Friday, September 17, 2010

Why I'm Not A Chef ...

I love food.

God, how I love food.

I have no recollection of being a picky eater. My mom may have anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but as well as I can remember – and I can remember pretty well – I ate without much complaint. Crusts could be left on my sandwiches. I was always willing to try something new. I do remember her spending a fair amount of time getting the "white stuff" off of oranges when she would peel them for me, but that's not unusual, right? Who likes pith?

I liked hanging out in the kitchen with her, from the earliest of ages. I have clear memories of standing on a chair by the sink, "doing dishes," pouring water from one plastic container into the next. Even now, I like doing dishes. I have friends who detest that chore, but I like it. Warm, soapy water, making everything clean, the instant gratification and the empty sink.

I learned how to make bread when I was 8. My Aunt Anne taught me and my cousin Lora. I don't know if she still makes it. I do. Not as often as others would like, I reckon, but it's been warm. Now that fall is approaching, my interest in yeast has returned.

I grew up in a family of women who grew up in a family of women who cooked. I was not raised on shortcuts. Box mixes equaled mortal sins. It's not as though we churned our own butter, but making a cake required all the component ingredients, not eggs and oil and the contents of a box. And frosting? In a can? Why not just rob a bank instead? If you're going to bring that kind of shame on the family, you may as well line your pockets.

My friends, by comparison, were not schooled with such skills. They called me a "gourmet chef." I never did understand why. I could cook, yes. I could cook reasonably well for someone my age, I suppose. But "gourmet chef"? People need higher standards.

Still, I liked to cook for people. Really, I liked to bake for people. I'm a good cook but I'm a better baker.

And so, in my 20s, as I endeavored to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with my life, I struck upon the notion of culinary school.

The reasoning was pretty simple: I like to cook –> I should get paid to cook.

I mentioned my plan to a friend, a former professor. She had a friend in the restaurant business in New York. She suggested I write to Roger.

So I did.

And Roger gave me some perspective and advice: 1) Culinary schools churn out a lot of cooks, he said, not chefs. 2) Everyone has a romantic notion about being a chef, but before I plunked down $25,000 (at the time) for a 2-year degree, I needed to spend some time in a working kitchen. That, he said, would tell me whether I really wanted to pursue this life.


So, being me, I waited – a long time – before I spent some time in a professional kitchen.

And you know what?

I didn't like it.

The people were perfectly nice, but I quickly realized that a working kitchen is no place for a perfectionist. Or, at least, the time I spent didn't allow me to become proficient enough to allow enough time for me to do things as particularly as I wanted them done.

And when the head pastry chef told me that, out of school (again, at the time) that I could expect to make $7 a hour to start?


I abandoned that plan pretty swiftly.

And contented myself with the notion that throwing the occasional dinner party and baking up a storm for the holidays was more my culinary speed.

I stand in awe of great chefs. I am delighted that Allen Sternweiler has returned to Chicago after too long away. I think he is a genius.

But me? Nope. I'm not a chef. Never was. Never will be. I like the checkered pants. And the jackets are cool. But I'm grateful that Roger offered such good advice.

And I think he was the one who told me about Gray's Papaya, so I owe him for that, too.


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