Hi Everyone! This is a record, two years in a row sending out Christmas cards before the following May! I thought I’d keep the tradition of a picture of Me in Black Turtleneck with Famous Chef, so to clear up any confusion, that’s me on the left ;-) and on the right is this year’s Famous Chef, Jacques Torres, a brilliant pastry chef, dean of the pastry program at the French Culinary Institute, a regular on the Food Network, and known to the world as Mr. Chocolate. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus… and his name is Jacques Torres! And yes, chocolate does indeed make you happy!
My God, what a year! I thank God every day as to how blessed I am. I don’t have much materially any more and honestly don’t miss it, but I have been abundantly blessed by an outpouring of friendship, help, guidance, support, encouragement, love, and prayers. What an amazing, life-changing year it has been! It hasn’t been easy by any stretch but it has been remarkable. It’s hard to know where to begin…and even more difficult to begin thanking everyone. It would have been drastically different had it not been for the kindness and generosity of 2 friends who let me live in their NYC apartment while I went to school! For that I am eternally grateful. As I said in my farewell note to my hi-tech colleagues this past spring, “…it’s all about the journey…” and what an awesome journey it has been! From stock options to stock bones, literally! This year’s theme was no doubt humility.
As most of you know, I left Siebel in April after 3 years (to the day!) in their marketing and web groups and 10 years in hi-tech. I traded my keyboard for a cutting board, my car for a subway pass, my stock options for stock bones, and my mostly-black wardrobe for one very white uniform. I gracefully exited Silicon Valley just in time to don a billowing pair of black and white checked pants; a very large, thick, square, white jacket; a white apron that had to be folded over twice and tied in the front; a white towel that had to be looped twice through the apron string; a white neckerchief tied in a very confusing knot around your neck (read: noose); and a white “hat” made of a long rectangular piece of something not found in nature and is most likely illegal to use in the construction of buildings, that was wrapped around your head and stapled, fortunately not to your head, though a few chef’s would have if they could. Add a boxy knife bag over one shoulder and a huge, bright orange tool box full of whisks, spatulas, measuring cups, spoons, and various dangerous looking objects on the other hand. Don’t forget the thick, black leather, clunky, clogs that allow you to stand for 20 hours without collapsing. If this conjures up images of the Michelin Man meets Freddie Kruger, you’re right on the mark! I forgot to mention that every strand of hair had to be tied and tucked up inside the asbestos hat, no earrings, and no nail polish! Get the picture? It was a far cry from custom-made suits, 3-inch pumps, matching purses, and wild, curly hair. Any pretense of vanity was quickly destroyed. Humility prevailed.
Many of you are thinking, “Good God! Did she go to prison?! Did she join the military?!”
No, I went to cooking school!
On May 19th, 2003, I, in my aforementioned “uniform”, began my first day of cooking school at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. At exactly 9:00am, Chef Pascal Béric entered the Level 1 kitchen and walked to his desk. Twenty-four Michelin Man/Freddie Kruger clones gathered around the desk anxiously, nervously, awkwardly, all clasping a very thick white binder and a stack of blank white index cards. Chef Pascal looked down at us over his glasses and pulled out his class list. With great flourish, he took out his pen and removed the cap. “My name is Chef Pascal. You will call me Chef Pascal. Got it?! You will answer me ‘Yes, Chef’. Got it?! Any questions? No. Good! When I call your name, you will say ‘Yes, Chef’. Got it?! Good!”. And so began my culinary career…
My first friends and ultimately my source of support, endurance, and endless laughter were 3 people who couldn’t have been more opposite and from more diverse backgrounds. Beverly Bell Walton hails from Mobile, Alabama and is, as her name implies, a southern belle in the loveliest, most gracious sense of the word. She ran a company with her husband and spent last year working in the pastry kitchen at the Grand Hotel in Mobile. Michele Freidman, a native New Yorker, is a nutritionist with 6 children from 3 to 22 years old (oy vey!). Michele is strictly kosher and never tasted or ate anything at the school, yet she graduated with honors! And Michael Reily is a tennis pro, a glass blower in a previous life, from Raleigh, North Carolina with a Texas drawl and a razor-sharp wit with comments like “Holy Blintzes, Batman” at Michele’s Sukkah dinner, that had us all doubled over, snorting with laughter. Our marathon weekend-long study sessions got us through school and led to some very interesting name associations! We’ll never forget the 5 stages of sugar or the 5 tournage cuts… Many of you saw Michele and Beverly with me on my graduation announcement extremely proud of our Grandmother’s Roast Chicken :-)
I thought Cooking School was going to be fun, light-hearted, easy going, and everyone in it for the love of cooking. Earth to Laura. WRONG. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life but ultimately the most rewarding. I worked so hard, studied so much, cut my fingers so many times, dealt with so many jerks, and wondered so many times if I had completely lost my mind, but never did I regret my decision. The first few months of class I would often stand in the back of the room and look around and say to myself “I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I just can’t believe it’s happening!” After so many years of thinking I couldn’t do anything, then all of a sudden to be doing something so exciting and so ‘out there’ (for lack of a better adjective), it was really overwhelming.
For our final exam, we drew 2 recipes out of a hat and had approx 4-5 hours to prepare both and send them out to a panel of judges of top chefs from NYC. My first dish, Vivaneau Cuit Poelé avec Sauce au Porto, Red Snapper with Wild Mushrooms in Port Wine Reduction, was scheduled to go out at 1 something, 1:21pm, I think. I was in the pastry kitchen working on my second dish, Tarte aux Noix avec Glace à la Crème Fraîche, Walnut Tart with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream, when I looked at the clock and it said 1:15pm! I raced back to the main kitchen, threw down the pans, fired up the burners, rubbed Chinese 5-spice on the Snapper fillets and threw them in the pan, yelling “Cook, you bastards, cook!” I fanned snow peas at the top of 4 plates, placed a heaping of sautéed wild mushrooms in the center, crossed 2 fillets of Snapper over the mushrooms, poured port sauce around the bottom of the plates, garnished with a potato tuile (2 very thin, translucent slices of potato baked with herbs in the center) and sent them out at exactly 1:21pm!
Then I immediately burst into tears. The tears just poured down my face. I think I was just so exhausted, so sick with the flu, so relieved, so overjoyed, so everything. Then one of the chefs said, “It’s not over yet! Get in there and finish your pastry!” So I raced back to the pastry kitchen, pulled myself together, finished my walnut tart, garnished it with a scoop of crème fraîche ice cream, and a few squiggles of caramel sauce and sent it out. 6 months earlier I was saying, “I can’t believe I’m here.” Now I was saying, “I can’t believe I did it!” At 2:45pm we were sent upstairs to change into a clean uniform and instructed to meet back in the kitchen at 3pm sharp. We were broken into 3 groups and sat, as a group (!), in front of our panel of judges as they critiqued our food, yes, in front of the group! I was dreading the public humiliation but to my unbelievable surprise, the chef told me my fish was cooked perfectly, as was my tart! I of course started crying again. I really couldn’t believe I did it! I think for the first time I was truly proud of myself for accomplishing something so challenging in so many ways. A very unfamiliar, but very wonderful, feeling.
The first event I volunteered for during my second week of school still remains the highlight of my year. One of the chefs at school came in to the Level 1 kitchen and began talking to my chef instructor (who was coincidentally standing next to me!) in French. All I heard was “blah blah blah Alice Water blah blah blah.” I wheeled around and said “Alice Waters?!?!? I’ll do it!” I had no idea what I was responding to but I didn’t care. A few days later I found myself at Rockefeller Center for the Meals-on-Wheels fundraiser assisting Alice Waters and her team. Also on hand were approx. 50 famous chefs from NYC and the country. I was in awe! I bounded up to the table, introduced myself and immediately launched into how much I admired her, all her classes I’d taken, books I’d read, and meals I’d savored. Only then did I realize I had just interrupted her conversation with Wolfgang Puck! Her head chef handed me a huge box of radishes and a small, lethally sharp mandoline and instructed me to slice all the radishes and to be careful as the mandoline was very sharp. Well, I set out on my task with great gusto, determined to do a perfect job, and as I sliced my first radish, I took the top of my right thumb with it. And thus began my illustrious culinary career… An ironic note to this story is that in the summer of 1988, I interned at NBC in NYC, waitressed at night at the American Café (where the ice skating rink is) and worked at this exact event 15 years earlier!
I guess it was like joining the military…boot camp with knives, we called it. Jump into a blender and press “Puree”! Cooking School ~ the great equalizer, the great humble-izer. One thing our chefs constantly admonished us with was to stay humble, not get a bid head. Cooking is a craft, chefs are craftsmen not artists, and the only way to master a craft is to do it over and over, day after day, year after year, consistently producing quality food. Do it for 30 years, then you can get a big head, they say. I’ve also learned to live with very little. A few pairs of jeans, a few black turtlenecks and t-shirts, a coat, a camera, a laptop, an umbrella and a subway pass…a far cry from life 8 months ago. I guess it helps to live simply when you live in a beautiful apartment in NYC for free, but a dramatic change nonetheless…
Which takes me to now… Many of you have asked me “What’s next?” Well, home to San Francisco for a few months then on to France to cook my way through the country! That’s the plan for now… So it turned out to be another year with so very much to be grateful for. Some joyous events to celebrate: my college roommate Melissa, who was in a terrible car crash last year, had her second boy; Karin had a boy while her husband was fighting in Iraq (he’s now home!); and Ellen of Betty & Jack Children’s Clothing got married and is about to have her second child as well. On a sad but inspiring note, my friend Denise is battling breast cancer with a dignity and ferociousness that I’ve never seen. I marvel at her tenacity, strength, and unwavering positive attitude and am in awe as to how inspiring she must be to those around her. Cancer decided to move in and wreak havoc on many other lives this year. Why these things happen to good people, I don’t know and will never understand. All I can do is send up prayers and ask that you do as well.
My apologies for rambling for 2 pages talking about ME again and I hope I haven’t bored you all to tears! I am just so excited that, for the second time ever, I have so many wonderful things to share with you! I hope it has been a good year for you and I wish you and your family a blessed holiday season, a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Healthy 2004! All my love and good wishes to you, and may God bless us all. xoxo Laura :-)