My Experience at SF Cooking School

For most of this year, I have been on an amazing journey…and, while it’s not quite over yet, the end is drawing very near. And that makes me pretty darn excited, but pretty darn sad at the same time. That journey is called culinary school, and it all started when a crazy idea popped into my head about a year ago.
 
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A girl and her dream.

 
On an otherwise normal weekday, I found myself perusing the recreational class schedule on the SF Cooking School website. I’d visited their site a number of times in the past and, admittedly, daydreamed about entering their professional program. But, given my full-time work schedule, I always filed that fantasy away under “maybe someday”. But this time, an update to their website caught my eye with the announcement of their first ever part-time culinary program. And, thus, a seed was firmly planted…I could finally pursue my dream of culinary school, while still holding down my day job.
 
That was August of last year, and by this January, I had entered a whole new world of professional culinary training…a world that, in so many ways, was exactly what I’d hoped for, but also full of surprises.  I thought I’d share a little bit about my experience to answer many of the questions friends and family have asked along the way and also to help those that may be considering a similar journey of their own.  (Warning: it’s a long one…)
 
 
The Application Process
At SF Cooking School, there is an application process to be accepted into the program, and one of the key qualifiers is having genuine interest in pursuing career interests in the culinary realm. That’s not to say, you must pursue the “traditional” chef path working in a restaurant kitchen; it can also include peripheral interests such as recipe testing, cookbook development, food styling, or my personal favorite (of course) food blogging! The bottom line is, it’s not the place for bored housewives to just hone their dinner party-hosting skills.
 
After requesting an application through their website, not only did I receive the application via email, but also a personal call from the founder of the school herself, Jodi Liano.  We had a great chat about the application process, the format of the program, expectations of students, and what many alumni had gone on to do. Feeling very excited, I quickly turned in my application (which included two letters of reference and a short essay), and was thrilled when I was invited to the next stage of the process: the interview. That sounds like something that could be very intimidating, but in actuality was a lovely chat with Jodi and the Director of Admissions, Caroline, who are both genuinely interested in ensuring the school is a mutual fit for potential students. Shortly after the interview (a day or two), I was notified of my acceptance via an anxiously awaited call from Jodi.
 
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With my classmates and our instructor, Chef Kirsten, on the first day of class.

 
The Cost
If you’re someone who has ever looked into attending culinary school, then it won’t be news to you that it’s an expensive endeavor. In fact, cost is pretty much what kept me from pursuing other culinary programs when I first looked into them about 10 years ago.  Thankfully, while by no means would I call it inexpensive, SF Cooking School has a much better price tag than some of the larger, “traditional” culinary schools I had looked into before (as much as 50% less). Plus, the part-time program allows the ability to maintain a day job (ie. keep the cash flow coming in) while attending school.  After all, as became my mantra this year “culinary school isn’t going to pay for itself.”
 
For the part-time 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 reference books, including this tome, which is as close as we got to a textbook. The only required additional out-of-pocket expense is the purchase of black kitchen-appropriate shoes of your choice (I sprung for these puppies and have been very pleased). For additional information and specifics on tuition, I would recommend reaching out SF Cooking School directly for the current rates.
 
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A scene from the well-stocked classroom kitchen.

 
The Classroom Format
One of the first things that drew me to SF Cooking School was the small class size. My part-time class had just a dozen students, which meant plenty of personal attention in the classroom. Our 14 hours of class time per week were broken up as Tuesday/Thursday nights from 6:30pm to 10:30pm and Saturdays from 9:00am to 3:00pm over an eight-month period (full time students do about double the weekly hours in just four months). In addition to the regular coursework, students must also complete 30 “elective” hours, which may consist of culinary volunteer work outside of the classroom or assisting/attending some of the recreational classes publicly offered at the school. For example, I did things like assist a Macaron Baking class, volunteer at a La Cocina gala, and take a Candy & Confections Making class to contribute toward my hours.
 
chocolate
Perhaps my most serious moment in class ever, tending to chocolate.

 
A typical day in class looks like this…arrive about 15-20 minutes before class starts to change into your uniform and set up your station, which involves laying out your cutting board and whatever tools you’ll be using that day (typically a chef’s knife, paring knife, and a peeler). You also collect any new recipes that “Chef” (our instructor) has laid out, and then class starts promptly on time. The first 20-30 minutes or so are typically quasi-lecture format where recipes are reviewed and any new techniques are explained or demoed. Depending on difficulty level, lecture/demo lengths will vary. (For example, the chicken de-boning demo is a heck of a lot longer than the whipping egg whites demo). Then we break into teams (usually teams of two, sometimes four) and spend the next few hours cranking out recipes, pausing for any necessary help or ad hoc demos from Chef along the way. Once all the cooking is done, the table is set, and we sit down to feast together. Tasting of the food is an important (and required) aspect of the cooking process, and meal time is a chance to disucuss how certain ingredients or cooking methods effect the finished product. After the meal comes clean-up, where all surfaces are sanitized and the kitchen is left sparkling for the next day’s class. Then it’s back into street clothes and time to head home. (Important to note, with the exception of meal time, every minute spent in class is done on your feet, which prepares you for life in a real kitchen. It’s tough at first, but you definitely adjust to it quickly).
 
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Table is set, and dinner is served.

 
There are three exams over the course of the term, which are broken up into written and practical sections.  While there isn’t necessarily a formal grading process for the class, the results of these tests are a good way for both you and Chef to guage your progress, identify areas of weakness, and just generally make sure you’re not totally clueless and/or a hazard in the kitchen. My classmates and I always got unnecessarily stressed over exams, but each scored just fine (if not, excellent) on all of them.
 
 
Guest Speakers
One of my my favorite aspects of the curriculum and what makes SF Cooking School such a unique place is the roster of guest instructors, industry panels, and field trips that are sprinkled throughout the course. Aside from learning the practical applications of cooking alone, we were exposed to industry professionals on a regular basis, who could tell us directly what they expect of new cooks, the decisions they made to build successful careers, and what kinds of opportunities await beyond culinary school, both in and out of the kitchen. One day we might be making pizzas with the Delfina team or hearing from a panel of local food writers, while next we may be getting a behind the scenes look at Greenleaf, touring the Williams Sonoma test kitchen, or foraging with a James Beard Award winner.
 
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A favorite day, dumpling workshop with guest instructor, Andrea Nguyen.

 
The speakers each possessed diverse experiences, yet all shared a common thread of relentless passion for what they do and, beyond that, a desire to share that passion to inspire the next crop of culinarians. Not a single person left without sharing their personal email address with us and encouraging us to reach out in the future (and we’re talking about seriously busy people running some of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco). One thing is for certain, when you leave SF Cooking School, you do so with a well established network of contacts throughout the Bay Area that includes the school administrators, your classmates, and all of the guest speakers…and, in my opinion, those interactions and relationships are a great deal of what your tuition pays for.
 
 
Restaurant Week
Near the end of the eight-month “classroom portion” of school, preparations begin for an exciting two nights of farewell dinners hosted for friends and family. Aptly titled “Restuarant Week”, the school is converted into a faux restuarant where new skills are put into action. Although the dinners occur over just two nights, preparation takes about two weeks leading up to the event as menu ideas are tossed around, tested, and finalized. The final offering is a three course meal with four options guests may choose from per starter, entree, and dessert course. The class is split up into two groups, with each group manning front of house one night and back of house the other.
 
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Line-up of plates ready for tasting before Restaurant Week service begins.

 
Restaurant Week is such an exciting time to see all of your hard work and ideas cranking out of the kitchen in the form of actual food being eaten by actual guests. But it’s bittersweet as well, knowing you’ll soon be seeing far less of all the amazing classmates you’ve grown close to.
 
 
The Externship
One of the biggest details not to be overlooked in pursuing a culinary education, is the completion of an externship. From what I’ve heard, externships are required by most culinary schools, and SF Cooking School is no exception.  With our classroom education finished, we must complete 240 hours of unpaid work in a real-life professional kitchen, and that’s where I am now – about halfway through my hours, working at Prospect, a fine dining restaurant in downtown San Francisco. And let me tell you…it is no joke. While kitchen life can definitely be exciting, interesting, and fun, it is also very hard work, long hours, and fast paced. Oh, and you’re on your feet the whole time. (Not to mention, most of us part-time students are carrying on full-time day jobs in addition to externing 20 or more hours per week…and did I mentioned I’m 28 weeks pregnant? Ya, minor detail…)
 
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I can’t blame this belly on overindulgence alone.

 
For students that plan to continue down the restaurant path, these externships often turn into paid positions, once the gratuitous extern hours are complete. Personally, I’ve known from day one that the culinary school end game for me was never to work full-time in restaurants as my interests lie on the food media side. However, I’m so appreciative for the opportunity to round out my education with this professional kitchen experience. It’s been very eye opening for me to step away from my computer and away from the comfort zone of the classroom. There’s simply no substitute for the learn by doing approach, and, working the line during a busy dinner service, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
 
Externing deserves a whole post of its own, and I plan to share much more when I’m all finished. I would just stress now, when considering a culinary education, don’t underestimate the importance of the externship and your school’s ability to help you get placed at a respectable establishment. At SF Cooking School, they partner with some really amazing restaurants throughout San Francisco (and some of the nearby suburbs), and I would have been thrilled to work at any of them. In terms of choice, you don’t have final say on the exact restaurant you are placed at, but you are able to provide input as to cuisine and geographical preference, and they do their best to meet your requests. My classmates and I were all really happy with our placements, which included the likes of Frances, A16, Commonwealth, Locanda, Spruce, and many more.
 
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Final farewell…newly trained cooks ready to ship off to externships.

 
The Case for Culinary School
There is ongoing debate across the industry as to whether culinary school is “necessary”, and it really depends on each individual. The reality is, sure, there are some kitchens out there that are willing to hire inexperienced cooks, particularly as most jobs start with a trial period or “stage”, which allows both the restaurant and cook to test each other out to determine if it’s a fit. If you work hard, pay attention, and show progress, chances are that restaurants will keep you on. Over time, you could certainly gain much of the knowledge that is picked up through culinary school and grow into a successful and experienced cook. (This approach works particularly well, if you have youth on your side).
 
However, given the choice, I personally think there is a huge advantage to “learning the ropes” in a condensed format via culinary school prior to setting foot in a professional kitchen, partularly if you’re getting a late start in the game (like me and most of my classmates). Externing in a professional kitchen today truly makes me appreciate the ability to have first cut my teeth learning in the calm, controlled, and relatively stress-free environment of the classroom, with the ability to ask lots of “dumb” questions (and trust me, I had like a million of them). While by no means did I learn nearly everything I need to know in school, I did learn a ton about kitchen equipment, ettiquette, terminololgy, technique, culture, safety, organization, cleanliness, food quality, ingredients, prep…and all of this made me a thousand times more comfortable the day I first walked into a professional kitchen than I otherwise would have been.
 
Additionally, since my end goal wasn’t simply to secure a cooking job in a restaurant, I really went into this hungry for the technical cooking foundation. My whole motivation was to become a more knowledgeable, credible cooking authority for the benefit of my blog and whatever opportunities may arise from my blog, and I do feel that I’m on the path to accomplishing that. So in my case, yes, I give a resounding thumbs up to culinary schoool! (And, actually, most of the cooks I’ve met in the professional kitchen so far have all been to culinary school as well).
 
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Excited to see what the future holds for this amazing group of people.

 
So Now What?
My main focus now is full steam ahead to crank through my remaining externship hours. I jokingly call it “the race against the belly” to finish up before my pregnant belly inhibits me from navigating safely and comfortably in the kitchen. So far, I’ve been handling it pretty well, but also allowing myself ample down time to recouperate between shifts. If all goes according to plan, I should be finished around the end of October, when I’ll be about 33 weeks along.
 
After that, we’re on to the home stretch, with the baby due mid December. I’m planning to take it as easy as possible in my final weeks of pregnancy, and I’m sure I’ll be buried in new motherhood fog over the holidays and early next year. After that, I’m hoping/planning/preparing to get back on track with regular posting and figuring out the long term plan for Serving Seconds or other food media avenues I may want to explore.
 
I’m also really looking forward to the final culinary school wrap up when I reunite with all of my classmates at our graduation ceremony in January…crazy to think I will be a mother by that time, and my little one will be attending with me!
 
Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind of a year full of interesting experiences, tons of new lessons learned, and, like so many new challenges in life, plenty of hard work. I’m grateful for the chance to have embarked on this journey and so excited for what’s yet to come…
 
If any readers out there have questions about SF Cooking School or culinary school in general, please feel free to reach out. I’m happy to share any additional info that you may find helpful. Good luck and happy cooking to all!!.
 
PS…thanks to Nancy, Bettyann, and SF Cooking School for a few of the borrowed pics.
 
 
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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…
 
chef-coat
 
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!
 
hat
 
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?
 
chef-getup
 
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.
 
tasting-spoon
 
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.
 
notepad
 
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).
 
jumping
 
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”.
 
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SF Cooking School // One Week In

You know that feeling when you wish and hope for something for so long, and then it happens, but you can’t really believe it’s happening? That’s pretty much my life right now. I’m one week into culinary school at SF Cooking School, and I’m still pinching myself.
 
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Even after donning that cap and chef’s coat (chef’s coat!!!)…
 
uniform
 
And putting on those sexy pants and shoes (gotta sneak in the pink socks)…
 
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It still feels like I’m playing dress up, but it’s definitely for real…this is where you will find me for the next 32 weeks. Well, part-time anyway. The rest of my time will be spent juggling the craziness of life, working full-time, and attempting to maintain my sanity as I pursue this dream. I am anticipating a year of (semi) organized chaos…so bear with me if I disappear on you every now and then.
 
Melissa
 
So, week one…where do I even begin? Well, for starters, this school is impressive. It’s brand new, spacious, and packed so full of kitchen tools, it nearly brings a tear to my eye. (Food & Wine Magazine even named it one of the top 10 places to take a cooking class in the world).
 
Oh, but notice how there are no chairs in our workspace? That’s because we stand the whole time! That’s 4 hours of standing during the weeknight classes and 6 hours on Saturdays. For this office gal, it’s a bit of an adjustment, but it’s all part of getting us acclimated to life in the kitchen. And I’m told it will get easier.
 
classroom
 
During week one, we covered a lot of the basics…kitchen tour, sanitation  and cleanliness, kitchen rules, knife drills, omelette making, some basic soups, and something I’ve been really looking forward to, making stock. Even though it’s “basic” stuff, I’ve still had so many aha moments. Our instructor, Chef Kirsten, is a wealth of knowledge, and I am soooo thankful she is direct and informative, but still has a great sense of humor.
 
knife-drills
 
Each class, we’re split up into teams (*cough* Top Chef *cough*) to complete our assigned recipes. We’ll rotate throughout the term, but my current teammates are the lovely Nancy (left) and Bettyann (right)…we’re otherwise known as the dynamanic trio behind Team #3 (woot, woot).
 
team-three
 
We were responsible for this beauty last week…I present to you…Potage Parmentier (that’s a fancy French way of saying potato leek soup). We made our version with russet potatoes, while another team used yukon gold. I have to say, although our soup was very delicious (and it pains me to say this), I did prefer the yukon. So if there is any nugget of wisdom I could pass along to you after week one…yukon gold in potato soup, folks. Try it.
 
potato-soup
 
My classmates have all been really nice so far, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know everyone better. We all have such different paths that led us here, but share a common thread of loving to make people happy through food.
 
I’m also looking forward to the impressive roster of guest speakers that will join us throughout the term…Craig Stoll, Daniel Patterson, Ryan Farr (he brings half a pig with him!), and so many more.
 
Needless to say, it was a whirlwind of a week, and there is so much more to come!
 
 
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Happy 2014…and Some News!

Well, hello there!  And Happy New Year! Jeez, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted. I didn’t mean to take such a long break. It just kind of started happening, and then I just sort of let it keep happening. But now I’m back!
 
I trust you’ve all been off enjoying the holiday as well? I really went for it this year…I took a ton of time off of work, read lots of books, saw a few movies, cooked up a storm, spent time with friends, spent a couple days entirely in my PJ’s, and just soaked up the calm before the 2014 storm hits. It hasn’t hit quite yet, but I can feel it coming on fast…and it’s going to be a huge year for me…because I have some news…
 
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I’m so excited to be fulfilling a long-time dream of mine this year…I’m going to culinary school!!! I’m still letting it all sink it, but I couldn’t be more excited (and a little nervous) to start my first day at the San Francisco Cooking School tomorrow evening! It’s a part-time program with classes a couple nights a week and Saturdays so I’ll be able to keep at it with the ‘ol day job. Of course, I won’t have much of a social life, but I know it will all be worth it in the end.
 
Culinary school is something that’s been in the back of my mind for over 10 years now, and I’m so glad I discovered this part-time program that makes it a real possibility in my life. In terms of goals, I’m not looking to become a restaurant chef, but I am looking to become a more skilled cook, with a strong ability to understand flavors, develop recipes, and work efficiently. I want to know the hows and whys. The real technical stuff. I want to geek out big time. And meet lots of fellow food geeks. And then I want to bring it all back here and see what I can really do with this blog. I can’t wait.
 
I’ll be sharing some of my experience with you over the coming months…so stay tuned!
 
PS…SF Cooking School offers recreational classes as well, which are awesome and open to the public.
 
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