As some of you may know, I am a server. This is pretty easy work if you’ve got the right mind for it. Not that there’s a wrong mind, of course, but different people excel at different things. It’s pretty easy for me, as long as I can remember to stay calm and weather the storm. There’s a rhythm to it that’s comforting, the same routine over and over with minor variations here and there. It’s easy money and the perfect job for a college student.
It also kind of sucks, because what I REALLY love is working with food.
When I was in high school, during the summer before my Junior year, my mom really pushed me to take advantage of my last two years of free education and move towards a goal. I had been toying with being a teacher as well as being a chef. She requested that I make some kind of decision so that I could take the right classes to impress potential colleges. I decided to go with culinary rather than teaching.
For two years every day I learned the tools of the trade. How to use a knife properly – pretty much everyone does it wrong. What an herb is versus a spice – we learned that herbs are the leafy part of the plant and spices are most commonly the seeds, but I think this definition has changed in the past few years. We learned terminology, how to break down a chicken, the difference between caramelizing and sweating, how to de-glaze a pan with wine, and a million other bits of information that seem commonplace to me now.
We ran a restaurant in the career center at the high school, and as a “first year” student I mostly honed my skills, learned about cooking and baking (which I quickly abandoned when I realized this was not my calling), catered school banquet events, and learned about how to serve and how to work on a line. Coming back in my Senior year as a “second year” student, we were not only high on life because we were seniors, but we were the alpha in the culinary program. We ran the restaurant, bossed the first year’s around, taught them how to do things that we had learned “long ago”, and started vying for a spot on the Skills USA team.
Skills USA is a technical competition for a variety of different skills. Our school had four spots open: two for hot foods and two for baking. I was selected for one of the hot foods spots and every day I practiced and practiced, from fall until spring. We had some information, and I still remember it all. We knew that we had to demonstrate that we could use a knife properly by cutting a potato into certain cuts: small and medium dice, julienne, etc. We then had to break down a chicken. Breaking down a chicken is when you take a whole chicken and remove all of the parts’: two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings, two oysters, and two breasts. Next we had a to make a salad and dressing from scratch, then make cream of mushroom soup, use the chicken we had just ripped apart for our entrée along with a vegetable and a starch.
To prepare for the knife portion, I took a sharpie and made small marks on the blade of my chef knife so that I knew where 1/4, 1/2, and 1 inch were. I know this sounds like cheating, but everyone does it. I mean the judges will be walking around with a ruler to inspect the accuracy of your dice, and what everyone knows but no one says is that our knife is our ruler. How are you supposed to eyeball 1/4 inch??
To prepare for the chicken portion, my teacher bought case after case of raw chickens. I think there were 20 chickens to a case. We used them for cooking in class anyway and someone had to break them down, so for days and days I did one after another. This is usually what I did on Mondays and Tuesdays, if I am remembering correctly, because the restaurant was closed on Mondays. I had a timer next to me and I just kept going through chicken after chicken. I want to say that my fastest break down was less than five minutes. The goal was to be fast and accurate, because time is a part of the judging at Skills. How quickly can you do what you do, with what level of accuracy, and how good does it taste?
As soon as I knew what we were making, I made it every day. I made so many batches of cream of mushroom soup. I could probably make it in my sleep. I never measured anything, and never wrote anything down, because food is an art and not a science. Once you know how to work with it and understand the flavor profiles, all you need is imagination. Unfortunately I made one batch that was probably the best soup I have ever made in my life. Actually, it was probably the best soup I have ever tasted in my life. It was so perfect that it made your mouth water when it was in your mouth. Like it was laced with cocaine or something. Pure love. The unfortunate piece is that since I didn’t measure or write anything down, I could never quite re-create that magical soup concoction. What I did end up with was dozens of batches of almost-as-good soup that were more or less like one another, so that’s what I ended up making at skills.
The rest of it was similar. I played around with dressings until I found one that I liked. I made starch after starch, vegetable after vegetable Eventually I had the perfect meal committed to memory.
During Spring break I went on a cruise with my mom and grandmother. Skills USA was the day I came back. I would be flying in and driving from the airport to the high school where I could immediately leave for the competition. I packed my tools the Friday before spring break. There was a bit of drama, because all of the flights from Miami to Manchester kept being delayed and I was in constant communication with my teacher, trying to figure out if I was even going to make the competition. Incidentally, the competition was canceled due to inclement weather and I had another week to prepare.
On the day of, I was rested and anxious. I had been warned of the intensity of the competition. A number of stations in a large room, each with everything you would need: a work space half the size of the one I was accustomed to, a sink, and an outlet. We shared a large range (gas-top stove) for the entrée portion of the cooking.
Halfway there we realized we forgot cutting boards, of all things, and had to stop at a Walmart in the early morning to pick some up. When we arrived to the school, I checked in and went to my station to prepare. I don’t remember who else was there, only where I was standing and who was directly behind me. I was the second station from the back in the far left hand row. The girl behind me I remember because she won states that year.
We began the timed cutting portion and the room was completely silent aside from the sounds of dozens of high school students cutting potatoes. Judges walked around and watched us work. I finished the cutting portion before anyone else, aside from the girl behind me.
Next was the chicken part, and I finished in record time with complete accuracy. Naturally, the girl behind me finished first.
I cleaned my station (safety and sanitation VERY important, if not in the real world then definitely when being watched) and began working on the… soup. I’m pretty sure I started the soup first. I set the mirepoix (celery, onions, and carrots – the base for pretty much every soup and sauce) to caramelize in butter while I began working on the salad. I’m pretty sure I sautéed the mushroom and garlic first, then de-glazed the pan with white wine and added it to the mirepoix with heavy cream. I let it reduce and then used an immersion blender to blend it together. I think I then started working on the salad and dressing while I let the soup simmer.
On top of preparing all of the food and keeping mental tabs on the timing of everything, we had to plate the food ourselves and walk it into the next room for the judges to taste. I remember that I garnished the soup with several thinly sliced sautéed mushrooms. I know the salad came out pretty good. Then I tackled the entrée and took that as well.
Again, the girl who was behind me was always one step ahead. But she was really more like five steps ahead. She was finished with every task at least several minutes before I was, and if she felt pressure she sure didn’t show it. That girl was a rock star, a damn culinary genius. She looked ten times more prepared that I felt, even after months of practice.
At the end of the day I was exhausted but proud. The ceremony to announce the winner was a few weeks later. I wasn’t surprised that she won, it’s kind of like in a horse race when the winner is leagues ahead of the other horses, and then second, third, and fourth place horses are all really close together. In a culinary competition with my peers, I placed first ahead of everyone else and she was in a whole other league compared to the rest of us.
I remember them saying my name, and that’s it. I think I must have felt shocked, because I really didn’t think I did that well. I wasn’t paying attention to anyone but her, and I knew that I wasn’t the best. I imagine I went on a stage and accepted an award and had my picture taken or something, but I don’t really remember. I received a scholarship to the culinary institute of my choice and got to say that I placed second in the state of New Hampshire in Skills USA. It might be how an athlete feels winning some kind of tournament. I don’t know, I’m not an athlete, this is what I did.
While I was in class my Junior and Senior years, I also began working at a local fine dining restaurant to further my education. Pretty much all of the serious culinary students worked at restaurants as well, because they love food and want to be chefs. Here I washed pots and pans, assisted with prep, worked in the deli next door, catered weddings, and worked on the salad and dessert station. I was working my way to the line (the place that every aspiring chef REALLY wants to be) when I graduated high school and went to Ohio for six weeks.
When I came back, I worked at a different restaurant. I was actually on the opening team for said restaurant, which means that it was a brand new place and I was on the staff that opened it. A very cool experience. While there I worked on the line during Pumpkin Fest and I don’t remember the day at all. Well, that’s not true. I have two memories of that day. One is when I eventually got to sit down and smoke a cigarette and eat a cup of butternut squash soup. The other memory is looking at the tickets at my window. There were so many tickets that they were overlapping one another. My brain went on total autopilot. Everything aside from breathing and cooking completely shut down. I think that’s why I don’t remember – I was too busy working with speed and accuracy to even know that I was thirsty, or tired, or what time it was.
I really loved both of those jobs. I learned so many things about food preparation and food art and what it means to work with food. I was excited to attend the Culinary Institute of America and drop more than fifty thousand dollars on a two-year education for a certificate in culinary arts. I was excited because with a degree from the CIA on your resume – you can get hired pretty much anywhere. It’s the most prestigious culinary institute in the nation. Of the limited number of master chefs in the world, several teach at the CIA. It cranks out the most talented and innovative food experts in the nation. And I was going to be one of them.
Alas, that never happened. I delayed my enrollment by six months to participate in a political campaign. The campaign took me across the country to Iowa where I lived with complete strangers and fought for a cause I believed in. While I was there I came to the realization that maybe culinary school wasn’t such a good idea. I have always wanted children and it felt irresponsible to spend so much money on such a limited education. I knew I never wanted to open my own restaurant and I knew firsthand the hours and salary of a chef and when I thought about it objectively, it seemed like a bad idea. So, I made the painful but adult decision to abandon my passion in search of a more realistic future.
Sometimes I… regret that decision. I use the dotdotdot because I hate using the word regret. I firmly believe that our paths are with purpose and that we are all a part of something much bigger. I believe that we experience things to grow. I am aware that making a different decision six years ago may have very well changed my entire life, but I do not know what path I would be on, and I prefer not to abandon my current one. I value the experiences I have had and the growth I have achieved. But sometimes I do miss it.
So tonight, when my manager asked me if I would work the pantry station rather than serve, of course I said yes. First of all, we were relatively slow and I knew that I’d probably make better money hourly for a few hours than serve. Second of all… even if it’s just making salad and bread sticks – FOOD.
I’m incredibly jealous of the line staff sometimes. I really love being a server because it’s easy money, but I don’t particularly like being a server. First of all, my social skills aren’t that great. I feel awkward most of the time and fake it. Food is different, food I understand. And if you make a mistake, you just start over again. That’s the beauty. And everything goes with everything. It’s like magic. It’s the one thing that makes sense to me because it is so versatile and so consistent.