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What They Teach You In Culinary School: An Almost Famous Chef Shares Some Secrets

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JEANCHRISTOPHE COMTOIS
Jean-Christophe Comtois, Facebook

Ever wonder what it would be like to up and leave your life as you know it and become a famous chef? Abandon your mundane everyday routine to toil your way to the top in pressure-cooker kitchens run by explosive geniuses prone to tossing your hard work in the trash at the mere hint of imperfection? Sounds dangerous and exciting, but who really wants to take the leap?

Jean-Christophe Comtois did -- the 28-year-old Quebec City native had completed a teaching degree when he decided to do a full 180-degree turn and become a chef. And so he enrolled in the École hôtelière de la Capitale culinary school in order to pursue his dream. He was recently one of a handful of young chefs who had a shot at making it big in the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition held in Napa Valley, Calif. from March 8 - 10. Up for grabs: thousands of dollars in prize money and a one-year apprenticeship with a celebrity chef. While he didn't win the overall prize, Comtois did walk away with two prizes: the Acqua Panna Fan Favorite and the Mystery Basket Winner, where competitors participated in an Iron Chef-style contest with unknown ingredients.

All this glory didn't come without its share of elbow grease: Comtois put in his time learning the basics at culinary school and in his job at the Quebec bistro Le Clocher Penché, and prepared more than 150 plates of his signature dish, Milk Veal Tenderloin, Matsutake and 'Tomme des Joyeux Fromagers' Flavoured Polenta, ahead of the final competition.

Don't have that kind of time to invest? Comtois shared some of the basics he's learned in his schooling in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada. No need to give up your day job just yet.

What was your approach to your signature dish?

Since it was a signature dish, I tried to make it the most personal that I could. For instance, using nice products from Quebec, using some seasonal ingredients. There are many stories in that dish. The polenta is inspired by the stage (apprenticeship) that I did in France. The fact that I used corn flakes instead of bread crumbs is for my father -- he used to eat cornflakes when I was a kid and it reminds me of him. All the vegetables and the way I plated my dish was inspired by the place I work now, very colourful and bistro-style way of doing things.

What do you learn at cooking school in general?

The first year was mainly about basic French cuisine techniques. We spent a lot time cutting vegetables the right size, the right way. Doing some soups, learning to make some stocks. We practiced very classic recipes from the French cuisine repertoire. That's pretty much the first part of the class.

And after that, the second half of the year, we go on to different routines. We do some kitchen production, some big volume, we do breakfasts, we do dinner service, cocktails, banquets, we do all different things related to the cooking industry. Not everyone is going into the restaurant business, some people are going to work in hospitals or hotels, so we try to cover all different aspects of the cooking industry.

Right now I'm completing a specialization in market cuisine. We use different products, techniques and technologies that we haven't had the chance to work with in our first year at school. It gives us a chance to develop our creativity.

What's the first dish you learned in school and why?

We made a lot of soups, but the first dish I think was a chicken with chasseur sauce -- poulet chasseur in French -- it's a sauce with white wine, brandy, tarragon, tomato paste, and some mushrooms.

Before we can do a dish, we learn how to make a sauce, how to saute mushrooms, how to cook the chicken properly. I guess it was a good first dish to put into play the different techniques that we learned. You can see that putting different techniques together can lead to a dish. So that's pretty much what I think they wanted to show us from that exercise.

What was the first technique you learned?

How to boil water, but that's nothing (laughs). I'd say that the first thing we did was cutting vegetables, cutting carrots julienne or dauphinoise -- the right way, and we had to measure to make sure our vegetables were the right size.

What's the easiest rule you've learned at school so far that you'll never forget?

It's a very basic thing, but it's seasoning. First of all, taste what you do, what you prepare, always give it a taste, a second taste, third taste and season and make sure everything is well-seasoned.

What's one ingredient you work often that is the most versatile?

If you asked about my favourite ingredient, it's butter (laughs). Versatile? I'd say eggs. Eggs are very versatile, they can be salty, or savoury, or used in desserts -- you can do a lot with eggs. Get to know your eggs and you can do a lot of things in the kitchen!

What's the most important tool to you apart from your knives?

Good cookware -- it's important to have good pots and pans that will distribute the heat well, and give you better control of your cooking. You always have to be in control when you're browning your beef or cooking vegetables. Good pots and pans are really important.

Is there a particular brand that you use?

Not really, as long as they have a thick bottom that will distribute the heat well and keep the heat -- many brands are pretty good.

What's the best trick you've learned so far for plating your dishes?

That's something that I've always liked to do, the plating part.

It has to be colourful, I'd say, with various shapes, and have some kind of balance in the dish, so that the meat doesn't take up too much of the plate compared to the starch and the veggies.

What are the things any young cook should always have or do in their kitchen?

I'd say salt: learn to use salt properly.

Learn to control your heat: learn to feel the heat that's right for the job you need to do.

Be well-organized, so you have all the things you need before starting to cook something. You do all your prep and after that you can start cooking... so you don't have to stop and go back and cut some carrots.

Taste your dish, and adjust and don't be afraid to try things. Especially when you're starting -- that was my approach. You can learn from books, you can learn from chefs, but just give it a try. The worst thing that's gonna happen is it's gonna taste bad and you'll have to order pizza.

What's one thing you've learned that's elevated your cooking from amateur to professional?

Flavours: pairing and balance in the dish, so using acidity, a bit of sweetness, a bit of spiciness, something more salty. I've learned how to create a nice balance in the dish, and every flavour is important and plays a different role in the dish. I'd say that's one of my strengths, creating balance in the dish. I focus on textures also, texture variations and flavours.

It's my ultimate dream to work with...

Speaking of the United States (where the competition took place), Thomas Keller -- he's one of the greatest chefs there, I have some of his books and I really admire his work. He's been an ambassador for cooking in the States. He's pretty much my top one.

If we're speaking about Quebec, I'd like to get to know chef Normand LaPrise (of Montreal's renowned Toqué) a little bit more. He's quite an icon in Quebec, I'd like to work with him if I have a chance. Those are pretty much the two that come to mind.