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When Paragon Culinary School dean Victor Matthews invited me to observe his second graduating class' Extreme Practical series, he called it "hard-core madness."

Each of the nine students would begin his or her day at 4:30 a.m., then cook and prep nonstop for 20 hours thereafter. A passing grade would seal the student's graduation after three years at Paragon and, in Matthews' estimation, prove he or she was ready to face the culinary world head-on.

When I committed to attend two full days and three other dinner segments, I had reservations about the idea that even a 20-hour cooking binge could speak to a student's preparedness for the rigors of a high-end kitchen. I wondered why Paragon's methodology so differs from that of larger culinary institutions, and why Matthews feels the need for such a punishing final exam.

Then I watched nine individuals stoically power through their respective days, adapting quickly to unforeseen challenges while demonstrating a solid comprehension of food fundamentals. Plate after plate dazzled. Beyond Matthews' hype, the food seemed to vouch for the school's effectiveness.

Paragon has surely earned a victory with this year's nine graduates. But will it help Matthews win his larger war against the culinary world's status quo? That's a query that only many years' time will answer.

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