An interview with Chef Adrian Day-Murchison
Adrian Day-Murchison is Kitchen Production Chef for the Product Development Team at Renaissance Food Group. Her team creates and modifies recipe specifications for their client’s current needs. They develop and create new items throughout the year but also assist and direct in the production of the launching of the items in their plants across the country. Day-Murchison also taught culinary and pastry courses at the Cordon Bleu for a decade. A&E recently sat down with Adrian to discuss teaching and the bakery world.
A&E: Hi Adrian, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for being here.
ADM: Nice to meet you.
A&E: How did you become interested in culinary school?
ADM: The high school I attended offered food and nutrition classes. So, I took those classes each year. When I got to my senior year I was a TA and that gave me more of a background sense of curriculum and development. One day a representative from Johnson and Wales University came and did a whole presentation about their culinary school. They talked about what they had to offer and after they finished I knew this was my ticket, this is what I was going to do. Their main campus is in Rhode Island. I started out there and the first semester was good. After that, they opened up a campus in Denver so I transferred to the Denver campus. Once I finished I received an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts and then from there I got into baking. I am mostly a baker now but occasionally did culinary. So, I know both sides and it’s nice to know both because it lends itself to each other and that’s what a lot of cooks don’t understand.
A&E: When I was in high school we had a year of Home Economics and then it dropped off the curriculum. Are they offering a lot of culinary classes in high school now?
ADM: A lot of high schools are beginning to understand the vocational aspect of culinary arts and so you’re starting to see more culinary programs because of it. The food nutrition classes I took in high school were based off of home economics which was good for me because I wanted to understand the basics. As part of the class I got the chance to create a recipe book from our recipes that we created and did in class. I saw my work in the class as a full circle of what I learned but also from my mistakes too. From my recipe book I could look at why I did this or that and knew why it did or didn’t work well.
A&E: In the end you had to create your own portfolio?
ADM: Yes, just a recipe book
A&E: But still for high school that’s a lot and a big thing to do.
ADM: Well my attention was drawn to learning from my instructor, Mrs. Mondo. To this day I value everything she taught me because once I became a TA in her class I got a chance to learn so much more from her. I was there to learn. When I went to school the food and nutrition classes were a young idea and it’s very different today. Now you can get college credits in some of these vocational culinary programs. You also can get into organizations such as the American Culinary Federation and get credit for those classes too. So, the programs are becoming much bigger compared to what I was doing in high school.
A&E: Your teacher in high school mentored you. Did you carry that mentorship on when you taught at the Cordon Bleu?
ADM: Yes I did.
A&E: You taught 10 years at the Cordon Bleu here in Sacramento?
ADM: Yes and I loved that job and everything I did there.
A&E: When you were teaching what types of students were taking the classes? What were the skill levels?
ADM: I started all of my classes, whether the student was beginning or advanced, like we were all on the same page. Ultimately, they were all in school to learn. If you came in with an ego then you were putting on blinders to your education and if that’s the case then why come? So, I saw a mix of students coming in at different levels, a real mix of personalities. As a teacher I needed to get them on the same page and I had to find what worked and find a common goal that brought us all together.
But as an instructor in the baking and pastry section I didn’t see big egos. The one thing I saw in the baking and pastry classes were a lot of the students that had the common goal of wanting to work in or own a bakery. I would say to those students, “That’s fantastic and I’m really happy for you but you have to learn the grunt work and get into what it is to run a bakery.” The first thing they often didn’t realize were the early hours, bakery hours. I would tell them they would be starting possibly at two or three in the morning. They didn’t think about that because they didn’t see that. With the culinary side I sometimes had those egotistical students that came in and said, “I already have experience working at such and such restaurant.” So, I’d ask, “Okay, well what kind of habits did you build when you worked there?” When I saw how they worked in a teaching kitchen I’d say, “Okay I understand that you have experience but what you’re showing me here are horrible habits.” Just because they had experience in the industry didn’t mean it was good experience. So, I would say to them, “Why don’t you take the time and hone in on perfecting the craft and perfecting competency and building good habits so that way when you go back out in the industry at a new restaurant you have a better sense of what you can do and it’s a positive rather than a negative.” Some line cooks come in and they do the work and leave. They didn’t want to take the time to learn or be open minded and some also didn’t take the time to create good habits. They become complacent and that’s something that I noticed with students that had previous experience. When they came to culinary classes they came to get the paper but they weren’t always there to get the experience.
A&E: So though they worked in the industry they developed sloppy habits?
ADM: Exactly. Something as basic as how to mop a floor for instance (laughs). There were times when I had to stop clean up and say “Let’s go over how to properly mop the floor.” You’d be really surprised. Some students thought about it but most said, “I do this all the time. What’s wrong with the way I’m doing this?” I’d say, “Let me show you a way where you can get it done quicker but also get the most cleanliness out of what you’re trying to do.” Something as simple as sweeping, you’d be surprised how people would take it for granted. Suddenly they understood why we swept or mopped a certain way. For example, some students would start sweeping before they’d wipe down the tables. I’d tell them, “You’re working backwards you swept up what’s on the floor but now you’re wiping off what’s on the table onto the floor so you are going to have to sweep again. So, let’s from start from top and work to the bottom.” Some students really understood that and some students just wanted to run the clock out and be gone. That was unfortunate to see.
A&E: What were the ages and gender? Were there more male than female? Older students versus younger students?
ADM: The youngest student I had was seventeen and the oldest I taught was seventy-five. For the most part the classes ranged from high school to career changers. We typically had a good balance of both. The last class I taught was a lot of young women under twenty. They were open minded about learning and that was a good way for me to end my teaching at the Cordon Bleu. That class truly appreciated everything about their education. However, generally when it came to ratio of gender it was mostly male. A good percentage of female students were in the baking and pastry program. When I attended culinary school it was mostly male.
A&E: When you were in culinary school and in predominately male classes did you have to deal with sexism?
ADM: I still do to this day. I mean that isn’t going to disappear.
A&E: It’s prevalent in the business?
ADM: Here’s a good example of something that occurred during an actual job interview I had. After culinary school I moved back to California. I was looking for a restaurant job. The manager that interviewed me looked at my resume and he asked me questions and everything seemed to be going fine and then he said, “I think we’re going to offer you this job. I like to offer this job to females because they clean really well.” And that’s when I said, “You know I don’t think this job is for me.” I don’t stand for that type of thing. If that was how we were starting off in the interview I felt I knew what the actual work environment was going to be and I was not going to subject myself to that. It’s not that I feel I’m above anything but if I feel that it is going to have an impact on my work then, yeh, I’m not going to spend my time and energy at place like that. I shared this example with many female students because I get asked this question a lot. Female students ask “Chef, how do you work in an industry that is predominately male?” I tell them first you must have a thick skin. If you have thin skin they will tear you down and that isn’t just the men it’s anyone. They will tear you down. You better know what you’re doing because that’s the first thing they will start at is your gender and how it is defining your work. That’s why I took my education so seriously. If there is anything new in the industry then I want to learn it. It will make me that much better and it gives me more ammo to use in the kitchen. I always share this with female chefs and cooks. I want to give them an understanding that that attitude is not going to disappear.
A&E: It sounds like you enjoyed teaching. The Cordon Bleu, that’s a nice gig.
ADM: It was a nice gig. The thing is I knew when I was younger I was going to do some sort of teaching. When I was younger I tutored my brother but I would act like we were in a classroom. We had a mirror on our closet and I had dry erase markers so I would use that as my board. So, I knew somewhere down the line that I was going to use teaching and teach something. I enjoy sharing knowledge and that’s what you need to do as a teacher. It’s funny, I got the job at the Cordon Bleu because of my husband, who I met in culinary school, he’s a chef too. He saw the job come up and said, “I think you’d be really good at this. I’m going to apply for it but I think you should too.” So, we both applied and went through the interview process. I got the job. He didn’t get it. It was our running joke.
A&E: What do you like about teaching?
ADM: I love sharing my knowledge, I want to give that to others. I started teaching when I was twenty-five. I was young but I was able to hone in on what I knew and make it ten times better through repetition, competency, and professional development. You know when I was a young cook I had a hot head. I had the attitude “I don’t want to hear what you’re saying.” I learned to be open to criticism and it made me humble.
A&E: Was that over time or was there a defining moment when you “got it?”
ADM: Over time. When I was in culinary school, on externship, that was my defining moment. There was an event where we were setting up a shrimp cocktail display. The chef that ran that kitchen was a hothead. He was totally fine getting in your face about things whether it was right or wrong. He had that old school mentality like the screaming and yelling of European chefs. It didn’t scare me. But I was setting up this display and there was a certain way for the shrimp tails to face. I didn’t pay attention to that one little detail and he got in my face, used colorful language, and said, “Do it all over again!” That’s all it took. That’s when I truly understood that I had to pay attention to what the chef was telling me to do. If I didn’t do that there’d be problems. The “Yes Chef!” mentality, means “yes Chef I got it.” That yelling gave me a moment to understand that I’d better learn to take criticism in the kitchen. Until your name is on the work you’d better be open to taking criticism. I had to learn how to do the job and do it correctly and I understood constructive criticism even if it was delivered in colorful language (laughs). You do it because the chef tells you to.
A&E: Did you ever see a different side of his personality?
ADM: After the shrimp incident I became more open to criticism and also listening to my chef. It humbled me. When you start to listen to what your chef is telling you to do then they are more willing to instruct you. Because when you shut them off they aren’t going to give you the time of day. So, once I started to pay attention and listen he was more giving and instructional. He noticed I was having issues with Hollandaise sauce and so I bit the bullet and asked him, “Can you show me the way to do this better because I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?” And he took two hours after the shift and we sat down and made hollandaise. He showed me all his tricks and gave me tips and we did all the different derivatives and this is something I won’t forget, we made all of these sauces and he fried up a bunch of French fries and we just sat there and tried the hollandaise with the fries. Because of that I love Hollandaise and French fries (laughs). If you put in the work and show the chef that you have the passion then they’re going to open up to you a lot more. Chefs have feelings and have things they need to do so if you’re not willing to be a part of that or do it in the way they’re asking well you’re not going to get everything out of your chef.
A&E: So speaking of sauce. Why should every baker learn to make a Vanilla Anglaise sauce?
ADM: An anglaise sauce is a custard sauce that typically is vanilla flavored but it can be made in other flavors as well. I personally like to infuse flavors into the milk or cream to translate the flavor better in the end with product such as steeping chai tea to create a chai crème anglaise. Anglaise typically used as a dessert sauce in plating desserts or as an accompaniment sauce to items such as bread pudding or soufflé and a base for the fillings or ice cream. It’s such a versatile sauce that many bakers should learn how to make it. Besides this, what makes this a stepping stone in the learning of pastry is the fact that its science driven. You need the right balance of heat and agitation as well as an understanding of ingredient functions of an egg to be quite successful with the technique. If you go too fast or have your heat up too high you will have sweetened scrambled eggs in no time! You want a viscous, creamy, and smooth sauce.
A&E: What makes vanilla so versatile in baking and can you ever use too much vanilla in a dessert?
ADM: Vanilla is so versatile in baking because it adds a flavor that complements and works well with others. It adds a warmth aspect like cinnamon does that rounds out a flavor profile of an item. Depending on the type of vanilla that you get, such as Madagascar, it also can lend a fruity or floral component. However, you can use too much vanilla. When you do, you lose its function and it becomes overpowering and bitter, especially if you use it in extract form.
A&E: Do you prefer vanilla extract over vanilla paste?
ADM: I prefer vanilla paste but since I keep my pods after using them I also use these to make either vanilla sugar (Add pods to a jar of granulated sugar and allow to steep for 2 weeks before using) or my own vanilla extract (Add pods to any clear alcohol and let sit for a few weeks before using). Chefs do not like waste and learn early to utilize their ingredients to the fullest extent. Because of the major shortage of vanilla due to crop issues, prices of vanilla have skyrocketed and this has made pastry chefs make the hard decision of not being able to use vanilla in their baking. However, this has made chefs face the music in proper utilization of their beans and think of new ways of using them or not, and how it affects the outcome.
A&E: I love vanilla and using the beans but sometimes I have difficulty getting the beans out of the vanilla pod. What’s the best technique and is there a type of knife that is best to use?
ADM: The best way to get vanilla beans out of the pods is this. Use a paring knife because it’s small and sturdy for the job. Then split the vanilla bean, lengthwise, in half to expose the beans and use the back, or the spine, of your knife, lay it down on the pod half, apply pressure to scrape away from you. While doing this, hold one end of the pod while you are scraping out the seeds. You should have a pile of seeds on the knife spine that you can add to your liquid to infuse your recipe.
A&E: What’s your favorite pastry or dessert with vanilla?
ADM: My favorite dessert with vanilla is very basic. It’s ice cream.
A&E: Why ice cream?
ADM: I like that vanilla adds a fruitiness but also enhances the cream aspect of ice cream. Also, it looks beautiful when vanilla is used in bean form with the seeds dancing throughout the ice cream in its presentation. I also love fruit that has been scented with vanilla beans, like a cobbler or crostata filling or macerated fruit with vanilla sugar. Simple yet it adds a touch that makes it sing.
A&E: It seems to me that the pastry chef is not as revered as the chef. There is an artistry in pastry. Why isn’t it as esteemed in the industry?
ADM: People come to the restaurant for the food, the main show. Unfortunately, dessert is the last thing people think about and so that’s the big reason why we don’t see pastry chefs held to the same standard as the culinary chef, unless you’re opening a restaurant that focuses mostly on desserts. Unfortunately, people aren’t there for the desserts as much. The position of pastry chef is starting to go away in a lot of restaurants because a lot start-ups don’t have the budgets. They want an executive chef or they hire pastry cooks that can take up that pastry department. To have a pastry chef takes more money. Hotels have pastry chefs, especially for banquets, they are held to a high caliber but pastry chefs are slowly going away. Dessert isn’t as popular and it’s a hard sell.
A&E: This is disheartening because I love dessert. I understand. It’s like I see customers fine dining and the meal is so good and then the server brings out the dessert menu and there are maybe five people sitting at the table and everyone says let’s just split one dessert.
ADM: Yes but when I’m with a group of friends or when I go out I ask for the dessert menu first because I want to see what I have to look forward to for later in the meal. So, I will typically ask for the dessert menu to get an idea of what their dessert menu is and from there I can get a sense of where they are going and why they picked those ingredients because of what is being served in the main menu. This gives me more of a full circle of what the restaurant is doing. I look at both menus not just the main menu. I tell my friends, “Hey save some room because some of these desserts look pretty awesome.” That’s how I get my friends to be more experimental and to try dessert. If I don’t do that my friends won’t have dessert. I set it up as full circle experience.
Photo: Vanilla Anglaise
Photo: Chef Adrian Day-Murchison
Photo: Raiatea Sechage Photographer: Remi Jouan