“I got my first chef’s coat when I was five years old, as a gift from my grandparents,” says Amanda Gagnon, a culinary student in her fifth and final semester of culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. But, her route to a real life chef’s coat was more circuitous: When she was thirteen years old, Gagnon read Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s swaggering and scandalous account of life in professional kitchens. “It scared the crap out of me,” Gagnon remembers.
After that, Gagnon switched gears and became an environmental science major in college. After college she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in order to save up for an advanced degree in her field, she got a job as a line cook to earn extra money. “I realized that I loved that line cook job more than my normal job,” she says. Her natural skill in the kitchen became apparent, and she quickly became head chef as her side hustle became her main gig. Eventually, she decided to go to culinary school and chose the CIA at Greystone thanks to its proximity to California Wine Country.
“You have to be really committed,” says Gagnon of culinary school. “People think that just because they have tattoos and some good knives, they can become a chef—but it’s a lot more challenging than that.” But, she notes, it’s also a lot more rewarding. “Sometimes I’m butchering a whole lamb or making dumplings in the middle of the day and I stop and think “Wow, I can’t believe this is school.”
Read on for a glimpse of a day in the life of a culinary student.
5:30 a.m.: I’m up early for my first class of the day, Cuisines of Asia. We have to be in lecture by 7 a.m., but we have to set up our mise en place [Ed. note: that’s French for ingredient setup] at our kitchen station before we go into the lecture. I live off campus so I run down the hill and put on my uniform at school.
6:00 a.m.: I put on my apron and my toque, one of those tall, funny-looking paper chef hats that is a mandatory part of our uniform. The legend is that the hat has 100 folds to represent the 100 ways you can cook an egg. Our first week of school we have a toqueing ceremony where our instructors teach us how to put one on. It’s generally the toughest thing to get used to in the kitchen for new students. The other element of our uniform is the side towel, which is used to grab hot things, not to wipe things up. Everybody wears their towels differently, depending on how they like to grip a hot pan; I fold two towels in half and put them on both sides.
6:15 a.m.: More of my classmates are trickling in and it’s time to work on setting up our station. Each team of four people has a standard “station” with a stove, oven, burner and sink plus essentials like salt and pepper, olive oil and tasting spoons. Whoever is at the station first sets up the suite.
6:30 a.m.: Each team has a position called a sanitor, and their job is to go pick up the pantry ingredients we need for each class from the big communal cart. We already know which recipes we’re cooking that day, so I head to the cart and rummage through to find my ingredients. For our Cuisines of Asia class, the cart has a bunch of bins, and each bin represents a different country. China has Chinese rice papers, soy sauce and Chinese fish sauce, which is very different from Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce. Korea has all its pastes, and Japan has tons of noodles.
7:00 a.m.: Lecture begins. Today we’re talking about Korean food. The instructor explains that there is always rice and an odd number of sides: three, five or seven side dishes, depending on the formality of the meal.
8:00 a.m.: After about an hour, we get out of lecture and begin cooking. Each group receives the recipes it’s going to cook ahead of time, and night before, we’d texted one another to divide up the dishes so everyone knowns who is doing what. I spent some time last night researching my assigned dish, Korean green onion and shrimp pancakes. It’s helpful to know what it should look like, how it should taste, and a bit of history to help you understand the dish.
9:00 a.m.: My pancakes have to be done right before service and served warm, so once I have them all prepped I can go help others. Another person on my team has to make short ribs, so I help her butcher those.
9:30 a.m.: Every so often our chefs will yell out “demo!” in the middle of class. This means it’s time to stop what you are doing, turn off your stove, and go watch the instructor do a hands-on, technical demo of a specific technique. Sometimes it’s breaking down a whole animal like a rabbit, a fish or even an alligator. Today it’s how to plate a whole roasted fish so that it forms and “S” shape on the platter and looks like it’s swimming through the other ingredients on the platter. The recipe says “put the fish on the platter” but, of course, there’s much more to it than that—and that’s what we’re here to learn.
11:00 a.m.: Just before lunchtime, I cook off my scallion pancakes. I cook the first one, then taste it. I think it needs a bit more salt, but I ask my teammates what they think. At this point we’ve been through four semesters together already and completely trust one another. They agree with me that it needs more salt, so I adjust and make a second one for my instructor to taste. He tastes it and says, “fire it up!” That means he likes it and that I should cook the rest of them.
11:45 a.m.: Everyone is rushing around to plate their dishes on the class buffet. There’s fish, noodles, salads, short ribs—the buffet just keeps growing. Before we dig in, we all stand around and talk about what we cooked. Our instructor asks us what we notice about this buffet, and how it was different from Thailand, the country we had focused on the week prior. We talk about how Thailand had more coconut and different types of vinegars.
12:00 p.m.: My team is the first to go through the buffet; I love trying all of my classmates’ dishes. We take our lunches to the seating area at the open end of the kitchen. You can go back to the buffet as many times as you want and, in another room, the bakery kids have set up their buffet with a ton of dessert options. The Freshman Fifteen is an understatement in culinary school!
12:30 p.m.: When we’re done with lunch, it’s full cleanup mode. We make sure anything we didn’t use is properly stored, and we mop up the suites, wipe down the sinks and break down the buffet.
1:00 p.m.: When we finish up with class I meet up with my group to discuss the next day’s syllabus: Japanese cooking. We go through the list of recipes and decide who will do what. Our instructors recognize that this whole class is really just a glimpse into each country’s cuisine. One chef instructor told me “If you like a dish you make from a certain country, go to that country for a year to travel, eat and work there. Then make that same dish 100 times. After 100 times you can decide to make it your career, and after 20 years of making it your career, you might be great at it.”
1:30 p.m.: I’m a tutor for first-year students who are learning fundamentals, so I head to the tutoring center for the afternoon. Today I’m doing knife skill tutoring, like how to small dice an onion or julienne a carrot. One student is struggling with how to tourné a potato. Tourné is a football-shaped cut that’s two inches long and has seven perfect sides. It’s a pretty wasteful way to cut a potato, but it’s great for getting practice on handling a paring knife. In a lot of classic French restaurants they use paring knives instead of vegetable peelers, so it pays to know how to use one precisely! We use all those potato scraps to make soup.
5:00 p.m.: When I’m done with tutoring I head to the student wine club, which I run. I work with the instructor to choose a different topic for each meeting, and today it’s different styles of fermentation. Last week I contacted a local cooperage—a place where wine barrels are made—and they shared a few samples of French oak and American oak so we could compare the barrels as we were tasting the wines. It’s fascinating to taste an oaked Chardonnay next to an un-oaked Chardonnay. There are about 20 other students in the wine club and we taste and talk about the color, the smell and what we think it would pair with from a food perspective—that’s a big part of our discussion.
7:00 p.m.: After the evening classes are done preparing their meals, it’s dinnertime at school. Today the Banquets class has prepared a buffet that’s very traditional American hotel-style food—lots of roasts and soups. My friend and I decide to go home because sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a full turkey dinner and all-you-can-eat dessert buffet.
7:30 p.m.: I pick up a pork shoulder at the grocery store, and we decide to make tacos. I’ve been working in my garden, so I have some garlic chives and fresh cilantro on hand. As the pork is braising, a few more friends come over and we open up a bunch of wine.
8:00 p.m.: We try to unwind, but we still talk about school a lot. We go through what we did in class, what the chef instructor said about the food we cooked and where we feel like we’re struggling. Then we start talking about where we want to work once we graduate. Like, “Would you rather work at The French Laundry because it’s so well-known and sort of sets the bar, or would you want to work at someplace newer, like Single Thread?” My roommate and I would talk shop all night if you let us.
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