Skipping Culinary School. A Guide.

podcast #2 is up.

So you like to cook.  You harbor dreams of owning your own restaurant some day.  Something small, rustic, neighborhoody.  Your friends tell you how great your food is.  Their compliments are nice, but in the back of your mind is the nagging voice that keeps on telling you that tough times lie ahead.  You've got a lot to learn...and almost zero money for school.  Well friend, help is here.  This is your skipping culinary school guide.

The first thing you need to do is mentally prepare yourself for whats to come.  Things are going to be hard.  You're going to push your mental and physical limits, usually far past your breaking point.  You will have almost no cash; so whether this endeavor means saving your pennies, or getting some financial help from family, just know that whatever you spend will be far less than what going to school will cost you. 
Mainly though, you need to submit to many things at once;  those that will teach you, your desire to have some me time, and the urge to talk back when you don't like the way things are going for you.

For me, culinary school was all about learning the vocabulary of the kitchen.  It was about having a knife in your hand every day.  It had nothing to do with becoming a chef, or making up recipes, or discovering your own personal style.  Mimicking this is fairly simple:

  1. Buy either the Cordon Bleu or CIA textbook.  Read THE WHOLE THING.  As you go through the book, practice the cuts, recipes, and techniques.  Buy bags of potatoes and carrots and onions and dice and julienne and brunoise.  When you've completed your reading and are starting to feel comfortable with the knife, you'e ready for the next step.
  2. Gather your tools.  You need an 8" chefs knife.  Stick with Wusthof.  You'll also need a bread knife, a paring knife, a peeler, and a microplane.  Pick up Becoming a Chef by Andrew Doreneburg and Karen Page.  It's a little dated, but the overall idea of the book is good.
  3. Pick a restaurant you like, and go to the back door.  Ask the chef if he/she will let you hang out for a night.  Let them know that you will do anything:  peel garlic, wash lettuce, sweep the floors.  If they let you hang out, and you like it, make it your sole purpose in life to become a stagiere in that restaurant.  Offer to work for free.
  4. Once your stage has started, don't give in to your urge to just work the 8 hours then go home.  You need to put in extra work.  Stay during service.  Watch the cooks on the line.  Offer to help anywhere you can.  Around this time you need to pick up On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.  This book is not for reading cover to cover, but more as a reference.  If you're making vinaigrettes, read his chapter on emulsions.  If you're making stock, read his chapter on gelatin.  There is a section in that book that corresponds to every facet of the kitchen.  Your understanding of the science in cooking is important.  It's not magic.
  5. If you've put in a couple of months, sit down with the chef and ask them for a review.  What do you do well?  Where are you weak?  When does the chef think you'll be ready to give the line a shot?  Don't let yourself get stuck in one place.  Chances are that if you're doing a good job, they'll want to hire you on anyways.
  6. Read The Making of a Chef and the Soul of a Chef.  Kitchen Confidential is great and all, but it is not required reading.
  7. Take everything that you've learned at work and start cooking at home.  Go to markets.  Cook for your friends and family.  Read local restaurant reviews.  Don't be tempted to watch Food Network--by this point it's time to cut that tether.
  8. Self evaluate yourself every day.  Go back and re-visit all the books you read in the beginning.  If you're not astonished by your progress, you need to get back to basics.  Learn every day, and never settle.  Don't get caught up in the lifestyle of a cook...learning is your only purpose now.
  9. Around the 6 month mark, branch out on your days off and stage in other kitchens.  If you or your family had money saved for school, take that money and save it for a trip to New York, or San Francisco, or France, or Spain.  This will not be a vacation--it's strictly business.  Arrange a stage, or a series of stages.  Again, don't get caught up.  This is not a vacation.
Coming up as a cook is hard, but if you can dedicate yourself and focus, the way up will be rewarding.  You'll look back on these early days with a smile.  Just realize that the learning never stops.  Things never really get easy.  There are always more books to read, new techniques to absorb, new flavors to taste.  With this guide though, you have a 12 month jump on the kids in school.

  • go here and subscribe to our podcast.  face it, it beats listening to Rhianna.
  • first Joey Santiago from the Pixies replied to my tweet, and now he's following me.  the word i'm looking for is motherfuckingawesome.
  • expoing with a sore neck sucks.
  • the cookies luis brought.  perfect.
  • sometimes checking the eggs for the pasta dough recipe is like looking into a crystal ball.
  • the lover's delight from plunder.  worth $1000?
  • that guy at work that you don't like?  it would really give him a shine to see you fail.
  • i didn't forget the coconut breadcrumbs, I swear.
  • dear people in SF:  please stop standing in the street when you're waiting for MUNI. 
  • when a guy gets up to go to the bathroom, his date will always check her cell.  it's like a rule or something.
  • if you're wearing sunglasses at night, you're probably a dbag.  unless you're mc peepants.
  • heads up:  i put salt on the fries so you don't have to.
  • my iphone cover is made of rubber.  and it costs thirty dollars.

quotes and conversations

"He's all cookin' like Gilbert Grape and shit!"

"I'm gonna sell this motherfucker, and put a fried chicken salad on the menu."
-Chef, who might someday turn Nopa into a Cheesecake Factory

"I would not want to bone down with seat 2.  He would probably want to put it in my butt."

Goose:  Yim Yam's in the house!
Me:  It's like The Shining Goose.  Yim Yam never left.

"For a moment, I thought Corey was playing Pussycat Dolls."

Goose:  This bitch thinks she knows everything, and she doesn't.
Merrell:  Are you talking about me?

"Hey dude, if I go into Home Depot without a list i'm in trouble.  I'll come out of there with a nailgun and a cashier."

"Smokin' blunts with French people is just as cool as it sounds."

"I'm gonna run a bath and do like the yellow pages.  Let my fingers do the walking.

"I don't respond to shithead anymore."

Me:  Edward!  How was the weekend?
Eddie:  It was alright.  A little weird.
Me:  How so?
Eddie:  My girlfriend's mom gave me a massage.

from top:  bourbon at noon, gibraltar, tecate, nopalito salsa's, flowers from Violet, a case of Asahi, prep list, iced tea, ponder, editing the podcast, corvina, fettuccini, chips, no hands Amy, eating, plate lunch family meal, no!, may I please have an espresso this big?, your station should be this clean, foil chicken, anti cca sticker


Manda said...

Thanks for the advice - it's heartening to know that you can eventually work your way up without having the big bucks to shell out for culinary school.

Sarah said...

I'm envious of your knowledge, and if I was interested in getting into your field, I would definitely follow your lead!

Your quotes and pictures are hilarious! The rooster is classic. :)


shogunmoon said...

Awesome post! A great resource for someone. Since cooking is not exactly the highest paying profession in the world, a chance to avoid massive student debt is a wise idea.

Just one thing... as someone that apparently owns a 10" Misono Swedish Steel knife, I am confused as to why you would recommend a Wustof... (I rock the 8", 10" and have a 10" slicer, complete with dragon, that I use more often then anything else these days!)

I have cooked in many kitchens at this point. I know that a lot of people still use them, but it tends to have more to do with the fact that they already have them based on some thin recommendation early in their careers vs. an actual choice. The steel is soft, and they are heavier then they need to be. Also, the bolster makes then needlessly hard to sharpen without getting that concave problem where the edge near the base of the knife no longer touches the cutting board. Wustof primarily makes its money selling crap knife sets to people that get them as wedding gifts.

Yes, a wustof is "good enough"... but at that high price, you can do a lot better. A cheap culinary school knife does the job nearly as well, as is usually a third the price. Or get a Japanese knife like the Global or the MAC for the same price or less then the Wusthof. More nimble and holds a shard edge a lot longer.

Chef in Progress said...

Very awesome i liked the post and the podcast. I also like the dynamic of the podcast.
In case you wanted to know every classroom at the CIA has HUGE windows that allow you to peer in and no one is ever smiling

don't touch my knife said...

that podcast was FUCKING EPIC. FUCKING EPIC! Cant wait for #3
Amy needs to be a regular. I'd date her, patissier all the way.
that pretty much sealed the deal hearing it from three pros. I was hell bent on going to school anyway, but it was when i heard it from Amy man, that sealed the deal, lock stock and fucking barrel. She was talking about how she cant stop cooking, even after a king-hell service, a 14 hour day or whatevers going on. she cant stop cooking. I so relate to that. I was blaring that shit in my kitchen at 2 am roasting bones for demi-glace and resting dough for baguette en la manana.
and It clicked. I gotta go to school because i cant stand not to know how to cook everything. and i cant put my knives down for more than a full day.
That was righteous, you guys keep it up.
BAHH HA HA "fuck off and kick rocks" YES.

Unknown said...

Give us a little more info, did you guys just finish service? what are you sippin on while making this podcast!
Thanks guys, awesome shit!

Sean said...

So, I've done most of the steps in your guide, starting about 3 years ago, and I totally agree with you. It's amazing how well it works, and how just by working your ass off for a few months/years, you can be in the same position as people who spent money/time on school...

The only thing I would add is this: Pick a restaurant based on two things: The food (you should love it), and the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the chef/cooks/dishwashers...

Great Blog, been following for a while now. Keep up the good work!

russ said...

How could you not love that podcast ?????

Please keep it up.

russ said...

How can you not love that pod cast ????

Keep up the great work !!

Ingrid said...

Love the podcast! Great topics so far, and as a line cook myself it's awesome to finally have a podcast I can totally relate to.

zeph said...

Thats hilarious. I did almost all of these things a number of years ago, practically in order. So wierd.

Kids, this works.

Unknown said...

Great post Richie. Makes me miss being in the kitchen with all u guys as always. I just started a stage at Shang here in NY. cheers.

Michael Procopio said...

Man, you have no idea how badly I want that anti-CCA sticker.

Yashpaul said...

So I've completed my first year at the CIA which includes the 4 month externship...I'm having a hard time deciding whether or not I should go back. After reading your blog I am leaning towards making a trip to France, but I don't know exactly where to start. Should I look for places that speak fluent English, should I learn French asap? The last year of culinary school will cost me 26K, I've already invested 20k. One thing you didn't address was the accreditation one would receive and how that may help your future prosperity, if at all. Any thoughts would be appreciated.