“A recipe is just ink on paper, folks!”

Yesterday was my first consumer class at the culinary school. I had to break the ice, get used to being in the environment, reacquaint myself with the mindset of being in a classroom. I had to remind myself how to move and behave in a room full of strangers as part of a whole, yet still be an individual.

Who the hell am I kidding? I really went there to kick the tires and check out the teachers.

In my years of doing surgery in quite a few hospitals, I have had to meet lots of people with unique skills, strong attitudes and various interpretations of medicine. I’ve had to learn to tame the savage beast by making fast observations and acting accordingly. After so many years of data input into my brain, ranging from the basic case procession and possible outcomes to assessing the attending surgeon and staff’s demeanor, concerns, abilitites and weaknesses, I have grown proficient at calling it right on the ball in an operating room. Imagine the total treat, the luxury of time I have now as I get to sit in a classroom and slowly size up my new “bosses”.

I gotta confess- I am a total Bourdain fan. Snarky, rehabbed, fueled by Nicotine and alcohol, he is what I remember from my younger days helping out in the kitchen at the Myersville Inn back in ‘Jersey with Matt the Psycho at the helm.  Seeing chefs with better manners and upbringing don’t hold the same amusement for me, yet they are no less respected… even if Brian and I make fun of them in the off time. Anyway, I met one of the first instructors I will have as a first track student and he fit the mold like he was the original casting model- mouth like a truck driver, not allowed to drink alcohol anymore and still battling the addiction to smoking. He was a sight for sore eyes, right down to the moment when he told a student , “…so don’t fuck with me!”. It was lust at first sight, I tell ya.

It got me thinking about the comparison of surgeons and chefs. The similarities common to both environments are : Stress, frantic pace, pressure, dealing with individuals bearing unique needs, wants, fetishes, dislikes and health concerns. The two part ways down the middle beginning with the way they cope with those elemental factors.

Take a chef. The one standing at the helm in the pit of hell is an artist that offers up a dish as an expression of themselves. A dish coming back to the kitchen either untouched or wanting correction is a form of rejection of the artist’s labors. It’s like hanging your painting on the wall of a gallery and putting up a “Critique The Piece” booth, which you get to stand in, naked, with nary an oven mitt to cover your privates. Chefs, some of the less Food Network types in particular, toss back a few too many, blow off steam and exercise their right to be crude, rude and socially unacceptable in stark contrast to their patrons all dolled up in the dining room. What else can an artist do but express themselves and vent? They also go back to work at home, after hours and hit the chopping block all over again for fun. Sick bastards, huh?

A surgeon is a head case. A good deal of them are in the family business and business is pretty cutthroat. Just going through puberty with a parent who’s first name is usually Doctor is a pretty menacing prospect in itself. Surviving high school as a wing-clipped dork in the honor society leaves no room for creativity or self expression, let alone that first kiss, grope, bong hit or spiked punch. It’s off to ten years of college, insane scrutiny and nothing to show for the effort of finishing residency except a buttload of owed money. Oh, and someone’s life is in  their hands. Then there is the great benefit of all that time incarcerated in a hospital- a surgeon is a bit of a nutter after years of not seeing daylight or getting laid, and most of them are often massively socially retarded. How do they kick back after 18 hours of sewing someone’s bowels back together? Ummm… they make dinner reservations.

A little irony for you: A chef goes to a doctor for what they need and a doctor goes to a chef for what they need. Both food and medicine are necessary for sustaining life, and food more so than medicine if used properly. Somehow, the chef makes a lot less unless they sell out or become a media whore. I find it inspiring that a chef will do all they can to ensure perfection in a dish, even if it takes growing produce in their own back yard, driving five counties away or smuggling some crazy shit through customs in order to score the perfect ingredient.  A chef does not do it for any other reason than to feed their friends, loved ones or guests. I find it revolting that a surgeon expects all the details to be handled miraculously and with little effort or input on their part. It’s probably my artistic-sided brain firing potshots at my technically-brained side (and colleagues) for sport, but there is a measure of truth to it.

But I digress.

The class was Flavor Fundamentals. I figgerd if I was going to be throwing myself into the belly of the beast, I’d better get an idea if I have the chops for it. Learning to taste is crucial, and it can be learned. I needed to know where I stood in the unknown territory between the consumer and the producer. I had to see if I was full of shit or not. My chef strolled in, clad all in black and my eyes dilated like a predator in the woods.

What I thought I was going to learn was surprisingly different from what I really did learn. Yes, all the basics were covered as far as the core curriculum (sweet, salty, sour, bitter. Umami and fat, their agents, actions and opposites), and it was entertaining and informative, but what I learned was not how to taste. I learned that when a dish is missing something, there is something that fixes it… just like my own life.

Yesterday I observed a total stranger discuss food, move around a kitchen, pay attention to details on the periphery, express things related to food that I could not convey to another soul outside of my own kitchen. This person engaged in a public display of affection for what they do that was so perversely cool, I almost wept.  If I was not in a room full of nice people, I’d have leaped atop the classroom table, dropped to my knees, and had a Brandi Chastain moment.

It all made perfect sense. At last.

Concepts that I have wrestled with over the years of being in love with food finally came to me as validations. Some of the things I feel while in the kitchen were deemed, “Perfect”. The Chef cited the example of the unusual inability or lack of desire to eat a finished meal once a long day of wailing at it in the kitchen has finally come to presentation time. It was explained that this is due to all the tasting one does as a meal’s creation is in process. One reaches satisfaction with a dish by tasting and achieving the desired component, rather than by sitting down to a whole plate of the finished product. Tasting and correcting of components pushes the artistry quotient a lot higher than if one follows a recipe straight on through without stopping. Success comes in stages and parts as much as in the final plating. As I drove home, I mulled it over. I came to realize that most of my totally suck-ass meals were ones where I followed a recipe out of a book (I said meal, not baked product or sweet dish).

Long and short of it, I found out yesterday, finally, that I am not completely out of my mind, contrary to popular belief. Listening to a chef speak of the very thing I am passionately consumed by was like going to some addiction support group for the first time. I’ve held a lid on it for a long time, with lots of slip-ups and offenses to friends and family as I have wrestled with my frustration, the one that came with thinking my ardent desire to be at a hot stove full time was some ridicule-worthy indulgence and not what responsible people do with their lives. I gotta tell ya, folks… for all those times we’ve all gone out to a nice, civilized dinner after a craptastic week and savored sanctuary on a plate, give a nod to that person in the kitchen who made it happen. That person is going to be me someday soon.

“Yeah, baby!”


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