I Might Be on the Other Side Of Middle Age, But My Professional Culinary Arts Journey Has Just Begun!

No Chanel, you can't come to ICE with me!

No Chanel, you can’t come to ICE with me!

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?

Locker Room

Locker Room

Dressed and ready!

Dressed and ready!

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!”kitchen 601kitchen

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.

Chanel and Roscoe

Chanel and Roscoe

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.

Kitchen set-up

Kitchen set-up

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.

Caramelizing Onions

Caramelizing Onions

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!

Celebrating Week ! of my new Culinary Journey

Celebrating Week ! of my new Culinary Journey

back to School at mid-life

photoIn less than a week I begin my eight-month professional culinary program at the Institute of Culinary Education.  I am excited and can’t wait to start, and I am terrified at the same time.  Going back to school at 55, oy vey!  So many “what ifs” are running through my mind: What if the kids don’t like me? What if the Chef Instructors don’t like me? What if my uniform is too tight? What if I’m a brown-nose? What if I’m the dumbest in the class? What if I don’t know how to read my homework on the iPad? What if I fail my first test? What if I cut myself? What if…?

Both my kids have been very supportive and encouraging.  My charming son, Clint, who spent a lot of time in Paris this summer studying and tasting French cuisine told me: “Loin, don’t worry, your food is just as good, if not better than many of the places I ate in France.” — ok he’s proudly a “mama’s boy.” My beautiful and perceptive daughter, Alexandra, said it best: “Loin, don’t over think it, just go in and do what you have done so well and naturally for the last 25 years!”

Life is full of what if”s … sometimes you just have to take the plunge even if you feel like a fish out of water.  After all, Julia Child started her culinary career at about my age.  It means a lot that I can be an example for my children who are now young adults with their own career questions and choices.  I’m proud to lead by example and show them that life is ever-changing and there are so many chapters to fill.

The Goodbyes Don’t Get Any Easier…

My son just got back from studying abroad.  He was home all of 18 hours during which time he unpacked, did laundry, ran errands for supplies, repacked, had a hello/goodbye dinner with his sister, slept and was off again.  He’s on his way back to Maine (with a 12 hour stop to see his girlfriend in New Hampshire) to lead a group of teenagers on a several hundred mile sea kayaking trip up the coast of Maine.clint and loin

I thought I was used to his coming and going.  I thought I had filled my life enough with my own new journey as a chef so that the pain of the life that’s over (raising my kids) had numbed.  But it hasn’t.  Of course I am so proud of the people Ali and Clint have grown to be.  Proud of their accomplishments, compassion, and independence.  That’s what I had hoped for, right.  My job as mom was to prepare them for their life journey.  To give them the confidence to take advantage of what life has to offer, explore and fly.  But the time we had together now seems so short, too short.  Those car rides home from school, sitting in traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway were some of the most precious moments my kids and I shared.  All the ordinary day to day moments were so special, as simple as they were.clint and ali

When my son got off the plane at JFK, I surprised myself by bursting into tears.  I guess I hadn’t let myself think about how much I had missed him.  And now, 18 hours later as he waves goodbye with his impish smile, off on his next adventure, my tears pour uncontrollably.  “Liquid Love” but none the less gut wrenching sadness. He will be home for four days at the end of August, before heading back to Colby for Junior year.  I’ll look forward to and cherish that time, knowing the goodbye will never be easy and the pain and mourning for the life that is over will never fully be gone.off again

Sleepless In The Suburbs

The city has been extremely hot, humid and smelly this past week, so the idea of spending the weekend in the suburbs was actually appealing for a change…

There was a nice breeze Friday night so we left the windows open.  Ok, to be honest, leaving windows open is not something I am comfortable with.   Being the city person that I am, the idea of leaving anything unlocked or open is really frightening.  But, before I could stress out too much over all the awful things that could happen, the breeze lulled me to sleep….All was fine until 3:10 am when I was awakened by unfamiliar sounds.  Not the sounds I thought I would hear such as squealing chipmunks as they were being eaten by a fox or carried off by a vulcher, or raccoons knocking over garbage cans, or bats flapping by.  No, I was awoken by the sound of trucks zooming down I-95, one after the other.  The house is actually several miles from the highway, but on this still, balmy summer night in the suburbs, the sound was carried all those miles and into my bedroom.  The rumble of trucks was constant.  Why so many?  Where could they all be going?  Too tired to get up to close the windows, I decided to count the trucks as they zoomed down the highway as if they were sheep…one, two, three, etc.  Ok that just didn’t work.

I was up for hours, listening to I-95, trying to guess how big each truck was by the sound and length of the rumbling.  Finally, around 5 am I am starting to doze off and am startled awake by the loud, non-stop chirping of overly happy birds.  How do you turn them off?  This time, I got up and shut the windows.

Oh how I miss the familiar sounds of the city.  The comforting sound of  a fire truck’s siren, the drunken yells from the sidewalk as the bars empty out, the clamor of a homeless person wheeling a cart of bottles down the street…Ah, those wonderful city sounds that lull me to sleep…

City Dogs Pampered in the Suburbs

As most of you know by now, my attempt to move to the Suburbs (when not in NYC or Maine) has not been successful.  But I keep trying.  It does smell better than the city in July.  And my culinary program doesn’t start until the end of August.  And, being the neurotic New Yorker that I am, I am worried that I’ll get stuck in my apartment building elevator due to a power outage when everyone turns their airco’s on at once.  Besides, where else can my dogs get pampered in a Mobile Grooming Salon.

Chanel and Roscoe not sure what to make of this.

Chanel and Roscoe not sure what to make of this.

 

Chanel, my 80 pound furry baby and Rocoe, my fourteen year old Tibetan terror, aren’t quite sure what to make of the this mobile “Fur” Spa as it rolls up the driveway.

But as soon as they meet the friendly owner, Marilyn and see the pretty pink “salon” inside, they are ready for their day of beauty!

I think Chanel and Roscoe could get used to life in the suburbs.  But unfortunately, their mom still feels like a fish out of water here.  Maybe they have a mobile spa for people too?

Chanel with mom after her "spa" treatment

Chanel with mom after her “spa” treatment

Roscoe's not so sure about this...

Roscoe’s not so sure about this…

What are You looking  at...

What are You looking at…

Cooking with A Grand Master Chef in Maine: A Memorable Feast and inspirational stop on my culinary journey!

Grand Chef Cartwright, Chef Bissonnette and Chef Loin

Grand Chef Cartwright, Chef Bissonnette and Chef Loin

I had the great fortune to join renowned  Grand Chef Jonathan Cartwright and his team for a day at The White Barn Inn.  It was late morning and the staff was in full swing preparing for the Friday evening crowd.  My knees and hands were shaking as Grand Chef Cartwright brought me into his Five Star, award winning kitchen.  What a thrill, to be in, let alone assist in a world class kitchen!  The most striking thing was that no one was talking yet everyone was communicating — it was like watching a master musical composition, all the parts working in time and finely tuned.

I got to move from station to station.  First, Chef Derek Bissonnette asked me if I had ever filleted a fish before. Yes, I answered with confidence having done it several times in my classes at ICE and ICC.  But then he put a Huge Salmon in front of me and handed me the largest filet knife I had ever seen.  Chef saw my expression and said not to worry, I could handle it…and I did, thanks to his confidence in me!

Very BIG Salmon!

Very BIG Salmon!

Chef Derek explaining skinning technique

Chef Derek explaining skinning technique

 

Chef Loin at work

Chef Loin at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then tackled a Skate, which I had never seen or worked with before!  After,  he whipped up a piece for me to try — one of my new favorite fish!

Chef Derek explains how to tackle Skate

Chef Derek explains how to tackle Skate

 

Me tackling Skate

Me tackling Skate

Next stop was with English Chef Jo Jo.  He was prepping Quail and asked me if I wanted a go at it…

Chef Loin and Quail

Chef Loin and Quail

Quail

Quail

Chef Jo Jo teaching techniques for Quail

Chef Jo Jo teaching techniques for Quail

Last stop was with amazing Pastry Chef Gabby.  She had me work on souffles.  I confessed to her that baking was not my strong suit and she jokingly told me to “suck it up, you’re a culinary student and it’s part of the deal”.  She did later admit to me that culinary was not her thing, as mine was not baking.  But Chef Gabby made it so much fun, that I’m now rethinking my fear of baking and actually looking forward to that part of my program.

Pastry Chef Gabby

Pastry Chef Gabby

Later that evening, I feasted on the exquisite food of this gifted staff.

Sauteed Beef Tenderloin

Sauteed Beef Tenderloin

Maître d’Hôtel Benjamin Fraser brought me back into the kitchen around 8:00 pm so I could experience it while it was in full swing.  Again, I was amazed at the rhythm and hum of the staff, it was nothing like I expected.  I told Grand Chef that this was one of the most memorable meals I have ever had and with his charming smile and English accent replied, “Darling, you must not get out too much?”

Pepper Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna

Pepper Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna

An extraordinary day, memorable feast, and inspirational stop on my culinary journey!!

Lemon Cake

Lemon Cake

 

Strawberry Rhubarb Vol-au-vent

Strawberry Rhubarb Vol-au-vent

I Went “Buggin” with the Maine Lobster Boys!

I have grown up eating lobster.  Somehow my parents decided it was a food that should not be included on the Kosher list (like bacon).  I know, don’t ask.  So I love lobster and all things lobster.  I enjoy eating them and cooking them and yes…I have no problem “killing” them, though I do massage them first so they are relaxed and sleepy.

In my culinary journey, I am committed to supporting only sustainable seafood and meats and to fully understanding where and how the food is sourced.  Thus, being in Maine,  I thought it was time to experience lobster…and not just on a role.lobstah roll #3

So even with my arm still in a sling, I called Captain Tucker C. Jordan of Maine Lobster Boys and arranged to go out “Buggin” with him.lobster boys truck

lobster boatIt was an amazing experience!  We boarded his boat (“Hot Spot Too”) with his six-year-old nephew, Sam, who seemed as seasoned at lobstering as any adult lobsterman.

Captain Tucker Jordan and Sam

Captain Tucker Jordan and Sam

Me going "Buggin" sling and all!

Me going “Buggin” sling and all!

Capt. Tucker taught us to haul the traps by motor driven winch.  He taught us how to measure the catch.  If a lobster measures less than 3 1/4″ inches or more than 5″ inches, they are illegal under Maine law and must be thrown back.  Also, female lobsters (yes he taught me how to tell the difference) with eggs have to be gently held upside-down so the eggs don’t get dislodged and they have to be “notched” on the second to last tail before being thrown back.  Sam showed me how to “band” the keepers, without being pinched.

Sam showing me how to haul the traps

Sam showing me how to haul the traps

Sam showing me how to "Band" the lobster

Sam showing me how to “Band” the lobster

me and samLobstering is intensive, tedious, arduous, and time consuming work.  It requires long hours in all weather conditions and constant focus and attention to detail.   I now have a great appreciation and tremendous respect for the work of the individuals who commit themselves to this industry and to sustaining this natural resource.me and guys

Lobster Bands

Lobster Bands

sam

“Captain” Sam!

Thank you Captain Jordan and future Captain Sam for a memorable day!me and lobstah

A New York Moment in the ER

It’s been a difficult few months. So being on overload, tired, and stressed I was bound to do something stupid (not to mention I’m a natural klutz on a good day). And I did. I tripped over my Golden Retriever, Chanel, and ended up in a NYC ER Saturday morning. It was actually a beautiful facility, as far as NYC ER’s go. It just reopened two months ago, having been completely rebuilt after being destroyed by hurricane Sandy.

Oddly, the only design flaw is the x-ray waiting area — there isn’t one. There’s a hallway where the patients are lined up side by side either on stretchers or in wheel chairs. I wanted to stand since my pain was more intense in a sitting position, but I was sternly told by a very tough looking escort, “You sit and get wheeled or lie down and get pushed to x-ray…take your pick, but you’re not walking!” I couldn’t get her to change her mind even after whimpering, pleading, and complementing her on her hair.

So there I sat, in a wheel chair, wedged in the hallway next to a stretcher. On the stretcher was an elderly woman who turned her head my way and said cheerily, “Hello!  So how’s your morning going?”  We both laughed.  All the while, she was clutching her purse to her chest, the New York Times on one side of her, and a water bottle on the other…clearly a native New Yorker.   She looked at me and said under her breath, “honey, you can’t trust ANYONE, hold on to your bag!” She continued, “I can’t believe I had to come here without finishing my third cup of coffee and the Times! They took the coffee away from me, but at least they left the paper!” The x-ray Technician came to take her in and as they wheeled her away, she waved back at me and yelled, “Don’t blame your dog, watch your step next time, and don’t forget to hold on to your purse, have a good day honey!”

So my day began with a sprained rotator cuff, a bruised knee, a broken tooth (an ungraceful three-point fall over the dog), and a sweet New York moment…

A Bittersweet Good-bye

On this historic day, 70 years ago, American troops landed in Normandy in pursuit of liberty.  On this day, 84 years ago my  Uncle Danny was born in the Bronx, New York.  On this beautiful warm sunny day, my uncle, on the day of his birth, will be placed in the earth…and honored for the extraordinary life he led and the legacy he has left behind.  

I never thought there could be beauty in the end of one’s life.  But in these last few months, from hospital to hospice, my Uncle brought laughter, love and a lasting legacy to me, my children, his sister Debbie,  his daughter Heidi, devoted wife Marilyn and friends.  Though he knew the end was near, he kept a brave front and continued to tell us stories of his very full life.  Even on Monday, his last day, he was telling me jokes and with his trademark impish grin, had me repeat them to my Aunt so I would not forget them.  Somehow I knew when he squeezed my hand good-bye that evening that this was the last time…but as heart-wrenching as it is, there is joy and comfort in the time we had and the grace of  his long good-bye.

Uncle Danny passed peacefully in his sleep early Tuesday morning, with his wife Marilyn by his side…Today, his family and friends are gathering together to celebrate this extraordinary man…I love you Uncle Danny and I can see that grin as you say…”back at you kid”….

Uncle Danny

Uncle Danny

The Bittersweetness of a Long Goodbye

My Uncle Danny has now moved from a hospital to a Hospice.  He has been in stage 4 lung disease for several months.  It is a progressively terminal illness and  his doctors say he is living on sheer will now, as his body is rapidly failing him.

Why does it take the process of dying to realize what is important in life?

My uncle was different from other uncles.  He was a confirmed bachelor.  A swinging single in the ’60s and ’70s sexual revolution.  A gifted lawyer, his clients included notable businessmen, real estate moguls, porn stars and madame’s …yes my uncle was quite unique.  An avid skier, yachtsman, hunter, boxer, craftsman, and entrepreneur — that was my Uncle Danny.

My uncle never took me to the zoo or Coney Island.  He wasn’t that type of uncle.  As a child, he would talk to me as an adult. I understood that he didn’t really know how to relate to children.  But I relished his visits.  I loved hearing the stories of his ski adventures in the Swiss Alps or his crazy clients, etc.  I often fantasized that he would take me to live with him for a while to witness this world that was so different from my sheltered home.

He was also quite the ladies man.  Models, actresses, exotic dancers,  etc.  His hangouts were nightclubs, private parties, and Plato’s Retreat (yes, those of you old enough know what that is).  I remember when I was in my twenties, his girlfriends were suddenly my age…ok that was a little weird for me.  But Uncle Danny also taught me to believe in love.  In his sixties, he met the love of his life and soul-mate, my Aunt Marilyn (about 20 years his junior).  Marilyn came with my cousin Heidi, a brilliant and witty pre-teen at the time.  This little family gave my uncle (and me) a wonderful gift and the most fulfilling chapter of his life!

Uncle Danny and I bonded over a shared passion for cooking, food, and culinary gadgets.  He may not have taken me to the park or the movies, but he did take me to chef supply warehouses and stores.  He did buy me my first set of knives. I think I was too young to have them, but Danny always treated me like a little adult. He later gave me a protective glove.  He must have thought twice about the knives he had given me. He also gave me a micro-plane when they were still considered a tool for craftsmen, rather than chefs. These early experiences with Uncle Danny may have planted the seed for my future culinary pursuits.

It took Uncle Danny until this final chapter to be able to say “I Love You.”  It took him until this final chapter to talk freely about life, love, and emotion.  The most important legacy he says he wants to leave is a family that is united in love and respect.

Why did it take until now to get the Uncle Danny I really wanted as a child.  The loving, warm, expressive  mentor I longed for.  But I have it now, in this final moment.  He has given me a gift I never thought I would have…

I visit him almost daily at the Hospice.  instead of being afraid of these visits, I look forward to them.  My time with Uncle Danny gives me so much…even if he is too tired to talk, even if our conversations are about what he ate for breakfast or what he dreamt  about the night before.  I cherish these visits, these moments.  Maybe this is how the circle of life is really supposed to be.  That it takes one’s final moments to teach us not to take life, or family, or love, or walking to the bathroom, or going outside, or eating what you want, or dancing, or singing for granted.

This long goodbye is bittersweet, but I cherish every moment of it and my Uncle Danny…

Me and Uncle Danny

Me and Uncle Danny