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young_

How to become a cook?

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The title suggests that I'm a complete "noob" but that's not what I mean. Let me give some background. I'm 19 years old and I have been working at a barbecue restaurant for the last 3 years. I've always loved and enjoyed cooking but I've completely fallen in love with cooking. I've been cooking non stop both at work and at home. Cooking at work makes work enjoyable and work feels less like work. :) I've recently decided that I would like to go to culinary arts school. Before I do, I would like to learn as much as I can on my own, to be more prepared. My question is, what can I do myself? I read up on as much as I can in my free time. I just want to learn as many techniques and be as open to new ideas as I can. So what kind of foods should I try cooking? I plan on attending cooking classes at le cordon bleu as well.

Any and all help is appreciated!

.

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Get yourself a few good books on technique. Jacques Pepin's is one I'd recommend. I started to cook pretty seriously around your age, as well, and I'm just a couple years older than you. I've read many books, and watched many videos, but I would say that I've learned the most through trial and error. Failure is an essential part of the process. The key is to simply learn from your mistakes, and not repeat the same one more than once. Cook foods you like, but also cook things you would never think of. This will broaden your outlook, and possibly even help develop your palette. It is important to follow good recipes, and to challenge yourself with difficult ones, as this will teach you new techniques that you can incorporate into something of your own. Eat at the nicest restaurants you can afford. Learn how things should taste, and how to season properly. Personally, I think it's possible to learn more on one's own than in a school setting, but that may just be my preference. Your passion will be what drives you to evolve. Good luck.

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Get yourself a few good books on technique. Jacques Pepin's is one I'd recommend. I started to cook pretty seriously around your age, as well, and I'm just a couple years older than you. I've read many books, and watched many videos, but I would say that I've learned the most through trial and error. Failure is an essential part of the process. The key is to simply learn from your mistakes, and not repeat the same one more than once. Cook foods you like, but also cook things you would never think of. This will broaden your outlook, and possibly even help develop your palette. It is important to follow good recipes, and to challenge yourself with difficult ones, as this will teach you new techniques that you can incorporate into something of your own. Eat at the nicest restaurants you can afford. Learn how things should taste, and how to season properly. Personally, I think it's possible to learn more on one's own than in a school setting, but that may just be my preference. Your passion will be what drives you to evolve. Good luck.

Exactly the type of answer I was looking for! I'll look into that book. Thank you so much for the input

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mm, pretty much answered things spot on. Ask yourself constantly why you want to cook and what you want to cook in the future. If you have those answers you can work backwards to figure out what steps you actually need to take. Nothing can replace actually working in a restaurant kitchen to give you what you need to function as a cook. But the quest for knowledge is an important, but almost totally separate excercise.

If you want to eventually have your own bbq restaurant, work in bbq restaurants, see if you can join an experienced bbq team, read bbq books, eat lots of bbq...

Fine dining? replace "bbq" above with "fine dining"

Also, ask yourself why you want to go to culinary school...what do you hope to get out of it? Figure out if you will get out of it what you expect. Talk to people who have walked the path you are considering...see if it makes sense for you.

Personally, I really got a lot out of Pepin as well as "On Cooking" by labenske and hause. However, today...I might say that Modernist Cuisine might be just the one stop shop of cooking knowledge that you would need.

Again, regardless of how you seek out knowledge and learn...nothing can replace actually doing it for real every day.

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1. Have you looked at the benefits and disadvantages of a career as a chef? I learned a long time ago that long hours, high pressure, and perpetual heat exhaustion do not make for my ideal choice of working conditions. Executive chefs make good money, but working your way up to the top of even a chain hotel is a daunting task - there are many, many chefs, and only so many jobs.

2. Cooking school can be expensive. I've heard of $28,000 a year - more than tuition to a good state school! - though alternatives provide the basics for less than a quarter that amount. As a general rule, most non-profit or state run schools offer good value for money; however, beware of private "colleges" and "universities" that are full of lying scum-weasels who will take all your money in return for subpar education. If it advertises on primetime TV, it's probably best avoided.

Alternately, consider your education as an apprenticeship. I have met chefs who worked their way up to strong careers. An entry-level position at a prestigious restaurant is not a bad place to be, and while the pay is crap, it's a free education.

3. What do you want to cook? While cooking schools will give you a background in the basics, speciality cuisine like barbecue or pastry require a more specialized education. A pit-master can't make six hundred napoleons a day, a pastry chef won't give you much in the way of a smoke ring, and the average chef de cuisine can do none of the above.


Edited by jrshaul (log)

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Good tips i must say! I started with books, some tv shows, this forum and some sites with recipes and still learning :)


"The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live."

Franchise Takeaway

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The only other thing I'd add to mm's post is to master the basics first. Make stocks, learn what pastry feels like, learn what seasoning does to the taste of food and when it is appropriate to add it (eg add vinegar just before serving to brighten up a dish, add it too early and it spoils). One book I'd recommend is "the total Robuchon." He covers the basics much better than most. Be prepared to follow recipes fairly closely at first until you know what is happening, then modify to your own style. Try reading Barb Stuckey's book "taste what you're missing." This book will help to educate your palate to taste and analyse dishes you create and those that others cook. When you eat out, try to work out how a dish was created. If you ask educated questions, you'll be surprised how much chefs will chat with you about their technique. Aim to improve all the time and you will be surprised where you go. Good luck.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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I'd seriously consider the cost of a culinary school. Lots of schools are getting sued by students for overpromising. Prowl around on google to check it out.

here's one of many... http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/2011/05/culinary_school_lawsuit_san_fr.php

Going 100K in debt to get a 25K job is not a smart move. Community colleges often have great programs at a fraction of the cost.

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young_

I'd seriously consider NOT going to culinary school. It's good to have the structure that a decent culinary school provides, but I don't know if the costs is justifiable. Think of it this way. You have two options: 1. go to C School, 2. get a job in the BOH of a restaurant that makes the cuisine you are interested in. In the latter choice, you'll get trained AND paid for it. This is how I learned (my mom is also a retired master-level baker, so she was instructional as I grew up). I also supplemented my experience with reading. Lots and lots of reading. Here is a list of books I'd recommend:

Pepin

Cooking by James Peterson (actually, any of his books are really good)

A copy of Joy...

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

The Silver Spoon

More Advanced: This would depend on what kind of food you want to cook, though

French Laundry Cookbook

Modernist Cuisine

I also read a lot about culinary traditions. For that (if not so much for the recipes), I'd recommend the Culinaria Series. There's mixed reviews, mostly because of inaccuracies in the regional recipes, but I find the articles re the traditions very good.

If you are set on culinary school, though, here are a couple of considerations:

1. The community college route mentioned above is a great idea. I don't know where you are geographically, but Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area has a GREAT program and you get access to one of the most diverse and exciting culinary scenes in the nation.

2. If you are set on a name school, do as much research as you can on which one has the best reputation. These are probably CIA in Hyde Park, Johnson & Wales, or Le Cordon Bleu in France. These schools give you a much better chance of getting a good job out of school. But it's no guarantee and you have to measure debt v expected earnings.

3. If you do go to culinary school, consider deeply specializing in pastry. Pastry chefs are pretty much ALWAYS in demand. They are like the dental hygienists of the culinary scene.

PM me if you want to have a 1/1.

Stephen

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Thanks to everyone for all the responses. These are exactly the answers I was looking for! :) I'm twenty minutes outside of Atlanta, Georgia. We have a local college called Atlanta institute of arts, and they have a culinary arts program (at a fraction of the cost of culinary arts school). I will definitely look into a smaller scale culinary program just to get some roots, and work off that knowledge. I'm excited to start shopping around for these books as well though. Pepin seems to be highly recommended as well as modernist cuisine.

Thanks again for all the input :) I cooked sirloin steaks for the first time on my new weber charcoal grill last night (also my first time cooking on charcoal), and pattied and seasoned my own burgers from ground chuck. Trying lots of new recipes and keeping an open mind for now. Thanks again! :)

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"How to become a cook?"

Everyone has given you good advice.

One more thing to consider: Professional cooking is hard work. if you don't have very good health, it would be very difficult to make it .

dcarch

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I'll throw in my 2 cents as well - if you've got a good program available at your local arts college, I'd take that over one of the "fancier" schools. What you're looking for out of the school program is a good foundation in the basics and the techniques applicable to all types of cookery (for example, knowing at what internal temperature a steak hits "medium rare" is applicable across all forms of cooking that steak, except perhaps Sous-Vide). You're not necessarily looking for the piece of paper they give you at the end of it.

I'd also second strongly Nick's reccomendation that you experiment outside of just main-course stuff - generalization is often very helpful once you're out there looking for a job. In my opinion (biased though it is, since I'm a professional baker and pastry chef) it is invaluable to know how to make at least shortcrust pastry, and it's a good idea to know your way around basic yeast doughs as well.

And yes - read read read! A hearty 3rd or 4th or nth for Pepin, and I'd also start borrowing any cookbook at your local library that looks even vaguely interesting and trying out any recipe that catches your fancy. Becoming a cook (and ultimately, being a cook or chef or whatever you want to call it) isn't something that you get from the culinary school - it's a lifelong process of learning and refining techniques. I started with bread and pastries as soon as I was old enough to light the gas oven on my own, and I figure I'll still be learning and expanding my library of techniques and recipes when I hit 90 (I'm 30 now, and have been baking professionally for about 5 years.)


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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"How to become a cook?"

Everyone has given you good advice.

One more thing to consider: Professional cooking is hard work. if you don't have very good health, it would be very difficult to make it .

dcarch

The only significant bad thing health related that I have would be kidney stones, I get them about three times a year and have since middle school but I've got it under control. I don't see any reason for my health to get in the way.

Again, this is all great advice! :) shopping for books online as we speak

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It's been said but basics, basics and more basics. Learn to roast a chicken before you're trying to make flavored caviar or something.


Sleep, bike, cook, feed, repeat...

Chef Facebook HQ Menlo Park, CA

My eGullet Foodblog

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And another thing to add - you've come a great step, inspiration wise, by joining us here at the eGullet!

I am consistently amazed and awed by some of the things members here do with food (the Dinner thread is a great example of this) - and it actually pushes me to be less lazy in the entree-kitchen, where I'm always tempted to go with tried-n-true plates.


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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And another thing to add - you've come a great step, inspiration wise, by joining us here at the eGullet!

I am consistently amazed and awed by some of the things members here do with food (the Dinner thread is a great example of this) - and it actually pushes me to be less lazy in the entree-kitchen, where I'm always tempted to go with tried-n-true plates.

Well thank you :) As stated before, I'm using my phone's tapatalk app so all of this information is just a few taps away on my phone at any time. This has already helped immensely. If I'm in the waiting room somewhere, I study this forum, at home before bed, I study this forum, and so on.

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Ordered Jacques Pepin's complete techniques off amazon. Sounds like it's full of some good information!

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47c78e25-b685-9c36.jpg

This came in the other day and it's exactly what I was looking for. Thanks to everyone for recommending it! :)

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Edited by young_ (log)

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47c78e25-b685-9c36.jpg

This came in the other day and it's exactly what I was looking for. Thanks to everyone for recommending it! :)

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Nice reference!

Is this book available on Amazon?


Food photos that make you hungry - Hungry Food Photography

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School or straight to a kitchen? Why restrict yourself to one of the other? Do both. You're young. You can probably take it.

When you work at a kitchen, you learn to do things the way the chefs want -- which is not necessarily the "classic" way. But it gets the job done. You also learn the nuts-and-bolts "get through the crush" mechanics of cooking. But at school you learn techniques that aren't likely to be taught at your restaurant. (Unless your restaurant focuses on doing the classics correctly.)

I'd like to echo the previous members who advise that it is irresponsible to go to one of the "for-profit" schools advertising on television. Taking on that kind of debt to go into a field not normally known for a high salary can break you financially. I know too many people who paid more in tuition than they'll make in salary in years. Any school that promises a great-paying job after graduation is probably the wrong school.

I'm lucky in that my community college has a very well regarded and inexpensive program -- out the door for around $5,000. But Las Vegas is a different animal when it comes to a culinary career. The thing about culinary school is that you will likely learn most of the basic kitchen tasks ONCE. It's up to you to practice and become more efficient. Some techniques you'll use over and over and over. Others are just nice to know.

I'm still halfway through my culinary education. And it's basically on hold. I was able to get the job I wanted without finishing school. I'm happy I went. And I would really like to finish. But I wouldn't give up my job to do so. So I guess you can say that culinary school was good for me. It got me where I wanted to be. (And at the end of the day I already hold a degree that I'm not using. I wasn't in culinary school for the diploma. It was a stepping stone to get me to where I am now.)

EDIT -- One last thing. Your education never, ever ends. If you quit learning, you basically quit living. It's impossible to put a price on a solid education, particularly in the liberal arts. Reading "Candide" isn't likely to make you a better cook. But it will make you a more well-rounded person. Knowing the history of France will give you a better appreciation for their cuisine. And you can replace "France" with every other country with the same result. There's no downside to throwing yourself headfirst into history, language (particularly Spanish, considering your career choice), literature and art. Chemistry is certainly a good discipline, as is physics. I'm of the mind that there is no such thing as "useless" knowledge.


Edited by ScoopKW (log)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Scoop is right. I did my first two years of undergrad at a tech school with a strong culinary arts department. Half the students were working at least thirty hours a week in a kitchen.

It's a gruelling schedule. I certainly can't do it myself. But it makes a good litmus test to see if you can keep up with the load.


Edited by jrshaul (log)

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Thanks to everyone for all the responses. These are exactly the answers I was looking for! :) I'm twenty minutes outside of Atlanta, Georgia. We have a local college called Atlanta institute of arts, and they have a culinary arts program (at a fraction of the cost of culinary arts school). I will definitely look into a smaller scale culinary program just to get some roots, and work off that knowledge. I'm excited to start shopping around for these books as well though. Pepin seems to be highly recommended as well as modernist cuisine.

Thanks again for all the input :) I cooked sirloin steaks for the first time on my new weber charcoal grill last night (also my first time cooking on charcoal), and pattied and seasoned my own burgers from ground chuck. Trying lots of new recipes and keeping an open mind for now. Thanks again! :)

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Art Institute is too expensive. Chattahoochee Technical College's culinary program is funded by Georgia's Hope Scholarship as a State school and its core classes are accredited and transferable to any four year school. Also CTC has produced some very fine chefs that have done well. Chef James Ellington a CTC Alumni, worked under Sean Brock at McCrady's, he was Charcuterie Chef at Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch until he joined Richard Blais's "The Spence".

You might also consider lining up some Stagaire's in different places to get a feel for it. You can find most chef's in Atlanta on social media, hit them up and be honest about what you want. Your restaurant experience should get you in the backdoor. Another great way to work your way in would be to go apply at Fox Bros. BBQ, those guys know every great chef in town and could line up Stagaires for you.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Culinary schools are a significant investment, and from what I have seen of colleagues who have gone, they don't pay for themselves readily. Yes, you are quickly exposed to a broad spectrum of styles and techniques, but coming out of those schools (with a debt load of close to $80k, for many of them), you don't see much of an increase in pay off the bat. What it does seem to get you is a shot at the fine-dining set right out of school, assuming you have worked hard at making appropriate connections while you were still a student.

I personally didn't have the money to do school. So I worked in kitchens. Got a part time at a commercial franchise that paid the bills, and after a couple of months, I started making cold calls to other restaurants, and set up stages. (If you aren't familiar, that's basically a very-short-term apprenticeship in another kitchen, often for just a couple of days to a couple of months, working for free) I did that for about 6 months, busted my butt, showed up early with clean whites and sharp-as-I-could-get-'em knives, and eagerly absorbed anything and everything the chefs felt like showing me. Some of them were true grunt work - peeling carrots, chopping mirepoix, washing potatoes, one was even to cover for a dishwasher that was out for a while. Most were excellent. I learned how to open fresh sea urchins, tell the difference between male and female lobsters, what pastas should feel like when they are ready, etc, all by staging. One of the places that I staged at made me an offer for what was essentially the same pay, but in a much smaller kitchen and with a whole lot more responsibility than I did have, and I lept at the opportunity. I didn't have as much time to stage, but I was learning massively more, and the chef involved all of the team more directly in menu planning, specials, etc. Two years there, and she put in a good word for me when I was ready to move to a new city.

Point of all this is, schools are a relatively recent development. Most cooks learned to cook by cooking. You learn to get better by demanding better of yourself and your products, and you learn everything you can from the people around you, weather or not you are in a formal program or hold a diploma.

My last comment, then I'll shut up. Tom Coliccio's book "Think Like a Chef" was one of the better primers for thinking about how things come together that I've read. Not technical, pretty short read, with a handfull of recipes thrown in for illustration, and it provided a lot of late night rumination. Of course, not everyone is going to get the same things out of this kind of book, so your mileage certainly may vary, but I'd suggest seeing if the local library has it.

All the best!


Edited by Dexter (log)

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Culinary schools are a significant investment.

Not necessarily. The College of Southern Nevada's culinary program is very highly regarded. And for an in-state resident it is inexpensive. Hell, it's cheap. Seriously -- $5,000 out the door with your sheepskin. After taking two years of classes, I was hired at a casino and then worked my way up. Now I work for a very well known chef at a restaurant that just about everyone here knows.

And I spent less than $2,000 for that. But CSN doesn't advertise on TV. Nor do they employ recruiters.

See if there is a community college program that might do it for you. There's no reason to go broke learning a trade that doesn't pay a hell of a lot.


Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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For something a bit lighter, try Anthony Bourdain's "kitchen confidential". You won't pick up any techniques, but the early anecdotes give a different type of insight into being a professional cook / chef. It was such a hit it should be easy to find a cheap paperback copy.

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