#ChefSchool Day 15: Defying Gravity

Today I step back a little from the every day workings of chef school at SAIT (the last three days were fine, thanks for asking — we took apart some ducks, pork ribs and some salmon and I did okay…and no, I’m not trying to be rude) and post a few more cerebral musings. I’m just in that kind of mood righ now,

Ever since broadcasting, I have been going to school with people who are much, much younger than I am. I recall a few of my fellow “newsies” being fresh out of high school, while only three others (a “techie” and a “creative”) being older than I was. I was filled with life experience, and by and large I felt out of place. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate broadcasting school — Quite the opposite, in fact, but I just felt like a fish out of water. It was a feeling that I never shook off.

But this time around, how the tables have turned. Many of my classmates are now much more experienced in the food business — and I am the young (can I even say that?) inexperienced buck. A few of them have worked in kitchens for years, starting out from the very bottom rungs of the restaurant brigade. Some even got their start in high school, where some schools these days have full-on kitchens that not only develop chefs for the future, but also provides food for the school as well (I do dream of getting my alma mater one of those one day, but that’s a whole another blog post.)

It used to be a massive problem, for me: in a sense, I had been (and probably still is) considered “going backwards” — as one ages, one is expected to “grow up”: settle down, 2.4 kids, house in the suburbs with the white picket fences, and all that kind of hullabuloo. I don’t think that expectation varies all that much between cultures, although some are more hard wired into that concept more than others. Maybe that is what has helped contribute to that feeling of being like a fish out of water. It certainly didn’t diminish my enjoyment of broadcasting school, but it was certainly weighing on my mind.

Anyone who has read either L.A. Son by Roy Choi (founder of Kogi in Los Angeles) or Fresh Off The Boat by Eddie Huang (founder of Baohaus in New York) will have an idea of how it feels; to live in a world that you don’t feel like you belong, while life surges by at breakneck pace you’re meandering on the freeway, wondering where the fuck you are, and asking why you aren’t flowing wid it. You’re “crispy” while all the others around you seem to be raking in the green. You try to join in with the crowd, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t resonate. Society certainly doesn’t help, either.

It’s a feeling that is hard to appreciate if one hasn’t gone through those motions, but when I read both their books, it was like, “damn, so both (Choi) and (Huang) went through the same shit I’ve been…”

In a sense, sans the deep addictions and the street styles, I am almost living out a chapter of Choi’s life while he was at the Culinary Institute of America, and the chapter of Huang’s run on Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, except replace those two with me, the show with MasterChef Canada, Guy Fieri with Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile, and the CIA with SAIT. It’s weird, but also incredible at the same time that all our stories could be so different, but could be tied so neatly under a common thread of the culinary arts — even if our cuisines and visions (Korean-Mexican, Taiwanese street and modern Cantonese) aren’t the same. And we certainly don’t sprechen sie the same bloody lingitty!

We all took a leap of faith, to defy a gravity that demanded one stay on the ground, and follow a path well-trodden. Cooking was something that was left to others, and those who had to do it for a living were individuals whom “smart kids” (the grown ups’ words, not mine) like me would be bossing around. In short, for most of society a life choice has pretty much boiled down to a single truth, that it is only “cool” if it has a by-the-book happy ending. But as we all know, life ain’t into following the form book, and enjoys throwng wrenches into plans, and running scripts through industrial shredders so it can throw the fresh confetti back in your face with a hearty “fuck you”.

If I had been following the form book, chances are I wouldn’t even be writing this blog. I probably wouldn’t have gone to broadcasting school. And what’s the fun in that? I’ve done the pencil pushing thing many times, and I know it ain’t me. My life is bound to be in a kitchen, whipping out top-notch modern Cantonese dishes. It ain’t the glamorous life of a doctor or a lawyer, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy doing it a lot more than pushing paper, dotting I’s and crossing the T’s.

So maybe I’m hanging with people younger than I am, and with more experience than I have. Sure, they’re showing me a thing or two…but is that a crime? My mind keeps telling me that it is, but is it really? To quote my favourite part of Elphaba’s signature song from the musical,

“I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!
Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!”

Too long I’ve been afraid of being judged, and too long I’ve been afraid of being seen negatively for what I’ve done and what I will be doing. That’s a love lost that to win back, truly comes at much too high a cost.

Judge me if you want for defying gravity, but at least. for the first time in a long while, I am once again flying free.

#ChefSchool, Days 11 & 12: Two Days in the Little Butchershop

I’m trying to write, but I am fearing tonight will be a short entry; our family suffered the loss of my grandmother earlier this morning, and I’m still in a bit of a haze.

Anyway, chef school continues no matter what. Besides, that’s what you’re here to read about, right?

So with the start of a new week, we finally began a new topic. Gone (for now) is the twin horrors of math and baking, replaced by the ever fun world of meat cutting and butchery! (If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may want to stop reading right now…) Yep, we get into the really fun stuff now.

Or is it?

Our first lab assignment was simple enough on the surface; trim and cut a large side of sirloin into steaks. What trim that can’t be used would be ground or rendered, and errors would be made into stir fry steak strips for the Four Nines’ short order line. Portioning steaks. How hard could it be?

Turns out it’s not as easy as it sounds. First, the sirloin is admittedly one of the hardest cuts to trim. There are three major seams that separate the three chunks of cow, and one wrong slice could mean massive repercussions down the road. Knowing that, I set out on trimming and portioning steaks for the first time.

First, trimming the cap. That is the part that when cut into steaks, looks a bit like a striploin. Easy enough…follow the seams, and cut it off. So far, so good. I cut the cap off, and it gives way. Thump! It hits the hotel pan. I look around, and see most of my classmates were at the same stage. Not bad for a total rookie, I thought to myself.

Next, was what insiders call the “chicken” muscle. I don’t know why it’s called that, but it needed to go. Pulling the entire sirloin, I freed the chicken from its tendon jail, and set it aside in the trimming tray. Still not doing too bad, as I moved on to trimming the sirloin proper, in preparation for dividing and portioning. Think of it almost like shaving…you take the fat, the silverskin and other gristle off, without taking too much of the good meat off.

Slice! goes a piece of silverskin. Oh oops, a couple milimetres of meat went with it.

Slice! Some fat and silverskin go along with some more meat. That yield sheet is going to make for some horrible reading. Lucky for me, this was only a practice loin.

A little more shaving later, the loin was ready to be portioned. Slicing the meat into three chunks, I went ahead to try and portion out some steaks.

Slice! Thump! The first steak falls onto the scale. Under the mark. Off to the stir fry bin.

Slice! Thump! A second steak…it’s marginally over. Okay, I’ll let it go.

Slice! Thump! Another goes on. Over. I frantically trim, trying to make weight. It goes back on…and it meets the mark. It joins the acceptable pile.

And so it went, with the cap meat (now sans most of the fat cap) and the loin. When the result came in, it was grim. The pile of discard and other trim was higher than a mountain, while only 12 steaks made the cut. About 34% yield, on the first go. Not great, but still room for improvement. Not discouraged, I went to grab another vacuum packed sirloin.

Another loin later, and I wasn’t in such a forgiving mood to myself.

The discard pile was higher, the portioned steaks rougher…everything was just BAD: the yield was a paltry 25%.

I stumbled out of class, void of emotion but inside I was tearing myself apart. I failed, and failed spectacularly while I was at it. How could I have let myself slip so badly? (Noticing the chef seemingly turn many, many shades of red watching me work only made me more nervous and angry) How could this have happened?

Throughout the night, I sought anwers. But somehow it just made me more frustrated — until a very strong pep talk from a friend (she knows who she is) via Facebook Messenger that got me back on my feet. I won’t bore you with the details of what transpired, but she taught me one thing that all chefs needed to be: humble, and accepting of mistakes. Also, to challenge oneself, and to keep LEARNING. Plus, also to love what one does.

The next morning, I got a call from another individual — the one man who got me into this whole chef apprentice journey in the first place. He reminded me of what I was capable of, and while he did reiterate a lot of what my friend had said, he added one very important thing that finally turned the proverbial lightbulb on in my head: that at the end of the day, I needed to screw up. If I didn’t, how would I learn anything?

With that mindset, I went into today with fresh resolve. With chicken (my old nemesis) as the meat du jour, I took my time, made a few mistakes (cutting a little too far out from the keel bone when removing the breast, etc.)

But what ended up happening was, even though it took me almost an hour to debone three birds into chicken suprêmes and ballontine thighs, I did them CORRECTLY. Not perfect, but correct nevertheless. Perfection will come with practice, but today, I am relieved, and feeling back on track.

It’s a feeling I have missed. After two bruising weeks, I walked out of class today just a little more confident in myself. Plus, I feel like by conquering chicken butchering, I am that much closer in exorcising a major demon. (To be continued on that one…)

Now, let’s see if tomorrow can bring more. I’ll have to fight off a little bit of the feels, but it IS pork tomorrow.

Chef school. The story continues…