The Glamorous, Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Culinary Student
So, I’m not going to lie - when I landed at London Heathrow in 2011 a few weeks before my course at Cordon Bleu was going to start, I was really looking forward to a year of chilled out culinary adventures in one of the most exciting cities in the world. A break from books, all nighters in the library, grueling exams and just an overall exhausted student life. (Basically, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too - literally and figuratively - enjoy all the perks of student life without having to go through the hard work)
Foodies, I couldn’t have been more wrong! When I got the class schedule at orientation my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Being a Grand Diplome student meant that I had demos and practicals everyday, all day. (Including most Saturdays – No, I’m not joking). And it’s not like university where you can just miss class and catch up later, or arrive late and sneak into the auditorium. No sir, they were STRICT with punctuality. And not only did you have to arrive well ahead of time, you had to look crisp and alert – something that I had no practice in, being in McGill’s science faculty for 4 years, where I would literally roll out of bed and run to class in a hoodie and pajamas. So, accounting for morning rush hour on the tube and commuting in central London meant that my first alarm (yes, I needed several) went off at 5am everyday and I rarely got home before 7pm, sometimes later. Getting off early felt like Eid! - So rare, especially in our first term. We lived, breathed and bled (literally) food in that one year.
Our chefs didn’t go easy on us, we were thrown into the deep end, bottom line was, they had standards, and those standards didn’t change just because it was our first few practicals. We’ve seen it all - our food being thrown in the bin; spit out; being called rat droppings and a string of French words that I have no intention of looking up, (their comments would really make us wonder when they had the time to come up with some of the similes that they did, they were definitely creative, I’ll give them that); freak out sessions in the middle of practicals, crying sessions right after; being sent back to the locker room when we weren’t presentable enough (and of course, this only happened on your last day of laundry rotation, and of course, not having anything else to change into was your problem - #SorryNotSorry); having your tea towels snatched from you and stomped on when you would “answer back”, and finally, getting the death stare. Oh that was the worst! Yep. You guessed it. That glare meant ANY of the above was about to happen. I’m sure there was some sort of bizarre abuse going on there now that I think back! They were tough on us; but that’s exactly what we needed. It turned us into perfectionists, and made for the best training before going into the real world as a chef. It wasn’t personal. It was just getting us to put our best efforts forward, and once we understood that, practicals became a lot more fun.
What didn’t really occur to me was that, not only was there a lot of theory and science involved but, I had to use a completely different part of my brain. One that was pretty dormant for 4 years. There’s a lot of skill involved - it’s a completely different form of studying, and something that requires a lot of practice. So instead of all nighters in the library, I spent mine in the kitchen, practicing chopping vegetables and timing myself while butchering chickens.
Our class sizes shrunk significantly over the 3 terms, I was surprised to see so many people either flunk or drop out because they realized this isn’t what they wanted to do. But if you can adjust to the chaos, drama and abuse, there was nothing better than finally perfecting that omelet you’ve been trying to get right for hours, with 2 impeccable folds, absolutely no color and still a bit runny in the center; pulling out that poached egg at just the right second and watching the yolk ooze out with a smug look on your face when chef broke it open; getting that skin side of the fish fillet immaculately crispy and sublimely flaky when you cut into it; seeing your overheated split Hollandaise finally come back to life; managing to temper your chocolate for the first time and actually understanding how and why it worked this time; and finally, serving your end result after a 3hour practical and hoping for those 5 words to come out of the chef’s mouth:
“Zees is perfect… Bravo cheffy”.
It didn’t happen often, but oh, when it did, it was all the more magical.