Friday, March 12, 2010

Stick a Fork In Me

Last night at culinary school, I presented the last dishes of the last lab of the last quarter of my career there. I'm done.

Well, there's two mandatory hours of deep cleaning the lab (that quarterly festival of fun) and a connection-subsidized five course dinner at one of the better restaurants in the city (A $150.00 value, yours for just $25.00! Act now!). But the thirty months of evening and weekend classes, studying, projects, driving 125 miles round trip, staying overnight when evening and weekend were back to back, sleep deprivation, juggling work-school-home-parenting, ironing uniforms (including aprons and side towels), and telling myself each quarter "It's only 10 weeks. It's only 10 weeks." are over.

My illustrious final menu?
Spinach, orange, and red onion salad with tortillas crisps and orange-cumin vinaigrette

Seared beef tenderloin with tequila-lime sauce, cherry tomato salsa, and calabacitas (a Mexican corn and veggie saute)

Mango sorbet with raspberry sauce and lime-cornmeal cookie
The pictures are of course amateurish because I was hardly in a photography studio, but then so is the actual presentation. I had no idea how hard it is to make food on a plate look stunning until I was forced to try at school. In fact, now that the accomplishment high has been slept off, I'm thinking this work of mine looks pretty lame, even though it tasted good. But then I'm usually way too hard on myself. That's what some people tell me anyway.

Here's something I'm not going to be hard on myself about: finishing school at all. On our first day of class there were 19 of us. The second day we were down to 18. The attrition rate continued in like manner until there were only 8 of us left. Even counting that two of the students lost were transfers to the day program and another one was only slowed, not stopped, by illness, that's still some drop out rate. I respect myself for and take pride in staying the course. It was, without exaggeration, tough going. Whoever gave me the idea during my childhood that I was lazy and a quitter was absolutely wrong!

Persistence aside, I'm pretty sure that I'm no culinary star (said with a grain of salt in case I do indeed think too little of myself). But at school I noticed that a lot of the points on which your grade is based have nothing to do with creativity, even though they encourage it. You could wow the chefs with your latest chocolate-foie gras dessert, but if your uniform looks horrid and you miss classes and your sanitation practices are frightening and you don't care to perform in the classroom as well as the lab, then your grade will suffer. Being a culinary rock star is fine, but only if you also show up faithfully and work neatly and cleanly.

That's the way it is in the business, too. All the folks with the great ideas need a reliable staff right behind them to make those ideas reality. My former boss (and still friend) at the bakery/cafe where I was formerly employed has said this, too. Most people with good work habits and dedication can be taught to make good food, but maverick geniuses can't usually be rehabbed into good employees.

But how did I get onto that? What I really mean to say is that I never expected to be the next Food Network star anyway. God save me from that! Nor do I (at the present time--never say never) want to sell my soul to my own restaurant. My personal goal was to know food well enough to be able to improvise, to be freed from the crutch of a recipe. I may have completed my class work last night, but that personal goal of mine was achieved weeks ago.

Snow prevented me from attending lab one Wednesday, so I had no advance notice of what we'd be working with on Thursday. For the first time, I proceeded spontaneously. I claimed a duck breast just because I'd never cooked one before; went with my gut instinct of cherry-port sauce; and raided the walk-in to come up with a potato and turnip puree and braised kale. In my own mind, I graduated that night. I had passed my own test. And it was all very good! So maybe there are some good instincts in there after all, when I'm not thinking too much and getting in my own way.

I have a good grade and made the Dean's list because I'm a good classroom student. I'm pleased with that. But I still hold a tiny hope that, when I have a lovely home of my own with a kitchen made for me and a farm that produces good raw materials, a little creativity will start simmering on the front burner of my mind. Then again, I may find out sooner than that just how far I can stretch. I've requested one of the finest restaurants in the area for my externship.

I think I feel my next attack of Loser-itis coming on already!

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