Monday, July 14, 2014

Old Reflective Journal Entries from my externship

Look what I found! -my weekly journal from my externship. Le Cordon Bleu requires three months of externship at the end of the program. And they had us keep a reflective journal that we had to send in each week, along with our hours worked (signed by our head chef). I'm starting with Week #2 because I can't find the entry for Week #1. I can't find the one for Week #3 either. Do you notice the different tone in my voice as a rookie then, and years later now? I got a good laugh from reading these entries. Most of my entries were longer than required. They only required that the entries be a paragraph minimum. But usually, mine were a little bit longer because we all know that I like to write. I refrained from writing a book each week because that wouldn't have been fair to the other students nor the chef instructors. I am sure the instructors had a ton of journals to skim through and mark off each week. Reading pages and pages of mine wouldn't have been reasonable.

And FYI, I had been at my place of externship for months prior to officially starting my externship hours, so Week #1 wasn't really my first week of being there. But it was the first week when I had to start keeping the journal, the official start of my externship hours.


Week # 2

 
The chef went on vacation for the week. He left during the week of the actual starting date of my externship. Luckily, I had already started my time there weeks ago, just enough time for him to show me the ropes and for me to get adjusted.

Prior to starting externship, I had two concerns: encountering a chef with a nasty temper and the fear that I’d end up working at a place with no A/C. My apprehensions have been laid to rest and thankfully, the horrid kitchen I imagined did not become a reality.

Perhaps I have been watching too much of the reality shows like Hell's Kitchen that is often over-exaggerated for show. There were times I worried that I'd be working at a kitchen with a chef that would yell things like, "What the f**k is this, you donkeys?! It looks like s**t!" Images of the chef throwing plates on the ground with rage have crossed my mind a time or two. Fortunately, our chef has an easygoing demeanor. I have never seen him yell or curse. The overall aura of the kitchen is quite tame, nothing like the hostile kitchen I had imagined. I have become so accustomed to all the cursing in the kitchen at school. Many of the chef instructors I've had curse like sailors. I guess all the hostility helps prepare some students when they enter a kitchen full of hardcore culinarians that will not tolerate anything but superb ness. One learns to grow a thick face. The brutal insults may make some weaklings cry (as seen on Hell's Kitchen). For others, it only pushes them to get better.

Recently, I started to help out at the grill station a bit during dinner time. I get overheated over there. I have been grilling the proteins for the entrees. So far, I have grilled the filets, chicken and shrimp (for salads). I worried a lot about dealing with the heat in a hot kitchen. I've heard horrendous stories about people working in the kitchen in triple digit weather with no A/C. In the school, the kitchens have no A/C, so I was dying in the summer time last year. If I had to work at the grill all day under such unbearable conditions, I really think I would pass out. I can only tolerate so much heat. There is a certain point when it just becomes torture. But I am glad to say that the air ventilation system in our kitchen makes things appeasable. For now, I would like to work on mastering things at the grill station, a station that is still new to me.





Week #4

 
With only a short time left of finishing the AOS program at Le Cordon Bleu, I now face the inevitable payback. These days, I am constantly reminded of the debt I will need to start paying off. Sometimes I can not even sleep at night because of the thought and I constantly wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?” It has been stressing me out daily.  

With a zillion other bills I need to keep up with, plus the now monthly payment of a few hundred dollars, I now feel obligated to start working multiple jobs (at least 60-70 hours a week) to be at peace.

Going into the program, I knew I would regret it some day. But, I wanted to go through with it anyways. Why? I do not know. I guess I am just crazy like that. I have done plenty of things that I end up regretting later. But I always do it even though I know I will be sorry with regret sooner or later. I feel like I need to get the first hand experience for validation even if it means that I may be displeased with the consequences.  

So was the program worth the money? Absolutely not! I now face an enormous debt in the amount of a figure that is hard to fathom without wanting to cry. And I pretty much could have attained the same skills from a community college for much less. I could have gone to Cerritos College down the street for JC unit prices. But they did not have the fancy name and the enticing perks of a pricy school. I will be in debt for the rest of my life, or at least for the rest of the prime of my life. With outrageous payments I need to make each month, it is going to burden me with unimaginable financial stress. I do not know how I will be able to save money or be able to comfortably afford the finer things in life as I once relished doing.

Kitchen labor can be highly intensive and physically exhausting. And I know that most people entering the industry right after graduating will find it a struggle to pay off the debt. Schools for entering the white-collar professions (such as law schools and medical schools) may be costly too. But at least those graduates will have a better chance at making sufficient incomes to be able to pay off the debt without struggling as much.

Many of the cooks in our kitchen learned kitchen skills from on-the-job. They did not spend the enormous sum of money to earn a culinary degree from an outrageously pricy school. Sometimes I think one might be better off getting an entry level position and learning the skills at the workplace.

The media over-glamorizes the kitchen life…and so do the reps at the school. I am not one foolish enough to fall for all the hype…I did not expect that everyone that enters culinary schools to become the top notch executive chef as seen on television. I really enrolled to pursue a hobby. I know that it is an outrageously expensive hobby. But I still wanted to experience it. I am quite familiar with marketing tactics salesmen use to entice “victims”. The persistence and “over-exaggerated” or “twisted” truths fed into the heads of aspiring young chefs lures them into the field. I am one to know what it means to over-exaggerate.  Younger and less experienced students may be more susceptible into falling for this.

I am old enough to acknowledge the reality. I know the value of the exceptional skills and experience that one needs to bring to the table. To succeed, there needs to be a phenomenal asset that stands out from the others, the competition. “Willing to do what the others are not,” takes you a long way. Simply getting a culinary degree does not turn one into a world-famous chef overnight as many students may think. Formal education can only take you so far. Most of it is how you choose to “utilize the skills that you have gained” from it.

Overall, I do not regret my decision to enroll in culinary school. It has been a memorable experience and I learned a lot. But I have tremendous regret about how much I have invested into it. It was so not worth the $50 grand.
 
Week #5
 
Week 5 at the restaurant has been packed with recent graduates coming in with their family and friends to celebrate their special day. Graduation is the time to celebrate one’s accomplishments. It is a milestone that students should feel proud of.
Starting with primary education, elementary school graduations signify a time of leaving the childhood years behind and entering adolescence. Middle school, which can be known as the awkward years, can be a time of confusion and rebellion. Graduates leave the pubescent years behind and enter young adulthood when they move onto high school. High school can be one of the most critical times of a person’s life. Studying for the SAT’s, studying hard to keep up GPA’s, applying to colleges, and overwhelming schedules with extracurricular activities to put on college applications can get stressful. The decisions made during this time can take a toll on how the rest of your life is going to turn out. But it can also be an exciting time, -the friendships made that will be cherished forever and the memories shared. And then college! College graduations are a huge deal. For many students, that is when their formal education comes to an end (unless they continue on to pursue advanced degrees). We learn a lot about life and our selves in college. By deciding on a major, or some of us changing majors countless times, we learn about what we want to do in life and what our strengths and weaknesses are. Then it is time to get out into the real world.
With flowers, balloons, leis, the graduates are showered with love. They are there to share the special day with the ones that gave their support through the journey. Lots of pictures are taken to remember the day. The ceremony is often followed by a graduation lunch or dinner (depending on what time of day the ceremony is at). The celebration can last for days followed by more dining out, get-togethers, and parties. Graduates have worked (some more than others) to get to where they are and as with other celebrations, we, as the food service industry,  participate in their special day by preparing the food, thus partaking in creating a memory.
I went to a graduation this week, myself. The ceremony was great. Everything was good, but because we had been stuck in traffic for hours. We were too pressed for time to go dine somewhere nice. We only had a short time to get a quick bite before the ceremony started. So we stopped by the nearest place. The food was not great, but I guess it is more about being together. But still, celebrating with tastier food would have made the day even better.
 
 


Week #6


One of the things I do not miss about being in the classroom labs is doing dishes in the end. Class would start with a demo and/or lecture, followed by student production. After making a mess of dirtying dishes, tabletops, floors, we would have to clean all of the dirty dishes, usually clean the stuff we used.

I know how much of an exhausting labor dishwashing can be. I once signed up for an event at Wolfgang Puck in Sony Studios. Prior to going in that night, I had no knowledge that I would end up doing dishes all night. When I walked in, they told us that they needed two students to be doing the dishes. So one other student and I did the dishes for an excruciating four long hours which seemed an eternity. The dirty dishes kept coming nonstop. It was not fun at all.

The other student told me that he once worked as a dishwasher. So naturally, he seemed comfortable in the setting and knew what to do. I, on the other hand, was not happy and unfamiliar with how the dishwashing station operated. Cooking and prepping can be exhausting sometimes. But the four hours of washing dishes physically drained me and was more tiring than any other night I spent on cooking.

My arms felt like they were going to fall off from carrying loads of heavy dishes back and forth all night. I don’t know how dishwashers do what they do all day long. But after experiencing that dreadful night, I came to acknowledge how hard they work. It may be a thankless and mindless job, but they are really an essential part of the kitchen, making life easier.

 

Week #7


While working in the pantry for the past few months, I have seen a number of new items being added to the menu. The traditional Caesar Salad made of chopped Romaine Lettuce has started being served unchopped and fanned out, giving it an artsy appearance. At times, customers preferring the “old style” plate would send it back and ask for it to be chopped. It is a creative way to plate the Caesar Salad, but personally, I think I would want mine to come out chopped as it originally is. Maybe I am just lazy to chop it up myself. On one of the Yelp reviews, one customer commented that he/she was “annoyed” with having to cut the lettuce his/her self. I can relate.

Added to the list of tarts on the dessert menu was the blueberry tart that was being served for a brief period. It was a tedious task to top all the blueberries onto the tart. Making the blueberry tart was made with the similar concept as our apple tart, arranging the fruit item being used in a circular pattern from the surface to the center. The caramelized apples for the apple tart are larger in size, making it easier to arrange on top. With the blueberries, putting them on one by one was very time consuming. We no longer serve the blueberry tart, but the apple tart and the lemon tart are still on the menu.

 
Week #9

 


“You know, I tell students to hurry and they say, ‘I’m going as fast as I can.’ Well, no you’re not. You will be amazed how fast you can do things. There is no limit to how fast you can go. You can never be good enough. You can never be fast enough. Remember that,” Chef Turgeon tells his students in “The Making of Chef” by Michael Ruhlman. The importance of speed and working with a sense of urgency cannot be emphasized enough in any professional kitchen. At my externship site, I have learned that you really can never be “fast enough” or “good enough”. Despite how good and fast one thinks he/she is, they can always be faster and better. There is no limit to the possible level of “greater-ness” every chef or cook can achieve. I have struggled with speed in the past, particularly in the beginning of the program. Making the transition from cooking at home to training in a professional kitchen setting was not easy. When cooking at home, I was able to take my time and cook in tranquility. In the professional kitchen, getting things done fast and doing it flawlessly in a hectic setting is expected.


 

 Week #10



Week #10 at the restaurant has been routine. I have been doing a lot of prep work for the banquets. At times, I help prepare the employee meals. The menu for the employee meals are specifically selected for each day. Often times, I do not like what they serve. It is a fine dining restaurant but they serve crap to the employees. Sometimes, they serve pieces of meat with slices of bread. It looks like prison food.


 

Week #11
With only a week remaining of my externship (and the final week of the AOS Program), I feel a sense of relief. The 15 months of being in culinary school has been an interesting experience. I have devoted 15 months and invested a fortune to obtain culinary skills and complete the AOS degree in culinary arts. There were numerous time I regretted my decision and wanted to drop out. It was just taking too much of my time and money and I felt trapped and frustrated. But now that my time in the AOS program at Le Cordon Bleu is coming to an end, it feels like the year has gone by quickly when it used to feel like it would never end. There is still a lot of room for things I can improve on and get used to. But I feel like I have come a long way. One year ago, I was not able to touch raw meat products without being disgusted. Now, it does not bother me as much.
 
 


Week #12


 

The 15 months of being in culinary school is now coming to an end. As I complete my last week of externship to finish the AOS program, I reflect back on the journey that began over a year ago. From day one, learning the fundamentals of the kitchen basics of maintaining safe food handling to becoming trained in holding a knife properly, we have all come a long way.

There were roughly over twenty to twenty five students that started the program with me. In the end, only twelve remained. Others got separated or dropped out. My classmates and I have watched each other grow as we went through both failures and successes in the kitchen as we headed towards becoming (as we are now) the newest breed of cooks in the industry, fresh out of culinary school.
From burning or undercooking food items, not meeting time windows to just totally butchering a recipe, plenty of mistakes have been made (and learned from). But we made it through and survived. Now the dreaded part begins, - paying back the loans.
We have learned many new recipes throughout the program. I have learned dishes that I have never seen or even heard of, and had no idea what they were supposed to taste like. I think that was one of the biggest challenges. For many of the dishes, we learn then make usually once or twice. After time, I don’t even remember what all the ingredients are or how to make it. Contrary to the classrooms, in a real world restaurant setting, many of the items made are made over and over again and it becomes repetition to make. Things become routine.
Cooking is a “craft”. The theory that creativity cannot be taught is debatable. A great chef not only has years of experience, but he/she will have innate abilities they are born with such as a remarkable palate and creativity. Sometimes, when I look at some of the world’s top chefs, I can’t help but to think that cooking is what they were born to do. It is talent that separates them from the mediocre. Others can work just as hard as them to be the best, but without the talent, they can never surpass or reach the greatness as their more talented competitors.

 

8 comments:

  1. Lol

    "It is a fine dining restaurant but they serve crap to the employees. Sometimes, they serve pieces of meat with slices of bread. It looks like prison food."

    I like our bluntness.

    Also like your comment about how you can always improve and be faster, do it better, etc.

    Do you still talk to the other people who graduated the program with you? Are they all working in kitchen as well or do they have the same feelings that you have about the the cordon bleu? You could interview them for more material for your book! Haha.

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    1. Lol the pieces of meat were just whatever pieces they had left, including scraps from service. And we'd eat that with sandwich type bread.

      That is a great idea about getting stories from my former classmates.

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  2. 4 damn hrs of dish washing???? That must be exhausting...I would give up after an hour haha
    Thanks for sharing your journal...as I suspected very interesting indeed! :)

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    1. Yeah...one of the worst four hours of my life. That is the experience that I had just blogged about not too long ago. It still gives me nightmares!

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  3. The prison food line made me chuckle, too. Your entries seemed very reflective. It was fun reading those, thanks for sharing! It would be interesting to see how your other classmates that made it through with you are doing.

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    1. Thanks. It was fun for me to look back on these too. And later in my journey, the top two concerns of mine came to reality, -working with chefs that have nasty tempers and working with no AC during heat waves...amongst other things. I ran into a couple of them over the years (not from my class but students that went to the school around the same time that I knew) and one was working at Panera Bread and the other worked for a staffing agency doing events, both FOH and BOH positions as needed.

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  4. I read this during tech class last week and forgot to publish my response before leaving! I did post the other one since it was read first! Anyway, I remember thinking, wow that's a long reflective entry! I wonder what I would have written about if it were me! Also, I wonder if they take into consideration anything negative you write about, like the crappy food you ate, or just laugh and ignore it! Also, was this typed or hand-written?

    I've read my old journals and sometimes I'm impressed by what I wrote and sometimes I'm thinking how silly I was! Good stuff to reminisce though!

    Btw I noticed that I use exclamations a lot! =)

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    1. Well, it was one entry per week for a three month period, so...not really too long. Oh...I don't think they care too much about what employees think of the employee food. As long as the food going out to customers is up to par and getting good reviews, it's all good. Family meals are often prison food anyways, so I'd say it's almost normal at a lot of places. It's free food for the staff, so as long as we are fed and not starving, people are happy. They already know family food can be prison food. We don't usually expect it to be great...although sometimes it can be. So I don't think it's really a big deal. I am sure they feel the same way a lot of the times.

      I wonder what kind of things you wrote about. Work related stuff too?

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