Culinary school turned out to be the wrong path for me in a lot of ways, but there were some things I’m very, very happy happened there. When I decided I needed to finally go to college if I wanted to have a little more intention in my career choices, food seemed like the one thing I cared enough about to be able to stick with for at least another two years of school, an institution about which I had developed fairly profound doubts the first time around. I can’t say my initial impressions of the community college I chose were excellent — I asked “before I decide to enroll” questions that were not answered and would not be until two years later after I had decided to withdraw from the school and enroll somewhere new, the only thing they seemed to want to know from me was whether I had filled out my FAFSA yet, and then I somehow found myself in English Comp wondering what had just happened — and things didn’t exactly go uphill from there. But for a lot of reasons it seemed like the best plan at the time, and I did try to make the best of it.
Not all of it was bad, to be sure. The knives were cool, I’ll give them that.
The clothes were awful.
But I sorted that out eventually.
The Danskos were fantastic and the cooking was fun. I was living in a tiny apartment (to take the first picture, my husband was standing about where I am in the second picture) where I could barely move with one of those “apartment sized” ranges and a foot of counter space. I couldn’t open the refrigerator and the oven at the same time. I couldn’t even open the refrigerator door all the way because then my husband wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed without crawling over my side, and even that would have been a tight squeeze. (This was after we had to take the bedroom door off so that we could fit our bed in the room in the first place.) So, to have this giant space full of tables and ovens and a grill and a fryer and so. many. pans. was amazing. I hated that where I lived was killing my interest in cooking for myself, but I had six hours a week of nothing but resources, and that was great.
And it wasn’t a wasted education. Some of my skills got better during those six hours. I feel pretty OK about fabricating a chicken now, I understand the difference between clarified butter and ghee, and I know both how to make Hollandaise and that I really don’t care for it. Some of my skills were already where they needed to be, I guess, because even though I enjoyed the cooking (and the eating was pretty good too) I didn’t feel like I was getting a better understanding of what professional cooking involved. It might have just been a problem with my expectations; I think I was assuming I would learn less about how to brown a chicken breast and more about how to get 20 different meals cooked, plated and served at the same time. Maybe that came in the later classes, but by then I had changed majors.
It was the culture that really killed my thoughts of being a chef, though. The course material itself was mostly innocuous, but the attitudes of some of the instructors, the behaviors of some of the students, just this undercurrent of classism and snobbery that ran through program, all really turned me off. Not everyone I met in the program thought like this, but there were enough of them — and they were the loudest — that I just couldn’t see making a career in a high-stress environment where it seemed this view of life that was fundamentally different from my own would be the norm. I could barely stand being in a classroom and hearing the teacher talk about dishwashers (the people who hold the job) the same way they might talk about dishwashers (the appliances), or going through some variation on the “why don’t poor/unhealthy/fat people just buy more vegetables and fix their lives?” conversation every few days, let alone the little shrug and smirk the instructor gave us one day when someone pointed out that the imaginary kitchen he had described in our homework had two women on staff and they were paid significantly less than the men. Yeah, well, he seemed to say, that’s how you treat women, am I right? I did not want to sign up for a full-time-and-then-some job of this stuff.
But the whole experience — the parts I liked and the parts I didn’t — really helped me clarify some things. When someone would make a comment that a certain perceived-as-low-class food was disgusting and no one should eat it, or when the look of a food was given more importance than its taste or nutritional value, or any number of little things like that that were always happening in some corner, all that did for me was reinforce that what I love about cooking is how it helps someone not be hungry. If I cook for someone and they say that it’s the prettiest plate presentation they’ve ever seen or that some technique I used was executed perfectly, that’s nice to hear, but it’s nicer when they say that they were hungry before I cooked and now that they’ve eaten they’re not hungry anymore. Getting to this realization about how I care about food instead of just that I care about food was a huge step for me, and it shifted my focus from cooking to the food system in general. I changed majors and put myself on a path towards an education in sustainability and a career in farming, and for the first time in a while I felt like I was aiming for goals that I felt good about.
Also I learned how to make Strawberry Crepes Fitzgerald, and let me tell you that alone was almost worth the price of admission.
I learned these on Breakfast Day. (Every class we would cover one topic, so Breakfast Day, Soup Day, etc. I remember some days more than others. Sandwich Day, even though I don’t consider myself a sandwich person. Fried Chicken Day was pretty great too. Also Oh Damn I Forgot How Tasty Veal Is Day.) I then thought about them regularly for two years before finally remembering there was no reason I couldn’t make them again. Making them at home is a slightly different deal, since it wouldn’t be wise to flambé them at home even if I wasn’t working on an electric cooktop, and I needed to cut the recipe in half because 30 crepes just seems excessive, at least until you start eating them. After two years apart, I’ve made them twice in the last two months. In November (above) they were perfect. Last night the batter was a little lumpy and the finished crepes were a little closer to pancakes, but also last night I messed around with the recipe a little and used my stand mixer instead of whisking the batter by hand, so I can’t quite say what the problem was.
Still, any time you stuff a pancake with cream cheese and then put something tasty on top, you are doing all right as far as I can tell. This time I decided to make them two different ways. I didn’t have strawberries on hand, so I decided to make a peach sauce with cinnamon for breakfast crepes today.
Last night we had them with mushrooms, onions and spinach; I mixed some in with the filling and used the rest as topping. I left the sugar out of the batter so they would work for savory or sweet, and then I sweetened the filling that I used for the peach version.
Overall, I am pleased. I’ve been eating bigger breakfasts and smaller dinners lately, so I actually found this a little rich for dinner. I probably wouldn’t have with a salad, though, so I’m not totally ruling out dinner crepes. It was a perfect breakfast, at least the two I had stuffed and rolled and sauced properly. My husband was stuck with the practice crepes by the time he got up, so his looked a little more like pancakes and syrup. Still tasty, just not as pretty.
I think I’m going to add crepes into the meal plan a little more often. They’re a good make-ahead item and they’re kind of meditative once you get into a rhythm with them. I clearly did something wrong with this recipe this time, though, and I’m curious to try the one in How to Cook Everything because it makes about the same as the half-recipe I’ve been doing and seems less fiddly, so these might become a long-term experiment for me.