Practically Speaking

The final class in module one focused on soups, which gave rise to quarts of silky, creamy, cheesy liquids marked with my name, followed by a 3-hour practical exam where the principles learned over the last several weeks were tested through both written essay and food preparation. This program milestone layered on top of a personal one like a pile of stacked tiles. On this very day one year ago, my father died. Another test on this day, I did not need. Leading up to the exam, studied recipes and flashbacks blended together. The sound of the phone ringing oddly early in the morning. Forty fluid ounces of chicken stock. My sister’s distinct voice on the other line. One cup of celery. “What’s wrong?” Heat butter and flour to the consistency of wet sand. But there are no passes, and so like every other day, I pulled myself from the comfort of the blankets that surrounded me and took a step forward.

The written exam was long and the lead in my pencil kept breaking, perhaps from a heavy hand or maybe my heavy heart. I didn’t feel prepared, certainly not as I would have been ordinarily, yet I completed the assignment and moved onto the kitchen work. I had to demonstrate my knife skills medium-dicing two potatoes in 15 minutes. By the time I walked into the kitchen, washed the potatoes, and got to my station, three minutes had passed. The minute hand moved seemingly faster than the blade. But nine minutes later, I had a sweaty palm and 36 perfectly square 1/4″ by 1/4″ potato pieces. Next, I grabbed an egg, separated the yolk, and measured out oil, mustard, lemon juice and salt, and whisked and whisked until the combination became a luscious mayonnaise. Chef tasted it with a spoon, nodded, turned the spoon around for a second dip with the clean side and grunted, “Delicious.” Cream of Broccoli Soup was all that remained before me in the kitchen. I assembled my mise en place, prepared veloute, sweated mirepoix, and puréed my blanched broccoli to oblivion. The combination was a perfect sea of pea green topped with slivers of chives.

As I whisked and chopped, the past within me stirred. This year was comprised of mere seconds in my brain and the memories were stitched together in an uneven patchwork where sequence and priority were jumbled. My brain lingered 365 days behind, and my tired eyes, with their shadows and creases, were 5 years ahead.

The walk home from school was at twilight and the sky opened to a bright pink ripple that felt like a pathway to the sun. I met my sisters in the evening, and we toasted in memory of those lost, and also to what we have created in twelve short months. The juxtaposition of those two ideas not balanced, but in these moments, was at least measurable. The next day, I began module two with a new instructor and the contrast between the prior experience was immense. From one day to the next, culinary school transitioned from army training to happy hour. Traveling home, exhaustion set in and I could barely bring myself to speak. On the plane, I sat with my eyes closed not able to tell if the humming sound in my ears was from the engine or my mind. Sleep was a haven from the practical, and in my dreams there was only stillness.

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