For Lauren, Abby and Brett (my fellow pioneers)
The past three weeks have been a test of endurance. For my last kitchen class at culinary school, I decided to stray from baking and pastry and test my talents on the savory side. Joining the “savory side,” not only involves cooking, rather than baking, but also requires a complete relocation to an entirely different section of the school. It’s a bit like border crossing into a foreign country.
But, instead of doing something sensible, like escaping oppression and making my way into a land of greater opportunity, I lost my sense of direction. I traveled south. From the spacious bakeshops on the second floor, full of natural light and the scent of freshly baking baguettes, I plunged into greasy, onion-scented kitchens in the bowels of the building. No windows. Hot stoves. Sweaty culinary students. Raw meat.
Despite my longstanding fear of deep fryers and a slight aversion to chickens with their heads lopped off, my three travel companions and I headed into the unknown. Like pioneers, we jumped into our wagon, ready to ford rivers, hunt for bison, and avoid death by exhaustion, snakebites or typhoid. Or rather, we cooked bacon, boiled 6 gallon stockpots of pasta, burnt our fingers, and sweated through our underwear before the clock struck 9am.
The mornings (4:30am-9:45am) were spent prepping food for the school’s fully-operating Café that opens to the public each day. For me, that entailed, learning to make a killer mac & cheese, boiling 9-11 pounds of pasta, and overcoming my chicken aversion and brining a dozen winged carcasses each day.
As we passed fellow bakers in the hall, they’d tilt their heads like confused puppies and inquire about our welfare. The pity and bewilderment in their eyes told us they thought were wacko, masochists. We’d chosen this onion-y position and they couldn’t figure it out.
I believe there are two types of people. People who run marathons and people who don’t run marathons. Some find satisfaction in running seventeen miles in a loop. Some would rather pour themselves a cocktail and watch athletes do their thing through the magic of television. Taking the culinary position had made us marathon running and filled us with self-righteous satisfaction. We were exhausted. We were sweaty, but, while the others noshed on croissants and adhered bits of gold leaf to the tops of mousse domes, by god, we were going the distance.
By 10:00am, we headed up to the Café to set-up for lunch service. This is when the real fun would begin. For those who have never worked “the line,” think the “I Love Lucy,” chocolate episode meets Simon Says. The conveyer belt of chocolate keeps moving full speed, the orders pile up, and if you don’t hit the correct color quadrant, in the correct order, at the proper speed, you lose.
Our saving grace was a free meal and a granita at the end of each shift. A granita was a marker. It meant that we had survived another day and we were closer to being finished. And eventually, we made it. We completed the three week marthon and we’d done pretty well. In the end, we’d become mac & cheese making experts, french-frying fiends, and decent line cooks. We’d sweated, but we’d learned. And isn’t that the point?