Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lessons from Culinary Class

There’s still a ton to learn, but I wanted to capture some of the lessons from the first ten weeks of culinary class. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I like to find lots of lessons in my hobbies. (See breakdowns and therapy on the slopes parts 1 and 2, meditation in the kitchen, slowing down on the River, thoughts on being a paradise people, etc.)

So, here we go!


Lessons from Culinary Class

Priorities are a choice. Before I started class, one of my concerns was finding the time for it. We had class, homework, quizzes, reading, and volunteer hours. A couple of months ago, I read one of Chris Guillebeau’s email’s about life’s priorities in which he encouraged readers to change their language so that instead of saying “I don’t have time for that,” you say, “That’s not a priority for me.” Try it. It’s pretty powerful. I’ve been using it lots lately, and I’ve got to say (as cheesy as it sounds), it has changed my approach to life. I’ve learned that my schedule will make time for something I love doing when I prioritize it. I normally hate the phrase “carving out time” when referring to schedules, but once I prioritized taking class, I really did carve out the time in what I thought was an already packed schedule. It wasn’t that difficult after all because it was for something I really love doing.

Being busier = More quality time with Andrew. This sounds counterintuitive, but the truth is that when we have all of our evenings free to do whatever we want, we usually end up not really appreciating them. I had a photography teacher in high school who was fed up with unproductive students and started marking W for wasted days in his grade book if he didn’t think we had spent enough time working on our projects. (Hello, Midwestern work ethic!) As you can imagine, that was never really a problem for me because I loved being productive and work, work, working. But I hadn’t even realized that Andrew and I were spending a lot of wasted evenings together. Don’t get me wrong, I love an evening sitting on the couch in front of the fire watching House of Cards or Master Chef. But not every evening. I found myself feeling busy with things that aren’t priorities for me. Once I had two evenings a week tied up and the other evenings busy with acupuncture, going to the gym and happy hours with friends (clearly this will always be a priority!), we started spending more quality time together because it was more limited. Our time together feels more special. We are more engaged with each other. When we do get a night together, it’s such a treat and we are excited.

I do not have one passion. I am passionate about cooking and I have passion for it, but it’s not my only passion. I have lots of things that I love and feel passion for, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the type of person who can describe something as my passion. I’ve always had a hard time with this because there have been times when I’ve felt unfocused or like I’m missing out on something because I can’t identify my passion. I have so many interests and skills that are varied, and what I have learned is that I am passionate about trying new things, challenging myself, and pursuing things that are interesting to me. That’s my passion. I can get excited about a lot of things, and that’s a good thing.

The world of food is full of possibilities. Going to culinary school can lead to so many opportunities. Usually when people say things like, “You can do all sorts of things with this degree,” I roll my eyes because I want specifics. I already have a general degree that I can do all sorts of stuff with, and I’m looking for something more narrow. But, being a chef is a little too narrow. Since starting class ten weeks ago, I’ve come across a ton of opportunities, which include being a chef, yes, but also teaching elementary school kids cooking lessons, developing food policy and planning for Santa Fe’s food future and writing about food. There’s also several business ideas floating around in my head.

The chef’s world feels kind of like Downton Abby. From my extremely limited experience, the field seems to be male-dominated and very loyal to a hierarchy that they call the kitchen brigade. My chef instructor, while explaining this brigade, went through the various roles and then he said, “and of course, the dishwashers are at the bottom. They have to be at the bottom.” Um, hello, a kitchen can’t run without dish washing! While volunteering at a fundraiser a few weeks ago, I was ignored by the professional chefs - full on ignored when I said hello - and as they chatted amongst themselves, I felt invisible. It didn’t help that all of the food preparation was behind big black curtains in the back of the room and between the seams I caught glimpses of people I know from my other life like commissioners, former governor’s staff, classmates from graduate school. Also, Ally McGraw was speaking, and all I could do was peek out from behind the curtain and try not to be seen. I kind of wished I was on the other side of the curtain with the people I know and who will at least acknowledge me. It’s a rough transition to go downstairs...

More knowledge + more practice = Even higher standards. My already high standards for food and restaurant meals have only gotten higher. I was worried this would happen, and of course, it has. Armed with a wider vocabulary and knowledge about techniques, preparation, presentation and most of all flavor, I am more discerning than ever. I think it’s a good thing so I’ll leave it at that!

Good food is best enjoyed when it’s part of a full, pleasurable experience. At the end of each class, we can plate our food and eat it. Sounds pretty great, right? I didn’t think so at all. The last thing I want to do is eat food, no matter how good it is, while standing up in a hot, busy kitchen while the dishwasher is going in back and you’re tidying up your station. It’s unpleasant, and it seriously detracts from the pleasure of eating. My partner always wanted to plate our food and then sit out in the lobby at a quiet table to eat. At first, I was annoyed with her because I wanted to just get straight to cleaning up and doing our dishes. I often found myself going home with my boxed up meals, and when Andrew asked how it tasted, I would reply that I hadn’t even eaten any of the finished product. So, I started joining my partner in the lobby, chatting while eating and actually enjoying what we had cooked. It wasn’t perfect because we still had to hurry so we could start cleaning, but it sure was better than standing at a table gobbling down my food.

As cheesy as it sounds, cook with your heart and trust yourself. I think that following recipes is a great way to learn and expand, but there comes a time when you just need to trust yourself. There were several nights in class when I knew that if I was at home, I would do something differently or use different ingredients or ratios, but I felt tied to the recipes, which in my opinion were not all that stellar. I felt like my results were mixed and my food was fine, but nothing like what I cook at home. About two thirds through the class, I realized that an intuitive understanding and technique will yield much better results than strictly following the recipes. I already knew this, I just needed to trust myself more.

The love and joy and parts of yourself that you put into a dish are reflected on the plate. I have no doubt about this. You as a cook are represented on the plate. I usually cook at home and alone, but being surrounding by lots of other cooks from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences made me realize that I do have a certain style and characteristics to my cooking. My background, my preferences, all the meals that I've eaten over the years (especially the really, really amazing ones), my experiences, all the parts of me - they all shape how I cook and my food.


  1. dude! what a learning process! i am so glad you are enjoying this!

    the hierarchy things in jobs/fields drives me crazy. we have clients that only want to talk to or see the boss. i get it and all (and sometimes i like it -- HE can deal with these assholes), but sometimes it is insulting and hugely inefficient. bleh!

    i think it is great that you have many passions. i do too! sadly one of my passions is sitting on the couch and watching tv (and sleeping), but i need to fight through that and make more out of my life already! i don't think i am cut out for culinary school, but i have been mulling over a few ideas/options that i could make time for (or make a priority!). :)

    1. Good luck with your ideas! I don't know if I'll go to culinary school or pursue this professionally, but at this point, it has been so rewarding and fun and such a joy to try something new and be so far outside of my comfort zone.


Hey, thank you!

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