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Taking the Heat: An Inside Look at Culinary School

Most people have a romantic if not sentimental view of the culinary world —a myth fostered by bestselling fiction and Hollywood blockbusters. Many of us grow up in the kitchen around our mothers or grandmothers shelling peas and eventually cooking alongside them. Although this probably played its part, Rakhi Bhandari says her interest in good food and cooking came from ‘a childhood of starvation’ at a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas.
BY Rakhi Bhandari |   2011

Most people have a romantic if not sentimental view of the culinary world a myth fostered by bestselling fiction and Hollywood blockbusters alike. Many of us grew up in the kitchen around our mothers or grandmothers shelling peas and eventually cooking alongside them. Although this probably contributed, my interest in good food and cooking came from a childhood of starvation at an exclusive residential school at the foothills of the Himalayas. I promised myself that I would never eat bad food again and so began my romance with all things culinary.

The truth about Culinary School is that one must take this road only if one is passionate about the art of cooking. The pay is nothing to write home about unless you are catapulted to fame and fortune unexpectedly. Basically there is no quality of life because the work hours are consistently nights and weekends. It takes a lot of commitment and a thick skin to survive, but if you do it right it can be very gratifying and like an artist who finds pleasure in his painting, a chef finds joy in creating that perfect bowl of soup.

The truth about Culinary School is that one must take this road only if one is passionate about the art of cooking.

I left India fifteen years ago for France and went on to live in Hong Kong, Chicago and eventually Las Vegas, while traveling to countless other cities. Everything I tasted and learnt to cook along the way made me hanker after culinary school more than before but the timing was off and I really could not afford it. It was in 2005 that I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts, Las Vegas was a mere 20 minutes away from my doorstep.

A short essay and a few pages of inane paperwork later I was in. It also took a hefty chunk of my change $40,000 but to me it was a small price to pay for something I had wanted all my life. I would have to arrive at school at 7 am every morning for the next twelve months, do an externship at a restaurant for three months following that and I would be awarded an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts.

Four chef coats with the Cordon Blue logo and my name emblazoned in bright blue letters, hats, neckerchiefs and voluminous checkered pants arrived via mail. Heat proof clogs, knife kits, aprons, towels and text books were handed out at the orientation which proved to be a chaotic and very intimidating affair. Students ranged from fresh faced sixteen year olds, macho twenty-somethings all the way to crotchety 50+ old women and men who could stare down the most foul tempered chef instructor.

The course started with a basic Computer class focusing mostly on using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to your best advantage, Culinary Math (most feared), Wine Tasting (most fun), Food Safety and Sanitation, American Politics, Cost Control and Purchasing and Hospitality Supervision.

It was challenging but I walked away armed with a perfect Grade Point Average and a head full of dreams and ideas. It was an experience unlike any other in my lifetime.

Practical classes included Baking and Pastry and Advanced Baking and Pastry, Skills 1 and 2, (which taught the basic soups, stocks, knife skills etc.), Kitchen 1 and 2, American Cuisine, International Cuisine and Garde Manger (cold kitchen). The class that most students dreaded and anticipated was the Meat Fabrication kitchen run by a notorious disciplinarian (let’s call him Chef X). This was the infamous kitchen where whole animal carcasses were broken down into various cuts by the students and distributed for the school lunches.

On the first day of Meat Fab, Chef X eyed each one of us from head to toe and nitpicked about uniform discrepancies. He then proceeded to hand out whole salmons for us to filet and debone. He handed each of us a spoon and a paper cup. After he demonstrated the proper way to do it we were expected to do the same. The paper cup was for any scraps that were left on the bones; the spoon to eat the raw fish with in case we were thinking of making small talk or rushing through the exercise. Needless to say, we worked silently with extreme caution.

The students who happened to be in the kitchens were expected to cook for the rest of the student body as part of the curriculum. A very well oiled system which worked on a rotation basis, it proved to be efficient if not always “Gourmet”!

Practical exams were like a poor man’s Iron Chef, where a basket of random ingredients was placed before you and every ingredient had to be on the finished plate. In Baking and Pastry one had to whip out Mille Feuille or Chocolate Profiteroles consistently or carve out ice sculptures in Garde Manger.

There were times when I (the only student of Indian origin) stood out like a sore thumb. There were days when I had to leave my sick child and try to conquer a perfect Hollandaise Sauce. It was challenging but I walked away armed with a perfect Grade Point Average and a head full of dreams and ideas. It was an experience unlike any other in my lifetime.

Rakhi Bhandari received her Associate Degree in Culinary Arts from Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts, Las Vegas in 2006 and is currently catering to parties and events, teaching cooking classes, writing a cookbook and maintaining a food blog called “Spice girl on tour”. You can access her blog at  www.spicegirlontour.blogspot.com

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