Food Informants is a week-in-the-life series profiling fascinating people in the food world. We hope it will give you a first-hand look at the many different corners of the food industry. Know someone who would make a great Food Informant? Tell us why.
Elizabeth Laseter, an aspiring food journalist, is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, D.C. She received her diploma in Writing and Art History and is now pursuing a Culinary Arts Degree at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. The one-year program includes six months of learning techniques in the classroom and six months at an externship in a D.C. fine dining restaurant. Elizabeth documents her food adventures through two blogs, The Baltimore Food Rag and The D.C. Food Rag. She decided to attend culinary school after interning at Baltimore magazine and working with the food editor.
Read Elizabeth's diary below to learn about the trials and tribulations of culinary school (yes, she slices her finger).
Monday, September 26
8am: Today, I’m starting the next chapter in my life since graduation in May. Finally!
9:10am: Before I walk out the door to my car, I double check the route to school. I’m nervous about the 40 minute commute to Gaithersburg, and hope I don’t get lost.
9:55am: I get lost. But I’m only a few miles from the school. Just great, I’m going to be late on my first day.
10:02am: I sprint into the classroom for orientation, out of breath and panicked. The admissions director gets me a chair, whispering, "breathe."
10:05am: I look around the room, taking in my new classmates. Some of the students look much older than I do, while others look younger. I like what the president of the school says in his welcome speech: "You aren’t here to learn or memorize recipes. You’re here to understand food."
11am: Chef David, our culinary instructor, tells us about the school’s policies. Class is Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. More than anything, he emphasizes punctuality. It’s pretty serious -- five tardies and you’re automatically on probation.
1:15pm: Chef David scares me again with his “be on time” speech. Before we leave for the day, we receive our uniforms, knife kit and textbooks. The knife kit contains a full set of knives, one that is so ridiculously large it looks like it came from the set of Friday The 13th.
2:30pm: First day, done. Tomorrow, we’re in the kitchen.
12:30am: I try on my uniform before bed. Black checkered pants, a white apron and coat (embroidered with my name), a neckerchief (I can’t figure out how to tie it) and a silly little cap that is about three sizes too large. Never did I ever think I’d end up in this get-up after college.
Tuesday, September 27
5:30am: I probably slept for an hour last night. As a former night owl, I can’t get used to this new schedule.
6:30am: I arrive at the school and throw on my culinary gear, but I still can’t figure out how to tie my neckerchief. It’s apparently just like tying a tie, but I’ve never tied a tie. I make a knot and leave it, too tired to fuss with it anymore.
7am: Chef David wasn’t joking. We start class at 7am sharp. Our first lesson is Soupe à l’Oignon.
9am: After Chef’s demo, we are thrown into the kitchen and have two and a half hours to make the soup. I’m about to begin chopping my onion, but Chef informs me that I am using the paring knife instead of the chef’s knife. Like I knew the difference?
9:20am: Giving us onions on the first day must be some kind of sick joke on the newbies, kind of like hazing freshmen in college. My eyes tear and burn as I slice into the dreaded thing. When I’m finished, I throw the onion slices into a pot on the stove with a generous portion of butter and add a little salt.
10:30am: The next step, caramelizing the onion, requires some serious patience. First, you must cook the onion slices slowly on low heat until they turn golden brown. This way, the onions develop a sweetness, an essential part of French Onion Soup.
11:15am: After 45 minutes and a lot of stirring, my onions are brown and softened. I add chicken stock, white wine and a little salt and pepper. After the soup simmers and thickens, it’s ready to serve. I’m done! And best of all, I still have all 10 fingers.
11:30am: Everyday, our lunch is whatever we make earlier in the day. We enjoy our soup with the pastry students, who also share their creations with us. Chocolate chip cookies!
12:30pm: After lunch, students must always clean up the kitchen and demo room. I guess the rule, “I cook, you clean,” doesn’t apply here.
1:30pm: We spend the remainder of the day learning about our recipe book, in which we will record all of the dishes, vocabulary words and techniques we learn throughout the program.
Wednesday, September 28
5:30am: This morning, I’m wide-awake. Thankfully, I was so tired from lack of sleep I passed out pretty quickly last night.
7am: Today’s menu: Quiche Lorraine, Green Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette and French Onion Soup (this time with French Bread Crouton and melted Gruyere cheese).
9am: Multi-tasking is key this morning. I struggle, not browning the onions enough and not adding enough water to my quiche dough, making it crumbly and difficult to roll out. The chef instructors watch me like hawks, waiting for an opportunity to pounce and critique.
12:30pm: Although we take an hour longer than expected to prepare our lunch, the quiche, salad and soup are delicious. It feels good to sit down.
1pm: Since we are running behind, we skip cleanup to learn how to make chicken stock. The stock is an essential base for so many of the dishes we make (such as the soup). For the next hour and a half, I slice fat and guts off raw pieces of chicken. Later, this chicken, in addition to a mixture of carrots, celery and onion, will be poured into a stockpot with water to cook.
2:15pm: There are chicken guts stuck in my nails. Gross.
8pm: For dinner, I make the mustard vinaigrette that we learned yesterday. Chopped and diced garlic, scallions and parsley mixed with Dijon mustard, then whisked with balsamic vinegar and olive oil until the ingredients emulsify. I can’t believe how simple it is to prepare. My roommate raves about the dressing.
Thursday, September 29
6:15am: I’m halfway to school when I realize I’ve forgotten my apron. It’s so hard to remember everything this early in the morning. Thankfully, I’m able to borrow one.
7am: Today, the topic is knife skills. We learn how to prepare two vegetable dishes, Potage Cultivateur and Salade Composée. Potage is a French soup that contains a medley of seasonal vegetables. Salade Composée, meaning “composed salad,” contains vegetables arranged artfully on a plate, dressed in vinaigrette. In addition, we have to make another Quiche Lorraine.
9am: After preparing the dough for the quiche (it’s much better today), I start the salad by julienning vegetables. Chef David gives us more vegetables than I can count: carrots, red peppers, radishes, green peppers, yellow peppers, beets, celery, tomatoes, endives and cucumbers. For the soup, I dice more carrots, yellow squash, potatoes, turnips and green beans into small cubes.
10:15am: Ouch! I accidentally slice my finger while dicing a cucumber. I have to wear an outrageously bright blue latex glove to protect the food from my bloody finger. I feel like I’m wearing the dunce cap.
11:20am: I finish my quiche, soup and salad just in time. I’ve made a huge mess. There’s red beet juice all over my hands, chicken stock on my apron and flour caked on my shoes.
11:30am: Time to eat! After yesterday’s cheese assault, I’m glad to have some vegetables on my plate. I like how the vegetables in my soup are diced small enough to all fit onto my spoon at the same time. I also love the colors in my Salade Composée; the red, yellow and green peppers make for a bold and inviting presentation.
12pm: After lunch, I’m assigned to clean up the classroom we were in this morning. This involves wiping down the cooking surfaces and restocking supplies, which doesn’t sound too bad. I read the list of items the room must always have: blue steel pan, stainless steel pan, stainless steel pan with Teflon, sautoir, sauté pan. This is bad. I have no idea what any of those are.
1pm: Afternoon lecture concerns an upcoming research project on spices and herbs. My assignment is thyme. I have two weeks to write a 1000 word essay, create my own recipe with the herb, and then make a dish for the class. I didn’t think I’d be writing papers in culinary school!
2:30pm: I stay after school to work on the chicken stock we started yesterday in class. Every student has to help out with the stock at some point, and today is my turn. I scoop excess chicken fat off the top of the stock and pour it into a bucket until the stock liquid is clear. After simmering all night, the stock will be ready to use tomorrow.
3pm: Before I leave, I ask Chef David to teach me how to hone, or sharpen my knives. This is surprisingly much harder than it sounds. In one fluid stroke, I run the edge of my chef’s knife along the honing blade. Chef David cringes at the nails on chalkboard noise that comes from scraping the sharpening rod incorrectly. He makes me practice continuously until I do it right.
3:30pm: Week one, complete! I’ve learned so much –- everything from the proper way to hold a chef’s knife to how to make a pie crust for quiche. I’ve learned to julienne and emulsify. It’s time to enjoy my three-day weekend!
See previous Food Informants:
Geoff Bartakovics, 34, is the co-founder and CEO of Tasting Table, the free daily email publication all about food & drink culture. Before starting Tasting Table, Geoff was a business manager in asset-backed finance at UBS Investment Bank, where he coordinated business activities among the fixed income trading desk and the bank's middle- and back-office functions. Geoff was formerly a business analyst at Deloitte Consulting. He attended The University of Chicago, from which he graduated with honors in English. He was a Fulbright Scholar in comparative literature and philosophy in Berlin and Hamburg. He's an obsessive dinner party entertainer and a serious home cook. Read Geoff's diary here.
Elizabeth Laseter, an aspiring food journalist, is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, D.C. She received her diploma in Writing and Art History and is now pursuing a Culinary Arts Degree at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. The one-year program includes six months of learning techniques in the classroom and six months at an externship in a D.C. fine dining restaurant. Elizabeth documents her food adventures through two blogs, The Baltimore Food Rag and The D.C. Food Rag. She decided to attend culinary school after interning at Baltimore magazine and working with the food editor. Read Elizabeth's full diary here.
Jane and Terry Levan operate a 20-acre pastured poultry farm outside of Lexington, Texas called Dewberry Hills Farm, after the dewberry vines that grow wild on their land. They raise antibiotic- and hormone-free meat chickens for sale. Their chickens mostly live outdoors. The Devans call themselves "omnivores with a conscience;" Jane won't eat any meat unless she personally knowns who raised it and how it was processed. Jane and Terry began farming in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. The pair had always wanted to farm, but they didn't want to follow the industrial agricultural model. Jane and Terry built a processing building on-site and became state certified so they could sell their birds commercially in May 2008. Read Jane's diary here.
"James" is an Apple employee. He works at Caffe Macs, the on-site cafeteria of Apple's campus in Cupertino, Ca. Reminiscent of Google's epic food offerings, Caffe Macs is pretty much a corporate food court dream-come-true. Read James' diary here.
Brooklyn-based Aaron Lefkove used to work in book publishing and as a freelance writer. After his office re-located to New Jersey, Lefkove decided he didn't want to do the commute. Lefkove and his business partner, Andy Curtin, had the idea for a Cape Cod-style seafood joint for awhile. One day at a barbecue, they decided to commit to opening a restaurant, Littleneck, Brooklyn's first and only classic New England-style beach side seafood shack. Besides working in restaurants growing up, Lefkove had no experience as a restaurateur. He acknowledges that the process has been a major learning curve, but so far, there haven't been any obstacles they couldn't get around. At first, he thought opening up a clam shack would be easier than finding a new job but it turns it that it is actually "WAY WAY WAY harder." Despite this being the "hardest, most stressful, most frustrating, most time consuming, most ambitious thing" he has ever done, it isn't nearly as hard as he thought it would be. Plus, he says he loves working for himself, working toward something he has "always dreamed about," and building something really exciting. Read Aaron Lefkove's diary here.
Jonathan Stich, 29, is a third generation farmer from Burlington, Wisconsin. He grew weary of the corporate world, went traveling and decided to become a farmer. After reading about how heirloom tomato grower Tim Stark in Pennsylvania sells his products to New York restaurants, Stich made the decision to spend a night in restaurants in Milwaukee and Chicago asking if they'd be interesting in buying local produce. Read more about Jonathan Stich's week here.
Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada are the owners, managers and butchers in chief of LA's artisanal butcher shop Lindy and Grundy. (Erika is Grundy and Amelia is Lindy.) The two, who also live together and are a couple, opened their store on Fairfax last spring (profiled on HuffPost Food). Lindy and Grundy has already been feted as one of the most best butchers in Southern California -- and quite possibly its most sustainable. Read about a week in the life of Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada's here.
Recently, inspired by a meeting at the San Francisco Food Bank, chef Karl Wilder started the food stamp challenge: living and eating on a food stamp budget. What began as a one week project has turned into a two-month long commitment. Wilder calculated that a family has $1.33 to spend per meal, and decided that when using oil and seasonings, the cost would be $1.22. In total, he has less than $4 to spend on food per day. He monitors his nutrition and caloric intake on FitDay. You can read more about his daily experiences at on his blog, Fusion On The Fly. Read about a week in the life of Karl Wilder here.
Chris Cosentino is the executive chef of San Francisco's Incanto, an offal-heavy (not sure what offal is? Check out our Whole Animal Guide here) rustic Italian restaurant located in San Francisco. While encouraging patrons to try different cuts of meat, Cosentino also champions eating locally. He's previously cooked at such renowned restaurants as Kinkead's and Chez Panisse, and cites Jean-Louis Palladin as a big influence on his cooking style. He also co-owns Boccalone, which sells various cured meats and house-made salami. To learn more about Cosentino, check out his website, Offal Good. Read about a week in the life of Chris Cosentino here.
"Jane," 24, has been working for Trader Joe's since 2007, though in 2009 she left for over a year to go work for Whole Foods. She did not like it there and returned to TJ's. At Trader Joe's, every employee does a range of tasks, but Jane's speciality is dairy. Below is her explanation of the pros and cons of the job: I like working for Trader Joe's because they pay me well and offer great benefits. They also respect me as an employee and make me feel like I'm useful and needed and not just another part-time employee that can be replaced (which has been the case at other retail jobs I've had). Trader Joe's is really good at hiring great people and I'm lucky to have so many wonderful co-workers. I don't like working at Trader Joe's because the work can be strenuous on my back and wrists. Being on a register for several hours at a time is tiring and somewhat soul crushing due to ignorant people who feel the need to be condescending to me because I work at a grocery store. I also feel that the company is becoming more and more corporate as it grows and it is beginning to have an impact on the enjoyability of being a part-time "crew member." I also work in a very busy store which causes the managers to stress out a lot and I don't enjoy being surrounded by it. Read about a week in the life of a Trader Joe's employee here.
Chef Nate Appleman is the Culinary Manager at Chipotle. This involves a range of tasks including developing new menu items, opening ShopHouse (Chipotle's upcoming Asian fast-casual chain) and furthering Chipotle's commitment to sustainable sourcing. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Appleman was previously executive chef and co-owner of San Francisco's super popular Italian restaurants A16 and SPQR. Appleman moved to New York in 2010 to open Pulino's. After leaving, Appleman took his current position at Chipotle. He has received a James Beard award for Rising Star Chef, been anointed Best New Chef by Food & Wine and is the champion of Food Network's Chopped All-Stars. Read about a week in the life of Nate Appleman here.
Freeganism is a lifestyle in which one employs "alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources." Gio Andollo is a writer, artist, musician and freegan. Andollo became a freegan when he realized that artists don't get paid much, but he didn't like the idea of working a "crappy, part-time job" to pay the bills. So he found another way. Andollo performs on the subway for about 20 hours a week, typically in two-hour intervals. He makes $10 to $50 per shift and has a love/hate relationship with busking. Andollo will buy food, but very rarely. The majority of his food comes from trash touring, or dumpster diving. He's become increasingly concerned with the abuses inherent in current economic systems: waste of resources, exploitation of people, degradation of the environment, calloused treatment of animals, commodification of time, labor, even war (thus human life in wholesale). In addition to busking part-time, he writes songs, blogs and books about these issues. Read about a week in the life of Gio Andollo here.
Captain Jason Joyce is an eighth-generation resident of Swan's Island, Maine. He is a Coast Guard Licensed Captain and a registered Maine Tidewater Guide. He has done lobster and fish research with the University of Maine, the University of Massachusetts, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Lobster Institute. Joyce is currently doing a lot of work with the Penobscot East Resource Center, which works to secure a viable future for the fishing communities of eastern Maine. Each week, he records HD video of lobstering that he gives to restaurants to educate customers about sustainable lobster fisheries in Maine. Captain Joyce is married to his high school sweetheart and they have four children. Learn more about Captain Jason Joyce here. Read about a week in the life of Jason Joyce here.
Martin Kastner is a serviceware designer extraordinaire/jack-of-all-design-trades for Grant Achatz's Alinea, Next and The Aviary. Kastner creates custom pieces that work with Achatz's elaborate and intricate food. Born in the Czech Republic, Kastner trained as a blacksmith and received an MFA in sculpture. (His thesis was about air). He met his American wife in Prague and moved to the US in 1998. In 2003, Kastner received an unexpected email from Grant Achatz, who had emailed a host of designers. Kastner was the only one to respond. They've partnered not only on serviceware, but also on web design, video and the Alinea cookbook. Kastner's other clients include L20 (an upscale, seafood-focused Chicago restaurant), Le Bernardin (Eric Ripert's homage to seafood) and Empellon (Alex Stupak's new Mexican restaurant in New York). Read about a week in the life of Martin Kastner here.