Chef Jesse B. Jackson III, CMB, joined ACF for a demonstration in the “ChefsForum: Pastry Techniques Spotlight; Choux au Craquelin” webinar. As a lecturing instructor of baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America, Chef Jesse has developed an accessible teaching style that resonates with students and puts them on the road to success—no matter what part of the culinary industry they ultimately move into. We spoke to him about his teaching style and the lessons he passes on to his students.
Q: What made you want to become a culinary instructor?
A: I owe that to my chef instructor in high school. She’s my mentor and she also happens to be my godmother. She took me under her wing and I just was fascinated by her teaching style. She’s very assertive, and really an amazing chef who is well-versed in all aspects of cooking. Also, she was giving us not just cooking lessons, but life lessons as well. Not everyone that I went to high school with in the culinary program ended up going to culinary school, or ended up in the industry, but they used a lot of the life skills they learned in her class.
Q: You mentioned during the webinar that you tell your students to use their five senses when baking. What made you start incorporating that idea into your teaching?
The pastry department is usually one person, so you’re always working by yourself. Pastry people are very big multitaskers — we’re doing five, six, seven, eight, nine things at the same time — and that’s just what we’re doing with our hands; that’s not including what’s going on up in our minds. So while I’m doing multiple things at the same time, I have to use my senses.
If I’m on the other side of the bake shop, I can see if my milk is boiling, I can see steam coming out of the pot. That’s something I can pay attention to. If it’s not, then I know I have time to go grab another container, answer the phone, or answer an email.
Another thing is paying attention to the mixer. If it’s mixing something that’s really tough, the gears are going to start grinding a little bit, sounding like it’s working a little bit more than versus something like a meringue with cream. The more air you incorporate into your products, the deeper the sound, so it’s going to sound like a helicopter. So I can utilize my sense of hearing to assess that this is ready or if I need a little bit more time.
Q: What do you tell students about the other senses?
A: The sense of touch is very, very crucial for baking professionals. When people at home test if things are done, they may like to stick a toothpick in the center and for things like brownies, I always recommend sticking a toothpick in. But for everything else, you need to learn how to touch. I tell students there are certain things that you touch, and if it springs back, that’s how I know my muffin or my cake is done properly.
And you need to make sure that you’re tasting your products and thinking about the final product and where it’s going. If you’re making a product for yourself, perhaps you like it one way, but if you’re selling a product to customers, they may like it another way. I’m not a big coconut fan, I’m not the type of person who’s going to eat coconut ice cream, but I need to know what it should taste like, so customers get exactly what they’re looking for.
Smell is how the flavor compounds are developed during the baking process. If you’re toasting some hazelnuts, if you smell them, that usually means they’re overbaked, so you should be paying attention to your sense of smell. If you’re smelling something, we have a situation.
Q: What would you say you like most about being a culinary instructor?
A: My favorite thing about being an instructor is the rewarding aspect of seeing a student that’s struggling with something after I’ve shown them how to do it, and perhaps I know a different way and I’m seeing that light bulb go off and it clicks for them automatically. That is such an amazing feeling.
My class is a 15-week full semester class, so for the first few weeks, students are always struggling to get their sense of urgency and develop their kitchen voice. Then by Week 14 and 15, they’re so independent. I watch them grow from little chicklets to full-on birds, and then they’re going to leave the nest and move on to bigger and better things. I love watching that lengthy process come to fruition at the end of the semester and to see how much they have grown.
To get an idea of Chef Jesse’s teaching style and learn how to make choux au craquelin, log on to the “ChefsForum: Pastry Techniques Spotlight; Choux au Craquelin” webinar on ACF’s YouTube page. Click here for a full list of the ACF ChefsForum Webinar Series.