Musings: How Professional Cooks Differ from Home Cooks

I realized a while ago that I am a philosopher at heart. By this I mean that often I step back and get a higher level view of something. When this happens I’ll be posting my thoughts on these topics under the category of “Musings”.

In reading my text for my CULA 116 class (Basic Culinary Principles) and in hearing the lecture this week, it occurred to me that a chef is like a dedicated “foodie”, in that he or she is interested in food and always looking for the next thing. The difference, of course, is the foodie is looking to consume the chef’s work, and the chef is trying to provide that next thing to titillate the taste buds. This is not in any way to imply that this is the only difference. The chef has to worry about budgets, food costs, sanitation, personnel, and a host of other things the foodie doesn’t.  The foodie worries about paying the bill and how much of a tip to leave, and if the food was worth coming back.

This train of thought continued and brought up one fundamental question, the core of why I was in school.

What is the difference between a professional chef and a dedicated home chef?  What is it I am hoping to get out of 6 quarters of school that I can’t get by looking at Youtube videos or reading books?

I have considered myself a dedicated home chef for quite some time. I watch cooking shows, own lots of cookbooks (some of which I actually cook out of), read stuff online, own some pretty good gear, knives, etc, etc.

But a great deal of what we covered in my first week of culinary school was stuff I already knew. Much was basic cooking stuff, like measurements, and some was not.

But what I read that I didn’t already know is at the core of the basic difference been the pro and the amateur is that the pro is dealing with quantity way beyond the amateur.  Quantity can take two forms.

The first is the obvious: How to cook for a large group of people? If you’ve ever attended a banquet, or eaten in a school cafeteria, you have been on the receiving end of the Chef’s expertise. And if you’ve ever served dinner to more than four or five people, you’ve experienced a bit of the difficulty of preparing 10’s or hundreds of meals and serving them all at the same time. There are techniques and tools/equipment that a professional chef has a their disposal to make this easier that a home cook does not have. No home cook has a steam kettle to prepare 100 gallons of soup, or a tilting skillet to sauté 60 chicken breasts in a batch.

But there is another form of “quantity” that many don’t realize, and that is cranking out dozens or perhaps hundreds of meals, or “covers”, a night in a popular restaurant. And more importantly, making a given dish exactly the same way each time. If you have ever gone back to a favorite restaurant to get the same dish you ate the last time you were there because it was so good, you’ve been on the receiving end of that expertise.

This is not as easy as it sounds. How often have you made a dish the second or third time and it doesn’t turn out the same as the first time you made it? If that happened to that favorite restaurant dish, you might not come back to that restaurant again.

Much of that sort of expertise comes from simple repetition, muscle memory as it were. The same idea as the old joke about the concert patron asking the street musician how to get to Carnegie Hall. The busker replies “Practice, man, practice”.

I’ve made certain things dozens of times (my pot stickers and my family’s Pfeffernusse Christmas cookies come to mind) and I have got them down to a science, and can make them pretty much the same way each time. But that pulled pork recipe on my Vision Grill? I haven’t made it enough times to do it consistently, but I’ll get there.

So the next time you are at a banquet and you are being served a ready made plate of food (or even lining up for the proverbial “rubber chicken”), or going back to your favorite restaurant to get that dish you just love, think about the work that went in to being able to produce either of those dishes to order.

I hope it makes you appreciate the professional cook even more than you may already.

Culinary School Day 4-5:The Measure of a Chef and I am SO Re-oriented

The last 2 days of week one of culinary school were largely spent out of the classroom…for a change.

We reviewed sanitation practices (that I discussed here).  The acronym FAT TOM is one we have to remember, and we need to remember Mary Mallon, otherwise known through the ages as “Typhoid Mary”. She worked as a cook for different families, didn’t believe in washing her hands (it was 1901) and kept moving

FAT TOM is a mnemonic that describes what nasty little critters in food need to grow:

  • Food
  • Acidity
  • Temperature
  • Time
  • Oxygen
  • Moisture

I’ve run across all of these in my sausage making (which I’ll be documenting on this site in time).  We can only easily control Time and Temperature, which is why all the discussion of food safety emphasizes the Danger Zone (41F-165F) and how much time food can be there.

We then went into great detail and repetition on measurements used in cooking. Gallons, Quarts, Pints, Cups, Tablespoons, Teaspoons, etc. The time spent on this in class was surprising, but as the discussion progressed I realized that I may be the only one in the class that has been cooking for any length of time, and many of my fellow students are perhaps seeing this for the first time. The US (ie, English) system IS very confusing, and is not all neat and orderly like the Metric System. My degree is in Chemistry, and we used the Metric system exclusively, so I’m very familiar with the regularity and order of that system. We’ll be using the English system in this class, and indeed most of the kitchens in America use this.

I realized (an even wrote in my notes) that I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t know that there were 2 cups in a pint, 4 quarts in a gallon, etc. A tribute to my parents, especially my father, who was an avid and adventurous eater, and an avid and adventurous cook.

Following a recipe written with English measurements is pretty easy, it’s converting that recipe to more or less portions/amounts where the irregularity gets to be daunting. But that is next week, I think, if we follow the text.

We went into the kitchen with a checklist and went around identifying all the equipment and where it was located. Cooktop, steam tables, measures, grills, etc. Some of this was to reinforce what they were, and also to see where they were in our kitchen space.  We share the room with the other classes, and with the cafeteria that has it’s own professional staff. We are not to use their walkins, supplies, produce, etc.

The other thing we did were more orientations. Most of the class are first time students, like me, so we did two orientation exercises to get used to resources we have available. Both were on Friday.

We went up to the library for a tour with the librarian, Cheyanne. We were told that nothing was blocked on the computers, and that we could watch anything as long as we used headphones.

Oh yea, and no porn. Yes, she actually told us this. “Please watch porn somewhere else.” This became a bit of a joke over the rest of the orientation. She was really out there and boisterous. Her love of books and all thing library was obvious.

While I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries in my day, that was back before the internet. We went to a lab upstairs and she went through the online resources that we have available, and how to get cites for research papers.  We do have a research paper to do (mine is about knife construction and sharpening) so this was valuable for me. The one thing we’ve discussed where I am behind the curve.  While I know computers inside and out, I don’t know these types of resources.

After that we reinforced the measurement lecture by doing an exercise in the kitchen. We split into 3 teams and worked through a handout, comparing volumes and weights of various ingredients. Did you know 8 ozs of Spring Mix is gallon? I didn’t, but do now.

Comparing results, we were all pretty close, although the three groups never got the same result. It was always off by some fraction of a unit. An interesting tidbit that measuring flour, for example, depends on how it’s scooped and a few other things.  Weight is the only truly accurate way to measure certain things, but in cooking, we use volume most of the time because minor variations don’t matter. (Baking is a different thing. Virtually all ingredients are weighed.)

The final thing we did was a “Scavenger Hunt” around campus, the 2nd orientation exercise.  Where is the Financial Aid office? Where is the nearest defibrillator? What number do you call for security?  That sort of thing.

A couple of things came to me during the week, which I’ll discuss here.

See you all next week.


Culinary School days 2-3: History of Pro Cooking and Icky Things in Food That Make You Sick

The title just about says it all. If history bores you, skip the next 2 paragraphs

In my main intro class, we talked about the history of professional cooking. Before the French Revolution, professional cooks were employed by nobility and anyone else that could afford them. The concept of a “restaurant” didn’t really exist. There were public houses, but they had food provided by “guilds” (aka, “unions”). The innkeeper couldn’t just server whatever they wanted, they had to serve roasts from the “roast guild”, etc. Plus, public houses/inns were focused on travelers, locals would rarely eat there. Then in 1765 a guy named Boulanger established a place that did not provide lodging but made and sold restorative soups (French: restaurants). The concept of a place to go and get food made by someone else was born.

Two others that were key in the development of modern commercial kitchens. Carame classified food and cooking into what we would recognize as recipes. Escoffier organized the people in the kitchen into different roles and created the brigade system.  The Chef is the boss, the Sous Chef is the lieutenant, the poissonier cooks fish. All laid out it is daunting, with a lot of people. Only large hotels and such have anything resembling this today, but 100 years ago, especially in France where a bunch of the underlings worked for free, it was the norm.

The other interesting thing we did was actually get a tour of the kitchens where I’ll be working. I do like gadgets (this blog is The Techy Chef, after all), and dream of having the equivalent of a commercial kitchen in my home, but for now at least I actually have access to one.

The photo shows the main cooking island the students will be using. On the left is a 24″ grill and in WP_20140930_002[1]the same unit is a 6 burner cooktop, with an oven below.  The next unit to the right is a 6 burner cooktop and an oven, and then to the far right is a stack of convection ovens. The kitchen is shared with the space used by the student cafeteria, so there are other items that we can use, but have to coordinate, such as griddles, deep fryers, steam kettles, etc.

Various fridges, freezers, and walkins are around the perimeter of this large space that we will use. There is a large commercial dishwasher, dishwashing sinks, and other stuff I don’t even remember. Off of this space is the bakery, which I’ll be acquainted with next quarter (if I recall my course order correctly).

I also had the first session of my 2nd class, Food Safety and Sanitation. This meets once a week, and prepares us to take the ServSafe certification exam. The instructor is Chef Janet Waters, who is actually a Certified Pastry Chef and normally teaches all the baking classes.

Everyone working in any place serving food has to have a “food handler card” (more on that in a second). To get the card you have to know the basics of controlling temperature and how to wash your hands correctly. They discuss a “Person in Charge” in the test (PIC, which in the flying biz is Pilot in Command….but I digress).  Passing this certification qualifies us to be the “food safety monitor” in a commercial kitchen, or the PIC, the person who establishes the procedures, trains, and generally enforces health codes for the kitchen. The class will go into much more detail on specifics to handle, store, and cook food to prevent food borne illness.

The first lecture was basically an overview of the first chapter of our book, covering the basics. TheWP_20140930_003[1] people who already had their food handler card were dismissed (many of the people in the courses are already working in the industry) and the 6 or so of us who didn’t went to the library and went online to the King County health department web site. After 30 minutes of animated videos with annoying sound effects, I passed the 35 question test with a perfect score.

The 3rd day, most of this was again covered by Chef Sakai in my intro class, as that is the 2nd chapter our text. We learned about “Typhoid Mary” and how there weren’t any food laws until 1906. We then went to an auditorium where we were “oriented” by the faculty. They discussed some of the changes they’d made (remodeled classrooms and bakery, etc), new curriculum, and a bunch of other stuff. They also discussed some “College Bowl” type competitions that exist for culinary programs, which they have done well at. LWTech has gotten to Nationals the last 3 years and won Gold and Silver in 2 of those. There are also a few volunteer opportunities where large groups will be served, so I’m definitely going to volunteer for those, to get some sort of quasi-catering experience.

That’s about it for today.


Hello all. Welcome to The Techy Chef

Greetings to all reading this on the big wide world of the Internet. I’m Jason Goertz, The Techy Chef.

I have many interests, and this blog will be a multifaceted outlet for discussing a few of them. The main two threads that join here are food and technology. I have been playing with both since I was a very young child.

After college I went into the computer tech field, but never lost my love of food. I have been cooking and entertaining my whole adult life.

At a certain point, I realized my passion for technology had been replaced by my passion for food, and that is what I really wanted to pursue. So after a multi-decade career in the computer business, I left it behind for culinary school and a future, as yet to be defined, in the world of food.

This blog will act as a journal of sorts for my journey through culinary school and beyond. Along the way, I will discuss recipes and food that I love, along with the techniques to make it, along with the technology needed. I’ll even tell you how to build a few of the devices we’ll be using.

So The Techy Chef is a double entendre. I am a Techy who will some day be a chef (officially) and I will offer recipes for food and equipment with a Techy twist.

If you want to know more detail on my story, click on the About page link.

You, the reader, will have a front row seat on the my journey of going from the role of Techy to Chef.



Culinary School, Day 1

Today, Monday September 29, 2014, was my first day of culinary school at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology.

My intended audience for this series of blogs are those who might be curious what culinary school is like.  The point of view, of course, is one who has been “in the world” for a number of years, as opposed to someone straight out of high school.

The first day I had one class, the first day of CULA 116,  Culinary Skills and Concepts. The class is 3 hours a day, from 11-2, 5 days a week. The instructor, Chef Eric Sakai, said that this is a new way of teaching the class. They used to teach it 3 days a week, but thought that was unrealistic, since in the “real world” you’ll be working every day, pretty much. In fact, this is the first time he’s taught this class. We are also in a new, redone classroom. All of this newness to mirror the new chapter in my life that this heralds!

The mix of people was kind of interesting. In a class of 16 or 18 (have to get a final count) there are maybe 4 guys (including me) and the rest women.  Quite a few are baking/pastry chef students, and many want to own their own shops. One woman, the only other “older” person in the class, said her goal was to open a bakery specializing in allergen free foods in Eastern Washington. As I was raised and went to college there, that piqued my interest.  But the class was a bit crowded, and 20 minutes into it other teachers came in and recruited people for the Front of the House Class.  This class runs a little restaurant that is on campus 3 days a week. I will eventually take that class, as it’s required for the degree. The idea being that the back kitchen staff be at least familiar with what the servers in the front of the house goes through.

Another interesting person was a guy who came in late.  At that point, we were talking about uniforms and what was available in the bookstore.  This guy had a full beard and asked if there were beard guards. Chef Eric said no, and about that time we took a break. When we came back, he was gone. The standards (more in a minute) say the men have to be clean shaven daily. Guess he didn’t want to part with his facial hair.

Most of the class was administrative. We went over the syllabus, and spent a great deal of time talking about the expectations they have of us for this course. While this is a course that every Culinary and Baking student has to take, there are a couple in the class that are there for the credits and enrichment. But the expectations are pretty intense.

  • Be on time. Grading is on a points system, and if you are late, they doc a point for every half hour. Let’s see, I’m going to work in a restaurant that opens at 5, but I’ll show up at 6….NOT! This makes perfect sense.
  • If you are going to be late or absent, call or e-mail the instructor. 3 no shows, with no message, and you are dropped from the class.
  • We are to be in uniform at all times when in the class. They specify a chef’s coat (which I’ve ordered), specific pants, a specific hat, and certain types of shoes. Wearing jeans or dark pants, not the fine checkered pants they want, you will be docked points, and if you do it repeatedly, you’re out. (Note that this stuff is mostly available from the bookstore, so it’s not that big a deal to get it, but does represent another expense). In other words, a strictly enforced dress code.
  • No cheating or other behavior unbecoming and adult. This is actually encoded in state law, but it’s surprising they have to say this out loud.

We had to sign a form that acknowledged we knew all this stuff and hand it in to him. A contract, of sorts.The last thing we did was take a placement test, of sorts, for him to see where we were in our culinary knowledge. Questions like:  “How many quarts in a gallon, what temperature does water boil, what temperature is safe for chicken to serve, etc”. I got all but 1 right, and that was stupid (Q: What do you do before you clean a piece of equipment. I said “Wash your hands”. Correct answer: “Unplug it”….DOH!) Tomorrow, I’ll start my other class, CULA 128, Food Service Safety and Sanitation. That class only meets once a week. I will let you know about that tomorrow.

Anyway, this first week will be mostly that sort of stuff, but we do have 3 chapters in our text to read and study.

The way I’ve written this here, Chef Eric sounds Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, but he’s actually pretty cool and laid back. It’s for the simple fact that they are taking 18 year olds and molding them into someone who a restaurant would like to hire. Seems fair to me. I live my life by these rules anyway, like showing up on time or calling if you can’t.

Not the uniform though. That will take a big of getting used to.  But hey, Mario and Bobby had to do it, why not me?