Diary of a Trainee Chef

In a moment of madness at the end of last year, Reena Pastakia quit her job and signed up for an Intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma course. Here she tells us about the first three weeks.
By Reena Pastakia

I am of Indian descent and while I can cook a mean curry, the thought of making shortcrust pastry fills me with terror. That is until recently; Three weeks ago I started my Intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma course and already I can whip up a latticed apple tart that will have you dreaming of orchards in Normandy with the first bite.

This transformation hasn’t come easily however; the course is called “intensive” with good reason.  Since I started the course I have cooked on average for 6 hours a day either at school or at home.  When I’m not cooking I’m either watching a demonstration or reading about the theory of food.  Coincidentally my book group is reading The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry  – a factual account of the author’s experience at Le Cordon Bleu Paris.  So before I go to bed I read about someone else going through a similar experience to the one I am living during the day. The result is that I am dreaming about cooking every night and I am grinding my teeth for the first time in years. Historically I have associated cooking with relaxation and leisure and I have been taken by surprise by the demanding nature of the course. In retrospect it should have been obvious – after all we are being trained for the fast-paced atmosphere of professional kitchens. So whilst I’m incredulous that this course is more stressful than my banking job, I am actually enjoying each day and learning more than I thought possible.

People keep asking why I chose to study at Tante Marie as opposed to Leith’s School of Food and Wine or Le Cordon Bleu London –  both of which are much closer to home.  The main reasons were the:

  • length of the course – six month’s of lost income was significantly more palatable than nine months.
  • staff to student ratio – as someone who likes regular feedback, this was important to me and at Tante Marie there is a ratio of one teacher to ten students. A friend who recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu London stated that there were eighteen students in her class.
  • culture and atmosphere – The clincher was when Andrew Maxwell, the principal of Tante Marie, explained his approach to recruiting teachers:

“They need to have to have the right temperament – the patience for teaching.  They need to be able to hold themselves back slightly; if the pupil is doing something wrong they can’t just jump in and correct them as making mistakes is the best way of learning”.   

 I don’t thrive in fear cultures and this supportive approach to teaching resonated strongly with me.

With my intermediate practical exam looming in a week’s time I have to admit I’m worried.  I am struggling compared to the majority of my classmates and I suspect this is primarily due to the fact that I didn’t grow up seeing my mum bake cakes, make pastry and stocks etc. In fact, the reason I wanted to do a chef’s training course was precisely to learn these skills. The Intensive Diploma assumes more experience than I had anticipated and I am trying to compensate by practicing potential exam dishes in the evenings and at the weekends. As a result, my weekly food bill has tripled and my fridge is stacked full of lard, whole trout, beef, pork and stock – ingredients I would never have even considered buying prior to the course.

Thirty minutes before my exam starts next week I will be presented with a three-course menu to prepare and serve in five hours split across two days. I suspect the proof will literally be in the pudding and this will be when I find out whether I have bitten off more than I can chew.

Reena Pastakia

Reena grew up thinking Indian cooking was a dark art where the quantities of spices required in each dish were innately known to a chosen few. It was only after she married an Englishman with a voracious appetite for Indian food that she started phoning home for cooking tips. She started her blog (coconutraita.com) in an attempt to document her family’s recipes and make Indian cooking accessible to all.

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14 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Reena. I’m sure many people (including myself) have thought of doing the same but haven’t dared. You’re very brave to have folllowed your passion :) Good luck on your final exam, I’m sure your menu will impress them!

  2. Well done on a great first’taster’ of what life is like at Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Reena!
    I am so looking forward to reading the rest of your blog and wish you and the rest of Groups 3 and 5 the very best of luck in your exams!!! Remember to relax and enjoy it – if you don’t enjoy the cooking, you food will not taste like it has been cooked with love!

  3. Your story brings memories flooding back for me. I wanted to learn yo cook after retiring from my business career.
    I completed the intensive at Tante Marie in 2005. Great, experience all round. Made life long friends too.
    Breath in the experience!

  4. Really enjoyed reading this Reena, brought memories flooding back for me too. I did the same course, at the same time of year, in 2007. I felt similarly concerned about the first exam, more so about the meal I had to devise myself than the set exam. I do remember real dread with the set exam, but once I got in the kitchen and started cooking I loved it. It’s a great course for all the reasons you choose it and if it wasn’t demanding you wouldn’t be challenged and it’d be boring. Don’t worry about not being as familiar with baking etc, each one of you in your group will be less familiar with one skill and you’ll get lots of chances to improve. Enjoy your time it soon flies by and you’ll be having fun with consommes and puff pastry in the summer for your final exam!

  5. Hi Richard.

    Thanks for asking! Apologies for the slow response – I just finished the exam today.

    In summary, yesterday’s session went well. Today’s session wasn’t quite so great. It wasn’t a disaster but I know I have done better in class and at home. I guess the pressure to deliver got to me. Interestingly I managed to complete each course on time which was my main concern two weeks ago. Now I need to wait a week or two for the results. My focus tonight is recovering with a glass or two of wine!

    All the best
    Reena

  6. I just discovered a bit of your blog on honest cooking.com. I spent 6 months in Paris attending Le Cordon Bleu recently. Both living in Paris and attending a very regimented cooking school were new to me. I certainly identified with your experience! Beginning with having read the same book before I went! Loved the book! Mixed reviews about my experiences with cooking school. I had the same problem with speed and pressure as you mention, but, I am considerably older than you appear. I began my adventure after retirement from my business that had absolutely nothing to do with cooking. But I have always loved entertaining and food. Especially haute cuisine. A great restaurant experience still makes my heart pound! I am not familiar with Tante Marie School. Where is it? I am in the U.S.

    My biggest problem was definitely the speed and the fact that often I had to share an oven, and counter space was very restricted. We cleaned up as a group, so everyone had to finish at the same time in order to clear the counter space. So it is doubly humiliating to have an entire class waiting on you to finish cooking! Speed was not something I ever paid attention to when cooking at home. And I wasn’t planning on a 2nd career in a restaurant, but, everyone else was. Also, they were mostly in their twenties. It was an exciting, but humbling experience! While I am great with sauces and have a good palate, the young males can chop like madmen…

    Fun to read your experiences and will definitely look up the rest of your blog.

  7. Hello Reena, just read your piece . Was the course taught in french and where they at all racist . I am an Indian too I plan to enroll my 18 year old daughter for a patisserie diploma course in London . So do you think the one in Paris is more suitable . Awaiting your reply before making a decision.
    Thank you.

  8. Hi Kathy

    Thank you so much for your lovely message. I’m quite envious of your time in Paris! It’s possibly my favourite city in the world. Tante Marie is based in the UK, approximately 40 minutes from London. I haven’t pursued a career in food following my course but I learnt so much and it has resulted in a huge step change in my cooking. I would love to hear more from you about your experience and what you are doing now. Please do get in touch!

    All the best

    Reena

  9. Hi Suman

    i attended the Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking, England. The course was taught in English and there was no racism at all. I’m sure your daughter would be fine in any course in the UK – it is such a multicultural community. Wishing you both all the best.

    Reena

  10. hello
    after reading your blog sounds right dwn my street I am currently working as a commis chef in a fresh food environment but want to go back to basics and start my career from there I have looked in to le cordon bleu but with no financial help available it is alittle out of reach!, I have been recommended to go to the tante marie diploma, what sort of level of chef would you qualify at when you passed the course and what level of restaurant would you be able to start in.

    there has been much debate between my friends and me to try and work under a chef or go to school.

    would really appreciate abit of guidance
    thanks

  11. Hi Caroline

    If you studied at Tante Marie you would graduate with a Cordon Bleu Diploma. Given that you already have some cheffing experience I suggest you contact the school directly to ask their opinions of where you could go after graduating. I found that people from my graduating class have done all manner of different things based on their individual interests e.g. starting their own catering firms, owning guest houses specialising in great food, working in Michelin starred restaurants etc.

    I can’t speak from experience but my understanding is that even with a qualification, you would still start work in a kitchen as a junior team member but may climb the ranks more quickly than someone without a qualification.

    I hope this helps.

    Reena

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