Culinary School Prizes And Pitfalls

Recently, the French Culinary Institute honored its alumni with the annual Outstanding Alumni Awards ceremony attended by Deans Alain Sailhac, Andre Soltner, Jacques Torres, former recipients, and FCI's CEO and Founder, Dorothy Cann Hamilton.

"Nearly 20 years ago, we created The Outstanding Alumni Awards to recognize the incredible accomplishments our alumni have achieved while also giving our students something to strive for," said Ms. Hamilton, "This year's class of outstanding alumni truly represents the diversity and talent that FCI seeks to cultivate in our students. Being acknowledged by their peers only further distinguishes these five individuals in a field replete with talent."

Each winner received a certificate hand-painted by Dean Jacques Pépin. We reached out to discover more about their culinary school experiences — the memorable skills and lessons learned, their biggest mistakes, the suprises that awaited them after school, and what advice they'd give to recent graduates.


Outstanding Professional Achievement Award:
Mark Dissin, Culinary '97
Vice President of Production, Food Network

Outstanding Bread Award:
Roger Gural, Bread '98
Baker/Consultant, Payard

Outstanding Pastry Award:
Christina Tosi, Pastry '04
Pastry Chef, Momofuku Milk Bar

Outstanding Restaurant Management Award:
Laura Pensiero, Culinary '92
Owner/Manager, Gigi Trattoria (Rhinebeck, NY)

What's the most memorable skill you learned at FCI?

Dissin: It's hard to say which single skill I most viscerally remember learning, because honestly, there were many. For me, I suppose learning correct knife skills stands out as the most memorable because I use them all the time. How to break down a chicken, or how to filet fish are obvious choices, too. But if I had to isolate a single skill that, to this day, kind of amazes me, it would have to be the technique Sixto demonstrated for chopping and drying parsley for sprinkling as a garnish. After washing and chopping the parsley, he placed it in a clean side towel and rolled it up into a tight package. He then placed it under a steady stream of cold water until the water ran clear. After that, he twisted the towel, forcing all of the water out. He then opened the towel and, to the amazement of everyone, revealed dry, fluffy parsley, free of clumps and ready to use. In the 13 years since learning this trick, I've probably used it a half dozen times, because, after all, it's a pretty time consuming process, but cool nevertheless.

Gural: The bread course is relatively short so it is difficult to feel that you really have mastered any one skill. There simply isn't enough time to repeat the various movements to feel confident about them. The most memorable things I took away from the class was an increase in my excitement and passion for food, an appreciation for being around other people who love food, and a sense of how much time and focus goes into the craft.

Tosi: Believe it or not, it's how to clean a pineapple. It's this one really strange memory I remember about day one or two when you learn to make the fresh fruit tart. The instructor teaches you almost towards the end of class, when you're so worn out from being excited to begin, and exhausted from all the focus of the first day or two. I remember only half of the class paying attention, and I remember thinking they were all crazy for not watching and huddling around! We rarely use pineapples in the kitchen at Milk Bar. But whenever someone says they hail from the pastry arts program, and they say they don't know how to clean a pineapple, I always know which side of the classroom they were on.

Pensiero: The classic sauces really left an impression on me. I was blown away how they opened a vast gateway in creativity that was based on a sound foundation. Learning the bases of these sauces and the basics of their preparation opened up a highway of unlimited possibilities in cooking and creating.


What is the non-physical skill/lesson from school that you most remember?

Dissin: I think the one non-physical skill I took away from my experiences at FCI is the notion of cooking intuitively. In the years since graduating, including the time I spent in restaurant kitchens, I don't think I've cooked with a recipe more than 25 times. FCI's curriculum, built on fundamentals that are applicable to almost any cuisine, instill a knowledge base — or muscle memory — that over time makes cooking a purely intuitive process. In my current line of work, producing cooking content for the Food Network, I can read a recipe, and see and taste the dish, and more importantly, visualize the process and assess whether it'll be compelling TV fare.

Gural: Bread has an incredibly long history and variety and it's not something you become proficient at quickly, if you become too confident you will be humbled very quickly. Things I learned or started to realize was that you had to find pleasure in the repetition, to focus on even the smallest gestures, to be amazed at the depth of all there is know, but not overwhelmed by all you don't know. To be humble and respectful and grateful to be able to take part in this activity that connects us with bakers over thousands of years.

Tosi: During the plated desserts section towards the end of the pastry arts program, I remember really learning to think about food, flavor pairings and my point of view on it all. If I had to make a plated dessert for a project, what would it be? Next week, pretend you have a restaurant, make the dessert and tell us about it, the whys and hows. How does it read on a menu — each menu description is a promise to your guest and you owe it to them to make sure you meet that promise and expectation. Chef Jurgen really taught me so much of that non-physical skill of thinking about desserts in one's own terms.

Pensiero: Working organized. It has helped me in all the multi-tasking that my life now requires.




What's the biggest mistake you ever made in culinary school?

Dissin: I can't recall any single mistake that I committed in class, but once, when we were preparing family meal for the students and staff, I dumped about a cup of red chili flakes in a sauté pan and put it on a low flame... and forgot about it. For the life of me, I can't remember what would compel me to toast chili flakes, but what I do recall, quite vividly, is the resulting smoke that one instructor compared to tear gas. We were all running around coughing and sneezing and tearing, and Henri, after dumping the contents of the pan into the trash, made it abundantly clear that he'd just witnessed one of the dumbest things he'd ever seen in a kitchen.

Gural: I am not sure what I did wrong but I messed up the orange flavored brioche I made for my final. It was edible but nowhere near as good as it was when we made it class.



Tosi: I had cherry cordials as part of my final project. I filled them too full, or it was so hot out and the AC was on the fritz, or maybe I just didn't love the cherry cordials enough. Needless to say, I spent about 75% of the three-day final project on making those damn cordials just right. I lost my mind. I lost some tears (how dramatic, I know). Chef Toni dried them quickly and turned me right around. I didn't love them enough, I'm sure, and that was the source of every pastry snafu I made in culinary school.

Pensiero: I believe my final was poulet chasseur – I forgot to add my lardons at final presentation.




What was the biggest surprise? What couldn't you have learned in school?

Dissin: I'm not sure I get this question. I came to school, as a 41-year old home cook with very average, or below average skills, and left with ton of knowledge and pretty solid cooking and food prep talent — enough for a chef to hire me, and trust that I wouldn't send bad food to his customers. So, for me, pretty much everything I learned was something of a surprise.


Gural: The bread program was really fun, but after a few years working in the industry I started to gain more responsibility and all of the stress that goes with it. So I would say sleep deprivation and dealing with stress.



Tosi: How much chocolate I could eat at for seven hours a day, most of it from 8:30am to 9:30am. I'm pretty sure I owe the FCI back taxes on all the chocolate and opera cake and whiskey bourbon cookies I ate. Shameless, I know.



Pensiero: The endurance and persistence that the food industry requires. Also the opportunities to create your own career path can take when you add a sound culinary foundation.



What's one piece of advice for someone just out of culinary school?

Dissin: I have two pieces of advice for recent grads. The first is season, taste, and re-season. You all under-season. The second is follow your passion. You don't need to have a fine-tuned five-year plan, almost no one does, but if you're passionate about one thing, then follow that passion. For most graduates, however, I'm guessing goals are probably more on the fuzzy side. When I finished school I didn't have any real goals except to test my mettle in a professional kitchen, and to start earning back some of the money I'd just invested in my education. Looking back, it was some of the most fulfilling work I'd ever had, but after about a year-and-a-half I was all too aware that cooking on the line is best done in your twenties, not forties. Luckily, I was able to take what I'd learned at FCI and in restaurant kitchens, and marry it to what I'd done for the 18 years prior school and parlay that into my current job. Would I have wound up where I am today without jumping into a restaurant job? Probably not. The pressures of a busy kitchen prepare you for other endeavors in ways that are hard to quantify. So, for the majority of grads, my advice is to take the plunge and get a restaurant job.

Gural: Take advantage of the expertise and experience of the people around you, be open and learn from them. Carry a notebook and write things down so people don't have repeat themselves to you. Be prepared and have a plan. Look and find work so that you are always productive. If you can save the person training you time they will appreciate that and you will have more opportunity to learn and progress.

Tosi: Take every minute seriously. Push yourself every minute. You've been waiting all your life to do what you love. Don't cheat yourself, or your family at the FCI. If you're going to make the jump and the commitment, really make it. That's what being in a kitchen and part of this industry is all about. Get to know yourself as a food personality, what you love, what you don't. Embrace it. Some of us are cake decorators others chocolatiers and others pastry chefs with elaborate concepts. But there are no limits – there's room for each one of us to be ourselves within the industry, as long as we're honest about it. Bring your passion and drive into work with you everyday and home with you every night. There are boundaries in our heads, what we think we are and aren't capable of doing in a day or learning to do over time. Find them, find your way around them, steamroll them out of your way. And keep going. That's what being in a kitchen and part of this industry is all about.

Pensiero: Say "yes" to all opportunities, even when it's out of your comfort zone. Then work hard and humbly to fill in the any skills/knowledge gaps to get the task at hand done well. Finally, find your mentors, show them the respect they deserve and stay in touch with them.