9. Sweet Potato, Cilantro, and Cherry Pie
When I was 14 I started cooking. Mostly because I was bored after school. Being a latchkey kid with very few friends can have a bright side occasionally, creativity and a love for books are just a few. I’d open the cook book (probably on a day when I had nothing else around to read, better than a cereal box), a Betty Crocker cookbook my mother had, and find a recipe in the cookie or candy section and see what we had the ingredients for. I learned to make divinity because all you really need are eggs, sugar, water, and Karo Syrup. Those are ingredients that tend to hang around. I’d cook bacon and egg sandwiches for lunch during the summer, or if we had lemon juice around maybe lemon bars.
The book didn’t look like it had ever been opened; now it’s disintegrating. Eventually I started dabbling in poached salmon, or stuffed peppers. I remember trying to impress my future wife’s family by inviting them to dinner and making rack of lamb, carottes glacées (sugar and butter glazed carrots), twice baked potato, and most likely cherry pie. How did nobody just tell me to come out and get it over with?
Cherry pie turned out to be my signature dish. Over the years I would perfect my chicken pot pie, poulet à la crème (chicken in cream sauce), chicken crepes with apple and onions, chicken curry, David’s green chicken. Wow, I had a thing for chicken.
So I guess when it came time to figure out my life after high school, culinary arts seemed the perfect fit, and luckily, the local “junior college”, as we called them in those days, had a highly regarded program. When I started, it was free. The only thing you had to pay for were books, and a fifty dollar application fee. My AA degree was going to cost me around a thousand dollars. The book that we would use for the entire two years was around $150, if I recall correctly, I still use it. Our biggest expense was our tools. They had a recommended list of knives, of a very good quality, I still have and use them, as well. All in all, pretty cheap.
It started out well enough. The first semester was mostly learning the service aspects of the profession. Running the front of the house, as it were. Waiting and bussing, table setting, proper stocking techniques, working various cafe’s and industrial food settings, a little bit of bakery work, even a week of managing the campus restaurant. I was working as a savings and loan teller, so I found the service aspect interesting as a change of pace.
The second semester was more along the lines of food prep. Garde manger, stock and sauce preparation, soups, proper cutting techniques, catering, most of the things that are made ahead of time. By this time I was cater waiter-ing, waiting tables in a French restaurant, and working as a short order cook in the school cafeteria in the evenings. The bloom was definitely off the rose. Restaurants are a lot of work and surprisingly high stress.
Third semester was all about running the kitchen. I thrived in the bakery section. There’s nothing so fun as spending your day coming up with desserts. Chocolate mousse, cookies, cakes, butter cream frosting, ice cream, candies, yum! The program final each semester was a multi course banquet planned and executed by the third semester “seniors”, and prepared and staffed by the “freshmen and juniors” as it were. But the biggest test for each student was one of the “senior projects”; for one week you played head chef, coming up with the entire menu (except dessert). Salads, soups, sides, and main courses, conceived, planned, and disseminated to the “staff”.
Now, for the most part there are a lot of standard dishes one can use, Filet of beef, coq au vin, breaded chicken with a sauce of some sort, shrimp scampi, almost anything deep fried, but everybody would also try for a signature dish. I was not good with the creativity when it came to coming up with a signature dish, however. I had a complete block. My sister, luckily, happened to wait tables at a small, highly respected, restaurant in San Rafael, CA. My mother and I had dinner there just weeks before my stint as head chef, and there we had a fabulous special: chicken breast stuffed with sweet potato and cilantro purée. It was the first time I could remember ever having cilantro, and it was a revelation. The chef was happy to give my sister the recipe when she asked him. He came out to talk to me, and had it written on a piece of scrap paper. It was very easy he said. Flatten boneless chicken breasts, fill with mashed sweet potato, and season to taste with cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Easy!
Well, if I’m not mistaken, it was one of the few specials actually sent back as inedible in the time I was in the program. A little cilantro is tasty, a lot of cilantro tastes like a bar of soap. I’m sure that was the moment that ended my culinary dreams.
Oh, it’s not like I was a quitter. I had worked in restaurants enough at this point to realize that they are hot, stinky, greasy, high pressure, low paid jobs imported directly from hell itself. Bakers and pastry chefs (the only department I truly loved) get up at stupid o’clock in the morning…I feel cheated if I have to get up before eight. Chefs and line cooks spend the best hours of the day working in a giant steam bath, and managers die in their thirties from stress (not statistically supported by any studies I know of, but something I believe in my heart nonetheless). They all die poor, for the most part. I had no passion that was going to sustain me. I finished out the semester, got straight A’s, as usual, even with the single worst dish ever served in the Viking Restaurant, and though I was known for making over five hundred crepes for the final banquet, and getting the highest grade in my baking class with my cherry pie final project, I knew that cooking had been forever tarnished for me. They say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I say that’s utter shite. “Do what you love”, and you’ll soon hate it.
Just a few months later I discovered The Career College of Cosmetology near where my fiancé and I relocated to in Woodland, CA. I had never once dreamed of being a hairstylist. I had never practiced braiding on my sisters, I hadn’t secretly colored my step-mother’s hair in my dreams. It was perfect!
Twenty-seven years later, I guess I made the right choice.