Relationship Status? It’s Complicated – Part 5 – Truly Cooking

First of all, apologies for not finishing what I started in a timely fashion. Cooking and writing have been the last things on my mind. We went on vacation for 2 weeks – one GLORIOUS week in Paris and a second week in London. The Hubs & I were able to cross things off our “bucket lists”. You can see the pics on my Instagram. And then we got wrapped up in NHL playoffs – Go Knights Go (Stanley Cup Champs in case you weren’t following along)! And so much else has happened and I have been a slacker.

So where were we? Oh yeah! Now I remember, I was about to tell you how I REALLY learned to cook…

Like I mentioned before, I became interested in cooking when I was younger, and I THOUGHT I knew how to cook well until I went to culinary school. What started out as a passion for me as a teen was finally realized in my 40’s.

By the time I went back to school, I had been married for more than 20 years, The Offspring was in high school, I had done more than 1000 live cooking demos, and I thought I knew what I was doing. I knew I wasn’t going to get my degree, or work in a professional kitchen full time. This was for my own personal edification. I thought I was going to refine what I learned already throughout my life. Yeah…right… What I THOUGHT was going to happen, and what actually happened are two completely different things. It was 2009. I was 44.

There are four levels of competence in anything:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know that you don’t know anything.
  2. Conscious Incompetence – you know you don’t know how to do anything correctly.
  3. Conscious Competence – you know what you know and have to think about doing it the right way.
  4. Unconscious Competence – You don’t even have to think about doing it the right way, you just do it. And it’s always correct.

Think about shoelaces as an example:

  1. Kids don’t realize they are supposed to be tied at first.
  2. Then when they do, they come running to you to get them tied, because they know they don’t know how.
  3. When they start to learn, they are focused, tongue sticking out of the corner of their mouth until finally…
  4. The laces can be tied while they are saying they want a snack.

The goal, in learning anything, is to reach level 4. And do it as quickly as possible. I went into culinary school thinking I was a level 2, maybe a 3 and found out I was a level 1. Talk about demoralizing! Here I was, the oldest person in the class and I knew next to nothing! SHIT! My life experience was not a benefit here and my admittedly slower physicality wasn’t winning me any bonus points either. SHIT! I thought my 20+ years of practical time cooking in a kitchen would help me…WRONG!

Day one of kitchen practical in Cooking Basics (when you are actually IN the kitchen and not a classroom) I received a rude awakening as to how much I really didn’t know. It was basic knife skills. Now, people who don’t spend as much time in the kitchen as I do think I have great knife skills and I will tell you I suck, but I used to suck more.

I know how to hold a knife properly, always have. I knew to curl my fingers back from the edge of the blade; a lesson hard learned. But my skill set ended there. Chef Jill came up behind me, “Lower your right shoulder. Stand square to the board. Bring your elbow in, quit sticking it out. You can’t make a straight cut like that!” I gently put my knife on the cutting board, blade facing away from me, turned to her, and asked, “Am I doing anything right?” She looked me square in the eye, “NO.” In my head I said, “Challenge accepted.”

Purchase at Blue Q – Image from their site

Julienne, Batonnet, Chiffonade…

My poor husband ate more potatoes while I was in cooking school than he had in the combined other years of our marriage. Potatoes are cheap and are great for practicing knife skills. My composter got all the potassium goodness from those peels, and I learned how to properly, dice, batonnet, chiffonade, julienne, mince and so on. I never did learn how to properly cut a tourné or make a quenelle from the mashed potatoes, but I was miles ahead of where I started. And I scored the highest in the class on the final and overall grade, both practical and written exams.

The fire inside me for food and cooking grew even stronger. The more I learned, the more obsessed I became. I knew what a Michelin Star was and what a James beard Award was, but it never occurred to me WHY these were such big deals until I learned how to REALLY cook. Then I got it. Truly got it. And the unfortunate and soul crushing realization that I would never be part of that world, at that level sunk in. Did that realization curb my enthusiasm for cooking? NOPE!

Glutton for Punishment

I went back for more. I took Garde Manger and once again was the oldest person in the class. No one wanted to be my “lab partner” because during introductions I admitted I was there to learn, not to get a job. The rest of the class was there for a degree or to move up in the positions they had. Poor Jeff got saddled with me and he was decidedly unhappy…until until he realized my passion for cooking and desire for perfection. Once again, I scored the highest on the exams and Jeff and I aced the final far ahead of our peers to the shock and dismay of one particular douchebag.

School ended for me there. The remaining classes that I wanted to take required the pre-requisite of a class where you learn to run the school restaurant. I was not at all interested in doing that. My only interest was the learning environment. Even though I was willing to pay cash to NOT take that class, they wouldn’t allow me to skip it. It may be time for me to revisit that…maybe.

Culinary school opened doors for me in other ways. I had the wonderful experience of working for Texas Pete on their west coast events as their show runner. Old High School pal Chef Tim Grandinetti got me involved with them. I catered small gatherings; we started a supper club. I joined a cookbook club; I taught my sister how to cook via YouTube during the pandemic and I still will do live online demos when asked.

Sport Cooking, the New Addiction?

I’ve become aware that I am a “sport cook”. Friend Kim Foster, who moderates the cookbook club, is a James Beard award winner for writing, and has a new book just released (The Meth Lunches) clued me into that. I learn to do something outrageous or complicated, just because I CAN. Then I promptly forget it, moving on to the next culinary challenge I set for myself. I learned to do Julia Child’s stuffed, boned duck en croute, made French country pâté, chicken liver mousseline, and so on. A few things I challenged myself with that I still do are curing and smoking bacon, stuffing my own sausages, and other curing & smoking tasks. Basically, it’s another manifestation of my addiction.

For a gal who came from a background of want and need – wanting acceptance, needing validation, food, clothes, and friendship – a passion grown from need changed everything. I welcome people to my table. I still get nervous when a Chef comes to dine at my table even though I know they aren’t judging me. Nervous to the point that last Thanksgiving, I cut myself so badly that I couldn’t stop the bleeding without superglue.

Now as I prepare to get ready for another Thanksgiving – my favorite holiday of the year – I am secure in knowing that whoever joins us will feel welcomed. Happy that my table will be a safe harbor for those who choose to join us. I don’t worry whether there will be enough, there is always plenty. I don’t worry that my new home is smaller than the old one, we will make room for everyone who chooses to join us.

Expectations, Disappointment, Sour Grapes

This fall The Hubs took me back to upstate New York so I could see the leaves. I made a lunch reservation at American Bounty at the Culinary institute of America, the school I so desperately wanted to attend. If I am being honest, I was disappointed, but I am not sure why. Were my expectations high because the school was gilded in my mind? Did the remnants of my sour grapes about dreams not realized loom over the experience? Did the fact that I can eat extraordinary meals here in Las Vegas mute the expertise of the culinary students? Perhaps it was a combination of all of that. Still, I am glad I went.

Will you ever find me cooking in a commercial kitchen? Probably not. Heading toward 60 with a bum knee and a brutal and honest look at myself in the mirror, I can see that I physically don’t need or want the challenge that represents. For now, I will continue to challenge myself at home. Right now? I practice making quenelles to hide my dog’s medication. How’s that for fancy?