Whenever I tell someone I went to culinary school, the typical response is, “Cooking all day sounds like fun!” The truth is, yes it can be fun—but it can also be absolute hell. Unfortunately for me, the first few months of culinary school were the latter.
On the first day of class, we made French Onion Soup. While cutting onions, I sliced my finger. To stop the bleeding, my chef instructor (we called him “Chef”) made me wear an electric blue latex finger cot. In culinary school, this was the equivalent of the dunce cap.
At the end of class, Chef tasted my finished soup. Immediately, the color drained from his face. He asked me to try the soup while the entire class watched. Mortified, I realized that I’d forgotten to add salt—practically a capital offense in any professional kitchen.
As a recent college graduate, I couldn’t have felt more out of place. I was a writing major eager to break into food writing, so I’d enrolled in culinary school to learn how to cook first. Despite the rough start, by the time I graduated, I no longer lost sleep over how many times I’d screwed up clarified butter or the difference between a French, Swiss and Italian meringue. More importantly, I learned that mistakes are simply part of cooking.
If you’re thinking of enrolling in culinary school, know that it will challenge you—but it will also teach you countless lessons. I no longer cook professionally, but I use the skills I learned to make myself a better cook at home today. Below, find 10 valuable lessons I learned in culinary school—take them to heart, then use them to boost your own home cooking game.
1. Mise en place.
This is French for “everything in its place.” It’s the first lesson I learned in culinary school, and it’s one of the most important ones. Here’s how mise en place works: choose a dish to prepare, then consider all of the ingredients and equipment that you’ll need. Next, make sure you have everything you’ll need on hand before you start cooking. That way, you won’t be caught off guard in the middle of cooking your food and you can fly through any recipe quickly and efficiently.
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You can also practice mise en place when organizing your kitchen. Place ingredients and tools that you use often in areas where they’re easily accessed (i.e. don’t put your salt on the top shelf in your cabinet). I keep my salt and pepper on a small tray next to the stove, and I store my cooking oils and vinegars in the cabinet directly above it. I group my spices by use, keeping ones I grab most often in the front, and more obscure ones in the back.
2. A sharp knife is a safe knife.
You’ve probably heard this one a million times, but it’s important (and worth saying again). A dull knife takes more force to slice through food than a sharp knife, which means your hands are more likely to slip in the process. A sharp knife helps you speed through your prep work and make even-sized cuts, which helps protein and veggies cook more evenly. Ultimately, this means better looking—and better tasting—food. Want to learn how to keep your own knives sharp? Read this Knife Sharpening Guide to learn the basics.
3. You don’t need to spend a fortune on basic kitchen tools.
When buying basic kitchen tools—such as spoons, spatulas, whisks, tongs, strainers, sheet pans, and mixing bowls—consider functionality and durability before aesthetics. Yes, kitchen retailers like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table are fun to peruse, but your wallet often takes a beating in the process. Besides, do you really need to spend $40 on a single slotted spoon? Or $100 on a fancy-looking wine opener? I don’t think so. In fact, I know so.
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For workhouse kitchen tools, you’ll find the best deals at your local restaurant supply store. Professional chefs swear by these places for a treasure trove of reliable, budget-friendly equipment. These products may not be not the prettiest, but I guarantee they will be far more useful to you on a hectic weeknight when you just need to get dinner on the table.
4. Create a plan of attack before you start cooking.
Each day of culinary school, we prepared a daily menu consisting of an appetizer, entree, and dessert. We had a limited time to make these dishes (and it was never enough time), so in order to complete everything, we broke down every menu into a series of tasks organized by priority. For a home kitchen, the guiding principle is basically the same. When cooking a meal with multiple components, consider the most efficient way to get everything on the table at the same time. Start the foods that take longest to cook first, and knock out tasks you can do in advance, like making salad dressing.
5. Clean as you go—and not at the end.
A major chunk of our grade in culinary school was based on organization. As much as I tried to keep my workspace clean, doing so while cooking a three course meal under a time crunch was nearly impossible—and I’d often end class with a mountain of dirty prep bowls in front of me.
Ideally, cleaning as you cook makes it much easier to stay organized and work more efficiently. Wipe down countertops and cutting boards frequently (especially if you’re working with raw meat), keep the sink clear of dirty dishes, and use any spare moments (such as while you’re waiting for veggies to roast in the oven) to get a headstart on cleaning. This way, you can relax and enjoy your meal, instead of worrying about the tower of dishes you have to face later.
6. Learn how to break down a whole chicken.
If there’s one badass butchery skill you ever teach yourself, let it be this one. Not only will you impress your friends, but you’ll also save money on buying a whole chicken instead of its individual parts. A variety of different cuts in your fridge also opens up endless cooking options—pan saute the breasts, make a stew with the thighs, grill the wings, and save the carcass for a tasty homemade chicken stock. To practice, buy several whole birds, watch a video online, and don’t worry about making it pretty. Worst case scenario, you can skewer the meat for kabobs or toss it into a soup.
7. Embrace the bouquet garni.
We’d add this little bundle of flavor to everything from chicken stock to Boeuf Daube Provencal. A classic French cooking term, a bouquet garni is a cheesecloth that’s filled with herbs, spices, and sometimes chopped carrots, celery, and onion (known as a mirepoix). Add a bouquet garni to simmering stocks, sauces, and soups to impart aromatic flavors, then remove it when you’re ready to serve.
8. Hang onto those food scraps.
Here’s a lesson we learned very quickly—in a restaurant kitchen, wasted food means lost revenue. A smart chef will do anything possible to prevent this, even if it means finding a use for even the most obscure sounding ingredients. In class, when breaking down chicken, filleting fish, or deboning a leg of lamb, we’d always save the bones for stock. We’d also flavor sauces with scraps like mushroom stems and shrimp shells, and we’d also toss celery leaves and carrot tops into salads (trust me, it’s delicious).
If reducing waste saves money for restaurants, why shouldn’t it do the same for you? In your own kitchen, challenge yourself to find new uses for ingredients you’d normally toss in the trash. This practice reduces waste, saves you money, and it also forces you to be a more creative and resourceful cook. Looking for ways to use leftover vegetable tops and stalks? Get inspired with this guide to a waste-free kitchen.
9. If you stock only one ingredient in your fridge, make it this.
I have a large binder that contains every recipe I ever cooked in culinary school. It’s divided into chapters like hot appetizers, poultry, and tarts. The largest chapter, by far, is eggs. In here you’ll find at least 30 different egg recipes ranging from a classic French omelette to quiche to souffle.
As Chef told us, no ingredient is more versatile than the egg. For this reason, I aim to keep a carton of eggs in my fridge at all times. If you ever need a quick, but satisfying, dinner on the fly, an egg dish is the perfect way to unite random vegetables, cooked meats, cheeses, and fresh herbs. An egg also stands on its own, especially when paired with toast (try these delicious Shallow Poached Eggs if you need proof).
10. Taste everything!
During class, Chef would ask us to taste every dish he demoed throughout its various stages of cooking. That way, we would get a sense of how it should taste from start to finish, and we’d better understand how to season and adjust it properly when we tackled it ourselves. In your kitchen, get into the habit of tasting your food as you cook. That way, if your soup, stew, or sauce tastes too bland, too sweet, or too bitter, you’ll be able to save it before it reaches the dinner table.
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Lastly, don’t write off an ingredient simply because you think you won’t like it—or because you haven’t liked it in the past. Sometimes, all it takes is preparing said food in a new way or pairing it with a certain ingredient. For example, steaming Brussels sprouts makes them stinky—but roasting transforms them into a crispy, irresistible treat. Or, if you dislike the pungent bite of onions, try caramelizing them to coax out a softer, sweet flavor. Lastly, anchovies may be too slimy for some on their own, but you can perfectly capture their umami by adding them to pasta sauces or salad dressing.
So whether it’s at home or in a restaurant, keep an open mind when it comes to tasting food. You’ll expand your palate, you’ll grow as a cook, and you may even discover a new favorite dish.
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