Thursday, March 5, 2009

Back at the CIA

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that, well, I’m kind of anal, yes it’s true. I tend to have a “need to be particular”, especially when it comes to food. I like to have things in place, just so. Hard to believe, right? This was a food related trip to cook at the Culinary Institute of America, my Alma Mater. I was, as you can imagine, quite wound up. I was asked by my national chef to come to NY to test out recipes for a cookbook with a team of chef’s from around the country. I was stoked, excited and high as a kite. Like the All-Star that she is, Janet cancelled a weekend trip for our 15th Anniversary to give me the opportunity, drove me and the kids to the airport on the morning of Sunday the 22nd and told me that if I didn’t come home in one piece on our Anniversary on the 26th she would raise me from the dead and slap me silly (we were once on a plane together when an engine caught on fire, not very fun).

When we arrived I immediately hopped out, gave and received my hugs and kisses, and marched on my way. As Janet pulled away and I was speaking to the baggage guy, it was revealed to me that I was one the East side of the airport, and my airline was on the West side of the airport. I looked at my ticket again, it said “US Airway-operated by United Airlines”. It did not read “US Airways”, like I interpreted. “Crap, I’m on the wrong side of the freakin’ airport!!!” I looked up, but Janet had already pulled away. Thankfully, I only had to walk about 200 yards through the terminal to get to the West side. Problem solved, except for the HUGE line. No need to implode, Janet had gotten me there early, she truly is amazing.

I called her on my cell to give her the (now) funny story, she said she was wondering why I told her to go to the East instead of the West, but figured I knew what I was doing, I didn’t. Then she told me that I had left my hat in the car. She even lovingly offered to turn the car around, I gratefully declined. My new black “pork pie” hat was to be my security blanket for the week. Silly maybe, but so are a lot of things (Ferris Bueller quote), so why not me too?

I hurried to my gate to find my flight was delayed an hour, grabbed a sandwich and hunkered down. My flight boarded, it was quite full, and we were off. Newark NJ, the airport signs directed me to the baggage claim. I got a hold of another chef, Jess, an experienced veteran on this team every year. He mentioned as we waited for my luggage that the chef I was replacing never even got his luggage last year, and laughed. I didn’t. I told Jesse I would let him know if it was funny in another ten minutes.

Ten minutes later, it wasn’t funny, at all.

It appears that luggage missed my flight and was scheduled to come in on the next plane. Missed my flight? What, did it stop off for a beer or something? Another plane? Are they going to charge me twice for that? An anal chef without his own jackets, pants, shoes and knives, oh dear. I can feel myself derailing, just slightly, towards the left.

I decided that I would not have a reaction (melt down, heart attack, head spinning, whatever…) until I actually realized that I really had to show up in the kitchen without my stuff, without being myself, without being ready, on Monday morning. After all, the airline told me that it should arrive by 9:00 am, maybe I would get lucky and it would come early.
I asked the hotel to wake me up when my bag showed up, no matter what time it was, I would have to iron my coats, they don’t travel well. Jess, like a champion, offered to lend me one of his own jackets if mine didn’t show. He said this smiling and with a chuckle, which only made me wince inside and do a double take.

I didn’t sleep very well, or much, and my phone never rang either.

I met the other chef’s in the lobby in my traveling clothes, introduced myself and said hello to all, no chef gear, no hair goo either. Where’s my hat, oh yeah, I left it in Janet’s car.

I got to introduce myself to Master Chef Rudy of the CIA in my street clothes, so much for my grand entrance. Mind you, Chef Rudy is one of sixty chefs in the world who have earned the title “Master Chef”. A distinction my industry takes quite seriously. As I said before, they are mystic creatures, chefs of precision, knowledge and professionalism. Master Yoda in a white chefs coat, get the picture? He put me at ease immediately and made sure his student fellowship ordered me a pair of chef pants. I put them on with Jess’ coat, which for the record I returned clean, and got to work.

Our task for the week was to produce food from recipes that had been submitted in a contest. We had to make sure the recipes actually worked, tasted good, and were easy to replicate for someone at home. Everything had to be measure, weighed or counted, like working in a lab. We were not permitted to add an ingredient to a recipe, like spinach for instance, because we thought it would be an improvement. That would damage the integrity of the submitted recipe.

When a chef completed a recipe, everyone stopped what they were working on and met at a display table. Two plates were “served up”, one for a photo, and one for everyone to taste and evaluate. A questionnaire was filled out for each tasting, with a number rating system. The decision makers would then decide what would make the book, or wouldn’t.

The real kicker behind having Chef Rudy at our disposal was his input regarding cooking techniques, plate presentations, basic skills, well, everything and anything you could think of to discuss with him. At the end of each day every plate was critiqued by him, and it was awesome. Just to be around someone with so much knowledge and expertise was a rush, even if he made a suggestion on how to improve one of your own plates. There was a lot more to it, but it was a blast and an honor to work with such a valued group of cooking professionals every day.

The hotel called me later in the afternoon on Monday. My bag did arrive, after 9:00 am, and nothing was even missing. I had a great week, worked hard, learned a lot, saw some of my old chef's and took in as much as I could.

Monday night I stayed up and ironed all my coats.

I felt like a million bucks the rest of the week.

1 comment:

Steven Priest said...

Paul- Thanks for sharing your exciting trip and experience. Sounded like a great trip, once you got there! Steve P.