FAQ on NWCAV
Q. How many students were in your class and how did you find the class size?A. There were 12 students in my pastry term and 21 in my culinary term. I found both classes to be a comfortable size to work in. Class size did not conflict with opportunities for one-on-one assistance with the instructors. They were involved and made themselves readily available to assist you.
Q. What is the average age of the students?A. There were students of all ages. Our pastry class was generally a younger group (ages 20-35ish). Our culinary class ranged from early 20's to late-40's. I enjoyed the broad range of backgrounds, which brought a lot of interesting discussions to the table.
Q. Does NWCAV have proper and an ample supply of equipment? Are 3 ovens in the pastry kitchen enough for all of the pastry students?A. Most definitely. Both the culinary and pastry kitchens are very well equipped. There wasn't ever an issue of not being able to complete a task due to the lack of equipment. Three ovens were plenty in the pastry kitchen. Communication between students is key when placing items in the oven for baking. Communicating the needs of the oven is an important lesson to learn and prepares you for the realities of the industry. Quite often, we are told, culinary and pastry chefs in professional kitchens need to share the ovens.
Q. Do you feel the program was long enough?A. The programs were long enough in the sense that each technique was well taught and covered in depth. However, the curriculums are intense and do go by very quickly. I wish they would have lasted longer for the simple fact that both were so enjoyable.
Q. Do you think the program was well priced for the education you received?A. Hands down, these programs are incredibly well priced for the extensive training you receive. Personal attention from all instructors is given and they sincerely stay involved with you throughout. You aren't just another number to them. Aside from all of the culinary and pastry skills you will obtain, it is an incredible personal growth and self-discovery experience.
FAQ on Homework/Exams
Q. As part of your homework every night, did you practice what you learned during the day at school?A. I tried to practice what I could throughout the week and on the weekends but to repeat every recipe every day wasn't possible for me. I would be 500 lbs. by now, if I would have! Again, the program was very intense and to repeat each recipe, every day, would have been a tremendous amount of work. I found it useful to go over my notes from the day and go over the required reading every night, which would take up a good chunk of time. However, at NWCAV, the pastry kitchen opens at 8:00am and they encourage you to repeat a recipe you feel you didn't quite grasp before class starts at 9:00am.
I did practice more culinary techniques than pastry because I enjoyed cooking dinner every night and you have to eat, whereas baking pastries every day can get a little tricky to consume (that is where neighbors and friends are able to help out).
Q. On average, how many hours of reading and other homework did you do?A. For me, because I learn best by writing notes as I read text, I would spend between 1-2 hours each night on homework.
Q. Are you required to give presentations during the program? If so, what does that consist of and why do you have to do this?A. Yes. Topics are usually picked out of a hat. A 20-minute presentation is required and will be graded. At NWCAV you are able to choose any medium to deliver your content (PowerPoint, video, charts, diagrams, etc.). A one-page summary of the key points is required to hand out to your fellow classmates. Speaking in front of people is nerve-racking for many. I was very nervous but I researched my topics well enough so I felt comfortable relaying them to others (listen to my podcast on coffee). The program exposes you to the likely event you will have to speak in front of your colleagues in the industry during food events and/or meetings. Chefs often have to attend functions and give speeches and so any practice is useful.
Q. You took many pictures during your courses and I see on your blog you recorded your presentations. How did you record them and did you find that useful?A. I highly recommend taking a digital camera to class. I like visual learning so I found it to be extremely useful to take pictures of the steps in pastry so I could refresh my memory later. I also recorded lectures on my MP3 and found that to be a useful tool to review content from the day.
Q. Do you have to memorize every recipe?A. No. Techniques and a general understanding of the main elements of a certain recipe are vital. We are also taught that in the industry, Standardized Recipes are used which enable workers to produce the exact recipe every time, which also controls cost and waste. You do have to know the basics, concepts, and working methods. Just a few examples from the very long list: what is mirepoix; how do you prepare different stocks and sauces; what are the working methods of a baguette, croissant, or confit; list the differences between Bavarian and mousse, what are the functions of sugar?
Q. How are the exams structured?A. There are two types of exams at NWCAV: a practical exam and a theory exam. During the practical exams we were required to make certain items. On certain personal projects we were given more creative flexibility. Theory exams consisted of definitions, conversions, explaining techniques, the main elements of a recipe, and being able to describe working methods.
Q. Do you feel the program covered enough techniques and did you find your textbooks useful?A. In both culinary and pastry, I was amazed at the amount of techniques that were covered. Both programs are extremely well planned out. I found both textbooks to have good basic information about ingredients and their functions, and cooking/baking methods. If students discovered discrepancies in the techniques that were described in the text versus the techniques we used in class, these differences were discussed.
Q. I like working by myself. Did you ever get to work by yourself? Why are programs structured so you have to work in teams? A. Only during practical exams you work on your own. You always work with a partner unless there is an odd-numbered class of students (a different student would work by themselves each week but this was only in pastry). You soon realize that one person alone cannot do the amount of work required in a professional kitchen. Everyone has to work together to get the job done and you need each other to be a success. You learn how to work with people and different styles.
Q. Did you get to create your own desserts in pastry and dishes in culinary?A. During some exams and on certain days of the program we could create the dishes and pastries/cakes/desserts we wanted. The program focuses on the fundamentals and instilling the fact that you have to master the basics first before trying to add a lot of personal flair.
Q. Can students handle a job while attending school?A. Personally, I chose not to work while attending classes. Some students are able to manage it but it can be very overwhelming and exhausting with the amount of work involved in the program. You are investing the time and money to learn so try to take full advantage of that. Of course, it is a personal choice.
FAQ on Supplies
Q. What kind of shoes would you recommend buying?A. I was able to find shoes by Dankso that fit my foot well. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find my size until the end of the program but they are very sturdy, comfortable, and gave my back the support it needs for standing all day.
Q. How do you keep track of your tools when everyone else has the same items?A. An engraver can be used at the school to carve your initials onto your items. It is really important to wash and dry your own tools and return them to your toolbox so they don't walk off on you by accident. It is also good to mark the tags on your towels, hats, aprons, pats, etc., with a permanent marker. It was a running joke in culinary that someone must have collected the bulk of the towels by the end of the course!
FAQ - Miscellaneous
Q. How often do you use a knife in the pastry kitchen? Do I have to have any knife skills before going into the program?A. Knives aren't used every day in the pastry kitchen but knife skills are a definite asset. For example, peeling fruits the proper way to avoid waste and keep them looking like they held their natural shape is important. You also need to be able to cut cake layers evenly and pieces equally. Instructors will definitely assist you if you have few skills. Knife skills are a daily part of the program in culinary.
Q. Do you get a lunch break and do you get to eat what you make?A. In culinary, we took breaks to eat the courses we had prepared throughout the day. In pastry, a 30-minute lunch break is given and you are required to bring your own lunch. There is a microwave available to reheat food. You are always encouraged to taste everything as you go along to be able to develop a sense for flavors, textures, and doneness.
Q. How did you find standing for so many hours?A. At first, it was a little hard to get used to but once you are immersed in the program, you rarely notice you are standing for that long. We were seated during the a.m. lectures. Standing during school hours and standing in the industry are two different things, with the latter being much more intense. Make sure you have good shoes!
Q. What do you wish you would have known on day 1?A. If I were to do the courses over again, personally, I wouldn't worry so much about the future and what I would wind up doing in the industry. A lot of us came from backgrounds where we had worked in another profession for a long time. It is a big change and it is gutsy to go back to school and make the decision to try out something different. I shouldn't have been so wrapped up in what I would do after the program. I should have just enjoyed being a student.
Q. What would you have done differently? A. Although I participated in some catering events and did observations at a few establishments through the school, I would have involved myself in more of them during the program. They give you a clearer understanding of what the responsibilities are in different food-related positions. Prior to going to school, I would have made more of an effort to shadow all sorts of jobs in the industry to have a heads up on what is out there.
FAQ on My Future
Q. Are you going to do a practicum?A. After a lot of consideration, I decided that I will not set up a 3-month practicum through the school. I did arrange a short-term practicum on my own and will take on various jobs in the industry. It boils down to personal choice and the path that each student ultimately wants to follow. I will be interested to hear from classmates how they valued their own practicum experiences when they are finished.
Q. How did the program meet your expectations and how well do you feel it prepared you for the industry?A. Both programs exceeded my expectations. I learned a tremendous amount about food and valuable techniques that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, whether I personally put those skills to use in a professional kitchen or not. To date, I have not had much experience in the industry but I do feel I have the confidence to go into an entry-level position and be able to carry my own with what I have been taught.
Q. What are your long-term goals and do you plan to open your own restaurant or pastry shop?A. My long-term goals continue to evolve. I continue to learn of the wide variety of food-related jobs that are available. After being exposed to the complexities of owning an establishment, I do not plan to open a restaurant or pastry shop anytime soon.
If anyone has any other valuable information to add to this list or wants to share any of their experiences, I encourage you to send me an e-mail. The moment I turn my comment function on, I unfortunately receive loads of spam!