Sample Book Chapter: A Cook at Heart

Chapter 10 – 4-S: The Four Word Letter


To say that the second cycle, and especially 4-S, was noticeably more difficult, would be an understatement.  Not only did each student need to demonstrate continued proficiency with cycle one skills, but each student also had to demonstrate the skill of “multi-tasking.”  Allow me first to state that although almost everyone may boast to their ability to multi-task, few can truly do so like a cook.  Although I thought as a top-notch professional consultant I possessed the mental aptitude to multi-task, when it actually came down to mentally and physically performing different tasks simultaneously, I realized that the other students, all with past culinary experience, put me at an uncomfortable disadvantage.  It was time to re-enter the world of the consultant.


As a consultant, I learned that when you are confronted with the unknown, the best way to conquer it was little by little, with a strong foundation of the basics.  Before I could perform the many required tests all at once, I had to first understand each one individually, and how they are interrelated with the others.  Over the next few weeks I tried to understand fully the processes involved in making stocks, the foundation of soups and sauces.  My approach, albeit rather detailed in nature, was to create a flowchart of the stock and sauce making processes.  Flowcharts, used by consultants worldwide, have the innate ability to identify subtasks and their time requirements such that it becomes easier to identify those gaps in which concurrent tasks could occur.  In essence, it enabled one to find those points in time when multi-tasking was possible and desirable.


Throughout the course of the cycle, I continued focusing on learning the details and the importance of perfecting techniques.  On a related side note, I did get the opportunity to witness Chef Hutchins, the instructor assigned to “4-S,” perform a demonstration of the knife skills practical.  During my first attempt of this practical back in Cycle 1, I completed the exam in exactly twenty minutes.  No student finished that practical in less than eighteen minutes, and speed seemed to be the most important aspect of the exam.  Chef Hutchins smiled at our joint concern for this practical, and proceeded to demonstrate the efficient way in which to complete the knife practical.  While setting the timer himself, Chef started the exam with an in-depth discussion on the importance of efficiency of movements.  Everyone watched in amazement as he went on for four minutes before even picking up a peeler.  When he finally did begin with the peeler, he seemed to be moving in slow motion, apparently in no hurry at all.  He continued working in this fashion through each of the ingredients, stopping occasionally to discuss the particulars of a certain technique.  As the last item was completed, the clock indicated that only 12 minutes had elapsed.  All the students looked on dumbfounded as he measured and graded all his work, awarding himself a 95%.  Clearly we were all in for a much more intense experience this cycle.


As indicated by its title, 4-S focused on the proper methods for creating a variety of stocks, which in turn provided the foundation for many more soups and sauces.  The starch component of the class identified classic preparations of rice and potatoes, such as rice pilaf and duchesse potatoes, respectively.  The amount of learning and culinary knowledge appeared overwhelming.  Although I knew quite a bit of this information beforehand, I never experienced many of the preparations hands on.  I truly enjoyed learning and understanding so many of the key principles to food and cooking.  The beauty really did exist in the details, and if you truly want to master anything, I believe you must have a strong appreciation, if not a love, for the details. 


On the other hand, it’s also within the details that many people can get lost and confused.  Once again, the culinary world proved no different.  The practicals in store were much more difficult.  The knife practicals were the same as the previous cycle, with the sole exception that two cloves of garlic were added to the mix.  The real test of achievement existed within the cooking practical.  Each student had to make a brown sauce (also called sauce espagnole), hollandaise sauce, rice pilaf, and veloute’ sauce.  All within one hour.  In addition, each sauce had temperature and quantity requirements.  And now the principles of time management and multi-tasking came into play.  The brown sauce took 45 minutes to make correctly.  Veloute and rice pilaf required 20 minutes. Hollandaise could be achieved in less than 12 minutes, but was the most likely to fail (called “breaking” a sauce) if done too quickly. 


Each student needed to determine his own gameplan for the cooking practical.  The most common approach, and the one I selected, was to start the brown sauce, prepare the rice pilaf and veloute simultaneously, complete the brown sauce, and then fire off the fastest hollandaise you could muster without “breaking” it.  “Breaking” a sauce refers to a failed incorporation of sauce ingredients such as oils (fats), liquids and proteins.  A simple mistake in hollandaise could result in creamy scrambled eggs.  In preparation for my practical, I broke down each product into its processes with related time requirements.  Then, in classic consultant-like analysis, I lined up all the tasks such that within a timeline approach, it became easier to see when multi-tasking made sense, and when it would put your hair on fire in the attempt.  The chef saw my notes and only shook his head and laughed.  His only advice to me was to relax and just cook.  Clearly the chef had the utmost confidence in my ability to both succeed and lead the class.  He would find the most amusing way to express this confidence, I would soon discover.


When it came to my turn to perform the practical in front of everyone, I started out methodically and calm.  It soon became apparent to me, and clearly to the chef, that I would have no problem completing the practical.  Until the chef decided to have some fun with me…at my expense, of course.  While I was busy at work, the chef was telling the class how important it was for the professional cook to be aware of his surroundings and remain focused.  To illustrate his point, he decided to sneak behind my back and lower the temperature of my oven, where my rice pilaf was cooking.  He then tried to distract me by standing over my shoulder while I was making my veloute’ sauce.


“Interesting techniques, Michael.  I’m not sure that’s how I’d do it, though,” he said with a slight smirk on his face.


“Care to elaborate on that, Chef?”  I asked rather wryly.


“Not at the moment, carry on,” he finished and walked away.  I also caught a subtle smile on his and the other students’ faces.


According to my approach to the practical, by the time I completed the veloute’ sauce, the rice should be done cooking.  As I poured my completed sauce into a baine marie (stainless steel cylindrical container), I checked the rice.  To my dismay, I noticed that the temperature gauge had been moved from my 375 degrees to 300 degrees.  I caught on to the joke that had been played on me, and decided to play along.


“Chef, you haven’t seen anyone playing with my oven over here, have you?”  I asked with a playful accusational tone. 


“Now why would you ask me that, Michael?  You are the one responsible for all of the equipment in your kitchen,” he instructed me with a large smile on his face.


Without missing a step, I took the rice out, inspected the amount of cooking still needed.  I then put the rice back in, adjusted the temperature and made a mental note to come back in 5 minutes to check the rice again for doneness.


“I don’t suppose my oven will mysteriously change its temperature again before I am done, Chef?”  I noted with a healthy mix of sarcasm and accusation.


At that point, the class erupted into laughter and the chef joined them heartily.  Even I had trouble keeping my composure, while I proceeded along the rest of my practical with confidence and precision.  The chef was right, cooking should be fun.  In his one playful gesture, he managed to teach all of us several lessons about cooking and working in a kitchen.


I completed the cycle on very high notes, scoring the highest in both cooking and knife practicals.  I was beginning to feel more comfortable in the kitchens, and the chef instructors were becoming more familiar with me.  Part of this was of my own doing.  Although my six-hour daily commute to school necessitated that I left for home immediately at the end of classes, I spent my free time between classes talking to the chef instructors, trying to learn even more about the industry I had just devoted myself.  To me, the chef instructors were the most valuable resources available to any student.  Not only could students learn more about their specific classes, but they could also learn more about the industry, culinary trends, and other suggestions that could help a student land a coveted externship position.  Oddly enough, I didn’t see many other students trying to take advantage of this great opportunity as well.


My tradeoff for the instructors’ time, not than anyone expected one, was most amusing.  The instructors learned that I had a strong business and computer background.  Each time I visited the instructors, invariably one of them would need help with email,
Windows, or Excel spreadsheets.  I enjoyed helping them, and felt good about helping them while they guided me along my culinary path. 


It was during one of these regular visits that I met the chef instructor who would have the biggest impact on me, and even to this day, remains a close confidante and mentor.  One of my teachers decided to introduce me this chef and began with a glowing recommendation, indicating to the chef that I was one of the best students PCI had seen.  Although I was a bit embarrassed by this, I was more concerned about the chef.  His countenance was unmoved, even as he shook my hands with his strong, calloused hands.  I was trying to decide why on earth my teacher was doing this. 


The scene had to be rather humorous to watch as an outsider.  My teacher was smiling and laughing, talking about how great he thought I was, while the chef had yet to smile, and there I was, in the middle wondering if I could escape the chef’s glare and sneak away without anyone noticing.  Let these two apparent friends talk about me some other time, but not in my presence.  Just when I thought that this situation couldn’t get more uncomfortable, as this chef was clearly unimpressed by anything my teacher had to say about me to this point, my teacher indicated to me why he bothered in the first place to introduce me to this beast of a chef.  He was also scheduled to be my group’s instructor for our next class, “Meats.”  The words fought to escape my tightened lips…we were all “dead meat.”  Clearly possessing the skill to also read minds, the chef smiled, an almost sinister smile, and finally released my crumpled hand as he said he was looking forward to meeting the rest of my class. 


The honeymoon was officially over.

Butterfly   Butterfly wrote
on 2/28/2008 11:18:21 PM
Not many people would have followed their passion...Kudos to you and I wish you all the best!

Charles   Charles wrote
on 2/6/2008 1:48:52 PM
i have spent 35 years in the business world and would have loved to have the courage to make the move into the passionate business of food and wine I commend your courage and the quality of the work and content I what I have just read. All the best

Chef Michael
Special Interest
writing Chef Michael
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Here is a sample chapter from my book, "A Cook at Heart: A Recipe for Transforming Your Life". It details my transition from a professional consultant with Ernst & Young to becoming a chef at the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland. The book covers my entire year at Le Cordon Bleu Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, as well as my time at the Ritz. It's a story of having the courage to change your life, and the perseverance to achieve your dreams and goals.
Published Date
6/5/2007 12:00:00 AM
Published In
Publisher is Authorhouse