If you read my little corner of the web regularly or Follow me on Twitter you’ll know that as October 1st drew around I started to get very excited about food.
Hold up, you’re thinking, you already get ridiculously excited about food, you massive fatty. How is this news?
To that question, my lovely readers, the answer is this: I was starting full-time professional culinary school, specifically at the renowned Leiths School of Food & Wine in London, and that is a reason to get very excited if there ever was one.
I’m not going to lie: I was very nervous. My housemates, friends and family kept telling me to stop being so ridiculous, that I had this in the bag, that I’d love it to pieces and it would be the best experience of my life, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was going to get in there, realise I couldn’t actually cook and then have a massive breakdown and bawl in the kitchen every day for a year, feeling like I’d failed at, well, life.
You may have realised I’m a little bit of a drama queen.
So why now? I mean, I’m already an (albeit fledgling) working food writer and private caterer, I’ve turned out canapes and buffet-style food for 150 people in my tiny home kitchen and I’m even at a stage where I can afford to hire helpers to be my sous-chefs on jobs (maybe it’s because I’m a bossy-boots control freak but asking somebody to do something and them replying, “yes chef” is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever heard). Do I really need to go to culinary school when I’m already working in the field?
The short answer is that, right now, yes, I need this because I need to learn how to do things properly and professionally (and right now I do it the Leiths way but later on I can step outside the box), but more importantly I want this. And even though I knew that, it wasn’t until the second day of the semester, the first when I was in the kitchen, dressed in my super sexy chef’s whites (read: incredibly unfeminine and not at all sexy in any conventional way – my bazley hat actually makes me look like an Asian Super Mario – “here we go!”), a pile of vegetables dumped rather unceremoniously on the tray on our table of four, my brand new engraved knives in front of me, that it really sank in and I had the most surreal moment. It was like an outer body experience where I was looking down at myself thinking, “oh my GOD, am I actually doing this?! Am I here?!” I felt so excited and overwhelmed and, yes, a little bit emotional, that not only was I trembling slightly, I was actually holding back tears.
HOLD UP, Jackie. Are you actually telling the world that whilst you were about to block off some carrots and chop some freaking batons, you were nearly crying?!
Slightly ashamedly, yes. I did say that I was going to cry on the first day, didn’t I!
I think the only way that I can really explain it is that after spending so long trying to figure out what I want from life, after watching friends sail into jobs and careers with what looked like relative ease and following my (rather intimidatingly) impressive family, to finally find that one thing that you really love, that one place where you feel like you belong… well. It’s kind of a big deal, right? So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little over-emotional whilst holding the sharpest, sexiest knife I’ve ever owned, feeling the happiest I think I’ve ever felt. And hey, give me some credit – I may have wanted to cry but I didn’t!
Thus followed one of the most challenging and satisfying weeks of my life. I learnt a stupid amount about eggs, I watched as stocks and pastries were made in front of me by these amazing, lovely, fascinating teachers, I asked a stupid amount of questions and studied both my material from that day and for the next every night (as well as fitting in a little bit of skills practice, making my dinner and lunch for the next day and working on some freelance work), I made a pretty perfect omelette on my first try (when my teacher told me I did a great job all I did was nod and say, “thank you” but inside I was bouncing off the walls and wanted to run around screaming, “YEAH BITCHES!”), and got my seasoning basically spot on for every dish I’ve made so far (only exception was the hummus where my table partner and I went way overboard on the garlic, which I knew before we served it – whoops!). I’ve even bonded with most of my classmates over a couple of drinks at the pub and scattered conversations in the changing rooms as we struggle in and out of whites, getting a little faster every day (on one of the days quite early in the week I accidentally started a rather loud conversation about breast size – the boys’ side of the changing room went awfully quiet at that point…) but man, I am slow. At this stage I think it’s okay to take your time, it’s alright to want it completely perfect – even to do it again – before I call out service and have my teacher taste my dish, it’s okay to want to get those crudites lined up just right… but I also know that as time goes on I’m going to need to pick up the pace, to push myself and still have a perfect plate.
To be honest, I kind of feel like I want my teacher to be a little harder on me, to push me more (Lord will I regret saying that in a few weeks time!) but then I’ve always been my worst critic, have always firmly motivated myself (sometimes you can hear me quietly berating myself in the kitchen like an absolute mentalist if I feel like I haven’t done something quite to the best of my ability) and whilst it’s very good to be able to self-govern your work, it’s also my greatest downfall. The smallest things get me down: for example on Friday one of the girls on my table was a bit overzealous with the cleaning and accidentally threw away my carefully thought out soup garnish – of course it was my fault because I was the last to serve and I really should’ve labelled my container so that it was obvious – but that one little thing made me so annoyed with myself that I left feeling like I wanted to cry (again) and then dreamt about making soup where I had no garnishes available in the kitchen all night. And you know the ridiculous thing? My teacher wasn’t even looking at the presentation, it was just about the seasoning and that was almost perfect (could’ve had a tiny touch more lime if I wanted it, which I’d suspected at the time). I think the reason it threw me off, though, was purely because I was just taking so long to serve and so I was rushing… admittedly, that wasn’t even entirely my fault, as our blender disappeared for a demonstration and three of us on my table then had to wait for any of the others in the room to become available.
Thus far, however, though I’m exhausted and my average day is from 6.30am until midnight, I do love every moment. No matter how tired I think I am, as soon as demonstrations and cooking start I am fully switched on, absorbing everything around me like a sponge. I think I’m getting a bit of a reputation in my class for having lots of random facts floating around my head and the phrase, “so I was reading an article the other day and did you know…” is now starting to elicit giggles but I just find it all so incredibly fascinating. My favourite thing I’ve learned this week? The term baveuse which describes the ideal soft, slightly uncooked centre of omelettes and souffles, literally means: “baby sick” in French. Of course I remember that – it’s a completely random, unnecessary fact but y’know what? I’ll never, ever forget it now.
Nappé-ing eggs for the first time – two on the palate knife and one on the plate, my table’s efforts and my first ever try on the right. Check out how straight my lines of parsley dust (or as I call it: Leprechaun Cocaine) and paprika are!
Even though I did a month’s residential course at a culinary school before, at the time I was 19 and listening to cooking theory was just not as exciting to me as it is now. In fact, I very distinctly remember nearly drifting off several times and then not understanding how the other kids could remember that adding salt early to a stock was a no-no as the reduction of said stock would result in a condensed flavour and overly-salty liquid (I never forgot it after that, though) – why did I even need to learn that? I just wanted to cook and I certainly didn’t want to do it professionally… So right now, where I am in my life and with a couple of years experience behind me working to a deadline and for paying clients, this is perfect and it’s exactly what I need. I just hope that the positive experience continues throughout the year, even though I anticipate that I will be very busy and probably, at some point soon, I won’t be able to hold back those tears and I will cry.
But y’know what? At least I’ve learned that I do actually know how to cook, my confidence grows a little every day through positive encouragement and a lot of home practice, and that is a very satisfying thing indeed.
Until next time, peace and love,