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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.

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I had barely had time to settle in Toronto, following my mad dash across northwestern Ontario, when I found myself flying home to Winnipeg last week for a four-day training program with my coach and evening dining instructor to prepare for the Skills Canada competition in Edmonton.

In short, from the time my brother and I left Winnipeg on May 1, I have been going flat out — as a cross-country driver, furniture mover, newbie cook, and, now, national culinary competitor.

As a consequence, I have tried to avoid sitting for long periods of time; I fear if I stop moving, my head will keep spinning right off my body, onto the floor and down a hallway or street like an errant ball or tumbleweed.

However, the effort and exhaustion have been worth it: the past few days in Edmonton have been great fun and, more importantly, I’ve made great strides technically and creatively as a cook.

The competition spanned two days: three and a half hours on the first day to prepare the appetizer course; four on the second to prepare the main. The scope was similar to the provincial competition: the first course had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops; both had to feature a farce or forcemeat, and a sauce.

Day One: Quail Duo
Terrine with a Fennel, Orange and Basil Slaw, and an Apple Coulis
Bacon-wrapped Ballontine with a Spinach Farce, and a Port-wine Reduction

Day Two: Salmon & Scallop
Loin of Salmon with a Scallop Mousseline Crown, Pan-seared Scallops with a Shiitake and Button Mushroom Duxelles, Roasted Garlic and Lemon Parisienne-style Gnocchi, Asparagus, and a Beurre Blanc

Did I win? Nah.

I am totally cool with the result, too. I knew the odds were slim, my competition steep. I also knew simply doing it — and all the work that would go into getting ready for it — was reward enough for me.

Will there be other competitions in my culinary future? Hard to say. After all, it’s been many years since I actually competed in anything — and never at something as challenging as cooking.

During my years in secondary school, I competed quite frequently and quite capably in public speaking and debating. And while all competitions are similar in some ways, the key difference, for me anyway, between competitive communications and cookery is that I had natural knack for speaking in front of a crowd.

Cooking is another story.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons why I’m so enamoured with the culinary arts is because I actually have to work my butt off. Yep, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

True story.

And being a competitor at Skills Canada? Made the Grand Finals in Cyprus over a decade ago seem so… simple.

No matter. I try to live my life like I might get run over by a big red bus. I love a challenge, too. And on the heels of Edmonton 2012, I’m ready to tackle this challenge.

Knives sharp!

The black box. More daunting than it sounds, thanks in no small measure to television programs like Chopped, which have sensationalized this venerable culinary test.

Nevertheless, it was all that stood between me and the proverbial door; my final exam before bidding farewell to Red River College, its kitchens and classrooms, my classmates and culinary instructors.

It’s been an interesting two years — and it all boiled down to this: pickerel fillets, shrimp, eggs, semolina flour, Belgian endive, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, golden raisins, and mustard seeds.

Using all of those items, I had three hours to produce two entree plates featuring both proteins, two vegetables, a starch, a sauce and an appropriate garnish.

I’ll admit, the semolina threw me for a bit of a loop. I’d been so prepared for a grain-based starch (i.e., Basmati or Jasmine rice), or a potato derivative like gnocchi, it hadn’t even occurred to me our chef might toss semolina in our box and expect us to whip up a batch of pasta. But that’s precisely what I did; fettuccine to be exact.

With the pasta I prepared a roasted tomato and bell pepper sauce, and served it all with asparagus tips, shaved endive and pan-fried garlic-and-herb shrimp. I also breaded the fillets, pan-fried them and served them with a mustard seed aioli, marinated raisins and a parsley and yellow pepper salad.

Was it a knock-out? No. I’m mature enough to recognize the plate’s many weaknesses. Still, being my first time working under such conditions (no prior knowledge of the ingredients, and a limited time-frame to develop and produce the finished product), I set down my plates at the appointed hour with equal measures of relief and satisfaction.

Of course, immediately my mind was racing: thinking of the ingredients and the seemingly limitless permutations of finished plates they afforded. I almost wished I could do it all over again just for the chance to do something different. Almost.

It’s hard to believe my time at the college is over. No fanfare. No farewell. Just a black box, a shaking of hands, and good wishes between those of us testing that day.

I keep reminding myself: this isn’t an ending, it’s just the beginning. These past two years were merely preparation for the actual culinary journey that lays before me. Where will that journey take me? What will I see, and smell, and taste along the way? If I had the answers, what’d be the point of embarking on it?

Onward.

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.

The last of the dishes were washed, the pots and pans in their proper places; the fridge was cleaned of any potential spoilage, the floors swept and mopped. Done at the close of business each day in commercial kitchens everywhere, it’s a ritual that takes on a little more poignancy when it also marks an academic milestone.

And that’s precisely what yesterday was for me and my fellow students: the conclusion of our fourth semester at Red River College.

I shake my head, still, at the thought of it being mid-December already. These past four months have truly flown by. And yet, what’s even more remarkable to me is how far I’ve come since this time last year.

It’s hard to catalog or capture just how much I’ve learned; the various cooking methods and cuisines, the many tools and trade secrets. So much crammed into 8 months of schooling and another 4 on-the-job training!

Of all the things I’ve learned, however, the most important is confidence.

Honestly, if I think about where I am today and where I was a year ago, my single greatest accomplishment in that time has been my growth as a confident cook; being able to walk into a kitchen, any kitchen, and feel not threatened but thoroughly excited at the prospect of setting pan to flame and cooking.

Naturally, this confidence is grounded in an expanding skill set and increasing breadth of knowledge; without either I’d be the same uncertain student I was when I started the program.

Confidence, of course, is nothing without humility — and I learned a lot about being humble this year, too.

The kitchen is a great equalizer: no matter where you’ve come from, what you did outside the kitchen, who you knew, where you lived; it’s all irrelevant when you’re in the shit, the bills are piling up, and you need to push plates out.

So, you keep your head down, work confidently — ever mindful you’re only as good as you’re last plate, and, more important still, you’ll forever be a student in the never-ending study of culinary perfection.

Biga. Poolish. Sourdough Starter. Old Dough.

All roads lead to Rome — and so many good breads start with one of the aforementioned pre-ferments. For a really good Focaccia, trust the Italian biga. Which is precisely what I did this past week; my first back in the culinary classroom following my summer work placement.

Much like my time in Red River College’s Hard Drive Café, during my first year of culinary arts, I am currently in a section of the program — Lunch Dining — that divides the kitchen up into sections through which my classmates and I rotate on a daily basis. And on my first day of lunch service in Prairie Lights Restaurant, and the week of class that preceded it, I was on the Breads Station.

Hence the Focaccia. And dinner rolls. And scones. And na’an. And poppodoms.

Yeah, it’s been busy. But I’m proud to say, after a few missteps, I managed to get a pretty good handle on the Focaccia (one chef even went so far as to say I “mastered it”!) and all the other breads for which I was responsible.

From here, I slide into the roll of Chef, then Sous, then Expediter, before moving through the line and around the kitchen.

It’s early days, but I feel pretty good about my second year as a culinary arts student. I’m terribly anxious to learn as much as I can, expanding both my breadth of knowledge and set of skills.

After all, I’m not getting any younger — and time, famously, waits for no man. So, let’s get going!

Yes, Chef!

About this time last year, I launched this blog.

I did so because I was, as I described at the time, starting a new chapter in my life. A year later, I find myself starting something that seems so much larger and more dramatic than yet another chapter; nay, I feel like I’ve started a whole new book.

What, you ask, am I doing now?

I’ve returned to school; this time as a student of the culinary arts. I’m enrolled at Winnipeg’s Red River College in their two-year program.

Quite the departure from a life of communications and politics and suits and ties, eh?

Indeed, when I consider what I’ve done with my life in the past decade (about which you can read more by visiting my professional website), this latest endeavour is definitely a departure from the norm. Not that I mind changing things up; on the contrary, part of the appeal of culinary school was how much it would alter my life’s trajectory.

Rest assured, I didn’t take the decision to return to school lightly, nor did I make it overnight. In fact, I’d kicked around the idea for a few years. However, fear — of the unknown, of failure, of starting over — had held me back.

Until now.

After a remarkable year, best summed up simply by flipping through the pages of my passport, I’ve conquered those fears. I managed to wrestle a few personal demons to the ground, too. And so, I’ve embarked on this new journey, this next step, this new book with an open mind and a restful soul.

I honestly don’t know how the next two years will unfold — does anyone? — but I’m excited to find out.