A few years ago, I took a one-night dessert cooking class with Boise State culinary arts instructor Vern Hickman. Chocolate was the evening's ingredient of choice, and under Hickman's tutelage, we learned the basics of pot de creme, cherries jubilee and the delicate art of creating tuiles. I've kept the recipes for each of the night's lessons because I know that I'll never be able to make a white chocolate mousse filling from memory. On the back of the recipes are little tips Hickman doled out like rare truffles. Those, however, I do remember. Cinnamon on a fire lights a showy flame. If a chocolate sauce is too tight, thin it with oil. There's also a note on the mystical skill of single-handedly cracking an egg, a task for which I just don't possess the dexterity to master.
This week, as Boise State culinary arts students steam through only the third week of instruction, the cooking has just begun.
"The first day, we go over lots of rules and policies," explains culinary arts instructor Julie Hosman-Kulm. "From there, the first semester focuses on sanitation and basic culinary preparation." As their first semester progresses, culinary arts students learn the basics of baking and begin rotations in not only the kitchen and bakery labs, but they also do stints in the front of the house, learning how to serve customers in Technique, the culinary arts program's restaurant open to the public.
Dustan Bristol, chef owner of Brick 29 Bistro in Nampa and former executive chef of Murphy's Seafood Bar and Grill, and a 2001 Boise State culinary arts graduate, says that acquiring those basic skills is one of the most valuable things he took away from his college experience.
"I cooked for seven years before I went to culinary school," says Bristol. "But I didn't learn the guidelines of sanitation—storing proteins, temperature danger zones and cross contamination. [Before Boise State] I only knew what each chef would make us do, not the why or why not of doing it, which is what I learned in the first semester."
The culinary arts program at Boise State is set up as a two-year associate's degree program; however, after completing each semester, students receive post-secondary technical certificates that not only better qualify them for real-world work, but also allow them to leave the program and re-enter where they left off.
"We have successful exit points all the way throughout the program," explains Hosman-Kulm. "Students might not be able to go the full two years, but we want them to leave with some kind of technical document."
The fact that all classes are offered in both the fall and spring semesters is key to the program. Students can, for example, start their first semester in the fall, take off the spring and return to complete their second semester the next fall.
Typically, explains Hosman-Kulm, a second-semester student takes advanced cooking classes, studies nutrition, learns the nuances of global food preparation and learns to "fabricate the center of the plate," which is restaurant-speak for selecting and cooking a dish's meat, poultry or fish. The nitty gritty of business operations is a large part of a third-semester student's curriculum, says Hosman-Kulm. In addition to being able to chef, creating and using balance sheets, cash flows and budget reports are necessary aspects of running a kitchen, as well as knowing how to forecast product needs for purchasing.
"You can pretty much pick up anything [in the kitchen] under the right chef," says Bristol. "But my last year of school was the hardest because not only did I have academic classes, but I was learning how to manage a kitchen. I was in charge of ordering and requisitions and a main kitchen line in addition to monitoring younger-semester students."
Culinary students spend their final semester finishing up academic credits and completing an internship in a real-world restaurant kitchen. While some students choose to travel to resorts or other Northwest cities to complete internships, says Hosman-Kulm, the majority of them stay here in Boise, taking advantage of relationships forged with local restaurateurs through the culinary arts program.
In addition to three full-time culinary arts instructors, students spend time learning with area guest chefs who serve four-week rotations teaching students to devise a menu and cook meals for Technique's guests. In the past, some of Boise's most popular restaurateurs have taken turns as guest chefs, including Joyce Doughty, Jon Mortimer, Ibrahim Ebed of Aladdin's Egyptian Cuisine, Gerry O'Leary of Hillcrest Country Club and Boise State culinary arts grad Kelvin Gurr of Lock, Stock and Barrel.
The first guest chef in this year's program is Andrea Maricich, chef/owner of The MilkyWay. A graduate of New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, Maricich says participating in the program as a guest instructor is a great experience for the students because it's like opening a new restaurant every month, starting everything—including the menu—from scratch.
Culinary arts students study under Maricich through September 21 and during that time, are learning to cook a fairly varied menu for diners at Technique. Entrees include creamy rabbit and wild mushroom cannelloni with black pepper pasta, braised beef short ribs, and chicken breast scallopini with sauteed tomatoes, artichoke hearts and capers in a white wine butter sauce over saffron rice. On the lighter side, students are learning to cook rabbit confit over endive, watercress and greens, a tombo tuna sandwich with an Asian marinade and mango slaw on a challah bun, and wrap with smoked turkey and a pineapple BBQ sauce.
As for the ability of Boise State culinary arts students to pull off proper foodie food, Bristol puts it best: "I applied to Culinary Institute of America, and I got into the Hyde Park school, but I couldn't afford to go, so I went to Boise State for financial reasons intending to transfer after my first year. But I realized it was a serious program," says Bristol. "And I realized that big [name] schools don't teach anything different. They can't teach passion, work ethic and a sense of urgency."
In other words, single-handed egg-cracking at Boise State is single-handed egg-cracking at CIA is single-handed egg-cracking at Le Cordon Bleu. And for those on the other end of food preparation—the diners—it means that Boise State's culinary arts program is an opportunity to help grow the foodie community of the future while enjoying a gourmet meal on the cheap.
Want to try their goods? The Brown Bag Deli is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Technique is open Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at 1310 University Dr. Both are open to the public. For more information on the culinary arts program at Boise State or to view a current menu, visit Culinary.BoiseState.edu.