Student Chef at French Culinary Institute Aspires to the “Sweet Life”
By Lauren Shapiro
Caution: this article contains language like blown sugar, spun sugar, pulled sugar and marzipan, and subject material like how to dramatize desserts, that could result in weight gain.
But, hey, we’re talking about the French Culinary Institute. There is no tofu here. Step away from the scale and read on.
Toni Lynn Dickinson, Pastry Chef-Instructor at FCI and former dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, says “Being a chef is an artistic outlet. The world of food is an art form, it’s one you can eat, but it’s still an art form. Just as dance requires discipline, study, and technique, so does working with food. Just as in dance there are hours of rehearsal for a 7 minute performance, in cooking you have to make things over and over and over again in order to be able to make them without hesitation.
In donut chain restaurants, everything is pre-made or pre-packaged. At most, somebody mixes in a few ingredients. Pastry chefs learn, for example, that there are three different kinds of custard (stirred, starch-bound, and baked), and what each is appropriate for. You learn to see halfway into whipping your whites whether you added your sugar too early and you’re not going to have full volume. You learn at what temperatures proteins begin to cook and that gluten is elastic because it stretches and plastic because when it’s baked it holds its form. You learn to balance between sweet and salty, grainy and fine textures. It’s very intricate to create these fabulous, deliciously delicate delights. I tell my students that anyone can follow a recipe and get a great result. And then the second and third time they don’t get a great result, and then the fourth time they do – and they don’t know why. It takes practice and repetition to make a beautiful soufflé every single time. As a student, I burned 200 tuiles; I had to do them all over, and I was forlorn. My teacher said “When you make as many mistakes as I have, you’ll be as good as I am.”
The program at FCI is intense. On day one in Pastry 1, students bake an apple tart. They move on to cream puffs, petits fours, mousses, frostings, icings, and glazes.
Pastry 2 includes melting, tempering, and molding chocolate; making chocolate candies, ice creams, and a three-tiered wedding cake.
At $32,750 for 9 months, paying tuition is no piece of cake. There are Federal and alternative financial aid programs. The Women Chefs & Restaurateurs organization (womenchefs.org) offers some scholarships because “Although the majority of those who work in the food service industry are women, very few ever reach the upper echelons of management.”
That fact adds to an image problem—many people think anyone in an apron is a “chef”.
Hence, Chef Dickinson says “Being a chef is viewed by many black women as a step backwards. From being slaves in the kitchen, to mammies, to ‘my girl’, to nannies, black women have always cooked. When I told my mother I was going to study to be a chef, she thought I had lost my mind. She said ‘I sent you to Dalton and Smith and you’re going to be a chef?!’ But, there are many lucrative careers. You can specialize in sugar work, cake decoration, catering, become a chocolatier, do food styling for cookbooks and magazines; you can be a writer, a critic, an instructor, or open your own pastry shop.”
Culinary arts are not pie in the sky—students serve lunch and dinner in the school restaurant. Visit frenchculinary.com for reservations.#