Culinary School Adventure

Upon entering High School, I already knew that I want to cook for a living and build my own restaurant empire. Every day I know I’m getting closer to that goal. During the college application period, I was set in taking a course which directly relates to cooking, hence my options were either to take HRM, Food tech or Culinary Arts. Although, after further conversation with my dad, I decided to take up Entrepreneurship. It was a fun 4 year course, since we got to put up our own businesses, and I was able to put up my own food business. It became my trial run, for the future restaurant I wanted to put up. It became my mini gateway to have people try my cooking. 
Even during college I have been looking at and comparing various culinary schools all over the world. There was Le Cordon Bleu, CIA, Auguste Escoffier and ICC, I emailed these schools and inquired about the programs, which location would be ideal, and which course best suits me. After further deliberation, I've decided to go to the International Culinary Center in California, formerly known as the French Culinary Institute. What stood out for me was their farm to table program, and since the Philippines is an agriculturally rich country, I though this program might be the best for me. It was a year long application in the making, since I really wanted to secure my culinary career before my dad could change is mind (hehehe I knew he wouldn't tho, but just in case) . I thought that once I finish my application here, there's no more turning back, this is it. June 2017 I first visited the school, it was a 3 storey building, 1st floor was a gym, and the 2nd and 3rd floor was where the school is located. It was quite a small school compared to the rest, which was a good thing, since we got to interact with other students. Although prior to visiting ICC, we decided to check out CIA at Greystone in Napa Valley. It was a lot bigger and there were a lot more students, and a higher student to instructor ratio. The courses they have ranges from 2-4 years. Since I already have a Bachelors Degree, I didn’t really find it necessary to take up another 2 year course, so I opted for the vocational 6 month program at ICC. 
I took the Professional Culinary Arts with Farm-to-Table program. We had an orientation, met with the school officials, some of the chefs, and most importantly our classmates. I felt very awkward at first since I was an International student, and I was the only Filipino in class, surprisingly, there were 2 of us who were international students. We were 11 in total in class, quite big, but thats what made our class more fun. All of us were close in age, mostly in our 20’s and we had 3 moms in class. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, we all helped bring out the best in each other, we all just really clicked. First week was kinda awkward, since we were still getting to know each other, and getting to know each others cooking pace and style. Each of us had very different cooking styles and paces, which is also probably why we all got along well. Our pace and styles started to compliment each other, and there was a flow in the kitchen. As we progressed through the levels, our skills also progressed. Level 1, we had mostly the basics of cooking, Level 2 we put the basics to create even more plus we had pastry, Level 3, we learned about charcuterie and family meal, Level 4, was the battle of the fittest, we worked alone and we had a time limit. One of my favourite levels was Level 3, family meal, since I got used to cooking in bulk and we had to work as a team and present a buffet style lunch  for everyone in school. Also in that level, we got the creative freedom to create our own menus for the school, hence we were also able to showcase our culture and our cooking, it felt like its the level that we really got to express ourselves as chefs. My second favourite was Level 4, since we got to learn how to cook by ourselves and not anymore in pairs. We had time to perfect our dishes, and find out what went wrong and how we could improve it some more. Personally I swore off pasty, because theres just something with pastry that really hates me, but this level got me to appreciate it some more. We had Chef Udo to thank for level 4, because, we really felt that he wanted us to really succeed in what we do,  he helped up become better chefs. He was like the “father” figure, he was scary and tough, but once you get to know him, he’s really a fully person, and he wants what best for us students. 
After the formal kitchen lectures, we were sent our to do our externships, I decided to do mine at Chez TJ, a Michelin-Starred restaurant in Mountain View. I first did a stage for a day, just so I could see what the kitchen was like, and to see how everyone worked, whether id be in sync with them or I'll just ruin their rhythm. I spent 2 months with the team under Chef Jarad. It was quite a small kitchen, but it was a super fun experience. Chez TJ is a small restaurant, in which we had an average of 30 covers per night. 
I was the only girl in the kitchen, aside from mama. I feel like I really got along well with the guys on the line, we could tease and mess with each other, but we still produced fine fine food. On my 1st week, I was scheduled for the night shift, in which I got to help during the dinner service itself, we had various courses and I was very surprised how clean, and fast we finished with the service, everything was fluid and everything was paced well. On my 2nd week, I got to see the prep side, it was the morning shift, we had to set up the kitchen, receive the produce and we had to prepare everything we would be using for the dinner service. Depending on the day of the week, we also had to make stock. By the 3rd week I adapted really well with the guys, and I was finally cooking stuff on the hot line haha yay, I helped mostly with the appetiser, helped plate the salads and help plate the main course. I had some stints with pastry too, when we had a lot of covers, I sometimes get called to help out with plating pastry. I was actually super grateful to Chez TJ since I was able to work with and try ingredients I have never seen in my life before eg. 5J ham, edible flowers, some herbs, carabineros, morsels and many more. It was like an eye opener for me since I knew theres much more to food, but I never though I’d get to encounter them that soon. It really  was a great opportunity for me. Having Chef Jarad as our Executive Chef was really helpful since he taught me a lot and he helped me correct my mistakes, which helped me improve my skills some more. Also Credits to everyone Andrew, our Sous Chef, Cooper, Eric, and John, they really made me feel welcome and comfortable in the kitchen plus the front of house staff too!!
In ICC, we had various chef demos, from our own chefs, and chefs with renowned restaurants in the Bay Area. The demos were super helpful since we got to pick the brains of other chefs, and we get to learn some more of their techniques. ICC in a way created so much opportunities for its students. They also had an annual Culinary Competition, with is the Culinary Clash. At first, I really had no intention of joining the clash, since I wasn’t super confident yet with my cooking, but my classmates pushed me to join and told me that I can do it, so I signed up at the last minute. We had to prepare a Squid and Millet dish in 1 hour, and have to present it to the judges. I decided to make my favourite, grilled squid an I treated the millet as though it was rice. A week after the competition, they announced who got in the roster, and surprisingly I passed and got selected as a sous chef for one of my classmates. We had another mini clash in the next month, which would decide if we would be cooking at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins of the InterContinental San Francisco. Luckily we got picked to cook at the InterContinental San Francisco, which is a Michelin-Starred restaurant, Luce. My partner had our menu planned out, she created the recipes and she created the flavour profiles. Although due to some unforeseen event, she had to step down from the competition, I honestly thought already that it was the end of the line for me, since it was only 2 weeks left before our dinner. I panicked since I was told at first that I couldn’t push through with the competition, since my partner has stepped down. But I got a call the next day, that I could still compete for the clash, and I could pick whom I want as a Sous Chef. I got promoted form Sous Chef to Head Chef. I had to carry out the menu my former head chef made. Since it was already too late in the competition, we had to stick to the menu my former partner made, although we were able to make some more adjustments so my new partner and I could call the dishes our own. I honestly got so scared since we still haven’t practiced the dish we were going to make, not even once, so I really didn’t know what to do, and it was only 5 days left before we meet with Chef Dan from Luce. My new Sous Chef, Molly, and I really exhausted all of our resources, we asked around for help from all our instructors and they were really more than willing to help, which was an advantage for us, since they really went out of their way to help us out (Hi Chef YJ, Chef Stefanie and Chef Alaun). We consulted for 2 days, practiced the recipes once and hoped for the best. We only had 2 days to practice 3 recipes, since we were very crunched for time. Over the weekend we thought about out menu again, what could change, what else could we add, then come Tuesday, right after school, Molly and I headed up to San Francisco, to meet with Chef Dan at Luce, we presented to him our menu, how we wanted it, and how we see it play out. Chef Dan was super helpful to us too, he gave us his inputs on how to make our dish better, he helped us really step up our dish to the next level. I remember Chef Dan, asking us “are you sure this dish is tested and that the recipe is fool proof”, knowing that Molly and I just practiced the recipe once, deep inside I wanted to tell him, "ummmm sorry chef but no, we just tried it once lol” but I didn’t, I still told him with full confidence that YES the recipe was fool proof! One of the lies I will never regret saying
Our Dinner was scheduled on March 11, 2018, we stayed at the hotel starting Friday night to begin all the prep work. It was at first super intimidating since its our first time to cook at a Michelin Star kitchen, and we were prepping as the dinner service at the hotel was ongoing. We were very thankful that the team at Luce let us get in their way so we could finish all our prep plus they helped us prep some of our other misc en place, plus we are very thankful to the Executive Sous Chef, Chef Alex for personally foraging for our garniture. Friday before our competition, we went straight to San Francisco from our school, we checked-in at the hotel, dropped off our things, and changed to our chef coats then headed straight to the kitchen, there was really no time to spare. We started creating first all of our frozen components, we made the tomato granita and our brown butter ice cream. The brown butter ice cream took up most of our time, since we had to reduce 5 litres of cream, into brown butter solids, and it begrudgingly took us 5 hours just to reduce the cream into solids. All the nonstop stirring, the hope to not over boil the cream,  and finding the sweet spot between undercooking the solids to actually burning them. 2nd day of the clash prep, we started to make the our aguachile for the ceviche, our paella rice and our cake, which at first was a flop, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to be. We followed the exact recipe, we practiced but it still wasn’t super good, it didn't rise as much as we wanted it to.  It was another setback we had. It was actually super funny that our setbacks were mostly caused by the dessert, our appetiser and main course were surprisingly cooperative. After the cake flop, chef recommended that we just dehydrate the cake and use it as a crumble for our garnish. Since It was a lot of cake, we gave a third pan full of cake to the wait staff and the kitchen staff to snack on. On the day of the competition, we made another batch of the cake, I actually made a mistake with the cake, which kinda tweaked the flavour of the recipe. Silly me wasn’t trying out the ingredients and reading the label properly, instead of using a moscato wine, I used a whole bottle of moscato “vodka” for our cake, which surprisingly made the cake taste even better. We were all set for the competition, we had our misc en place ready, we had all our garniture ready, we had everything ready, we just had to reheat, cook and plate our dishes. We were the first pair to present at Luce, so all the pressure was on us, we had to set the bar so high. It was honestly the most tiring thing ever, I was so drained, that when I went to school I was a walking zombie, and I honestly didn't know how I was still able to cook for school that day.
I was at my externship site already, when we got to a conference call in where they would announce the winners from the clash. I was setting up the kitchen at Chez TJ, and took a few minutes to get into the conference call. I really felt the hype, and I was so prepared to lose, I wasn't really expecting much. They started announcing from the 3rd place to 1st place, I literally fell on my knees, started to cry a little, because heck yeah we made it to the Ultimate Clash, which was in Washington DC. We had a few weeks to prepare for the clash and think of ways to revamp our dish. We were supposed to change our menu by a lot, but then the clash committee said that we couldn’t, but we still kinda did. The day of our flight to DC, American Airlines had a hold up in line, we were there at the airport 2 hrs before our flight, but we still apparently missed it. It was the most stressful thing ever, we were at the airport on time, but we completely missed our flight due to the inadequacy, and lack of information and help from AA. Since we missed our flight, we decided to get a refund, and opted to fly via United Airlines. From San Jose we took the Bus going to San Francisco. It was the smoothest experience ever. We wear already so stressed from the hullabaloo in San Jose, and SF was really a smooth sailing kinda feel. We arrived at DC, completely missed the welcome dinner, but we were still able to meet the other Chefs. The next day, once we got all settled, it was Time to prep all our ingredients, we were very lucky since we didn’t have to make a dessert, we only had to make canapés out of our app and our main. Our appetiser remained the same Cquilao Pacifico, and we kinda tweaked Poseidon’s Cradle, that instead of having a crunchy paella, we opted for a creamy risotto with the same flavour profiles. We also incorporated blue crabs which are super great in DC, and we had puffed rice to add a little bit of crunch to the dish. At the competition we went up against Le Cordon Bleu Mexico, representing Cafe Urbano InterContinental Mexico, Art Institute of Washington, representing Kith and Kin InterContinental Washington D.C. The Wharf, ICC representing Nob Hill Club InterContinental Mark Hopkins. In total we all had to serve 250 guests, and the guests were the ones who had to judge our food. We really went all out for the competition. We were doing things simultaneously, plating the dish, while explaining the dish we had to our guests. It was the most fun Ive had in my cooking career that I even lost my voice, since I had to repeat explaining the dish to each and everyone, which was actually the best part. On the same day, just a few mins after, they finally announced the winners. Unfortunately we didn’t win the Clash, but we got to meet great people from it, future chefs, well known chefs and important people in the industry, but most importantly we got to test our skills to the limits. 
Straight from the Clash in DC, we headed back to California to attend our graduation, from the airport, straight to the school, luggages and all. It was the last time were ever gonna see each other as a whole. Our chefs gave us parting speech and a lot of advice, our families were able to meet each other and our teachers were able to meet our families. Graduation was the best thing ever, BECAUSEEEE *DRUMROLL* I graduated the top of the class, and a deans lister, it was very surprising that almost everyone in our class got in the deans list. We all really worked hard to get to where we are, and we really couldn’t have done it without each other. We all reviewed for our exams together, we all helped each other with our dishes and we all really stood as a team till the very end. We might not be with each other physically, but we still are able to constantly talk on our group chat to update everyone with how they’re doing and where they are now. 
Now that culinary school is over, I have now set sail to look for whats next, and see where the currents would lead me to. The key, I figured, is to never stop cooking, follow your passion, and always experiment. Currently I admit, I have been in a rut for a few months enjoying the “gap” from graduation till I start working again. Although I know good things are yet to come and many more culinary adventures would come my way.
CULINARY CLASH LUCE 2017:                                                  

Published by Hannah Gomez


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