Hello, friends and neighbors.
There's a lot to be said for (and against) going to culinary school if you want to become a cook or chef.
Most of the arguments in favor of it include a basis of skills, the amount of knowledge acquired in a short amount of time, dedicated teachers, and the connections that come with being part of a community.
The arguments against include going into debt, that school won't teach the life skills that come with the kitchen (some of which are as necessary as technical skills), and wasted time and money for a piece of paper that, while impressive, doesn't match up to hands-on experience in the eyes of employers.
To get a loan from a bank to start your own business, that's arguable.
Both of these camps come from a point of emotionality and pride, and I can see the honest merit in both. I went to a local, excellent, less-expensive culinary school before I had my first cooking job, and I can tell you right now the first thing I learned there:
Norman Rockwell had to die.
Idealism Breaks Like Bad Custard
Don't get excited. I love Norman Rockwell's work, and I'm certain it will live forever. The man depicted the America we wish we could see out our window. The unofficial-official artist of the Boy Scouts of America, I grew up looking at his work with honest love and respect. His depictions of small-town America- the Mayberrys and Main Street, USA's we all imagined of a "happier," "simpler" time- are part of the national consciousness.
Even his darker, more evocative paintings had an idyllic serenity to them:
"Yes, THIS is what life should be like. THIS is how things need to be."
My first visions of being a baker- handing over pies and cookies to mothers and their kids in my own little shop, swept clean and full of clean glass and wood shining brown like a pie crust- had that dream like quality. Like someone who wants to own a restaurant, and dreams of tasting the food, wandering through the dining room and greeting patrons- it's the end product.
The "good bits." Getting to that point is rarely pretty.
We got dragged into reality after the first year.
"You are in for it now. You're not going to be Emeril. You're not going to be Nigella. You're not even gonna be Jamie Oliver. When you graduate, you will be someone's b****. You will be someone's b**** for years, and if you're good at being their b**** you might have some little b****es of your own one day.
You may even become the biggest, best, and baddest b**** that the world ever saw- and you'll still be someone's b****."
Understand, no teacher ever said ALL these words verbatim... but it was understood.
"When and IF you graduate... you are at the BOTTOM. You will STAY there until you demonstrate the ability to crawl up."
We were taught to cook and bake, of course. That was the job. Some teachers were easier than others- to varying degrees of success. We were also told some of the horror stories of the job.
We were taught to write our own.
We were given the "jail, hospital, or the morgue" mantra.
"You want to own your own bakery one day? Strap in, kid- here comes recipe costing, labor costing, suppliers, food safety, OSHA, tax law, local and state certifications...
What, you thought you'd just be baking pies all day? Hah, maybe if you're working for someone else, and never want to do anything more."
We got fed the reality. Convenience products. Suppliers. Cost management.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London, Kitchen Confidential, and The Apprentice. We mucked out trash cans, scrubbed dishes and cookware. The stronger guys had to carry out the stockpots heaped with 100 lbs of bones.
Because of my school's proximity to the casinos and resorts of Atlantic City, the majority of us figured one of them would be our first gig out of school. For the most part, they didn't need creative thinkers and dreamers. They needed warm bodies that could crank the recipes out and not mess it up.
Years later, I'd lament to a friend of mine here in Oregon that I did as well as I had at that- that I had pushed to get into some other creativity-based courses, and maybe not simply tried to gather "all the skills I could."
My friend, who didn't go to culinary school, disagreed. "Too many kids who graduate from schools leave trying to be artists first in everything, and craftsmen second. They wind up having issues with the menial stuff, and getting repetition and replication down. It's AWESOME you got used to that first."
We didn't work ALL the time though. And some of us still dreamt. Maybe not the Norman Rockwell ideals we had... but something similar. Something NOT what we were led to accept.
Most of us did go to the casinos, and some stayed for a while. Others built our names working for small restaurants and cafes.
Some of us started our own businesses, repainting Rockwell in our own image.
Some of us packed up our knives and began a wandering career, chasing the tides and where life might lead. We had skills, after all. Give us a kitchen and an oven, we could find work.
As I write this, I'm crashed on my couch with an absurdly snuggly black kitten. My wife is sleeping in the next room. We're two thousand miles from anywhere we FIGURED we'd wind up. I found work in a restaurant, and when I'm not baking, I'm telling stories.
There isn't any Rockwell hanging on my walls. Instead, I have my awards from culinary school.
A Ralph Steadman print of a man on bicycle with baguette, wine, and a cold.
A poster from the podcast Emily and I binged on the drive from New Jersey.
Drawings by my friend Lillian, inspired by kimchi.
and an old tourism poster of Atlantic City.
I don't think Norman Rockwell ever put any of his paintings IN his paintings either.
He painted a reality he wanted. WE made them dreams.
How close to reality we can get them... that's on us too.
That's the tough bit.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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