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Is Cooking School Worth the Torture if You Don't Want to Be a Chef?

One amateur cook put herself through a grueling program, and lived (with a burnt hand) to tell the tale.

As I look at the tail-end of the year, I can’t help but think about the one that's around the corner. But instead of wasting my time thinking up resolutions for the coming year, I pick one word, and try to consider it as I plan out new experiences and make choices. This past year, I picked the word "Joy" as a way to encourage myself to get out of the rut I was in, living in New York for nearly seven years. Work, exercise, going out with friends, trying to date, walking my dog— and repeat. Though my life felt vibrant, busy and growing at the start of the year, I missed the joy that made experiences feel less predictable and more inspiring.

So earlier this year, after doing lots of research, I decided to pull the trigger on the one thing I'd been dying to do since I landed in Manhattan: take the recreational culinary classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. One of my best friends previously took this course, swore by it and told me to go, if not for myself, for the family I might cook for one day. I have no intention of being the only chef in my at-home kitchen one day, or ever cooking in a restaurant, but building the fundamental skills I need to know to be confident with a knife, a pan and an oven? That seemed pretty-much required.

It’s not a cheap investment: around $600 for five, 5-hour classes that run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m, after a hectic workday. Most nights, I wouldn’t get back to my apartment, thanks to metro craziness, until midnight. But was it worth all those grueling on-your-feet hours in a kitchen after working all day? Worth the exhaustion, and the burn I still have on my hand, and the many, many burnt dinners and over-cooked eggs? Not to mention the sense of embarrassment and waste after all those kitchen fails?

 

Absolutely. Here’s why:

Learning Skills Instead of Recipes Is So Much More Helpful

My dad was always the cook of our family when I was growing up, as my mom gets impatient waiting for water to boil. It always amazed me how he never used a recipe. As I got older and started attempting to cook in college and as a young adult, I couldn’t understand how he could make something taste so good without knowing how many tablespoons of spice he needed or how many cups of flour were required. That’s partly why the five-week immersion was so appealing to me: instead of being based on recipes, it centered around fundamental cooking methods. We didn’t just learn how to cook vegetables, we learned how to blanch them, let them rest and then give them that subtly-crispy bite that’s so freakin’ good (and not that hard, trust me!).

We didn’t just learn how to julienne a carrot (which is much harder than it looks!); we learned varying techniques, what type of dishes they work for and how to vary that method on different vegetables. While I still have to page through recipes, I definitely have a firmer understanding of portions, ratios and I’m not afraid to throw in a pinch of that or to wing it, every once in awhile.

Confidence in the Kitchen is Everything

In the office, or sometimes even in dating, your family or friends might encourage you to "fake it until you make it." This is definitely a trait that carries into the kitchen, but not necessarily in a positive way. While pretending to know what you’re doing might pass with certain ways of cooking, for the tougher skills—like whipping egg whites or making sure your souffle doesn’t fall—it’s more about precision. That’s why confidence is so important to build in the kitchen. If you don’t have faith that you know what you’re doing and that you can start over if you screw it up (because you probably will), then you’ll never go for what you really want to cook. Because I took this course, I can whip out my cutting board, chop up an onion in a split second, and know exactly how to stir-fry something in a jiffy. I don’t doubt myself like I used to, and that made the class worth every penny.

Roasting a Chicken is SO Gratifying

In our second cooking class, we went over the roasting technique. We were split up into groups of two and asked to roast a chicken to perfection, but my partner didn’t have any interest in touching the raw meat. As for me? I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty. From coating the bird in butter to stuffing it with herbs and a lemon, to tossing some wine over it every half hour, when it finally came out in all of its delightful-smelling glory, I was so proud of myself. Probably the proudest I’ve been in a quite some time, actually. Remember that bit about joy? That was a joyful moment, when I looked around the kitchen, exhausted from working all day and then being on my feet cooking for hours, and felt empowered. Surely, if I could roast a chicken and make it taste this good, I could do anything.

 

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