If you follow me on social media, you might have noticed that I went to TAFE recently to study Commercial Cookery. I did Kitchen Operations, which is the first year of a chef apprenticeship, except it didn’t take a year, it took about 6 weeks. I would have LOVED a year long, part time cookery class, but instead it was condensed into some pretty long, intensive days, as well as work experience at a real restaurant. I loved almost every minute of it, and came out an actual qualified Cook, so it was completely worth it. The class consisted of myself and 4 other committed-foodie nerd adults, and our teachers where all qualified, experienced chefs. (If you aren’t in Australia, TAFE stands for Technical And Further Education, and is an avenue to learn various proffesional skills – it’s Australia’s educational standard for a range of industries.)
ONE #Knifeskillspaythebills – we used our knives with respect, and practiced cutting bruniose, paysanne, batons, jardiniere, macedione, chiffonade, mire poix, and julienne. We learned the different types of knives and what they are used for. We even learned to sharpen and hone our blades. There were only a few minor cuts, which I think is some kind of miracle.
TWO Whisk Euphoria is an actual thing. We whisked cream, sabayonne, and eggs – so, so many eggs. We made chocolate mousse, meringue, creme pattiserie, creme anglaise, mayonnaise, bearnaise, tartare, aioli, and hollandaise. We whisked so much that we thought our arms might fall off, and this is where whisk euphoria happens – just when you think your dead arms will actually fall off your body and thud to the floor, your mayonnaise comes together and it is SO JOYOUS, SO GLORIOUS, you never ever want to stop whisking. Unless your egg whites have gone grainy from being over whisked and your teacher tells you firmly to Put The Whisk Down.
THREE Kitchens are hot and loud. The little scarf that chefs wear around their neck is there to stop sweat falling in the food. Chef hats are high to let hot air escape from their head. There is open flame that is never turned off, there are deep fat fryers that are on all day, there are seriously loud exhaust fans on the entire time to try and reduce the heat – the ones in the TAFE kitchens were so strong we needed to shield parsley as we cut it to stop it flying away. Many chefs develop hearing problems from the constant noise, and everyone in the kitchen has a water bottle or jug of ice water on the go. Add this to people yelling Hot behind! Table 4 is ready NOW! Who’s taken my fucking tongs! Everyone is on a new timeline every few minutes and the stress can be enormous. There is a lot of high adrenaline. I loved it.
FOUR One of the modules we covered was on anti discrimination, which was welcome news to me because I’ve often been overlooked due to my age, sex and family commitments. From what I’ve seen, that discrimination is alive and well, even in the lovely chef teachers I liked so much, that had just spent a few hours telling us to not discriminate.
- ‘Oh we understand that not many people who do this class will want to work in the industry. Many students are just housewives that want to learn how to cook properly’ Big eyes, nodding head, wide smile, bending in my direction. Fuck you.
- ‘You might know the housewives way to fry an egg, today I’m going to show you the chefs way!’ Spoiler: It’s the same.
- ‘It’s hard to find a job with family friendly hours in the hospitality industry, but you could easily start your own cooking classes. Lots of housewives just want to know how to make a proper bolognaise’ Hands up if you don’t know how to make a proper bolognaise. Right, no one, then?
FIVE The only female teacher we had was an absolute mole, with an abrasive, abrupt, extremely rude personality, and even she made discriminatory remarks. To be fair, I can see that she might have had to develop this persona to be successful in the industry, and maybe I’m being naive to think it wasn’t neccesary to be such an absolute mole. Maybe. I’m embarrassed to bitch about a woman who excels at her career, it’s just that her nastiness was so condescending, and so personal; she reduced at least 2 students (one was me) to tears on more than one occasion and once, one of us (not me) left early to avoid her. It’s great that she is so successful, but as a teacher it’s pretty sad that her personality stopped her being able to actually teach.
SIX Most chefs are more concerned with food safety than the taste of the final dish, despite encouraging us to constantly taste what we were cooking. We where taught about fridge and freezer temperatures, used colour coded chopping boards, washed our hands every 20 minutes, reported daily on what food hygiene methods we had employed (but not how things tasted); and sometimes the recipes we cooked were terrible! Lasagna made with celery and carrot but no tomato paste? Muffins that tasted like dish sponges? The worst rice paper rolls I have ever, ever eaten? At least they were all made hygienically, and more importantly, to a recipe. To be fair we were allowed to adjust a few recipes as we went along, but this was the exception. Lots of things we made DID taste divine, don’t get me wrong. But last week I schooled a waitress on the legal ramifications of not taking allergy requests from a customer seriously, while I said nothing about the bland taste of the food. Huh.
SEVEN Measuring is super important, which goes against my usual standard of ‘a glug of olive oil’. It’s important to measure ingredients exactly because the cumulative effect of over using something impacts on a restaurants profit margin, and it also affects the taste of a dish, which will upset a customer if he wanted to eat exactly the same dish he ate last time. The exception to this is the ‘Chef Pinch’, which is how you measure a pinch of salt. You and I might measure a pinch as an actual pinch, a chef will see it more as maybe a quarter of a handful. It’s no exaggeration. Are you shocked? I was! Then the chef will explain to you how important salt is to a meal, to your taste-buds, to your body. One teacher even added salt to her drinking water, to counteract all the sweating she did in the kitchen!
EIGHT Working in a kitchen is physically hard work! It’s not that I thought it would be easy, I just wasn’t expecting the 6 or 7 hours standing up would take such a toll. There are literally no chairs in a kitchen, and standing up on a hard surface all day became a bit painful; even with gel inserts in our safety boots there were still a few of us limping to my car at the end of the day! Chefs wear sheepskin lined, safety leather slippers, and if I was going to become a chef, that’s what I would buy with my first paycheck! Toward the end of the course I discovered my troublesome knees actually contain very little cartilage, and while this explains why they are so painful it also makes clear that standing up for that length of time isn’t going to work for me, regardless of my footwear.
NINE The class was a great precursor to working in a commercial kitchen. When I got to work experience in a real live restaurant, I was quizzed on chopping board colours, fridge temperatures, the importance of mise en place, and cutting methods within the first 10 minutes. The lessons on food wastage that had seemed a little extreme in class were suddenly mild when I was told off for ‘wasting’ mushrooms by peeling them, or putting a few too many pieces of shaved red onion in a salad. But even as the restaurant was battling a cockroach infestation, everyone in that tiny, frantic kitchen’s main concern was making the customer happy.
TEN I learned that I absolutely LOVE it. I loved the hustle, the actual cooking, using the equipment, learning and executing different techniques. I loved our TAFE kitchen, and felt genuinely bereft when it was time to leave it forever. I loved the giant racks of pots and pans, the gale forced exhaust fans, talking food for hours at a time. I even loved the stupid, hulking dishwasher that was constantly breaking down. I loved the walk in fridges and pantry the size of our second bedroom. I loved wearing the skull cap and apron. I loved the hard work at the restaurant, and the camaraderie when the kitchen actually closed and everyone got on with the pack down and clean up.
So, what next? Who knows. I did this course because I wanted to add more to my offering as a food centric blogger, but I’ve discovered that I love it so much more than that. Would I work in the industry? In a heartbeat! Will I work in the industry? Probably not. As sexist as that teacher was, he is right in that I have a family to care for and a husband with crazy work hours, I just cannot work late nights and weekends. Also I’m pretty sure my knees are not up to the job. I will tell you though, the first thing I did after my last class was run off to buy a new whisk. So if you see a job that involves sitting down during school hours can you put in a good word for me? Thanks!
Have you ever worked in a commercial kitchen? Have you taken a hobby further by studying? Do you have dodgy knees, and if so how do you deal with them?