Anatomy of a Culinary Student

One of the most surreal moments I’ve experienced at San Francisco Cooking School was on day one, with the donning of my chef whites. Even today, over three months into the eight-month program, it still feels like “wait, am I really wearing this?” Each class, I get a little thrill out of buttoning up that boxy coat…pulling on my baggy elastic-wasted pants…and shoving my feet into clunky chef clogs. It may not be the sexiest getup I’ve ever put on my body, but I still love it.
Now that I’m spending 14 hours a week on my feet in a large commercial kitchen, I have a whole new appreciation for comfort, function, and safety when it comes to kitchen attire. You may not realize it (I didn’t really, until starting culinary school), but a chef’s uniform isn’t just a fancy getup that looks really cool on a cookbook cover. Each part serves a  purpose and protects hardworking cooks in what is actually a pretty dangerous workplace with lots of hot, sharp, heavy objects moving about. So here’s a little breakdown of what this outfit’s all about…
For starters, we never show up to class in our uniform. We show up in street clothes, and change in the locker room before class starts. This is not only a sanitary practice, but also prepares us for how things work in the “real world” of restaurants. Think about it…if you’re tromping around on the streets in your chef attire and shoes, you’re bound to bring some of those icky street germs into the kitchen, and that’s the last place you want them. Restaurants will typically provide a place for their cooks to change on premises, even if it’s nothing fancy. (Oh, and PS…our locker room, like most restaurants, is coed. You have the option to change in the bathroom, but I just go for it and have sort of mastered the process of “no exposure” changing amongst the group…hah!).
The chef coat is probably my favorite part of the whole uniform. It’s just so pretty, isn’t it? (It also helps that my school has the cutest logo ever). Have you ever heard why the coat is double-breasted? Apparently that is so chefs can cook up a storm with it buttoned to one side, and then they when they leave the kitchen to speak with guests, they can re-button it on the clean side. (Thanks to Gail Simmons for that little tidbit). The long sleeves are there to help protect your arms from burns, which I’ve thankfully managed to avoid thus far!
Next comes my trusty little hat. I gotta admit, it’s not my favorite part of the uniform, but I totally get it’s purpose. After all, there is seriously nothing worse than a stray hair falling into food…or maybe worse, a bead of forehead sweat. For those of us with long hair, it’s a must to secure it in a bun or a braid…I go the braid route, mostly because it’s an excuse to show off my mad french braiding skills (hehe).
Hair and sweat…I know this is all kind of icky stuff to talk about, but doesn’t it make you happy to know chefs are taking these kinds of precautionary measures to help keep gross stuff out of your food?
Over the coat goes a gleaming white apron, which usually only stays that way for about a minute in the kitchen. Of all my uniform pieces, the apron definitely takes the biggest beating. And I’ll have you know that the apron never enters the bathroom with us. We have hooks outside of the bathroom, and that’s where we leave our aprons. Again, one more more way to avoid little germs making their way into the kitchen and potentially into the food. As we learned on the first day of class, our number one job is to not make people sick, and then it’s to make delicious food.
There are a few accessories that we alway, always, always keep on hand…and that would be a sharpie, a pen, and a tasting spoon. Most chefs carry these things, but some, if doing a lot of meat prep, might add a meat thermometer to the mix.
The sharpie is used to label, label, label. It’s pretty much a kitchen sin to put any single item in the refrigerator without labeling and dating it. Maybe I’ll remember that I put a huge tub of duck stock in the fridge, but how is the next shift to know that it’s not chicken stock or when it was made? It’s a way to manage inventory efficiently, and it’s another way to protect customers by knowing when to toss out old food.
The pen is used to take loads of scrupulous notes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in the kitchen, dang, I am not the greatest listener. I’ve had to really train myself to pay attention to the details, and I seriously write everything down. Put tarragon in the dressing? Dishes should be ready by 1:15? Nuts get toasted at 400 degrees? I write it all down.
The tasting spoon is one of the most important tools we use. Now, you may think we go around double dipping our spoons in everything we’re cooking, but that’s not the case at all. The way it works is whatever larger utensil is being used to make something (say, a wooden spoon for making soup), we use that larger utensil to put a little dollop onto the tasting spoons. And it’s perfectly game to taste other people’s dishes. We don’t all get the chance to make every recipe in each class so we’re encouraged to be nosy and scope out other student’s work.
All notes go into a little notebook that is always in my right back pocket. Whenever instructions are delivered, my hands immediately grab for pad and pen, and I start scribbling away. Again, this is pretty standard for chefs and something I know I’ll do regularly when working in my externship later this year (erm, more to come on that later).
Speaking of back pocket…how bout those pants? I must say, there’s some kind of bootylicious action going on here, and I’m just going to embrace it (although, I think we’re all aware that this print’s never done anyone any favors).
Wooo, gotta kick up those heels when you’re rocking the clogs! Seriously, the clogs? Godsend. I can honestly say I’ve had zero feet issues since starting school, and that’s completely due to these utilitarian boats on my feet. The loose fit does wonders to prevent blisters, and the toe tip is rock solid, which obviously protects your little toes from getting stabbed or smashed.
Also, you see that little dish towel tucked in my apron string. That lives there. Always. Because get this…in culinary school…there are no potholders! Towels become our potholders, and are also used for constantly cleaning and wiping up our work stations.
Ok, last thing here…ladies, are you ready for this? No nail polish allowed in the kitchen. Seems pretty obvious, right, since those pretty little lacquers are so apt to chip. Cooking is very hands-intensive, and no one wants little remnants of toxic paint particles left in their food.
As I’m sure you’re picking up here, it’s all about cleanliness and safety when it comes to working in a kitchen…although, I still sneak my lip gloss into class, and I’m already looking forward to that manicure I’ll be getting when school wraps later this year (vanity dies hard).
PS…huge thanks to my amazing photographer, who somehow didn’t laugh when I said “ok, now get me jumping in the air”.


  1. This is AWESOME!

  2. You are so cute! Love the jump at the end. 🙂

  3. sandy says:

    Love your anatomy of the school. So proud of you following your dream!

  4. You are darling! Thanks for sharing! I am glad that there are so many precautions about keeping me safe and my food sanitary! 🙂

  5. This is amazing! I had no idea there was so much behind the coat! Thanks!

  6. you are too cute! What an exciting opportunity for you.

  7. I love this! I wish I had my own…especially the hat 🙂 the jumping photo was the best, well worth it!

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  1. […] program, your tuition gets you eight months (14 hours per week) of classroom education, two uniforms, a tool kit (which includes a set of Wusthof knives), your student recipe binder, and a few […]

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