My Chef Alter Ego - Part Deux
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
After stints of working and cooking at various jobs during my late 20s, I still wondered what I wanted to be when I grew up. I believe that there are people that come into your life at certain times to help steer you in the right direction. Or, at the very least, point out the scenery and suggest possible destinations. I happen to be very lucky to cross paths with individuals that influenced my first real career in marketing and public relations. Strong women that encouraged me to think outside-of-the-box and develop a new set of skills and talents. I am forever grateful for these inspiring colleagues, gaining their confidence in me led to a 20-year career in the creative communications, marketing and development fields. And after living in Boston for almost two decades the opportunity to move to New York became a reality.
I landed first in Westchester County - just north of the city - and began working at a wildlife conservation nonprofit in NYC. I had always wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and after seven years at a dynamic PR agency it was a refreshing change. I enjoyed my new role as Director of Communications and after two full years at the organization the pot that I had put on the back burner started to bubble over. It dawned on me that this might be the right time in my life to go to culinary school. I was working in a city at the center of it all and started to contemplate the idea of working and attending culinary school in the evenings. I was 38 years old and figured it would be now or never.
There were two culinary schools in New York City that I would consider, the International Culinary Center (ICE) and the French Culinary Institute (FCI). Both schools had excellent part-time programs and my first step was to visit and tour both facilities.
My first appointment was at ICE located in the flatiron district on West 23rd Street in NYC. The admissions officer (who seemed to clearly lack my excitement and energy for being there) gave me a full private tour of the school, the culinary and pastry classrooms spanned many floors and many of the kitchen classrooms had windows that looked out at the skyline letting natural light flood the space. That impressed me since so many commercial kitchens did not have that commodity. Many notable chefs taught at ICE when it was formerly known as Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. Notable instructors in those early days included James Beard, Simone Beck, and Marcella Hazan. And noted ICE graduates included Marc Murphy, a current judge on Food Network's Chopped, and my one of my favorites, Gail Simmons, a judge on Bravo's Top Chef. ICE was a viable option and the facility was well appointed but one thing I couldn’t ignore was the incredibly strong smell of disinfectant that hung in the air. Understandably, I knew its purpose but it was so strong it practically burned my nasal passages. That afternoon, I left ICE slightly cold and I was curious to see how the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in SoHo was going to compare.
The following week, I trekked down to SoHo for my appointment at FCI. The school sat on the corner of Broadway and Grand Street – the cast-iron architecture and façade were indeed grand and beautifully ornate. Cast-iron architecture in this neighborhood in lower Manhattan was all the rage from 1840 to about 1880 and SoHo had a distinct artsy bohemian chic sensibility.
The restaurant, L’Ecole, is perched at street level and is where FCI students gets hands-on experience as the chefs de cuisine for paying patrons. I ascended to the second-floor lobby, the interior design was a mix of industrial and modern. As I approached the waiting area, my ears immediately picked up on a video that was playing on a loop, some of it entirely in French, and my Francophile brain felt welcomed. I was greeted warmly by the receptionist and waited patiently for my appointment with admissions.
The tour began with a peek inside the amphitheater where cooking demonstrations and lectures were held on an ongoing basis. From there we ascended to the next floor where numerous culinary classrooms were located and I was able to peer into an active class in progress. Rows and rows of gas ranges, French tops, ovens and stacks of pots and pans neatly organized flanked the wall on stainless-steel shelves. The students dressed in traditional kitchen garb, all gathered around the master Chef as he explained some cooking technique with a demonstration. From there the group broke up and began their lesson for the day, with an almost orchestrated dance. Gathering their mise en place, cutting boards, cutlery, and neatly stacked kitchen towels, the students worked in tandem teams and set out to cook.
Moving on, we toured the pastry and then bread kitchens. The pastry students were working on crafting spun sugar into ornate shapes and molding chocolate for spectacular desserts. The aroma of baguettes, glossy brioche, and freshly baked croissants from the bread kitchen was intoxicating. I was a kid in a culinary candy store with my face plastered against the glass ogling delicate French pastries, tartes and soufflés.
The tour continued on an upper floor to check out the student lounge and well-stocked library filled to the rafters with cookbooks and research materials. A wall in the lounge had photos of well-known FCI graduates including Dan Barber, David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, Bobby Flay, Daisy Martínez, and Christina Tosi, along with the school’s foremost Deans including Jacques Pépin, Jacques Torres, André Soltner and, Alain Sailhac. A cornucopia of culinary talent!
The admissions director sat down to chat about my motivation to attend FCI and my goals. He pointed out that every student that enrolls receives a full set of Mercer chef’s knives, various pastry and kitchen utensils all packed in a heavy-duty black canvas case. Student names are also stitched on three chef’s jackets accompanied by checked chef’s pants, aprons, neckerchiefs and beanies.
The entire experience felt right. I knew I was at a place where I could drop everything I thought I knew about cooking at the entrance door and go in tabula rasa and be trained in the classic techniques of French cuisine. My mind was made up and I was ready to apply to be in the next class. I could hardly contain my excitement – just the mere thought of graduating as a chef from the French Culinary Institute was a dream that was finally in reach and in my sights.
- to be continued -