Cakespeare in the City: Episode 1 – Getting into the culinary groove

Walking the halls of the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in your first week as an official student, you definitely feel the aura of prestige and history that surrounds this place. For a 6 storey-building in the middle of Soho, it looks quite non-descript from the outside. But on the inside, it’s a totally different world. Walking up the stairs to the theatre for the first time was a little surreal. Mainly because it was my first time back in a learning environment for over 6 years but mostly because the stairs were lined with photographs of the most impressive chefs in America and it feels like they are looking at you with great expectations as you proceed up towards the theatre!

There were so many highlights this week I’m not quite sure where to start! And I’m only 1 day into the program.

So I’ve decided that I really needed to boil it down to my top 10 otherwise I’d be here for quite some time rather than outside enjoying the amazing city that is New York.

#1 Watching my first culinary basics demo by culinary legend Jacques Pepin. One of the great things about this school is the numerous demos that the faculty give – the Dean of Special Programs just so happens to be Jacques Pepin who is most famous for winning an Emmy with Julia Child (of Julie and Julia movie fame) and publishing a ton of culinary books.

Pepin covered a whole host of culinary basics from how to secure your wiping cloth to your apron strings properly to how to debone a chicken in about 10 minutes (don’t ask me how to do it though… it looked super hard and Pepin might as well be a magician!). One of the more interesting tips I picked up was that beating egg whites in a copper bowl has the same stabilising effect as adding a little vinegar.

Pepin showing his latest culinary textbook.

Packed theatre

#2 Finding out that my instructors are the c’est magnifique Chef Tai Chopping (who not only has the coolest name in the world but it’s also her real name) and super lovely and amazingly helpful Chef Judy Lai – both top notch cake and pastry stars in their own right. Chef Tai has worked in some of the most famous kitchens in New York and Chef Judy owns an incredibly successful cake business and has won tons of awards from a whole host of American bridal magazines. Didn’t get a pic of Chef Judy but I’ll post one up next week.

Chef Tai

#3 Bumping into Jacques Torres in the lift after family lunch on Day 1. If you haven’t heard of Jacques Torres before and you’re into your sweets then let me assist with getting you up to speed. All you need to know is that this man is a legend. He owns a chain of famous chocolate shops in New York but is probably more well known in the culinary world for being the youngest ever MOF or Meilleur Ouvrier Patissier de France (master pastry chef) which is a very difficult title to obtain as the competition is only run once every four years and some chefs have tried and failed to get it 3-4 times – thats over 16 years of training and is probably equivalent to the olympics for pastry chefs!

#4 Turning out my first genoise cake successfully and discovering the different types of buttercream that exist. French pate a bombe buttercream is pretty amazing stuff – made using a “whole egg foam” method it’s essentially egg yolks with a dash of egg white and cooked sugar syrup beaten with a ton of butter… not too sweet and has an amazingly velvety texture.

Genoise: a highly temperamental and deceptively simple looking cake. A couple of students’ genoises collapsed so I was relieved when mine turned out looking pretty ok!

I’m not a buttercream fan at the best of times but this pate a bombe-beurre was crazy good..

My two pillows of buttercream – all labelled and wrapped for Monday’s class

#5 Opening our amazing professional brand new toolkit. This felt like Christmas Day had arrived early! We’d been told that at orientation that it was “amazing” and “way cooler than the other programs’ kits” but this was beyond what I expected… Like seriously incredible. Any cake decorator knows just how much investment in equipment is required to achieve spectacular results – especially really good quality equipment. The stuff we got was top notch and probably the single most exciting part of our first day.

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves..(non-decorators feel free to scroll ahead…)

#6 Meeting my lovely classmates and realising one of them is Brazilian and her brother used to date one of my colleagues in sydney… this world is insanely small sometimes!!

Getting my first “Family Meal” – a daily occurrence at lunchtime where the culinary students prepare buffet style food for the whole of the FCI.

the lovely Martina and Ryan

Lily and I

Fabulous Marcia from Brazil

#7 The Bread Program. This is a great initiative where the excess bread baked by the Baking Program students is left on a shelf outside the Bread Kitchen and anyone at the FCI can take home as much as they want as long as they make a nominal donation to the Friends of the FCI which helps to fund needy students. Getting my first free loaf of delicious bread and a couple of croissants was definitely a highlight – especially when it saved me a trip to the supermarket that night!!

Shelves were a little empty by the time Marcia and I got there!

#8 Getting acquainted with the insanely awesome FCI library… ok so this one makes me sound like a ridiculous nerd but I could seriously sit in here for hours. Imagine every cook book or culinary book, food magazine or DVD all in one place and free to borrow! Even if you’re not a culinary student and just love food, this place is pretty amazing for the depth of resources available to get some fantastic inspiration.

A small part of the library – every cake decorating book ever published!

#9 Getting changed into my uniform for the first time and getting used to the “brigade” system of addressing the Chefs as “Yes Chef” “No Chef” – kinda like “Sir” or “Miss” in school except much weirder and more formal!! …. Changing into our whites for the first time was also a bit freaky and fabulously fun at the same time. We had no idea how to tie our neckties and I’m not the biggest fan of the beanie (mainly because I have a big head)but the uniform code is strict and spot inspections are made all the time to ensure everyone looks nice and presentable always. The more seasoned students that saw us newbies remarked that they could tell we were new because we still had the fold creases in our uniforms from beanie to apron!

And then last but not least…..

#10 Checking out NY Cake and Baking Supplies in Manhattan for the first time… this place is incredible! There was pretty much every decorating or baking item in one store and the best part was it’s only a few blocks from our apartment in Manhattan! I’ll try to get some pics of the inside next time..

Until next Episode, this little Cakespeare in the City is off to enjoy a night out on the town over Easter long weekend! Coming up next week… more baking action and hopefully a visit to the famed Carlo’s Bakery!


  1. yay Amy! Love being in this side of the blog!! Chef Tai is awesome and you KNOW how much I love Chef Judy! Can’t wait to hear more about your experience!

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