Saturday, May 20, 2006

Culinary Boot Camp

I am one of those weird people who love school. I remember one day in 9th grade, crying because summer was coming and that meant no more classes, notebooks, graph paper, freshly sharpened pencils, or problem sets. I know, there is help for people like me, but I’ve never looked into it. Instead, I spent ridiculous number of years in school studying subjects I had no clue about, but that sounded like they might make a good career.

When I was 7, my Mom signed me up for music school because that’s what half of Russian girls did and because she thought that one day I might want to become a music teacher. Good thing I didn’t realize that I didn’t have much talent because I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved listening to music, learning about different composers, and even practicing the piano. When I came to US at 13 and my parents explained to me that music doesn’t make money here and I should find something else to do with the rest of my life, I was devastated.

But as long as there was some sort of school, life went on. Since I did well in math and science classes, I got a scholarship to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon after high school. I had no idea what computer science was, but everyone seemed to think it’s a good thing to study if you want a well-paying job. So I did it. It was both a fun and painful experience (French, art history, philosophy, studying abroad and pretty much everything except for computer science were fun, and computer architecture, programming languages design, linear algebra, and networking were painful).

But when I became serious about cooking and started looking for careers that involved food, for the first time in my life I decided against school. My husband was in grad school, we needed to pay the mortgage, and I came to terms with the idea that the best way to learn more was to read and practice. Besides, $40,000 for training in a career that is notorious for low pay and terrible hours did not seem practical. When you come to this country as an immigrant and start with absolutely nothing, practicality is not one of those concerns you learn to ignore even when working in a well-paid software job.

But then, I found the Restaurant Slave blog describing another software girl’s adventures interning in a restaurant kitchen. I was hooked. I called restaurant after restaurant in Boston until I found one that would take me as a slave. I spent 9 months chopping onions, deboning fish, and working the cold station 2 nights a week. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned more than I’ve ever learned in school of any kind. But I could only handle this crazy schedule (full-time job, restaurant, and teaching cooking classes), for so long. No, it didn’t convert me to becoming a restaurant chef – the hours are just not for me. But there are certain things that I miss terribly. I miss the camaraderie of the kitchen. I miss learning new cooking techniques on a regular basis. I miss chopping 20 Lb of onions until my hands know what they are doing without me even looking.

That’s how the idea of going to culinary school started creeping back into my head. Since a 2 year degree was still not an option, I decided to look into shorter programs. After considering my options for short programs here and abroad, I finally found one that looked right – the culinary boot camp at CIA. 5 days of cooking, wine tasting, and food wine pairing from 6am to 9:30pm. That’s my idea of vacation!

I signed up 4 months ago and have been anxiously waiting for that special week to come. But with the craziness of work, teaching classes, cooking, and writing, those 4 months flew by in a blink of an eye. Then I woke up this weekend and realized that I needed to pack.

You know, I really missed school these past 7 years. School makes me feel like a fish in water. But I wonder how it’s going to be different this time. For the first time, I am going to school purely for the joy of learning, not to get good grades, not to get a diploma, not to get a job. It’s a strange feeling. I get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it. One more day, and I’ll get to wear chef’s whites, meet other passionate cooks, and try to soak up as much cooking wisdom as possible in 120 hours. I’ll probably learn that I’ve been making my stocks and sauces wrong all these years, but that’s part of the fun.

What do I hope to learn? They told us to bring out questions, so here are mine:

How to cook meat, particularly large roasts
How to cook en masse (for over 25 people)
How to pair food and wine
Which steels work best for sharpening knives (steel, porcelain, or diamond)?
And you are gonna laugh now, but I want to learn how to make a really spectacular burger.

I promise to bring back lots of stories, pictures, and cooking techniques when I return next weekend. Wish me luck :)


Anonymous said...

Great story Helen! Loved reading it! Like you, I cried when school was over and summer arrived, so much so that I begged my mum to buy me des cahiers de vacances (word for word vacation exercice books).

Good luck on your adventure. I cannot wait to hear about it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

Isn't it interesting that so many food bloggers all shared a love of school ... hmmm ... worth investigating!

Enjoy your CIA boot camp! I hope you learn everything that you're hoping to.

All the best!

Boston Chef said...

Good luck - sounds like alot of fun!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post.I do hope you take us along for the discovery as Ivonne has been doing. A week,that should be so fun. Gives me pause for thought. Have a great great time and savor every minute.

Dianka said...

I'm so jealous! It sounds like it will be very informative and your questions are great. Can't wait to hear more about it. Good Luck!

Katerina said...

I'm jealous! Have a fabulous time!
Us software chicks have to stick together :)

Anonymous said...

Have LOTS of fun!


Anonymous said...

What a great way to spend a vacation. I have been looking at some classes in San Francisco that run for a week. I have taken art classes just "for the love of doing" and imagine intense cooking classes would give the same wonderful excitement and joy. Look forward to hearing about your experience - with lots and lots of detail.