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Why cooking?

In the years since I quit my job in Ottawa, returned to Winnipeg, enrolled in culinary school, embarked on a second career, I’ve been asked this question countless times. Why cooking? It’s a question asked of cooks all the time; between them, too.

Some say it’s the thrill of working a busy line; the adrenaline rush that comes with pounding out a string of bills a mile long. Others say it’s the gratification they receive the instant they put up a finished plate; no lag between output and input, effort and reward.

For some, it’s the promise of living the rock-and-roll lifestyle they read about in Anthony Bourdain’s classic, Kitchen Confidential; for others, the promise of celebrity like they saw on the Food Network.

Heck, even a few get into the game… to make money. 

Then there’s the group who cook because they love food—sourcing it, preparing it, serving it, eating it. And why not? What could be more natural, more instinctual, more primordial? On Maslow’s hierarchy, nourishment is about as basic as it gets.

And for an increasing number, that love has inspired an interest in the how of food: how it was raised and harvested, slaughtered and butchered, packed and transported. The why, too: why seasonal, local, sustainable, ethical.

This is why I cook. For the how, the why, and the love.

Values

In my early twenties, newly graduated from university, I was swept up into the world of capital-P politics. It was an exciting time for me: I was young, living on my own in a new city, on the fringes of the political establishment and in the shadow of the political elites.

For a time, the work was satisfying, challenging in a positive way, worth the mounting number of sacrifices. Somewhere along the line, though, the worm turned. The work was no longer satisfying, challenging in ways that were damn-near toxic; the sacrifices too many to abide. I was spent.

Nevertheless, ten years on, what I learned from my time in Ottawa is this: my work must express a set of values, and those values must align with my own.

What do I value? Honesty. Humility. Hard work. Good humour. Being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure. Respecting the natural environment and our place within it. Just giving a damn. Courage.

What to do to practice those things? How best to showcase them? For me, it was a toss-up: go back to university to become a teacher, or to college to become a cook.

To teach or to cook?

I first fell in love with teaching shortly after graduating high school. At that time, I’d been enlisted to start a speech and debate program at a local private school. And while I had no formal teaching experience—let alone any sort of professional experience—I did have an extensive background in debating and public speaking.

They were a challenging two years, but a spark was ignited and was further fuelled by my work with the World Schools Debating Championships as an international adjudicator and assistant coach to the Canadian team.

Speech and debate will forever be my first love. How could it not be? To be an excellent debater or coach requires hard work, humility, good humour, being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure, giving a damn, and, yes, courage. It’s multi-disciplinary in its approach, requiring a wide base of general knowledge; draws equally upon logic and emotion, critical thinking and theatricality. Above all, it is an art and a science. Like cooking.

So why not teach? Aside from the fact there isn’t really a market for, specialization in, or certification of a dedicated speech and debate teacher, I knew in my heart a school wasn’t for me. Not yet anyway. I’m impatient. Easily irritated. Intolerant of assholes and idiots—and especially idiot assholes.

Yes, I realized that while I’d spent nearly a decade working with young people, coaching and judging them in speech and debate, I’d been privileged enough to work almost exclusively with the best, brightest, maturest and most articulate among them. To be thrown into the proverbial lion’s den with a motley crew of teenagers wouldn’t be a good fit for me, or for them.

More than that, though, I yearned to be my own boss, to set my own course, make my own schedule, do things the way I wanted to do them in the manner in which I thought they should be done. Not exactly the mandate of today’s teacher. Definitely today’s chef, though.

The road ahead

Restaurant kitchens demand honesty, hard work, good humour, courage. Being a good cook takes humility, being unafraid of failure, being open to new ideas. And what better way to demonstrate respect for the natural environment than through food—by what we choose to use, how we choose to use it, and so on.

Sure, I’m not yet a chef, and I have a ways to go before I earn that title. I’m not my own boss yet, either. But I am mindful of those values I hold dear when I put on the apron. And while I can’t tell you where the road ahead will lead me—certainly not at any great distance—for the moment anyway, at least until the next bend, you’ll find me in the kitchen. Cooking.

And so long as what I’m doing and where I’m doing it remains consistent with what I believe and how I believe it should be done, I’ll be a happy camper and the road ahead a smooth one.

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Diploma

While I have been out of culinary school for nearly ten months, it was only yesterday I officially graduated at a convocation ceremony held at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall, across the street from Red River College’s new School of Hospitality.

It was quite the experience, complete with cap and gown. I’d not experienced anything like it since graduating from high school well over a decade ago, having passed on the chance to attend my university convocation in 2004.

For me, yesterday’s convocation meant a lot: I’d walked away from a comfortable and, dare I say, promising career with the City of Ottawa; returned to Winnipeg after nearly five years in the nation’s capital, during which time I’d built a life for myself as an independent urbanite; and, all to fulfil a long-buried dream to learn the culinary arts, to become a chef.

 

While the honorific,” chef,” isn’t conferred, but earned after years of toil and dedication, I was proud to cross the stage to receive my Diploma—with honours—and my certification as a Level 1 and 2 cook. Moreover, and forgive me for a bit of boasting, I was especially proud to receive the Gold Medal for Culinary Arts, having achieved the highest GPA in my graduating class, well above the 3.8 threshold for eligibility.

I’d made a promise to myself when I started the program over two years ago that I would give it my very best effort; I’d work harder than I’d ever done in university; I’d apply myself fully and accept nothing short of my own notion of excellence. There were dark days and rough patches, to be sure. I made mistakes, I slipped up; on certain projects and in certain instances, I could have done better. I still relive my lunch practical exam, my evening dining final, my offerings in Patisserie 1 and 2, my efforts at the Skills Manitoba and Canada competitions.

I don’t believe in perfect—in debating, in cooking, in life. Equally, however, I believe in striving for perfection even if it is impossible to achieve it. That’s one of the things I love about cooking: with every cut of the knife, every ingredient added or finessed, every order received and executed, every plate prepared and presented, every day in the kitchen there is the opportunity to strive for the impossible.

Is it a depressing thing to start the day knowing it will end in failure? Not really, not to me. Is it possible, after all, to fail at something when that something is impossible to attain? No, the failure, I think, comes from not trying in the first place.

When I crossed the stage yesterday, amidst feelings of pride and personal accomplishment, I was also filled with gratitude: to my family, my parents especially for their extraordinary and unfailing support. I tried, and succeeded because of them.

After one of the longest stints grounded in recent memory, I was up in the air this weekend, in the big smoke, the T-dot, the centre of the universe, Toronto.

The purpose of this brief sojourn was threefold: inspect the apartment I’ll be calling home this coming summer; firm up plans for my second co-operative work placement (the final requirement of Red River College’s culinary arts program); and, lastly but not leastly, have a bit of fun.

And oh, what fun I had!

Indeed, I was fortunate enough to spend a better part of Sunday working the line during the brunch rush at Café Belong, alongside the resto’s chef de cuisine — who also just happens to be a dear friend from my days in Ottawa, and with whom I’ll be sharing an apartment this coming summer.

It was intense. I’m but a lamb in the woods when it comes to cookery. She’s a frickin’ lion.

Nevertheless, I had a blast — and can’t think of a better way to have spent a frigid Sunday in the Big Smoke.

2011 was definitely one for the history books, wasn’t it?

I find it hard to believe 2012 can top it, but, then again, who would’ve thought, at the beginning of 2011, three iron-clad regimes would collapse, Japan would be dealt an incomprehensible trifecta from Hell, Europe would teeter on the edge of dissolution, they’d find Bin Laden (let alone kill him), ordinary Americans would actually rise up against the elites (and their civilian police forces would stand not with them, but against them).

Yeah, it’s as if the only thing that could top 2011 would be, well, Armageddon — not that we’re doing much to prevent it.

Inasmuch as 2011 was one for the ages, it was also quite an interesting one for your faithful scribe.

I started 2011 still wet behind the ears culinarily and spent the better part of it cooking and cutting, chopping and slicing, braising, baking, roasting, toasting, sautéing and sweating, and, most of all, learning — be it at school or on the job.

With a year’s worth of work behind me, I can say, with confidence, I’ve come quite a long way — and have a much greater appreciation for how much farther I have to go.

A year ago, when looking back on 2010, I summarized my year with a single word: travel. (It was a decidedly different year!) How best, then, to summarize my 2011?

Kitchens.

So much of my year has been spent in kitchens — cooking in them, learning in them, laughing in them, sweating in them.

Yes, if 2010 was spent outside, traversing continents, 2011 was spent inside, in kitchens. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Kitchens are beginning to feel like my home, the place I’m meant to be, where I’m happiest and most comfortable; familiar with the tools, the implements, the methods, the madness.

2011: the year of the kitchen.

What word will come to define the year ahead? Onward — and let’s find out.

Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d take a moment to document the varying degrees of doneness of red meat.

Blue-Rare does not, as the name might suggest, mean your meat is blue. (Have you ever even heard of a mammal, let alone any animal in the entire kingdom, with blue flesh? Honestly, people!) On the contrary, blue-rare means your meat is seared on the outside and completely red throughout.

Rare is rare, not raw. The outside is seared and it is 75% red throughout the centre. A better choice for leaner cuts, and a true celebration of the animal and its sacrifice for our dining pleasure. Not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for those who like their meat tough, miserable and grey.

Medium-Rare, my personal favourite (except when it comes to a bone-in rib-eye steak, which ought to be medium, in my humble opinion), means the outside is seared and the interior is still 50% red. Again: the interior is 50% red. Not pink. Not brown. Red.

Medium is seared on the outside with 25% pink showing inside. Yup, medium still has colour, folks. A gorgeous pink colour. If you don’t want your steak to look like the image to the right, don’t order it medium. In fact, don’t bother with steak at all; order chicken.

Medium-Well, which is, well, tragic, merely offers a slight hint of pink on the inside. Frankly, we’re approaching shoe-leather territory. It is worth noting, however, there remains a slight hint of pink inside the meat. If you’re ordering your steak medium-well because you’re too ashamed to actually order it well-done, below, see above re chicken.

Well-Done, sacrilegious, is broiled until 100% brown. This is the end of the road. There’s nowhere to go but out the door and to a McDonald’s. Honestly. This animal died so we could cook it and eat it, and you want to annihilate it? And what of the sweat and tears by the farmer, the butcher, and the chef, raising, slaughtering and respecting the meat from cradle to plate?

2010 has been a fantastic year.

And if I could summarize it with just one word, it would be this: travel.

Las Vegas not once, but twice. Twice to DohaQatar, too. Colorado, Kansas and Chicago. Summer through Spain and Morocco, in Paris, LondonEdinburgh, and Toronto, and across Ireland. Phew!

Along the way, I ate, I drank, I laughed and I loved.

And then, come the fall, I returned to school, to the kitchen, to chase down a dream.

Yes, 2010 was a pretty good year. And while I doubt 2011 will look anything like it, I’m hopeful it will be as exciting — replete with new sights, new sounds, new tastes, new adventures.

Onward.