Sunday, November 9, 2008
My Idea of Fun
Two weeks ago, our friend Chesley ventured up from Manhattan to hang out in Saugerties. Chesley, a beautiful, enthusiastic woman who has biked across Viet Nam and India, is one of my oldest friends and I never have a bad time in her company. Cocktail hour, which would span the entirety of the night, had begun on the porch, and Nelly, Chesley, and I were catching up on the past four or five months.
“So, I think it’s just so amazing you’re going to cooking school,” she said. Ever since I met her, I’d been talking about how I wanted to go. “So are you having a pretty good time? Is it fun?”
I pondered that one for a second and said, “Cooking school is endlessly interesting. I’m completely engaged. I’d rather be doing this than anything else. I really like a lot of the people there. But am I having fun? No. No, I guess I’m not really having fun.”
I’m not there to have fun, I suppose, and the CIA isn’t responsible for providing it.
As I write this, it’s several weeks into the second semester, and the stats are thus: one person took a hiatus (known at the CIA as “X-ing out”). One person failed Skills III. A couple more are moving on—next up: Cuisines of the Americas—by the skin of their teeth. Everyone else is doing okay.
Part of the mandatory entrance requirement to the school is that you must have worked for at least six months in a restaurant prior to admission. The definition of working in a restaurant is pretty loose. For one person it might mean cooking on the line, employment as a cashier at a sandwich shop for another. Predictably, this results in a wide range of experience and skill. One guy might have worked for years in restaurants. Another guy, remaining nameless, worked his six months in a small but popular Brooklyn restaurant doing prep. He made crepes, mayonnaise, béchamel, but above all spent the bulk of his time turning his knife on piles of produce to transform big vegetables into little vegetables—and only hitting the line for the first time when the brunch cook couldn’t make it one weekend (and, despite needing to urinate for more than four hours, he did fine). As for a few others, I’m sure they made exact change quite efficiently.
The ones with the experience, naturally, exhibited their competency from the go. But, at this point, the differences between the veterans and everyone else are starting to narrow. It couldn’t be otherwise.
The first few days of Skills I were mayhem: piles of mutilated vegetables, sauces boiled to glue, glazed beets that looked like rubble at Dresden. I don’t have the strength to begin describing what happened to some of those hollandaise sauces I saw produced around me. I myself will wear a scar from a searing hot saucepan for my remaining days.
By the midpoint of Skills II, those who might have been initially graceless and bungling were still halt, but getting their balance. And at the conclusion of Skills III—the first time you’re cooking and serving other people—you could see who was simply terminally inept. The rest of us—the ept—pulled it off every day. There were some misfires, a few moments when the air around us in the kitchen went turbulent and hyper, but not once during the three weeks was anyone late when the doors opened and other students came in to be served. And frequently, people made some pretty good food.
But as for having fun…
The same reason I’m not having fun is also the same reason I can now do a really nice, very fine brunoise of vegetables without aid of a mandoline.
It’s also the reason that I don’t always sleep so well, and why—despite micro-successes when cooking, like the fresh pasta I made at the end of Skills II, or my cream of cauliflower soup the other night—underlying the focus and concentration and effort, my stomach is perpetually knotted up. Maybe not a Gordian Knot but definitely more than a half-hitch.
I said to Nelly the other day that school, and its all-consuming demands, do a number on your thinking. One day in Skills I, as we were practicing for our knife skills practical, I was cutting my batonnets 1/32 of an inch too big. It was the day the economy went south. I got upset at my handiwork. Nearby classmates agreed, yes, the ¼ by ¼ by 2-inch sticks of vegetable matter were indeed too big. I turned back to my cutting board and felt a cold dejection settle into my hands. I gave myself a mental beating. I wanted to sweep it all to the floor and crush it. I had a sudden epiphinal flash, though. Wait. The markets are crashing. The country is locked in recession. Sarah Palin exists. And you’re freaking out because your cuts are off by a micron? Get a grip, man. Clear your head.
But the CIA infects you that way. Your perspective gets skewed. And you find yourself not having fun.
People have a lot riding on their grades. Many of us are dependent on scholarships. The evaluations—the tasting and critique of your food—are vague, conditional to the whims of one chef’s palate. A soup that’s just right one night is over-seasoned the next night, and too watery, when prepared the exact same way. Points fall away from your grade. Your ballast is screwed up continually. You can’t get very comfortable.
And the school doesn’t let you get comfortable. Any move you make—from the way you sprinkle salt into a dish to whether you place a finished item in a hotel pan or on a sheet tray—can result in a Frenchman appearing suddenly at your elbow, eyes popping out of his skull, screaming, “Shit! Shit! This is shit! What are you doing? Dammit! Dammit! Why do I bother!?” There’s a thin bleed of adrenaline in your system all the time, just waiting for the swift condemnation and humiliation that follows. You second, third, fourth guess every action you take.
There’s also the psychology of wearing a uniform. Some part of you, something unidentifiable, is squelched when you all look as indistinguishable and ridiculous as you do wearing those toques and checked pants. I pass several elementary schools on my daily commute in and I’ve often been tempted to run down the school hallways, throwing doors open, screaming, “Hey kids! It’s Cookie the Clown!” and dancing a maniacal jig.
And your identity—your raison d’etre for being at the school, the activity you’ve married so much effort to—is represented by the materials on the end of a fork. When it goes into the chef’s mouth and you get strafed for the lack a few crystals of salt, there’s something baleful that starts to hum in your head and constrict in your guts.
Nelly and I were just talking about British writer Will Self. She brought up his book, My Idea of Fun, about a young man who is subject to the whims and direction of the Fat Controller, the all-knowing, all-seeing, malevolent dictator over the hero, Ian Wharton's, life. So far none of the chefs are an exact match. Occasionally, it feels like it, though. But can I think of a better alternative?