culinary school

Learning About Puff Pastry, and About Myself.

I’ve done more during these last five days than I’ve done in the last eight weeks at home. I’m exhausted, but when my alarm goes off at 5:05 every morning, I can’t wait to get up and start another day here. My first day in uniform was on Monday, and while there was no class, it was such a beautiful day and I got to see some of this beautiful Rhode Island weather.

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There are two campuses that I’m constantly going to and from – Harborside, along Narragansett Bay where I have all my classes, and Downcity, where I’m living. I can see why most culinary students live on this campus – it can be annoying going back and forth all the time – but I love living in downtown Providence.

First up was the Academic Welcome for culinary students on the Harborside campus. It started in the gym, where we all sat according to the name of our advisor. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about stepping into the building full of culinary faculty. How much did they know about me and the mess I made for them eight months earlier? Would I see any familiar faces from spring? I walked in and went to find my seat. What surprised me most was how friendly everyone was, both staff and students. Why are Floridians not like people up north? I’m continuing to be surprised by how easy it is to strike up a conversation with people here. When I go back home, it’s going to be one of the things I miss the most.

After the Dean welcomed the class of 2016 and 2018 (which didn’t really apply to me, since I’ll be graduating this year), it was back to downtown for University Convocation. Have I mentioned how much I love the transportation here? It’s free, for one, and it takes about 8 minutes by shuttle to get from one campus to the other. So different than the horrible system in Orlando! We were lead into the Providence Performing Arts Center for the formal beginning ceremony of the school year. This ceremony was for new students of all majors. I’ve said it many times but I’ll say it again: I feel bad for the people who come here to study anything besides culinary. Johnson & Wales is so well-known for their culinary programs, I feel like the other majors just get forgotten about!

campus13I’m pretty sure we culinary students made up about 98% of the audience – the stage was totally surrounded by white coats and hats. It was a cool introduction to the university, and made me wish I’d be staying longer than just a year.

The later in the day it got, the more real being here seemed to get. It was soon time to press my coat and polish my shoes – the first day of classes was just a short sleep away! I did get a decent sleep which surprised me, but that morning I was pretty close to crying as every single scenario went through my head. I absolutely still wanted to be there – I fought for this year for a reason – but I wanted so badly for the first day to go on without a problem. Earlier in the year I felt so safe; the school knew I had no problem defending myself when needed, so surely no one would want to bring on any more trouble. But I just knew I’d be watched closely. Make a wrong move, and the argument of my safety and that of others could easily be brought up again.

So with those thoughts and Julie Andrews’ “I Have Confidence” playing over and over in my head, I rode the shuttle to Harborside. We didn’t do too much the first day, just began some puff pastry using both the block and blitz methods.

campus8I use a small cart to help with moving sheet pans and other things that would put me off balance if I carried them myself, and, while it’s pretty loud when moved along the floor, no one seemed to give a second glance. My chef’s comments that she’d like to steal it immediately made me feel like there was nothing to worry about.

campus9Ever since the horrible day in 2013 when I was treated like dirt just because I couldn’t “safely” lift a few things, I’ve been terrified of dropping anything. I moved extremely carefully. So later in the day when I would hear rolling pins hitting the floor every couple of minutes, I’d smile and shake my head. I was taking this way too seriously. Physical limitations or not, people drop things, and how dare anyone make me feel less human than anyone else.

campus2My slow careful movements became more confident, and I asked for help when needed. I left that afternoon feeling so happy and empowered – I had done what I came to do, and it would only go up from there as I became more comfortable around the chefs. I was a little perplexed, too. Why would someone make such an issue when there wasn’t one? But the thought just made me love Providence even more. Clearly, I was where I was always meant to be.

The second day of my Classic Pastry lab felt much longer since we got started right away and worked all day in production making pastries with our puff pastry dough from the previous day. I worked hard to keep up, and that continues to be my focus as each day gets busier, but I think it’ll come with time. Never have I been anywhere with such a fast-paced atmosphere, so I’m learning what it means to work quickly and efficiently.

campus3The energy inside the lab is thrilling. These people want to be here. They want to learn what this industry is all about. As much as I loved Valencia College and the confidence it gave me, the widespread passion here is a refreshing change.

campus7We worked on our puff pastry products all day yesterday, and ended up with apple turnovers, sacristans, and palmiers. Palmiers are sometimes called elephant ears here in the US, and I loved working on these tiny versions as I was reminded of my training in the Animal Kingdom bakery with every fold.

campus4We work in teams of two, though we make pretty much every product individually. That’s nice too, since last year I was frequently critiqued for mistakes I didn’t make. But I’ll be honest, I’ve definitely learned in just these last three days where my own weak spots are.

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I feel more comfortable here every day, and today was no exception. I’ve seen many people that I recognize, people who were deciding whether I belonged at this school just a few short months ago. But they’re no longer intimidating – they offer a handshake, a genuine smile, and ask how I’m liking it here in Providence. I make new friends every day, and our class is becoming pretty close even after just three days.

Today we ate together in the dining room, where we sat in as guests for the Dining Room Essentials students. I give these people so much credit; not everyone is cut out for front of the house service, and they have to do it anyway. Meanwhile we reap the benefits – free four-course lunch, anyone?

campus10We started with fresh bread and a choice of soup or salad. I had a chicken and asparagus cream soup that was delicious. It was so smooth and not too heavy, with some earthy flavors from asparagus tips. It had a fancy French name, but I’m a pastry major – not culinary – for a reason.

My appetizer was a crabmeat crepe. I thought it was funny because my roommate and I were just talking about savory crepes the other night. I said crepes weren’t crepes without something sweet in them, but she said she loved them savory. So I had to give one a try, and I must admit, she was right. My entrée was a rack of lamb with sautéed onions and potatoes. It had a bunch of other flavorful components, but I just enjoyed the dish instead of trying to figure out what they were.

campus11The best part about lunch in the dining room (other than dessert) was the opportunity to get to know the people I sat with. I’ve gotten to know my lab partner well, but not many others. Nothing like a chat over good food to get to know people!

campus12Dessert was a poached pear in – what else – an almond lace tuile bowl! Looks like I’m ahead of the game on that one. We finished up and went back to our lab, where we cleaned up and put things away until tomorrow. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about baking already, it’s that back-to-back repetition works wonders with a ton of problems I’ve been having with dough lately. I’m by no means a pro, but I’m improving, after just three days!

Tomorrow is another crazy day in lab and then back to the dining room to enjoy another great meal. I’m so excited for each day to come. I’ve never been prouder to put on a chef’s coat every day; I’m here because I made it happen. I walk into class and work my hardest. I’m part of one of the best culinary schools in the country. And, I still think someone may have to come pinch me.

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