Midnight to midnight: a day in the life of a culinary student

Apr 4th, 2014 | by Eat Drink Indy | Cook, News, Restaurants

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Editor’s note: Food fans tend to romanticize the idea of attending culinary school and working in a restaurant. Here, as the first in an ongoing EatDrinkIndy series called Real People Real Food, a local Chef’s Academy student and an employee at Rook keeps track of his life, in both the classroom and the kitchen.

My name is Peter D. McGarry. My first job ever was as a short-order cook at the snack bar in a bowling alley where I am from. It was a job I rather enjoyed, but I was only 15 and was paid very little. Over the next 20 years, I performed a wide variety of jobs, usually outdoors and very physically demanding.

Culinary student Peter McGarry

Culinary student Peter McGarry during class at  The Chef’s Academy

I look back on all of those pursuits with fond memories. However, I must tell you that despite my enjoyment of those activities, I spent the entirety of those twenty years daydreaming about life in the kitchen. At the age of 35, I found that I had finally had enough. You only live once, and I decided that it was time to return to the kitchen.

I made that decision last year on March 6. By March 10, I had moved everything I could pile into my truck from Colorado to Indiana, and by March 11 at 7:30 a.m. I was in my first class at The Chef’s Academy here in Indianapolis.

Soon after that I fell in with local restaurateur Ed Rudisell, and several months later he brought on our chef Carlos Salazar. This was beyond lucky for me. It feels like I attend school twice a day.

I have done a lot of back-breaking work in my lifetime and enjoyed most all of it. But in reference to the combined rigors of culinary school and a full time job in the industry, I would say this: Never in my life have I been this thoroughly exhausted, and never in my life have I been this happy.  

The following is a recount of one day in my life, from midnight to midnight.

12:01 a.m. (Tuesday night) – I should be sleeping, but there is too much still to be done. I’ve been home for a couple of hours now, and it was a long day. Homework beckons, though, and so here I sit behind my laptop. I just finished a project I have been working on for my Dining Room Management class, and now it is time to move on to my Public Speaking class. I have a 3- to 5-minute speech to prepare along with a Power Point presentation. The research is done, but I still have to type it all up.

1:30 a.m. – With the speech finalized, I take a minute to pack up the materials I will need for school tomorrow and lay out my chef’s uniform. I wish it were time for bed but I can’t retire just yet. This week in my kitchen class we are running a mock restaurant that will serve 22 guests a seven-course meal in the classical French style. Today when we ran it, I presided over the fourth course — Cote de Porc Charcuterie with Pomme de Terre Parisienne and Haricot Vert au Beurre, straight out of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire.

I was only responsible for that one dish though, and a breaded pork cutlet with potato croquettes and sautéed green beans wasn’t that difficult. Tomorrow, however, I have been selected to play the role of the sous chef in our little kitchen. That means I must know everything about all seven dishes on the menu and be able to coordinate my brigade (fellow students) so that we can execute all of the dishes in a timely manner during the service. So it’s back to the books to make sure I know the recipes.

2:50 a.m. – I can no longer concentrate on the words in the book. I guess I know the menu as well as I am going to. Time to get what sleep I can.

3:55 a.m. – I am some kind of idiot, that much is certain. Left my computer running with David Chang’s “Mind of a Chef” playing on Netflix. Despite my exhaustion, I am still awake. I could watch David Chang make ramen noodle broth all day long. Tomorrow is going to be a trial.

6:45 a.m. (Wednesday morning) – Managed to sleep for a few hours, but I’m already up and getting ready for school. Getting out of that bed was excruciating.

7:30 a.m. – Public Speaking Class. Delivered my speech and report. I hope that I did well, but right now I’m honestly too tired to care.

9:50 a.m. – Time to hit the kitchen; we have one hour to prep and set up our stations before the mock restaurant opens. It’s go time.

1:05 p.m. – The service was a success — not perfect, but pretty close. We served 21 guests who all seemed pleased. My classmates performed fantastically executing the dishes, and I managed to greet and serve the guests without embarrassing myself. All in all, I am very pleased at the moment.

1:35 p.m. – Back home to change for work and squeeze in a one-hour nap.

2:45 p.m. – That had to be the fastest hour in human history. I think I feel worse than I did before the nap. I still haven’t had anything to eat today, and now I have a headache. But I’m glad I did it; now off to work.

Peter McGarry at work at Rook with chef Carlos Salazar

At work at Rook with chef Carlos Salazar

3:00 p.m. – I’ve walked into the kitchen, and all my bad vibes have gone right out the window. Chef Carlos has the 20-gallon stockpot on the stove and is making his own version of ramen broth for the service tonight. The smell in this kitchen is simply amazing. I am instantly in a better mood. Over the next 90 minutes, I will switch out the line from lunch to dinner items, do all the small prep needed to fill the line, slice limes and green onions for garnish, refill all the vegetable bins, etc., etc.

4:30 p.m. – Doors are open for tonight’s dinner service. We usually don’t get busy with customers until about 6:30, so I’ll use the next two hours to knock out as much prep for the next day as I can. I need to make 50 or 60 dumplings, trim and slice about 15 pounds of beef, another 10 pounds of pork, make the marinades for both, par cook some noodles and, hopefully, marinate a couple trays of tofu as well.

9:30 p.m. – Punching out and heading back home. It was a decent service for a Wednesday night. The kitchen is clean, and the doors are locked. My only regret is that we were just busy enough that I didn’t have time to actually eat anything other than the tasting I do throughout the night. I am starving!

10:30 p.m. – Home and showered up. Searching for something to eat, and it isn’t going well. Fridge is full of beer but little else. I spent a combined total of 10 hours in the kitchen today, and the only thing I will have to eat is this bell pepper quesadilla I just made. It doesn’t always work out like that, but it is shocking how little I actually eat despite so many hours spent in the kitchen. I am constantly surrounded by amazing food, but rarely have the time to eat any of it. Ah, well, I like feeding others more than anything, and I did plenty of that today.

11:00 p.m. – Here we go again. The menu for tomorrow’s mock restaurant didn’t change much, so I don’t have much to worry about there. I don’t have speaking class again until next week, so I can also put that book away. I do, however, have a test over the last four chapters we covered in Dining Room Management. I missed one of the lectures last week, and so I must hit the books again. I’ve been going since 6:30 this morning on the back of a two-and-a-half-hour night of sleep.

11:59 p.m. – I’m about halfway through the material I need to study up on for the test tomorrow. I believe I can be done by one or so, and perhaps actually get five whole hours of sleep tonight. It has been quite a day, and I will do it all again tomorrow. It is a good thing that I love what I do, because this is exhausting. Fun though.


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