As far as apple tart tatins go, this seems like a really good apple tart tatin. It smells heavenly. It is, to this visitor’s eye, some kind of flakey perfection, like an apple pie turned upside down, with its filling of apple slices and raisins and currants exposed and baked to a sort of caramelized blessedness.
Every student onlooker seems quite pleased with the apple tart tatin. Then Chef Sandy Davis joins the circle. And he fixes his eye on the pastry. It is the eye of a guy who competed on the Food Channel’s premiere episode of its Chopped program. Didn’t just compete. Won the thing.
Chef Sandy sees something. His onlookers do not see what Chef Sandy sees. He leans over the pastry. He points. There. It is an apple slice.
“That is an unpeeled apple,” he announces with the tartness of a finely turned apple tart. “It looks… unsophisticated.”
This visitor had never heard anyone put the same inflection on the word “unsophisticated” as Chef Sandy put into “unsophisticated.” His “unsophisticated” had a sophistication to it, like it was uttered by somebody who knows what pate brisee means, which Chef Sandy does.
So it goes in Abilene’s Culinary Institute on this February afternoon, on a day given over mostly to baking tarts. Finished with their classroom time, the 17 students are baking up a storm, under the watchful eyes of the three chef/instructors.
Besides Chef Sandy, the teaching team includes Chef Majid Shavandy and Chef Denise Paul Shavandy, a married couple with restaurateur experience. Together they owned and operated the Crazy Horse Café in Waxahachie and The Pegasus in Fort Worth. Both had stints in the huge kitchens of Central Market in the DFW area. Chef Majid studied Business Management at North Texas State. Chef Denise took her B.A. in Advertising at U.T. and she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Majid and Denise met in a kitchen, naturally.
Chef Sandy, an ACU grad, has a resume that includes extensive catering experience in New York City, including executive chef experience there.
Chef Sandy and Chef Denise are the institute’s chef instructors and Chef Majid is the culinary instructor, focusing more on restaurant management.
Chef Denise cites “international cuisine” as her passion and her particular expertise.
“It’s what I enjoy and what I have a significant amount of experience in,” she says. “Also, having been executive chef of my own business, I have an emphasis on the financial aspect. If you can’t sell it [your cooking, that is], and if you can’t make money selling it, then you might as well just hold dinner parties instead.” She laughs. “We’re trying to help students have a successful business, whether it is their own [future] business or someone else’s business.”
All three of the chefs have considerable entrepreneurial experience, and the school puts some emphasis on entrepreneurship, too.
“I think more and more students today are interested in those kinds of opportunities,” Chef Denise said.
The Culinary Institute, a program of Texas State Technical College (TSTC), is different from most culinary schools in that this school compresses two years of instruction into an immersive one-year program. Graduates finish with 60 credit hours and an Associate Degree. The hours are transferrable to accredited four-year institutions, just so long as the institution offers some form of hospitality degree.
Says Denise: “I think we [chefs] all have an opportunity in the kitchen together and offer the students different perspectives. And we try to give the different perspectives. We have an incredible teacher-to-student ratio and I think we’re all pretty approachable. Sandy is great with baking. He does a fabulous job with buffets and enjoys making things attractive. I always like to make things really flavorful. A lot of emphasis on spice blends and aromatics—different flavor profiles. Majid is very much into supervisory aspects and management. He also teaches safety and sanitation.”
Students learn everything about the food business, from proper dishwashing to how to wait tables to how to run credit cards and cash registers—even to how to write a business plan for a food facility. Near the end of the year—between late October and early December—the class creates a restaurant there at the institute, and every student fills every role, in rotation, during that run. The students cook whatever dishes they showed themselves to be best at preparing.
“I love watching the students grow,” Chef Denise said. “Last year I saw some with self-doubts. But they gradually grew in confidence, and finally graduated. To me that is the best reward.”
With only one graduated class, the school already has some students in key roles in local restaurants. They expect all grads to be qualified for mid-management-or-better roles in food service.
Most culinary schools are like most college campuses, with students going to classrooms and labs a few hours a day. At the Culinary Institute, it is 8 hours a day, 47 weeks out of the year.
As Majid remarked, “Literally, you are working a full-time job here. And it is just as it would be out in the restaurant world. You are here—and we never tell you that you are going to have a lunch break. That’s how restaurants are. You are lucky if you have something to nibble on during the day. It is kind of like boot camp. You are on your feet all day.”
Asked if the stress quotient is deliberately turned up on the students, Majid replies, “We do kick it up a bit. Of course, we take it easy at first.” [laughs] “We make it easy on them at first, but [he smiles] by the middle of the year, they are hardened.”
Student Adrian Lem came to the school from Siloam Springs, Ark., by way of a short stop in Knox City. He wants to open his own restaurant some day.
“We are not learning just to cook here,” he said. “We are learning everything in the kitchen. How to manage the whole thing. How to plate dishes elegantly. How to make it look like eye candy. It’s high paced here, but it’s fun.”
At another table, students Colleen Mitchell and Justin Parker have completed an apple pie. It is extraordinary. The top crust has little leaves made of pie dough, cut so that they not only have the leaf shape, but they have actually had a leaf’s veins cut into each one. Then the whole thing was washed in an egg wash, and put into the oven, so that the veins would brown and stand out, little etched lines on every leaf.
Justin remarks, “That’s also how you get the shine.” The pie has a beautiful glaze. “The wash acts as a glue to keep these leaves on.”
Chef Sandy pops in. He’s overheard the chitchat. “Egg wash,” he says, “covers a multitude of sins.” [laughter]
Chef Majid is asked how important speed is.
“At the beginning of the year, we are not necessarily into speed,” he says. “We are into production itself. What it takes to get the product out in the right way. By the end of the year, we emphasize speed.”
But when it comes to speed, Majid prefers the idea of preparation.
“You must learn to eliminate everything that slows you down. It’s all about preparation. There is a thing called mise en place. [MEEZ ohn Plaze]. It means ‘Things in their places.’ If I am going to go and, say, bake a pie. I don’t want to make my pie dough and then, say, okay, what am I going to put in it? If I am going to do a French fry, then I might need to have the potatoes already done, and might need batter handy. Then, when I take it out [of the fryer], the question is, where am I going to put this? Also, where am I going to place it on the plate? How high should it be? What is going to go beside it to enhance the color? The students need to be able to see every step of the process before they even attempt the process. It takes imagination.”
Meanwhile, someone who baked the apple tart tatin has come back to Chef Sandy with a new one. He is pleased.
“You have these beautiful, dark-caramelized apples, perfectly turned up,” he says. “This just looks like someone took more care with it.”
The apple tart tatin with unpeeled apples was scrumptious, by the way.
As for Chef Sandy, what makes him most satisfied?
“It’s the moment when you see a person grasp an idea and make a gorgeous dish,” he said. “You see the light go on, and that is what you do it for. Everything else is window dressing.”