The kitchen at the CIA in Napa is a sprawling labyrinth. When you are a guest chef, trying to find what you need can be rather daunting, especially when you are pressed for time and need to get the food out. Dry goods, spices, and fresh ingredients are kept in different walk ins, in small rooms, on rolling cabinets and in locked cages. It’s hard to find anything unless you ask for help from a student or a teacher who works in the kitchen regularly. At the recent World of Flavors conference most of us who were guest chefs were assigned culinary students to help us get our cooking and prep done. We had not only to set up for demos and tastings, but serve food at three receptions attended by 600 guests. Naturally we all wanted to do our very best to prepare the food of the countries whose cuisines we were representing.
In the midst of the kitchen hubbub, Mourad Lahlou called me over to his station. He was shaking his head. He said “Joyce you will not believe this.” He introduced me to his student assistant, an eager young man clad in impeccable chef whites. Mourad had asked his student to find him some xanthan gum he needed to thicken and stabilize a dressing and the young man knew all about it and where it was stored in the kitchen. He was acquainted with sous vide and knew how to use an immersion circulator. But when Mourad asked him to get some dates, the student drew a total blank. He had never heard of dates, much less tasted one. Mourad sent him to a chef instructor to locate the dates. The student came back with figs. Mourad sent him back until he finally returned with dates. He asked Mourad “What kind of vegetable is this?” Mourad explained patiently that it was a fruit and grew on a date palm tree, and was cultivated in California! He had him taste one.
Now Mourad and I are at the opposite spectrum when it comes to cooking styles and technique. He is the modern chef intrigued by all that is new and I am the traditionalist grandma. But we are very good friends because we agree on the value of studying culture and history and we are united in our obsession with flavors and good ingredients. We fell into cooking because we were in love with food. We read everything. We tasted everything so we could refine our palates. We were curious about ingredients and what you could do with them. So we both were taken aback that a culinary student would be familiar with xanthan gum but, in this era of the locavore, not to know about dates or figs, both California local.
In culinary school students concentrate on learning diverse techniques and mastering cooking skills, so it would be natural for them to know about the latest equipment and even thickening agents like xanthan gum. But to have been in classes and not know a date seemed out of sync. I think what really surprised us was our realization that today you don’t have to know about or be in love with food to attend cooking school. Many students have seen chefs on TV being a chef is considered cool. It looks like fun to compete, to be “chopped,” to cook under extreme pressure in strange locations. It’s like a game show. And some chefs get to be rich and famous.
Celebrity chefs get lots of press so these young cooks are in awe of the Mourad Lahlous, the Ferran Adrias, the Thomas Kellers and the David Kinches, all revered stars of the current culinary world. Novice cooks don’t realize that these chefs got where they are not because of a desire to be cool or a gig on TV but because they did their homework to expand their culinary horizons which in turn allowed them to focus their talents and develop their own point of view.
I suggest that the all culinary schools take their students on tasting trip through their pantries, walk-ins and larders so that the students know what they have to work with before they approach the stoves and latest machines. All of them may not come in with equal passion or a natural culinary curiosity, but we owe it to them to expose them to food and food history as well as technique. They will benefit from a more well rounded education and they will be better cooks..
When I was interviewing David Kinch, he said that cooks needed to be” respectful of the traditions and history. “It’s a serious chink in the armor of a lot of young cooks that they don’t understand what came before them. But culturally, what went on in kitchens before, I’m not saying to follow it, to play into it, but at least have the basic understanding of that tie in. The cultural reference is very important.”
This was published in the San Francisco Chronicle FEb 17,2013