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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Getting grilled at chef school

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Staff Writer

Clockwise from top left: Order slips hang on a carousel waiting to be filled. Chef Eddie Fernandez shows student Cristalle Hirose how fast-order cooking is done. Wanda Adams finds a moment to smile while wondering if the toast is burning. Things get pretty hot in the kitchen. Finishing touches are added to a chocolate dessert.

Photos by Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

My day as a culinary student can be summed up by a stack of soggy, cold toast.

The Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapi'olani Community College had invited me to become a student chef for a day, to meet a class full of budding culinarians, to see how training is carried out in one of the school's restaurants and to get a taste of life behind the service counter.

The half-charred bread, piled sadly on a plate after my two-hour stint staffing the bread station at KCC's 220 Grille café, told the story of every time I had heard an order incorrectly, selected the wrong type of bread or gotten so excited that I prepped two orders when just one was needed.

Sourdough, unbuttered, in the toaster for the club. Sourdough, buttered, on the griddle for the turkey sandwich. Sesame bun, buttered, on the griddle for a burger or for the salmon sandwich. Focaccia, buttered on the grill, for the chicken sandwich. Garlic bread in the salamander (a gas broiler about half a foot above my head) — but don't start it until the linguine is half done. If someone hands you some chicken, pop it in the microwave to reheat for the mushroom soup. And bruschetta — oh, heck, I forget what to do with the bruschetta.

You try and keep all that straight after having received your instructions just once, at high speed, about 10 minutes before lunch service started.

Try to remember it while orders are being shouted over your head, hot plates are appearing in front of you every few minutes and what feels like the fires of hell are warming your backside.

I started the day at 8 a.m., freshly tarted up in a chef's jacket, comfy checked chef pants, a scarf, a hat and my brand-new chef's clogs (finally had an excuse to buy them!). By 1 p.m., my hair was soaked with sweat, my jacket stained, my shoes scuffed, and my vision of myself as a pretty smart cookie had fled south, whimpering.

And because I was a guest, I got to sit down and enjoy a plate of chicken marsala while I interviewed chef-instructor Eddie Fernandez. Meanwhile, my colleagues for a day in the Intermediate Cooking Lab class were washing the pots and pans, putting everything away and readying the kitchen for the next day's work. (Sorry, guys. You rock!)

The lab class is, in my much-humbled opinion, poorly named. It's not a lab, which implies that you're just testing things, feeling your way, trying stuff out. No, this is the real world. You walk in, your get your book of recipes, you check the board for your assignment and you start chopping or sautéing or whatever. Nobody stands over you telling you what to do — though Fernandez is on hand to advise and correct (mostly correct).

Later, you take your place on the cooking line. You fill actual orders for actual customers. And then you do the dishes (in this regard, it's even worse than the real world, since chefs don't usually have to wash up after themselves).

Nobody sits down. Ever. Even when lunch is served — onolicious fried rice prepared by one of the students — you eat it standing up, your eyes darting over your recipe one last time, or checking the board for your cooking assignment.

And the students say Fundamentals of Cookery, the first class in the two-year culinary degree program, is even more of a trial by fire: "They just throw you right into it," said Mike Guillermo.

Guillermo started at Western Oregon State College on a track scholarship, but lost his financial support and headed home. His family loved to host big barbecues, and he decided he'd try the restaurant business, working in various kitchens around town before returning to school. "I love it. I get to explore and learn," he said. His goal is having a restaurant of his own.

On this day, Guillermo is on the wrong end of Fernandez scoldings on several occasions, but his good humor persists. This is one of the key lessons the students are here to learn: to be humble enough to endure the hierarchical nature of the restaurant kitchen, where the chef is master and tongue-lashings are far from rare.

The lessons go beyond knife technique, food safety and recipes: Organization. Initiative. Thinking. Fernandez, fresh from a harangue about the vital role of mis en place (having everything prepped and ready for use), said that when he was a student at KCC years ago, he used to dream about his station: Was everything there, and in the right place?

Every detail comes under the chef's scrutiny. Even my poor pile of rejected toast was the subject of a lecture on controlling waste, an important issue in a commercial kitchen. (The students were happy to be able to point the finger at someone else for once.)

"Student" might paint a picture of a fresh-faced 20-year-old who doesn't yet know the meaning of aching feet. But the first person I met in the class was typical of the many nontraditional students and mid-life career changers who select the culinary program.

Kathleen Boswell is my age, 53, a teacher for 20 years who decided she needed a change. She loves the choice she's made: "I was used to going home with my brain exhausted and my body still not tired. Now it's the opposite." She finds the often-repetitive but fast-paced and focused tasks strangely soothing: "It's almost like a meditation." Her favorite moments were not long ago, when the great chef Andre Soltner visited, and talked about preparing food as an expression of love. "It is such a loving thing to do. I never forget that," she said. Her goal: catering.

Anna Marie Armstrong, a wife and mother of three boys, also is enjoying school, although it's sometimes difficult to juggle her son's medical appointments or other commitments with the grueling class schedule. A native of Texas, Armstrong said she began cooking early in life. "My mother couldn't cook and my dad loves to eat, so somebody had to do it," she said. Her first attempt was lasagna at about age 9; it didn't turn out very well, but she kept up the effort to learn by trial and error.

Armstrong has a tendency to break into song when she's in a chopping groove and her melodic voice, trilling lyrics in Spanish and English, forms a background to the sounds of chopping and sizzling and the shouted commands in the food lab. "I've gotten to the point where I can go to a restaurant and taste something and go home and make it," she said. Her goal: A bed and breakfast.