For the most part, my peers are pretty young. In my class, there were a total of 77 baking and pastry students beginning the first day of June 16th. Of those 77, 8 had degrees. Most of the student skin is white. A lot of it is still pimpled.
Occasionally, I pass someone in the vicinity of my age group in the hallways or outside. We always make eye contact, and shoot between us a knot of mixed messages—a recognition of someone feeling the same weirdness over the age difference; a strange sort of shame at having been in the thick of puberty, if not full drinking age, when most of the other students were still breast feeding; a fleeting unease that it all might be too late for us.
I was exactly like the younger students: I went to college right out of high school. I’d grown up in the country and arrived in Boston dizzy with all the goings on. I was primarily interested in music and I saw a lot of great bands play: Jane’s Addiction in a club the size of the average living room; the Bad Brains, original line-up intact; Fugazi in a church. I was terrified of women but sought out their company at every opportunity. I drank a lot of cheap beer. Academics were just background noises. I went to a pretty decent school. I was a terrible student—my grades were awful.
I wasn’t really ready. In a lot of ways, I was a pretty young 18. When I think what I could have done with the resources around me, my stomach knots up.
So every time I have a CIA assignment, every time there’s something to read or homework to be done, I’m at it with the sort of seriousness coaxed out when you realize how few chances you really get. In an environment where a person gets to—is encouraged to--fixate entirely on food and its preparation, why would you not want to read and analyze Escoffier’s recipes? Or pore over Gray Kunz’s Elements of Taste? Or let Harold McGee explain the precise chemistry behind why an onion caramelizes under the influence of slow, steady heat?
At my age the answer is obvious. If I were the age of most of the others, or a different person, it would be a lot more nebulous. I understand that. I get it.
We’re all tossed in together, all of us in those checked pants, heavy-footed in black clogs. We’re cutting up meat and vegetables side by side, or listening to lectures as a group, washing dishes, mopping floors, eating at the same tables. I get to hear a lot of things.
The first week or so, you gravitate towards anyone you’ve even briefly met. So I found myself at the same table for a number of meals with this one 18-year-old kid. All I ever saw him eat were hamburgers.
“So,” I said, “I couldn’t help but notice you really like hamburgers.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much all I eat.”
“Do you want to try some of this?” I pushed a plate at him that had foie gras mousse piped into profiteroles. It had been up for grabs on a buffet table when you walked in the cafeteria door. I was ecstatic when I figured out what it was. I’d eaten as much as I could from the plate. He wrinkled his face.
“No, man. That’s cool. I won’t like it.”
“Really? How often are you gonna get this? Try it.” I suddenly felt like my mother.
“No. I just want the burger. I can’t wait until they teach us to cook these things.”
Overheard: “I’m failing everything. I failed gastronomy. I’m failing meat. I got a D in product knowledge. I need to concentrate on my studies. So as soon as I’m done with this bag, I’m going to quit smoking weed.”
The Skills chef was yelling at me. I was calmly stating my case back to him. Which was probably the first in a chain of mistakes.
“Listen to me, Jonathan. Listen: things are going to go a lot easier for you at this school if you do it the way we tell you to.”
“I understand, all I’m saying is---“
“Do it the way I tell you!”
“All I want to hear from you right this second is ‘Yes, chef.’ Do you understand? All I want to hear is ‘Yes, chef.’”
He stared, waiting for me to say it. I was having a hard time dredging up the words. They were feeling particularly heavy on my tongue. He kept staring. I couldn’t do it. Mercifully, a pot clattered to the floor off to our right and, distracted, he walked away to shame whoever had dropped their clarified butter on the tiles.
I have no idea what’s wrong with me.
I said to someone a little older than average: “No kidding—you live in the kiddie dorm? What’s it like with all those tykes?”
“Well, someone got taken to the ER the other night because someone else bit his arm. Oh, and last night, someone took a shit in the shower.”
Next: More Conversations, Eavesdropping, and Campus Snapshots. Plus, coming up: Anthony Bourdain, What Have You Wrought?