Thoughts For Food

Insights into the Mind of a Culinary School Student


Food Bites: Gluten, Gluten. Who’s Got The Gluten (Allergy)

My previous class here at the CIA really opened my eyes to the dangers those who suffer from gluten allergies or Celiac Disease. It’s an epidemic that afflicts thousands of people in this country and sad to say, not may restaurants cater to this relatively common autoimmune disease. Luckily, it’s a fairly easy task to do. many reliable gluten-free flour blends exist on the market today, as well as the means to create your own. As the old saying goes; “Knowledge is Power.” Here’s some tips on what ingredients you need and, how to keep your kitchen/bakeshop gluten-free.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease, which means it originates within your own body. Furthermore, the disease never leaves. Once you are diagnosed with Celiac Disease, you have it for LIFE. What happens exactly is what’s known in the medical world as Villi Atrophy. The microvilli that line your small intestine and are responsible for absorbing nutrients from the food you ingest, have weakened and atrophied to a point where they can no longer function properly. As a result, the person afflicted can no longer consume ANY gluten-based products, and in some cases, not even products that have been in close proximity to gluten. Ongoing exposure to gluten proves highly dangerous to those with Celiac Disease. Worst of all, those afflicted with Celiac Disease (about 1% of the total population) can go misdiagnosed for YEARS. Great care and consideration must be taken to cater to those affected by Celiac Disease. These are human lives. The extra work is more than worth it.

What Does “Gluten-Free” Mean Exactly?

The term “gluten-free” means that the amount of gluten in a given product has been reduced down to 20 PPM (parts-per-million). At this level, the amount of gluten will not be enough to trigger a reaction in someone suffering from Celiac Disease. There is no standard, legal definition for “gluten-free” in the US right now, but, there will be hopefully soon.

What Do I Need To Make Gluten-Free Items?

There are some common items on the open market that are perfectly suited for making your own gluten-free flour blend:

  • White and Brown Rice Flour
  • Potato Starch (a.k.a. Potato Starch Flour)
  • Tapioca Starch
  • Tapioca Flour
  • Soy Flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Cornstarch
  • Guar or Xanthan Gum (aids in stability)
  • Baking Powder and Soda (aids in rise)

With these easy to find ingredients, you can make a gluten-free flour blend that you can use at any time to substitute a normal order. Just remember: the flours, unless specified, must be kept under refrigeration. The MUST be free of wheat flour and flour particles. Normally, this means not baking anything for one to two days and allowing the flour particles to settle and dissipate. The oven where these items will be baked MUST be treated the same way, AND the grates/baking surfaces must be washed thoroughly  to remove any trace of gluten. Finally, any refrigerator or freezer space where gluten-free items will be stored must also be scrubbed down and made absolutely gluten-free. There can be NO cross-contamination at all, or else all the hard work you put into making a glutne-free item will be for nothing.

The bottom line is this: Don’t slouch on gluten-free items or on customers who have Celiac Disease. Be proactive. Ask if anyone has Celiac Disease or a gluten allergy. Take the appropriate steps to make sure your kitchen or bakeshop is sufficiently gluten-free, even if it is just for a few hours before prep or service. Finally, be sure to store all the products correctly. These extra steps and items may seem daunting, but they are well worth it to protect human lives.

If you would like some suggested reading, I highly recommend Gluten-Free Baking with the Culinary Institute of America by Chef Richard Coppedge, Certified Master Baker. He was the one who taught my last class. He is incredibly knowledgeable about Celiac Disease and a whole host of other food allergies and dietary restrictions. The book is a wonderful resource for those who cater to such food-based allergies and for those wanting to learn more about the subject.



Life in the CIA: Post-AOS

In the past few months, I’ve cleared a major hurdle in my education here at the CIA, only to reach another one. Between April and August, I completed my externship and in doing so, was able to stay on campus and complete the rest of the Associates Program (AOS) here at the CIA. So far, post-externship classes have been really fun and informative. It’s all AM classes now and I couldn’t be happier than I am right now. I’m learning so many new techniques and working with all sorts of new and exciting decorating mediums. The one thing that has dawned on me now, is that my academic life here seems to be on fast-forward.

The first batch of classes, which lasted 6 weeks as opposed to the normal 3, went by in a flash. Now, the class I’m in is almost done and it seems like only yesterday that it just began. I’m sure part of this is because the group I’m in is very fun to work with and makes even a 7-hour class seem like nothing. And I’m sure that, the fact that I thoroughly enjoy the material being taught also makes the class go by much quicker. That being said, time seems to be going by and an abnormally fast rate and I only have a handful of classes left before my AOS Graduation on March 23rd, a date that is now rapidly approaching. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I can’t wait for the next few classes in the AOS program to come around, but at the same time, I want to savor each one, because I know that they’ll be really fun classes (see: Chocolates & Confections).

That being said, I still can’t wait for graduation and what comes after. Many students opt to end their time at the CIA here, after AOS is done. Two years and then it’s off to the industry, which is a great idea, don’t get me wrong. I’m just opting for the other route, which means sticking around for the Bachelors Program. It’s another year of schooling, although more academic this time around. Classes such as Management and Accounting form the core of the curriculum, but there are electives such as Food in Literature, Anthropology of Food, and The History of The Americas that make the overarching BPS program that much more interesting. The one thing that really makes the program interesting is the Food, Wine and (Agri)Culture class and the class trip. To me and many of my friends, this is the crux of the program. As a part of this class, you get to visit any one of the following locations and study the culture and food of the area:

  • Northern California
  • Southern California
  • Pacific Northwest
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • China

I feel like in addition to the trip being incredibly fun, it will really help in expanding your culinary knowledge, as well as help you grow as a person. Can’t wait for BPS.

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Life in the CIA: My Externship – A Summary

Well, my externship period is over. Four months have come and gone in a flash, even thought at times, it seemed like it would drag on forever. Despite my ups and downs, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Berkshires and will take all those experiences (and injuries) with me as I finish my tenure at the CIA. I will say that my externship was a very humbling experience. It taught me to look past my own weaknesses and embrace my failures as learning experiences. It also made me expand my sense of humor in many ways.

During my time at the Store and the Inn, I had the opportunity to experience brand new ways of working in a professional kitchen, using tools and techniques that I have never seen before. Moreover, I had the opportunity to bond with a whole new set of coworkers whom I had never met until then. Truth be told I was a little frightened, but excited at the same time. It was a bit awkward at first, bonding with everyone. It was very much like being a freshman at college all over again, complete with many, many hazing rituals. I understand that many, if not all kitchens use racial slang and/or terminology as a joke or because they’re just comfortable with it. Honestly, I was very uncomfortable with the whole thing throughout the entirety of my externship. Even when asking Chef Peter for feedback on my performance, he would drop some form of Asian stereotype while doing so. I voiced my concern to my coworkers about this matter, and they did stop using the stereotypical slang as much, though they still did. However, I did learn that it was just one of those things that goes on in a kitchen. They did not mean any disrespect towards me for my race, but instead meant it as a joke or a nickname (as they kept calling me “Chino”). In return, I treated them with the same amount of respect and trust that I have since day one.

All the different methods and techniques that I was introduced to while working helped to broaden my mind and see possibilities for any dish, savory or otherwise. The most important lesson they taught me was that the line between pastry and culinary, while present, is not a dividing factor, but merely a small obstacle that can be easily crossed. Many pastry items that I would only ever see in a bakeshop actually got a fair culinary treatment, as either a main ingredient or just backup to the larger dish. In any case, it served to let me see that the food industry is not as black and white as many would have us believe. It is this mentality and outlook that has helped me focus on my ultimate career goal of being a food writer, even more so. Despite not having a lot of free time to do actual writing on my day off, my externship did give me the clarity and focus needed for such a career. Many new ideas are are swimming about in my mind. My outlook on the food industry as a whole is renewed and refreshed. One of my coworkers even said he’d pass my name onto someone who works for a major publication, once I graduated. So I suppose I have a bit of a head start in that regard, and for that, I am ever thankful for my coworkers.

If given the opportunity to do this externship over again, I would change a few things. Make myself more assertive in certain situations, push myself a little harder, etc. But mostly, I would do exactly what I did, and that’s work as hard as I can, no matter what. It is this new-found confidence that I am most thankful and it is with this new-found confidence that I can face any challenge that comes my way.

Life In The CIA: My Externship – Part, The Third

Hey everyone, sorry once again that this entry was a little late! It got super busy at work and it still is, but thank goodness for days off, right?

My time here in MA is starting to wind down. That’s right, I’m nearing the end of my externship period with The Southfield Store/The Old Inn On The Green. August 13 is my last day and it is fast approaching. I’m of two parts about it, to be perfectly honest. Part of me is glad to be almost over, because I’ll finally get a chance to rest, relax and process all the information I’ve learned since April. However, there is another part of me that is sad that this experience is ending soon. Despite a rocky start, I’ve really come to enjoy my time here. My coworkers, the chefs I work alongside. Everyone here has really made this a quite enjoyable experience and has taught me many invaluable lessons and skills of which I am very thankful. I need to think of a way to properly thank them before I leave.

I’m now working 6-days a week now, with my only day off being Tuesday. It’s a rough schedule and doesn’t really leave me with a lot of free time, but such is the life of a chef, culinary or baking & pastry. Sad to say, this new schedule may prevent me from attending the yearly get-together with some good friends of mine, but I hope they understand why. Sacrifices must be made in this line of work I suppose. On the plus side, I am learning a ton of new and exciting recipes and techniques, as I have been throughout my entire externship.

Business has really picked up in these Summer months. There was a stretch of 3 or 4 days in a row where the restaurant had 100+ people per night. It’s all sorts of insane right now. There are nights where it’s a complete nightmare to be at work, but thankfully it’s offset by nights where even 100 people flow as smoothly as 20 or 30 people. I’m thankful that no matter how busy it is, my coworkers and I get into enough fun shenanigans to get past a dull moment or just lighten the mood in general.

Life In The CIA: My Externship, Continued

Oh boy, do I have one heck of an update for you guys!

So, I’m about halfway through my externship right now. Nine weeks down, nine to go! After a rather slow start, I am having a wonderful time and learning a lot. Like one of my coworkers said to me after dinner service one night; I am actually getting a much more well-rounded externship experience than most baking & pastry externs, mostly because I’m working and assisting with many aspects of the culinary side of a restaurant. This is the one aspect of my extern that I am extremely thankful for, because this is hands-on experience that I know I can’t get anywhere else. It’s great stuff!

Also, there’s one more thing I forgot to mention in my last entry for all you aspiring chefs out there. The single most important bit of advice I can give you before you step foot in the kitchen: Get a sense of humor. Seriously! This will save you from many a practical joke and it will just make your experience that much better and, most importantly, more fun and enjoyable.

There are MANY funny and very vulgar jokes that are made in the kitchens. For example, I am Asian, and therefore, I’m subject to all the stereotypical Asian jokes and bits of humor. One of my coworkers asked me to call him “Doctor Jones” a la Shortround from Indiana Jones. Get used to humor like that. It honestly is quite funny after a while. Also, if you’re an extern, like me. Be prepared to be sent on a LOT of wild goose chases. The senior kitchen staff will have you running all over the place looking for items and equipment that really doesn’t exist. I like to think it’s to keep you on your toes and always thinking, but in reality, it’s probably just for entertainment. Finally, you need to learn to just laugh at anything that comes your way.

For example, one of the kitchen staff, the Garde Manger chef I work with, actually used the back/dull edge of a Paring Knife to (attempt) to cut a poached egg, which of course, resulted in a huge mess on the plate. Everyone had a good laugh about it. All in good fun, as it were. You see? Have fun and BOND with your coworkers. The job will become mush easier and more bearable this way! This is a fact that I’ve had to learn the hard way, sadly, but I have indeed learned my lesson…even though it involved me saying “Herro” many times over. Ahh stereotypes…

Food Bites: So You Want To Work In The Food Industry…

So you want to work in the Food Industry? I have two things to say to you: congratulations and good luck.

The food industry is one of the most dynamic fields to work in today. The landscape of the food industry is always changing and there are always new and wonderful opportunities for you to experience and join this great industry.

However, I do have a few words of caution for those would-be chefs who want to come into the industry, and the only experience they have is what they saw on Food Network or Travel Channel. To those people I say, for your own sanity and well-being, DON’T DO IT. At least not until you get some REAL experience. As someone who is currently getting the “Trial By Fire” treatment in the food industry, I can say with 100% accuracy that if you don’t have what it takes to make it in the food world, then either get some real, hands-on experience or don’t even bother trying.

I’m not being negative, I’m speaking the truth here. I’ve seen a good handful of people who started with me at the CIA leave and never come back, because they just couldn’t handle the kitchen life. The long hours. The back-breaking labor. The sometimes insufferable coworkers. The never-satisfied customers. The high risk of injury. These are all realities in the food/restaurant industry, and I will be the first to admit, I contemplated leaving. As much as this is my dream, I entertained the thought of walking away. But, I found my second wind. Amidst the taunting of my coworkers and the pain of the job, I found my resolve to go on. I’m still not 100% at the level of the hardened veterans that I work with, but I am getting there. I’m earning my spot through the pain and the hard work that I put in.

Again, I don’t want to sound elitist or off-putting to all you would-be chefs out there, but at the same time, I feel the need to dispel a few myths and misconceptions that you may have about the food industry. Get this into your head now if you truly do want to join this intense and dynamic industry: it’s NEVER going to be as neat, nice and easy as it is on the Food Network or the Travel Channel. The work is intense and exhausting (there’s a reason why I reach for a bottle of beer at the end of each shift). The risk for injury is sky-high. Your coworkers will berate you. Your boss will be in-your-face and at times, unforgiving. Customers will find some reason to complain about your food, no matter how much work you put into it. In all honesty, FIND SOME WAY TO DEAL WITH THOSE REALITIES. Those are aspects of the food industry that will never, ever change, and yet, those crazy few who do survive this industry, do what they do because of one very simple reason: they LOVE doing it. That is what you must have, above all else in this industry; a PASSION for food.

Find your passion and you will have a way to overcome any obstacle that the food industry may throw your way. And from the bottom of my heart, as someone who is still climbing the ladder in this industry, to those who want to start the climb themselves: I wish you the best of luck on your journey.


Life In The CIA: My Externship

Hey guys! Short entry now just explaining why I’ve been so quiet lately.

I recently moved into my new apartment in Great Barrington, MA and started my externship at The Southfield Store/The Old Inn On The Green. It’s a TON of hard work and long hours, but believe me, it’s well worth all the effort. I’ve been here almost 2 weeks and I can tell, despite getting yelled at and all the aches and pains, I’m going to love my time here. I’ve learned so many new recipes and techniques that it really just overrides the physical pain I feel at the end of the day. Also, it’s really a liberating feeling living and working on my own; supporting myself. I’m loving every minute of it. I’ll keep you all posted as time goes on. I’m here until August so I’m positive they’ll be a lot to write about.

And now, blatant plugs for the places I work at:

Located in Southfield, MA, the Southfield Store is a wonderful cafe/bakery that serves a large variety of baked goods and pastries, as well as many (and delicious) lunch items. It may seem like it’s a bit out of the way (I have zero cell phone signal out here) but the area is wonderful and the scenery is amazing. If you want some really delicious food and want to talk to some genuinely nice people, come visit!

Want great atmosphere with fantastic food? The Old Inn is THE place for you. Make a reservation and enjoy a wonderful meal prepared by Chef Peter Platt and his skilled kitchen staff. Chef Platt’s food is simply amazing. Like any good chef out there, he is quite the leader in the kitchen, barking out orders like a seasoned drill-sergeant. But, he is also very nice and friendly. And the food. Oh the glorious food. Now, this may be a bit biased seeing as how I work here, but I have to say, the food is absolutely to die for. Believe me, it is worth the trip to come up here and try this food out. The natural ambiance combined with stellar cuisine will have you coming back for more.

That’s all for now, but you can be sure I’ll be around whenever I have a free moment to update you all on my Externship experience!