Who are you anyway?
I see you as me, before I graduated from culinary school and completed my apprenticeship. That was a time where I could’ve used a guide, so here I am.
You are either a culinary student, an apprentice, or a serious cook looking to sort through the information out there. You have the basic tools to cook, but are unsure about how the theory applies to the practice.
Like me, you have an insatiable hunger for food knowledge.
You don’t need to have millions of step-by-step pictures, but a clear explanation about why you perform the steps that way so you will never forget what you are learning.
Who I am
Have you heard the expression that you were born to do something? Twenty years ago I thought it was egotistical to say that. Now I am older, I am not so convinced. Here I sit dreaming about cooking, thinking about what I would like to discover this week.
Job after job, always coming back to the kitchen.
Like I was born to do this.
I remember that we lived in this old converted green farmhouse that had a central heating. I remember that there was huge, scary grate in the middle of the living room that hurt your feet to walk over it. Like any toddler, I wasn’t so keen on getting burned, so I always circled it if I had to cross the room. (Perhaps to pester my sleeping mother for a snack.)
My mother cooked over this faded green stove. (You know the kind that looked like a hospital wall.) I would stare at the flicking blue flames with a keen fascination. All she had to do was turn a knob, then the magic could begin. I wanted to be able to do that.
I bided my time, and once Mom left the kitchen, it was nothing to shuffle my high chair to the edge of the stove. It was the perfect height, allowing me easy access to the knob. I’d turn it on, puzzled about came next.
I’m sure you understand that after five minutes of adoration, a five-year-old will find something new to do. I was no exception; my mother would discover the front (or the back) burner on full blaze while I was up to some other mischief.
It’s no surprise that my mother used my fear of burns to try to teach me not to mess with the gas stove. Like most mothers at the time, she turned on the flames, and then brought her hands close to the flames. OUCH! She shouted, then quickly removed her hands from the flames, pretending to lick them.
My problem? I’m too smart for my own good. I knew she was full of shit. I kept doing it, to my mother’s dismay.
I eventually outgrew my habit of turning on the stove. Television was way cooler.
Mornings included me waking up at insane times – like any 5-year old. My bedtime was 6 PM (My parents liked to party because they were young. My mother had me at sixteen.) Of course, I was up before dawn.
Dad worked the late or graveyard shift driving taxicabs, and Mom worked as a waitress at a bar. Mornings were sleep time for them.
What I loved about Steven Yan was his style, the flash that he cooked with. He had a funny accent, and presented cooking in a way that made it out to be easy.
“Never use plastic chopstick!”
To this day, my weakness is Asian cuisine and I credit that to Steven Yan.
We moved a lot when I was younger. I went to thirteen different elementary schools, so I cycled through many friends. My best friend growing up was my sister. Together we managed to put more gray hairs on my mother’s head than most children do.
We explored the storm sewers below Calgary for hours on end. We taught each other how to smoke cigarettes. We fought. We would create some amazing stuff in the kitchen.
We had this sandwich making contest. Whoever made the grossest sandwich would win… with one limit… if your opponent couldn’t eat the sandwich, you had to.
The combinations we used to dream up don’t sound so different from what you would find in a fancy restaurant. Jam with pepper and Cheez Wiz. Mashed potatoes and licorice. Much like you would find in an episode of Chopped.
Growing Up Cooking
You know how kids have certain dishes they hated growing up? For me it was peas and my mother’s liver. I could handle garden-fresh peas, but the sight of the olive-gray-green pearls of palate-gagging doom still trouble me to this day.
Mother never learned that liver is a subtle offal, best served medium at most. She did have creativity, I’ll give her that. Liver’s problem is the longer it’s cooked, the more grainy it becomes. Try hiding that (and explaining) to a kid that won’t eat the weird liver sauce.
I went to live with my grandfather when I was nine. We lived with my great granny and my great-great aunt (an Alzheimer patient) in a small house. I got chased around the house for my great-uncle’s misdeeds. I spent an afternoon dodging a rolling pin for not milking the cows that morning. I still laugh at that moment, but to a nine-year-old kid it was scary.
Granny made everything from scratch. She made delicacies as beef heart, tongue in natural gelatin, and radiator oats. I was the only kid who took tongue sandwiches to school. Of course, no one would trade their lunch with me. I didn’t know any different, because they tasted ethereal to me. Win-win.
In my grandfather’s garden I learned all about organic foods, and the power of growing your own produce. I learned firsthand what it took to grow food, what it took to bring it to the table. My first memory of granddad’s place was digging a one foot trench for the asparagus we were going to plant.
Interested enough to try cooking
It wasn’t long before I took to trying cooking. Granny didn’t know how to make my favorite broccoli dish, broccoli with cheese sauce. I phoned my mother to quiz her on how to it. I was lucky my grandfather was patient with a nine-year-old that wanted to experiment with the stove.
I had one condition to follow: I had to use organic, whole produce in my recipes. For example, I wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies. My grandfather got me whole wheat flour and carob chips.
I didn’t know that you had to adjust the ratio of flour to butter, and as a result, I made one large cookie. (The cookies melted into each other and filled the sheet pan.)
That was the first of a long line of mistakes in recipe execution. Guess what–you’re going to make them too. It’s an important part of learning to cook.
Made first turkey-at 10 years old
The monumental challenge of roasting a turkey fell to me around my tenth birthday. I tried to research how to cook one, and finally asked Granny the best way. (This was way before Google’s creators had graduated from high school.) Under her direction, I baked my first turkey, and it was as delicious as a turkey can be to a ten-year-old boy.
That experience taught me that a recipe is a set of steps. It’s like mathematics. There are rules that set out, you follow them, and you recreate what the teacher would like. When something goes wrong, it’s usually in the instructions or the execution of them.
Experimenting with Flavors
Mom made cannelloni once with spinach and chicken for her new boyfriend. (She married him) and I learned there are new tastes out there to be discovered, you just had to be open to try them. The other lesson was that food was the key to relationships.
I moved back home, and my mother remarried. We moved to Thunder Bay when I turned twelve, and I tried my hand at cooking for my Mother, Stepfather and sister.
I liked to make spaghetti sauce. (More like souping up the canned version with the spices in the cupboard.) I would grab, mix something in, taste, and adjust.
My family always ate what I made, and made me feel like I was awesome at cooking. They said I would grow up to be a chef. I like to think they weren’t just humoring me. (Or I’ve been in this business for all the wrong reasons!)
What’s the lesson in this?
Get cooking, quench your thirst for more knowledge. That way you will begin to form your palate.
I remember walking by Valhalla hotel in Thunder Bay and thinking that one day maybe I could be a chef and work there. Tune in next time when I tell you how it came to be that I took that first step towards that dream–deciding to go to culinary school.