A how-to lesson on instructing students with various learning styles derived by going back to the basics.
By David Pazmiño
Culinary education in this day and age can be challenging for the chef instructor. We often feel the pressure of lower culinary school enrollments, fluctuating retention rates, lower graduation rates, accreditation visits, assessment goals and marketing strategies. And, oh by the way, then someone asks, “Can you put on a catered dinner for 200 with your students?”
But chief among these issues is how to better teach to an ever increasing bifurcated classroom. Culinary education has often attracted an odd mix of students from a broad spectrum of educational abilities. However, there has been an increased need to integrate students with individual educational plans from high school into the college populace. And, let’s face it, this can be challenging.
Many culinary educators are not primed on how to deal with different learning modalities and accommodations. Yes, we all know about extra time for tests or longer explanations on certain assignments. But the issue is more on how to create a learning environment that accepts students from all learning paths to engage and become active participants in their own learning.
This is an issue I have tried to address for many years. Like many of you, I have employed many strategies, pairing stronger with weaker students, giving different levels of assignments based on skill, grouping students of similar ability together, integrating technology in the classroom, and competency-based learning. Despite all of this, I still felt that there needed to be another way to approach the problem that was more organic and inclusive.
My way of looking for answers is to step back and observe. After that, I always ask myself, “This can’t be new. How have others solved this before?” I am always telling students that there is almost nothing new in the culinary world. Everything has a connection to the past. When approaching this problem, I started thinking about an article by Daniel Duane in Food and Wine, “Become an Intuitive Cook: Thomas Keller Cooking Lessons.”
What struck me was the sheer simplicity of what Keller outlined: cook a recipe, three days later write down procedures for that recipe, a few days later write a less detailed recipe, cook that recipe several times swapping out ingredients and developing a core technique, repeat and as you improve start skipping step 1 and then step 2.
In theory this sounded great. But in practice, how could this translate into the educational sphere? And that’s when it dawned on me. Keller has reduced what chefs had been doing for hundreds of years: a pure “glace” of kitchen knowledge. In the apprentice system of learning, everyone that entered the kitchen started in the same place, washing dishes and then vegetable prep. As one’s skills improved and were honed, they could move up the culinary brigade.
While we don’t have years to train students in the old apprentice model, how can we integrate Keller’s notion of intuitive cooking with an apprentice model-like approach to teaching in a culinary classroom? It needed to be both simplistic, yet offer infinite possibilities. That’s when a tiny Julie Andrews popped in my head singing “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with A,B,C,” and I would conclude with “When you cook you begin with 1-2-3.”
One of the base recipes that we often teach in the pastry world is 1-2-3 cookie dough. It is often overlooked strictly as a cookie recipe in favor of more desirable crowd favorites that include chocolate. The other place that it finds use is for lining tart pans for all sorts of sweet tarts. But 1-2-3 cookie dough has infinite variables. Locked within this simple ratio of one pound sugar, to two pounds butter, to three pounds flour are the possibilities for a myriad of flavors. Staying with the three pounds of flour, you can substitute some out for cocoa powder, ground nuts, or other ground flours. Traditionally vanilla extract is added to the base dough, but many other flavors can be substituted or added. The list keeps going on -- dried fruits, candied fruits, candied nuts, salts, spices, ad infinitum.
So the lesson proceeds as follows: a demonstration on the creaming technique and putting the base dough together. The students then have to repeat making the dough, chilling it, and rolling it as instructed to make a very simple cookie. The next day, they are asked to write down the formula and they then are given the challenge to construct their own flavored version -- subbing out dry ingredients, flavors, or adding chunkier items (nuts, chocolate, dried fruit). They are given a half sheet of parchment paper and have 20 minutes to write and brainstorm their ideas as well as considering what cutter shape they want to use, if it is a sandwiched cookie, and how they are going to use the flavor additions they have in the cookie as a garnish. They then have to use the cutter to draw the shape of the cookie on their parchment paper and visually design their tea cookie.
The beauty of this lesson I have learned is that it perfectly fits all learning styles. The goal of having students measure, use the creaming method, roll out a dough, and to shape a cookie are all accomplished. Furthermore, the ever so elusive critical thinking objective can be reached. Every student has to move beyond the simple base recipe Keller outlined and have to move toward being more intuitive. Now what closes the loop for the students is to give them a short self reflective assignment about the process. I often have them include a picture of their final cookie as well as a picture of their parchment paper cookie “brainstorm”. And when they all leave the classroom I know that at the least, they have an understanding of the concepts, can re-create the process, can develop their own recipe from the base concept, and leave the classroom having sung “C is for Cookie” about a zillion times.