A chewy, unappetizing, strawberry cream cheese-filled crêpe ruined my career. Or at least, the career I wanted, or thought I wanted. I’ll explain.
Last week, on Top Chef, the cheftestants were given the challenge to cook the dish that made them want to be a chef.
(Don’t worry – no spoilers here.)
The chefs dug deep in their emotional archives to find the flavors attached to the moment when each of them knew he/she would be a chef.
This got me to thinking. Obviously, I’m not a chef, but there was a point in my life where I wanted nothing more than to be a pastry chef. And in the reverse of the Top Chef challenge, I started thinking about the dish that made me realize I was never going to achieve that goal – I would not become a chef.
I was a senior in high school. I had been cooking regularly at my dad’s apartment for years, growing more adventurous over the years, trying recipes for caramel sauce and funnel cakes, crafting Thanksgiving dinners and making truffles. My dad gave me free reign over the kitchen, which is where I spent most of my time at his house. It got to the point where burns and cuts on my fingers didn’t even faze me anymore. The kitchen was my home. I felt there was nothing I couldn’t do.
Except go to culinary school. That ish is expensive! The school I wanted to go to was Johnson & Wales, to the tune of $18,000 per semester.
The only way I could go was to win a scholarship contest. The rules were simple: you had three hours (or it could have been 90 minutes, but three hours seems more likely) to cook a dish. It had to taste great, look flawless and artful, and you had to maintain mise en place in your kitchen.
I started by looking up mise en place (which shows you how unprepared I was for this challenge). Derived from the French translation “everything in its place,” mise en place means that you maintain an orderliness to your kitchen. No towels flung about, no spilling on the counter, no fishing for measuring spoons and no guesstimating. Everything had to be precise and orderly. Ask my fiancee – this is not at all how I cook. So, that was my first problem.
The second problem was that I chose a recipe I had never made before: crêpes with a strawberry cream cheese filling and drizzled with a strawberry sauce. Easy enough, right? They’re just really thin pancakes.
I set up my mom’s kitchen with little Pyrex bowls full of the ingredients. I donned my chef’s jacket. I banned everyone from the kitchen, set the oven timer for three hours, and went to work.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but about two hours later, my mom checked on me. I was a mess. Nothing was going right. It took me forever to get the hang of flipping the crêpes. My strawberry cream cheese tasted disgusting, and by the time I plated the whole thing, the kitchen looked like a disaster area, and there on the plate was a pale, flaccid, rolled up crêpe, drizzled with a clumsy zigzag of strawberry sauce.
I took one bite of my creation and burst into tears. And I had an epiphany: I would not be a professional chef.
I took this as failure at first. I just couldn’t hack it. I later talked to someone who had gone on to compete in that competition, and he said it was the most intense thing he had done. I had the feeling my strawberry crêpe would have paled in comparison to what some of the other competitors would have created. I thought, hey, I’ll manage a restaurant instead. Or a hotel maybe.
But in the end, I became a writer. I became a teacher. I read books and wrote papers. These days, I blog and work on my book.
I still cook all the time. But what I realized as the years went on was that I didn’t fail – or rather, that I shouldn’t take that crêpe disaster as a failure. It paved the way for me to find the career that was meant for me. And it saved me from what I think would have eventually happened: it saved me from falling out of love with food.
Here’s the truth: I have bad feet for standing all day; working in restaurants brings out a nasty temper in me that would shock most people who know me; and while I think I would have (and still might) relish the education of culinary school, I’m not sure I could live out the career that would justify my going.
What started as a crêpe catastrophe ended as a big moment in my career: it wasn’t that the dish ruined my (potential) career as a chef, but rather that the dish made it possible for me to become a writer.