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What does "classically trained" mean?

When someone says so and so is a "classically trained" chef, what does that mean exactly?

If you are, say, a classically trained French chef, does that mean you were taught the basics of the sauce mère and had to be able to make a roux, emulsified, stock, etc. sauce before graduating?

What about a classically trained American chef? Must know how to BBQ, cook up a burger, and make Mac N Cheese before matriculation?

I've heard people say that my dad was a "classically trained chef in China" but to this day I have really no idea what that means. I just know he graduated from some college with a degree in the culinary arts, but beyond that, no clue.

So, to you, what does "classically trained" mean?

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  1. In North America and most of Europe, it almost exclusively refers to being trained under the French culinary tradition: mother sauces, rouxs, brigade system, and all that. That's just the bias in those cultures--French cuisine is assumed to be the foundation.

    If I were to venture a guess about your dad, I think that if they were talking to someone in one of the above areas, they'd be referring to the French training. If not, then I have no idea. What is "classically trained" in China, other parts of Asia, or other parts of the world? Good question, but I certainly can't answer.

    1. What years was he in college? Given the history of China that could make a big difference.

      1. In China/Asia, classically trained would mean years of tough apprenticeship under the chef of a restaurant. That also used to mean the same in France.

        These days, people claim to be classically trained if they went through a two-year program at XYZ culinary school and spent a few years in some kitchens.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Cary

          Exactly... dim sum chefs in Hong Kong, at least the ones that are 50 to 70 years old right now and perhaps working in the kitchens of say Luk Yu or Lin Heung Tea House, went through those hardships to get to where they are today.

          Classically trained sushi chefs go through the same apprenticeship that takes at least 10 years (if not more), starting from the ground up (dishwasher, in the case of Masa Takayama at Masa NYC, floor scrubber, menial tasks) before they get to hold a knife or do rice prep. In many cases it is not an apprenticeship but rather you come in as a helper, be a learne on the side and eventually figure things out on your own, or you learn by watching/observing your seniors.

          This kind of hardship is not for everyone and will weed out those without sufficient passion, persistence, and determination.

          Some of these classically trained chefs, picked up the craft on their own, and don't follow any exact receipes, but rather do it from heart, memory, and if given enough time can probably drum something up on the spot that is seasonal, local, and delicious.

          Now as far as a classically trained chef taking someone under their wing willingly, a formal apprenticeship, when that someone graduates or can fly on his own, learned from the master, is that person also considered clasically trained in the loose sense of the word? This is where things can get fuzzy. Or does the person who learned from the master need to go through years of working as exec chef de cuisines in multiple restaurants to further the cred to qualify? I remember seeing some commentary on some streaming video of a Hong Kong food show...the host was complaining that everyone wants to open up a new restaurant and hire and grow talent quickly, so they send guys to train in Japan for maybe 1 to 2 years (for whatever it is), just to quickly enter the market and have something, and then end up falling short on execution. Or places that hire chefs with lots of experience, but they still can't deliver in the end for whatever reasons.

          1. re: K K

            Now I am sort of lost.

            If a chef can be "classically trained" simply through apprenticeship, or even on their own, then what separates them from other chefs? In other words, aren't all chefs either the product of some sort of tutelage, or self-teaching?

            If "classically trained" simply means a process of acquiring culinary skill, then shouldn't all chefs be called "classically trained" thereby neutering the phrase of any substantive meaning or import?

            How else does one become a chef? Because if a "classically trained" chef is simply a chef that has acquired the skill through apprenticship, schooling or self-learning, then it presupposes that there are chefs out there -- not "classically trained" -- who are born with innate chef skills. This to me, is somewhat unbelievable.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              I would disagree with KK's opinion that one can be categorized as "classically trained" through self-learning (no apprenticeships, stages, or degrees).

              1. re: Cary

                "Some of these classically trained chefs, picked up the craft on their own"

                By that what I really meant was that these chefs went through the same hardships through an apprenticeship environment, working in the restaurant under the permission of the owner or head person, but may or may not have learned cooking directly from their seniors, henceforth the term in Chinese that translates to "stealing mastery", ie learn by observing from afar (assuming with permission), and by trial and error and taste on their own at the same time. This is probably the more drastic exception that is likely no longer the norm.

              2. re: ipsedixit

                To me classically trained also implies mastering specific traditional cooking skills, techniques, and receipes that a limited number of people know how to do (or can do it well), and/or the creation of traditional dishes that were once popular but have faded out of existence (and for some reason being revived, usually economic/trends/cultural needs and food culture preservation, the key being preservation).

          2. In the US, if someone said they were 'classically trained' without further qualification, I would assume they meant that they had gone to culinary school and that the culinary school taught them French technique.

            Not that I'd necessarily exclude other forms of experience from qualifying as either 'classical' or 'training' - just if someone meant something else, I'd expect them to elaborate.

            Now, if someone specified their dad was a classically trained chef in China, I would expect him to have been trained in classic Chinese cooking technique. Classically trained in Spain? Probably trained in Spanish cuisine, but plausibly in French instead. Classically trained chef in Albuquerque? Probably trained in French technique, but who knows.

            2 Replies
            1. re: cowboyardee

              And that's the whole issue, isn't it?

              It's just such an amorphous term, but yet it's thrown around like some culinary reverse Scarlett Letter by what seems like every other chef with a white crisp toque.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                I think in the modern sense, I would accept the descriptor "classically trained" if the cook either 1)spent 5+ years under apprenticeship (or working his way up from dishwasher to line cook) or 2)went to culinary school, then spent several years as a line cook in good kitchens