Assorted thoughts on Week One of the Italian Culinary Experience at the International Culinary Center, with as much coherence as I can muster after the most draining and exhilarating week in recent memory:
- There are 12 students in the Italian program this fall, and we run the gamut from an unbelievably young high school graduate (doing the math, she almost entirely missed the 1990s!) to a guy about my age who's worked for years in a top professional kitchen in Puerto Rico (and I'm a former theater artist turned digital ad man from Las Vegas, who left his very good job in May and is moving with his wife to Italy—per sempre—next year, so there's that). So many diverse stories and dreams that I'm just beginning to learn. And thanks to the way the Career programs at ICC are set up, our group of 12 feels...special...not quite black sheep, but something a little different from everyone else at the school. While the other Career Culinary classes move through levels together over six to nine months, our class is together in NYC for 10 short weeks before flying together to Italy (whoa) to study at the renowned ALMA Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana, and do a stage (apprenticeship) independently in a top restaurant somewhere in the country. Our aprons are blue (compared to white), so we really stand out even before our "hopelessly lost somewhere in the four floors of this building" look in our eyes gives us away.
- Sitting through five consecutive days of three-hour-long Italian language class is a marathon. My brain is fried (cervello fritto), but the core concepts I spent the summer slowly ingesting have finally taken hold, and the confidence to speak (simply, slowly) is at last emerging. Huge win.
- Thursday and Friday were our first partial days in the kitchen (next week we start full-time), and knife skills—taillage, as the French named their regimented system of shapes and sizes—filled our time (plus safety, piano di lavoro, and navigating an enormous utensil kit). Spent a few hours this weekend practicing my julienne, jardiniere, brunoise, macedoine, eminceler, ciseler, chiffonade (if you envisioned me standing in the kitchen wearing pajamas with a kittens-at-night-in-wintertime print apron and a pile of root vegetables, you're getting the picture), and nearly put a blister on my hand. I need some calluses, stat.
- Our first recipe in the kitchen was a simple, classic bruschetta al pomodoro. Which, according to our Chef Instructor Guido Magnaguagno, was "excellent." Encouraging start.
- Jaques Torres, Dean of Pastry Arts, gave a demonstration in the auditorium on Monday. He is a magician with sugar: creating a poured, pulled, and blown sculpture of a mother swan before our eyes.
- Backpacks and lockers are the worst and I completely forgot how much I hated that part of being in school. Many people who know me know that I've been accustomed to traveling extremely light in my daily life: tiny card-case wallet, iPhone, two keys on a single ring, and a handkerchief. Now I've added to that the following daily haul: a 25-liter backpack stuffed with my uniform (hat, scarf, apron, t-shirt, jacket, pants, black socks, Dansko XP Professional shoes), language textbook (hardcover!) and separate workbook/binder, large Muji notebook for language class, small Field Notes notebook for the kitchen, blank index cards for recipes, a few pens, deodorant, ID card, and Shout stain remover wipes (plus my utensil kit in hand if I bring that home). Ugh. Somehow all of this has to squeeze in a tiny bottom locker (why do I always, always get a bottom locker?) if I'm not there early enough to snag a daily-use-only full-size locker. Which brings me to:
- I get out of bed really early, get to school over an hour before classes start, and it feels great. Maybe this'll wear off in the coming week, after my first 8:00 a.m. language class on Wednesday, or my first full days in the kitchen. But for now, it's great. I see the sunrise, linger over my coffee, walk slowly on quiet cobblestoned Crosby Street to the student entrance, change into my uniform alone and sit down to read before pretty much anyone else arrives. This is living.
- This coming Saturday I have the opportunity to be a culinary volunteer at the NYC Food & Wine Festival, and I'll be doing something for the Robert Irvine-hosted "Pigs n' Pints" event. In order to participate, I had to buy my first and only pair of black pants since I worked retail at the Coach flagship during holiday season 2005—my first real job in NYC. What an odd way to mark my ten-year anniversary in the city.
- Oh, and I've been doing this all with an acute radial head fracture in my left arm (my dominant, but not knife arm, fortunately) that I incurred during a biking accident in Italy at the end of September. It's healing a little slower than I'd like, but I'm working through the pain, because let's face it: I am doing what I love and could not be happier.
Bring it on, Week Two.