New Orleans in August is damn hot, and the air-conditioner in this 40-year-old building was struggling. There were 45 of us crammed into a classroom designed for 30. Eager, arrogant, excited and cocky -- but most of all, we were sweaty. The first day of culinary school, dressed in our new uniforms with our Mardi Gras-colored patches that proclaimed us as newbies, yet most of us believed we were ready to take over the helm of Commander's Palace. Putting on a real chef coat for the first time will do that to you. Most of us were sitting on aluminum folding chairs, six or seven to a row, some were standing or sitting in the corners, and all of us were tugging at our neckerchiefs wondering if we would have to dress like this for three years in this sweltering classroom. From the front of the room our impeccably dressed Chef instructor had just informed us that yes, even on classroom days, we will be in full uniform.
"You will wear black herringbone pants, black socks, clean black shoes, your school's chef coat and your neckerchief, even if you're just sitting in accounting class. Oh and that chef coat better be neat and clean, don't you dare show up wrinkled and dirty." My mother had taught me well, and I sat there agreeing with Chef yet I could hear expletives being muttered and saw a few heads shaking. Then Jimmy asked, "Chef, what if you don't have an iron?" Long pause. The look on Chef's face said so many things: you buy one, borrow one, steal one, go make one out of an old manhole cover, ask your mother, why the hell are you asking me this damn question; but most of all his look said, I hate the first day of school. I'm in a room full of adults, and they're asking me about irons. I looked around and realized most everyone was agreeing with Jimmy, what if you don't have an iron? My classmates were leaning forward, waiting for an answer, stifled by the humidity and this new predicament. Shoulders were being hunched and heads were scratched. How are we going to tackle food cost equations without an iron? I thought this was culinary school, and I'm already behind the curve. Does Wusthoff make an iron? Chef was saved by the most unlikely candidate, Boudreaux (Boo-droh) a shrimper from Houma, a salt of the earth guy with a thick Cajun accent that had grown up on the pitching deck of his family's shrimp trawler.
"I gaht dis one Chef." Chef looked over at Boudreaux, pursed his lips then waved his right arm, palm out as if to say "Be my guest." Boudreaux stood up slowly, tugging on his pants. His muttering audience was now silent and intent on solving this puzzle.
"In da morning, when ya taking ya showah, hang ya chef coat in da showah and let da steam frum da showah take dem wrinkles out."
Chef's eyes were wide open and he nodded. I started to giggle at the incongruity of the situation and looked around for someone else that was sharing my emotions, yet most everyone was nodding in approval. I scratched my head with my left hand and looked to my right. At the end of the row was a cute girl with sparkling brown eyes, her slightly curly hair, the color of a warm café au lait, tumbled down her neck as she looked my way and grinned, the tip of her tongue playfully clenched between her teeth. She understood and the look on her face said it all. "Are you believing this? A room full of adults, not knowing how to iron a shirt and taking fashion advice from a shrimper?" I returned her smile and hoped she was available, then turned my attention back to Boudreaux; he wasn't finished.
"If dat don't work, take an empty lick-ah bottle, fill it wit haut war-ta then roll dat bottle on ya chef coat, take dem wrinkles right out."
Now I'm laughing because someone asks, "Will any liquor bottle work?" Heads turn to the back of the class as we try to spot the owner of this question, but Boudreaux fires back, right hand palm up as he quickly points out that Jack Daniel's and some gins come in a square bottle and it's best to use a round bottle because it's easier to roll. Four or five of us explode into laughter as Chef puts his head down on his desk. I look across my row, and Amy turns to me and winks. A few days later, Amy was interviewing at Christian's restaurant where Chef Roland Huet had hired me a week prior. As I walked past the dining room entrance, I saw Amy; her back was to me, yet I already knew her form. Later I told Chef Roland he should hire her. I fibbed and said I knew her in class and she was pretty sharp. Four months later my hair stood up and goose bumps burst through my skin as we shared our first kiss in the walk-in cooler of Christian's.
After 25 years she still gives me goose bumps.
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