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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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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.

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.

No, there is not.

In a country famous for its short summers and miserable winters, you might think fall would be my least favourite season. After all, it marks the end of summer and heralds the beginning of that frigid, seemingly endless winter.

And yet, fall is my absolute favourite time of year; especially now, with the air so crisp and cool in the mornings.

It’s at this time of year that I’m most often and most vividly reminded of my youth; those early mornings in September when I’d be standing at the bus stop, waiting to be whisked off to another year of school. There was always so much optimism, so much promise in the air on those cool September mornings.

Unsurprisingly, I feel that same optimism today.

Even though my life isn’t as simple as it was so many years ago — the challenges are a little more sophisticated than, say, finishing my homework on time — while walking to work this week — the temperature just cold enough to make it brisk, but not so much so that I require a sweater — I’ve been filled with that same sense of excitement I felt in my youth.

For while it’s fall, it feels like a new year beginning. And what a year it will be: the year I left Ottawa and started fresh in my hometown.