Chef School, Week 4: Bad Moon Rising On The Midpoint

Well folks, I’ve survived four weeks of school. Four more to go!

And yes, I am still super nervous about the ever-ominous axe of failure that hangs over my head. but at least I’m starting to get into a groove now that the worst of the worst (math, bakeshop and surprisingly, butchershop) is over. We’ve entered into the Cold Foods segment, which for me allows me to draw from the experiences I’ve gained so far, as opposed to going into it completely blind — a massive relief!

Plus, for the first time, I feel like I’m learning amazing new things to apply to my cooking, and getting inspired at the same time. The sheer fact that I’ve not had to constantly question my own worth as a chef and feeling deflated about it, really eases a lot of the cramping on my creative outlets. Heck, I’ve been inspired enough to put my hat into the ring for a cooking competition at achool. But more on that later.

Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t know, MasterChef Canada season 2 has had its season premiere bumped up a week to tomorrow right after the Super Bowl on CTV. Call it perfect timing or whatever you like, but I got a neat little writeup in the SAIT school paper The Weal this week. Originally I had planned on keeping my origins a secret (save for one classmate whom I trusted enough after week 1) lest some of my classmates would look down upon me — that ruse certain didn’t last long, as one of my work colleages at Co-op tipped off one of her friends at the Weal about my origins. Call it my diva instinct, but how does one turn down an interview request? Ya don’t.

So anyway, the cat is out of the bag. I had a bad hunch somehow there would be trouble, and shortly after the copies of the paper hit stands across the campus, it found me.

There are a few classmates of mine who work for a certain hotel chain (you know the one) that seemed to have a superiority complex over the entire class, and for the sake of this story I’ll call him Emile. Emile has had a lot of experience in the food business, and has even earned a certification from another province. Since said certification isn’t recognized here in Alberta, he is forced to do the Red Seal course. This seems to annoy him greatly, and it shows in his attitudes to his fellow classmates and even to the instructor as well. Now it’s great to be experienced, but being a dick about it constantly is just crossing that one bridge too far.

This attitude usually gets Emile into a lot of grief from the instructor, which spurs another one of his colleagues from the same hotel chain (we’ll name him Joe), and another guy from another restaurant (let’s call him Len) to do the same thing. Together, Emile, Joe and Len seem to cause endless amounts of headaches for Chef Volke, and that’s not including the massive headaches my inexperience cause him. Lucky for him though, Len has recently been forced to drop out and Joe seems to have settled down. Which leaves Emile, who still hasn’t seen the error of his ways. Most other chefs I’ve talked to chalk it up to the culture of the company that owns said hotel chain, and so far Emile has proven them right.

Which then brings us about a day after the cat came out of the bag, Chef announced that there would be a competition being held for the first year PCK and apprentice students during a SAIT Open House. Naturally, the competitive side of me was piqued by the possibilities, given that most other contests outside of school are usually reserved for folks under the age of 30. And as much as many a liquor store clerk mistake me for under 18, turning 32 in real years in March means I’m largely ineligible. (Although I do harbour dreams of going on Chopped Canada sometime in the near future, in the footsteps of Steve Glavicich, Paul McGreevey, Pierre Lamielle and Dilan Draper — but that’s another post for another time.)

So I thought to myself, why not? There’s not many options for competitions for me, so why not give it a shot? Screw the nerves, I was going to do it. And it looked as though a couple other classmates (Joe being one, plus another…let’s call him Tanner.)

My mind was made up, but what pushed me over the edge was the next little exchange with Emile.

“So, you’re going to cook that chicken fully, right?”

I laughed, covering a direct hit on a sore point in my psyche while ignoring him. It wasn’t worth getting into an argument with a dumbass. As a friend taught me to do, keep calm and find my centre. It’s not worth the energy, or the effort. Zen…

Chef handed out the entry forms, and I filled it in. Emile goes on the offensive again, looking for a killer blow.

“Make sure you cook that chicken!” He laughed derisively.

I can only be nice about being attacked by a dick for so long, and forgetting the whole zen/calm mantra, I snapped.

“Emile, the joke is only funny the first six thousand times. Fuck you.”

Lucky for me the instructor didn’t hear, but I was incensed. Insulted, humiliated. I had bared my own soul on that plate as an amateur, and I’ve largely moved on…mostly. Maybe it was the sniffling at where I work (a grocery store kitchen and a street food booth), or maybe it was the constant distraction he was causing, or maybe it was the derisive way he treated many of us — whatever it was, I boiled over.

After the lecture, I stormed out, form and toolbox in hand, and went to hand in the form. No dillying, no dallying. I put the form into the receptionist’s hands, and walked to the kitchen where our lab was. I’ve never been so incensed about something like this before, but I’ve never been so insulted in my life culinary-wise. You can joke about my failures on national TV only so many goddamed times before I lose my patience, and for someone like Emile to add his two cents just pushed me over the edge.

Actually, you know what? I hope he enters too if his ego actually lets him through. I’d love to see how he cooks that chicken (which yes, is the theme of the challenge) — will I get picked in the random draw for contestants? I certainly hope I will. Because I’ve been working on a dish just for it.

Pierre Trudeau once told a reporter in 1970, “just watch me.”

You should be. Not Trudeau. Me.


Why I Chose To Be A Chef’s Apprentice

There is an old Chinese saying, roughly translated, that says, “It’s better to have traveled a thousand miles than to have read a thousand books.”

Not to knock on all you book readers out there, but there is a certain truth to that old statement. And when you apply it to cooking, is it better to have read a thousand recipe books or is it better to have cooked (and learned) from those same books? Surely you’d agree that the latter is probably much more rewarding, and a lot tastier.

While many of my fellow MasterChef Canada contestants have returned to their everyday lives, some have plunged head-long into their culinary dreams. While I have joined the latter group, I’m taking a different route.

I am not afraid to say it: I am not ready for prime time. While folks like Danny have opened his own food truck, Dora opening up her new restaurant, Josh and Carly burning up the Vancouver food scene, they are ready for it. I however, am not.

In my life, I’ve been known to speed through things. From the time I was in elementary school all the way to now, I’ve prided myself on being speedy. Sometimes, that is great. Other times, it’s caused me nothing but grief from teachers, my parents and even friends. Based on that, I knew that jumping headlong into the culinary world would be a disaster of epic proportions. (Plus being broke doesn’t help matters much, either.)

Above all, I have far too much learning, and too much tasting and experimenting left to do. The first thing I needed to do was to learn never to make the same mistake that got me sent home from MasterChef Canada: undercooking chicken. On the plane ride home, I vowed that the next time either of the three judges would taste my food, they will not get a pink piece of chicken (or undercooked anything for that matter). The question then popped up — where would I learn it, if I wanted to be a pro?

And that is where one Chef Troy Raugust stepped in.

When I first met him, he was the Head Chef at the newly built Fresh-to-Go Kitchen inside the Calgary Co-op in Crowfoot. By the time I met him, I was still looking for my way in the door. He hired me on the spot after talking to him, and within a few days was working in a kitchen. It’s not a completely full-fledged restaurant one, but the work involved in running it is no less intense. From preparing a fresh salad bar, to serving the line, cooking rotisserie chickens to the perfect doneness, and finally to preparing the various dishes being served, it was a lot to take in each day at work.

And somehow, after a few months of working there, I impressed him and the other Chefs enough to have him offer me the chance to be his apprentice. But truth be told, I had misgivings at first. It would mean more schooling (having graduated with a university degree and a broadcasting diploma) — but with my broadcasting career going nowhere fast, it was pretty much a no-brainer. For the second time in my life, I enjoyed what I did for work. Broadcasting is great, but it simply didn’t give me the ways to pay the bills. Cooking had always been a passion of mine, and for the first time it offered a way out of the rut.

Spurred on by my friends, I took the chance. And as they say, the rest is history.

And as I near a year working there, I’ve been blessed to have so many teachers that have been incredibly patient with me and my foibles. My time working as an apprentice showed me not just what I still needed to learn to be the culinary star that I will be, but also of what I am capable of. I’ve made mistakes seasoned chefs would consider amateurish, but on the other hands I have also dazzled those same chefs as well with the skills I do have.

But most of all, I am doing things that as recently as two years ago would never have dreamed of being able to do; like stand in front of a crowd at Stampede Park doing a demo with our new Head Chef, go back to my old alma mater William Aberhart High School and teach not one, not two but three Foods Studies classes, and wow crowds with newly acquired noodle-pulling skills at various markets around Calgary (But those are stories best left for another day.)

So in a nutshell, that is why I chose to be an apprentice. To learn, to grow and to evolve into the best chef and human being that I can be. It might sound clichéd, but it is the truth…and I’m sure as hell sticking by it!

Then, and now...the evolution continues.

Then, and now…the evolution continues.