Friday, June 26, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

Yesterday at 5 pm. I stood across the street from the French Culinary Institute on Broadway at the corner of Broome. It's a wide, noisy street with one-way car traffic barreling toward Canal but the pedestrian traffic flows every which way. I was like a fat rock in a rushing stream with my bulging FCI-issued bag, stuffed with the uniforms I'd gotten the day before at orientation, and the notebooks and black non-slip shoes and protein bars and water bottles and band aids and Neosporin and deodorant they told us to bring too. I had my steel lock for my locker and bobby pins for my hair which would have to be hidden under a chef's hat. I clutched the double espresso I'd just gotten from Starbucks to ensure I'd make it through the next six hours on my feet and another one driving home, since all this was going to be way past my regular bedtime. I let people pass me and bump my bag when the light turned green. I wasn't ready to cross. I wanted to take in all my caffeine, but I also wanted take it ALL in.

There was the bright orange banner flying in the hot breeze that marked the building as the INTERNATIONAL CULINARY CENTER, home to The French Culinary Institute and Italian Culinary Academy. On the ground floor was L'Ecole, the school's restaurant and real-time classroom, where I'd spend the last part of my program as a working cog in the wheel of that kitchen. To the left was a few steps and a non-descript door that lead a tiny foyer and an elevator. That's it. No big impressive lobby. No sprawling, picturesque campus like the school my son attends. Still, as I tossed my cup in the corner trash and entered that modest foyer I was acutely aware of the fact that my life was about to shift in a seismic way. I was entering a world, the culinary world, not as a reality-TV spectator, but FOR REAL.

It was over 80 degrees and humid outside but indoors was not much better. Add to this the weight of my crisp new chef's jacket embroidered with my name and the FCI logo, my high-waisted checkered chef's pants, my heavy black work socks and shoes, a shin-length apron tied around my waist adding another layer and a monk-like, head hugging chef's cap plastering down my hair. My earlobes and lips squeaked out the only gasp of femininity in the whole outfit: diamond studs, tiny hoops and a bit of gloss. If not entirely sexy in the outfit, I most definitely felt hot. Sweaty hot, and this was just as I was leaving the locker room.

We wait in a holding area that leads to the many kitchens along the 4th floor. We are being issued ID cards and the last bit of "orienting" before class starts. There are 24 of us in this Tues/Thurs/Sat evening, 9-month Culinary Arts session. Five women and 19 men. I'm wondering if one of the women, an ivory-skinned red-head who is attending as an homage to her late foodie father and hopes to one day leave her disappointing fashion industry job, is over thirty. If she is, it's just barely. Otherwise everyone else is most definitely in their 20's. Except me.

I don't know everyone yet, despite the icebreaker at the orientation where we all got to say our names, where we were from and our last best meal. We hailed from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, The Bronx, Brooklyn, one or two from the South or vaguely "out west." Names...fuggedaboutit for now. But it will be interesting to watch the personalities unfold, including my own. When I watch culinary reality shows I always wonder how I would handle it when the oil hits the pan? In the heat of the kitchen, at the height of the competition, which of the stock characters would I show myself to be? Debbie Downer? Drama Queen? Sadie Sabotage? Lacey Lazy? The Whiner, The Bullie? The Screw-Up? The Winner? Would I be the one Gordon Ramsey is secretly rooting for or can't wait to rip the coat off of? Would the public love me or hate me? Though we are not on TV here, I suspect that this kitchen we enter and inhabit for the next six weeks of Level One will cook up some dramatic dynamics and we will learn a lot about ourselves and who we are under the pressure to succeed.

Real Knives

The kitchen in divided in to six commercial grade work stations, each station has two ovens and four work areas which consist of a small stainless steel working surface and shelves, four commercial gas burners, a flat top "grill" area, and a ventilator hood. At the head of the "classroom" is a marble topped demonstration area where the Lead Chef and the Chef Instructor conduct the class. A white board is crowded with the terms we will have to learn as part of Session 1. Our Lead Chef tells us to just call him Chef X in his precise French-accented English. I read online at the FCI site that he is originally from Corsica, and has 30 years cooking experience in France and the US earning accolades along the way. He is still a working Chef by day and a molder of culinary souls by night.

I am delighted with his French accent. The lyrical lilt of it makes me feel nostalgic, for what, I don't know, since my French father was hardly the charming Maurice Chevalier type. He was more like Napoleon on steroids. But still, my childhood soundtrack was populated with the accents of my parents and relatives from France, Germany, and Belgium; Edith Piaf records played while we cleaned the house Saturday mornings, the scenes were set with jugs of wine and cloudy Pernod- and-water filled glasses. Chef X's voice, despite his warning that he was the toughest, that he would not tolerate our lateness, incomplete or unkempt uniforms, our absences, or our incompetence, made me feel like I'd come home. He calls me "Rahchelle" like my parents did and I tell him I don't mind. I try to show off and speak in French to him. I use up my limited vocabulary in a few sentences and vow to spend more time with the Rosetta Stone lessons my husband gave me for Mother's Day.

We launch into our knife kits, a multi-zippered and Velcro'd affair that could easily pass as a the kind of satchel you see movie assassins toting on their way to roof tops to pick off their targets. And indeed this one is stuffed with German engineered, high-carbon stainless steel weapons: the big chef's knife, the boning, filleting, paring, slicing and serrated knives with a sharpening "steel". Another unzipped compartment reveals a parisienne scoop (melon baller), canneleur (channel knife), kitchen scissors, trussing needle, a vegetable peeler, a rubber spatula, a wooden spatula, an offset pastry spatula, two sizes of whisks, five pastry tips, a stem thermometer, a chef's fork, a pepper mill and tongs. One more zip and there are boning tweezers, a 2-oz. ladle, another vegetable peeler, a "female" slotted spoon, a "male" whole spoon and a pastry brush. I slip out the little white card from behind the plastic window on the kit's front panel, fill in my name and phone number and slide the card back in place. I take ownership of my shiny and sharp tools of the trade.

Next there are the pans and the pots and various vessels we must be able to recognize and retrieve from the four corners of the kitchen. I'm familiar with all of them but not by the French names we have to memorize. Marmite, poele, sauteuse, rondeau, russe, sautoir, rotissoire, chinois, chinois etamine. Chef X holds up a pan and randomly calls on people to shout out the names. I go blank or get it wrong. Memorization will be a challenge. They might as well re-name menopause as MEMO-PAUSE because it's about the time you start losing all short term memory. I can remember what I ate on my third date with my fifth boyfriend but I can remember what I did with my car keys....until I open the refrigerator and see them in the butter compartment.

By now it's around 7:30 pm. I'm starting to get really hungry. The salad I had at three o'clock before I left the house is not going to get me through the night. I left my organic protein bars in the locker. I vaguely remember something from the orientation about a meal we may or may not get around 8:30. Chef X tells us we only stop to eat if the class is performing well, and on time. I make a mental note to make sure I always hide a snack in my knife kit, just in case. My lower back is aching but it's nothing compared to the pinched nerve between my shoulder blades and the ache along the bottom of my feet from standing in one spot for over two hours. There are no chairs in the kitchen. I bend over to try and stretch my back and right away Chef asks "Are you OK?" The last thing I want to project is the image of the old lady in the group who can't handle it. I straighten out, assure him I'm fine and proceed do a lot of leaning and shifting my weight from side to side to "rest."

The next hour is spent watching the chef produce a series of vegetable "taillage" or cuts into various shapes and sizes. He demonstrates with onion, leeks, carrots, cabbage, turnip and tomato. Emincer leaves an onion thinly sliced and Ciseler is a fine dice done without removing the onions core. A neat trick. Julienne, thin elegant strips that break down into smaller strips called Cheveaux or into tiny dices called Brunois; Jardinere, a thicker long stick that could also be a shorter stick called an Alumette or a cube called a Macedoine. A still thicker long stick called a Mignonette that could be broken down into a hair-thin tile Paysanne. He concasses a tomato leaving it seedless and chiffonades a cabbage leaf into ribbons. He tells us we will have to duplicate his efforts tonight, but blissfully he announces we will take a 15-minute break to eat.

During the demo our food had arrived from some other kitchen in the building...other students doing Level 3 or 4 production for our benefit and sustenance. We line up with our plates and utensils to get our portion of aromatic baked chicken breasts on the bone, roasted vegetables, potatoes with bacon and melted cheese and a salad with vinaigrette. We eat, standing at our stations. I get a chance to talk to my station partner, even if I get no relief for my back and feet.

A tall young man, of Asian descent, soft spoken, with a kind, handsome face. He asks me why I'm doing the program and I ask him the same. He's been an accountant for several years right out of college and is not happy with the work. "Since I was in high school, I pictured myself owning a restaurant. I don't think my parents are happy about my choice, but I'm 25 years old and they don't exactly have a say in it at this point. But I know they are not happy. All they think of is the money. Make a lot of money and you are a success." He looks at me directly. He's sure of what he wants to say. "I don't measure success the way they do." We chat a little more about passion and vocation...that a life lived doing work that is meaningful to you is as much a measure of success as any bank statement, if not more. The food and the conversation is satisfying. I'm refreshed in body and spirit.

We tackle our taillage, at first confused about the directions or how we are supposed work as a team. I adopt a kind of "mother hen" protectiveness over my partner giving him directions here and there, checking up on him, but soon realize he knows what he's doing better than I do and I'm lagging behind. The cuts go excruciatingly slow—no flashing knife work here. My shoulders are up around my ears and tense. I'm grazing my fingernails and coming dangerously close to trimming my fingertips. My carrots are too thick, I'm wasting too much. The Chef instructor, Mark, stops at my station and answers a question, congenially showing me how to smooth out my "steam engine" movement of the knife and use the back of the blade to achieve my cut. I do better but am still struggling. I hear Chef X shout "five minutes" and get the first taste of trying to complete a culinary task against the clock. I look at my sheet pan and samples and realize I've completely forgotten the two cuts of onion. I race to the far side of the kitchen and get an onion and attack it. I am sweating. My partner is peeling a carrot and I realize that without thinking, I stole his already peeled carrot for my cuts. "Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking." He tells me not to worry about it, but I'm sure he'll avoid being on my station next time around.

Real Tired

I finish my demo piles just in time as Chef X passes our station to inspect. I present. "Good, a little thick but good, this is good," he points to carrots and turnips and leeks. The onions are good too but mentions some nuances, some improvements. "Well done for the first time. You will get better."

"I hope!" I say.

"Not hope. You will, I'm telling you." With him in charge I would progress, of that he seemed to have all the confidence in the world.

We clean and pack our knives, clear and clean our stations. In the locker room I slowly change into my street clothes. When I hit the cooling night air with my bulging bag and heavy knife kit and waddle the four blocks to the parking garage, I am both overwhelmed and elated. I ask myself the question "What Have I Gotten Myself Into?" feeling both overwhelm at the enormity of what I've committed to, and awe at the fact that I'm actually here and doing it. I am bone-achingly tired and bone-deep happy. My buzz takes me through the Holland Tunnel and the hour ride home without so much as a yawn.


Ellen said...

All I can say is wow. You are such an incredible writer. I loved reading every line and can't wait to read more.

Rosemary said...


Great stuff here. Kudos on getting through the first day.

Best, best, best of luck in this undertaking!

natalie sztern said...

I am 52 and dream of what you are doing so as of today I will be following you and living my dream through your word. Thx and Good Luck btw both libras - that means we are both artists of sorts...

Mrs. Fabulous said...

Thank you friends! I can't tell you what it means to me to know you are out there rooting for me. And knowing that it's giving me just the "deadline" mentality I need to keep writing about this journey. The writing, I can see now is not peripheral to the experience but an essential part of it.

LindaWhit said...

I just saw your link on Chowhound in the "Table Manners for Kids" thread on the Not About Food board.

Just finished reading your 4 posts in your blog, and will anticipate many more enjoyable reads! You have a wonderful way of putting the reader into the kitchen with you and it will be enjoyable to see how you progress - MUCH good luck to you!

Carolyn Jung said...

A big pat on the back to you for conquering your first day there. Like anything, it will get easier as it goes on. Best of luck to you in your culinary adventures!