5 Things I Bought Because of My French Teacher from Culinary School
I graduated from culinary school 10 years ago (and yet I haven’t aged a day … weird!). I’ll admit that more than a few of the curriculum’s lessons have faded from memory — but, really, who’s slicing potatoes into mini-torpedo shapes these days, anyways? While I may not recall the ideal way to make an onion pique (how many cloves got stabbed into the onion, again?), I’ll never forget my French instructor. Chef asked us to call him Chef X, a name that seemed as intimidating as his brusque, Corsican demeanor. He was strict and exacting, and had a booming voice that often dripped with sarcasm. I can still hear his signature phrase when things got heated in the kitchen: “Don’t start to freaking out!”
Although my classmates were a little frightened of Chef X, he was a big softie once you got to know him. I had a pet rabbit at the time, and he teased me mercilessly about it. But after class, he’d sneak bunches of carrot tops into my knife roll. “For le lapin,” he’d explain, and roll his eyes when I tried to thank him.
Chef X was not a fan of kitchen gadgets, preferring to do most of his cooking the “old-school” way. So when he waxed poetic about a tool, I listened. And I bought it. I’m no longer a restaurant chef, but I still hear my teacher’s voice in my ear when I cook at home. And every time I reach for my most-used tools and utensils — the ones I got because of him — I send him a telepathic thank you.
1. Small Glass Bowls
One class, during the seven-thousandth time we were preparing classic roast chicken, Chef X approached a classmate’s work station. The cutting board was littered with garlic peels, crushed black peppercorns, bits of bay leaves, and who-knows-what else. Chef slammed his hand onto the board and lifted it up to reveal a constellation of food scraps stuck to his palm. “THIS,” he shouted, his face turning red, “This is what your brain looks like!”
Point taken. One of the hallmarks of professional cooking is efficiency in your prep. Mise en place, the art of preparing and organizing your ingredients before the “real” cooking starts, is key to nailing the timing of intricate recipes. But it helps for simple, at-home dinners, too! Chef taught us to prepare one ingredient at a time — mince garlic and place it in a small glass bowl. We then cleaned up our board before tackling the next item on our recipe. It’s a practice I still use today, although I’ll admit that my mise bowls do spend a fair amount of time as snack vessels, too. (They’re the perfect size for nuts and olives!)
Related: The Super-Smart Cleaning Technique We Stole from French Chefs
2. A Splatter Screen
Chef X had a small beige mark on the white of his eye. You’d barely notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but he made sure to tell us that he’d gotten the scar during his time cooking at a restaurant in France. He’d been making a caramel sauce, and the hot sugar had popped and sparked, jumping out of the pan and into his eye.
I don’t make caramel on a regular basis, but I do cook a lot of things in hot grease. And I greatly value my eyeballs. So, I figured, I had to buy either goggles or a good splatter screen. Fast-forward a decade, and the splatter screen is one of my most-used kitchen tools of all time. Whether that’s a commentary on its functionality or the frequency I eat bacon, I don’t know.
3. A Conical Strainer
We made a lot of stock in school. From veal to beef to chicken to vegetable, there was always a giant pot of it simmering away on the back burner. Chef X taught us that a conical strainer works much better for straining stocks and broth than a rounded mesh sieve. The deep, cone-shaped vessel catches all of the bones and vegetables, without the spatter. This tool isn’t great for straining grains or pasta — I still use my mesh sieve and spider skimmer for that — but if you ever make stock at home, you need a conical strainer.
4. A Y-Shaped Veggie Peeler
Question: How many potatoes will you peel in culinary school? Answer: The limit does not exist.
When I was growing up, I used my mother’s swivel-style vegetable peeler when helping her in the kitchen and, man, did I hate it. It always hurt my hands, and made slow work of veggie prep. I thought that peeling vegetables was just about the worst cooking task ever. Turns out, I simply didn’t have the right tool for the job.
Chef X extolled the praises of the Y-shaped peeler, which is much more ergonomically pleasant to use. When I bought my own, I sprung for OXO’s luxe rubber-padded version. Potatoes? Carrots? Beets? I could do this all day.
5. A Saucier-Style Pot
Before culinary school, I thought there were just two types of cookware: skillets and stockpots. But during class, and in my subsequent time in professional kitchens, my most-used pot was a saucier. This medium-sized pot has sloped sides, which makes it ideal for stirring liquids and sauces. (The French do love their sauces.)
We’d love to hear what your cooking teachers (professional and otherwise!) have taught you about essential tools. Tell us in the comments below!