I didn’t plan to attend culinary school.
Surely there were myriad other careers beyond cooking professionally available to someone keen on growing, making, distributing, and otherwise joyfully wallowing in the company of food.
There are those careers, I still believe. In my case, however, several years out of college and having worked a handful of jobs, I was disenchanted because so much work of this era involved plopping oneself before a computer for the better part of one’s waking hours.
I became obsessed with the notion of making physical goods for people–to touch, to consume, to sincerely need–with their hands, their bodies.
Attending culinary school was to learn to make sculptures and compositions for people to physically consume. It was so simple: performing such work was to satisfy one of the most fundamental conditions of being human. The perfect job, how could I have ever fathomed other work?
Everyone I knew who had gone to culinary school told me not to go.
Yes, yes; I knew working in kitchens was stressful, physically demanding, and exhausting. I’d done a bit of it, I could deal with those things.
I moved to Paris. My five month intensive cuisine program passed quickly and painlessly enough.
It ended and my internship in a restaurant began. Every morning I awoke at the last possible moment to milk each second of my four and a half hours of sleep, groggily cannonballing myself out the door to catch the metro. During my 40 minute commute, I did nothing but stare and hope my eyelids wouldn’t fall shut, and, in spite of my childhood phobia of escalators, I always rode the escalator exiting the subway, both in relish of the 16 seconds of not having to move my body and procrastination of the dreaded moment that I would arrive at work.
I wound myself in a constant ball of anxiety over executing the tasks on my lengthy list of mis-en-place. I could think clearly about none of these charges because I was perpetually sleep deprived and starving. We had staff meals, but no one in the kitchen sat down to eat, not to mention that they occurred immediately before service started, the precise instant that I wanted to puke from anxiety about the impending horror show. “You know, you’re kind of freakish,” my chef said to me.
Life of a cook, or cuisinier, as they’re called in France, has a strict set of rules which, though I never mastered, I quickly ascertained. Do not think too long about your tasks but think thoroughly and incisively enough to do everything with extraordinary perfection and supreme logic so as to never lose time, occupy unnecessary space, or expend extra energy. Because you don’t have much time that’s not spent at work, you’d also better perform all tasks outside of the kitchen at top speed–and, if possible, simultaneously–including eating, peeing, bathing, dressing, napping, and falling asleep. Pain does not exist. If you start to burn yourself, well, “BURN YOURSELF!” At the end of every week you will have dozens of bruises, cuts, and burns all over your body, none of which you recall happening.
Somehow I hit the stride of this lifestyle for a small period of time. After I moved into a top floor apartment behind the restaurant, I could practically roll down the stairs every morning and land in front of the espresso machine behind the bar at the restaurant. I replaced my afternoon naps with afternoon runs and arrived for evening service magically lit and energized instead of bleary-eyed and zombie-like. I became relatively immune to my chef saying things to me such as, “Grace, you’re the messiest girl I’ve ever seen,” and, “FUCK, Grace, what are you doing–let’s go—right now–” and, “What’s your problem? I just don’t get it.”
I grew accustomed to everything being my fault. When, for instance, the scale stopped working it was invariably my fault because it sat on a shelf relatively close to my head. Apparently I became so anxious about the inevitably of myself breaking things that I even took involuntary measures to destroy the 6,000€ PacoJet machine, the “revolutionary” device that micro-purees ice creams to an ethereally smooth texture.
“What are you doing, don’t you smell that? Stop the machine!” my chef yelled at me. Given that the dishwasher had been the source of the same smell the week before, I really hadn’t thought that the odor of burning rubber was coming from the Paco. “Can’t you see that it’s leaking, that’s not normal! HOW IS IT DOING THIS?”
He stopped the machine, took it apart. “You forgot to put the lid on.”
“Fuck,” I said. I didn’t mean to say it aloud.
“Fuck, indeed. I don’t ask you to do much, Grace.” He actually thought I was stupid. I didn’t blame him. “Do you know how expensive this is? It’s hell if you break it.”
The “hitting my stride” chapter in my life as a cuisinier did not last long. Enough time passed that my internship turned into a job, but I continued to struggle with the whole abandon-your-bodily-needs principle. The profession requires all of the mental and physical fortitude of a professional athlete, but, unlike athletes, a cuisinier receives neither time nor means to have regard for personal health. Perhaps the profession of cuisinier is, then, closer to that of being in the army: not only is it mentally and physically exacting to the point of eschewing normal bodily demands, but it is also the only other profession where yelling and cursing at colleagues is both acceptable and professional. If culinary school applications involved a personality test to determine the likelihood of the applicant succeeding in the profession, I would have earned the result that flashed RUN AWAY, FAST, NOW, ! Those applicants gaining the highest results would have a corollary description: Congratulations–you are on the path to your dream career! You are competitive, do not enjoy contemplation, and have an addiction to adrenaline rushes and/or cocaine. Perhaps you enjoy food, but, beyond Red Bull, that’s a quaternary matter for this career.
I stopped having my period, and lost a lot of weight. Or maybe it was the other way around. I dreaded eating because it either made me nauseated or shit out my guts, due to, presumably, some combination of anxiety and my persistently messed up belly that had been ransacked by parasites when I was living in India the previous year. I was constantly crying outside of work but I couldn’t figure out why; I wasn’t sad. It was like I had no time to release and crying was one way to liberate the build-up of internal pressure. One day at work I found myself washing my hands while peeing in order to save time (I could reach the sink from the toilet), and then realized that this missed the point of washing one’s hands.
Most of the time, I forgot that I was doing this because I enjoyed cooking. In fact, I now HATED cooking. My diet consisted mostly of bread and butter.
In many circumstances, living in a foreign country can be a significant experience for contemplating the definition of self: arriving knowing no one, you are obliged to build relationships and situate yourself socially under the blanket of a second language and the lack of social connection. You not only have no friends, but there exists no web of friends of friends among whom you could hopefully slip yourself. It is you alone who must construct your identity within the established foreign community. You establish this identity through divulging your interests and sharing your passions and past experiences, and hope that some other folks maybe feel the same way–or not at all–and want to join along for the ride.
Then what happens to your sense of self when the passion for which you have spent much of your life working slowly unfastens itself, and you find yourself wobbling in place, hanging loose? Regardless of what country you’re living in, this is a startling predicament, and living in a foreign one does its own number to compound the matter.
It was a terrifying place. I had not only lost touch with the reason for which I started to cook professionally, I despised the act of doing it. To admit that to both myself and others seemed to throw myself into a solitary ocean and abandon any sense of my identity.
I decided to quit my job.
In the middle of that dark and lonesome ocean, someone close to me told me something. “Grace. I’m not with you because you are Grace-the-cuisinier. I’m with you because you’re Grace.”
I’d lost track of what was basic underneath all of the covers, underneath the inane quest for the consummate texture of ice cream and the perfectly shaped quenelle. Somewhere underneath remained a small palimpsest of myself that delighted in mint chocolate chip ice cream, the kind strewn with jagged chunks of soft chocolate, its chemical greenness dripping over the edges of one of those sweet cardboard flavored cones.
Somewhere further down, that didn’t matter, either. I was starving, so we left the apartment to eat udon and drink tea.
Grace Mitchell lives in Paris, France. She is presently engaged in an apprenticeship where she is learning to master the cooking of rice.