It’s Monday morning, 8:30 sharp – shockingly early in the world of chefs (save for the baker or breakfast cook). Kimberley and Jill, two Manna Culinary Arts Program students, are milling around the kitchen classroom, their hearts and minds presumably aflutter with dreams of uncharted gastronomic territories. They appear perfectly at home among the huge metal pots, gleaming stainless steel counters and a monstrous cast iron stove top, as though they somehow grew up in this kitchen, a spatula and a mixer their first toys; fire and boiling water, early friends.
Nineteen-year-old Vicky joins them for class. She has enrolled in the program for a second time, “taking it for the sheer fun of it.” She offers up stories of her current exploits – namely a newly-launched relationship with fennel (apparently it is spectacular in chicken soup). Being in the presence of such talented palates is like watching world-class gymnasts perform in a copper kettle world – veritable food wizards in the making.
Today’s lesson is on Cooking Methods and Techniques. This is the fourth week of a 3-month-long program where students convene for three hours a day, Monday through Friday, to hone their culinary chops. Initiation starts with “Getting to Know Your Kitchen.” This is followed by 10 days focused solely on “Mastering the Art of the Knife,” an apt choice as blade skills are one of the most important kitchen proficiencies you can possess. From there, students study the deeper layers in the culinary onion – broths, soups, and sauces, cooking techniques, plate composition (who knew plates composed themselves?), garde manger (cold food preparation), and baking methods. The program culminates in a Manna Showcase Dinner Event, an evening of cuisine developed and prepared by students that makes one’s taste buds dance in sheer anticipation. The recently-graduated class prepared dishes for their event that included mini beef wellingtons, crab and spinach gnocchi, and a vanilla gelato accompanied with churro bites and caramel sauce. All from scratch, of course.
McKenzie Miller is the resident teacher and Culinary Program Manager for Manna. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, a prestigious and world-renowned establishment. If she was a composition of ingredients, the list would go something like this: 12 sticks of dynamite, a plethora of known and unknown cooking utensils, one copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her Grand-mama Stafford, ample foie gras AND chicken fingers, dashes of love and good humor, and a bottomless vat of cookery knowledge and expertise. Top that with her uncanny ability to eloquently deliver the finer details of subjects like moist-heat versus dry-heat cooking in an entertaining yet completely accessible fashion. You really don’t even realize you’re learning. She’s that good.
Miller describes the Manna program as “intended to teach the basics of culinary arts from a classic French approach in order for students to have some basic knowledge of food safety and culinary techniques.” The course has had great success with 21 graduates so far. Fifteen are currently employed in the trade and two have continued on to other culinary programs.
Students come from a range of backgrounds, adding to the overall beauty and strength of the program. Jill has been a “mommy cook” for 20 years, and in the last year she and her family have established a dairy goat herd. With the culinary skills she is developing, she hopes to start her own artisanal goat cheese business. Her 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, signed up for the course to elevate her already strong culinary skills. Meanwhile, 28-year-old Kimberley readily admits that she “didn’t even know how to boil water” before she started the program. She has also struggled with drug addiction issues and is now clean, sober, and looking to better her life with a new career in the kitchen. Four weeks into the program and she’s already deboning chickens and concocting her own broths from scratch.
During break, Vicky whips out her phone to show the group a modernist cooking video that uses sous-vide cooking methods (sealing your ingredients of choice in a plastic bag and cooking them in a hot water bath) while Kimberley explains how they learned to make the perfect demi-glace last week in class. It’s invigorating to be around such passion and enthusiasm coupled with a growing expertise that is clearly empowering for these promising classic French culinary protégés. In a world full of fast food and heat-and-serve options, these future chefs are creating hope for the lost art of cooking a well-composed meal.