Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cooks

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In 2011 I was laid off from a job that I had worked at and loathed for five years. It was a corporate gig, to which I seemed singularly unsuited. I don’t have the patience for the bullshit, this being an ineffable quality, I observed, that usually led to promotion; I wasn’t a team player, not by a long stretch; and I didn’t own the requisite uniform that would have impressed the socks off some manager.  But, to paraphrase the pterodactyl in the Flintstones, “arrrk, it was a living.”

I spent that summer living on severance and enjoying a cottage that we had rented for the year and pondering my future. Friends would come to the cottage, a lovely island in the Rideau river system, and I would cook for them. There was much discussion at the time about what I was going to do when I grew up. What was next… the next chapter. A few people would say, “You should become a chef.” Ha ha, I would laugh, but the words would echo around my head like a “hello” shouted in a canyon. By the summer’s end I had hit upon a plan. I would go to cooking school, get certified and open a cooking school/community food hub. There would be educational talks and movies about food. Good Food Boxes could be delivered there and I would serve as the drop off place for CSAs all around Toronto.

So, I registered at George Brown College Culinary School. I bought my uniform and my knives, and I was super, super keen. I was also old enough to be every one of my classmates’ mother. If I didn’t have patience for the corporate bullshit, I had even less patience for whiney teenagers. But I persevered and made better acquaintances with the chefs who taught us.

From day one and for the next eight months, my enthusiasm began to dwindle. It wasn’t the work, which was hard and physically demanding, it was the way food was treated and discussed. Reduced to units and inventory, the precious link to all that I loved became a mere commodity. The focus of the program, as well it should be, was on preparing young cooks for life “in the industry”, a phrase I grew to detest. But it wasn’t what I imagined. I imagined us all standing around a prep table discussing the gastronomic delights of some dish with deep cultural roots, and whatnot. Yeah…that didn’t happen.

There were a few chefs who I talked to about more esoteric aspects of food, and our food theory chef was a delightful French man who talked about food the way I wanted to talk about food – memories of his childhood in France and the one dish he couldn’t live without. But these moments were few and far between and I looked forward to getting the hell out.

My dream of a cooking school/food hub crashed to the ground when I started researching spaces, permits, equipment, insurance and the enormous costs that would have to be incurred and the bureaucracy that would have to be navigated. Knowing what my overhead was likely to be, the concept of a community hub seemed unlikely, given what I would have to charge to stay afloat.

So, I applied to work at a new restaurant that a GBC chef was opening in Regent Park. He started it as a type of school for up and coming cooks and service staff and he hired mostly people from the neighbourhood, or those who demonstrated both aptitude and need. I was hired despite not really fitting his model – he wasn’t saving me from anything, but I found myself enjoying the work. That’s when I worked with the chef who told me not to fuss about food since it all goes to the same place. I liked working in the catering kitchen with this one chef, but working with the chefs on the line was another story. I wasn’t prepared to be spoken to like a mentally challenged teenager, and when it happened I was appalled. As I witnessed the verbal abuse that took place on an almost minute by minute basis, I knew the line was not for me. Back in the catering kitchen I was treated well but I had to contend with some of the laziest, whiniest, most irritating people I have ever encountered. I’m sure they felt the same about me.

Both the catering chef and I had to be let go after Christmas due to lack of orders. He went off to a seafood restaurant and called me one day to come help him out – he was short-staffed. I worked there for only about five shifts until he found a permanent replacement, but it took me only five shifts to witness the gross sexism that one hears about in a lot of restaurant kitchens. There were a couple of other women on the line in the evenings, but I was the only female lunch cook. I overheard a couple of guys talking about me and saying something disparaging, but then adding, “yeah, but Chef likes her, so…” Mostly they just called me “mama”, which my chef assured me was a sign of respect. They didn’t call the cute young ladies who worked nights “mama”. I wasn’t taking it as a compliment.

Before I went to GBC and worked in a few restaurants, I loved cooking for people. Seeking out new recipes, overloading the table and trying out new things. I still love to feed people, but I have to be honest and say that my actual passion for cooking is gone. I’m also much less keen about eating at restaurants, having witnessed the things that go on in even the best run kitchens. I wonder if I had been much younger if it would have affected me the same way. Maybe having spent 45 years loving food as something so different, having it distilled into unit costs and referred to as “product” took the shine off permanently for me.

Am I glad I went to cooking school? All things considered, yes. It gave me information and a foundation in food theory that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also led me to experiences that definitely wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But I feel that I lost something in my cooking soul. The innocence with which I used to approach a new recipe and the wonder that I used to feel when flavours did what they were supposed to do, these are gone. The veil was pulled back for me and I fear that food will never have the power to awe me again, not like it used to.

I started watching a series on Netflix last night called “The Chef’s Table”. The first one was about Massimo Bottura. He talks about food in a way that I wish I could again. His memory of sitting under his grandmother’s table while she made tortellini and eating the freshly rolled tortellini was beautiful – it shaped and informed him as a chef and a person. He’s managed to survive a lifetime in “the industry” and seems untainted and still infused with a sense of the magic that can be great food and experiences around food. Perhaps it’s not too late for me. Perhaps I’ll recapture the wonder. As I go about writing this book and talking to people about their food memories and feelings, I hope that it will be recaptured. It’s my quest.

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