By Lizzie Powell—Student, School of Culinary Arts 

3c33c63Hi! My name is Lizzie Powell. I’m a public relations professional turned ICE Culinary Arts and Culinary Management student from Atlanta, Georgia. As I make this major shift in my career path, many people have asked why I chose to “take the leap” and go to culinary school. The answer is simple: for me, going to culinary school seems like the best way to gain both valuable skills and feel more confident in my decision to change professional direction. While I’m not sure if my future will lie in catering, a restaurant or food media, I know one thing will stay constant throughout my time at ICE: my passion for food and a desire to learn new things. Over the next seven months or so, I’ll be diving into various cooking methods, international cuisines and even baking techniques. So join me as I share my experiences with you on ICE’s blog.

On my first day of the Culinary Arts program, my mind was racing: What would my instructor be like? Would my classmates be more experienced than me? How would I memorize all of the culinary terminology? And, worst of all: would I cut myself?

Lo and behold, I’m two weeks into class and all these worries have faded into the background. Aside from feeling like I’m on Chopped every time I present my julienned carrots, paysanne potatoes or small diced tomatoes to Chef Ted for review, I’ve learned that culinary training isn’t nearly as intimidating as I expected. In each lesson, before I ever pick up a knife, the ICE instructors give detailed demonstrations and explain each technique carefully. As a result, in a matter of weeks, I’ve learned core knife skills, important details of food sanitation and how to fabricate fish and seafood, as well as how to properly caramelize onions and purée potatoes. The most surprising thing about everything I’ve learned to-date is how precise you have to be with your knife skills. The average person may not notice if her potatoes are cut into perfect half-inch cubes, but in the culinary world, this precision is taken very seriously. After cutting many “trapezoidal” potatoes, as Chef Ted says, I discovered that the slightest adjustment to the angle of my knife could make a world of difference.

Life as a Culinary Student - Lizzie Powell - Knife Skills

Outside of class, I’ve also made sure to do my homework—and I’m not just talking about the reading or writing assignments given to us by Chef Ted. Whether you’re thinking about going to culinary school, are a current student or are already working in the industry, here are a few lessons I’ve learned so far on how to stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the food world.

  • Read, read, read. The food industry is constantly changing, and the easiest way to keep up with trends is to read industry news. To do this, subscribe to local and national food news publications (like Eater and Tasting Table), read the New York Times Dining and Wine section and follow leading food magazines (like Edible and Bon Appétit) on social media. I’ve personally found that reading these publications has helped me learn about key industry professionals, food trends and restaurant news—all of which are important when you have a stake in the industry’s game.
  • Volunteer as much as possible. Volunteer events are a great way to network and gain exposure to culinary leaders from across the country. If you’re an ICE student, the weekly newsletter is always chock-full of upcoming opportunities to get involved! I recently had the chance to volunteer at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress, a trade show for culinary professionals and vendors, and the connections I made there were incredible. Not only was I able to assist food vendors with prep work and their products, but I was able to meet such reputable chefs as Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth of Root and Bone. Plus, I got to listen to lectures from industry leaders, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. For me, this conference was the first experience I’ve had where I was thrown into the thick of the culinary networking world. While it was intimidating at times (like when I was standing right next to Marcus Samuelsson), it was great to be surrounded by such successful chefs and to be so submerged in the culinary culture.
Life as a Culinary Student - Volunteer - Lizzie Powell - Star Chefs

Working at Star Chefs with a fellow student.

  • Attend demonstrations and lectures. I also had the opportunity to attend a free presentation and tasting with Urbani Truffles, one of the world’s most respected truffle producers, at ICE. Not only are these events open to students, but alumni can attend for free as well. Click here for the upcoming schedule!

Throughout the next few months, I’ll share more interesting facts, challenging techniques and helpful tips I’ve picked up in class, as well as personal stories about day-to-day life as a Culinary Arts and Culinary Management student. If you have any specific questions about my experience, feel free to ask in the comments below!

When it comes to the benefits of an ICE education, no one can tell you more than our students. Click here to read more of their stories!

 

By Carly DeFilippo—Student, School of Culinary Arts 

When I first stepped into the kitchens at ICE seven months ago, it never felt like this day would come. But somewhere between knife skills 101 and our market basket challenge, I began to discover my “culinary voice” and a professional direction for my creative future in food. Graduating from culinary school felt different from any prior graduations I’ve experienced—perfecting a hands-on skill is entirely different than writing papers, crafting persuasive arguments or memorizing facts and dates. Sure, culinary training involves a bit of typical academic work; but it’s ultimately about honing your instincts and hands-on skills, about becoming that guy or girl someone can count on when the going gets rough.

Life as a Culinary Student - Graduation - Carly DeFilippo

In the corporate world, I’ve heard people use the phrase “putting out fires” to describe the stress of last minute deadlines. But in the kitchen, no matter how well you plan and prep, every task is still a last minute deadline. The turnaround between getting your clients’ order and delivering your product typically takes less than thirty minutes. It makes even the most notoriously stressful desk jobs sound almost easy.

Luckily, for our graduation, we weren’t working as short-order cooks. Our assignment held other challenges: serving up eighty catering portions of a cold appetizer, a hot entrée and a dessert. Working in teams of two or three students, we had to devise dishes that were impressive enough to wow our friends and family, but not so complicated that they couldn’t be prepared within a 10-hour window. (And yes, 10 hours may seem like a lot of time, but if you’ve never cooked for eighty people, it’s really not.)

Life as a Culinary Student - Graduation - Preparation

My teammate Mari and I opted to create three dishes: Thomas Keller’s famous truffle custard, wiener schnitzel and blood orange tiramisu. Each of the dishes held sentimental value: the truffles were one of the most complex dishes from the curriculum at ICE; wiener schnitzel is my mom’s favorite dish; and the blood orange tiramisu recipe was developed by Mari’s coworkers at BAKED in Red Hook.

Each dish presented its own challenges. First and foremost, the tiramisu: neither Mari nor I had ever made a tiramisu cream that included egg yolks—and the original recipe suggested we use them raw. Not wanting to risk poisoning a room full of people (especially people we love!), we had to devise a sabayon strategy with Chef James—an experiment that turned out beautifully, but ultimately cost us valuable time.

Then, the wiener schnitzel: being a deep-fried dish, it could only be prepared so far in advance. So while my homemade cranberry sauce and cucumber pickles were ready to go hours before, I was concerned about keeping my veal hot, dry and crunchy. (It’s worth noting that this predicament—cooking in advance and reheating food—is one of the primary skills we learn in culinary school. You’d be shocked at what you can cook in advance. It just takes experience, training and a dash of restaurant magic.)

Life as a Culinary Student - Graduation - Thomas Keller Truffle

As for the egg custard, the complicated, multi-step process meant that Mari had to clean out the shells of nearly 100 eggs. Beyond its tediousness, it was a precarious task, as was slowly cooking the tender custard. While the recipe seemed straightforward when prepared for twenty people, the larger scale of our efforts presented issues of over-salting, perfecting the custard texture and other unforeseen hurdles.

Yet in the end, when we finally served our first dishes as culinary school graduates to our friends and family, all of this anxiety dissolved into pride. First and foremost, our dishes tasted awesome, and it was incredibly satisfying to show our parents and friends how much we’ve learned. I even got some of the pickiest eaters (ages seven and under) to try my wiener schnitzel!

Last, but not least, it was a thrill not only to receive my very first chef’s hat, but also to learn that my classmates had nominated me for the Wüsthof Leadership Award. One of three awards presented at graduation—the others given to “Most Likely to Succeed” and the “Nespresso Top Toque”—it felt particularly special to be recognized by the very peers with whom I had worked side by side for so many months.

Life as a Culinary Student - Graduation - Graduating Class

It was also exciting to consider my classmates’ futures. Technically, we will not have officially “graduated” until we fulfill a 210 hour externship in the field. I, for one, will be spending the next few months as a recipe-testing assistant for a cookbook, while others have secured externships on the line at such restaurants as Blenheim and Aldea, or even paid positions writing for Delish.com! In no time, we’ll all be full-blown food professionals, using the contacts from our externships—and the networks of our classmates and the ICE alumni network—to pursue our personal dream jobs. And while I’ll miss our time in the ICE kitchens, I can’t wait to see what will come next.

Click here to learn how ICE supports recent graduates through job placement and externship opportunities.

By Tessa Thompson, Department of Career Services

If you’re a career student at ICE and haven’t heard the word “trail” yet, you will soon enough! Just like how “86,” “mise en place” and “hot behind!” are all part of the unique and universal kitchen lingo, the concept of the trail is also a defining aspect of the restaurant world.

Imagine going for a job interview that lasts 8-12 hours, where your potential employer poses questions while you casually peel carrots and de-stem thyme. You get a firsthand view of what life on the job would be like…by actually doing the job. In short, it’s unlike any other type of interview.

What Is a Trail - Working Alongside Chef

All ICE students trail as part of their externship selection process but it doesn’t end there. Restaurant professionals continue to trail throughout their careers, from their first job as garde manger to years later, when they’re vying for a Head Chef position.

A trail is a working audition: a chance to show your best work, from knife skills to efficiency in any task assigned to you. It’s a chance for an employer to see if you would be a good fit on their team. But it’s also an opportunity for you to experience the specific culture and environment of a kitchen to determine if it’s the right place for you—something you’ll never get from an interview for a more traditional job.

What is a Trail - Fast Paced Restaurant

So, now that you know what a trail is, how can you ace the opportunity and land the job? The most important first step is to go in with a positive attitude, an eagerness to work and a willingness to listen and learn. Here are some additional “FAQs” that we frequently get from students at ICE:

What should I wear?  First impressions start at the front door, before you change into your chef whites.  Generally, a nice pair of pants and button-down shirt are appropriate to wear to the restaurant. When you change into your uniform, make sure it is ironed, clean and complete—kitchen shoes, socks, hat, apron, hair tied back, etc. Leave your jewelry at home and go light on any make-up or perfume.

What is a Trail - Everything You Need

What should I bring?  Your knives—but not every single one! Just bring the five essentials: your chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife, peeler and sharpening steel. For pastry students, add an offset spatula and a thermometer.  Also, be sure to have a small notepad to take notes, a pen and a sharpie.

What NOT to bring?  Valuable items. Wads of cash. Jewelry. iPads and other electronic equipment. And while we don’t expect you to leave your phone at home, be sure it is turned off and out of sight in the kitchen!

When is the best time to contact a chef?  Generally, it’s best to reach a chef before or after service on less busy days in the restaurant (normally between 3-5pm, Monday – Thursday).

How many trails should I go on?  Every student is different, but a minimum of three to five trails is generally a good amount for your first job. Once you’re working in the industry, you can do one-day trails or short “stages” at as many restaurants as you like! The general rule is to see enough different kitchens to compare sites (but not so many that it completely muddles your thinking).

If you keep these simple guidelines in mind, you’ll go into each trail with the confidence to tackle whatever is asked of you.

Click here for more career tips from ICE chefs and industry experts.

By Carly DeFilippo—Student, School of Culinary Arts

For most of my time in culinary school, I’ve been learning time-tested techniques or following a recipe “to a T.” So with the exception of a few lessons in modern plating, the ICE “market basket challenge” was the first time I was asked to truly cook creatively for my Chef Instructor and classmates.

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These Chopped!-style lessons, which culminate in an exam of the same format, have been among my favorite moments in the program. After months of following specific directions, I knew that having a blank canvas with only the specification to use “bacon, scallops and tomatoes” or “half a chicken” would be the ultimate test of what I had really learned.

To understand what I experienced during those lessons, it’s important that you know a little about my cooking skills before I entered the Culinary Arts program. I was an above-average home cook—highly knowledgeable, but with no technical training. Cooking dinner for 15 was a task I had already accomplished on numerous occasions, and experimenting with new ingredients is one of my favorite hobbies. So as I approached the “market basket” lessons, I was actually most anxious that I might feel I had not advanced significantly as a cook during the past several months of culinary school.

A "market basket" trial run: half poussin with roasted potatoes, cauliflower and porcini ragout

A “market basket” trial run: half poussin with roasted potatoes, cauliflower, porcini ragout and pan sauce

However, over the course of our two market basket “practice days” and exam, I realized how dramatically I had underestimated the transformation of both my skills and my confidence over these past few months. From pan sauces to warm vinaigrettes, creamy purées to perfectly cooked proteins, I honestly couldn’t believe how easy it felt to execute these dishes—and how proud I was of the results.

Now, before you call me “cocky,” let me be the first to say that there was still improvement to be had. For example, when I served a delicious and well balanced—but rustic—half poussin, Chef Sabrina Sexton challenged me to elevate my presentation style. So, leaving behind the bistro style that came most naturally to me, I felt motivated to tackle a true fine dining presentation for my final exam. Integrating a rainbow of colors, a balance of sweet and bitter flavors and at least seven different textures on a single plate, my final exam dish felt like an overwhelming success. While plating the many components of my “high end” braised chicken—with roasted and raw beets, sautéed radicchio, squash purée and carrot ribbons—was far more difficult than my bistro-style poussin, the flavors and textures were spot on, and never in a million years would I have imagined that I could have come up with such a dish. With a gentle push from Chef Sabrina, I realized for the first time, the incredible possibilities that could be available to me as a cook.

My "market basket" exam: braised chicken with orange/squash puree, roasted and raw beets, carrot ribbons, stewed radicchio, pan sauce.

My “market basket” exam: braised chicken with orange/squash puree, roasted and raw beets, carrot ribbons, stewed radicchio, pan sauce.

As we move toward graduation—and I plan a three-course appetizer menu to serve 60 guests—I’m all the more grateful for this “market basket” experience. While it taught me about time management, multi-tasking and devising a dish from scratch, it also taught me not to play it too safe. At the end of the day, cooking is the most fun when there’s a little risk involved—or, as some might prefer to call it, when you’re learning something new.

Want to tap into your creative potential? Consider a career in Culinary Arts.

 

 

By Jenny McCoy—Chef Instructor, School of Pastry & Baking Arts

My trajectory from culinary school graduate to my current roles as an ICE Chef Instructor, author and entrepreneur didn’t follow the most conventional route. But luckily in the food industry, that’s okay. The more one gets to know other chefs and food professionals, the more you realize that there are many different paths to success in our field.

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Let me start by telling you a bit about my background: Just after graduating high school, and with no set plans to attend college, I decided (on a complete whim) to apply to culinary school. I did not grow up tugging at my grandmother’s apron strings or licking a spoon of icing while my mom whipped up glorious cakes. Sure, there were some folks in my family that liked to cook, but we were more of a dining out kind of family. Growing up in Chicago, tacos or falafel at local hole-in-the-wall restaurants were far superior to my mother’s meatloaf. The highlight of an occasional white tablecloth affair was sipping a Shirley Temple alongside my mom’s Old-Fashioned. In hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me that I found myself so very at home in restaurant kitchens.

Early on in my culinary school program, I decided to specialize in pastry, mostly because I liked the idea of baking gorgeous cakes. What I realized later (many, many years later) is that baking ended up being a better fit for me because the nature of the work is a bit more structured. Yes, the pastry arts are highly creative, but if I don’t use the correct ratios of ingredients, my cake won’t rise in the oven. I needed work that would allow me to be creative but with some rules and guidelines. The rules of savory cooking, on the other hand, can be a bit easier to bend—with a little of this and a dash of that.

With that in mind, here are few tips that I have for those just starting out in the industry—to help you decide what roles might best fit your strengths:

1. Choose a Path That Suits Your Learning and Working Style

Not sure what your “style” is yet? Try taking a Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory or a Myers Briggs Personality Test.

I took a hiatus from cooking in my twenties to pursue my bachelor’s degree. In doing so, I spent a lot of time studying leadership and was introduced to these tests. They really helped me understand myself as a student and as an employee. Give them a whirl! If nothing else, it’s always fun to self-reflect.

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2. While In Culinary School, Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer!       

Don’t be afraid to dabble in a wide range of professions in the culinary industry. Arrange to bake in your favorite bakery for a week or work as a prep cook in a few kitchens on your days off from school. Volunteer as a chef assistant at local charitable events. Ask your culinary school instructors if they need any help with special projects.

As a student, whenever I had days off from school or a holiday break, I would line up a stage in a new restaurant (pronounced “st-ah-j”—a French word for “internship”). Not only did I collect valuable recipes and cooking techniques at every stage, but I also began to understand the culture of kitchens. I started to notice trends and commonalities from kitchen to kitchen, and I started to feel less nervous when entering a new kitchen. But best of all, I expanded my Rolodex.

3. Immerse Yourself in the Industry     

From day one, subscribe to food magazines, buy cookbooks, read the weekly food section in your local paper and those in major cities. Get to know the “who’s who” of the food industry—and not just the chefs on television. Eat out at respected restaurants as often as you can. (A little tip: the cheapest way to eat at an uber expensive restaurant is to stage for a day. You won’t sit down to a 20-course meal, but you’ll see a lot of food being prepared and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to taste some of it too.) The more you know about what is happening on a national level in the industry, the better equipped you’ll be when interviewing for positions. If you can reference current trends, interesting places you’ve recently dined or articles you’ve just read while talking to a potential employer, I guarantee you’ll set yourself apart from other candidates.

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4. Complete an Externship (or Internship)

At ICE, externships are a mandatory facet of our students’ education. Yes, you learn a ton in class at ICE and many students are eager to jump right into a paid position upon graduation. But even for those students who are anxious to start paying off their culinary school loans, I promise that your externship is one of the most valuable components to your education and future career. It is the only time you will be able to walk into a professional kitchen and make tons of mistakes without being shown out the back door. Of course, you will be held responsible for your work and your chef will have high expectations, but the pressure is completely different when you aren’t being paid. It’s just the nature of the relationship.

5. Go With Your Gut

When choosing a site for an externship, be sure you find a kitchen that feels right. I tell my students to simply go with their gut, but the key is to make sure the chef and your coworkers encourage learning above all. What’s more, I give the same advice when it comes to choosing paid positions later in your career.

One of my shortest stints was at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. I worked there for only six months. After an 18-hour trail (a trail is essentially an unpaid working audition for a cooks’ position), I met with Chef Trotter. It was about 2:00am. I was exhausted and utterly confused about what I had accomplished that day, let alone what he was asking me during my interview. When he offered me a pastry cook position, I accepted. (Duh! What cook in the world wouldn’t want to work for Charlie Trotter?!) But as soon as I got home, I knew I had made a mistake. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but half a year later I realized the culture of the kitchen wasn’t a good fit for me. I was used to high end kitchens that were led by much more nurturing chefs, with more camaraderie among the cooks. Charlie Trotter certainly offered an incredible fine-dining service, but he wasn’t nurturing, and there was a level of cutthroat competition among my coworkers that I didn’t care for. I don’t regret my time there—I am now a bit neurotic and have excellent attention to detail, which I exclusively credit to my time at Trotter’s—but it isn’t a kitchen I reflect back upon with many fond memories.

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6. Take Your Time Climbing the Ladder

Have you noticed that most of America’s most celebrated chefs are not in their 20’s? This isn’t Hollywood or the music industry. It takes time to hone your skills. And that time means years, sometimes even decades. So don’t be impatient and try to chase a higher paycheck or a big title right out of school. You will not be ready for the responsibilities, and you’ll likely suffer for it. Remember: when you graduate from culinary school, you are not a chef. You have graduated from a culinary student to a cook.

I started working in kitchens when I was 18 years old. I didn’t become the pastry chef until seven kitchens later, at age 25. You do the math. Which leads me to my last bit of advice….

7. Follow the Hierarchy of a Kitchen     

Escoffier (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, please refer to Step 3 and look him up) created this amazing thing called the Kitchen Brigade in the late 19th century. He used this hierarchy of a kitchen in hotels to streamline the work and create a more efficient system. It is still widely used today. In large kitchens—like hotels or very high-end restaurants, it exists in nearly the exact way Escoffier designed. But in smaller kitchens, where there aren’t as many staff members, it is used more loosely. If you follow the hierarchy and slowly move up the ranks in the kitchen (without too much leaping over entire positions), you’ll find yourself to be an incredibly well rounded chef. A chef that can lead a team, troubleshoot when things go awry, create new dishes and, most importantly, inspire the next generation of cooks.

Whenever I give this advice to students, they always ask, “So how long will it be until I am the chef, then?” If you have that question yourself, here’s my best answer:

Every cook develops differently. Some advance rather quickly, while others take a slower approach to their career development. Expect to spend at least a couple of years at each “level” of the kitchen hierarchy. For example, be a line cook for three to five years, in one to three kitchens (please do not leave a job in less than a year—it will ruin your resume). Then work towards being a sous chef for three to five years in one or two different locations (and do not leave a management role in less than two years). From there, consider being the chef and running your own kitchen. (By the way, this holds true for both culinary and pastry chefs.)

There will always be exceptions. Some people who enroll in culinary school already have years of kitchen experience or incredible knife skills, while others are completely new to the profession. Other people are just in the right place at the right time. But keep in mind, slow and steady usually wins the race—in any industry. It’s like braising meat, your learning path will take a loooooooong time: sure, you can speed up braised meat with a pressure cooker, but if you do that with your career, you are more likely to explode. Give yourself lots of time to learn new methods and techniques, to make mistakes on someone else’s dime, to explore different cuisines and to mature as a leader. Kitchens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon—and running your own business is a financial decision you don’t want to take on if you don’t have the proper experience—so don’t rush it.

Want to train with Chef Jenny? Click here to learn more about ICE’s School of Pastry & Baking Arts.

By Carly DeFilippo, Culinary Arts Student

In the process of preparing a multi-step dish, there are typically a few points of “no return.” Incorrectly butchering a protein, over-cooking the pasta or curdling the egg in your sauce are all-too-common ways to waste time and valuable products. Yet for all these stiff road blocks in the culinary kitchen, there are many more forgiving mistakes—opportunities to add in ingredients or seasoning you had forgotten, methods to smooth out overly reduced sauces or creative solutions for those improperly butchered proteins.

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While the raw ingredients are often (though not always) less costly in a pastry kitchen, there is far less room for slip-ups. Errors in measurement, adding ingredients in the improper order or even something as simple as forgetting the salt can result in an unusable product. Which is why I was thrilled to learn that I would be studying this tricky art with none other than Chef Sim Cass, a master of detail and all things baked.

The incredible Chef Sim Cass.

The incredible Chef Sim Cass

While we culinary students spend only a portion of our program on baking, our previous training in mise en place and cooking in large quantities provides us the skills necessary to dive straight into the pastry process. In our first few classes, we prepared a wide range of candied and preserved fruits, marzipans and pastry creams. In addition to technique, these were lessons in delayed gratification, as creating the individual components of recipes in large, advance batches is an essential part of the pastry process.

Pears poached in port and my first fruit tart at ICE!

Pears poached in port and the (unbaked) design for my first fruit tart at ICE!

From there we delved into doughs, learning the difference between a pâte brisée (literally “broken dough”) and pâte sucrée (“sweetened dough”), as well as various dough-mixing methods. All of this preparation culminated in the creation of our very own fruit tarts—all the sweeter for the prior days of work we had invested in the production of their individual components.

But of all the techniques we’ve learned so far, the one that fascinates me most is lamination. This process of folding and rolling butter and dough into many, many miniscule layers is, in my opinion, one of the coolest things to ever come out of a pastry kitchen. From croissants to mille feuille, “elephant ears” to flaky quiche crust, the results are nothing if not magical.

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Just like the first time I butchered a chicken, learning to craft laminated dough is a moment I’ll never forget. It’s the kind of technical skill that takes time and repetition to master, a combination of visual and muscle memory that separates professional chefs from home cooks. Though a single mistake could result in a subpar product, the difficulty involved makes the end results all the more prized—and delicious.

To learn more about life as an ICE culinary student, click here

By Girika Mahajan, Pastry & Baking Arts Student

I recently chanced upon the work of artist Kara Walker, titled “A Subtlety Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”. The mammoth sphinx structure, installed in the old Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, was 35 feet high and took about four tons of sugar to create. She described it as a “homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the new world.”

Kara Walker’s - A Subtlety-1

The use of sugar sculptures as a form of creative expression and political dialogue ages back many centuries. Sidney Mintz, in Sweetness and Power, describes the medieval fashioning of sugar, called subtleties. These sugar sculptures depicted political or religious scenes and commonly appeared on the tables of the wealthy. Though there may be little that is “subtle” about them—then as now—sugar sculptures still hold a prized place among the pastry arts, decorating luxurious banquet halls and being featured in culinary competitions.

Today, artistic showpieces consisting of sugar and its derivatives are constructed using a variety of mechanical methods. These methods include—but are not limited to—casting, blowing, pulling, pressing and spinning. And while this post is titled “The Art of Sugar Sculpting,” let me assure you that sugar sculpting is as much a science as it is an art.

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In one of our recent classes with Chef Kathryn Gordon, we were introduced to the basics of casting—the tip of the sugar sculpting iceberg. The idea is pretty simple: cook sugar to the hard crack stage (about 320 degrees Fahrenheit), color it, cast it in silicone molds of desired shapes and assemble the structure together. Yet despite these straightforward instructions, there are plenty of tiny problems that can occur over the course of this transformation.

For starters, sugar has a tendency to crystallize. If your pots and equipment aren’t perfectly cleaned, chances are the sugar will crystallize before you reach the hard crack stage. It is also easy to overcook or burn sugar, and thus it is critical to use accurate and well-calibrated thermometers. Visual cues such as the size and frequency of popping bubbles will also help determine when the sugar is ready, as well as conducting “water tests.”

Sugar Sculpting 1

In our class, we used isomalt, a sugar derivative, instead of sucrose (what we imagine when we think of “sugar”) for the sculptures. Isomalt, while more expensive than sugar, is readily available in any pastry supply store. It is the preferred choice for professional sugar sculptors because it naturally resists crystallization and is less hygroscopic (does not absorb moisture as readily) than sucrose. It also does not exhibit the typical yellow/caramel color of cooked sucrose which allows it to be colored more easily and accurately. No matter what sugar derivative you choose, it is an essential first step in the sculpting process, one that will dramatically influence your plans to create a visually appealing and structurally stable design.

sugar sculptures

Once we got to work on designing our sugar sculptures, it was exciting to see how a group that started with the same ingredients ended with such a diverse mix of colors, shapes and designs. It was a project that urged us to explore our creative side as pastry cooks, as opposed to following recipes and baking by the book. In a sense, the process was a perfect metaphor for the life of a pastry chef—educating our inner scientists in order to reveal our inner artists.

For more behind-the-scenes posts on life as a pastry student, click here.

By Carly DeFilippo, Culinary Arts Student

When first starting out in culinary school, my classmates and I were all performing the same task. Each station set with a cutting board, chef’s knife, paring knife, boning knife and vegetable peeler. Each student holding an onion to dice, a rack of lamb to French or a pile of potatoes to tourné.

prepduo

Eventually, as we moved on to different cooking methods—learning to sauté, braise, grill, roast and fry—we worked in teams of three or four. The real test here was learning to communicate within a group, delegating who would break down which vegetables and proteins; measure out spices, wine or oil; and most importantly, who would make sure nothing overcooked or burned.

Yet now that we’ve moved beyond basic techniques to the regional cuisines of France and Italy, the whole class is working together as one collaborative group. Manning one of three stations—garde manger, entremets or main dishes—my peers and I are no longer responsible for the creation of a single recipe from start to finish.

Making "farfalle" (bow tie pasta) from scratch at the garde manger station.

Making “farfalle” (bow tie pasta) from scratch at the garde manger station.

 

If stationed at garde manger, we’re responsible for breaking down vegetables, crafting handmade pasta and other various cold or preliminary preparations. The entremets team is responsible for hot sides or the supporting elements of main dishes, from sautéing mushrooms or braising artichokes to brewing soups and crafting sauces. The cooks responsible for main dishes are the kingpins of proteins: breaking down flounder, de-veining shrimp and grinding meatballs, then sautéing, frying or roasting as needed.

There's a big difference between veal for three and veal for thirty.

There’s a big difference between veal for three and veal for thirty.

In the beginning, there was concern among the ranks that we would learn less by only preparing one or two components of each dish. Yet, to our surprise, this style of working has far surpassed all our expectations. We’re not just learning to chop, whip, butcher, sauté or bake—we’re learning how to trust (and how much to trust) the members of our kitchen team.

In short, we’re learning the skills it takes to survive and thrive in a restaurant—from how to communicate when we need help and when to lend a hand, to timing our tasks so that we can keep the whole kitchen on schedule. And, in the process, we’re realizing that our technical skills are only 50% of what it takes to be a great cook—and maybe 10% of what it takes to be an extraordinary chef.

planning

Not to mention, we’re mentally training for the repetition of professional kitchen work. No longer chopping a single onion or frying just three portions of fish, we now cook in bulk. I’ve personally cleaned and cooked enough artichokes, calamari, pasta or soup for a party of thirty. It’s amazing how long it takes to roll and shape farfalle when your end goal is serving a small army!

Beyond scaling up our efficiency, streamlining our communication and refining our technical skills, we’re gaining an appreciation for the battles fought and won each night at a successful restaurant. You start with a motely crew of strangers with different strengths and expectations and train them to work like a seamless team—executing at the highest level, over and over again. The fact that so many excellent restaurants and food businesses exist is a sheer miracle—a miracle that, one day, my classmates and I hope to help create.

It takes many hands and solid communication to prepare a beautiful feast.

It takes many hands and solid communication to prepare a beautiful feast.

Click here to read more about life as an ICE culinary student.

By Carly DeFilippo, Culinary Arts Student

Beyond mise en place, butchery and learning various techniques to build rich flavor, one of the most fascinating parts of culinary school is, quite simply, discovering new ingredients. It could be something as simple as chervil (a faintly licorice-flavored relative of parsley) or as strange as sweetbreads (a cut of offal derived from an animal’s thymus gland). Every new discovery is just a drop in the endless sea of flavors and ingredients available to the contemporary chef.

They may look like chicken nuggets, but I assure you, they're sweetbreads.

They may look like chicken nuggets, but I assure you, they’re sweetbreads.

Yet of all the unexpected ingredients I’ve discovered as a student, there is none so bizarre—and cool!—as caul fat. A natural, thin membrane that surrounds the internal organs of animals such as cows, sheep and pigs, this spiderweb of fat is most often harvested from pork. In an industry that increasingly celebrates snout-to-tail or “whole hog” cooking, this natural casing for stuffed roasts adds moisture and flavor that will literally melt away while helping your dish keep its shape.

caul fat

Chef Chris Gesualdi shows our class how to use caul fat, also known as “crepinette.”

Rabbit is another of the more interesting ingredients we’ve had the chance to work with, a protein that many of my fellow students had never tasted before preparing it in class. From a butchery perspective, rabbit is among the most challenging animals to break down, due to its small frame and tiny bones. That said, once you understand the anatomy of the rabbit, it can help inform your butchery of much larger four-legged animals (which chefs usually buy in smaller cuts, rather than in their entirety). For our most recent preparation, we wrapped a saddle of rabbit (a cut consisting of part of the backbone and both loins) around sautéed mushrooms and used the caul fat to wrap each little package. The fat cooked off beautifully, resulting in a striking golden-brown color while still maintaining moisture.

However, interesting ingredients don’t only come from animals. I’ve always enjoyed when my Dominican friends prepared tostones (a chip-like preparation of under-ripe plantains) for their dinner parties, but had never worked with platanos myself. I learned to carefully fry, flatten and re-fry these mildly sweet cousins of the banana, then topped it off with a delicious mojo sauce of cilantro and garlic.

tostones

Freshly fried tostones in mojo sauce

Yet the real thrill of cooking with these adventurous ingredients goes beyond their novelty. Working with the unfamiliar can help us see new possibilities for preparing the everyday foodstuffs that we take for granted. Whether butter, chicken, potatoes, parsley or other basics we regularly stock in our refrigerators, it’s fun—and, professionally, important— to find ways to revisit these ingredients and take stock of their untapped potential. With just a twist in technique, the ordinary can become as adventurous and exciting as any of the world’s most bizarre ingredients.

So switch out your weekly steak for sweetbreads. Swap out parsley for chervil. Wrap your roasted chicken in caul fat. You never know where the next culinary adventure will take you.

Come see all the exciting kitchen action in person. Call (888) 997-CHEF to arrange a personal tour of ICE.

 

By Michael Laiskonis, ICE Creative Director

As a professional pastry chef, I have a deep relationship with candy. But then don’t we all? Several years ago, I began to ponder the ‘culture’ that surrounds our taste for sweets. What I came to realize is that we relate to sweetness on three different levels: the physiological, the psychological, and the nostalgic.

confectionery

With the possible exception of salt, the instinctual desire for sweetness—more than any other taste—is surely hardwired somewhere deep within our DNA. From the moment of birth, we seek our nourishment and comfort in the rich, sweetened form of mother’s milk; it is indeed the only taste we know in our early months. Eventually our sense of taste becomes considerably more complex as our food choices expand, but I find it interesting that, for all humans, the craving for sweet endures.

Just when we might otherwise mature beyond that physiological need, the desire manifests itself in the realm of emotion. As with Proust’s famous madeleine, it is often sweets that become intertwined with memory, emotion and a sense of comfort. Dessert functions as a reward for “eating those vegetables,” a miracle salve for that scraped knee, or even a mischievous child’s stolen secret. The acquisition of penny candy is often a child’s first foray into the world of commerce and finance. With sweetness we begin to associate comfort, pleasure, reward, envy, and guilt.

piping

Personal nostalgia will vary by culture, country, region, or generation; our source material might be a freshly baked pie like Grandma used to make, or it may come in the form of mass produced junk food (I’m convinced that all pastry chefs have, consciously or not, tried to recreate a Snickers bar in some way or another). These associations remain through adulthood.

Playing to this inner child, for a pastry chef, can initiate the creation of something new yet familiar. The context of such nostalgia—especially unexpected in a fine dining environment—heightens such playfulness. The more I explore this notion, the more fascinating I find it and the more I enjoy tapping into those emotions. In other words, the true path to our inner selves may indeed be something as simple as candy.

Though confections are tucked beneath the broad umbrella of pastry arts that includes chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and plated desserts, my own interest in candy has increased along with a better understanding of its underlying science. Through candy-making we can explore the properties of sugars and fats, the behavior of concentrated syrups and crystallization, and numerous complex interactions that influence taste and texture.

Passion fruit gummy worm

Passion fruit “gummy worm”

A historical survey of the candy trade reveals that, though there has been much innovation, the sweets crafted in the Middle Ages or in ancient Rome may not have seemed all that unfamiliar to us today. Once the cost of ingredients like sugar and chocolate decreased more than a century ago (in conjunction with technical leaps and bounds made during the Industrial Revolution), candy truly became accessible to all. Most of the brands we recognize today had their roots in this “candy renaissance.”

Though the world of confections includes many different styles, from hard candy to soft caramels and dense nougats to fluffy marshmallows, here are some simple guidelines that I believe will help all cooks—the amateur and pro alike—achieve sweet success:

1. Brush up on your basicsMost candies tend to conform to tried and true formulas, but that shouldn’t prevent us from creating unique versions of the classics. With just a little bit of research, we can easily begin to grasp the physics and chemistry at play, which eventually allows us to experiment with whimsy.

Campari - grapefruit pate de fruit

Campari – grapefruit pate de fruit

Controlling crystallization, for example, is very important. Understanding just when to stir a sugar syrup (or when not to) and when to use inhibitors like acids and glucose will help provide the right end result. Simple knowledge of basic hydrocolloids can help us craft a range of textures like chewy gummies, melt-in-your-mouth pâtes de fruits and ultra-light marshmallows. Navigating the complex flavor-creating mechanisms of caramelization and Maillard reactions help us understand what is happening as our cooked confections transform into something greater than the sum of their parts.

My own recent explorations have resulted in tooth-friendly sugar-free candies for a private client and “savory” confections flavored with vegetable juices, such as carrot. With just a little confidence, patience, and know-how, the sky is the limit!

2. Sweat the small stuff. Even slight changes in formula can lead to both discovery and disaster. Until one is comfortable with making informed adjustments and substitutions, it’s best to pay close attention to recipes. Accuracy in measuring ingredients and temperature are vital, and to this end I recommend starting with a calibrated digital thermometer and a good digital scale.

Virtually all candies require cooking to exact temperatures, and measuring by weight (preferably metric) versus volume will always offer more precision. Beyond simple tools such as a heat-proof rubber spatula and a couple of small Silpats, an advanced candy amateur might also make good use of a mini marble slab, caramel rulers and flexible silicon molds.

petitfours

Petits Fours

3. Cleanliness is king. Organizing your tools, ingredients and workspace is the first step toward successful candy work. Not only will dirty utensils lead to problems like crystallization, but overall clutter in the kitchen can also lead to accidents (molten sugar syrups that reach temperatures as high as 325˚F can result in serious burns). Stay clean, don’t get distracted and avoid walking away from a potentially dangerous pot of boiling sugar!

Below, you’ll find one of my favorite soft caramel recipes, and for those interested in digging a bit deeper into candy science, I’ll be teaching a new class on the subject – Sugar Science: Functions and Applications in Modern Pastry on Wednesday, July 16. I hope to see you there!

Soft Caramel

Yield: one 12cm by 12cm block, or about 50 individual candies

  • 125g glucose syrup
  • 15g invert sugar
  • 3g fine sea salt
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 210g heavy cream (35% fat)
  • 115g sucrose
  • 30g water
  • 10g cocoa butter (optional)
  1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the cream, glucose, invert sugar, salt and vanilla. Gently heat and reserve.
  2. In a second saucepan, combine the sucrose and water. Cook to a medium dark caramel. Deglaze with the warm cream mixture and continue to cook to 118°C/245°F. Remove from heat and stir in the cocoa butter.
  3. Immediately pour the caramel into a set of bars lined with a Silpat. Cool several hours before cutting and wrapping in cellophane or waxed paper.