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Extra Credit with Professor/Chef Jasun Zakro

James Peru, Cactus Staff Writer

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With the growing popularity of cooking shows like Masterchef and Giada’s Home Cooking, where we can all watch pin-up girls strut about in the kitchen in six inch stilettos, lightly dusting cookies with powdered sugar or sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting for their soufflés to rise in the oven, it is easy to blind ourselves to the realities of cooking in a full-service restaurant. For this edition of “Lessons Beyond the Classroom” I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef/Professor Jasun Zakro, to learn more about how he prepares his students for a career in the culinary industry.

“What you see on T.V. are not realistic scenarios,” says Chef Zakro. “One of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for not only restaurants, or culinary, but any industry, is to research it well ahead of time and make sure it’s something you want to go into. Take one or two classes. If it’s something that’s not for you, then don’t continue. This industry is a beast, and it will pretty much eat you alive.”

Working in a kitchen, no matter the size, is stressful. It’s hot; it’s loud. Nearly every surface wants to burn you or boil you alive; nearly every object wants to lacerate or puncture you. With an environment this unforgiving, it is important to know where everything is around you.

“For food service, we have a concept called mise en place, which our students are very familiar with,” explains Chef Zakro. “It’s French and it means to have in place. That is how chefs and cooks organize themselves. For example, they do prep up to the meal service, and for a dish, you have to have all of the ingredients right there ready to go because of the time frames required for orders.”

While small portions of customers are aware of the effort that goes into each meal service, large portions are ignorant. We have all seen people storm out of a restaurant because they had to wait longer than they felt was reasonable. But when you stop and think about the realities of cooking on a team, it’s a wonder every meal doesn’t end up in flames.

Imagine you are cooking for, lets say, three people. And while you have help, the only way to communicate with the help is to shout across the kitchen, over the crackling of grease and the loud drum of exhaust fans. All of the orders come in at once, but all of them require vastly different cooking times. Yet all of the dishes have to go out to the customers at once. You don’t want little Timmy screaming, “Where is my PB&J?” while he watches his big sister tuck into her spaghetti, or Grandma throwing biscuits at the waiter to ask where her liver and onions is. And this is just one table!

Such an environment must be a breeding ground for the nervous breakdown. So why do people willingly put themselves through it? That is the question I asked culinary student Anthony Gutierrez.

“Culinary is something I have always been passionate about,” he responds. “I found myself cooking at the age of four, wanting to cook, learning to cook and watching my grandma cook. And I like to eat.

“Everyday is a challenge to make things taste certain ways, look different ways, and I like to compete.”

Passion is one thing that is surely a requirement for success in the kitchen, to keep you coming back 12-hour day after 12-hour day. But what else can help you succeed?

“Organization, timeliness, hospitality, honesty,” said Chef. “Giving things your best effort and being true to yourself. Those are the things that will get you through life.”

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Extra Credit with Professor/Chef Jasun Zakro