Ten years ago, on June 29, 2009, I walked into Chef Patrice’s kitchen at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. I had just turned sixty and learning how to cook, really cook, seemed like a good idea; maybe a little late in the game but still full of possibility. Besides, it was my birthday present to myself.
Chef Patrice, and later Chef Johannes, would become my kitchen gods; true chefs who had mastered the culinary skills, run successful restaurants, clawed their way to the top in a world where one bad review can destroy years of effort.
I was their student for 6 months, 1000 hours of kitchen service in recognition of their decades of skill and experience.
The kitchen is a dangerous place; sharp knives, open flames, boiling vats, machines of various kinds with a capacity to do damage in an instant, they surrounded us – our fears that first day were legitimate and well founded. They saved us, nurtured us, taught us and, yes, yelled at us.
Our chef walked us through the basics of the French culinary tradition; knife skills, stocks and sauces, even a bit of baking. Our classroom was the kitchen; Chef demonstrated, we replicated – as best we could.
After eight hours, I wandered home in an exhausted stupor, filled with more information than I could digest.
Yet we survived; one of my personal success markers was my first creme brule, perfect in its creaminess, covered by a thin delicate patina of golden molten sugar.
The pain was worth it, we graduated in December of 2009. I knew from the start that I would not seek full time employment in the hell-hole of some restaurant kitchen so I took my new-found skills and put them to use in my way; I cooked for friends at home and, when invited, at the homes of friends.
A surprising unintended consequence of my adventure was a new adventure; a book about my experience. I knew I would never work in the culinary industry so, when I left culinary skill, rather than find a job I pursued my second passion, writing.
It was a transformative experience; I learned new skills and my confidence in cooking surged as did my respect for the culinary industry. When I go to a restaurant, I tip more and I make an effort to walk back to the kitchen to thank the chefs for a memorable meal. More aware, I am more appreciative, of the food, the flavor, the presentation, the experience. It’s tough running any restaurant from Joe’s diner to a Michelin star aspirant, I came to respect the energy and effort that is required to successfully serve a meal.
There are a few learnings that stood out for me and hold true a decade later.
First, sharp knives are an absolute necessity. If you want to enjoy cooking forget the do-dads at Williams Sonoma and get a good set of knives (you actually only need two, a 9 inch Chef’s knife and a 3 inch paring knife). Then keep them sharp. I take my knives to be sharpened by a professional at least every six months. Forget the at-home sharpening machines; good knives deserve a professional’s touch to give then their edge. It is amazing how much more fun it is to cook with sharp knives.
Second, always buy the best and freshest ingredients you can afford. A marinara sauce consists of garlic, canned tomatoes, red pepper flakes and olive oil – each of those ingredients matters, even the canned tomatoes. For example, most marinara recipes call for genuine DOP San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. Do it, go find the right canned tomatoes, it does make a difference. It is impossible to hide a weak ingredient in a simple recipe and expect a robust sauce.
Third, always complete your prep -ALWAYS – before turning on the stove. The French term is mise en place, everything in it’s place. It reminds me to do all the gathering of ingredients, all the chopping and cutting, all the accessing of pots and pans, all the advance work possible before starting the process of cooking. Serving food at its best only works if I can concentrate on what’s going on in my saute pan without being distracted by the need to chop another ingredient that isn’t ready for the next stage yet.
Finally, shop small and local. I may have been in a Safeway store three or four times in the last ten years but only when I cannot avoid it. I much prefer the little Lebanese green grocer around the corner, the local butcher, a few shops at Granville Island for specialty items, a small place where the arugula is fresh and reasonably priced. It is axiomatic that to keep these businesses thriving in the neighbourhood, we need to shop there. I’m retired; putting on a dinner party is supposed to take some time, shopping, prepping, and cooking.
When I look back over the last ten years, I am filled with warm memories of sharing food at my table, food that I have prepared and served. Sharing food is an intimate event that is deeply embedded in our DNA. Food is the bait; occasionally it’s the center of attention but around my table, it’s the people who are joined together who really matter. I have been able to share what little I know with friends by offering to cook with them; it adds a whole new dimension to spending an evening together.
I spent many years unsure of my ability to pull off a decent dinner party, serve food that was going to be enjoyed by my guests. So, I chose to entertain in restaurants. Fun, lively, expensive but ultimately less convivial.
My six months at cooking school gave me the tools and the confidence to invite friends into my home, serve them food that I was proud of, and enjoy the warmth and intimacy of conversation and communion. That was the real benefit of slaving under the temporary tutelage of Chef Patrice and Chef Johannes. They opened the doors to a decade of bliss around my little table.