school.

1. Patrons Just Want Good Food. My main focus when I was at SCI was teaching students that were in the last stages of school and about to graduate. That meant we were making dishes to serve in their live student-run restaurants. The students run the kitchen under the direction of an instructor and another set runs the front of the house (that’s the waitstaff, host, etc.). Then they switch and the back of the house becomes the front and vice versa. It’s a great way to get practical experience. Since I was the guest instructor, that meant that they had to learn how to make a select few of my dishes, present them in an artistic way, and serve them. Many of the students were trepidatious about serving vegan food, but it turns out the diners didn’t care. They just wanted something that tasted good. The set of meals I was proudest of consisted of Smoked Oyster Mushroom and Shallot Enchiladas, Smoked Paprika Rice with Black Sesame Seeds, and Ancho Cannoli with Cactus Fruit. The enchiladas were lightly sauced with a guajillo chile sauce and topped with crispy sage and pine nuts. Those dishes not only outsold everything else in the restaurant, it was their best selling set of dishes ever. The diners didn’t care that the food was vegan, they only cared that it tasted good. It was an eye-opening experience for the students and for the other instructors.

2. Yes, Chef. Those two words, which seemed innocuous, creeped me out because of the manner in which they were delivered. You may not be aware, but professional kitchens are very formal and run in a pseudo military fashion. It’s conducive to getting plates out the door quickly and staying organized. In a culinary school environment, this is even more extreme. There were many times when I would be walking down a hallway and a student, carrying a large, heavy tray of very hot food would back up all the way down the hallway so I could pass, empty handed and unburdened. They would look down demurely, say “pardon me, chef,” and then go about their way. The first time it happened, it made me very uneasy. The tenth time it happened, it still made me uneasy. “Yes, chef,” was the response to everything else and said in military fashion. It made me even more uneasy.

3. Pour the Oil and Count to 20. You read that right. I remember asking a student to crisp some oyster mushrooms for me and then I turned to help another student. When I looked back, she was still pouring olive oil into the pan. Aghast, I asked her what she was doing! It turned out she was told, as part of her training by another instructor, to tip the bottle over and count to twenty. First, you don’t need that much oil to crisp a pan of oyster mushrooms. Second, my arteries clogged up right away. I had her do it over my way, which was healthier and achieved a better result.

4. Culinary School Is Good for Learning the Business, Not for Cooking. I get asked often if someone should go to culinary school. My answer is, if they want to start a food business, then yes. If they just want to learn how to cook, then no. Culinary schools teach essential classes for running a successful business, from how to source food, how to price dishes, regulations, taxes, how to run an efficient kitchen, how to plate, etc. A good restaurant or catering business needs these just as much as they need great food. However, I got more exposure to different styles of food doing my own research than the students got at school. There is a reason that I have an extensive knowledge of cuisines from around the world and can incorporate those into my dishes, but most culinary schools churn out students that know classic French and Italian with a smattering of other dishes and maybe a concentration in one other cuisine.

5. The Secret Vegan. Vegan is pretty accepted now in the food industry, but it was only a couple years ago when it was still a dirty word. Ironically, I would have students come up to me individually or in pairs, look around to make sure no one was looking, and quietly ask me if they could learn more about vegan cuisine. The funny thing was, about a third of the class did this, not knowing that their fellow students were asking me the exact same thing. The biggest irony? A couple of the instructors did that, as well.

Next week, I write about plant-based versus vegan.