Marching single-file into our 8 AM Hot Foods 1 class, the nervous energy coming from the sixteen culinary school students was palpable. Every student at Cascade Culinary Institute looked the part, dressed in head-to-toe chef wear—professionally pressed white-monogrammed chef coats, fitted matching hats, and baggy black pants—but we had no idea of what was to come. 

sushi, beer
Hollie Conger

Fast forward two years and we had learned everything from how to perfect a Hollandaise sauce, properly French-trim a rack of lamb, and prepare beef bourguignon like Julia Child. But the things that stuck with me surprisingly weren't cooked up in the kitchen. 

Here are three of my favorite lessons that I'd recommend to anyone hoping to have success in the kitchen and in life. 

1. Preparation is Everything

Before any cooking instructions were given, there was one lesson that Chef Darwin was passionate about getting through to us, and that was something called mise en place (mi zã plas). This illustrious French phrase is translated "putting in place" or, as my chef introduced it, "everything in its place".

Hollie Conger

He explained that mise en place refers to everything from setting up any bowls, utensils, or tools needed for a dish, to washing, chopping, and preparing the meat, vegetables, grains, spices, and sauces. At the time, this seemed a bit overkill, but it didn't take long before I realized that proper preparation is fundamental to success in both cooking and in my personal life. 

2. Know Where Your Food Comes From

wine, coffee
Hollie Conger

Learning the origin of ingredients was emphasized so much in school that we devoted an entire month one summer to working on a local farm preparing crop beds and planting seeds. In my Charcuterie and Butchery class, we also had the opportunity to visit another Central Oregon farm where we saw first-hand how the pigs the school bought were raised.

Hollie Conger

A week later, Chef Erickson wheeled in the same 600 pound Heritage hog, but this time it was ready to be broken down using tools that looked straight out of a horror movie. I learned where to find the spareribs, ham, and loin—and I'm not talking about in the freezer aisle.

For many, this experience was unappetizing, but it inspired me to pay better attention to how the things I consume are raised, produced, and manufactured. 

3. Always Choose Quality Over Quantity

One of the biggest myths of gourmet cooking is the notion that you need dozens of ingredients. At culinary school, I learned that while many gourmet recipes may come with a prolific grocery list, every chef would tell you that quality is always preferred over quantity.

While completing my capstone course, I worked at the student-operated restaurant Elevation and was once again surprised with what I found out. Our menu boasted of entrees like pan-seared steelhead, roasted pork belly, and a balsamic beet salad, but rarely did our ingredient list exceed 10 items.

meat, chicken, soup
Hollie Conger

If our class had to choose a motto for its philosophy, "strength in simplicity" would have been fitting. Since we knew exactly where and how our ingredients were raised and produced, we were confident that every ingredient could stand alone.

All that was needed was salt and pepper, quality olive oil, shallots, and maybe some fresh garlic. Even the salads we made had only a couple ingredients because the lettuce was so fresh, you could eat it plain.

chicken, meat, vegetable
Hollie Conger

The true beauty in choosing quality ingredients is that you can focus on the main attraction and only need a few additions to bring out the natural flavor. And if you have the essentials on hand, you won't be buying extra specialty ingredients that you only use once, so you'll save money, too.

This is just the beginning of a long list of culinary school lessons that have impacted my life. My advice to anyone who didn't go the culinary school route, but is still hoping learn a few tricks of the trade: talk to a chef any chance you get. I can guarantee that they'll have their top three tips ready to share.

And you might even meet a chef who knows the secret to not cutting yourself, and if you do, please send them my way.