In case anyone was wondering, culinary school is run awful lot like a military academy, and the advisors are not afraid to say so. In fact, they do it on purpose, thanks to Auguste Escoffier, who revolutionized the foodservice industry in the nineteenth century after spending time in the army.
Of course, I was only mildly prepared for the day ahead. I was up late last night prepping for my first day of class, feeling like a little kid again on the first day of school. Only this time instead of laying out notebooks and crayons labeled in Sharpie, I spent a good amount of time carefully ironing my new chef whites until they were crisp and spotless and ensuring my chef pants were hemmed neatly above ‘the natural heel.’
Really, it didn’t matter how nicely I’d ironed. My class got the uniform lecture almost immediately, a good chunk of the day focused on how we would be stopped in the hall if our cravats were out of place. By the way, in case you were wondering, tying a cravat requires a tutorial. I was told it was ‘just like tying a tie,’ but I’d never tied a tie before, so I found that information quite useless. In case you were curious, this is how it works:
I immediately received a pointed scowl from one chef who said in my direction, “You’ll all have to learn how to properly tie a cravat.”
My little classroom of twenty or so, spread out in the Food Safety and Sanitation room, was full of what the school referred to as ‘Nationals’ from all over the US. Most were bilingual. Some were fresh out of high school and under twenty, myself included, but others were looking close to sixty. There were tattooed bikers with long braided hair, facially-pierced girls with multiple earrings and a melting pot of races, ages and stereotypes. We were told firmly that discrimination would not be tolerated in the school. It was a rule as strict as ensuring our black, close-toed shoes were industry standard.
And of course, the day wouldn’t have met my expectations if the chefs hadn’t tried to scare us a little.
“There will be days,” one chef told us, “You will want to run to the bathroom and cry. I’ll see the looks on your faces and know exactly what stage you’re at. That’s just how it works.”
Taking a quick tour through the building, older students watched us pass with looks of pity on their faces. Two girls giggled to each other, “Look! That was us six months ago! How cute!”
And as unsettling as it was to be on display as the new kids, it was nothing less than I expected. I felt somewhat prepared having read multiple accounts of those going into culinary school. My favorite book on this topic, if anyone is interested, is Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon. He attended the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, but the experience is similar.
I left at the end of class with a sense of strange relief and accomplishment. Tomorrow books and knife kits will be handed out, something I’ve looked forward to for a good long while. And I’ve never felt more prepared. I have a bookshelf full of culinary books shared between my Baking and Pastry-majoring roommate, freshly pressed chef whites, an idea of how to tie a cravat (if only a very faint one) and many months ahead full of culinary knowledge.
Of course, there’s still room for chefs to intimidate the daylights out of me and many things still yet to go wrong. But if I can survive Day One, I’m well on my way.