Culinary School: Self-Preservation

May 7, 2010

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A few weeks ago I singed the flat of my thumb on a 500 degree sheet pan. Since then I have watched my skin regrow over the raw area — stretching, covering, wanting so desperately to self preserve. It dawned on me, recently, that my fingerprint has been growing back in a different shape. Those swirling lines, those patterns that have defined my thumb and my identity all my life have been forced by the burn in new directions.

In class, I have to cover my wound with a bright blue band-aid and a rubber glove. I feel like a less coordinated, blue collar version of Michael Jackson. But fashion is the least of my concerns as I grip a chefs knife in one hand and a steel in the other.

“You look like you’re playing a fiddle,” my instructor shouts from across the room. He approaches, takes my two utensils and clangs them together in eight deliberate motions. “Like that,” he says. “Basic knife skills. Cooking 1.” I take the two objects from him and feel a surge of pain from under my glove. “Thanks,” I say.

Once again, I find myself in a hollow, stainless steel room with florescent lighting, hot stoves and pressure to perform. And once again, I adore it. I even adore my instructor who paces the room with a set of tasting spoons and finishes every sentence with his pick of “got it?” or “alright?” Because he’s the guy that reminds me that cooking is the only art form that touches all five senses. And this evening, when it comes to learning how to clarify butter, how to make brown stock, mother sauces, intermediate sauces and small sauces, he holds the key.

My evening is a little bumpy. After misplacing one of my recipes and clarifying butter that doesn’t seem so clarified, I soon find that my velouté is too thin. Velouté, which is basically thickened chicken stock, should coat the back of a spoon but mine is anemic looking and too watery. Panicked, I whip up another batch of roux and bring it back to life.

“More salt,” my instructor says to the woman next to me. As he edges in my direction, I look at my mixture and feel a sudden swell of pride. “I’ve nailed it this time,” I think. He dips his spoon in my velouté, brings it out, and smacks his lips. “More salt.”

For the next five hours, I grapple with béchamel, turn it into a mornay (add butter and cheese), make brown stock from chicken bones and transform my velouté into a supreme (add mushroom trimmings and heavy cream). It’s a long, parade of sauce making and by the time I am manning the dish tank at the end of class, I am exhausted.

Four of us are lined up at the tank but we don’t talk about dishes. That part is ritualistic by now. We pass the dishes to each other down a line — each of us scrubbing, rinsing or sanitizing. We talk about our families and our day jobs. We laugh about our miserable veloutés. We debate the best Mexican food in town.

In the process, I forget about the panic and the stress. I don’t think about my soaked coat sleeves or my singed thumb. But I guess that’s what self preservation is all about. Daunted though I may become, I can’t deny my constant pursuit to grow, to heal, and to recover for the next round.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark May 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

Ouch! You do such a great job with your blog. I loved this post. Your network connection is really slow – might be a problem for users who don’t have patience!

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Courtney May 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

Mark, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my host provider for the past 3 days. It’s painfully slow. I’m actually in the process of switching as I type. Thanks for hanging in there!

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Owen May 7, 2010 at 8:47 am

So it hurts so bad that you have to laugh. There’s no humor at our house when my wife burns herself. Grilling outside seems safer. Beer in hand, I watch a mole digging a path behind my grill into a new flower bed. Hope you heal in time to type another post.

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Ann May 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Courtney, your photography is always great. Are you taking these pictures during class?

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Courtney May 7, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Ha! Yes I am. One of the things I love about culinary students … they don’t ask questions. Only comment I ever got was, “Hey, I love photography too!”

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Liz May 10, 2010 at 7:09 am

I hope you don’t have to use your thumbprint for identification. A year and a half of working at Krogers taught me the dangers of burning fingers. I had to clock in using either my thumb, or pointer finger, burnt both at one point and then had to continuously bother a manager to switch my log-in to my other hand!

I love the descriptions in your posts. I feel like I’m in the room as your instructor is pacing. Can’t wait to read more!

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Courtney May 11, 2010 at 7:47 am

I was actually wondering about that! I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually had to be fingerprinted but I’m certain it’d be a problem now. Sounds like you understand from experience (were you cooking when you burned them?!) Thanks for reading!

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