All day at the Culinary Institute Wednesday, talking to students (pix by Keith Ferris, courtesy of the CIA), seeing old chef-teachers, and generally recalling the changes that happened to me 12 years ago when I arrived there having no idea that learning to cook was going to change me. It’s a fundamental truth, and I’ve written it before: learning the rules and the language of the kitchen teaches you a lot more than how to make a stock or an emulsified butter sauce or how to sauté. It teaches you a way to live, if you’re inclined to think about such things. Being a good cook requires you to be organized, to be a efficient, to take on challenges you wouldn’t otherwise have thought you could handle.
Here’s an example. I stopped by Pardus’s kitchen, K-1 where he teaches the cuisines of Asia, and his current class had done a great job today, service had been smooth and organized, the kitchen was clean. The day before the students had been a mess, disorganized, sloppy, and he had nailed them for it. What he would tell them today was this: you can’t change your skill set in a day, you don’t have any abilities today that you didn’t have yesterday. You’ve simply applied the skills you have differently, and it’s been a thousand times better, and you feel good about it. That is all. How do we use what we have?
That is why I love the kitchen.
And I love the CIA because the students I meet there are always so passionate about food and cooking, it’s energizing and reminds me why I care about food and cooking and kitchens.
I met with Tim Ryan, the president of the school. He’s a guy I am grateful to for the opportunities he’s always given me to write about his school (with no restrictions whatever, I should add), and I have enormous respect for the work he does. I don’t think we’d talked about The Reach of a Chef since it came out and he said he didn’t like it as much as he’d liked making of a chef. Not surprising, I suppose, because the picture of the school was a little more critical than the picture I’d painted of it in The Making of a Chef. He is the school’s number one booster, and if anyone says anything about the school that’s less than glowing, he’s going to take it personally—that’s his job. But his comment about my book was interesting. He said he thought the portrayal of the school was more a snapshot of who I’d become rather than a snapshot of the school at that moment. And he may well be right. I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that any nonfiction writing or journalism can be completely objective. Being back there reminds me how much I love the place, how I never fail to be impressed by the professionalism of the school, the intelligence and intensity of the faculty and the excitement and passion of the students.
In my in my email inbox that day happened to be a link from Kate, my publicist at Scribner, to a review of The Elements of Cooking in The New York Observer. It’s a critique so positive I can’t help but agree even with the reviewer’s one main criticism, that I tend to be a little effusive in my praise of the things I care about. (He’s right, what can I say?) I’m extremely grateful for the review, obviously, but mainly because it was written by a reviewer who obviously cares about cooking and who understood what I was trying to get at.