Welcome to Short Order, Tasting Table's column for the next generation of adventurous food lovers.
Last January, I completed the Culinary Arts program at the International Culinary Center in New York. It's a topic of fascination among my family and friends—and random curious people, too, who often ask me about the best advice I learned and the best thing I made. (Those would be: Cooking with gloves is like smelling flowers with a gas mask on and chocolate mousse.)
But a real behind-the-scenes peek at culinary school isn't all julienned vegetables and plucking pin bones out of fish fillets—it's a lot weirder than that. Here are five things that I'll remember long after I forget how to make puff pastry from scratch.
① RIP Scale
One day during a particularly intense class, I melted my scale. Like, completely obliterated. I had it resting off to the side on my flat-top stove, completely not knowing the stove was on (which was my first mistake). Then I noticed the unidentified white goop seeping over my workstation and realized I had a larger problem at hand. I had to awkwardly cover up the smell of burned plastic while I scrambled to wipe up the hot mess before too many people saw. Some jokester suggested I try to fix it by swapping out the batteries. I suggested he try eating dirt.
② Not-Quite Whole Hog
Pigs are my favorite animal. No joke, I have a collection of more than 72 pig toys and figurines on my mantel at home at last census. So when we were tasked with breaking down (in layman's terms, cutting apart) half a pig to make bacon, pâté, head cheese (warning: all head, no cheese) and more, I was prepared for a week of trauma. But when I was cheek to cheek with the little guy's disembodied head, I realized—all things considered—the porker looked happy. I told myself not to think too much about the Lord of the Flies-ness of the situation and did the natural thing: I took a selfie with it.
③ Playing with Fire
Further proving my general belief that culinary school is like elementary school but with knives, we had (pre-advertised) fire drills. Considering the amount of times my classmates collectively lit parchment paper on fire, not on purpose, this clearly was not a terrible idea. A group of thirtysomething wannabe chefs in full whites hopped up on coffee standing on a busy street corner in New York City must have been quite the sight. The fire marshall was giving some kind of instruction on what to do in a grease fire. I think. I wasn't giving him my full attention. We'd all gathered together to take an obscene amount of photos to document the scene—dean of the school included.
④ Game, Set, Meatball
Along with a couple classmates, I volunteered after class one day to roll meatballs for the 2014 U.S. Open in Queens, New York. Popular meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda had created a special blend to make an event-exclusive meatball sub, and we were tasked with rolling the pre-portioned beefy slabs into (appropriately) tennis ball-size mounds. For five hours. (The four boxes that I'm modeling so well were just a fraction of what we had.) Forbes called the sandwich a "textural masterpiece." You're welcome, tennis fans.
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⑤ Joe? Is That You?
I walked up to the supply room one morning to get an ingredient for class and was greeted by a giant smiling Dunkin' Donuts Styrofoam coffee cup. Cool, I thought, It's like those life-size Bieber cutouts you can buy at the mall! and carried on. Then it started moving. I thought it was the August heat getting to me, but, no—this was someone dressed up mascot-style in Dunkin' regalia without anyone else around. There was no explanation. There has still been no explanation. He might still be there.
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