Friday, July 29, 2011

Culinary School vs. On-the-job Chef Training

Cole Dickinson, the chef de cuisine at Michael Voltaggio's soon-to-open West Hollywood restaurant, Ink, got his culinary education the old-fashioned way: in the kitchen.

That might sound obvious, but it makes him something of an anomaly as the number of culinary schools multiplies, drawing legions of novice cooks with the promise of turning them into top chefs.

Yet the less-touted, less-glamorized path of working one's way up through the restaurant kitchen ranks is starting to sound more appealing. At a time when for-profit professional cooking schools are coming under more scrutiny, some of L.A.'s rising chefs — like Dickinson — are succeeding without ever having stepped into the classroom.

For-profit schools across the country are facing a flurry of lawsuits claiming fraud; they're accused of misleading students about tuition costs, job placement rates and how much they'll earn after graduating.

The cautionary tale of a would-be chef goes like this: A starry-eyed youth dreams of helming a restaurant kitchen and enrolls in a $60,000 culinary program but upon graduation still qualifies only for a job as a $10.50-an-hour line cook and struggles to work off crippling school loans that, with interest, can balloon to nearly $100,000. Dream crushed.

Meanwhile, Dickinson has a coveted gig at one of L.A.'s most hotly anticipated restaurants. He was a 17-year-old bussing tables for Charlie Palmer in Healdsburg, Calif., when he first considered culinary school. "I didn't have the money. I had a single mom," Dickinson says, "so I got it in my head that I'd ask Charlie if he'd sponsor me and I'd come back and work for him. He basically said, 'Don't be an idiot. Work for me for a couple of years and I'll get you in wherever you want to go.'

In a year and a half, I'd worked my way around every station of that kitchen.... I don't regret not going to culinary school at all."

Besides his time with Palmer, Dickinson, now 27, worked at the Fat Duck in England, for Laurent Gras at L2O in Chicago, then for Voltaggio at the Tavern Room in West Virginia and at José Andrés' Bazaar in Los Angeles.

In interviews with a dozen chefs and restaurateurs, few recommended culinary school; none said it was necessary. "We get asked all the time," says Karen Hatfield, who, along with her husband, Quinn, owns Hatfield's in Los Angeles. "Quinn and I don't recommend it to anybody ever. It's such a huge financial burden now." (She went to cooking school; he didn't.) And yet all but one of the restaurant's kitchen staff of about 15 attended culinary school.

Palmer, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who grew an empire out of his Manhattan restaurant Aureole, isn't so adamant. He advocates cooking school "if the person has the resources. But there's an enormous range as far as the quality of cooking schools. It's something especially younger students don't really understand."

Even at well-regarded not-for-profit colleges, such as the C.I.A., it might not make economic sense. A two-year associate's degree program at the Culinary Institute of America costs $50,000. A bachelor's degree is more than $100,000. According to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of a restaurant cook is $21,990. (That's about one-third the cost of tuition for the culinary arts program at the for-profit Art Institute of California in Santa Monica.)

"Is it true that graduates [have to] pay their dues?" says Bruce Hillenbrand, vice president responsible for admissions at the C.I.A. "Absolutely, just like other graduates initially going into other careers." He points out that a C.I.A. survey shows that its graduates can expect to double their salaries within the first five years.

According to the C.I.A., the student loan default rate among its graduates since 2008 is less than half the rate at for-profit schools.

There are now several hundred culinary programs in the U.S., many operated by for-profit companies such as Art Institutes and Career Education Corp., the parent of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which has 16 locations in the U.S. More culinary schools keep popping up. Last year, Triumph Education Group launched the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Chicago and Austin, Texas, with plans to expand.

Enrollment in culinary programs at Career Education was 13,100 at the end of 2010, up 20% from 2009 — though new student enrollment was down 3% in the fourth quarter. The Pasadena Cordon Bleu is one of the company's schools slapped with a class-action lawsuit alleging fraud. A $40-million settlement of a class-action suit against San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, also a Career Education school, is pending.

"Learning the same foundational cooking techniques taught at the original Le Cordon Bleu in Paris affords opportunity," says Career Education spokesman Mark Spencer. "But as with all education, it's no guarantee of success."

Regarding the lawsuit against the Pasadena Cordon Bleu, Spencer says that "the plaintiffs' attorney trying to assemble a viable class-action case has met with several setbacks…. We're confident the school will prevail on the merits of the case."

Charlie Lucas, 22, has worked at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, staged at the highly acclaimed Benu in San Francisco and now has a starting position at Daniel Boulud's Café Boulud in New York. He also skipped cooking school.

Two years ago he wanted to try cooking professionally but had no experience and no money for school, so he went knocking on doors for a job. "I made a list of the best restaurants in L.A. from a 2004 Zagat and started handing out my résumé," he says. He landed at Rustic Canyon because, executive chef Evan Funke says, "he had great heart."

"I went home and practiced dices on potatoes," Lucas says. "Funke gave me a lot of books to read. I was cooking out of Alain Ducasse's encyclopedia for six months trying to understand the recipes, the flavor profiles.... In my two years [at Rustic Canyon] I mastered every station.

"By the time I knew I wanted to be a chef, I had learned what people learned in school. And I don't have student loans, and it's a really fortunate thing."

Funke, who is a former instructor at Pasadena's Le Cordon Bleu, says, "In 10 years he's going to be the guy to beat."

Disillusioned by his teaching experience, Funke is no proponent of culinary school. "I don't know what's behind this meat-grinder mentality of cooking schools," he says.

"I rarely hire culinary students right out of school," he says. "It's like buying a computer and doing DOS to tell it how to do commands. They're missing information — knife sharpening or even how to hone a knife. They don't know product ID, kitchen etiquette, meat, fish, chicken butchering. Ninety percent of this job is time experience."

Meanwhile, schools are "doing the same thing to culinary students that they did in the housing market," says Funke, pushing too much borrowing for what might be a mirage. "Nobody tells you that you're going to be somebody's prep monkey for a year picking parsley in some subterranean humid kitchen making minimum wage."

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oprah, You Are Making Your Biscuits Wrong!

“Beloved,” based on Toni Morrison’s novel, takes as its subject the impact of slavery on the human soul. Mystery, violence, sex and supernatural apparition are all part of the story.

There is also a brief sequence in which Sethe, Winfrey’s character, makes biscuits in her dark little farmhouse.
Biscuits are what take us into the kitchen today to cook: fat, flaky mounds of quick bread, golden brown, with a significant crumb. Composed of flour, baking powder, fat and a liquid, then baked in a hot oven, they are an excellent sop for sorghum syrup, molasses or honey. They are marvelous layered with country ham or smothered in white sausage gravy, with eggs, with grits. Biscuits are easy to make.

When the film ended, Raskin said in a recent e-mail, Winfrey took to the front of the theater to take questions about race, gender, oppression and literature.

It did not work out that way. Raskin: “The first audience member to speak said something like: ‘Oprah, y’all made your biscuits wrong. Don’t you remember how we make our biscuits round here?’ I believe the biscuit-making scene lasted about 20 seconds, but the roar of the crowd suggested the speaker wasn’t alone in her outrage.”

Biscuits are like that. You need to make them right or not make them at all, and most people will tell you most of the time that however you are making biscuits, you are making them wrong. This is true especially if you are not from the South or if you are from England, where biscuits are hard and dry and sit on the dividing line between cookie and cracker.

Some people mix their biscuits in a wooden bowl handed down from Grandmother. Some drop biscuits onto a cooking sheet, rather than cutting them out. Some people use lard as the fat, others butter. For some, a biscuit must be huge. Others say small. There are people who beat their biscuits or add salt to them and others who press sugar cubes into the dough. Liquids added to biscuit flour may include buttermilk, heavy cream, flat beer, sour cream or cola. Cream of tartar can make an appearance in a biscuit recipe, as can baking soda.

For Yankees, the principal biscuit issue is flour. Proper Southern biscuits (as proper Southerners will tell you) are made with soft red winter wheat flour, low in protein and gluten — traditionally White Lily brand or Southern Biscuit brand. These are only sporadically and expensively available in the North and West of the country, where the more traditional all-purpose flour is made from sterner spring wheat, with more protein and gluten in it, better for making yeast breads than tender, flaky biscuits.

Some Southerners believe that it is not possible to make a good biscuit north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nathalie Dupree, a biscuit doyenne out of Charleston, S.C., whose “Southern Biscuits” cookbook provides enough biscuit recipes to fill a lifetime, disagrees. “Any biscuit is possible for a Yankee,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Extensive testing in Brooklyn bears her statement out. Cake flour, a low-protein flour that is available in supermarkets from Boston to Chicago, north to Seattle and down to Los Angeles, makes a fine biscuit. Standard Northern all-purpose flour does as well, especially if you allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes or so before cutting it out and baking.

What follows are two simple recipes for biscuits, one made with cake flour and lard; the other with all-purpose flour and butter. The first results in a biscuit with a delicate, silken texture that does well with syrups and runny fried eggs. The second provides a crumbier result, with a density appropriate to the flour, that is marvelous with thick, creamy sausage gravy, heavy on the sage and black pepper.

Neither takes long to put together. Christopher Kimball, the professorial leader of Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country and television’s “America’s Test Kitchen,” said in an interview that this feature is crucial to biscuit excellence. “The secret of biscuits is that they are dead simple, and you should be able to make them in your sleep or even in the midst of a blind-drunk hangover,” he said. “To hell with the gourmet stuff.”

All y'all (that's southern plural for "you") can read the rest of the story here.  (N.Y. Times  tiered subscription model).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ketchup Goes Artisanal?

There's a seasonal shift going on in the condiment firmament. Ketchup, the big red staple of American pantries, is catching up with the cool crowd as chefs and food entrepreneurs seek new inspiration.

"It's a very exciting time to be making ketchup," says Scott Norton, who with Mark Ramadan founded the recently launched Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Ketchup.  

Organic ketchup, spicy ketchup, gourmet ketchup, curry ketchup, all have blossomed in recent years, a development that James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, has noted with approval. "Who doesn't love a good catsup?" he points out.  

About the whole ketchup vs. catsup thing — like tomato vs. tomahto, this seems to be a matter of personal choice. Oseland uses both depending on his mood.  

The big tomato in American sauce, of course, is Heinz, which launched its ketchup in 1876. Interestingly, this wasn't the company's first venture; Heinz began with a horseradish sauce in 1869. Today, more than 650 million bottles of Heinz ketchup are sold worldwide, adding up to more than $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Tradition is part of the appeal of Heinz; this year the company brought back the classic glass bottles for a limited time in stores. This is the bottle with the "57" on the neck denoting the "sweet spot" one taps to get the ketchup to exit at maximum velocity of .028 miles per hour. But Heinz, the market leader, also has been part of the changing sauce scene, expanding its products to include a no added salt version, organic ketchup, a Hot & Spicy bottle with a kick of Tabasco sauce, and Simply Heinz, which uses sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.  

Hunt's and Del Monte are two other big names in U.S. ketchup; additional brands that have found a place on the shelf include Annie's Naturals Organic Ketchup, Muir Glen Organic Ketchup, Organicville Tomato Ketchup and Stonewall Kitchen Country Ketchup, a product described as "ketchup all grown up."
Norton and Ramadan's ketchup chronicles began about three years ago when they started cooking homemade tomato ketchup as economics majors at Brown University.

"We love ketchup," explains Ramadan. They thought it was curious that there only a few dominant brands of ketchup, as opposed to mustard, for instance, and thought, "wouldn't it be fun to try to make something in our own kitchen."

They held tasting parties and came up with two flavor profiles, classic and spiced, now available online and in stores including Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods Market. The ketchup, billed as having less sodium and sugar than leading brands, is sweetened with agave nectar, honey and raw brown sugar and includes apple cider vinegar for a tangy kick. Other ingredients include coriander, lime juice, allspice, cilantro and cayenne pepper.

In some ways the concept of gourmet ketchup sounds slightly oxymoronic. Ketchup, a burger's best friend, is unabashedly of the people and a product that tends to stir strong opinions.

Read the rest of the story here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Another Growing Career Path for Chefs??

Hy-Vee Brings in Full-time Chef

America is in the middle of a cooking Renaissance.

People are rediscovering the art of home cooking and the advantage it has on their family - from saving money to healthier meals.

The Empire Hy-Vee, located at 4101 S. Louise Ave., has just made the family dinner a little more attainable. They hired a full-time chef to oversee food displays, conduct food preparation demonstrations, hold classes and act as a resource to shoppers.

"To have a chef is a great asset for the store and the customers," says Jenn Colgan, registered dietitian. "Having that culinary expert available to give people ideas on how to incorporate new things in their meals and recipes" is a valuable service.

Chef Scott Teal started in June.

He is planning to demonstrate new items, highlight food trends and will begin holding classes in August.
"Making your own food is enjoyable and economical. The goal is to push that forward," says Teal of Brandon.

He will incorporate fresh and new ingredients to inspire novice and experienced cooks.  Originally from Brookings, Teal got his training at the Texas Culinary Academy and stayed in Austin, Texas, for 20 years. A cook for 25 years, he has worked in restaurants and long-term care facilities. He's happy to be back in South Dakota, where he still has family.

New produce will figure heavily into his demonstrations and his recipes. For example, there is a new chocolate grape tomato. "It has a more brownish color and is new to the market. We're able to bring that in and expose the item to Sioux Falls cooks."

There will be a dedicated space at the store for his cooking demonstrations. He will show how to make a dish from start to finish. "It will take the guessing out of cooking meals. And people can watch while they're shopping."

It's a natural fit, Colgan says. He's a good resource for shoppers craving contemporary meal ideas or those wanting to try a new food. He will use locally grown food and fresh herbs when possible.

Today's push is to make meals healthier, and Teal "will help us incorporate more variety into our diets," Colgan says. Teal will be creating his own recipes and showcasing the store's recipes.

Read the complete story here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Firehouse Cook is a Cheesecake Master

Johnny Scruggs picked up the last perfect strawberry, buffed it on a paper towel, placed it at the summit of his masterpiece, sealed it in place with a drizzle of gelatin, then stepped back to admire his work.

The objet d’art was his strawberry cheesecake, a confection so prized in Prince George’s County’s fire circles that it has earned him the nickname “Cheesecake Johnny.”

He had shopped for the ingredients — fresh eggs, Philly cream cheese, Breakstone’s sour cream and unsalted butter — then amassed them on the kitchen counter at Northview Community Fire/EMS Station No. 816 in Bowie, where he is assigned as a firefighter and paramedic.

Hoping that an emergency wouldn’t occur while he cooked, he beat the ingredients by hand (he never uses a mixer), kissed them with just the right amount of pure vanilla extract, lined a pan with parchment paper, crafted a golden crust of graham cracker crumbs and, with the care of a mother touching her infant, poured the mixture into the pan.

“There it is,” he said, beaming proudly. “Now into the oven it goes.”

Firehouse cooking is a skill as old as the service itself, but Scruggs takes it to a new level. Popular for his standard firehouse fare, Scruggs draws raves for his cheesecakes, whose aroma, mingling with the scent of disinfectant and rubber from giant engine tires, has become familiar at the station.

“There are a lot of firefighters who can cook standard firehouse chili or barbecue some ribs, but without a doubt he is our most famous dessert chef,” said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the fire department.

Scruggs’s repertoire includes 47 varieties, including chocolate, chocolate-peanut butter (“which,” he said, “tastes just like a Reese’s” cup), coconut, coffee, sweet potato and every fruit from blueberry to key lime. He recently mastered a bean cheesecake and has experimented with a broccoli and squash flavor.  Each cheesecake is infused with natural flavoring and is elaborately decorated. For those who want zing, he will add a taste of the hard stuff.

“A firefighter friend of mine’s 88-year-old grandmother wanted a Jack Daniel’s cheesecake, so I made it for her,” he said. “The alcohol burns off, so there is no effect from it. It wasn’t my favorite, but she loved it. I put a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s on as decoration, and he said she drank that after she ate the cheesecake.”

Once known only within the department, Scruggs’s desserts are now in demand for weddings, anniversaries, family reunions and other events across the region. “I’m already just about booked up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it’s only June,” he said recently.

Mastering cheesecake baking was natural for Scruggs, who cut his teeth in the kitchen at home in Montclair, N.J. His mother, Bernice Smith, a teachers’ assistant, cooked basic weekday meals — meatloaf, roasted chicken and her special breaded shrimp.

His father, George Smith, a laborer whose sunup-to-sundown work schedule precluded him from getting into the kitchen on weekdays, produced weekend specialties such as slow-grilled barbecue and tender beef roasts.

“I can remember standing on a stool that was pushed up to the stove and watching my mother cook eggs and bacon,” Scruggs said. “It was like magic to me. She would take these raw [ingredients] and stand at the stove and miraculously, in a few minutes, breakfast would come.”

Scruggs tried to cook his first egg before he started school, its gooey contents missing the skillet and sliding into the fire below.

Despite the mess, he was hooked.

“I was the oldest of six kids, and there is a five-year gap between me and the next one, so I had a lot of responsibility,” he said. “My mom would leave a note on the fridge telling me, ‘Take this out of the freezer and thaw it,’ or ‘Start cooking the fish,’ so that by the time she got home at 5 or so, there was less stress on her. Later, I actually cooked dinner for the family.”

Read the rest of Cheesecake Johnny's story here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TV Chefs: From Culinary Teachers to Reality Show Stars

Smile, You're on Camera 


What is it that makes food and television go so well together—or, more to the point, achieve such high ratings? Apart from major sporting events and royal weddings, few U.K. programs generate such large audiences year after year as "MasterChef," now in its 17th series since it relaunched in 2005. "Celebrity MasterChef," one of the show's four current strands, recently drew eight million viewers. It isn't just in the U.K. that the show is popular—last year's finale of Australian "MasterChef" caused the traditional leaders' debate in the country's elections to be delayed because the time slots would have clashed.

"There have been three ages of TV chef programs," says Peter Bazalgette, who has produced more than 3,000 episodes of the groundbreaking BBC series "'Food and Drink," and the more populist "Ready, Steady, Cook." He went on to perfect the reality TV show "Big Brother," which is equally praised and reviled. "Until the '70s, the chef, such as Julia Child, would merely stand behind a counter with a bowl and simply tell you what to do. Then the formula changed, with the chef trying to do amusing things to entertain the viewer, until the current phase in this century, where you basically have a reality show, with a celebrity chef in difficult situations. This could be Jamie Oliver trying to make Americans eat healthily or Gordon Ramsay in one of his 'Kitchen Nightmares.' What we discovered was that the best chefs are extrovert showmen, martinets, so now they are full-throated reality shows."

It has become commonplace for aspiring media personalities who once headed to the jungle to enhance their image to now try their hand at cooking competitively in "Celebrity MasterChef." Even those well-established in gastronomic circles are branching into TV. Simon Hopkinson, one of the most private and highly regarded food writers in Britain, has renounced his earlier pledge never to appear on TV—his new series, "The Good Cook," starts next week on BBC One in the U.K.

Matthew Fort, a food writer and judge on "The Great British Menu," says one reason for the plethora of programs is that they are relatively cheap to make, and while gardening or DIY programs have loyal followings too, not everyone has a garden or the desire to do home repairs—but everyone eats three times a day.

He has a point. Food programs are attracting a wider audience. "I think what happened on 'MasterChef' was, for the first time, viewers witnessed ordinary people who were really good at something —just people who could have lived next door or been on the bus. And during the length of the program, they went on to be exceptional chefs and then do something different with their lives," says Karen Ross, the executive producer of the U.K. "MasterChef" series. "It was celebratory—something that everyone can relate to, because even if they don't cook, they all eat," she adds. "The big thing is the audience can relate in terms of 'I could do that, or be that—I really hate my job in the call center or as a doctor or a plumber, and this could free me in some way.'"

But with all this attention and excitement about cooking shows, the puzzling thing is that it doesn't seem to have translated into higher quality standards for food consumption as a whole.

Mr. Fort says food programs do have an impact in broadening public knowledge about different cuisines, but not when it comes to healthier eating. "If you look at the external evidence regarding the public's diet and overweight issues it is not very encouraging," he says. "The sales of prepared meals and microwaves are going up—families prefer to watch television together rather than eat together." But he adds that some shows, like Jamie Oliver's quest to improve school dinners, do help increase awareness about specific foods—even if they don't change the national diet. "When [British chef] Delia Smith uses cranberries or goose fat on a cookery program, there is a 3,000% sales increase, though admittedly from a fairly low base," Mr. Fort adds.

TV programs can also help boost chefs' profiles. "There is no better PR than a TV show if you are a chef," says Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger restaurant in Massachusetts, who has presented programs on the Food Network and PBS for more than a decade. "Suddenly people want to interview you about any subject under the sun and they will also want to try your restaurant—at least once. I put it down to what I call the irrational power of television." He voices concern, however, about those celebrity cooks whose primary goal appears to simply be famous. (Not that he doesn't participate in the new style of TV shows himself; he recently reached the semifinals in the popular U.S. series "The Next Iron Chef.") "Of course, 95% of good chefs are not on television," Mr. Tsai says. "And as for the ones who are but do not have a restaurant, I don't consider them to be chefs, merely culinary entertainers."

Read the complete story here.