At the Texas Culinary Academy, in Austin, I chopped vegetables, roasted bones—and got a taste of what it’s like to be a chef.
At six-twenty on a Tuesday morning last fall, jittery from too much coffee and not enough sleep, I stepped into a classroom kitchen at the Texas Culinary Academy, in Austin. Chef-instructor Gary Ackerman was directing half a dozen student volunteers who were hustling around preparing trays of ingredients for the class. Ackerman, 45, seemed to be doing about ten things at once. “Nice to have you here,” he said, looking up from a cutting board. “Have a seat.” Then he went back to chopping off carrot tops.
I found a chair at one of several long tables and put on my borrowed chef’s jacket and toque. The large, high-ceilinged room—more than two thousand square feet—was filling up with the forty students who were taking the class. They straggled in, fumbling around for their recipes and helping one another tie their scarves (“This is the manly way; that’s the girly way,” someone said, indicating a Windsor knot and a granny knot). Everyone had on a white jacket, the traditional black-and-white-checked pants, and close-fitting white caps. (I got to wear a toque, which students are awarded when they graduate, because I was a guest.) Although most were in their twenties, a few looked like middle-aged career changers, with a 3 to 2 ratio of men to women. The majority were Anglo or Hispanic, with only one black student (the class had no Asian students, though they make up about 10 percent of the academy’s overall enrollment). This diverse group included chef wannabes who had come from as far away as Michigan to gamble that they could parlay $36,000 into a lucrative job. I had come because I wanted to find out what it was like to train to be a chef these days. And, frankly, I wanted to see how I would perform under pressure: Would I rise to the occasion like a soufflé or collapse into a puddle of goo?
Although not the only professional cooking school in Texas, the Texas Culinary Academy (TCA) may well be the most ambitious and fastest growing. It started out in 1981 as a small-potatoes apprenticeship program called Le Chef but hit the big time two years ago when it moved into its present glitzy digs, a $9 million, 52,000-square-foot building in North Austin. Its recent rise to prominence is a testament, in part, to the shrewdness of its youthful director, Harvey Giblin, who at 35 bears more than a passing resemblance to Doogie Howser, M.D. While the state’s other culinary schools—El Centro College, in Dallas; St. Philip’s College of San Antonio; Del Mar College, in Corpus Christi; and the two highly regarded Art Institutes in Houston and Dallas—graduated a total of some 250 baby chefs in 2003, the TCA had 420 graduates (and an enrollment 750 students). That number hardly compares with the 1,200 who graduated from the Harvard of cooking colleges, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, New York, but then the academy hasn’t been around for 32 years either.
Every six weeks, a new group of students arrives, keeping the academy’s six kitchens—each of which cost around $350,000 to equip—humming for three five-hour shifts a day, five days a week. When they finish the program, the students will have survived twelve months of classes and kitchen practice plus a three-month paid “externship” in an actual restaurant; some of their predecessors have worked at Charlie Trotter’s, in Chicago; Lupa, in New York (one of Mario Batali’s restaurants); and the Food Network. Unless their parents are wealthy, they will have racked up loans totaling $36,000 for tuition and $2,000 for equipment and books (the CIA charges about $15,000 a year for its two-year program). They will also wear battle scars from real knives and real flames and, if all has gone well, still have a burning desire to cook. Ninety-six percent of them will get jobs. Some of the best and brightest have ended up at restaurants including the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas, and Spago, in Los Angeles, as well as cruise ship dining rooms.
The TCA teaches French preparations and terms; in my class, we learned the definitions of “demi-glace” (a rich brown sauce reduced by half to a thick glaze) and “pincer” (to brown in fat before adding liquid). But the French focus alone is not unusual. What sets the TCA apart is its status as an affiliate of the historic Le Cordon Bleu, of Paris; it’s one of eleven in the United States. Since Giblin forged an alliance with the crème de la crème of cooking colleges in 2002, the TCA has taught the Cordon Bleu curriculum, and representatives of the French academy drop by periodically for a little tête-à-tête and to see how things are going (which must be like knowing that the Michelin guidebook inspector is in your dining room prodding a lamb chop). Although French principles and recipes undergird the course of study, dishes from other nations are taught as well. Today we would learn how to make brown veal stock, one of the most fundamental preparations of classic French cooking. Feeling the way I do in a theater just before the curtain goes up, I dug out my notebook and a pen.
At exactly six-thirty, chef-instructor John Mims, 54, called the roll. “I have Band-Aids left over from yesterday,” he announced, waving them in the air. “Not as many cuts as expected. Excellent.” Then Ackerman, wearing the usual chef’s jacket and a toque, stepped to the center of the room and faced the students, who were perched on chairs around stainless-steel tables arranged in a U-shape. Set out on more tables behind him were trays of veal knuckle bones, bins of whole carrots and onions, and bunches of celery. More trays held bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves, fresh flat-leaf parsley, and canned tomato paste. (There were also chicken carcasses for the chicken stock that we would prepare today as well, but it was decidedly subordinate to the brown veal stock.)
“Can anyone define the word ‘stock’?” Ackerman asked.
“It’s a clear, thin, flavorful liquid,” somebody volunteered.
“Yes,” Ackerman said. “What else?”
No one responded, so he supplied the answer: “A stock is a thin, flavorful liquid that is derived from the cooking of bones or vegetables.” We all scribbled away madly.
“Now,” he continued, “what are the uses of stock?”
Several students suggested sauces and soups. Ackerman added consommés, plus braised or simmered dishes like galantines, fancy molded pâtés covered in aspic, a.k.a. jellied stock.
“In short,” he said, punching out the words, “stock is everywhere. You have to be a stock expert. It is as important to a chef as his knife.”
He paused dramatically for this to sink in.
Ackerman, whom we addressed as “Chef” or “Chef Gary,” was a good teacher, patient but demanding. People who work in kitchens, under pressure, are infamous for their black humor, and he was no exception. Asking us to please not traipse through the area where he usually stood, he added, “Unless you’re running for the door holding a bloody stump.” Before he came to the TCA, he had been a chef and a caterer and had owned his own restaurant. His 25 years of experience are typical of the academy’s faculty.
During his talk he covered the basics, explaining terms like “bouquet garni” (a mix of herbs such as thyme and parsley) and “sachet” (a little cheesecloth bag to hold spices and herbs like bay leaves, cloves, and peppercorns), pausing from time to time to demonstrate the steps for making a brown veal stock, absolute perfection always being the goal.
The procedure—in case you want to try this at home, kids—is as follows: First you brown some veal knuckle bones in a 375- or 400-degree oven for an hour, until they turn a dark brown. Meanwhile, prepare a mirepoix (named for, you guessed it, a Frenchman, Charles de Lévis, duc de Mirepoix). It consists of two parts roughly cut onion to one part each celery and carrot, and it makes the stock flavorful and aromatic.
You roast the mirepoix with the veal bones for fifteen minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and brush the bones with tomato paste (canned is used because it is high in acid and is made from ultra-ripe tomatoes). You put the bones and vegetables back in the oven until the paste has caramelized, about ten to fifteen more minutes, then toss everything into a stock pot filled with water (our class had two 24-gallon pots, each two feet tall).
After that, you pour yourself a glass of red wine (you deserve it). When you’re sufficiently relaxed, add a bit of the wine and some hot water to the roasting pan to help dissolve the crusty, dark fond (meaning “foundation”). Then scrape the pan like mad and add those tidbits to the simmering stock-to-be. Finally, throw in a sachet and a bouquet garni. When students queried Ackerman about amounts—“How much tomato paste, Chef?”—he first explained what he was doing and why (“I want a thin layer, so it will dry out and start to caramelize”) and then gave a measurement for the quantity of bones we were using. When someone was surprised that he didn’t use measuring cups or spoons, he said, “Use your judgment. A recipe lets you cook one dish. A technique lets you cook anything.”
Finally it was time for us to do what we had come to do: play with knives and fire and get into trouble. Two students invited me to help them, and we quickly found out how hard it is to keep everything straight when forty people are running around a huge kitchen calling out “Behind you!” as they barrel through on their way to and from the sinks and stoves carrying hot veal bones and greasy pans. Somehow we mistakenly set our oven at 325 degrees instead of 375, and after 45 minutes our veal bones were only a pitiful, pasty beige instead of a yummy brown. Then when our chicken stock boiled over, we turned the flame down so far that it blew out and the stock stopped cooking altogether for who knows how long.
Barely controlled chaos reigned: Every time you bent over to open the oven door, you would whack somebody with your rear end. Getting to a sink was like skiing the giant slalom at the Olympics. Mysterious forces caused tongs and knives to vanish when needed most. After an hour, I concluded that I personally could land a part in any sequel to Dumb and Dumber, but my partners did most things right and we finished on time, including helping wipe and sweep the whole kitchen. Our class’s two communal pots of brown veal stock would simmer for eight to nine hours after we left. When we needed them two days later, they would be ready to go.
On Thursday morning, Ackerman stood in the middle of the class with our veal stock in a pot beside him. He dipped a spoon into it. Voilà! In the intervening day our stock had been miraculously transformed into something rich and strange. Cooked down, strained, and chilled, it had morphed into a beautiful, translucent, solid golden-brown mass: veal Jell-O. He held up a quivering spoonful. “This is amazing stuff,” he said. “You should be proud. Good work!” We basked in the praise. It was thrilling to witness the transformation of such mundane things—bones, vegetables, water—into something so refined.
As Ackerman continued and we got ready to make a series of eight sauces using our stock—demi-glace, espagnole, chasseur, Robert, and more—I thought about how the principles of a culinary education parallel the rules of stock-making: Start with good ingredients, learn the moves, and astonishing changes can happen. The five hours went by in a blur. Somehow our team of three managed to make our eight sauces in the time allotted, and when Ackerman came around to grade them, we got—on a twenty-point scale—eighteens, nineteens, and twenties. Eighteen meant the sauce had a couple of minor flaws; nineteen and twenty meant it was good enough to serve in a restaurant. We were so surprised we just stared at each other, grinning idiotically from ear to ear.
After class was over, I walked down the hall to the academy office and turned in my jacket and toque. Briefly, I thought about asking if I could keep the hat, even though it made my hair stand out like sprigs of parsley. I wasn’t quite ready to give it back.