Q & A With Culinary Instructor Colette Christian: Culinary School Evolution, Home Cooks + Her New Online Croissant Class
Colette Christian at the Santa Monica farmers market
Colette Christian, a pastry instructor at the Art Institute of Hollywood (AIH) and formerly of the CSCA/Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, has spent years teaching aspiring pastry chefs how to make a buttery-perfect brioche [Disclosure: In 2004/2005, Christian was one of this writer's instructors in Le Cordon Bleu's pastry program]. But when it comes to teaching, Christian says she prefers a kitchen full of home cooks. "Home cooks are my heart," she says.
For professional instructors like Christian, teaching home cooks is not always a financial reality. Amateur cooking outposts like Sur La Table and The Gourmandise School often have very few, if any, full-time teaching positions (many rely on guest instructors who receive modest fees per class). Add in the logistical nightmare of hopping from one class to the next in L.A. traffic, and it's hardly surprising that many instructors like Christian have remained within professional culinary schools walls.
But with the help of the website Craftsy, Christian has launched her first online cooking course. It's not quite the same as a live classroom full of eager home bakers, but for Christian, a step in the right croissant direction (she is hoping it will also give her the opportunity to teach as a guest instructor at more local amateur schools in the future). Get our interview with the chef after the jump.
Squid Ink: You finally did the American Culinary Federation chef certification? The Master Sommelier exam in culinary terms.
Colette Christian: Yes! Chef and I studied for three months for the written exam, but the practical was really what makes it difficult. You're making things you haven't made in years for judges walking around with their clipboards, looking at every little thing you do. I had to take it three times to pass because I lost points on the smallest things. One time I had tape on my knife handles that was from my students, and they took points off because it was unsanitary. Another time they thought my crème anglaise wasn't thick enough, so I didn't pass by 2 points. [Note: "Chef" is Christian's husband, Daniel Rossi, formerly chef at Michel Richard's Citrus.]
SI: Did you think it was thick enough?
CC: Oh yes, it's the same way I've always taught how to make crème anglaise.
SI: Sort of funny, if you think about it. Crème anglaise thickness really is rather subjective. But on to you. You and everyone else seems to have left the CSCA. You're now at the Art Institute of Hollywood?
CC: Yes, it's so different from the CSCA. There, I had to have 16 students just for a class to run; sometimes I'd have as many as 35 students. At AIH, we're still really small, building up, so I've got 4 students in my baking class right now.
SI: That must be pretty nice, to be able to spend more time with each student.
CC: It is, it's so great to be there. But there is this other side, of getting the energy going in the room when you have only 4 people. I also really want to be part of a greater movement to get to the other side of all of this [food] insanity with so many of the students today.
SI: You mean the food television-groomed generation? You're bound to have some students who go to culinary school today thinking they're going to be the next television star.
CC: Yes [smiles]. Things have really changed in the years since I moved here from Vermont, where I'd been baking, and started teaching [in 2004]. It's different from when you were there. People aren't going to culinary school for the same professional reasons they used to; they don't know what they're getting into. Home cooks are where my heart is today. Pre-professional students often have no passion today, they just want to get through a class.
SI: That's interesting to hear you say. Not that different from impatient teenagers. Actually, you do get a lot of teenagers in culinary school.
CC: Exactly. But when you get a group of home cooks together, they really want to be in that class. They really want to learn. It's just so exciting.
SI: So how did you get involved with Craftsy and these online demonstration courses?
CC: I actually was online there as a sewing student, taking one of their vintage sewing classes.
SI: You sew, too? Of course you do. And you're pulling double teachings shifts, working until midnight tonight.
CC: Oh yes, I love to sew. I also had just taught a croissant class at Great News in San Diego. A demonstration-only class. Have you been there? So gorgeous. They have 7 or so large-screen televisions so everyone could see every move I made, and I found that I really enjoyed it. A student there came up to me to tell me about [another chef] who was teaching at Craftsy. Peter Reinhart has a bread class there, too. I'd done a video with my baking club in Hollywood on macaroons, so I sent them a proposal. After several months, it worked out, and I just finished my first online class on croissants.
SI: That's great. How does that work, as far as teaching? It's not interactive, like a podcast?
CC: No, it's videos. But you know, it works great. The Craftsy people came down to L.A. from Colorado with their producers, which was so nice because I didn't have to go there and deal with high-altitude baking issue. I didn't want to do shoot the video at a professional culinary school, I wanted it to be casual, so we found a loft home kitchen downtown. Students go online and sign up for the class, which you have access to forever as a student, I really liked that aspect. And then students email me their questions as they bake.
SI: Do people send you pictures of their croissants?
CC: Oh yes, definitely. And I give them feedback.
SI: Isn't that difficult, on your end? In a school setting, a chef instructor is analyzing a student's croissant by picking it up, looking closely at the texture. And of course tasting it.
CC: I know, you'd think it wouldn't work. But I've taught baking for so long, to so many students, I can tell right away when I look at a croissant what went wrong. I am already getting students emailing me their photographs. I can look at it and say, "Great job! Now, next time you need less flour, you've got too much there, you need to cut back, be more careful with folding the butter into dough."
SI: Yes, well you always were a welcoming "Great job" type -- refreshing in any education setting.
CC: I was trained in a very different environment, when our chef [instructor] would do things like hide the cumin during a practical exam. Just so we'd go into a frenzy, and he could yell at us and see how well we could handle it, finish our assignment. But I don't believe in that kind of teaching; it's not what I do. And it's back to why I love teaching home cooks. Everyone is so attentive, so happy to be there.
SI: Well, we're happy your videos are not yet another Rachael Ray-style television series or blog series.
CC: I didn't want it to be like all of these other television shows or videos out there. I wanted this to feel professional but still be for home cooks. Even when I was choosing my chef jacket [embroidery] for this, I was careful what I chose so I didn't look like a Food Network chef. I didn't want orange for obvious Mario Batali reasons [laughs]. A lot of pastry [professionals] use pink everywhere. Cake decorators, candy makers, they're also doing things with pink. We really don't need any more pink in pastry.
SI: Ha. No, we don't.
CC: And gawd, I had just finished a horrible two years of no hair and chemo when my breast cancer came back, so I have had more than enough pink for a long time! So I went with blue as my main color. It seemed solid, simple. And you know, I'm at 205 students and we just launched the class! I can't believe it. I am so excited, I really hope my students enjoy it. Hopefully I'll be able to offer more classes in the future.
SI: Well, we should buy you a cup of coffee. For kicking cancer (again), for not doing another Food Network-style cooking class, and because with 200+ students, you're going to have an awful lot of late-night emails about laminated dough to answer.
You can find Christian's croissant class at Craftsy.com.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.