Several years ago, I attended Culinary School at a small college in northern British Columbia, Canada. It’s not a school that you’ll find listed in any sort of international database of Great Schools, like the Culinary Institute of America, but rather a compressed ten-month program that was taught by some absolutely brilliant Chefs. One who was regularly hired to help get new restaurants going in Vancouver – culinary capital of BC. One who was chosen to travel ahead of the Queen of England, ensuring the food and service at each of her stops on a cross-country tour would be at the standards that She expected. And one who had worked at some of the finest hotel kitchens in Australia, before teaching in various venues in North America.
That was the sum total of our school’s claim to “culinary fame”. (I fully expect that will change in time – they gave that program an amazing start, and at least one of the gentlemen I graduated with, Will, is well on his way to becoming a brilliant Chef who’s name will be *known*) During the program, one of the Chefs recommended me to the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver for my work experience, and I was accepted — this led to an overwhelming three-week period where I learned just what I could be capable of, when motivated. I shone. I loved it. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and barely keeping my head above water, but oh did I love it. Then after my work experience month was done, I returned to the college to finish the program, and on the last day, Chef Graham looked at me and said “I expect to hear great things about you.” before walking away. (I know, I know – sounds like a horrible film cliche, but I swear it happened just like that).
And then I got lost. Coming out of a program taught by brilliant chefs, with several brilliant fellow graduates around me, I ended up working for a Bar and Grill. A good one, for the city I was living in, but not what I had trained for, by any stretch. While there, I had the blessing of working with several excellent Chefs (some Red Seal, some School’O’Hard Knocks, some both), but in the end it still wasn’t what I was looking for. Where I would shine. I ended up there longer than I should have been, and I took some knocks along the way even as I gained some hard-won victories (one of *my* recipes loved by my Chef and Corporate Chef! Wowsers!) but eventually my wife convinced me it was time for a drastic change…. A new city.
So we up and moved, and in short order in this new city I was told I was suddenly over-qualified for the type of job I had been doing. Then (much to my amazement), I was accepted to one of the Winery kitchens — finally! Fine dining! Fresh ingredients!! Meals served with a glass of fine wine, in a classy environment, where I was encouraged (in theory) to experiment, develop and design my own dishes for our menu. I had staff coming to me, asking me to take over more of the cooking of the staff meals due to the quality of what I made for them. I even had one of my staff lunches knock my Chef’s socks off, to the degree that he told me it was going on our feature menu this summer. Then, Life Happened…
I quit my job at the Winery. As I was leaving, on my last day, my Chef said “Take my advice, and just go get a job in a pub” with a dismissive tone. To him, I’m not “Chef” material, because Life Happened and it knocked me off my pace momentarily.
Well, I’m not working in a pub. Right now, I work part-time at a beautiful luxury B&B where I got to design *my* menu. Where I get to cook *my* food. Where I get to see talk with our guests as I prepare their meals, and where I get the feedback on my cooking by watching their faces with each bite they take. Where each time I prepare a dish, I can put that Of-The-Moment inspiration into it, and elevate it to something different, something passionate, something unique.
I don’t have a kitchen staff. I don’t have my Red Seal (yet). But when I walk into that kitchen, take out and true my knives, and then cook for those people, I am living up to the example set by every good Chef I have ever worked with.
I never put out a dish I am not proud of.
I never serve anything I would not want to eat myself.
I let my love and respect for the food show.
Maybe I will never be able to be a traditional Chef in a high-stakes, high-pressure kitchen, but in every way that matters, I’m walking my own path to becoming a Chef I can be proud of. I just needed to find a different path to being “Chef”