Entering the real world with an undergraduate degree in Quantitative Economics got me just where I was supposed to be - working for such companies as World Savings (now Wachovia), Morgan Stanley, BearingPoint (now bankrupt), Citigroup, and Fannie Mae. Basically, the who’s who in evil banking/mortgage dudes. After 5 years of closing bank branches (read as: dissolving lots of jobs), public relations (read as: lying to the press about crooked brokers), and consulting on corporate governance (read as: covering up screw-ups with fancy words and charts), I had my fill. I’d been suppressing my desire to become a chef since high school, and eventually realized if I wanted to make the leap, I should do it now – before marriage and kids – when I had the money and it was still okay to be selfish and spend it all on myself. And I got out of that hell hole just in time.
I attended the 9 month FCI Culinary Arts program from July 2007 to May 2008. There were four levels, although I think now there are six. Level One was the basics. In each class we would focus on one item – one day, stocks; the next day, soup; the next, chicken. We were partnered up and graded on our plates at the end of the day. At the end of every week, we were tested on vocabulary and basic recipes. The chef instructors were all militant strict old French, Ukrainian, and American chefs with thick accents and tattoos. They yelled and berated and told us our food sucked. When we eventually did do something right, we were rewarded with only a silent nod. Three people dropped out by the end of the first month. I thought it was all so very hardcore and exciting.
In Level Two we rotated stations - Garde Manger (cold station - salads, soups), Poissonier (fish), Saucier (meats), Pastry and family meal. Family meal was, for me anyways, the absolute worst station, as it was spent making dinner for the students and faculty (read as: breaking down 100 chickens). The whole of Level Two is devoted to preparation for the midterm. Two practiced dishes were drawn at random and we had an hour to complete it. Judges watched our every move, quietly ticking points on and off. By the end, we plated for four additional judges who were sitting in the next room, knife and fork in hand.
In Levels Three and Four, students are moved to FCI’s restaurant, “L’Ecole.” Here we rotated stations and prepped one or two dishes. After a two minute pep talk and a couple hours of prepping (chop, slice, marinate, parboil), orders start coming in at 8 o'clock sharp. A big black board in the front of the kitchen holds the orders, "order up!" and "fire!" are being called out by a big French chef with a thick accent. After deciphering that he was saying 4 lamb, 6 salmon, and 2 veg plates, pots clang, food is flung and plates appear under the warming lamp. It is during these last levels that I gained the new satisfaction that comes from knowing the food you create is actually being eaten by paying customers. Even better is the adrenaline rush that comes from working in a professional kitchen. There is no time for hesitation, second-guessing, or excuses. If you make a mistake, you fix it and move on. The heat is all-consuming, the challenges come every second, and the movement is constant. It's a feeling I could never get sitting behind a computer, in a conference room or in front of a client. I fell in love with it. Blink and it's over. Blink again and it resets.
Upon graduation, I was awarded “Graduate with Distinction” - ranked #2 in my class. I also won “Best Final Project” for A Tasting of Philippine Fruits and Vegetables, an original seven course tasting menu of Philippine fruits and vegetables prepared using classic French techniques. Finally, something I loved to do that I was actually pretty great at.