Culinary School Confidential: Levels 5 & 6 – Miles 21 to 26

Last Day in the Kitchen
My class on our last day in the kitchen.

A few years ago I ran the Los Angeles Marathon.  It was hard, but most of the route was beautiful, varied, and there were almost always crowds lining the streets cheering. Then around mile 21 the curb started to look like a very inviting place to just curl up and die.  I was completely mentally and physically exhausted and the scenery looked like I felt.  It was a desolate, industrial section of the city and the crowds of happy people cheering had long since disappeared. There were no longer any positive external stimuli to help keep me going. Keeling over on that curb seemed really, really tempting.

I’ve held off writing about Level 5 for while because it felt a lot like mile 21. Frankly, it sucked. I spent most of the level in a constant state of anxiety and wanted to tear my hair out pretty much all of the time.

It was tough shift. I had so much fun in Level 4 with my group. I was proud of the food we had put out for family meal and our buffets. I was also feeling much more confidant and I was kind of looking forward to cooking in the restaurant, L’Ecole

Then we got our group assignments.  In the final levels, we work our way through the stations of the restaurant’s kitchen, and as in other levels we work in groups. The difference is that in these levels we stay with the same group the entire month, and I got a bum deal.

The basic scenario was that I had a teammate that I didn’t trust. Now picture the backdrop – a commercial kitchen. It’s hot and it’s cramped, and it’s understaffed with our tiny class. Everyone is always in a rush and bumping into you as you try to get your own work done. Greg compared it to working in a submarine, and he was pretty close. You also have a lot of big personalities working under stressful conditions. This actually isn’t all that new to me. The conditions for production work were very similar in a lot of ways. However, in this case I was still working on a new set of skills while being constantly under a microscope.  Additionally, the chefs can be rather blustery, and they don’t always distinguish between teammates when mistakes are made.

Being part of a team means taking hits with your team. Don’t get me wrong; I make plenty of mistakes of my own. However, when I get yelled at for my own mistakes, it will sting for a second, I get a little annoyed at myself, then I usually learn something and move on. However, this was constant and largely out of my control. I started trying take on more than I actually could do, but since I was increasingly rushing, I also started making more mistakes of my own, and so on. It was not a happy scene.  Add on that I was fighting poor health and had long since given up my usual stress relievers like running and yoga, and you can start to picture me at my culinary mile 21. 

 I think I looked like this a lot of the time:

The toughest pill to take is that I truly worked my butt off to no avail.  Usually, when I hit wall, I might get frustrated, but I’ll find a way to work harder or better and usually it pays off.  Every day I tried to come in early to get a jump on things, I often stayed late, and I was constantly trying to think of ways to work harder, faster, or more organized. However, this time it wasn’t enough. When we got our evaluations, my grade had taken an abnormally large dip. Used to being an overachiever, this hurt. A lot. I admittedly cared more about grades than I should have, and this stung. I kind of lost it.

If I try to look at the big picture, the experience really did make me more organized. Having to constantly clean up after others made me super appreciative of a clean space.  I also became a more disciplined about checklists, which did help me think through things in advance and ensure I was on track.

Mile 21 sucks, but unfortunately you just have to push through it to get to end. It’s the crappy part of an otherwise awesome experience. When I ran that marathon, somewhere around mile 24 the desire to die slowly faded away as the finish line got closer.  The scenery got more festive, the crowds returned, I started to hear the drums and the music from the finish line, and the adrenaline began to kick in again.  Same thing happened here.

Since Level 5 kind of pushed me over the proverbial edge, I really had nothing to loose in Level 6.  It took a little while to get over it, but then I was able to refocus.  The experience kind of dislodged my preoccupation with grades and I was ultimately able to remember just to learn and have a good time.

It also helped that we got regrouped.  My other teammate from level 5, Ryan, is great, and my friend Julia was rotated in to join us. We called our new group Team Awesome. While each of the three of us members of Team Awesome had our moody moments and bouts of senioritis, we could all communicate. When there was an issue, we would get it out, deal with it, and move on. For the most part though, we had a fantastic time. I love those kids!

Julia and I give Ryan a peck

I don’t mean to suggest that suddenly the kitchen became Candy Land. Cooking in a restaurant is hard work, and given that we were in there during the holiday season, it was busy.  We actually had a couple of days that broke records in terms of the number of covers.  However, if things are going well, even when it’s busy, the pace and work can actually provide a bit of a high.

Suddenly cooking was fun again.

Just in time for the final. 

Here are some of the dishes we cooked in the restaurant:

Cut and Burn Count: Not too many cuts, and those I did get were tiny nicks from things like oyster shells and shucking knives. Let’s give it a 3 count. I did get burned a lot though. My arm would lightly graze the oven door, and once simply the exterior of an oven, and come out with a bad looking burn. I also got a bad burn from splashed boiling liquid in level 5.  I can count 8 scars. There were probably more, but that’s what we’ll go with. My arm kind of has a flesh toned camouflage thing going on.

Final Count:  15 cuts, 26 burns

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