It’s the first day of school. Up early, clothes picked out the night before and ready on the chair. Oh no, that nervous stomach! Dressed and waiting. No, I’m not talking about one of my children. I’m talking about me! It’s my first day of my Professional Culinary Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City. I’m nervous, excited, apprehensive, scared…Can I do this? Have I taken on too much? Am I too old? But here I am. Up at 4:30 am. I shower, dress, change, recheck that my uniform is packed, my iPad charged and packed, tool kit packed. I change again. I walk and feed Chanel and Roscoe.
My legs are shaky, my palms are sweaty and my stomach is crampy. I make my way to the Flatiron District to school with all my gear. It’s 7 am and I am the first to arrive. Still very jittery, I make my way to reception. I am greeted by a smiling sweet woman. She immediately puts me at ease after we chat about how great it is to be able to follow a passion at this stage of life and how proud my kids are of me for taking this on. Her warmth and words of encouragement immediately make me feel at “home”.
Next, I am off to the locker room. Luckily. no one is there yet as I change, insecure that the young women will look at my middle-aging body. I quickly dress. My uniform is a little snug having been measured for it before my summer of consuming as many lobster rolls as possible. Luckily the mandatory apron covers the last 2 buttons so I can leave them open until I lose my summer pounds. My bigger problem seems to be fitting my long ponytail inside my hat. Do I have too much hair or is my head too big?
After a quick check in the mirror that my uniform is perfect, with a dry mouth and shaking knees I am off to report to Kitchen 601! I take a seat near the front. My classmates begin to arrive. As they come in, several come up to me and respectfully say “Good Morning Chef” to me! I sheepishly explain that I too am a new student. They look at me quizzically and smile awkwardly and take a seat. I text my daughter …”I feel so old! They think I’m the instructor!” She sweetly texts back “You are seasoned like good food and aged like good wine!”
The day begins with a welcome from our Dean, Chef Cara Tannenbaum. We are introduced to our Chef Instructor, Chef Ted Siegel. I’m so excited I can’t help but smile ear to ear. I feel like Julia Child on her first day at the Cordon Bleu! Catching eye contact with other students across the room, they too break into smiles — we’re here, we’re actually beginning this amazing program! Next is an iPad tutorial. My head begins to spin. That’s it, first thing I did that evening was to order my books in book form from Amazon!
The rest of the day is basically filling out paperwork, rules, expectations and then assignments. First written exam is on Wednesday, what?! First 1500 word paper is due Friday, what?! I haven’t written a school research paper in 35 years. Yes, I’m a writer and had a career in writing but not research papers! A Bibliography too? Who remembers how to do that? Oy Vey iz mir, this is going to be some journey…
When my blog began, not even a year ago, it was about being a Gefilte Fish Out of Water as a native New Yorker trying to adjust to life in suburban Connecticut. The title of my blog still applies though it has transformed into being a Gefilte Fish Out of Water in Culinary School in a class where the ages range from 18 to 20 something year olds, and then it jumps to me. My anxiety is high but my excitement is higher. Next it’s on to setting up our knife rolls and instructions how to personalize our knives and tools by color coding them with zip ties. It reminds me of the lobster buoy system in Maine.
After the administrative details are done, the week begins. Knife skills, food safety and sanitation, more knife skill, herb identification, more knife skills, cheese identification, more knife skills, fats and oils, more knife skills. The week flies by. Despite the difficulty of adjusting to this new routine, I can’t remember being this excited for each day. My classmates are super sweet and enthusiastic. I love meeting new people and learning their stories. Remember, I spent the last two years basically talking to my two dogs and cat. As good as Chanel, Roscoe and Mr. Jolly are at listening to me ramble on, they are not good conversationalists.
I quickly adjust to my new routine — up at 4:30/5 am, shower dress, review the days lesson over coffee and breakfast, feed and walk the dogs. Chanel and Roscoe seem to be having more trouble than me adjusting to the early morning routine. They both look at me like I’m crazy when I wake them up for their early walk. Chanel usually just yawns and pretends to go back to sleep.
I am out the door at 6:30 so I can report to Chef Ted’s kitchen at 7:00 am to start setting up for class which doesn’t officially begin until 8:00 am. The beauty of being a middle-aged student is that what might be viewed as a nerd or “brown nose” in a younger person is really just maturity, responsibility and dedication in an “older” student.
So I survive week one. I even get 100% on my first exam. I research and write my first paper on Black Pepper. The only cut I get is a whopper of a paper cut the first day! I work hard at perfecting medium dice potatoes — I’ll be spending my Labor Day weekend practicing. A highlight of the week was on Friday when Chef Ted showed us how a simple onion can be transformed into a rich sweet caramelized plate of deliciousness. I will be practicing that too this weekend having turned mine into a greasy bitter plate of mush.
Yes, going back to school after more decades than I care to count is harder than I thought. The long hours of standing, the homework, the studying, the exams and the papers. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. But, as tough as the first week was, I’m loving every minute of it. I feel so incredibly grateful for the chance to take this journey and for the encouragement of friends and family (though my mother thinks I’m nuts for taking this on at my age) in this new chapter.
So I’ll gladly take the cuts and burns to learn about cross contamination and Botulism , the stress and pain to learn about safe food handling and storage and pathogenicity, and the anxiety and exhaustion to learn about APQ’s and EPQ’s! On to week two!