Tuesday, July 18, 2006

All I wanted was a brochure, really.

Yesterday, I decided to take my free afternoon and apply it to my future as a multimedia domestic superdiva.

Translation: In the 100 degree heat, I decided to walk the 50+ blocks from my digs to a couple of Chelsea cooking schools to have a look around and sign myself up for classes.

I started at the less expensive, and thus more attractive, of my options. Or, rather, where the school website claimed the culinary classes to be. When I arrive, there is a class in progress, yes, but no school. Apparently, they had just moved their offices three blocks north and hadn't yet gotten around to updating the website. What's that you say? I should have called first? Oh, I did. Their phones weren't working. That's why I decided to stop by. More on this later.

Next stop: ICE. Much more promising. A large, clean, shiny, airconditioned building with floor-to-ceiling mirrors all over the place (the better to monitor your expanding waistline between classes, perhaps). The doorwoman directs me to the fifth floor for enrollment. I climb into the lift-pod and shoot upward. I step out on five to a space that looks far more Madison Ave marketing than cooking school: open spaces, sleek finished doors and floors. Occasionally, an instructor or student in full chef's whites pops out of a door and rushes off to concoct something. Fancy.

Cheered by this encouraging turn of events, and pondering how unflattering chef's whites will look on my squat little figure, I approach the reception desk to inquire about the courses I'm interested in: a knife skills workshop next week, and an intensive techniques course in August. My joy is swiftly squashed.

"Oh-ho-ho," the receptionist/admin laughs, "maybe you can get into one for September. There's no way you're getting into those now. Our classes fill up fast. You'd need to sign up at least two months in advance. We can put you on the wait list if you want, though."

Wait-listed! Me! I've never been wait-listed for anything in my life! I got into two Ivies, damnit! And now I can't get into a bloody chop-chop class!

I swallow my pride and get myself tucked onto the wait list. I'll have to take what I can get at this point, it seems. I hop back into the lift-pod and drop, with my spirits, to the ground floor.

On the street, the hot air greets me as I trudge the few blocks to the new offices of the first school. After a misstart (I get sent to another, similarly named school's offices thanks to a misapprehension of the doorman's accent) I end up in the right place.

My heart sinks a little further. The offices are unfinished and apparently understaffed. It looks thoroughly like a start-up, and the small staff on hand seems a little out of sorts. No wonder no one is answering phones. There aren't any working phones. There is no school to tour, no place to chat privately with an admissions officer. Yipes. I'm not feeling at all confident in this school's ability to provide me with any serious training.

They are, however, very friendly, and I am given a few brochures and an application for classes and a kitchen assistantship, which would allow me to observe classes in exchange for my labor. Jackpot. I fill out the application at a little side desk and hand it in, expecting them to call me whenever their phones start working. Instead, I am quickly "interviewed." Then, the curveball.

"Um, do you have any plans for this evening? One of our assistants canceled on us an hour ago, and the Chinese food class starts in an hour, and we really need someone to help set up right now."

I look down at myself: White linen skirt. Short-sleeved tee. Open-toed, ankle-wrap sandals. The opposite of appropriate kitchen attire. But when I look back up, she's still looking at me as though her request is serious, and I figure, Hey, why not? I came for a preview, and Burlington Coat Factory is across the street. I can get some $3 pants on the way over.

So I accept her challenge and head back over to the school's kitchen. Yes, there is only one. It is 5:30.

I'm received by the other assistant, an older guy who's developed that older guy tummy and is on the verge of developing that older guy aroma. He's incredibly relaxed and unconcerned about the fact that he's just been sent a girl in white linen and Jesus sandals to assist him in running an instructional kitchen. He hands me an apron and shows me the ropes as we go. The kitchen manager, quickly establishing that I will not be gabbing with him en espanol throughout the night (though there will certainly be time for me to do so if I accept courses to work later on), delivers information in a too-quiet, thickly accented voice that it takes me the whole night to grow accustomed to. Assuming I've already committed to working the kitchens indefinitely, he also hands me copies of about half the other course packets in the program. Highly against the rules, but I'm appreciative. I've got the entirety of what I'd learn in three of the courses I'd considered taking in hand, now.

The instructor is a great old Chinese guy--a bit brusque, but good-natured. Half his class shows up on time and they begin. The other assistant and I observe, procuring ingredients and cooking tools and then clearing them when necessary, and occasionally raiding the fridge. (Did I neglect to mention I hadn't bothered to eat before I left home? Yep. But free food is the only coin for the KAs, it seems, and neither the assistant, kitchen manager, nor instructor bats an eye at chowing on leftovers from the fridge. Awesome.) The rest of the class trickles in. Occasionally, when there are excess ingredients and our assisting services aren't needed, the instructor lets me have a go at preparing the dishes. I learn how to make some good-looking dumplings, if I do say so myself.

Three hours and four dishes later, the class has prepared everything on the agenda for the evening and the students are all sitting down to eat. The other assistant, kitchen manager and I hustle through clean-up (god bless work-study in the dining halls as an undergrad; I know my way around an industrial kitchen) and then sit down to eat the leftovers. We scavenge a third of a bottle of wine, a few beers. The students leave and the instructor joins us, munching on the forgotten dessert. We chat. We wrap up. About 10:30, we're done and ready to head home.

"Good night, angel, get home safe!" the other assistant calls as I head for the door. And then I'm back on the sticky streets, heading uptown.

I don't know these men, or this place, but I feel more comfortable in this element than I have at any time in the entirety of my last two-plus years at my current job. I'm not being paid, yet I am happy with the day's outcome and feel like I've been amply compensated. It is the most honest work I've done since, oh, 2000, and I want to come back. I know it wouldn't always be so smooth, and certainly real work in a kitchen would be much harder, more demanding work than this, but for the first time, I'm reevaluating my assertion that I don't want to actually work in a kitchen, I just want to write about it.

I went in for a brochure, maybe a tour, and I got a five-hour, quick and dirty little education, at least on what it is I want, long term. I think I just may enter a degree program, maybe even full-time. I wouldn't do it there--the school is far too small and disorganized for a certificate from that place to do me any good technically or carry any weight professionally, it seems--but I'd certainly go back to assist. Free classes to observe, free meals and getting to muck about the kitchen? Gold.


At 7/18/2006 12:27:00 PM, Anonymous Matt said...

Beautiful story. I wish things like this happened to me. I say go for it. Crappy employers do not deserve you.

And I wish someone would be me angel... dammit

At 7/18/2006 12:51:00 PM, Blogger Daisy Mae said...

That sounds like so much fun! I want to be a KA at a cooking school too!!!

At 7/18/2006 03:37:00 PM, Blogger divine m said...


At 7/18/2006 05:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW. You are blessed. The Universe works in mysterious ways.

At 7/18/2006 06:25:00 PM, Blogger Dragonslayer said...

That is one of the best only-in-NYC stories I've heard in a long time. Glad it happened to you.

At 7/19/2006 12:12:00 AM, Blogger Mary said...

Awww that was a great experience and a wonderful story. :) I hope you have more fun nights as a KA. :)

At 7/19/2006 01:41:00 AM, Blogger FUNKYBROWNCHICK said...

CONGRATS lady!!!! :)

At 7/21/2006 01:06:00 AM, Anonymous bunny said...

So, how was the food?

At 7/23/2006 07:09:00 PM, Blogger maryann said...

that sounds so freakin awesome. i'm happy for you! (and a eensy bit jealous)

soo... are you gonna take classes there? or assistantize some more? or are you going to take classes at the other spot?


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