Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Things Come to Those Who Bake: What Culinary School was Like, and Why I'm Glad I Did It

What began for me in May of 2009 as an exciting and downright scary culinary adventure is drawing to a close. This week, I completed my sojourn as a baking & pastry-arts student in a well-regarded culinary school, here in suburban Detroit. I never expected it would take me quite this long to complete the program but life happened, as they say, and priorities now and then had to shift. It's been a long and occasionally wild ride, and I don't regret one minute of it.

(This fondant-covered wedding cake was my last project, in my last class. I completed it, and brought it home, on Monday night. Biggest cake I've ever made! It weighed a ton.)

(This blown-sugar swan was a project in Pastry II. I wrote about it here.) 

What drove me to plunge into such a program in the first place? After all, I was 48 years old when I started. What in the world provokes a busy middle-aged woman, with plenty of regular responsibilities, to take up something like this? Why put oneself through the stress of such rigorous cooking and baking classes? Really, at the root of it all, I just wanted to learn new things about baking and pastry that I felt couldn't be learned well on my own. I wanted to be able to crack the code of the classic techniques and most mysterious methods. I wanted to get the kind of careful and ordered instruction from experts that, I felt, could not be gained outside of a formal and structured setting. A couple of basic community-education classes in cake decorating, that I took for fun in 2007, just whet my appetite for more. The next logical step was staring me in the face.

(This box, made entirely of chocolate, was filled with artisan chocolate candies. 
From Pastry II class, this was one of my favorite projects. I wrote about it here.)

And, naturally, the support and encouragement of my husband and kids was a critical factor all along. If they hadn't been okay with me taking lots of time for the classes and homework, I wouldn't have been comfortable doing it (thanks so much, guys!). They are truly the greatest.

(Sam-the-Snowman cake was my final project in Theme Cakes class, in 2010. 
I wrote about him here.)

So, was it all fun and games? Not on your life. Were there teachers there, a la Gordon Ramsay, who seemed to get their kicks by publicly berating people? Oh yeah, I can think of one or two in particular. Was I the oldest student there? Not by a long shot. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the program was the extreme diversity of the student population. Kids right out of high school, men in their twenties right out of the service, women in their fifties who'd left long and/or lucrative careers to follow their dream.

(Three fresh loaves from my Artisan Breads class. I wrote about that class here.)

The year I started, a cluster of middle-aged folks who'd been laid off in the economic collapse also entered the culinary school. Training for new careers, most of them were hopeful, resolute, and took the endeavor seriously. One man I met had been a pipe-fitter at Ford for over thirty years. His new dream was to open a bagel shop. He looked tough, but was actually a softie, and he loved to chat about his life. I once saw him riding his Harley home from school, cloaked in black-leather from top to bottom, with a brown grocery bag of what I knew to be freshly baked bread strapped securely to the back of his bike. Our artisan-breads class had just ended for the day. When I saw him I thought, "Can't judge that book by its cover. A biker might really be a baker."

(I made this sacher torte for my Cookery class in fall of '09; part of my 
assignment was to write an essay on its historical origins. I blogged about the cake here.)

And in a similar vein, last fall, I was dumbfounded when my baking partner in Plated Desserts II confessed to me that she'd abandoned a decades-long career as an ob/gyn in large part to attend culinary school. She quietly shared this information with me, one night after class, as if she were admitting to a crime. She told me that being a pastry chef had been her one big dream since high school, but her parents hadn't allowed her to even consider it; they'd insisted she go to medical school. I was astounded by her story and even wondered if she might be making it up. Curiosity got the better of me. I Googled her name and, sure enough, that woman is an accomplished doctor. That one really took the cake, no pun intended.

(This Elmo cake was one of  our first projects in 
Theme Cakes class, in 2010. I wrote about this cake, here.)

Being a student in this program exposed me to so many fresh experiences, and to new people. Case in point: I'd never in my life pried open a live oyster before I had to do this in Cookery class. I remember how my teacher, who happened to closely resemble the Swedish chef character from the Muppets, demonstrated our task, then chose me to try it first. He handed me the oyster knife and a special armor-like glove to wear on the hand that would hold the oyster. I took them from him, put on the glove, and then realized I needed to stop for a moment to take off my glasses in order to really see what I was doing. An outgoing student who'd just gotten out of the Navy--a tall, wiry guy who looked rougher and older than his years--commented loudly, "She's keepin' it real!" His name was Nick, and he was a character. Once he asked me if I had any kids and I told him I had two teenage sons, who were at the time 13 and 16. He looked at me in complete surprise, and said to me quietly, "No kidding? Well, bless your heart." I guess he expected anyone with two teenage sons would have to behave like a drill sergeant at all times, a description that rarely fits me. We never had another class together but the one time we ran into each other the next semester, I was in Retail Baking class at the time, stirring something on a stove, and he bellowed out to me from a distance, "Hey Jane! Still kickin' ass?!" Of course I responded, "Always!"

(I thought this alligator bread was about the cutest thing I'd ever seen when we made it, 
along with turtle bread, in Retail Baking, winter of '10.)

I could go on and on with little tales like that from school, and I'm sure in future posts I will. But enough for now. I really just wanted to share the news with you that I am truly and finally done! Joy! And as a result, I hope to be more present, here in this blog, which is like an old friend to me, in the weeks ahead. Thanks to you readers for once more stopping by, and for sharing this journey with me.


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