For those of you who have been following my journey during the Culinary Arts program, thank you! I do apologize for failing to finish my weekly updates, but I do appreciate all the support I’ve received. This class was seriously the time of my life. I learned so much, but I had a blast while doing so. Amazing how being immersed in something you truly love can change your life.
To wrap up my time in the Culinary Arts program, I want to discuss our graduation. To celebrate our graduation, the six of us students (along with some amazing helpers) worked tirelessly for two whole days to put together an epic meal for 60 people. We wanted to highlight a bit of what we have learned over the semester.
I was elected to be one of the two graduation chairs, although I was planning to eagerly volunteer. I love organizing events, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to use my leadership skills. I had never helped to organize anything like this before though.
Putting together this dinner was a lot of work! Fortunately, we had amazing guidance from both our lead culinary instructor and the assistant director of the program. They helped us so much with pushing us in the right direction for our menu and kept us on track for all our deadlines. There were so many things I didn’t think about needing to organize or discuss, but they were there to make sure everything got done.
The six of us classmates worked hard to create a menu that we’d be proud to present to our friends and family. We changed our mind quite a few times on a number of items, but finally we had the menu set.
Every person in the class took on some task in organizing the dinner. It was a collective effort. I helped compile our ideas for the menu and finalize them with the chef. I also took on the job of organizing all the tasks for production of this meal. That was easier said than done.
For day one, which was our prep day, I had to think of everything that needed to get done in order to execute all our dishes, and then divide up those tasks amongst the students. I had an idea of what dishes people wanted to work on, but I had to make sure it would all get done on time.
I had become known as the pastry queen of our class. Everyone knew I loved our pastry classes. They were my favorite days in the kitchen. I got a chance to discover how deep my passion for baking runs. I leaned into this feeling for the graduation meal. I assigned myself mostly pastry duties for both days of graduation. In fact, I never even got out my knife kit because I was so busy baking.
Honestly, I enjoyed being in charge for graduation. I felt the pressure of trying to get this meal together, but I was able to lean into that feeling and focus on the job. I was assigning tasks left and right while simultaneously whipping up some beautiful desserts.
I felt the pressure even more on Friday, graduation day. Everyone was coming to me for what to do and to have me approve the look of all the dishes. I had some additional pastry duties to fulfill, but I also needed to make sure everything else was going smoothly. I had a schedule of when each person was supposed to start executing their dish. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I walked through the kitchen calling for each dish to be fired.
The whole experience was incredibly empowering. I felt like the conductor leading the orchestra in a musical number. I had never done anything quite like this before, so there were definitely things I didn’t think to include in my list. Yet, I could absolutely see myself running a kitchen like this some day.
I saw myself grow so much during the past 14 weeks. I don’t think I could have handled a responsibility like this at the beginning of the semester. It’s not that I didn’t have the ability, but my mental state was not the greatest. This semester in the kitchen helped heal me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I will probably write more about that soon, but for now I will get back to our meal.
For appetizers, we had a full charcuterie board, which included a bunch of things we made on charcuterie day. We had some lamb merguez, mortadella, pheasant pate, and a fresh batch of duck liver mousse (Jacques Pepin’s recipe). On the side, we had an assortment of pickled vegetables. This dish was a collective effort, and everyone did a great job at making a beautiful charcuterie board.
Next, we had two different kinds of dumplings. We made the cranberry sage dumplings that we made with Irene Li of Mei Mei for our night event. We also made some vegetable dumplings. My co-chair took charge of the dumplings, making all the filling and stuffing all the dumplings. She cooked all the dumplings along with a helper when it was time to serve our appetizers. I managed to sneak one of the pork dumplings before they were served. I love pork dumplings most of all, but his filling is elevated with the cranberry and sauce. They are so festive!
We also brought back the deviled crab form Southern day, hummus and homemade pita chips from the Anatolia event, and our version of a smoked trout crostini (inspired by the smoked trout appetizer we made with Chef Jeremy).
We managed to get all our appetizers out without a hitch. We served the appetizers buffet style in front of the dining room (our classroom turned into a banquet hall). All our guests seemed to be happily munching away.
We were back in the kitchen vigorously making our dinner. We had three stellar dishes to share, which we served family style on the table. The first was orecchiette with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe, a recipe from Chef Kevin O’Donnell. We all stood around the table on Thursday night shaping our pasta. My co-chair and I were the ones who executed this dish for dinner. This was the only actual cooking I did for the whole celebration. I love this pasta dish and would feel comfortable reproducing this in my own kitchen. I know my dad would love to get some of this tasty pasta.
We also roasted some chicken ballotines that Jacques Pepin made with us the week prior. These stuffed and rolled birds were served a pan jus and roasted seasonal vegetables. Each table got two chickens to pass around. The chicken turned out great, and I loved the vegetables.
Then, we brought back the chickpea stew that Chef Chris made with us for Restaurant Day. This stew was the winner of Restaurant Day, so we knew we could impress our family and friends. I personally couldn’t wait to get myself a bowl of this stew. There was some leftover food from the meal, but the only thing I took home was a big container of this stew. That is how much I love it.
Finally, we served some salads and bread. Chef Chris worked with one of the students to make his sourdough bread. We got a taste of this bread during Restaurant Day, and we knew it would be the perfect addition to our table. There may be one of the leftover loaves sitting in my freezer right now. The salads had a trio of greens with goat cheese, candied walnuts, and sherry vinaigrette.
We certainly had a great meal. My roommate and a couple other friends came to celebrate with me. While I was back in the kitchen during appetizers, we joined our guests for dinner.
Of course, I didn’t stay put for too long because we had desserts still to serve. I snuck back into the kitchen to put the final touches on our dessert table. We served desserts back in the kitchen on the presentation table (the table up front where we bring all our completed dishes during class). I put so much time and energy into this dessert table over the previous two days, so I saw this table as my baby.
So, what did we serve for dessert? We had a dessert from just about each pastry day we had. From pie day, we served Chef Jim Dodge’s lemon bars. One of my classmates volunteered to make these, and they turned out lovely. Then, we had the diamond sable cookies from cookies day (our very first pastry class). I assigned another classmate to those. I also assigned our TA to make some coconut panna cotta, a recipe from custards class. We decided to garnish with some toasted coconut.
Then, we made two last minute additions to the dessert menu after our night event earlier in the week with Chef Joanne, as she was promoting her new cookbook Pastry Love. We decided to put in the peppermint kisses as a dairy free dessert. These kisses are little French meringues piped out streaked with red food dye and dried out slowly in a low temperature oven. These meringues are a great festive treat for the holidays. Then, we made a good amount of leftover pie filling from the blueberry hand pies we made for the event. So, we decided to add these to the table. I whipped out the pate brisee for the pie dough and elicited assistance in rolling out and filling the hand pies. I thought both of these desserts were a great addition to the table.
Now for the two desserts I was most excited to serve because I made them from start to finish. I made two double batches of the pistachio financiers we made on cakes day. I can already tell that these little cakes are going to become my signature. Bursting with nutty flavor from browned butter, I just can’t get enough of these moist cakes. I certainly impressed our pastry chef instructor with these.
Then, I took on the task of making eclairs. We had made plenty of pate a choux, but we really only made profiteroles. Eclairs are piped and filled differently, plus they are dipped in ganache. My first batch of eclairs did not turn out great due to my inexperience in piping eclairs. Good thing I went in early on Friday. First thing in the morning, the assistance director got in the kitchen with me to make another batch and help me pipe them. I was much happier with the second batch of eclairs. These were eclairs I wasn’t afraid to serve to people. I had my thick vanilla pastry cream all ready to go. With the help of a couple assistants, I got all the eclairs piped full of pastry cream and then dipped in chocolate ganache. This was my first ever attempt at eclairs, and I was quite proud of myself. These were definitely the show stoppers of the dessert course. Now that I know what to do, I can’t wait to make more eclairs!
This is officially a wrap on my experience in the culinary arts program. I will have to find some ways to sneak back into the kitchen next semester. Starting in January, I am taking Food and Gender, and Anthropology of Food. I am excited to get into the gastronomy courses, but I will sure miss being in the kitchen.
Well writing this post has made me super hungry, so I am going to eat Christmas Eve dinner with my family.