Three weeks have passed since the start of culinary school. In some ways the time has flown -- some days I wake up feeling as though I have yet to begin, until I flex my feet against the steady ache that I can't seem to shake, and realize that I already have. Other times, especially when I'm in the kitchen, I feel as though I've been there forever, so far removed from the massive uncertainty and apprehension that I felt in the beginning.
It has been quite the experience so far, and we have learned more than I could have ever anticipated learning in a few short weeks. We've made stocks, gallons of stocks, from veal to fish fumet and everything in between, and have learned the power they hold in elevating a sauce from something good, to something truly exceptional. We've made the mother sauces -- béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato -- and many of their variations. We've made mayonnaises and sabayons, soups and consommés, perserved lemons and cured salmon. We've fileted fish, butchered chickens and ducks, stuffed quail until they were plump and roasted them until browned and juicy. We've shucked oysters and clams, carefully shelled lobster, and sauteéd mussels until they released their salty brine. We've made the most succulent duck confit of my life in a rondeau that I'm pretty sure weighed more than I do, and braised duck legs in a rich brown veal stock until tender and rich with flavor. We've made more variations of potatoes than I thought possible, including a gratin dauphinois that consisted of not much more than cream, gruyere, and potatoes, but that blew my mind. My knife is starting to feel more like an appendage than a tool, and the red, raw spot that I formed on the inside of my index finger from days and nights filled with slicing, cutting and shaping has already formed a hard callous. I still come home exhausted, and my feet ache from all of the hours standing, but I'm sure that adjustment will come too, with time.
Of course going into this, I had an idea of the happiness I would feel doing what I love every day. What I was unaware of, though, was how profound that sense of fulfillment would be. The boundless joy I feel in the kitchen -- the sharp, methodical swishing of knives being sharpened, the clanking of pans hitting the stove top, the first, welcomed smells of sizzling onions, sauces erupting into balloons of fire with a splash of brandy -- it's all so surreal. The satisfaction I feel to get home [soreness, exhaustion, and all] after accomplishing a day of hard-earned work is unlike any I've ever felt. Oh, and I can't forget to mention my classmates: my classmates who come from different continents, speak different languages, and span in age by almost 30 years. So many of us couldn't be more dissimilar, but we are all bound by the same passion, and a drive to pursue what we love. How fitting it feels to spend my days with them.
Of course amid all of my joy, there are hard moments -- like having to cancel on time with my friends, including one visiting from Wyoming, because of an all-consuming, show-stopping migraine from a hot, dehydrating day in the kitchen, or times when I question what I want to do with this when it's all over, or if I'll ever make enough money in this industry to justify this expense. Even still, I find myself waking up excited to start each of my days, and going to sleep knowing that I've made the most of them. If that is not exactly what we should reach for in life, I'm not sure what is.
It feels unfair and a bit cheap to share a dish that requires no recipe, nor cooking, after boasting about how much I've learned in the kitchen. But, for all the joy that a day at the stove brings me, there's also something to be said for taking a rest every now and again. Cooking or not, I promise this dish is worth sharing.
heirloom tomato + watermelon salad
There is no real recipe to this salad, just a loose, yet beautiful combination of contrasting flavors. Salty, crumbly feta cheese is mellowed by the sugary watermelon and summer-ripened tomatoes, both bursting with juices. Fragrant basil and a drizzle floral olive oil complements everything, and brings it all together.
4 - 5 small heirloom tomatoes, sliced or cubed
a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes
a few handfuls of ground cherries, husked
1 small or 1/4 large watermelon, cubed
4 oz full fat feta cheese, sliced or crumbled
5 - 7 basil leaves, chiffonade
extra virgin olive oil
coarse sea salt
In a large bowl, gently toss the tomatoes, ground cherries, watermelon, and feta. Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle the basil leaves over top, drizzle with olive oil, and season with coarse sea salt to taste.
Serves 4 - 6 as a side dish