BELOW is a copy of the speech I presented as class valedictorian during my Stratford Chefs School convocation, May 31st 2015. In describing this after-the-fact, I used a service bell as a prop; which is explained in the speech.
DING DING (ringing of the bell)
Ready for service!! Borrowed from The Prune restaurant, this bell has been used for decades as a way for the kitchen to communicate with our front of house team, that the specific course has been prepared to exacting standards and is now “ready for service“.
Hello, my name is Eli Silverthorne. Thank you for attending today as we celebrate the graduation of Stratford Chefs School class of 2015!
Those of us graduating here today fully understand what is required in order to be “ready for service”. The leg-work necessary to build but a single component, of which there are many, of a single course, of which there are several, is truly remarkable. It can take weeks to create, plan, cost, source and prepare a menu item; all to culminate during 3 hours of dinner service; as multiple efforts are synchronized to produce what we know as “guest experience”.
The development from a green student-apprentice to seasoned professional chef is a long, and arduous process. In a lot of ways the Stratford chefs school program shares many of these sentiments. It was long… it was arduous… but it was also unmistakably rewarding!
In reflection, I see that the course structure of the Stratford Chefs School program has made its mark on all of us; reflective in the way that we have developed as chefs, over these past two years. Beginning slow and methodical we were dependent on recipes and instruction.
In second year we jumped into service, and within a month or so we were already producing different Michelin style menus nightly; before welcoming the international guest chefs Franceso Lagi and Michael Hazlewood, where we knew to anticipate needs, and pre-cue correct answers. Finally, we stand before you today, as graduating chefs; confident without recipes, armed with technique, and supported by a theoretical framework.
Like a train, we have slowly picked up steam, learning stage after stage of enhanced cooking methodology. Admittedly the first year may have seemed long, very classically focused, and incredibly snow covered! I remember back to week four exams, practicing French folded omelets at home, like it was nobody’s business. I know my great friend and classmate, and recent red seal chef, Mike Padmore shares in these sentiments, as he admitted to me at the time that he even stopped seasoning his eggs, so as to not waste salt and pepper!
Sure, an entire week of boiling may seem a tad excessive; you may already know how your own body moves, and if you are like me, you can proudly stand here today, and proclaim that you will never turn another vegetable again in your life. In the end, you may even scoff at Escoffier; however there is a definite method to their madness here at Stratford Chefs School.
Deconstructionism is now commonplace in cuisine; where someone attempts to take long held assumptions, and traditions, and literally turn them on their head. The pioneer of abstract theory is Pablo Picasso, who himself once stated, in defense of his art that “one must know the rules before one can break them.”
I remember when I first signed up to chefs school. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. There were however a couple surprises.
The long days and steep learning curves were expected. The stress of exams, specification reports, and shoe-box diorama were all par for the course. The strict focus on classical training in first year was anticipated and embraced, as we were given a glimpse of what to expect in second year, during our obligatory “service shifts”, bistro exams, and healthy menus.
Second year was about as great as I could possibly imagine. The school is unique in it’s focus, allowing students to plan and execute different Michelin quality menus nightly; while offering chefs-in training the opportunity to design and execute their own lunch menus during the day. We embraced this opportunity and excelled.
It is absolutely amazing how much my SCS peers have both influenced and impressed me. This is especially true with many of the strong young cooks graduating here today. Drawn days and long nights were made easier by sharing the time with awesome classmates; classmates who are exceptionally, determined, passionate and talented.
The most meaningful surprise to me, however, were the extra-curriculars attached to the program.
Group dinners, where students had an evening off in order experience the school from the guest perspective, has created many memories, especially birthdays.
The charcuterie workshops also stand out as a favourite supplement, as does its sourcing. Travelling to farms as part of the Gastronomy program was a very worthwhile experience.
And of course, what are extra-circulars without the nightly service de-briefing at the Boars Head. Here we learned to unwind and socialize like human beings, in the few hours we had off during each of our 16 week semesters.
The amount that we have learned over that time is hard to quantify. The great thing about learning such an applied trade as cookery, is the way that it grows to be ever expansive the harder you push at it. As chefs, the things we learn are instantly applied, and from being applied they then become instinct; thus allowing new room for new knowledge, triggering a never-ending sequence of growth and applied development.
In closing I would like to sign of with 10 pieces of reflection; some of which I’ve taken from others.
- Practice to get it right, before attempting to go faster
- (attributed to Ryan O’Donnell) Always be asking yourself, can I do this faster
- Chefs require a support network – suppliers – co-workers – friends and family.
- Embrace the unplanned
- Learn from your mistakes; but don’t repeat them
- ABC’s are important – always be counting
- (a bit of advice given by Lucy Waverman during her tenure as Gastronomic Writer in Residence, this 2015 semester) If you are serious about what you do find a mentor
- There is more to chefing than mere cooking alone
- Be nice to your dishwashers
- You are only as good as your last plate
The only thing that I regret from Chefs School is that, due to grouping, I have not yet had the opportunity to work with all of those students graduating today. Perhaps one day we may find ourselves working together somewhere in the future.
For now what we do know is that from today forward we are no longer students; henceforth we are considered graduates of Stratford Chefs School. The future is untold, unforeseen and bright for every one of us here today.
If we are to compare the Chefs School program to the chronology of a a dinner service, chefs school proper marks but the prep-a-tory phase; pre-staff meal even. From here the real show begins, and the guests arrive. It is up to all of us as chefs to make it happen professionally. It is as if we ourselves “DING DING” (ring bell) are ready for service.