Sunday, February 24, 2008

My awful experience touring Johnson and Wales University

I went to the culinary Johnson and Wales University open house today. I flew from my home in Portland, Oregon to Providence with my infant son and my husband. After a long flight, the airline lost our brand new carseat and the rental car company gave us a hassle of a time renting a car. I've never had a hard time getting a car before... but this blog is about the school, I won't rant about the travel hassles.

I came to Rhode Island with the intention of enrolling in the culinary program and then persuing my degree in nutrition. I chose this school because it has an excellent reputation, and I have an interest in both nutrition and cooking. The notion of being an RD who can cook appeals to me. I've certainly thought about enrolling at culinary schools before, but, well... they all seem so gimmicky. Flashy, junky websites all designed to sell you on the "dream" of becoming the next big chef when in reality working in a kitchen is nowhere near glamorous.

And so here I am, in Rhode Island, exhausted and beyond frustrated. Providence is beautiful--it really is more than I expected and I can validate the nickname "The Renaissance City." There are big, beautiful historic homes, quaint little neighborhoods with independantly owned businesses. It is a lot like the area of Northwest Portland, only it is very quiet and there aren't any overt dopers on every street corner. Affordable real estate, a bike shop for Ed to geek out at, right on the ocean. Yum.

I got to the school bright and early this morning. I found the registration booth, and after filling out all the requisite paperwork, proceeded through the open house. I went and poured myself a cup of coffee and browsed through the "continental breakfast" that was offered. Immediately it struck me as awfully strange that the pastries that were put out to woo us would-be students looked as if they had come out of one of those giant shrink wrapped cardboard pallets that one would pick up at Costco prior to rushing off to a business meeting. You know, those pastries like "bear claws" and ultra-sugary Danishes that have that strangely suspicious blue goo dolloped on top. I found myself wondering again what in the hell that blue stuff is supposed to be. Perhaps it is supposed to resemble blueberries? What is the point? At that moment I realized that my thoughts were written across my face and people were starting to look at me funny and so I moved on and attempted to focus on something else.

At some point, I am not sure when, I came across a notice that Johnson and Wales University is, in the spring of this year, cutting its Trans-fat from its ingredients that students will be using to cook with. I tried really desperately to forget that I had read that statement, because I didn't want to believe that an actual cooking school would have ever considered using hydrogenated oils to prepare its food. But like a bitter taste I couldn't get out of my mouth, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that Kentucky Fried Chicken released to the press some time ago that they would no longer be using hydrogenated oils in its restaurants. I find it highly absurd that a fast food chain such as KFC would get with the program that much quicker than a prestigious culinary school.

The next table had a display of chocolate truffles. Oh god there's time to kill before the presentation begins and a giant tray of chocolate. Who can resist? The first chocolate I ate wasn't bad. It had a distracting peppermint flavor but hey there was chocolate involved so I found it edible. The next one I got really excited about, as it appeared to be one of those really expensive creamy dark chocolate truffles dipped in bittersweet cocoa powder. Except that it was all bitter and no sweet. My mouth puckered and I felt assaulted. All of the moisture in my mouth had been sucked away by this horrible truffle and I was already desperate for thirst. I resented this truffle due to the fact that the water in this state tastes awful and I have been fighting dehydration since coming here.

Okay, take a deep breath. I'm sure there will be some redeeming qualities. Moving on, I found the main culinary exhibit and some of the volunteer culinary students started to pour in. I was searching for someone like me, some food dork who I could pick their brain about the curriculum and to help validate moving my family across the country and spending $90k on tuition alone. Search as I might, I cannot seem to locate one. And then it dawns on me that I am terribly out of place. Not only are the students here a decade younger than me, but 70% of them are twice the size of me. 18 and 19 year old kids--not just overweight--but nearly all of them are obese.

Finally, a trim gal who looks approachable walks by. I notice on her jacket that she is an associate professor, and though I was hoping to speak to one of the students about the curriculum, she strikes me as someone I could easily talk to. And she was. I got a lot of information about expectations of students and such, but towards the end of the conversation I think she figured out I wasn't exactly like the other students here in that I am actually serious about learning to cook (well, I already know how to cook, but I want a professional chef to take me to the next level). At any rate, she told me a little about the maturity level of the students here, many of whom who haven't even picked up a knife. Yikes. She says that the students who really want to learn suffer, as a lot of the students come in late, interrupting class by eating their Taco Bell, taking their ciggarrette breaks. My jaw dropped to the floor when she said that. I had to repeat it outloud to verify that what I heard was correct. Culinary students who eat Taco Bell?!? Yes, she avidly assured me, most of them do.

After our discussion I devoured the culinary display. Admittedly, there were some interesting products strewn about, various bean varieties and quinoa, which I'm already familiar with. Then there were a few giant plastic bottles of dried herbs and spices (such as bay leaves) that again looked like they were picked up at Costco. Clearly the display was designed to impress but it struck me as haphazard and dull. I was most offended by the ice sculpture and a chainsaw in the middle of the display. Come to think of it I don't even think I registered what the sculpture was a sculpture of--I just moved away from the table as far as I could so as to not let any of the tackiness rub off on me.

I went upstairs and sat in a large room with many expressionless parents and equally bored high school seniors waiting for the presentation to begin. I am about to cry. This is nowhere near what I had in mind, and I spent a large sum of money to get me, my husband, my son, and had my dog boarded--all to find out that this school is just like all the other enormously expensive chef factories. As the first presentation lady drones on about all of the great reasons to attend JWU (regurgitating the exact same information on the website) I think about what I really want out of a culinary school. I want to know why ingredients behave the way that they do. I want to learn how to develop a palate. I want experienced feedback of the food that I prepare. I want to know how to use all those strange vegetables at the Farmer's Market. I want to know why most books you read say that you should never let an oil burn, but I have seen chefs purposefully heat oil so high that it smokes. I want to be part of the Slow Food Movement. I want to learn classic French cuisine, even though I think it is too fatty, the preperations at times over the top and I really don't care for that much meat. There's many things I really want to know that I feel that I can only obtain through a good school.

With these thoughts, I decide to excercise patience. Afterall, school is what you make of it, and chances are that I would learn all of this information, even if the students aren't my kindred spirits and my experience until this point has been disasterous. But then the main culinary presentation begins. The speaker, I believe, is the dean of the school. Right away, I can tell he's a schmooze. Master Cheese is what I nickname him in my head. He spends considerable amount of time picking certain members of the audience to ask them where they are from and pointing out which sports teams he knows from that particular state. Gag. He proceeds with his pep rally--his speech about why we should choose JWU and the opportunities that await us!!! He's got that used-car salesperson aura. He's grating on me, I have to get out of here. I take a bathroom break. I come back, and he's explaining to the parents how all us students are going to be learning how to make one of those beautiful ice sculptures downstairs.

You've got to be kidding. An. Ice. Sculpture. What a waste of time, energy, money, space. I look around the room to see the reaction on everyone else's face. Same audience that I was introduced to when I walked into the room. A herd of unenthusiastic Americans that this man is trying so desperately to rally.

Finally he finishes. We are broken into groups for the tour of the school, the part that I have been waiting for. I am sure there will be some redeeming qualities when I see the facilities. We tour the Oenology lab. Vaguely interesting. The baking lab. The drink mixology lab. Meh. Then, we get to the interesting part. The stocks, sauces, soups kitchen. The chef-instructor is there, along with three of his students, and they are passing out samples of what they made in class in styrafoam bowls. A butternut squash soup. It tastes boring and not seasoned anywhere near enough. Then, the bread. The bread was a funny little creature I am not at all sure how to describe. It was sort of like risen puff pastry that was cut with moon shaped cookie cutters. I suppose they were supposed make one think of croissants? I am not sure, but many of them were borderline burnt, and had not a gram of moisture left in them--they were absolutely solid and dry, once again reminding me of my extreme thirst. And then, we sampled the Chicken Fricasee (which tasted suspiciously like canned cream of mushroom soup with chunks of chicken tossed in). This dish was being served by the supposed Master Chef Instructor, and I was excited that I finally had an opportuniy to strike up a conversation with someone who could potentially be my instructor in the near future. I asked him what sort of stock was used for this chicken soup, to which he replied: "a stock is made from bones." Well... No shit Chef Boyardee. Now, I admit this may have been a stupid question, as it would have presumably been made from chicken stock, given that the soup was made with chicken. But there is a chance it could have been just a chicken broth, or a white versus brown or whatever. Then I asked him what stock was used for the butternut squash, and he simply replied he didn't know. He asked the students, and they didn't know. I find it scary that they don't even know what they are dishing up to the public.

Sigh. Move on to the next lab. Actually, I am not even sure what this particular lab was called. They were handing out more samples. The menu: Sundried Tomato Polenta with Previously Frozen Spinach Water-Cream Sauce. Bloated and Bland Udon Noodles with Raw Red Peppers, Pickled Cucumber and Rubber-Shrimp. Bloody Roast Beef on Burnt Baguette (to which I did not partake).

I started having visions of the grotesque food I had to eat while on a cruise I went on a few years ago. In retrospect, I never should have went, but it was a cruise that I "won" and naively thought a free trip couldn't be all that bad. The ship probably hadn't been updated since the early 80's and smelled horribly of mildew. People were competing for free drinks at 8AM by doing the chicken dance and had balloons stuffed in between their legs. At any rate, it wasn't that the food was bad, the food they served was blindly prepared by people who could care less about what they were sending out onto the buffet table. They don't have a clue what good food tastes like, they just have to shovel out as much food as they can. I wonder if any of these cooks attended Johnson and Wales?

At this point in my tour, I feel spent. I cannot finish the tour. I abandon the group politely and as I walk out to the phone to call my husband to ask to come and pick me up two hours earlier than we agreed upon, I turn around and notice that there is a campus convenience store next door to the labs and they have giant signs reading "We sell Ice Cream! Ciggarettes! Snacks!" and I am utterly flabbergasted that the school actually sells a carcinogen to its students for a profit. How sick and unforgiveable. This is not a school this is a scam. It would only take 11 students attending school four years for the school to rake in a MILLION dollars in tuition. And for what? To learn to make crappy banquet food? I don't think so.