Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote this post, other than a little fiddling I did today. I wrote it after a particularly sharp disagreement with one of my chef instructors at culinary school.
The original title, simply, “A Story Best Told in Time,” alluded to the fact that I couldn’t even write details about what happened yet. In the perennial words of Little Critter, I was so mad. Today, I’m over it, so I will.
In Food Production IV, a final-level class in which we did fine-dining service every Friday night, we took turns on different stations. It was my second time doing table service. Before this class, I’d never waited tables, ever. The first time I did in class, it was ugly, but it worked out.
This second time, not so much.
I got table numbers backwards. I got orders out of order. The chef was already in a rare mood that month or so, and my bumbling didn’t set very well at all. “These are big mistakes,” he bellowed from the kitchen as I ran back and forth.
However, things started to get better after drinks and appetizers went down. As I jogged from the kitchen to the dining room, I started to think to myself, “I could do this. This isn’t so bad.”
Then things got weird.
Appetizer dishes started coming out that we didn’t order, even after I had corrected all my bumbling. A runner brought a strange-looking version of the amuse bouche (pre-appetizer bite) to me. “Chef said you needed a vegetarian amuse,” she said. Not only did I not, but we weren’t even on that course anymore. What?
The entree plates were taking forever. Things were crazy in the kitchen, as they often were, but we all seemed to be a little off kilter this evening.
Finally, I saw a runner jog a tray into the dining room. She didn’t signal that it was for my table, as is custom, and she sat it near the other server, so I kept refilling drinks and waiting on my tables as other entrees came out.
Twenty minutes later or so, I came to the excruciating realization that the tray, still sitting out, was for one of my tables. A VIP one.
I’ve never had that kind of butt-chewing from a chef.
And honestly, I deserved it. I didn’t think so at the time, because the runner is supposed to tell me that it’s mine. But a good server would know what dishes were still needed, what table they belonged to, and whether or not they’d arrived yet from the kitchen.
It is with this year-later mea culpa that I understand even more deeply what culinary education is all about. We’re all pretty decent cooks, or we wouldn’t be there. It’s about taking what we may not be so good at and stretching us, making us leaders.
When I started this real-time writing adventure with Pulaski Technical College’s Arkansas Culinary School, I wondered how all that would work out. From the beginning, the administration was aware of my project. Sometimes, my instructors knew that I was writing about their classes, and other times, they didn’t. In my last semester, I got nearly weekly reports from the culinary school office of another instructor who loved my summary of a class, and who may or may not have even known I had been writing similar stories for the past two years.
Before I started school, several friends in the industry recommended I read The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. Similar to myself, Ruhlman started out as a writer, and he went to the Culinary Institute of America to write about the process of becoming a chef. In fact, while we both went to school out of a passion for the culinary arts, he seemed to go as more of an emic research project.
Ruhlman’s thought process through the voyage from writer to chef is a fascinating one. And through this voyage, he was challenged physically, mentally and emotionally, often by way of conflict. His story of interaction with one chef instructor, Michael Pardus, was way more explosive than anything I ever experienced.
Today, Ruhlman and Pardus are close friends. They get together at one house or the other and just cook, experiment, and talk. Theirs is a fiery story that just couldn’t be told as it was happening, but with the comfort and insight of time.
I hope for this kind of relationship someday with my chef instructors. Chefs are often a passionate lot, and we did occasionally butt heads. But in the end, that passion is exactly what makes what we do so special.
Hey guys: Cooking party at my house, in a year or two. I’ll bring the Humble Pie.