About a year ago today, my life was going pretty damn well. I recently graduated college, moved to a gorgeous city, and began a wildly rewarding career in software development. Around this time I made a radical decision to go back to school in an unexpected direction. I enrolled in the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts program mostly on a whim, and it changed my life forever. I’ve found one path guaranteed to making someone happy: through their stomaches. I’ve always enjoyed making people happy, and, at this point, I’m the happiest man on earth.
When I started going to culinary school back in September 2012, I barely knew how to hold a knife. Looking back, Chef John was incredibly patient with my class of about ten bright eyed students. He spent the entire first six weeks teaching us basic knife cuts. Chopping sessions were intermixed with lectures on safety and sanitation principles of working with food, and basic culinary terms and concepts like the value of stocks. And making breakfast.
Chef John also taught me a valuable lesson: don’t halfass this. Around the fourth week into his class, I was having an exceptionally rough week at work: well beyond the typical 70hrs/week schedule of work, school, and commute. Running on very little sleep, I began arriving to class late (in my defense, 6AM is unreasonably early to be expected full uniform in the classroom). The second time I strolled in at 630AM, Chef John pulled me into the hallway and straight grilled me. I was never late to his class again.
The second six week course was led by a quirky Brit famous for his carving skills. Chef Duffy actually got us into the kitchen, glossing over the classic cooking techniques, basic vegetable cookery. We finally started working multiple burners, and every one of us felt the panic of breaking a sauce under time pressure.
After these twelve weeks, I went back home to the east for Christmas break and got to cook for my family and friends. I think its safe to say thoroughly impressed everyone (and even myself) with my newfound skills. Six months later as I think back to that point: HA! I knew nothing! I was slightly better off than when I barely knew how to hold a knife.
Things really picked up in the third class. Chef Allen is a burly man who doesn’t have time to bullshit around. We finally started playing with meats, and got some first hand experience with butchering. Most importantly, Chef Allen showed us the meaning of kitchen fire.
On the first day of class, he had us put up two different plates, each with a designated protein, starch and vegetable. The first was to be served at 830, the second precisely fifteen minutes later. If the food wasn’t hot, or well seasoned, he didn’t swallow.
Chef Allen totally threw us into the trenches Plating six new recipes with about two hours to prep seemed overly daunting just a week prior. After about week two, even the slowest in the class was dishing up right on time.
This was a valuable lesson I never forgot: aim fucking high. Setting a target that seems overly ambitious, borderline impossible is a pretty effective way to crank the learning curve. Now, I didn’t get many incredible recipes from Chef Allen, but that flame he lit behind my ass has never gone out.
There are two tracks at Le Cordon Bleu: Baking and Culinary. This was a no brainer for me. I’ve never had a sweet tooth, and never bothered trying to bake at home. The fourth class in the culinary track, unfortunately, was an intro to baking. I figured I would put my head down and get through these six weeks until I get back on the hot line.
Chef Holly was a tough, loud mouthed Italian woman who tried to mask her true sweet nature. She kept us engaged, mixing up production and lectures. The faster we went, the more she taught, and damn was she a good teacher. I found baking to actually be pretty fun until we reached the breads unit.
Then I discovered something amazing: I found bread to encompass a perfect trinity of science, artisanal craft, and food. A balance of controlled yeast fermentation and proper gluten development achieves near perfection in one’s mouth (think taking your first bite out of a baguette fresh from the oven sitting at a cafe in France). The techniques to working with dough can’t be taught, but must be felt. Something practice alone can instill.
Since this class, I’ve spent just about every weekend making a certain type of bread. I found a love and passion in a class I was so dreading. What an unexpected, beautiful surprise.
CUISINES ACROSS CULTURES
As an Indian raised in the cultural cesspool of America, I was brought up eating foods from all cultures growing up. I learnt French cuisine before learning Indian cuisine (I got a crash course from my Mom this last Christmas), and am interested in all sorts of food. The fifth class is a tour across the world, so of course I could barely contain my excitement.
Chef Damon, one of the youngest chefs in the school, taught this course. Coming into the class, I held very high expectations for the upcoming six weeks, and Chef Damon did not disappoint. He is just as well versed in history and anthropology as he is in food. And he could cook. This class was split into an alternating rhythm of cooking and lecturing. One day we would cook a range of up to a dozen different classic dishes of a particular culture. These days would be separated by enlightening lectures of the development of civilization and cultures while following the evolution of food.
We learnt how wheat spawned the earliest civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt, while rice sustained Ancient Indus Valley. As these civilizations came into contact with each other, so did the food exchange, and dishes evolved. The availability of food started and ended wars throughout history. The Columbian exchange changed everything. Before this class, I never thought much of Columbus. But the effect his voyage had on food was profound. Tomatoes were completely alien to Italy until Columbus introduced them to the old world in the early 1500’s. Marinara sauce is authentic Italian, ya?
Oh, and we did a fair bit of wine testing during these lectures at 6 in the morning =D. I’m gonna miss this class.
THE LAST STRETCH
The last class is taught by a man who ran all the meals at the Seahawks stadium. Chef Al had run dozens of different corporate rooms and banquet halls, and consistently fed well over eighteen thousand a sitting. He is all about speed and efficiency of putting out raw volume. As a class, we’re constantly putting out extravagant buffets or taking orders from the rest of the school. We are getting a feel for working at and running kitchens at modern restaurants and hotels. Chef Al runs us professionally and mercilessly through daily gauntlets.
I have to say the greatest side effect of this trip is the newfound perspective its given me. One thing is common with everybody: they love food. Through my explorations, I’ve been discovering more about cultures and humanity. This has given me insights into the vast differences between peoples, yet equally prevalent commonalities of humankind. The subtleties of how people from different periods of time, space, and socioeconomic statuses eat their food are fascinating.
I also learned a thing or two about cooking. Am I good enough to get on chopped or Iron Chef? Jesus, not even close. But I have a pretty broad and serious foundation on all things food. I still have so much to learn, but I figure I have the rest of my life to master some skills.
Am I going to quit my job as a software developer and become a fulltime chef? Not likely… I’m obviously passionate about food, but I’m also just as passionate about software engineering. One is just more fun to talk to about the other =D. I do fantasize about retiring somewhere in the wilderness, running a little hole in wall joint and pouring my heart into giving the world honest, inspired foods. Until then, I’ll vent my creative juices into dinners and feasts for those around me. I don’t think they’ll mind.
So where am I now? I’m less than two weeks from finishing all my classes. I have an externship lined up at a two Michelin star restaurant in the alps of France. I’ve forged some incredible friendships that will not fade; I’ve been in and out of the weeds with these fools. The amount of support I’ve received from my family, coworkers, and friends has been unreal. In fact, my coworkers not only support my three month leave of absence, but have sent me off by chipping in for a professional grade KitchenAid mixer.
I’m sitting on cloud nine, and have the world to thank for it.