It’s Been 14 Years Since I Went to Culinary School—These Are the Lessons I’ll Never Forget

It’s been 14 years since I enrolled in a year-long culinary school program, and I’ve regrettably lost more knowledge than I’ve retained. Rich little memories will occasionally resurface, however: finding a spiny sea urchin on top of a locker in the cha…

It's been 14 years since I enrolled in a year-long culinary school program, and I’ve regrettably lost more knowledge than I’ve retained. Rich little memories will occasionally resurface, however: finding a spiny sea urchin on top of a locker in the changing room one night after class; holding a kelp-like piece of vinegar mother and fearing it might crawl across my hand like an inchworm; watching the two googly eyes of a flatfish stare back while I destroyed filleted my first fish.

As my career path veered away from the professional kitchen and to the writing table, many of the hard-won rewards from that year of practice fell by the wayside in favor of long-held cooking habits. But it took some time and distance to realize I’d retained a few fundamentals that forever changed the way I cook and see food, even if the dishes I prepare week to week remain mostly the same.

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The Carbonara Formula That Took a Decade to Perfect

I never fully appreciated the obsessiveness of recipe testing until I spent the better part of a decade perfecting the Roman classic, pasta carbonara. Turns out, even a dish with just six ingredients—al dente pasta, cured pork cubes, grated Parmesan an…

I never fully appreciated the obsessiveness of recipe testing until I spent the better part of a decade perfecting the Roman classic, pasta carbonara. Turns out, even a dish with just six ingredients—al dente pasta, cured pork cubes, grated Parmesan and pecorino Romano, and cracked black pepper bound with whisked-egg sauce—can take up a hundred variations if you’re relentless enough.

I tested countless pasta brands and shapes, fine-tuned egg and cheese ratios, and flirted with rare, overpriced versions of every ingredient (I see you, $40-per-pound guanciale.) In the end, though, it was mostly a matter of unriddling the egg sauce: tempering whisked whole eggs and yolks with grated cheese and just enough hot pasta water so they envelop the pasta strands in a shiny, custardy coating when combined frenziedly with tongs. Cutting the heat at the right moment helps prevent the dreaded scramble, as does pre-coating said pasta in the warm rendered pork fat before adding the egg mixture.

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The *Right* Way to Caramelize Onions

While following a weeknight pork ragú recipe from a celebrity chef who shall remain nameless, I came across the following, offending phrase in the method: “Cook onions until caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes.”

It doesn’t seem to matter how many articles, …

While following a weeknight pork ragú recipe from a celebrity chef who shall remain nameless, I came across the following, offending phrase in the method: “Cook onions until caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes.”

It doesn’t seem to matter how many articles, books, or cooking shows try to set the record straight. Even the experts among us cling to the hope that it’s possible to caramelize onions in 20 or 30 minutes, when in reality it takes about an hour to do it properly.

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