I went into job corps wanting to do the culinary arts program. I thought this was such an example of emotional growth for me! Years before I’d made a vow to myself to never again work in food service. I was tired of the stress and the easiest way I could “deal” with that stress was by just eating all the free food I could. I’d made my way through the fast food chain with McDonalds, Subway, Dunkins, and a Jimmy Johns and I felt like that was all the experience I needed with that for several lifetimes.
So I felt a deep excitement within myself about doing the culinary program and having the word “chef” added to my name. But when I got there and went through what they call “shadow days”—basically trial days in each program you want to try-I couldn’t believe how much I did NOT want to be a chef! It was so insane that I ended up picking my backup plan, and that I followed that into a nursing program. There was, however, a 5-6 month period between the CNA and the LPN courses where I had to commit to something or else leave job corps. I thought I'd stay in the medical field and try medical assistant classes but it was a huge NOPE. My eyes hurt with how bored I was! The first day there I had to test my typing skills and do exercises where I tried to figure out insurance codes for doctors. Could not see myself being in there for 6 months. The teacher in that class was a stickler and she enforced strong rules, such as no more than 5 minutes for bathroom breaks. You had to sign in and out and everything! I was a whole ass adult, 26 years old, and I just could not. Do. It.
So I found myself at culinary again. This time I went in with no pressure. This was just a placeholder. I became instant friends with the teacher. He was a man named Kevin who enjoyed simple pleasures like really good soup and puns. The cornier the better. He literally had a drawer full of instruments to help in his pun jokes, such as a large letter B made out of wood so that whenever anyone approached him about a cooking project he could hold it up and say, “that WOOD be…GRATE!!” And then laugh loudly after, having also pulled out a cheese grater. I also loved watching him absolutely lose his shit, a la Gordon Ramsey. He definitely did his best work under pressure, understaffed, yelling and cursing and his face getting redder and redder. He'd smack his hands on top of his bald head. He’d lift his apron to cover his face. He loved to prank us and his punishments were so creative…one time the day's cleaning wasn’t done so we all as a class couldn’t cook the next day. We just cleaned and then watched old kitchen safety videos from the 70's and he watched us like a hawk to make sure we didn’t fall asleep. But on good days we would watch reruns of cake boss and iron chef and we would yell in excitement at their extravagant and dramatic dishes.
I LOVED being in that class. Yes it was definitely stressful but the good times were plenty! I got so much satisfaction from making something good and seeing people it up. Like the two days it took me to make a strong ham stock and then use that to make an amazing potato soup, complete with bacon and cloves and fresh made sweet bread, ALSO made from scratch, by me. I snuck food out to my friends and other friendly staff all the time. Kevin would get upset but then forgive me right away, and just sigh when I would walk into his office to sing or take a quick nap in his comfy chair.
I got to develop amazing friendships with the other students in the class! From the first day when I was new and needed help with absolutely everything, to the last days when we mostly sat around in Kevin’s office complaining about the teenage newbies that took up the only bathroom to be on their phones. There was Shantel’le, a loud, vivacious and tough ass girl from the Virgin Islands with a sunny smile. I loved to poke at her by doing bad Jamaican impressions so she could get big mad and yell while her accent got thicker. We were each other’s right hand in that kitchen, and worked as hard as we ate the delicious food we made every day. There was Angie, who had been in the kitchen for a while before I got there and who steered me along for a bit, kindly pausing her own projects to help me with mine. I’ll never forget the time Kevin packed us all up in a van to go to a clam chowder festival where we presented the million gallons of chowder we had made as a group, and we only lost by a couple votes because Angie and a couple of other people on our team didn’t know we could vote for ourselves! My buddy Angel was great and I loved when our schedules collided and we could be in the huge kitchen at the same time, creating things just for fun and turning up the radio as loud as we could before Kevin would poke his head out of this office to yell at us to turn it down. There were many, many more friends and memories and good times, with some truly stressful days peppered in sporadically.
I got to be such a leader. I became head chef and served the weekly new students luncheon in a white chef coat and hat. I worked on menus for events and organized other students. One time Kevin made me read an email from a local elementary school that wanted us to bake 200 sugar cookies and 250 chocolate chip cookies for a bake sale. He was sighing and rubbing his eyes and I told him I would try it, so he trusted me to take regular recipes and multiply all the ingredients right and shipped them out after trying just a couple. I’d also just like to say that sugar cookies are way too complicated to make…You gotta refrigerate the dough and roll it out all hard the next day. I nearly strained my shoulders doing that but I got to boss some strong armed boys around that day. Had to literally smack my dough out of their fingers when they tried to eat it.
Getting to participate in but not depend on the culinary program gave me a lot of confidence back regarding food. I really got to see that I am able to take charge of situations and events and really make people happy! I got 2nd place in a bake off where I made apple turnovers with a caramel sauce. One of the judges actually had me email her my recipe, which I worked really hard to organize so that it wouldn’t look like I threw it together as I went, which is exactly what happened. A year or so later after graduating from nursing school I worked at an assisted living facility where, while waiting for my license to come in, I worked as a jack of all trades including in kitchen! Got to put that chef certification to good use, even if only for couple days.
I have so many great memories of that program. I will never forget nor regret the sweat, tears, and laughter it took to get through a culinary course, and I applaud all the wonderful people that go into this field with gusto! Take time to actually thank the chef next time you go to a restaurant, I’m sure they’ll love hearing it.