Culinary School – Winter Quarter 2015 – Week 1

Hello all.  Thanks for all the comments I’ve been getting, I appreciate people I don’t know reading about my adventures.

I’m now in quarter 2 of my journey from Computer Guy to Cooking Guy. The previous posts have documented my initial CULA116 class learning the basics of cooking in a commercial kitchen, along with a bit about my CULA128 class learning about food safety, and how to be the point of contact for the health department in a commercial food operation.

WP_20150107_001[1]One of the first things we did this quarter was have a department wide orientation with all the instructors and old and new students. Chef Waters had our ServSafe certificates which include our scores and a pocket and frame version of the cert. It’s nice to have SOMETHING to show for all the hard work. This reminds me of the old joke about not caring to see your doctor’s diplomas, but rather seeing his/her report card, so you know what grade he/she got in your disease. A similar thing can be said here. I passed, but maybe I passed the part about sanitizer solutions, but forgot how long you can hold potato salad without refrigeration. Maybe you want to know that before I cater that large outdoor gathering…

As an aside, before we get going on the course work, the college redesigned the web site:

Here is the link to the Culinary Program’s main page.

Anyway, this quarter I’m actually taking 3 classes:

  • CULA 124 Introduction to Front of the House
  • CULA 142 Costing and Menu Planning
  • CULA 154 Food and Beverage Procurement

The first thing to note is that none of these are cooking classes. Along with actually cooking, the program is teaching us to run a restaurant, and these three classes are a majority of the core management classes that are taught on the way to an AAS degree.

I’ll discuss each one to give an introduction.

CULA 124 Intro to Front of House

Product DetailsThis is the main class I’m taking this quarter in terms of time. It is 9 credits, and runs 11-1 on Mondays, and 10:30-2:00 Tues-Thurs.

The course centers on learning to be a server in a restaurant. Restaurants are divided into two large divisions, Front of the House and Back of the House. Back refers to the kitchen, storerooms, etc, anything that is generally not in view by customers. Front of the house refers to the seating areas, reception and anyplace that the customer will see while they are there being served.

A good restaurant will have strong leaders running both of these areas. The kitchen is run by the Executive Chef and in turn his or her Sous Chef(s). This position is someone that any food lover is familiar with. Cooking shows and the Food Network have turned these people into celebrities and household names.

But the success of a restaurant hinges on customer service as well as good food, and that is handled by the person running the front of the house. This person can have different titles. In fine dining restaurants, this person is usually called the Maitre d’hôtel, or just Maitre’d for short. No matter what they are called, they supervise the servers, host/hostess, bussers, and all others that serve the customer while in the restaurant.

So why should I, as a fledgling chef, need to learn about how to be a server? The answer is simple. Historically, there is often conflict between the front and back of the house. The Chef and Maitre’d don’t get along for whatever reason, or the underlings don’t get along. Whatever the reason, a restaurant needs both parts cooperating fully to deliver a quality dining experience. This course is designed to give us “fledgling chefs” an introduction to other side of the wall, so we can understand what they do.

The fact of the matter is that both sides can sabotage the other: The front just “doesn’t deliver” a dish and it is cold, and the cooks are blamed. The cooks hold back food and then bring it up all at once, requiring the wait staff to scramble to serve multiple tables. Etc, etc.

This course is generally met with rolling eyes and long sighs from the culinary students, but I am looking forward to it. I have never actually worked in a restaurant, amazingly enough, but I’ve certainly eaten in a lot, and learning how the serving side of things works is something I’m looking forward to, although I am going to miss cooking for a quarter.

WP_20150131_001[1]The “classroom” is actually a working restaurant. Every culinary school has at least one of these if they are certified by the American Culinary Federation. The CIA in New York has four, at least according to their website. Our restaurant is named The Chef City Grill. It is actually a working restaurant, open for lunch 3 days a week. Two classes meet there, my CULA 124 class and CULA 120, Restaurant Fundamentals. The students in the former are the servers, the latter are the cooks. I will eventually be in CULA 120 as well, but that is several quarters in the future.

My instructor is Matt Keigley. He is not a chef, but has been a school teacher, a server at some local fine dining restaurants, and has managed a small pizza place and owned his own restaurant for a while. Front of the House is offered every quarter, and this is the main class he teaches.

The first week we just got acquainted with the restaurant and each other. He lectured on:

  • The service industry in general
  • The idea that a server is a salesperson and is trying to exceed customer’s expectations
  • Characteristics of a server – What the customer notices
  • Standards – Uniform, cleanliness, politeness, etc.
  • How to greet customers, seat them, and take an order
  • Basics on how to carry plates, how a table is set, silverware, etc
  • Sidework – Everything other than actually serving guests, from folding napkins to filling up salt and pepper shakers.
  • Practicing taking and writing orders, and entering them into the Point of Sale system (POS)

Much of this was something I was passingly familiar with. The main takeaway is that there are a LOT of details to giving good customer service.

The last thing, taking orders and entering them, we actually spent a LOT of time on. The POS system, like any computer system, takes a while to learn. It is imperative that we enter things fast and accurately, and there is a definite sequence to doing this.

Next week we continue our practice and will get to look at the menu that CULA 120 has been developing.

CULA 142 – Costing and Menu Planning

Product DetailsThis is a lecture class that meets Thursday afternoons for 3 hours. One of 4 or 5 lecture classes that are part of the program, this class is required for both the Culinary and Baking AAS degrees.

A great many restaurants fail because the person running it doesn’t know how to cost menu items properly, and he or she doesn’t know how to control all the costs in the operation. I am an avid watcher if Restaurant: Impossible on the Food Network, and this theme comes up time and again. Very few of the restaurants that Chef Irvine visits have trained professionals running them. Occasionally he’ll come across someone who has been to culinary school in one of these failing restaurants, but that is the exception. In those cases, either the grad is not being allowed to do what he/she was trained to do (there was one Italian restaurant where the father had sent the son to CIA, and he was still cooking the way his father told him to) or there are personality conflicts among the owners that keep customers away and staff turning over. Very dry, but very important stuff.

There is a lot of “math” in this class, which as I mentioned when blogging last quarter, isn’t math, it’s arithmetic, fractions, percentages, and ratios. Having gotten a BA in chemistry and worked my whole career with computer people, being around a LOT of people who have trouble multiplying fractions is an eye opening experience.

I am not sure how much I’ll blog about this class. I will talk about anything that is interesting that comes up, something that gets pointed out that I didn’t already know. The first week we got an introduction to the subject, talking about management and what they do in the operation. We also discussed different types of expenses:

  • Fixed – doesn’t change no matter how many sales occur
  • Variable – Varies with sales up and down
  • Semi-variable – Certain baseline expense, and varying part may not be in proportion to sales
  • Controllable – Can be controlled by management
  • NonControllable – Opposite of above.

Having been in the business world for 30+ years this all makes sense, but I think some of the 18 yo’s might have problems.  This will be interesting.

CULA 154  Food and Beverage Procurement

Product DetailsAgain, another lecture class that is vital to running an actual restaurant. It meets on Tuesdays from 2-5.  So on Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m in school from about 10:00 to 5:00.

This class deals with how and what to buy for a food service operation, how to pick a vendor, how to decide to make something for the menu vs buying it premade.

Purchasing, of course, starts with the menu.  You can’t know what to purchase without knowing what you are going to serve. In this respect, there is a lot of overlap with the cost control class.

The first class was as I’d expect, an introduction to the syllabus, and then a definition of what is purchasing and how it fits into the grand scheme of things. The students are a bit different in this class, most of them are later along in the program (my instinct is to say “upperclassmen” but that is a concept reserved for 4 year institutions).  Quite a few of the cooks from CULA 120 are in this class with me. This sort of makes sense. There are 20 credits of core work that is not culinary related that must be taken to graduate: Math, Humanities, English, etc. Since I had all this before from my time at Whitman, all this transferred, so I have not had to take any of these classes, and have “the cycles” (as we’d say in the computer biz) to take an extra lecture class.

Interesting, my instructor for these two classes is Matt Keigley, the same instructor I have for Front of House. So ALL my classes are being taught by the same guy. We are either going to REALLY know each other well by the end of the quarter, or we will be sick of each other.

Come back soon and I’ll let you know how things are going in weeks 2 and on in my 2nd quarter at school.

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