Fifty Minute Classroom

Dec 14, 2018, 2:19
Don’t Cook with Tunnel Vision
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Don’t Cook with Tunnel Vision

Avoid tunnel vision by knowing how a dish will be served, keeping an eye on what’s going on around you and asking for help when needed. Useful information in a kitchen and symphonic band.

By Chef Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE

After a 36-year absence from serious music playing, I started playing the clarinet again a couple years ago. Believe it or not, I have learned an amazing number of things from this experience that I incorporate into my day-to-day culinary teaching. (More on that next month.) Each year at this time, I sum up the academic year for teachers and students. A few articles from previous years on the subject:

Teachers are Always on Duty
Look for the Open Door: A Graduation Speech
Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can't, Do.

I was considering what to write this year for the end of the school year. Nothing was gelling. A few weeks ago, Maestro Michael Galisatus, conductor of the College of San Mateo Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble, looked at the clarinets and said, “You can’t play music with tunnel vision. You have to pay attention to everything being played by everyone.” The phrase hit me like a ton of bricks, except I heard, “You have to teach your students they can’t cook with tunnel vision.” As culinary instructors we strive to instill this in almost every class. This is good time to recap this valuable lesson for your students.

The key point of cooking, whether your students intend to cook professionally or in the home, is they must always have the end product in mind. You can’t just start a recipe, or group of recipes, with tunnel vision. You can’t just hope they will all work together at the end to form a meal.

I teach my students to cook backward. First you determine how the food is going to look at service and work backward from there. For example, will the food be individually plated, for a hot or cold buffet, or family style? What other items will be on the plate and/or served with it? What are the portions? Is there contrast in colors, textures and tastes? Will all the meal’s components be ready at the same time? Does the meal fit together style wise, nutrition wise, etc.? You can’t start making a macaroni and cheese, for example, until you know how it is going to be served/plated, when it is going to be served, and with what it is going to be served.

My students have a hard time grasping this working backward idea. I give them the example of designing a car from a pile of parts, paint and electronics. They wouldn’t paint a fender blue and weld it to the stereo while painting the hood white and connecting it to the spare tire. I explain they first would need to figure out if it was an SUV, sedan, minivan, or convertible. Is it blue, green, white or red? Four doors or two doors? In other words, they can’t build the car with tunnel vision, they have to consider how the end product will look and work backward.

For those of you who are teaching students who desire to get jobs in the hospitality and culinary fields, this lesson of cooking without tunnel vision has two additional applications. Both involve observing what others are doing in the kitchen. First, everyone in the kitchen needs to know—at least in general terms—what the others are doing at any given time. Secondly, they need to know the end result of the cooking.

My students tend to work on their assignment, finish it, clean their station, and wander out of the kitchen. I have tried to teach them about helping someone or another group that is in the weeds. It’s a tough thing to do. In most other subjects, students are taught NOT to help others with their assignments, homework, tests, etc. I teach students to help others by setting them up to need help themselves and then reversing the roles.

For example, on Monday and Tuesday I might give several teams very easy projects (and ones that clean up quickly as well) while other teams have difficult assignments involving a lot of kitchen wares. I teach the students in the first group that when they are done they need to look around them—not have tunnel vision—and call out, “Can anyone use some help?”

The converse is a bit more difficult to teach. Most non-culinary classes teach students that they need to hunker down and tenaciously get difficult assignments done. After all, in almost every subject, students are traditionally taught NOT to ask for help from other students. It’s considered cheating.

Having that tunnel vision in a commercial kitchen will get you so far in the weeds that you may only recover at the very end of service. Then you will be so far behind in clean-up that you will be in the kitchen for several more hours. In doing my drills, I teach students with difficult assignments and a long clean up ahead not to panic, keep working and look around the room—don’t have tunnel vision—and ask for help when they see others are available. That’s how commercial kitchens are run.

For example, in a popular restaurant the pantry person might not have many salad orders as the evening wears on, so she/he might jump over to help the line cooks. Later, when dessert orders start piling up, the line cooks might jump into the pantry section. A kitchen functions as a team, and that team needs to look out for each other and help when appropriate. (See the article Working in Teams Needs to be Taught.)

What Maestro Galisatus taught about not having tunnel vision is an important lesson whether playing with a symphony, cooking at home, or commercially cooking. It is a lesson we need to teach all culinary students at all levels. Don’t start cooking until you know how something is to be served. Know what is going on around you in the kitchen. Help others and ask when you need help yourself. When you think about it, these points are really a culmination of everything you have been teaching all year.

Have a great end of school year!
This article is dedicated to Maestro Michael Galisatus who just retired from conducting the College of San Mateo Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble for more than 12 years. He founded the organization and made it into an amazing performing group. I had the privilege of playing under his baton for the last year and a half.


Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.