The Journey Is At Times More Important Than The Outcome….

Last night’s class opened up a can of “whoop a**” on me.  From the knife cuts (fluted mushrooms and tourne potatoes), the dishes we cooked for presentation (glazed beets, braised cabbage, duchesse potatoes) to kitchen clean-up (we stayed until 9:30pm cleaning) it was a stressful situation (in my opinion).  Over the last three months, I have had highs and lows in my affinity for culinary school and have  seriously doubted everything from my ability as a chef to my aptitude for remember information. My first day in this new course brought back all the feelings of inadequacy I felt the first time I stepped into the kitchen two months ago.

I have a tendency to psych myself out and to over-analyze situations — in essence, I scare the crap out of myself for no good reason.  This self-created anxiety is one of the issues I work with my counselor with because it tends to block progress in my case.  Modern psychology states that small amounts of stress are good for running at peak levels of productivity. I am unique that the thought of stress actually creates unhealthy amounts of stress.  I find it amusing that my classmates are always complimenting me on my calm demeanor in the kitchen.  It isn’t that I am calm at all — on the inside I am doing cartwheels but I know that if I don’t focus and try to control the internal chaos, it will have detrimental effects.  Once rolling, the stress compounds and that is when you find me a sweaty mess talking to myself in the corner or angrily yelling at my classmates over small things.  Neither is a good scenario, hence why I try hard to go in every day with a game plan and really not get too shaken up.

Because of this tendency, I often get lost in the moment.  For some that is a state they aspire to embrace but for myself it’s something I avoid. Many times in my life, I get caught up in the here and now, but never look at the path I am have or the journey as a whole.  As I get older, I am appreciating life as a whole rather than compartments. Yet, somehow this “whole perspective” is not translating to culinary school – this is a journey I need to remember because it has informed me about some much regarding myself. In life we can take many different roads, but those roads we take, well in particular, the road I have taken, I need to pay attention.  Yeah, sometimes we deviate or go off path – but that is the beauty of a well-lived life.

Last night, as I laid in bed exhausted, I thought of the poem by Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”. I memorized it in elementary school for a contest and still remember it to this day, considering I can’t remember my Mom’s birthday, it’s no small feat.  Little did I know that some 20 plus years later, it would have such new meaning to me……

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Practice Makes Perfect……

My back aches.  My fingers  marred with knicks.  Burns cover my wrists and forearms.  And my shoulders have permanently connected with my ears.  I am nearing the end of my Skills One-Kitchen Basics class and it can officially be said that it has kicked my behind from here to China and back.  This is the first time in my life where I have felt defeated, elated and satisfied in the span of six hours.  Each day starts with lecture in a classroom for about 30 minutes, then we move into the kitchen where we are placed into groups to complete a set of assignments dealing with stocks.  From there, we complete our knife cut drills and proceed into our individual work that we present to the Chef for a grade.

I have been very upfront that by nature nervous when it comes to my kitchen skills.  From the very  beginning, I have doubted whether I could hang with the “big dogs” but I am happy to say that for the most part I have held my own.  While I may not be a “natural” in the kitchen, I have worked diligently on my knife cuts, slowly raising my scores and increasing my speed to where I am able to cut several cups of julienne, diced, brunoise and minced vegetables in under 40 minutes.  To understand where I came from, I started three weeks ago barely  able to cut a half cup of three vegetables in an hour.  I am far from proficient and am still in awe of certain members of my class who sail through these knife trays with time to spare.  Honestly, one person in particular who I will call “Milo” has amazing knife skills.  His cuts are precision and simply beautiful to look at – he is my inspiration and where I aspire to raise my level.  However, he is never 100% pleased with his scores and has on several occasions questioned the Chef on why he did not get a perfect “10”.  I respect that he believes in his work to the degree that he will argue its validity.  I, on the other hand, am normally just quite proud to finish all my cuts and to not have lost a finger.

If you read the blog often, you may have noticed that I have posted several inspirational quotes in the last few weeks.  I find that these quotes are almost mantras that I say in my head as I am doing my knife cuts and assignments.  The above quote from Aristotle is profound in its depth of meaning and simplicity.  I have seen the fruits of my hard work.  I  have challenged and pushed myself to do better.  When I have not pushed myself to the point where I thought I  could not go, I did not achieve superior results.  I now know that I am stronger than I was yesterday, yet I still have more to go.

I have tried hard not to compare myself with my classmates because their journey is different from my own.  The barometer I set to measure my success needs to be based on my own goals and mandates.  I won’t fool myself into thinking that my work is stellar, but I know my attitude towards my work exceeds my own expectations.  I have found a zen and contentment that I believe comes from putting it all out on the table every day and holding nothing back.  It’s exhausting and draining, but then I never assumed culinary school would be anything less.

A Famous Man Once Said….

One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein…….

A poster of this quote hung in my room all through junior and high school.  Whenever I faced a challenge or a question, I could not answer, I would look at this quote and think “nothing is impossible if you can think it”.  And with that, I would set my mind to finding some creative way to solve my issue.  While I was not always right, I always found a solution.

This week I entered the Teaching Kitchen at school and found myself faced with a set of challenges, both external and internal, as I began my foray into our Skills One course.  Skills One is part of a core set of cooking fundamental courses designed to drive home the basics of cooking methodology, form and technique.  This is a polite way of saying that we spend the hours a day doing knife drills that would make a grown man cry.  Brunoise, dice, mince, alumette, & concasse are all terms that I thought I knew before walking into class, but in the last three days I have come to know intimately.  I have the nicks, scratches, cuts and sore wrists to prove I have been on the front lines battling a mountain of vegetables.

I have been improving steadily but then I started at the bottom of the class, so I had no place to go but up!  However, as I completed my knife tray today, the above quote sprang into my head.  I don’t know why, but the quote lodged in my head for the remainder of class as I completed my onion soup and cleaned.  It stayed with me on my ride home and as I stood in the shower trying to get the knots out of my shoulder.  And then it hit me…….

I have done nothing to stoke my imagination in school.  It has been facts for the last 2 months straight.  I have done nothing to fuel the creative side of me that drove me to apply to culinary school.   It’s one of the major reasons why I have been so unhappy with my experiences so far at the CIA.  I am not stoking the creative flame….and it’s dying.  So I need to find some creative outlet in school if I am really going to be the best chef I can be.  I will never be a fantastic knife technician or probably the best cook for that matter, but I can set a table like no one’s business and dress a plate that would make Martha Stewart slap her momma (metaphorically speaking of course…).  I need to be creative and right now, the lack of it in my life is eating at me, sapping my energy and really putting a damper on my time here at school.

I came to school to learn but I also came to think, daydream and imagine.  It’s about time the CIA gives me the room to be me.  And if they can’t….well, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.  Until then, I have the week off from school.  I am going to recharge my mind, body and soul.  A little trip to SoCal and maybe a home project or two…..it’s gonna me nice!

Graphic courtesy of Qwickstep.com