A blog by Professional Pastry Arts student C.C. McCandless.
I attended an Open House at the International Culinary Center two and a half years ago. Like everyone else, I had plenty of obstacles and real-life concerns that could have made it easy to not commit, but that wasn’t an option for me. From the first steps of my campus tour, ICC felt like so much more than a school. It emanated feelings of community and excitement and opportunity. It was right. It was everything I never knew that I needed. It was truly magical.
Cut to: January, 2015. I have secured a six month sublet within walking distance of 462 Broadway. I have unpacked my bare bones necessities and familiarized myself with my immediate neighborhood surroundings. I have experimented in my small (but workable) apartment kitchen, and this only made me feel like a thoroughbred horse itching to be released from the starting gate. Let’s go. I’m ready. Let’s get it on.
Orientation two days before the official start of class confirmed everything I already thought and felt about my new home. The informational lecture in the amphitheater included a parade of incredibly friendly, welcoming and well-informed faculty and staff. Each speaker provided essential knowledge and made me more secure than ever in my decision to attend the Professional Pastry Arts program here. I was mistakenly provided size “small” chef jackets, which certainly wouldn’t work on my 6’6” frame. Exchanging them was no problem, and while doing so I meet a young woman from my program, and the gleam in her eye was as eager and obvious as mine. It’s abundantly clear that we all cannot wait to get started.
Our first day of class finally arrived. Unsure of exactly what to expect, I arrived ridiculously early. This turned out to be quite an auspicious decision, as despite double and triple checking my school-issued duffel bag the night before and the morning of class, I have somehow forgotten to bring an apron. I rummage through the bag in the locker room, the rest of my sparkling new chef uniform on and ready. It’s not there. They gave me three aprons. Three. I didn’t bring one.
I was “That Guy.”
I didn’t know who or what I was going to be in our class of eleven students. I’m the tallest. And the oldest. Only this much is clear. But I most certainly do not want to be the one who couldn’t even get his uniform right on the first day! With time to spare before class commenced, I scrambled up to the 4th floor, where Ariana (the wonderful student affairs coordinator) took pity on me and helped scrounge up a brand new apron, which I assured her I would replace the following day.
I made my way to the sparkling, immaculate classroom for Pastry 1 and we assumed our assigned spots. I was paired with a friendly, European, career-changing executive. We bonded almost immediately. Our trio of chef instructors introduced themselves, and they couldn’t be more different. Chef Claudia works as a private caterer and will pop in and out of class when her schedule permits. Chef Tom is an ICC grad and a military veteran of two decades, yet he projects no hint of a gruff, drill sergeant demeanor. Our lead instructor is Chef Jürgen, a pastry savant who began training in his native Austria when he was young. He stands tall, projects clearly and exudes the exact aura of confidence and leadership one would hope for from a teacher in a brand new environment like this. I am beyond thrilled that I will be learning from him.
We were given a quick verbal tour of the kitchen—ovens here, fridges there, freezers in the back, mixers always on this table. It’s fast, but not rushed. I could tell there would be no wasted words or time in this class. I loved it. Chef Jürgen explained that an instructor will always demonstrate the proper way to execute each new recipe, and that students will never be tasked to prepare something they don’t know how to make. This made sense, of course, but it was still reassuring that we would never be flying blind.
I knew that there is a significant amount of required classroom instruction on kitchen safety and sanitation awaiting us, and I assumed that this day will begin with a sit down lecture and a couple of hours of dry and boring lecture material.
This is not what happened.
After our cursory tour and the unpacking of our kits, Chef Jürgen quickly called us to the front to demonstrate the process for making Diamants, a short dough cookie so named because they are egg washed and rolled in sparkling sanding sugar before baking, thus giving them a pretty, glittery crust. His deft, skilled process is an incredible sight to behold. The economy of movement is stunning. It’s impossible not to ponder if I will ever be able to make myself do anything reasonably on par with what he can as he nimbly and effortlessly brings a dough together, shapes it into a perfectly round log, wraps it in parchment paper and puts it into his lowboy fridge to chill. Can I work quickly enough? Can I make anything close to that? Will my skills ever approach this level?
I have no idea, but I’m about to find out.
“Let’s go!” he barks in his perfectly authoritarian, Austrian accent as we all stand assembled around the chef’s marble demo counter. My new teammate and I immediately fall into a synchronous rhythm, collectively gathering all of the ingredients and items that we need for our first recipe. Honestly, it’s a blur. Our rock-sturdy Kenwood mixer is creaming our carefully measured amounts of butter and sugar as instructed before we have a chance to take a breath. I had been here less than an hour, and I was already making something. It was amazing.
We completed two kinds of beautiful cookies on our first day, and three more on our second. I slowly and uncertainly began to learn my way around the confusing warrens that are the ICC kitchens and corridors. Hidden staircases lurk beside classrooms with secret elevators, and one wrong turn can send you down a hallway you have never traversed. This place is like Hogwarts. I half expect to encounter a giant, three-headed dog on my way to the lavish, student-cooked lunch buffet on the fifth floor.
My classmates and I settled into a wide, circular booth beside the library on the third floor for our hurried lunch break. We got to know each other quickly, and I learned that they epitomize the melting pot that is New York City. From Mexico to Switzerland to Morocco, Syracuse to Queens to Atlanta, we have the globe surprisingly well represented for such a small group. All of my classmates appear as wide eyed and excited as I am.
Unit 1 is comprised of a plethora of delicious cookies, and the new curriculum has clearly been arranged in a thoughtful manner that will begin to build our foundation of skills. Between lectures and baking, I learned a dizzying array of dough types, shaping methods and preparation styles. There are brownies and biscotti and intricate checkerboard shortbread designs. We made pretty dough swirls and hand shaped vanilla crescents and Chocolate Heaven Cookies that taste even better than their name implies.
It’s all-encompassing, but it’s not overwhelming. I knew I would enjoy this. Obviously, that’s a huge part of why I came here. But it’s so much more than that. It quickly dawns on me that the magical Hogwarts aura is a more apt comparison than I anticipated. Chef Jürgen can be Professor Dumbledore at one moment, with his kindly encouragement and reassurances as we take our trepidatious first steps as fledgling bakers. At other times… Severus Snape.
“Done. Out,” he instructs succinctly after taking the quickest of glances at a dough twirling in my mixer. I love every moment of this. Cookies, glazes, and doughs are my curses, potions and spells, and to me they are no less magical. I am engrossed in my textbook each night, eagerly learning new recipes to meticulously write out on our ever-present note cards for class. A blizzard-induced snow day is devastating to me, as all I can think about are the new goodies I won’t learn to make that day.
I have had a unique and checkered academic path bring me here. There are several colleges and universities and a couple of different degrees on my resume, but I would never have been described as an eager or particularly diligent student. But by the first hour of my first day at ICC, I knew that I would be. I volunteer to answer any question or read any passage. I work at a speed I wasn’t sure I was capable of. I practically float to school each morning and I wish I could stay late each afternoon. I aced our first written test and my classroom evaluations and practical exam results exceeded my own lofty expectations. This place is changing who I am, and I can’t get enough of it. I’m not going to be some Weasley brother or background character in this grand adventure. I will work and study as hard as Hermione Granger, and if I keep learning and improving at this breakneck pace, maybe there’s even a chance that I can become a pastry Harry Potter.
CLICK HERE to learn more about Professional Pastry Arts.