November 4, 2019

10 Lessons I’ve Learned in 1 Month at the CIA


I want to start this off by making it clear that I’ve learned many more than 10 lessons since walking through the doors of The Culinary Institute of America four weeks ago. It really took effort to narrow my list down to 10, but as one of the chefs here would say, sometimes it is the dishes with the fewest ingredients that have the most appeal. I also have a paper to write, a midterm to study for, and a dinner event to work this weekend so I only have so much time to write this.

On that note…holy guacamole, culinary school is a workload and a half. I’m not going to say I came here expecting to bake some cookies and call it a day, but I will admit I had no idea I’d find myself dissecting a chocolate chip cookie recipe down to the size of a sugar granule. Let it be known, though, that I am not complaining. Every day since coming to the CIA I’ve left the kitchen or classroom with a new lesson to apply toward the subject at hand or life in general. I came to a brand-new place knowing little to nothing about where I was going…but one month in, I have a bit more of an idea.

I still look like a chicken with its head cut off in the kitchen on occasion (sorry, Chef) but I’m learning that even the most successful people in this industry have been there before. It’s lessons like the ones I’m about to list (in addition to working my…toque off) that will carry me toward success.

1. People love food.

And these people are so much fun to live with! You would think it’s common sense to expect aspiring chefs to cook gourmet meals off the clock, but personally I can recall many days at the bakery when all I wanted to do at day’s end was eat a leftover slice of pie and throw in the towel. Nope, not here. Within my first week I was having homemade pizza, freshly baked bread, and steak dinners in the comfort of my dorm’s common area. Conversations at a dive of a burger restaurant were not complete without judging its quality (and it was all good things, A+ @the Squeeze Inn). More than anything, the happiness my friends and I felt after knowing we made something edible was indescribable.

homemade pizza

2. Full belly = full heart.

I think that one of the biggest motivators I had to follow through with this dream was knowing people felt loved when I fed them. Bringing people cookies had the same impact as their hugs did for me, and that felt so special. I had a conversation with a classmate here about this and the next thing I knew he was in the kitchen making some delicious concoction out of the number of ingredients a college kid can afford. When I offered to pay my fair share, it was rejected. He was satisfied knowing that what he made provided people with nourishment and love.

3. Butter makes everything better.

Julia Child branded this wisdom in her time, but I’m here to confirm that it is true. I have two supporting reasons: 1. When you think your buttercream has failed, add. more. butter. I can almost promise you it will make it come together. 2. On the first day of orientation, a Chef mentioned in her introduction that the Freshman 15 is real here because the food is made to be flavorful, not “healthy.” I took what I wanted to hear from that and whispered under my breath Julia’s infamous words. Bonus lesson: chefs have excellent hearing. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “You are in the right place.”

4. I belong somewhere.

When I say “somewhere,” I do not mean St. Helena, CA. If this is where I was meant to belong for the rest of my life, I foresee many moments of going stir-crazy. Kidding, I love this beautiful town…but when I say “somewhere,” I’m referring to the bakeshop (that’s what we call the baking/pastry kitchen). Baking puts everything I’ve ever wanted to accomplish in plain sight. All I want to do is help people the way that people have helped me, and baking lets me do that in my own unique way. The bakeshop is my escape now, and people want to see me there. I’ve even been so blessed here to be trusted as the leader of my class, and I will always be committed to helping them feel the same sense of belonging that they’ve given me (much love, BP 32 💛).

Maddi Bussow

5. Good friends make small-town life easy.

I grew up in a town of 250 people; everyone knows everything from what your neighbor had for dinner last night to Bob having a crush on Sally. It’s hard to be an introvert and you would expect a lot of days to consist of searching for something to do (and by the time you find something to do, its 10 p.m.). But when you’re having dinner with your neighbors and Sally likes Bob back, it makes for the only kind of life I’d want to be living. Yes, I miss Los Angeles and the family I have there (love love love you all) and I will be back, but I have people who make the place I’m in a home away from home (shout out Champagne gang, love the heck out of y’all).

6. Never let your fear of not being enough get in the way of doing what you love.

I learned this from someone really special who followed their heart even when that meant risking the feeling of failure. When you come to the CIA here in California, you choose which route you want to focus on: culinary arts or baking and pastry. For most of us (students) this was not an easy choice; it’s like having to choose dinner or dessert rather than enjoying both. I think it is fair to say, though, that while we love both, the passion is really there for one. The catch is that you might not know where the passion lies until you are on the outside looking in. This person knew they were missing the sweetness, so they ultimately switched their path and have been nothing but beaming since.

7. I care too much.

I hate writing these words. I hate seeing them on paper, I hate hearing them from people I love…but I often hate hearing the truth. I’ve been told these four words twice in the past month. Once was from my chef (who I see as a mentor) when I spent 20 minutes too long trying to perfect a cake and wasn’t planning on stopping until she took the offset from my hand. Sometimes you just have to let go, step back, and let it be. More often than not, the outcome is better than you expect. The second person was someone who I cared for so much; it was too much for them to take. So what did I do? I let go and let it be.

perfect a cake

8. Sweetness makes the world a better place.

My chef touched on this the other day when she said that the baking industry would be dead without sugar. It is an ingredient in anything good (unless we’re talking bread, but I mean it couldn’t hurt?). Sugar gives food a flavor we as human beings love and gives fuel to our lives. The same goes for someone’s character. Sweetness makes someone more pleasant to be around; sure, it needs to be balanced with an appropriate amount of salt, but straight salt is no bueno. Be kind. Kindness is rad. Be like sugar.

9. It pays to be curious. Literally.

Did I expect to work as a chef at a festival featuring Imagine Dragons and One Republic? Nope. Did I think I’d ever be within feet of Aaron Sanchez, Duff Goldman, or Iron Chef Morimoto? No, Chef. Did I promise myself to stay on the curiosity train when I left L.A.? 100%, yes. That’s all it took to have this opportunity…curiosity and the bravery to make new connections. And I will not let it stop there.

10. Mise en place, always.

The term can be directly translated from French to “everything in its place,” and happens to be the most important one I’ve learned in my short time here. Any person on this campus, be it a chef or student, can attest to that. At a time when everything seemed out of place, I discovered a dream and the people who brought it back together. I had to mise en place my body and soul before coming to the CIA, and now I can mise en place for success in the bakeshop.

I’m one month in and I cannot believe how fast the time has passed. Time flies when you are doing what you love with the people you love, for the people you love. And I keep doing it because somewhere inside me I know that I am loved back.💛

by Maddi Bussow

Be curious. #yeschef