09 June 2014

yes, chef: to culinary school I go

Julia Child was famous for encouraging us all to have fun in the kitchen—especially when we make mistakes. Most of the time, you're alone in the kitchen anyway, so who's to know if you dropped the eggplant on the floor or if the cake fell a little when it should've stayed puffy?

The important thing is the recovery: Are you able to laugh at yourself, and is the food salvageable? If yes to both, your meal is already three-fourths of the way to success. {The other fourth, I'm sure Julia would counsel, relies on how much butter you use.}

I often channel Julia in the kitchen; I certainly was the other night when I made wiener schnitzel for the first time. Of course that's not a French dish {that "wiener" is from the word Vienna, lest you think it was a hot dog schnitzel or something}, but if you ask me, cooking it—you're essentially deep frying it in peanut oil—takes much courage, something else Julia encouraged in us. As I stood fearfully next to the spattering oil, doing that thing where your body is poised to take flight, I took a deep breath. Flip the meat boldly, I told myself. Be confident. Own the meat.

I flipped with as much careful confidence as I could muster, but some of the oil still splattered on the floor, and I squealed and ran across the kitchen.

Not exactly owning the meat.

Little Pug, ever eager for anything that falls on the floor {manna from heaven, she must be thinking}, sped over to the hot oil—we're talking 350 degrees hot oil—and tried to lick it up. One tiny touch of the tongue, and she squealed and ran across the kitchen.

It's a wonder, isn't it, that dinner ever got made that night?

I thought, as I re-approached the wiener schnitzel: I hope they teach me how to safely fry meat in culinary school. This is clearly a life skill I'm lacking.

Ah, yes, culinary school! I'm going to culinary school, starting today. I'm sure you have questions about that because everyone I've talked to about this has had questions, so I've put together a handy FAQ. After you read this, let me know if you still have questions, and I'll happily answer them over wiener schnitzel.

Kamiah's Culinary Adventures: Frequently Asked Questions

Wait, don't you have a job?

I do! Thanks for noticing that I go somewhere every day and do stuff. I will still be working at my job and will be taking one class at a time. No need to bring too much stress to my life by trying to be some sort of super woman who can work full-time and take lots of classes and train for long-distance races and maintain deep friendships and be someone Little Pug loves. That'd be ridiculous and would make me into a very cranky person.

At this rate, I should finish this degree in...2019.

2019? That sounds like a science fiction year: so far from now.

2019 is a long time from now, but slow and steady wins the race, right? Unless you're running a real race, then that adage doesn't always apply. But in this culinary school thing we're talking about, it does apply: I'll take three classes a year and not be stressed out, something you should never be while cooking.

Let's return to how you're getting a degree. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to quit your job and open up a little cafe that will play French gypsy jazz all the time and be a cliche?

With this degree, I'm going to be a better cook. I don't plan on leaving my job, nor do I ever want to become a cliche. I love cooking, I love cooking for friends, and I love the richness of conversation and connection that opens up around good food. Going to culinary school is an opportunity to get better at what I love and at what excites me.

Are you still going to have me over for dinner? Or will cooking become like homework for you?

Please see the part of the answer above where I talk about how I love gathering people around my table. Yes, I will still have you over for dinner.

But will I have to pay for my dinner, now that you'll be a fancy chef?

Oh my gosh, that would be terrible and I'd lose all my friends. But remind me sometime to tell you about when I opened up a cafe at home. I was maybe 9, and I called it The Kid's Cafe. My cooking skills were limited, so the menu offered peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and carrot sticks. I charged my family for their dinner, and the kicker was that of course, my parents were paying for the groceries. They paid for their dinner twice over, and it wasn't even that good. I'm sorry, family. I won't charge you ever again.

{I guess you don't have to remind me now to tell you that story because I just did.}

You bring up a good point about your cooking skills: I know you from back in the day {in this case, any time before I was 23}, and in my memory, you were a terrible cook. As in you had trouble with ramen noodles. You must've progressed since I saw you last.

Hi, long lost friend. I have progressed, and I owe it all to a cookbook called Cooking without Mom. No, that's the actual title, sad as it sounds. My mom got it for me when I moved to Wheaton, and it teaches you basics like:
  • how to make pancakes
  • how to cook vegetables so that they don't look like gray masses of sliminess
  • how to make several kinds of hearty casserole {I'm from Iowa, after all}
  • basic substitutions when you don't have what you need for a recipe
That cookbook is my foundation of cooking, and two years later, I was using The Art of French Cooking. This is such a ringing endorsement for Cooking without Mom that it should be on the back cover—if it's even still published.

And dear, dear long lost friend, please come over for dinner. I'll make up for those years when I served you poorly cooked ramen.

What sorts of classes will you take?

I'm going to the Culinary and Hospitality Center at the College of DuPage {aka, the community college that is larger than my hometown}, and it's a very hands-on program. That sounds obvious; how else would you learn to cook if you didn't use your hands?

I mean that after one class of cooking and kitchen basics, I will be cooking for the student-run cafe at COD—paying customers! So soon in my culinary career! The program has a stepping stone approach as you build your knowledge and responsibilities in the kitchen until you're doing your capstone class: cooking French food for the fancy-schmancy restaurant at COD.

I get to take classes on things like:
  • baking and pastries: I will be able to make my own pain au chocolat. Finally.
  • international cuisine: That's everything that's not French, fyi.
  • culinary measurements and conversions: Math that applies to my real life! {Sorry, accountant parents who do math in your real lives every day, that I'm just now discovering math that I would consider "practical."}
  • how to shop for a restaurant: If I learn any tips for home kitchen shopping, I'll pass them along.

Who are your cooking heroes?

Isn't it obvious?

And yes, I did purposely choose a picture of Meryl Streep playing Julia Child.

Bon appetit!

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