When you’re in culinary school, the chef is the boss. Everything they say goes. They watch everything you do, everything you cook, and how you cook it. They’re treated as revered gods.
Gods in disposable paper chef hats.
A typical day in culinary school starts with a demonstration from the chef instructor. They cook on portable propane cooktops in front of the whole class. They walk you through everything you need to know about how to cook a certain dish. They tell you what to look for, what to smell, even what to feel.
In order to be successful in the culinary industry, you have to know and recognize these tiny details. You can’t easily learn these things from reading a recipe. You only learn it through practice, practice, and some more practice. And with some helpful guidance from your chef instructor or mentor.
As a student, it’s terrifying to walk up to your head chef with a dish you’ve never made before and have them judge it with great precision. “Your cuts are too big. Not enough salt. Presentation is good. Overall…” The Chef pauses. You hold your breath. “Good flavor.” Chef pushes the dish across the metal prep table, signaling they’re done and spits your food into the trash. “Next!”
I had the privilege of recently interviewing a former colleague of mine, Colleen Wong. Colleen has been a cheerful but strong powerhouse in the culinary arts industry since graduating from the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York with an Associate of Science in Culinary Arts.
She’s also a graduate from California State Polytechnic University with a Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management. (Talk about well prepared!)
Among numerous other things, she was a Pastry Cook at the luxurious Langham Huntington Hotel, she founded a catering company, and now she’s a Chef Instructor at The Art Institute of California – Hollywood.
Colleen was also featured as a Chef Instructor at The LA Women’s Expo, the nation’s largest women’s expo.
While we were working together, she even found time create a business out of making handmade Chinese dumplings.
Back in the day, Colleen was that nervous student that was bringing her dish up to the Chef to get graded.
And now? She’s on the other side of the table, teaching a new generation of aspiring chefs.
I was so happy she agreed to share some insight into what life as a Chef Instructor is like. Scroll down to hear the worst thing she’s found left in the oven and what she recommends doing before considering culinary school.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a Chef Instructor?
Someone who has worked in the hospitality industry, usually as Executive Chef for a number of years and is now teaching the next generation of culinarians classic techniques, professionalism and secrets of the trade.
What’s your favorite part of being a Chef Instructor?
Helping students to see that there are many cultures that exist in the world, not only what they see here in Los Angeles. Passing on my knowledge to others is truly way of leaving my family’s legacy.
What’s the worst?
Having high expectations in the students and being brutally disappointed.
What would you recommend to people considering a culinary arts degree?
I recommend they work in the field for 3 months FIRST before applying. It is extremely hard work and it is not rewarding at first.
“Many students come to school with the dream of sitting on a chair and decorating a cake all day and making a living. It is just not realistic.”
Describe the worst thing your students have ever made?
One time in my baking class, a group of students left their soft rolls in the oven for 6 hours because they forgot about them. Since I was the next instructor in that same kitchen, my next class of students found them and they were like charcoal briquettes at that point. Horrible.
How about the best?
One quarter one of my students was doing her final for the advanced cooking class. In this class you are allowed to choose what dishes you make under certain parameters. She made a lobster bisque and it was out of this world. The flavors and textures were just perfect and she was able to capture that flavor balance and textural balance just right.
What’s your favorite recipe or topic to teach?
I have two that are tied: Asian Cuisine (because I love being able to educate the students on varying cultures and understanding others) and Intro to Baking and Pastry (because I love being able to make passionate culinary arts students out of extremely nervous ones.
What’s one thing your students don’t know about you?
I used to play competitive tennis!
Do you secretly love it when your students say “Yes, chef.”?
It is not a secret and yes!
On a scale from 1 to Gordon Ramsay, how harsh are you to your students?
There are times when I can be close to Gordon Ramsay, but without the cursing and belittling. Most of the time, I am about a 5 or 6 on a scale to 10 being worst. It depends on the group of students, sometimes I can be very uptight with them if they are a rowdy bunch but other times I can be very relaxed if they all have had me before and understand my expectations.
What are you making today?
Indonesian Tahu Telur! It is a tofu omelet drizzled with a sweet soy sauce and it gets crispy pieces of tofu and thinly sliced thai bird chilies and crispy shallots. It is so delicious.
and can I have some?
Sure! Come on by: Ai Hollywood!
And now a freebie from Chef Colleen Wong. Thanks Colleen!
Northern Chinese Cuisine Demo
This demo walks you through how to make green onion pancakes, potstickers with pork, and mu shu pancakes. Thanks Colleen!
Psst! Keep an eye out for fundraising events from the The Art Institute – Hollywood. They recently held a 6-course dinner for only $25! I was sorely tempted but we were busy with our little 6 month old at the time.
Their last dinner had everything from Smoked Cauliflower Bites, Dragonfruit Salad, and Duck Confit to Arctic Char, Gai Lan, and Gateau de Crepes with Pistachio Florentine Cookies.
I know what I got last time I spent $25 on restaurant food. It definitely wasn’t any where NEAR that good!