In 1983, I was a student at the California Culinary Academy in my hometown of San Francisco. Against the advice of my mother (and just about everyone else), I enrolled and started my chef studies. I was 33, the age Jesus died on the cross. I often miss big signs from the universe.
At the time, my mother could only say, "Isn't this why we sent you to college the first time? So you wouldn't end up working in the kitchen?" She had a point; the women always had a point. I was determined.
During the first three months of very intensive schooling, I would walk everyday during my lunch break to ponder if this had been a smart move. There were only five women in my class of 90 students. We were treated poorly, discouraged often and yes, asked to serve the chefs' differently. Male classmates were there to learn to cook and run kitchens. Girls were at the CCA because the Constitution of the United States made them accept us.
It was a hard time. I was not used to taking orders or being a second-class citizen. I had had a successful career and put my first husband through college and dental school. I knew how to take care of business. Taking care of myself did not come as easily
The notice went up on the bulletin board that Marcella Hazan was coming to teach an Italian cooking class. It was not part of the curriculum, but if you wanted to attend you might have to assist or be an escort to Ms. Hazan.
I was the first person to volunteer. I could not believe my good fortune.
My interest in cooking began in 1973 with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Marcella's landmark, The Classic Italian Cookbook. One was completely foreign and the other was like coming home. My Italian grandmother and aunts cooked like Marcella. Wonderful meals to eat, share and enjoy with your family at home.
When the Grand Dame of Italian food arrived, I was surprised because she was tiny. With slightly blonde hair, not yet grey. What I noticed were her huge, soulful eyes.
She brought her own apron. Plain, a real cook's apron, not fancy. With two other female students, we prepped lemons and herbs and several chickens for her to roast. If there was time, Marcella would also make a pasta dish. When I turned around to ask her if she needed anything else, she had a cigarette dangling from her lips.
My classmates and I had done almost everything wrong in the set-up, and Marcella
quickly handed us back our prep bowls and verbally instructed us: "Oh no, this too big, this too small, this too wet." All of her instructions were given with a warm desire for perfection and a straightforward smile.
An hour had passed and other students were wandering in for the class before I noticed that Marcella had one dominant arm. Her right arm, much weaker, was a condition often referred to as a withered arm that had been caused by a childhood accident.
I was stunned because I'd been questioning if I had what it took to make it in the kitchen, any kitchen, and here was an idol, cooking away with only one really good arm.
It was a sign from the universe I didn't miss. If this tiny, smart, biologist turned chef could make it in the kitchen, I had to try.
Marcella smoked after her cooking class was over, even though several people told her no smoking was allowed in the demo kitchen. She simply replied, "I smoke.''
Years later, I told this story to her son Giuliano, and he sweetly mumbled, "Yes, that sounds like my mother."
I found a classmate to drive Marcella to her next school. He was whining that he didn't let people smoke in his car. I kept saying, "This is Marcella Hazan, open a damn window."
When he returned I asked, "Well, how did it go?' And his sheepish reply was,
"Guess What? She smoked!"
Denise Vivaldo has written eight cookbooks and worked on countless cooking shows as a consultant and food stylist. She is most grateful for having met Marcella Hazan.