This week I experienced something joyful and memorable which at the same time brought the sad whistfulness of a journey completed, never to be revisited. Something to check of the bucket list, and something to nurture and grow. Along with 600+ other students in creatively decorated caps and gowns, and after almost 5 years of part time attendance, I participation in the commencement excersizes at SUNY Schenectady and received my degree in Culinary Arts.
Why did I decide to become a “returning” culinary student? I’d been cooking for decades. I’d worked in a kitchen. I’d previously completed two college degrees. I already had quite a lot on my plate of life. But I wanted to be in the company of others who also saw joy in food, and to be challenged to be better at something that I was just good at. I learned alot – about kitchens, about ingredients, about people and about myself. It’s all about the journey and where you take it.
One of the requirements for completing the program, beyond the 600 hours kitchen internship (shout out and thank you to all of my friends and mentors in the kitchen at the amazing Honest Weight Food Co-op), was to write a journal about my culinary journey through both the internship and the program. Below are some of my reflections which were included in that paper. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, or maybe you’ve got that idea in the back of your mind that says “Try it”, “Go for it”, “Stop waiting – there’s never going to be a right time”. Here’s hoping that my culinary journey, now both completed and beginning anew, spurs you to pursue your own journey of enlightenment and fulfillment. (Shout out to all of my fabulous instructors at SUNY Schenectady for answering my many questions and making this accomplishment possible!)
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do one thing every day that scares you”. For me, alot of the time, the thing was walking into SUNY Schenectady, especially the culinary lab. I don’t know why. There were certainly both better and worse cooks than me in the classroom. I knew I was capable of attending classes, completing assignments, and “working well with others”. It was just that being a culinarian was so far away from what I had encountered and become over the past thirty years. My professional life in accounting did not feel personal. Culinary school asked me for something different. It required me to be creative and to thrive when everything wasn’t black and white, when the unexpected could and often did happen.
I enrolled in my first class merely to test the waters. A few weeks into Food Prep I, Chef Cerone said something that really made me think – something about cooking being personal and receiving immediate feedback – that there was no delay or ambiguity in relation to the effort expended. The plate was returned empty, or not; there were smiles or not; there were compliments or not; the guest returned or not. I realized that something important had been lacking in my professional life of writing reports, developing analysis and creating spreadsheets which were emailed into oblivion. The work and effort went in and rarely resulted in feedback or a sense of accomplishment. Cooking would be different. This was an “a-ha” moment. I matriculated the next week.
There were challenges. I was discouraged when after whipping cream by hand for twenty minutes, Chef Raggucci pointed out that the bowl I was using had not been washed properly and was slightly oily inside, and thus the cream would likely never whip. I was embarrassed when I barely passed Chef Stamets’s cuts of pork identification pop quiz despite my deep appreciation for swine. I bought three whole birds to practice dismembering chickens for the practical exam. As an introvert who had never waited a table, I contemplated dropping dining room (and likely the whole program) before hyperventilating my way through the first few weeks waitressing in the Cassola Dining Room with Mr. Larkin. Chef Verrigni became impatient when my composed salads were not making it to the dining room rapidly enough. Chef Krebs sighed and pointed out that my cream anglaise had not attained the desired consistency. I slaved for days over my menu planning project, researching recipes and creating artwork, marketing strategies and a logo.
There were also accomplishments. I volunteered to make the souffle’s for Cuisine II when no one else put their hand up, knowing that they would most likely reach the table sadly deflated despite my best efforts. Suddenly overcoming my ancient fear of public speaking, I delivered presentations in Mr. Larken’s Marking and Mrs. Waldie’s Intro to Hospitality classes that I would never have thought possible – because I was actually passionate about the topics. I made gorgeous apfel streudel and baklava with Chef Krebs. I learned to anticipate Chef Verrigni’s concerns when prepping for dining service – “Did you finish the….”? “Finished, Chef”. “What about the…”? “Done, Chef”. “Can you…?” “I’ve got it, Chef”. I broke down chicken, salmon, beef and pork with Chef Stamets – who knew animals were constructed inside like a map that practically showed you where to make the cuts? I uncorked wine bottles in front of tables full of people without putting anyone’s eye out. I made real sausage from scratch. I got to represent my school at A Taste of Albany. I was fortunate enough to have had an hour-long career chat with the wealth of knowledge that was Chef Strianese. I made some amazing friends. I got my picture taken with the Beekman Boys.
While I am very happy to have finally completed this program after four years, I will certainly miss the instructors, the challenges, the energy and the comradery of the SUNY Schenectady kitchens. I still plan to frequent the campus, the Cassola, and school events in the future. I thank all of the staff and my instructors for this wonderful experience which has been one of my best adventures.