The Dish That Made Me a Writer

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.


31 thoughts on “The Dish That Made Me a Writer

  1. Isn’t it strange how these situations that seem so tragic work out for the best? If I hadn’t had to stop going to school for my PhD because of the money-shortage on my end, I’d never have had the guts to start writing. Not that I’m a writer yet, but I’m choosing to see it this way. 🙂
    I too love baking, but I am too devil-may-care about my pastry to ever be professional. I did take a few free classes, though, which turned out to be a lot of fun.

    1. Ooh, baking classes sound fun! Especially the part where you get to eat your “work.” It really is great to see something initially defeating as the thing that possibly sets you on the right path. Thanks!

  2. This is so great. Isn’t it funny how we ultimately end up just exactly where we are supposed to be? I love to bake, but have had some epic kitchen fails just like this one. They are what makes being in the kitchen quite the adventure 🙂

  3. That’s a wonderful way of looking at things and I think it’s so true. I wanted to be a chef too; or at least work in a restaurant kitchen. With no training, I got a job in the kitchen of an Italian fine dining restaurant because the owner liked my “spunkiness” and I think he liked the idea of having a woman in there working in a testosterone filled kitchen. The chef didn’t agree. You’re right – long hours standing and then the heat, the cuts and burns, being yelled at…it’s a tough job. I’m glad I decided not to pursue it. Okay, they fired me. I told you that chef had it in for me. 😉 I loved your post. Sometimes we need to try a few things out before we find the vocation that’s right for us.

  4. Your crepe was probably still tasty! When I cook there’s stuff everywhere, and I can never find any of my measuring spoons. Thankfully most of the things I cook don’t call for that much precision since I can’t lose my palm.

    I think you’re probably a great cook and know you’re a fantastic writer.

    1. Me too! It’s not good for my blood pressure to spend time in professional kitchens – and I’m so glad I can still love cooking and spend more time staring out windows and making up stories about imaginary people. 🙂

  5. I love cooking, but wouldn’t love cooking for a restaurant. Too much work and not enough fun, I think. Glad you found your path!

  6. I’m glad that you found your love for words and didn’t fall out of love with food. As someone who adores eating, and sometimes likes to cook (but not bake), I think the latter would be really sad.

    I really enjoy your writing.

  7. My husband thought of being a chef, but the restraunt he hired at made everyone start out doing dishes and his hands blistered from the heat and dish soap. Later he realized that as much as he loved cooking if he did it for a living it would just be a job and no pleasure at all. So he cooks for his family every night instead, and likes it a lot more.

  8. Great post, Dana. The clip fit in perfectly. Pastry chefing couldn’t be anywhere near as rewarding as writing, could it? I mean, you can’t eat writing and all, but you can write about eating. . . I think you made a good decision. . . 🙂

  9. The extent of my cooking education came in high school a very long time ago when for some reason they made us prepare Baked Alaska in Home Ec. I remember that my ice cream didn’t melt so I must have done something right?

    I’m 45 and sort of just stumbled into writing recently, yet I still hesitate to call myself a writer. I think I still have a lot to learn. I have an admiration for anyone who can make a living at it.

    Very nice post. 🙂

  10. And what a great writer you are. But OMG Crepes are hard to make!! Stupidly difficult. Not that I’m a chef either but my dad used to try and make them and their was a lot of F bombs flying around his kitchen. Eventually he gave up on the damn crepes and I think we were all happier for it!

  11. How wonderful to have something point you in the right direction, even if it felt like a failure at the time. I’m glad you went into writing!

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