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I did come upon the culinary arts department pretty much by accident. And really, it’s amazing that I ever got there. A former picky eater, I had slowly shed my inhibitions after turning 30, and even more slowly, began to cook. Nearly 10 years later, by the summer of 2009, I’d gotten pretty good at it, had done a bit of food-related journalism, and thought it would be fun to upgrade my technique. I’d learned that Biga Pizza’s Bob Marshall had gotten his degree from the program in the early ’90s, and figured if it was good enough for somebody whose food I loved so much, it certainly was good enough for me. If nothing else, I thought I’d take a knife skills class, or maybe just insert myself into the program as a journalist, a la Bill Buford in Heat (about his time cooking for Mario Batali) or Michael Ruhlman’s books about the Culinary Institute of America.
I quickly learned there’s no knife skills class per se, and that you can’t do anything at all, really, without admission to the school (a handful of extension courses do get offered in the summer). And while Chef Campbell told me I’d be welcome as a journalist, he also made it clear that I could not pick up a knife or touch equipment without taking the prerequisites (“Intro to Food Service” and “Intro to Sanitation”), which certainly made sense. Fortunately, while many cities in post-Food Network America have private culinary schools that cost tens of thousands of dollars in tuition (which the schools themselves are happy to help lend you, being brokers just as much as educators), this was still the Montana University System—by comparison a total bargain, even for non-residents.
The “Intro to Food Service” class I ultimately took was taught by Chef Ault this past summer, but I also witnessed Campbell—tall, ruddy, blonde and certainly the most intimidating of the three instructors—roll out the red carpet for a group of students back in fall 2009.
“Lose the hats!” he barked, at people wearing baseball caps or knits.
“Button ’em up all the way!” he said as everyone put on their loaner white chef’s jacket.
And, my favorite: “This is not Rachael Ray anymore, Toto!”
“ABJECT TERROR” is what’s written in my notebook from that day, though not in regard to Campbell’s bluster, nor his by-the-way admonition that we shouldn’t lock our knees (he’s seen students pass out in hot kitchens). Rather, it was the enormity of what he showed us we’d be doing with our knives, and all in just two hours for a midterm practical exam.
“As chefs, you’re human food processors,” he said, before demonstrating onions sliced three different ways, parsley minced so fine (and dried) that it can come out of a pepper shaker, garlic transformed into paste with kosher salt, and the “you-leave-a-piece-of-skin-or-seed-you-fail” tomato concasse. There were also more than a half-dozen different root vegetable cuts, including the batonette (1/4-inch strips), the julienne (1/8-inch strips), the fine julienne (1/16-inch strips), and their three square-shaped equivalents (small dice, brunoise and fine brunoise). Plus (as I well knew from reading Michael Ruhlman) the dreaded seven-sided tourne—a mostly decorative football shape which even the instructors say only exists to torture culinary students, never to be seen again unless you cater high-society buffets.
“You’re never going to go to some family restaurant and be like, ‘Yeah, I want the tourneed potatoes please,” jokes Fresquez. But it does make you use that paring knife.
“At the five-hundredth or six-hundredeth tourne, you’ll be there,” Campbell says. Because really, there’s no such thing as “knife skills,” only “knife practice.” And even after doing better on the midterm than I thought I would—a 78, including six points off for taking longer than two hours—I still need a lot more of it.
I can, however, fabricate a chicken.
As Campbell says, “If you buy chicken thighs, you’re paying for the whole chicken and not getting it.” Plus, you don’t get bones for stock. At a restaurant, I would still be called out for aesthetically imperfect cuts and poor utilization (i.e., leaving usable—and therefore saleable—remnants of meat on the carcass), but as a home cook I can do the job.