My parents have apparently nixed my genius idea of relegating their bonus room into an all-purpose craft room, and now I’m stuck spending my labor day trying to organize all my supplies back into my already too-crowded little space. It hasn’t been a very exciting day, to say the least, so I’m taking a break now to expel some ideas that have been weighing heavily on my mind over the course of the last few weeks.

I think I’ve found a cookery school worth applying for, although whether I still have time to get my application in to be considered for the spring term is a little bit debatable. If not, there’s no real hurry, I suppose. The question of whether or not to go to culinary school is one that I’ve been tossing and turning in my mind for quite a while now, and I realize it is a somewhat controversial question among many. The truth of the matter is, there is no right answer. There are people who go to a culinary school and thrive, and there are those who work up from dishwasher and have never stepped into a classroom who also thrive. Then, there are those from both camps who fall flat on their faces. I assume that those who fail would probably fail regardless of which path they took, while those who succeed are those who have the drive and passion to make it work, no matter which path their individual journeys set before them.

Whether or not I’m even cut out for a career in the culinary world is another matter I struggle with regularly. I am not naive; I know there is seldom any glamour to be found in the long hours, the backbreaking work over hot ovens, the menial tasks of scrubbing refrigerators and peeling potatoes that often take up more time than any of the ‘fun’ stuff…there are days when you’re not even sure there is any fun stuff. I know that cooking requires a special kind of mental and physical endurance. Can I take it? Do I really want to subject myself to this?

I already have a college degree. When I began my studies as a 18-year-old, I thought getting this college degree would be the answer to all my questions. I figured that I would graduate, and everyone would want to hire me, because well…I had this degree that showed I might have learned some stuff. After graduation, that certificate would open up all the doors, answer all my questions, and solve all my problems.

This turned out not to be the case. I realized quickly that the degree guaranteed me nothing, and that most jobs required experience…and that experience comes from working from the ground up. Spending time laboring in unpaid positions with no recognition, in hopes that somehow, someday it might pay off. As I embark on round two, I’m no longer that naive 18-year-old. I know that, despite a diploma in the Culinary Arts, I’m still going to have to pay my dues at the bottom, and probably with a low starting salary. This is why I’ve taken a lot of time to carefully weigh the benefits and whether the price tag is worth it.

Here’s my thoughts::

The program I am interested in is a short program. 5 months of hands-on class time, 6 months internship in a top notch kitchen in Paris. Did i mention it’s in PARIS? But more importantly, I like that it’s short enough that I can learn the basics without wasting too much time that could otherwise be used out getting experience. And the inclusion of the internship in the program gives me a useful connection to some of the best restaurants the world has to offer, and a 6 month stint working in a real-world environment.Without this sort of opportunity to propel me, there is little chance I’d ever hope to start out my career working for a top-notch Parisian chef. That right there is a chance of a lifetime, and provides tremendous future opportunities if I play my cards right.

I like that the program brochure only discusses what I’ll learn and their qualifications to teach me…it isn’t just a long, irrelevant brag board of all the celebrities that graduated or are somehow affiliated with their institution. This gives me some confidence that the institution desires to actually impart professional training and skills to serious students, not just take my money. I believe that this school will shape me well for what I will find in a real kitchen.

I like that the cost is reasonable enough that I can afford it–and by “afford” I mean that I could afford to pay back the loan on a meager line cook salary after the course is finished.

I like that it is in Paris–part of the reason I’ve had a hard time committing to anything is because  I want to spend time traveling while I’m young and relatively “free”, I want to live abroad, I want to learn another language fluently. These are strong personal goals that I fully intend to achieve. What a better way to go about achieving these goals than by achieving a career goal along with it? Two birds with one stone, I say.

I think that cooking school is the right path for me because I don’t just want to cook. I want to know. The hows and whys and what-ifs. I’m a historian too, I have been trained to ask questions and dig around to find information, to discern what is valuable about our cultural heritage…and the food we eat plays a big part of that. Not just how it is used by one chef in one restaurant, but how it developed, and why. The other day my chef threw a little tidbit at me—Parsley is commonly used in western cooking because it is a digestive aid, and was mandatory (for reasons I dont care to discuss!) in medieval cooking. Its held on, and today we use it for tradition and flavor moreso than its medicinal values. The development of our culinary heritage, like other types of heritage, paints a strong picture of how we see ourselves as part of a greater community. The flavors we like, and those we don’t, the spices we use and what we are familiar with, what tastes and smells like “home”, all play a valuable role in linking us together. Our relationships with each other are enhanced by the food we eat and share together.

I need to learn the vocabulary of the kitchen. I want to know how to talk about food, and know what it is I’m trying to achieve with it. I didn’t grow up in a family that has very experimental tastes when it comes to food…we ate pretty much the same thing every week. This is fine, but as a result I’m very unfamiliar with a lot of techniques, flavors, and cuisines that fell outside my family’s repertoire. I want and need to develop a well-educated palate, which is often hard to do within the confines of restaurant work that demands the same dishes every day. Learning others’ recipes does give one the ability to judge what “looks right” or what proportions are necessary, but cooking is more than just recipes. Isn’t it?

I’m not looking for a lifelong career in a restaurant. Who knows, maybe I will have one. But right now, I want to keep my options open. There are many career paths in the culinary world that go beyond simply cooking, and for these, professional training is often mandatory–or so job advertisements would have me think. a Culinary degree or certificate can take me well beyond the kitchen and into other markets–a useful thing to keep in mind should I ever find myself in the position where I want to settle down and have a family.

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There’s still more to say, but I’ll save it for another post. I appreciate this blog as an opportunity to think out loud. Long story short, I don’t look at attending a cookery school as a shortcut, or an insurance of future fame. I have no desire to be the next Julia Child or Gordon Ramsey or Bobby Flay or whoever. I’m just in it for the simple joy of cooking, and with my fingers crossed I’m tough enough to persevere through one of the most challenging professions in the world. If anything, it’s about going to bed at night content that I’ve done my best to make my life worth living and done something that satisfies and fulfills me every day.

Life is too short for missed opportunities.

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