Friday, January 08, 2010

Culinary school: from grammar lessons to life lessons

Who knew that going to culinary school would include a lesson in grammar?

More important, who knew it would include lessons in sorcery, spirituality and life’s transformational moments?

Today ended the first week of my third term and the 13th week overall of my studies at the California Culinary Academy, and it seemed appropriate to reflect back a little.

The grammar lesson came early, in Chef Tony Marano’s class in October, the beginning-level Culinary Foundations I.

“Sauté is a noun,” Chef Tony informed us as he taught sauté as one of the seven techniques of classic French cooking. A chef and grammarian, I thought. Perhaps this is the place for me.

Three months later and working toward earning a certificate in culinary arts in June, I know it’s the right place, grammar lesson or not.

Similarities between my journalistic and culinary passions have already been revealed to me. The adrenaline rush, for example, and the deadlines. The creativity, accuracy and precision in preparation and presentation, for another. How many elements must come together all at once for the finished product, whether a newspaper or a gourmet meal.

Yet, there are differences, and they are revealing new life lessons to me and driving a new kind of passion. Foremost is the magic in the culinary arts; the magic is enigmatic yet natural. Call me a wide-eyed novice, but I’m not alone in the belief. Experienced chefs and gourmands acknowledge its presence in tasting a new dish or a familiar one that’s made so well it tastes new.

Take Chef Tony’s marchand du vin. He taught sauté using a New York cut – “This could be too good for you guys,” he said assessing it – which he cooked quickly on high heat. He rested the meat and put a little red wine in the pan, deglazed and reduced, added veal stock and finished it with butter. Spooning it onto the sliced meat, chef announced: “Marchand du vin – merchant wine sauce – the simplest sauce there is.”

It was superb, worth the price even without the steak. “It’s magic,” Chef Tony explained with a shrug. That was evident: a few liquids, some heat, butter – presto! – a savory, deeply flavorful sauce.

Before culinary school, I was a fair cook, with abilities beyond the basics. I could braise a short rib and turn the pan juices into a flavorful sauce, make tomato sauce and pasta from scratch, even assemble a decent molé with its complex layering of seemingly disparate flavors. But I didn’t know I was working with magic.

Now, culinary school has helped me get a small glimpse of it. Understanding how it works? Maybe never. But the pursuit is now my passion.

My mind, my hands, my palate and most of all my spirit have entered a transformation, moving toward an inexact and still mystical end. I’m eager to continue the journey.


  1. It's nice to be surprised with new knowledge throughout life. It's one way we know we're still very much alive. I am so very proud of you for doing two things; going back to school during a very uncertain time with your hopes and dreams ahead of you, and for completely switching from something you know and worked hard at for half your life to something, although you love it are slightly unsure about your abilities. It says a lot about personal growth, continuing education and working towards life goals. All of which could be classified as the same thing here.

  2. Thank you, John. Your thoughts and support are most welcome and appreciated.

  3. This is a wonderful post. The stuff of columns. I hope there's a market for your cooking AND your writing one of these days. Really enjoying your blog.