I happily greet Chef Ray in the elevator, proud that I have arrived early to set up my mise en place (meaning everything put in its place) and eager to make a good impression. I casually inquire about his weekend and accidently lean on the emergency button, sounding the alarm, creating an incredibly awkward moment for both of us. The loud beep mocks me as we ride up three floors, neither of us speaking.
It's impossible to write about people who cook without submerging yourself in the culture. The process hits you with hurricane force winds and begins to change the way in which you see yourself as well as your perception of the world around you.
By week three, I learn to move with an efficiency and speed. I learn to be mindful of heat, fire and steel. Most importantly, I learn to man up. Be smarter, faster and tougher.
The kitchen works in harmony, mostly because each person aspires to bring their personal best. Chefs work in extreme temperatures, mostly late at night, and they don't sleep until their work is done. They are truly badass by nature. I gaze up at the lesson board and see I'm Sous-Chef this week. Aside from level of skill, the biggest difference I've observed so far between a Chef and a Sous-Chef is the number of tattoos covering their body. My first job is to carry a bin filled with pots and pans weighing the equivalent of a small child back to the washroom.
As I teeter into the dishwashing area, I realize the team doesn't speak much English. I try to use hand singles to explain the pots are still hot. We are locked in a bizarre game of charades until he finally says, "Ah, Caliente!" I walk out of the washroom, slip on a peeled piece of carrot and realize my road not taken is paved with hazardous root vegetable peelings and I'm going down with nothing to break my fall.
Back in the kitchen, we start peeling our potatoes for the Pommes Anna. Peeling a potato has a certain reflective quality. The act of rinsing off the dirt, peeling the skin and thinly slicing it delivers peace and immediate gratification. The steps are clear, it takes focus and as I immerse each one in a comforting bath of cold water to avoid them turning nasty brown, I feel satisfied. I've accomplished something and it's not even 10 am. At that moment, Chef hands me a Mandolin, which looks like some sort of torture contraption from the Middle Ages and warns me against slicing off the tip of my finger. Meditation over. Game on
Meanwhile, two marriages, one divorce and four babies later, my best friend Lisa and I are finally living in the same city and her budding romance with a much younger man seems to be heating up. Whoever said a watched pot never boils?
Each day after class I've been dropping off the lessons of the day: poisson en pappillote (fish baked in parchment), entrecotes grilles and pommes frites (grilled steak and fries). She tells me she casually invites him over for dinner and what follows is an evening of heavy petting, fine food and explosive sex. A courtship takes courage and some of the heat is bubbling over into my own marriage, so I can't complain.
After all, cooking isn't only about meditation and potatoes.
Back at culinary school, we're all in a line hovering above the sweltering heat of the burners when Chef describes the final steps in both recipes. He demonstrates the art of flipping his Pommes Anna (Potatoes Anna) where you must have faith and rely on the shape of the pan when flicking your wrist in such a way that the potato cake coasts along the front of the sauté pan and does a complete flip onto it's other side, looking tan and gorgeous. It's a technique that doesn't even have a description in the textbook, but takes a combination of skill, faith and fearlessness, none of which I can muster in that moment. However hard I try, all I can envision is a train wreck of sliced potatoes in a huddled mass on the kitchen floor and my hair up in flames like burnt toast.
I watch, anxiety climbing to epic heights, as he adds the Cognac to the Poulet Sauté Chasseur (Chicken Chasseur) and effortlessly flambés (act of pouring spirits over food to ignite them). Chef Ray swirls in the butter, and the luscious sauce smells so divine my mouth begins to water. As the rest of the class excitedly torches and flips their food, I stand back immobilized with fear. I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye and blame it on the onions. Meanwhile, my friends and classmates chant for me to try to execute the flip or the flambé. I'm still paralyzed with fear.
When had I lost faith in being fearless? I realize it's not my age that leaves me feeling uninspired; It's my attitude. At what point did the fear of failure, overwhelm the prospect of success?
And that night, in the comfort of my home with a fire extinguisher by my side, I flambéed and I flipped... over and over. As the first Pommes Anna falls to the floor I realize taking a risk can never be a failure. It always leads you somewhere, usually steps away from success.
I make a promise to myself that next time, if given the choice, I'll find the five seconds of courage it takes to flip or flambé.
Excerpts inspired by the class, Serious Amateur, French Cooking, Culinary Techniques, Recipe and photos taken from International Culinary Center.
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Heidi Brod and Lisa Stolov have a daily newsletter/website DishInOutBeauty.com that focuses on health and beauty from the inside out.