CHRYSTAL: Lessons from cooking school

The reactions became relatively predictable: a chirpy “Oh, that’s so nice!” accompanied by a pat on my head. A gushing “My, how fun that must be for you!” followed by a story about how the speaker just loves watching cooking shows on TV.

This summer, I was a culinary student at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. I can now fillet a fish in my sleep, whip up an unctuous sauce béarnaise without peeking at a recipe or rustle up a transcendent soufflé au fromage on a moment’s notice.

I learned a lot at cooking school, and it was an intensely rewarding experience. I even have a shiny blue and white diploma to hang on my wall. But it was definitely not nice. Nor was it really fun, at least in the way people think of going on vacation or tossing around the old pigskin as being fun. In fact, my life as a Yale student is considerably easier — and certainly less dangerous — than it was as a culinary student. Here are four lessons from Le Cordon Bleu to keep in mind as school begins in earnest.

First, eat breakfast. Early on, I learned that skipping the first meal of the day — only to spend the next six hours cooking, surrounded by the smells and sounds of sizzling meat and roasting potatoes — is a spectacularly poor life decision. Why? Because when you are finally released from your oven-heated lockup, you will practically pounce on the unsuspecting pastry students for a taste of their morning’s work: still warm croissants or brioche.

You don’t have to be a pre-med to guess that terrible stomachaches are likely to ensue. Keep it in mind when you’re contemplating when to set your alarm for that 9 a.m. cell biology lecture, because that rushed post-class bowl of Captain Crunch (or whatever dubious variety of muffin is featured in Commons) is likely even less of a good choice than a buttery French pastry.

Everything will be fine as long as all your appendages are still attached — unlike, say, my classmate Thomas, who cut off half of his thumb about a third of the way through the course. With a meat cleaver. While butchering a duck. Don’t worry, he ended up being fine — apparently the tissue regenerates, although the nerves will not.

Even when the chefs laughed at me for not carving my duck properly, I still knew that at the end of the day all I needed to do was be careful and do my best. And at Yale? The world will not end if you don’t finish that Marx essay by tomorrow. Promise. (Your professors probably will not even laugh at you, at least in public.) Take care of yourself first — sleep, run, relax, make tea.

Eat well, and often. Sure, I have plenty of horror stories about prickly, irrational chefs and absurd recipes (poached chicken-stuffed chicken breasts make even tofu apple crisp look appetizing). But I also made, and ate, some truly incredible meals: poached eggs trucked in from the farm that morning, scallops and clams with an incredible delicacy of flavor, fromage good enough to make you abandon all other career plans and become a full-time cheesemaker.

A good meal is worth the trouble, especially shared with people you love. Sure, dining hall food may not quite measure up, but I am committed to remembering the importance of the relaxed savoir-vivre that prevails in France. Even on a difficult day, Yale is full of incredible people and some pretty fine culinary options, and you should take the time to enjoy them. Although I do miss macarons.

Finally, make friends. Especially if you’re a freshman, you might view your classmates with a sliver of suspicion, a slight twinge of competition: Will the TA like her paper better? Will he beat me out to get that awesome summer fellowship?

This is true in cooking school, too, and knowing that your peers are armed with a set of 14 razor-sharp knives doesn’t help matters. However, experience has taught me that your classmates can literally save your life — or your dish: by warning you when that slippery paring knife is pointing toward your vital organs instead of away; by reminding you that yes, sugar is a rather key ingredient in a caramel glaze; by lending you a pipette to make an artful drizzle of sauce sure to win an approving glance from the chef.

Time to sit down at a new table at lunch.

Elizabeth Chrystal is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at elizabeth.chrystal@yale.edu.

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