Kitchen Confidential 

Missoula's best-kept dining secret doubles as a training ground for aspiring gourmets

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••• The Intro class is something of a whirlwind tour of all the possible cooking techniques: poaching (including en papillote), frying, steaming, sauteeing, roasting, braising, etc. We learned how to work with rouxs, and how to make fresh pasta. We simmered stock, mastered the tricky art of consomme and split the work of making all five “mother sauces” (bechamel, veloute, hollandaise, espagnole and tomato). We also clarified a lot of butter (the cook’s best friend, because once the watery milk solids cook out, it has a higher smoke point than most oils…and it’s butter). Some students know more than others—two of the kids in my class, during the first lecture on making stock, were stunned to learn that gelatin (and thus, their favorite childhood JELL-O) comes from the collagen in meat bones.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
But the class is only partially about the art of cooking. It’s equally about the pace and pressure of a large commercial kitchen, and the teamwork that it takes to get things done. By worshipping the gods of mise en place (literally, “everything in its place”) and production schedules, you learn to be efficient. “You are always, always, always under a schedule in a real pro kitchen,” Chef Ault tells us. “You have two hours until service, a half an hour until service, 10 minutes until service…Oh god, it’s service and we’re still not ready!”

Says Chef Siegel on another day, “I don’t expect you to do your dishes. I expect you to do your dishes, and someone else’s dishes.”

Were the instructors so inclined, they could start off every fall semester with the Paper Chase routine (“Look to your left, look to your right…one of you won’t be here next year”). Enrollment in the culinary program is at record highs, with almost the maximum of 50 students starting off in Intro this year. But there’s only room for half as many students in the winter (six stations, three to five people at each one).

“A traditional student who typically starts in the fall, right out of high school—unfortunately, a number of those students have misconceptions about culinary arts in general, especially at a collegiate level,” Campbell says. “They might have a poor work ethic, or they’ve seen too much Food Network, and come in thinking this is going to be like college ‘Home Ec.’ That’s when they get a dose of reality.”

There are also tests and quizzes, and a fair amount of homework to get ready for production every day, both on and off the cutting board (students are expected to type up production schedules, memorize most recipes and also cook at home). Most first-year students are taking other classes, such as “Interpersonal Communications” and “Technical Writing.” And, as in a real kitchen, absences are not an option, with five points knocked off from your grade for every no-show. You have to get at least a “C” to register for station classes, so if you miss three or four days, and aren’t positively acing every written test and practical exam (for the Intro final, we had to cook a pair of meals—protein, starch and veg—within two hours) it’s easy to wash out.

For every recreational food-lover who likes to cook at home and thinks it would be just as fun to do it in a kitchen for 200 people in the middle of July with no climate control, there are two people starting from scratch. Some have come directly out of high school. Some have kids in high school. Some were in the military. And some have been in other fields. Campbell notes that the economy has made the non-traditional and second-career students more prevalent than ever, which is unfortunate in some ways, but a real boost to the program.

“These folks have life experience, career experience in other areas, are pumped, and they’re ready to take on a heavy responsibility in learning, and that’s really neat,” he says. “If a student is here to learn more, we can feed ’em more.” Perhaps the most motivated of those students is Robert Smith, 31, a convicted felon and recovering substance abuser who has embraced his second chance with understandable determination.

“They had a guest speaker come [to prison] who said even though you’re a felon you can still enroll in college,” he remembers. “Everybody said I would never be in college, and I always try to prove people wrong.”

I noticed Smith that first day watching Campbell’s Intro class, asking questions and arranging to put in extra time. Then, in my own class this past summer, he was in the kitchen every day by choice, ready to help out the newbies—and to chew us out when it was called for, like when dishes piled up, or someone used their cell phone in the kitchen.

“I’m pretty vocal,” Smith says. “If you’re not pulling your weight or you’re pushing your work off on other people [I’ll say something]. I don’t ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”

With a ninth grade education and a GED, he’s carrying a B+ average, and recently left his old job at Johnny Carino’s for the more prestigious Silk Road. He initially enrolled in school to be a welder (coincidentally, one of the other culinary students is a welder looking to become a chef), but the program has just clicked for him.

“I don’t know the names of half the stuff I cook,” he says. “But I can look at a recipe and just go at it and it comes out excellent.”

Conversely, there are students who are grizzled veterans of the kitchen. One of my classmates, Erin Horner, 33, has a full-time job and also runs the “Mama’s Pantry” Clark Fork River Market stand, selling jams and other homemade goods (her kids and husband help out with the harvest and the canning). An accomplished home cook from the South, she hopes the class will help her make her living as a food artisan or caterer full-time. And then there are the guys like Manny de La Rosa (who was enrolled in school while also working on the line at The Pearl Café) and Oliver Fresquez—experienced cooks looking to gain more business/management savvy, and to burnish their credentials.

“I want to have my own restaurant one day, and it will be a lot easier to get financing and backing if I have the degree behind me,” Fresquez says.

During our intro midterm, Chef Ault told Fresquez that his knife skills might have been the finest that the program’s ever seen—but then docked him points for finishing too quickly, as he could have used the extra time to reach an even greater level of perfection. And while Fresquez’s fond of joking that the program’s “culinary French” vocabulary tests are dated (conversational Spanish being much more practical), he’s enjoying the advanced curriculum, which sees Chef Siegel lecturing on the history, geography and food traditions of the different countries each week’s menu draws upon. “I’m not really learning technique, because I already knew a lot,” says Fresquez, 34. “But I’m learning more about the different cuisines and cultures, and ingredients I’ve never used before.”

Having all these different knowledge levels, expectations and abilities, as well as different personalities, makes each day a sink-or-swim experiment in group dynamics just as much as cooking. I asked Chef Campbell how often he feels his job is actually psychologist, rather than chef or teacher.

“Every day,” he says. “Every day. You think you’ve seen it all, but that’s the beauty and the fun of coming here. There’s always going to be a chance to learn something new.”

Students who complete the program have put in their time at all six stations, taken the required general education classes and studied purchasing and inventory. They finish with a final spring semester known as “Capstone,” during which they go through the entire process of a restaurant opening, from business plan to financing to an actual seven-course dinner (the business plan and financing is just in theory, but the dinner, for 100 customers, is real). There’s also a “mystery basket” final (a la the Food Network’s “Chopped”), and a 180-hour internship served at an outside restaurant.

“We’re here to put an entry-level professional into the industry after two years,” says Campbell. “Someone who will be able to show up to work on time, and be sanitary and be professional.”

click to enlarge Enrollment in the culinary program is at record highs, with almost the maximum of 50 students starting off in the introductory class this year. But competition is intense as there’s only room for half as many students in the winter session. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder
  • Enrollment in the culinary program is at record highs, with almost the maximum of 50 students starting off in the introductory class this year. But competition is intense as there’s only room for half as many students in the winter session.
For all the trendy foodie interest and television shows, commercial cooking is vocational. It is craft as much as art. Campbell, a 1990 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is not much of a cheerleader for the culinary school explosion, even as his own program is crying out for new equipment and a bigger campus (see sidebar at right).

“It’s fun to see it happen, but I have a hard time understanding why,” he says. “Cooking is fun, but you don’t make a lot of money in this business. You work hard hours. You work odd hours. The profession is very demanding. It’s a poor career choice.”

But of course, it is a choice he made himself. And people like Nicole Taranto just feel called to it. “I have a passion for it, but it’s in no way easy,” she says. “I think it’s just because I love it that much. You don’t think of it as hard, because you don’t feel like it’s a job.”

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