As I began my journey at CIA, I was obviously quite eager to start my Baking and Pastry Fundamentals class. This is the course that is the basis for all bakeshop classes at the CIA—the real meat and potatoes of culinary school. Culinary-track students take their own Culinary Fundamentals class, which is more literally meat and potatoes, whereas us bakers learn the foundations like mixing techniques and piping before heading out to our specialized courses later in the program.
I rolled out of bed on my first day of class (an hour too early because of my excitement, naturally!) and got ready for the day by putting on my freshly pressed chef’s whites. I was eager to get into the kitchen and learn, but irrationally terrified of what I’ve heard may be a very strict chef instructor.
The first day of baking and pastry fundamentals is the same for all students: working in pairs with a classmate (your “bench” partner, for what we call our classroom work surfaces), students mix and bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
It seems easy, and in the end, it was, but I was on the verge of hyperventilating! We’ve all made chocolate cookies a million times, but the chefs want to see how we read a recipe, follow the steps, and handle the techniques.
We all work from the same recipe and seemingly complete the task the same way—yet somehow end up with vastly different results, some better than others, but none perfect. It turns out, this is the objective for the first day: a reminder that regardless of what you have accomplished before the CIA in restaurants or foodservice, this class puts everyone on an even playing field. Even when it comes to something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie, there is always something new to learn.
As class goes on, we see how true this is as we all learn something for the first time, like how to efficiently hold a piping bag, choose the right ingredients, and even simply light the stove. The interesting thing about this class is that even if someone has a lot of experience, the “CIA way” is almost always different from techniques they’ve used before, utilizing less tricks and shortcuts than many working kitchens. We’ll learn those along the way, too, but we start by perfecting the long-form techniques for exacting and consistent results every time. I still remember the confidence and pride I felt when I first filled an éclair perfectly, finishing it with a coat of glossy chocolate fondant: it made each 6-hour class worth it. Practice really does make perfect.
Fundamentals has a reputation of being daunting and difficult. And while it certainly is challenging, it is also extremely rewarding. We practice the same recipes dozens of times, and each finished item showcases our improvements. Our chef instructors are honest and constructive, and mine assured me when she noted an item’s imperfections, it wasn’t a reflection of me or my abilities, but rather an indication of how much room for improvement there still is. And the skills we learn in Fundamentals are only the beginning of everything we still have to learn!
As someone who has always loved to bake, fundamentals changed nearly everything I do in the kitchen beyond what I could have imagined. When I first went home to visit and bake for my family, my mom was so impressed by how tidy and efficient I was (but also shocked by how many bowls I used for my mise en place!).
I learned so much from my Fundamentals chef, and each lesson from that bakeshop has carried through to my next semester of classes. I feel prepared not just to bake and cook my way through the CIA (and beyond!), but also how to succeed in an academic and professional environment. A little bit of toughness from an instructor is a great reminder to always think a step ahead and be prepared—maybe the most important kitchen lessons of all.
Mia Lopez is a Baking and Pastry student at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.