Top Five List: Lessons Learned at the French Culinary Institute

by Elizabeth Palmer Starnes


This past March, I graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Six months and six hundred hours of grueling and intensive instruction in the classic culinary arts with top distinguished chefs taught me more about cooking than I could relay in one hundred Top Five lists. The experience was truly invaluable and a lifelong dream come true. But if I really boil the experience down and condense it (pardon my choice of words) a few key pieces of advice from my amazingly talented chef instructors stand out in my mind and will stay with me forever.

Cook With Love and Intention: Chef Mimi, my pastry chef and one of my favorite people at the FCI, reminded us on the eve of our final exam to cook with love and with intention. When the kitchen gets hectic and the time crunch looms, it’s easy to let this fall to the wayside. But Chef Mimi urged us to always cook as if we were cooking for our best friends. This advice makes all the difference in your cooking- people can taste when their food was made with love and intention.

Keep Your Knives Sharp: Every chef instructor I had at the FCI stressed the importance of keeping your knives sharp. Not just sharp, but absurdly, ridiculously, obnoxiously sharp. It bacame a sort of obsession among my classmates and I. This makes all the difference in the world in your cooking, making your movements effortless and preserving the integrity of your ingredients. Invest in a good sharpening stone and run your knives over it every week or so. Just be careful- truly sharp knives will slice your finger in the blink of an eye. I know from experience; the first day of cooking school I was the first one to slice my finger on my new knives, and during my final exam, in my haste, I took a big slice out of my finger with those same knives, newly sharpened for me as a favor by Chef Pascal. Keep them sharp but slice carefully.

There are No Shortcuts to Flavor: Good food cannot be rushed. One of the hallmarks of French food is that it takes, simmers slowly, melds together over time in the pan. Fast, quick food makes great fodder for busy weeknights, but when time allows, give a slower more leisurely pace of cooking a try. Time allows layers of flavor to develop, meld, and come to their full fruition. Beef Bourguignon marinated in wine and mirepoix overnight trumps its marinated and made on the same day counterpoint every time. Onions allowed to brown slowly in the pan become meltingly sweet and golden, while onions rushed through this process blacken and seize up. Give your food time and it will reward you ten times over. Also, your new favorite color is golden brown- the color of flavor.

Season Your Food: This was one of the biggest lessons I learned in my first level at the FCI. We each would prepare our dishes for the day, then present them to our chefs to taste and critique. Chef Dominique, my very first chef and one of the most wonderful people I know, told every single one of us, on countless occasions, that we needed “more salt!” Salt has become a four-letter word because of its health ramifications, but it really does bring life to your food. It brings depth to your flavors and heightens your palate to be more receptive to the nuances on your plate. Season just a bit more than you think you need, and taste the difference. 

Master the Basics: You can’t run until you can walk, and you can’t make hollandaise until you can whisk. The curriculum at the FCI built up our skills though six levels, each branching off from skills learned in the prior level. No short cuts were allowed; we had to learn to do things the old fashioned way first. Hollandaise became a virtual hell as we whisked till our arms ached, feverishly trying to keep the sauce from breaking. These lessons always culminated in feisty Chef Sixto shouting “whisk, whisk damn it!” at our class. But we learned the fundamentals of each item we cooked, allowing those shortcuts to happen without sacrificing quality. Learn the fundamentals, and master the basic skills, and you will never feel uneasy in the kitchen. Once you know the basics, you can apply them across the board to any dish and any cuisine under the sun.