From opening and staring into a hot oven until the inside temperature plummets to reasons not to overcrowd a frying pan, Chef Weiner discusses how to successfully teach some hard-to-learn rules in the culinary classroom. For one common practice among students, however, he still seeks a solution.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
In June I had the privilege of attending CAFÉ’s Leadership Conference in Miami. There are two reasons I love the conference: 1) the seminars and 2) the out-of-seminar discussions.
Let me share with you one of the out-of-seminar discussions that a group of us had at the breakfast table. The topic is particularly appropriate since many of you will be reading this at the start of your school year. What Is the Hardest Thing to Teach New Culinary Students? Here is our top 10 list:
This is really two categories. Tasting as you cook, which is somewhat easy to drill into new students’ cooking routines. The other is far more difficult: getting people to taste the foods in the first place. I have many students who think I am trying to kill them by giving them a piece of beef that is cooked less than well done. Don’t even ask what they say about ceviche! I have had a little success with tough love: “This is what we are serving. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine.” However, if you do this better, guard your pantry and walk-in because they will try to make their own food, thinking you won’t notice.
2. Not Overloading the Pan
Pans, fryer baskets, cookie sheets—we have all seen students overload them. We as teachers try to explain that the food will take longer to cook, won’t cook as well, will steam instead of cooking the way we want, etc. The only thing that works, I find, is to have each group scramble a dozen eggs while I time them. Of course, each group starts with a small pan and puts all 12 in at once. I write the time for each team on the board. I then have them repeat the experiment with making one dozen in two batches. I time the process. I write the results for each team on the board. We then do the same thing for french fries. The results usually get the point across that overloading is slower and yields a lower-quality product.
3. Warming up
Students think the ovens, grill, fryer, etc. instantly come to temperature. They don’t realize that commercial equipment, particularly older models, take quite some time to pre-heat. I teach this by having each team monitor the temperature of the oven, grill and fryer from first turning on until reaching 350°F. Of course, the time is written on the board.
We’ve all seen it. A student puts a steak on the 10:00 position on the grill. In less than 30 seconds he or she lifts it up, turns it around, plays with it, etc. Pancakes go into the pan and 10 seconds later the student trys to turn them. And turns it, and turns it until that pancake looks like the shape of the former Soviet Union. I have tried many different techniques—none of which worked. I found that it just takes time and experience for students to learn a little kitchen zen.
5. Use a Steel Each Time
We all know that knives should be honed by steel every time we use one, after it has been washed or has been used for a while. We all do that. The students see us do that. The students somehow think they don’t have to. I explain to them that if they don’t use a steel each time they pull a knife off the rack, they are working harder (since a knife out of true is harder to use) and more likely to cut themselves (since a knife out of true is more likely to slip). How I teach this to new students is, when I leave I remove the steels from the kitchen and place them in my office. The next day, I walk around I and ask the student if she or he honed his or her knife. “Yes Chef!” I look at them: “Really, where did you get the steel?” They start to look a bit nervous. “Off the rack, Chef.” I stare them down and tell them never lie to a chef. That’s when I tell them that I hid the steels before class. Nasty, but effective.
Students think that when they get an assignment they should just stop cooking. In the next few months I will write a full article on teaching planning, but let’s just say that an easy way to start is to have the students make bacon, eggs, muffins and cookies. Give them as long as you can. Longer is better. Tell them the hot food has to be hot and the cold food cold. Watch how almost every group will cook the food in the order given with the consequence being that the bacon and eggs will be stone cold and the cookies will be in the oven at the time of service.
7. Slow Down and You Will Get Done Faster
I don’t know if they learn it from watching shows like “Chopped,” but students feel compelled to run around like crazy when they first start their assignment. I demonstrate that the first thing you do is get your mise en place together and then cook in a methodical fashion.
8. Clean as You Go
I love the scene in Ratatouille where Colette says to Linguini: “You keep your station clear or I will kill you!” When I assign a project, I give each group a bus tub. All of their dirty items go into the tub. I have learned that I have to assign one student to watch the dish pit to avoid cheating. “Oh, I didn’t put it in my bus tub because I was going to soak it.” The related issue is avoiding using everything in the kitchen to make a simple dish. It is amazing how a group of four can use nine cutting boards. To work on that, I give each team the equipment they are allowed to use in their own bus tub. I remind them that planning (see No. 6) will help. For example: I give an assignment of chicken piccata with sautéed apples. I show the students that if they prepare the apples first, then the chicken, that they only need one cutting board and one knife. Sauté the apples first, wipe out the pan and use it for the chicken, keeping the apples warm on preheated plates. One sauté pan, not two.
9. The Oven Door Is Not a Television
I hate it when students open the oven door and stare inside. “Chef, is it done?” I look at them, “Well, how did the recipe tell you to check for doneness?” They leave the door open, go re-read the recipe, find a toothpick, grab a pot holder, and then seemingly 72 hours later they are finally ready to check for doneness. Others open the oven door and stare blindly into the oven’s abyss for no apparent reason other than making their face red. I lecture about not opening the door unless you are ready to do whatever you need to do, and then shutting the door as fast as possible. What seems to get the point across a little more is when I stick an oven thermometer in the front and preheat the oven to 350. Then we open it up and with stop watch in hand I show how fasts it drops to 250 with the door open. Then, still with stop watch, we wait until it comes back up to 350. Of course, the times are all recorded on the white board.
10. Not Over-Cooking Eggs
This was actually the one that started our group talking at the Leadership Conference. I drill my students on the principle of carry-over heat. However, when it comes to teaching how not to overcook eggs, I wish you good luck! In 10 years of teaching I have gone no further than just giving up. Let me know if you have succeeded with this one.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Photo: Chef Adam Weiner (r.) discusses education topics with Chef Paul Sorgule at CAFÉ’s 9th-annual Leadership Conference in Miami, June 20-22.