Written on May 5, 2016, the day after my final.
As I sit here typing with my wrists aching from chopping so fast in the last 48 hours, my hands torn apart from those spicy Italian red chilis, my belly full of Scotty’s bread pudding, Rachael’s kibbeh, and Valencia’s ricotta, I cannot help but notice the joy and lightness that fills my heart.
I am so proud of our Chef team – seeing everyone’s plates today at the end of the final today blew me away. It has been an amazing semester working with a unique, loving, and wonderful group of peers that I now think of as family.
Reflecting on my journal from day one until now, I see so many transformations that have taken place in my life – within the kitchen, among my peers, in regards to the way I think about food, and so much more.
I would like to share just a few of the many ways in which this culinary program has impacted my life.
(This is a lengthy one.)
Before this program, I never used onions or garlic in my cooking, even though I enjoyed their flavor, because I found them inconvenient to chop up. On Day One with Chef Barry, I did not particularly enjoy spending our four hours in the kitchen hunched over my board painstakingly trying to brunoise, chiffonade, and julienne. The knife was unfamiliar territory and I found it so uncomfortable. Yet as we delved into recipes, many Chefs corrected my posture and advised me to choke up on the knife. I became well-versed in onion tears and garlic fingers. Chef Michael Leviton’s passion for his own knife inspired me – I stopped fearing my own knife and began chopping what was on my board with confidence. While I am still slow and steady, chopping is no longer a chore but an act of enjoyment, especially when my knife is razor sharp.
Learning proper chef’s etiquette has been invaluable. Our many Chefs’ emphases on mis en place, maximizing time, utilizing ingredients, working clean, and being consistent have really had an impact on the way I wield myself in the kitchen and on the resulting product of my food.
No longer am I spending extra time going back and forth to a recipe. Rather, before starting to cook, my mind has already mapped out the fine details: Okay, so make sure the blanching water gets put on first and have your ice bath at the ready…For this part, I need the small frying pan and a wooden spoon…hmm egg whites, I need a whisk for sure…and when should I pre-heat that oven? I need a 125 temp on that salmon before it comes out. I’ll save that lemon rind for some nutty gremolata on top, and these broccoli stems can come home with me for soup.
Proper planning and attention to detail has brought an immense amount of clarity to my brain, has saved me time, and made me more consistent as a cook. I can be faster and have more focus on the actual cooking process, which is great.
In the beginning, I was afraid to taste my food.
As a very health conscious eater, I was worried about the amount of butter, sugar, flour, and salt that I would have to eat during this program. However, as the days went by, I shook off this fear, realizing that tasting food was essential to making a good dish, essential to making me a better chef. A little of anything was not going to hurt me anyway. This was a huge breakthrough. By tasting, I learned that lots of the same flavors that we enjoy from butter, cream, and salt can be derived in healthier ways, such as using vegetable purees, acids, and yogurt. I also understood why fat is so tasty – after all, fat is flavor.
A thick skin.
Yes, I did burst into tears after I set my final dessert plate down – it was just an emotional release waiting to happen. But, I will say that this program has toughened me, brought me immense confidence within the kitchen, and has shown me that I am much more capable than I thought.
I remember the first day in which we had to present our sauces. I was trembling and could not figure out how to make it look less like a blob on the plate. I covered it in saffron (of all things!). Laughing as I look back on this event, I am amazed to reflect on what types of food and technique that I have had the courage to present in front of my peers and these top Chef instructors along the way. Working on the fryer and grill have been brand new machinery for me, and yet I managed to pull of a fried appetizer for our Market Basket with Chef Chris, a grilled squid salad for Chef Michael, and so many curries and creations along the way.
Finding my voice.
I remember the first few weeks of the program when I was afraid to say, “BEHIND YOU!” in fear of sounding rude. While I still speak in a softer voice, the line “HEY BEHIND YOU HOT!” translates to care and concern for others, rather than anything rude.
I have never tasted steak or lamb before this program; working with meat has been fascinating and enlightening. Chef Barry’s butchering days were very educational. I really appreciated working with the whole animal, understanding where its parts came from and why we had to cook a shank differently than a tenderloin. I am proud to say that I can cook a decent steak now!
I wondered, before starting this program, if I would enjoy eating meat after tasting it. However, in fact, the opposite occurred. While I enjoy the technique and skill that I have gained from butchering chickens, searing steak, and braising lamb, my preference for meat has not changed. In fact, I might even like it less than I did before, now that I can recognize the smells and flavors of the product so much better than before. Isn’t that interesting?
There is a resurgence, an awakening, for my interest in Indian cooking. During the course of these three months, I have realized that my palate knows Indian flavors quite well. I was motivated to practice my masalas and chapati making skills. My mom has given me cooking advice everyday. Toasting and grinding my own fresh spice blends is a new favorite hobby – it makes all the difference. I cannot wait to dive deeper into my country’s cuisine.
Yoga and food.
I cannot help but reflect on the ways in which this culinary program has impacted my yoga practice. While being in the kitchen all day long has not exactly helped my posture, this exposure to food and the elements that surround it have heightened my senses. I smell better. I taste better. I am more alert in my listening. I am aware of my peripheries. I understand the force of fire. Cooking brings me to the present. Remaining steadily focused on a task, such as mincing garlic, despite the changing environment around, is meditative. I even use cooking metaphors while teaching my yoga classes now, and my students seem to really enjoy it.
Ultimately, this program has made me realize that there is a reason for why being in a kitchen makes me so happy, and that I can make delicious food. Chef Barry mentioned the “fire in the belly” feeling on the first day of class – throughout this program I have experienced that feeling and passion for cooking and feeding others.
I am so grateful to the staff, the Chefs, and my peers for this great experience.
While my journal started as a homework assignment, it has blossomed into a
beast feast of it’s own nature.
I will most likely be continuing to write in it for a while.