Finding the culinary path: Stogsdill nearing completion at Culinary Institute
Getting into the Culinary Institute of America was challenging, but the work there has Nicholas Stogsdill feeling older than his 20 years.
Stogsdill first found himself in the kitchen as punishment for getting into trouble.
His parents, Heidi and Thad Reiste, own Electric City Coffee and Bistro, and on Dec. 28, Stogsdill ran the kitchen for a reservation only dinner.
Crafting the menu took about 20 minutes, complete with drawings of how he wanted to plate the dishes, which included: duck confit salad; Katsuobushi stir fry; fried pasta with short rib and dessert.
Stogsdill is headed back to California this week for a written final and culinary practical before service at Gatehouse starts Jan. 10.
At Gatehouse, he’ll be prepping for about four hours daily to make the two to three desserts off the set menu, though as of Thursday, Stogsdill said it hadn’t yet been released. For the first few weeks, he’ll be on desserts but students rotate through stations in the kitchen.
The end is near, but the start feels so long ago.
“Every semester feels like five years,” Stogsdill said.
He’s grown over the last year and a half, he said, and joked that he feels about 40 now.
During the second semester, they learned high volume cooking, which included banquet style, a la cart and feeding the entire school a breakfast hotel style.
“If you can cook an egg, you can cook anything,” he said.
For one exercise, he had to make beef stew and show an ability to work with every component of the dish.
Stogsdill said he was so nervous that the instructor took him by the shoulders and said he’d be fine.
“That’s when I got into the mindset of ‘just cook,'” he said.
When he tasted his stew, he was getting excited. The meat was just right, but the sauce was too thin. Pulling out the meat and reducing the sauce made for a perfect dish, earning a high pass, which is a grade of 95 or better, he said. Of about 40 students, Stogsdill was the only one to achieve the high mark for that test.
Over the summer, Stogsdill spend about four months in Los Angeles for an externship at Trois Mec, working under Chef Ludo Lefebvre, a classically trained French chef.
While there, he spent about half his time as a prep cook and the other half in the cold kitchen, which required taking about 20 different ingredients, cooking them down to tiny bits and each vegetable had to be cooked in a different way, he said. One dish he prepared had more than 30 components.
During the baking class, he got in a bit of trouble for being too experimental since the focus was the basics. But the experimentation yielded some lessons as well.
Stogsdill made a lemon caraway cake that resulted in mixed reviews. Some raved about it but some said it was disgusting.
The realization was, he’s learning to be a chef, “not how to please everyone.”
Earlier this year, students “traveled” the world, leaning different flavors and techniques of various cuisines.
They started with cuisines of the Americas and the birth of American cuisine, which is really a fusion of other cuisines, he said.
The also studied Central and South America; Asia and his favorite, the cuisines of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Asian cuisine was kind of a shock, he said, in the multitude of ingredients, but simple preparation that yields impressive flavor development.
The next component was garde manger, or cold kitchen. His favorite aspect of that section was the chef would look at the cart of ingredients to see what they could get rid of and make a dish. It was creativity out of whatever was available and Stogsdill made a smoked apple and bell pepper soup that “turned out fantastic,” he said.
Some experiments didn’t go as well.
He tried to ferment some mead, which turned out terribly.
During that semester, he said he made some good food and leaned a lot of classical French techniques that aren’t commonly used these days.
When the class a semester ahead of Stogsdill’s group was graduating, his class produced more than 200 portions for the cocktail celebration.
For that event, Stogsdill was the sous chef for the group and “definitely got my steps in that day and was in a very sour mood.”
Serving the graduates was “kind of daunting,” he said, realizing “this is gonna be me in a semester.”
Life in the kitchen “can be extremely stressful. It can break bonds, you get very angry with one another, but at the end of the day, you’re family.”
He’s met people who have become some of his best friends and “definitely developed tougher skin,” at the CIA.
Stogsdill said his cooking skills have improved, including speed, time management and multitasking.
To get into the CIA, he’d worked doubly hard to improve his grades to even qualify for admission and now he’s holding a 3.0 to 3.5 grade point average.
Early on, he was working 17 hour days between school and a part-time job and realized he wasn’t putting all his effort into school.
“I don’t need to burn out yet,” he said.
Where he’ll settle down, he’s not sure, but at 20, Stogsdill isn’t rushing to make those decisions.
“I need to take it one step at a time,” he said. “I haven’t found the path yet, but I am looking for it. Hopefully it presents itself soon.”