Taste the sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami world of culinary school with recent Great Lakes Culinary Institute graduate Katie Ianni. Follow one Traverse City culinary student’s journey through GLCI’s intensive two-year culinary program.

This article written by Janice Binkert was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

“The trout is under the pig.” The cryptic, boldly scribbled note on the message board in the Garde Manger kitchen at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute hints at it: This is not college as usual. And a peek into the adjacent walk-in cooler confirms it: On the top shelf of a two-tiered stainless steel cart, there is indeed a full pig carcass—nose to tail—and below it, a large whole trout, both waiting for the well-sharpened knives and budding butchery and filleting skills of the class participants.

But in spite of their professional-looking uniforms and chef’s tools, some students will be less than enthusiastic—perhaps even a little queasy—when the time comes for these tasks. It’s one of the many moments of truth that will separate those who stay on the chef path and those who do not during GLCI’s intensive two-year culinary arts program.

In some ways, it’s a trial by fire, and literally so, when students first encounter the powerful professional gas stoves and grills during their journey through GLCI. In fact, much of the equipment found in the “labs,” as kitchens are referred to in culinary school, have the potential for peril if not properly respected: the guillotine-sharp slicing machine, the boiling, oil-filled deep-fat fryer, the searing 750-degree deck oven, and the giant buffalo chopper (no, it’s not for chopping buffalo), just for starters. Of course, no student touches anything here without stringent training and close supervision.

Equally daunting are the countless techniques students must strive to master (emulsifying, poaching, poêléing, tempering …) and the extensive new vocabulary of cooking terms they will be expected to acquire—much of it in French (beurre manié, chiffonade, sachet d’épices, mirepoix …), since France was the birthplace of the modern kitchen and classical cooking. These techniques and terms must be not only understood and properly executed, but also spelled correctly when exam time rolls around, which in a concentrated program like this one happens with startling regularity.

Unfamiliar foods and flavors are encountered at every turn, too, especially in World Cuisine, where Caribbean conch, Korean mung beans, Middle Eastern zahtar, Italian lardo and all manner of other exotic fare comprise the pantry. And you can be sure that some of them will pop up in your end-of-semester “black box” practical exam—the real-life version of Chopped! Culinary school is not for the faint of heart or the delicate of stomach, but Kathryne (Katie) Ianni loves every bit of it.

All photography: Courtney Michalik 

Originally from New Jersey, Katie attended Middlesex College after high school to pursue a teaching degree, later moving to North Carolina and continuing her studies there. But fate took a hand, and she met and fell in love with a young Marine. “Travis was a Michigan native,” Katie says, “and after he got out of the service, he wanted to come back here and go to school at NMC to get his master mechanic degree. He asked me to come with him, and I didn’t hesitate for a moment. It was the best decision I ever made. I had often thought about doing something in the culinary field before, but people around me discouraged me from doing it. Traverse City was a new beginning for me in many ways, and when I found out about GLCI and heard that it was an excellent program, I thought, ‘This is what you are meant to do.’”

During her two years at GLCI, Katie intrepidly piled on a full load of credits each semester—from Introduction to Baking, Professional Cookery, and Safety and Sanitation at the beginning, to the requisite 300-hour internship (which she did at Aerie restaurant in the Grand Traverse Resort) in the middle, to Kitchen and Dining Room Management and the 24-contact-hour-per-week Contemporary Service and Cuisine (where students run every aspect of Lobdell’s restaurant) at the end.

“It is like a real restaurant,” she says, “but it’s also very different, because you have people with different levels of ability and experience, and you have to change stations and partners every few days. You have to really pay attention and learn fast, to stay calm even when things get chaotic, and to work as a team. Of course, that’s what you will have to do when you get into a work situation out in the real world later on, too.” Katie particularly enjoyed serving, “having direct contact with our clientele, especially the repeat customers,” she says. “They get so close to you so quickly, and you get immediate feedback.”

Although she says she was busier than she’d ever been in her life during her time in the program—working at least one part-time job, and sometimes two, in addition to attending class and studying—Katie was also having the time of her life. She embraced the new tastes and tasks, the high academic and proficiency standards, and all other demands of the program wholeheartedly. “I learned something new every day, and I have loved everything about this experience,” she says, hesitating only slightly to add, “Well, I didn’t love doing dishes. We did a lot of dishes. But that’s good, too. You need to understand how critical that job is to the restaurant industry!”

She also jumped at the chance to do a study abroad in Italy in May 2015. “It was much more than a culinary trip,” she says. “It was an immersion in Italian history and culture, too. I never could have imagined how amazing it would be.” Katie earned her Associates in Applied Science—Culinary Arts degree, with honor, in December 2015. “I didn’t want it to end,” she says. Thus, before she even finished, she decided to take on a teaching assistant job in the Advanced Baking classes for an additional semester. “Teaching is still my other love, and I wanted to see that side of things, too,” she says. “It also lets me hang on here for a few more months!”

Katie stayed on the culinary school fast track all the way, but about 40 percent of those who start the program never finish. They may run out of money. Culinary school is expensive—a total of about $14,000 for in-district students and $26,000 for out-of-district students (including tuition, books, knife kit and supplies) for the two-year program. And while scholarships are available, they may go unused because no one bothers to apply for them. Katie’s advice to incoming students: “Go after those scholarships, and seek out financial aid. Your advisors and instructors will help you find and get them if you show commitment to the program by keeping up your grades, volunteering, and doing extracurricular activities.” She herself did just that, and was able to defray much of the cost.

Others who fail to reach graduation may have come on board with unrealistic expectations, perhaps a result of the way chefs have been elevated to celebrity status by the media over the past couple of decades. Many students imagine culinary school as a quick, simple path to a glamorous and lucrative career. Cooking and baking—how hard could that be?

Another moment of truth: It’s not all about the kitchen. Lecture classes like Purchasing and Receiving, Nutrition and Menu Planning represent almost half of the credit requirement list, and they are just as demanding as the lab classes, involving math, regular writing assignments, and testing for professional certifications. And where there is food preparation, there are also work surfaces to be cleaned and sanitized, floors to be swept and scrubbed, garbage and compost to be taken out, and dirty laundry to attend to. Not exactly what aspiring culinarians who envisioned themselves as the next Mario Batali or Ferran Adrià had in mind when they entered the program.

“You have to be realistic about your goals and passionate about your future profession,” Katie says. “It takes a lot of commitment and dedication.” Not to mention physical strength. Hoisting large-capacity pans and stockpots, 60-quart mixing bowls, 50-pound sacks of flour and sugar, and fully loaded restaurant trays is part of the daily routine. In addition, according to an NMC bookstore employee, only nursing program textbooks come close to the size and weight of those for culinary arts (the four required for baking classes alone total a whopping 13 pounds).

Even the knives are heavy. “I wasn’t strong enough to properly use the chef’s knife that came in my kit,” Katie says. “I have small, fine-boned hands and wrists, so I had to go out and buy one that suited me better.” (Note: A good chef’s knife can cost anywhere from about 50 dollars to several hundred dollars, but it’s the most important piece of equipment a culinary school student needs, along with an instant-read thermometer and a digital kitchen scale.)

Katie came into GLCI’s culinary arts program with eyes wide open. She also came in with determination, a positive attitude, a solid work ethic and a sense of humor. All of these attributes served her well. “Not only do I feel prepared to go out into the culinary world, I have also made lifelong friends,” she says. “My instructors have all been—and I’m sure will continue to be—my mentors, long after graduation. I have never met teachers more dedicated to helping students succeed. They have always been there to give me advice and guidance, to share their knowledge and contacts, and to encourage me. It has been exciting to be here, and it has changed my mind about what school is.”

Is Katie Ianni a typical student? No, but not for the reason one might think. There is no typical student at GLCI. Females and males are represented almost equally. There are students with longtime food service credentials who have decided to take their skills to the next professional level, and those whose kitchen experience has been limited to baking chocolate-chip cookies. And while the average age is about 27, the student body also includes recent high school graduates and others (perhaps just out of the military or making a career change by choice or of necessity), whose ages range anywhere from 18 to 60-plus.

What any of these students can expect to receive at GLCI is a solid, well-rounded education from dedicated, highly qualified chef instructors in a top- notch facility. With that training, they can choose from a wide variety of careers within the food industry that they may never have considered or even known existed. “With a culinary degree, you have so many routes you can take,” says Katie. “Yes, there is restaurant and bakery work, but there is so much more—things like developing new food products, catering, food writing, teaching, food marketing or maybe working with wineries and breweries. I feel that this program opens up new perspectives to you and broadens your horizons.”

So what’s on the horizon for Katie? First of all, another study abroad trip—this one to Ecuador in May to help launch a restaurant in an eco-tourism village about an hour outside Quito. A joint GLCI-NMC Business Division venture, the trip will give students the opportunity to share what they have learned with the people who will run the restaurant. “We will learn from them, too,” says Katie, “helping with whatever they need to do to supply the restaurant with food every day, from farming to milking cows!”

After that exotic detour, it’s back to Traverse City for Katie, resuming her part-time job at the Grand Traverse Resort bake shop (which she was offered after her internship) and further cultivating the catering and personal chef business that has emerged for her through events she originally did for a local kitchen design firm. “I am taking full advantage of the resources and networking opportunities I’ve been given,” she says.” Now that fate has brought me here and given me this chance, I want to get as much out of it as possible. I have never been happier than here in Northern Michigan with the people I’ve met and what I’m doing.”

While she is thrilled to have her degree now, and says that the training she received was invaluable, the ever-practical and motivated Katie adds: “One of the most important things it taught me was how much I still want and need to learn. I can’t wait to get started!”

Janice Binkert, a former editor for Swissair’s inflight magazine, now writes from Traverse City. Also a graduate of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, she is a personal chef and caterer. 

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Photo(s) by Courtney Michalik