“I Went to Culinary School”

I’m a graduate of L’academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD. I completed the culinary career training program in 2003.

I find myself mentioning that I am a graduate of culinary school often in the course of my work, and thought I’d take a moment here to clarify what I’m talking about.

The most obvious thing I’m talking about is that I’ve had some professional culinary training. I was a passionate amateur cook for years and years before enrolling in culinary school, all the way back to when I was a kid baking chocolate-chip cookies with my mother. I thought I knew a lot about food before enrolling, but once I started my formal education I experienced several paradigm shifts about all aspects of food, cooking, and dining. I was a well-read home cook but couldn’t fully grasp what happens in a professional kitchen until I attended L’academie.

It’s amazing how a little learning can prove that there’s much you don’t know. To that end, I don’t tell people that I went to culinary school because I am flaunting my credentials. On the contrary, I learned the foundations of culinary arts while enrolled there. I have a sense of the vast, empty chasms in my culinary knowledge only because I started learning some fundamentals in my formal education. Even now, I am more interested in fundamentals–what are ingredients, how do you handle them properly, how can you improve them through your knowledge of your properties–than in chasing the newest trend.

I do sometimes say “I went to culinary school” as a sort of shorthand for “I have a passing familiarity with the basics.” You don’t have to explain how to make a demi-glace, what exactly is a brunoise, or the principles of laminated doughs. I know what those things are and am capable of replicating them (at most, needing only a quick check of the basic formula and technique). I also mention my certificate because it backs me up when I am teaching people how to cook, writing about food and cooking, or explaining why I’m a good candidate when you’re seeking a caterer. Many, many people who teach, write and cater have no formal culinary education, and many, many of those people do a bang-up job at their work. I believe that my education helps to explain to people why I’m here doing what I do, and reassures them that I’m not likely to mess it up when it’s time to perform. After all, my education gave me the skills necessary to providing these services.

I find myself revealing this credential to industry professionals when I am reporting on their work, but it’s a tricky revelation because so many people come out of culinary school thinking they know everything there is to know about food and cooking. I’m not saying I went to culinary school because I think this compares to decades of real-life experience behind the line, or because L’academie gives me access to secret places and information unobtainable elsewhere.

Graduation from culinary school is only one aspect of my professional credentials, but at this point in my career it’s the single most important among them. Nothing else I can say about myself explains my grasp of culinary knowledge in so few words. Besides, I’m proud to be a graduate of L’academie de Cuisine. I loved studying there, loved the chefs who taught me, loved my classmates. Why wouldn’t I want to associate myself with those people?

By the way, if you want to read more about what it was like to be a student at L’academie, I kept an online diary over at eGullet while I studied. You can’t post questions there anymore, but if you ask here I’ll do my best to respond.


About this entry