After my first day in the kitchen at cooking class, I realized I will never work in a professional kitchen.
I was exhausted, deflated, aching and demoralized. And all I made was soup.
It was the dice that did it. I'd never really thought too much about the size of my vegetable cuts. I always figured as long as they were close, no one would care. And that might have been true at home, but I knew as soon as I saw the chef's face as he surveyed the hodgepodge of carrots and onions dejectedly floating on the surface of my soup that I was in a different ballgame here.
Let me step back. A few months ago, I decided to enroll in a part-time chef training class at George Brown College. I would start with the very basics and then decide if I wanted to go on to the full program later. If nothing else, my thinking went, it would improve my skills in my own kitchen.
So for the past several weeks, I’ve been heading down to the GBC campus twice a week for one demonstration class and one hands-on lab. Unlike the many cooking class options out there for hobbyists, this class is really geared towards the would-be professional. The people in the class itself are a mix: we have some people who work in the industry looking to hone their skills and a few older types like me who are just testing the waters.
The emphasis is on classic techniques and kitchen fundamentals from knife skills to mise en place to knowing and naming your vegetable cuts (a finer art than you might expect). I’ve made stock and consommé, Caesar salad with real eggs, pommes frites and many other dishes I would never make on my own in a million years (potatoes Savoyard, anyone?). It’s also shown me that, outside the cozy confines of your own home kitchen, this cooking shit is hard.
I’m exhausted at the end of a four hour lab; an eight hour plus shift in the high-pressure environment of a real restaurant would probably kill me. Not only that, every dish is presented to the chef at the end of the night for grading; an added layer of pressure. None of this should be news to anyone who pays attention to the restaurant game, but you really need to experience the real deal (or in this case, a reasonable facsimile) to get a full appreciation of the hellish existence endured by the people who cook your food.
Besides that? It’s a lot of fun. As I said, I haven’t made anything (yet) that I would consider importing into my next dinner party, but there’s something exhilarating about the whole process of cooking under pressure, of managing three or four dishes at once. It’s an adrenaline rush every time, which serves to explain the hollowed-out feeling that I get when the last pot is dried and stacked.
There’s the camaraderie among the class. A few of us will meet after class in chef whites and checkered pants to drink pints and break down the day: how was yours?, mine was too salty, mine was undercooked. It has the feeling of being in a club or a gang, and it’s part of what makes the effort worthwhile.
As far as what I’ve learned goes, the class has driven home the importance of organization in the kitchen (would I were so organized outside it). I’m willing to bet nine out of 10 people who claim they don’t know how to cook would benefit dramatically from just getting their act together in advance. It really makes all the difference. Another lesson has been using my senses and intuition and not just relying on the recipe for timings and taste. Trust your eyes and your ears and your tastebuds (and yes, taste all the time). I'd also like to think my vegetable cutting has improved a bit.
I’m not sure I see myself going down the road of culinary school much further. I miss cooking at home as much as I did before I started this class and, frankly, I’m not sure I want to commit to spending more money on school without a clear endgame in mind. But from the inauspicious beginnings with the botched vegetable soup, I’ve grown a bit more at ease, more trusting of myself and my skills. And that’s really the most important skill you can have, in cooking and in life.