I attended the open house for the IL Institute of Arts on Wabash St. in downtown Chicago on Saturday. Fun stuff.

We started out in their Backyard Bistro.  The Bistro is a working restaurant on campus. Advanced students can work there and get experience working and cooking in a real restaurant. The bonus of going to a culinary school open house is the eating. In the bistro, they had a buffet of breakfast pastry and chocolate truffles for us to sample. In addition, students and a couple of instructors were circulating the room with savory hot appetizers like spanakopita, meatballs, bison burgers, and arancini (cheese-stuffed fried risotto balls).  I didn’t partake of the breakfast pastry and chocolate, but did try a couple of the hot appetizers which were outstanding.

I’m happy to report I was not the only “old” person in the room.  While the majority of prospective students were HS seniors, there were a handful of career changers like myself.

The Dean of admissions gave a welcome and a short overview of the school, we were introduced to a few students from the school, and we were invited to ask questions.

Then we were shuffled into the Bistro kitchen, where a couple of students were preparing their “competition” recipes. If they win their competition, they win $20,000, a nice chunk of cash. One of the students served a spicy lamb with rice cake and chinese sweet squash. The other student served spiced flank steak with a fried oyster over southern greens and dirty rice. My vote went to the southern inspired dish – delish! I asked the one of the students in that kitchen about class schedules, and if they worked while attending school.

She told me that she works two jobs – in a bakery in the morning and a restaurant in the evening. She attends school in the afternoon. So essentially she has no life, but clearly working is possible while attending this school.

Their kitchen classes meet 2x/week for 5 hours, which makes the school attractive to career changers and others who need to work while attending. Turns out a good portion of their student body is “nontraditional.”  I do wonder if the curriculum is compressed and some instruction is left out because of needing to meet those scheduling needs. Of course, I asked that question, and of course, they said the only areas that they cover less is in the traditional general education courses (which I already had in my undergrad studies).

The open house continued with a couple more kitchen visits and tastings and ended in a classroom where we had the pleasure of hearing from another chef instructor and some other helpful admissions staff who were able to answer all of my questions.

I took an immediate liking to the chef instructor who spent  some time with us in the classroom – a natural teacher and engaging guy. “What is cooking,” he asked the class?  Silence. . . Then someone took a stab at an answer, “preparing food that people can eat” . . . “Good start,” says the instructor.  “Cooking is a chemical change.”  Of course, we all nodded, we knew that.

“What is eating?!”  he asked.  He grabs his round belly, and says, “THIS  is eating.”  Laughter. Then, “What is tasting?”  he asked.  Silence again . . . “Popcorn” he says. “Can’t you taste the butter, the salt? Can you smell it? All you need now is the movie.”  He demonstrated – without any props – – that we know what popcorn tastes like, we can imagine it and our senses come to life. “But can you do the same thing with thyme, chervil, oregano?”  In culinary school we will do a lot of tasting, and learn how to identify, create, and match flavor profiles.

Essentially, this instructor made us excited about learning more. That was probably the highlight of the experience.

I have to admit, he also made us “old” folk feel comfortable.  He looked right at me at one point during his talk, and said, “it doesn’t matter how old you are,” and he went on to describe his own educational journey, which he started later in his life. He’s getting up there in years, and he’s just now finishing up his doctoral dissertation.   Inspiring.

I got a good vibe from the school, but my research is not done yet.  Next stop:  Kendall.