Although I had been cooking for my family for over 30 years, I had learned a lot in the basic cooking classes that I took at Anne Arundel Community College’s Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute (HCAT) in Maryland.
The kitchen facilities at HCAT were relatively new and would be the envy of any home cook. Down the center of the room six ten-burner gas stoves were lined up, along with a microwave, two salamanders (broilers), a deep-fat fryer, an indoor grill, a griddle, convection oven, steamer, tilting skillet, flanked by gleaming, stainless steel tables. Along one wall there was a sink for hand washing and three sinks for washing dishes: one filled with soapy water was for washing, one with clear, hot water for rinsing and a final sink filled with a cool solution was for sanitizing. The other wall held wire shelving stocked with herbs and spices, a variety of rice, pasta, grains, vinegars and oils, and pots and pans. Bins on one end of the room were filled with different types of flour and sugar. On the other end of the room was one large “walk-in” refrigerator which revealed fresh produce, meat and poultry and led to a walk-in freezer. Smaller “reach-in” refrigerators were located in one corner and held milk, eggs, cheeses and condiments. There was also a broom closet filled with mops and pails, a laundry room for kitchen linens and I noticed a large first aid kit on one wall. (I wonder how often they needed it.)
We learned the principle of mise en place, or assembling everything you need for a recipe before you begin. How many times have you gone to make chocolate chip cookies to discover that you’re out of sugar? Mise en place guarantees that it doesn’t happen, especially in a restaurant kitchen.
We also learned basic knife cuts. The reason for making uniform knife cuts is to promote even cooking and uniform appearance of food ingredients. Remember that Campbell’s vegetable soup you ate as a kid? We had purchased a “knife kit” as part of the required tools for the course. It was a black fabric case with pockets in it for the chef’s knife, boning knife, paring knife and the steel for honing knives. We were taught how to sharpen the knives and how to hold them correctly to allow us to make very precise cuts rapidly, smoothly and without cutting off any fingers. We took classes in basic cooking techniques, baking (The science of baking is fascinating. Did you know that recipes are referred to as “formulas?”), garde manger (the cold kitchen), food science, international cooking, cost controls, and purchasing.
In our cooking classes which were generaly three to five hours long, the students were divided into groups and assigned certain recipes to prepare. The dishes would be critiqued by our intructor-chef at the end of class on appearance, taste and presentation. But first, we had to practice our knife cuts. Our chef usually assigned about four or five different knife cuts which he had to approve before we could begin our cooking. For instance, the chef might ask us to do four ounces of julienned carrots or three ounces of large diced potatoes.
Did you know that a fine julienne cut (think of a match stick) is only 1/16 in x 1/16 in x 2 in? And if you cut it into cubes, it becomes a brunoise cut. That’s really small. We learned a number of other cuts including the tourner (pronounced “toor-nay” – a two-inch long football-shaped food product with seven equal sides and flat ends). You are supposed to be able to exercise the cuts smoothly, rapidly and not injure yourself in the process. I actually tournered (is that a verb?) potatoes for dinner for my husband one night, but it took all afternoon. I’m sure I whittled off more potato than I kept. My husband was very impressed, but I’m not sure I’d ever do it again – certainly not for more than one person.