Sunday, September 20, 2009

'You've got to earn your way into our kitchens'

We're about to find out how little I know about cooking.

Nine months of what promise to be grueling classes at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu, begin in eight days. The opportunities and the challenges were laid before me and 100-plus other new students on Saturday at the Academy by the chefs in charge.

"The first six weeks will be the hardest," Chef Michael Weller said in an impromptu hallway conversation with a group of us during orientation. "You've got to earn your way into our kitchens."

In other words, no access to the CCA's gleaming kitchens until we learn a few basics. First and foremost is passing the safety and sanitation class, followed by the first-level culinary class.

Chef Weller, who is senior executive chef at CCA and oversees the culinary arts program, laid out some of the basics.

In safety and sanitary, we will learn how to cook and keep clean in the kitchen, the right (meaning safe) temperatures for cooking and serving meats and a host of other critical pieces of information.

In Foundations I, the first culinary arts class, we will learn kitchen terminology and definitions, including fundamentals of the seven classic French cooking techniques, the names and purposes of kitchen utensils and equipment and the descriptions of and uses for sauces, stocks and soups.

We will also learn, Chef Weller assured us in a booming voice, that the culinary industry needs us because it needs new blood.

"This school is not just about chopping things up," he said. "It's about learning leadership to keep changing our business."

With all due respect, Chef, I beg to differ, ever so slightly: It is about chopping things up, most of all the preconceived notions I'm carrying about how to cook and do it well.

It will be fun and challenging to find out just how much I have to learn. In more than five decades of hanging around kitchens, I think I have learned a good bit. The next nine months are likely to shed more light on that knowledge but to add a body of knowledge that will inflame my passion for cooking ever more so.

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