My Chef Alter Ego - Part I
When I was in high school, a field trip to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) located upstate New York made an indelible impression on me. From a young age, I had become very interested in cooking. I will never forget my attempt at making a pound cake that required mace (the lacey outer covering of nutmeg) as an important ingredient. My Mother did not have it in her spice rack so I had to go out and find it for myself.
I was determined to follow the recipe to the letter and it required an ingredient I had never known prior. The cake itself turned out OK, nothing remarkable, I do recall how frustrated that the end result wasn’t some glorious baked masterpiece. And, not only that, the amount of time it took to measure, sift, combine, and bake this ultimately mediocre cake was A LOT of effort. I believe my spiced pound cake experience landed me on the other side of the kitchen and had me focus more on dinners rather than dessert. It’s probably all for the better, I was more help in the family kitchen - particularly for Sunday dinners.
Gathering around the family table in the early afternoon for our main meal was a special Sunday affair in my eyes. My parents instilled a love of food and appreciation of culinary traditions. Growing up in our household we were exposed to traditional Portuguese and Polish foods from my parent’s family roots. My “apprenticeship” in my Mom’s kitchen began very early in my life learning to help make those comforting Sunday meals. I became fascinated with the culture of food and its importance in our very own traditions – from there on I’ve had a love affair with food that continues to fuel my culinary passion. Both my parents cooked, and had a very distinct appreciation for good food. My father also baked bread at a local bakery and brought home some of the most delicious warm Italian bread, rolls, and semolina loaves. Good bread and giant bags of freshly made bread crumbs were commonplace.
But let’s get back to that field trip to the CIA. We had a very fancy lunch served and prepared by a team of CIA students. I recall having an incredibly rich and flavorful shrimp bisque in particular. The rest of the menu evades me, but course after course, I was swept up in the presentation and elegance of fine dining. Then and there, I decided I wanted to take my amateur cooking skills to the next level by attending culinary school. I thought long and hard about my future and wondered if cooking would be my ultimate career or something that satisfied my soul, personal growth, and raison d'être. It was a tough decision to ponder.
I chose the path to attend Boston University to get a well-rounded liberal arts degree and I am extremely thankful for my education and that college experience. College taught me how to think and decipher information that was presented to me. But in the back of my mind that gnawing thought of going to culinary school never waned. After college, I casually entertained the thought of going to Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI or the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT. Living in Boston, both schools were not commutable. So, I put my desire to go to a culinary school on the proverbial back burner - set to simmer.
My love of cooking bubbled into hosting dinner parties, and even private catering. I also held some jobs in the food industry. I was a counter boy at an upscale café located in a gorgeous newly renovated and historic building. The café was located in a venerated Bostonian haberdashery called Louis, Boston. That experience was an incredible hands-on education. A few years later, I also held the reigns as a barista and then was promoted to head cook and kitchen manager at a neighborhood café in Boston’s South End.
In retrospect, I absolutely respect the chefs that learned to cook without a structured culinary background. Toques off to that breed of chef and in many ways, I was taking that same path of on the job learning as I dabbled in the food industry, testing ideas and recipes, it was an invigorating time in my life. But that desire to be classically trained was a burning ember inside me. I craved a formal culinary education, I wanted to ultimately learn how to think like a chef. - to be continued -