Monday Confessions: Culinary School is HARD

I never saw it coming. It never even occurred to me. But, now I know it’s true and there’s no denying it: Culinary School is HARD.
For the last few weeks I’ve been feeling like I’m barely treading water, but it’s been impossible to admit. Everyone around me expects me to be blissfully happy with this big adventure – and I am… Most of the time. But, like any new beginning in life, it’s been difficult.
It’s kind of like having a new baby. You’re body is physically exhausted, your brain is overwhelmed, your schedule has been turned upside down, and there is suddenly a heavy weight of responsibility on your shoulders that descends with the realization that this is real. This is happening. There’s no going back. And although I don’t have any dirty diapers to change these days, there’s still plenty of “yuck” to deal with.
Yesterday I sat with a group of women I’ve come to think of as my best friends and listened as they poured out the big scary things happening in their lives: new job opportunities, new adventures, new lifestyle…and we cried. We cried! You know why? Because even the most beautiful things, the answer to your most heartfelt prayers, will still bring you to your knees with the vulnerable reality that you are stepping into dangerous territory: The New. And The New is scary.
I’m scared that I’ll fail. I’m scared that I’ll embarrass my family. I’m scared that I might be taking away precious time from my children. I’m scared that I’ll discover that I just don’t have what it takes. And all of that makes getting up on Mondays the hardest thing I do each week. School is hard and it’s not going to get any easier.
So, there you have it. My truth. I’m in over my head, but I’m kicking as hard as I can to stay afloat because although this is the biggest, scariest thing I’ve ever done, I believe with all of my being that it will be worth it. The things I’m learning, the people I’ve met, even the very fact that I’m getting up each week and facing my fear is giving me the courage I’ll need to pursue the dreams God has placed within me for the future.
So, here’s my advice to myself, and to you, dear friend: Go and do the hard things. The hard things will make you stronger and braver than you ever imagined. And THAT’S how you’ll change the world.

Field Trip: Oriental Market

IMG_1492My oldest daughter is a freshman with an obsession for Japanese anime and is always asking me questions that I can’t answer about Japanese culture. So, I was excited when Chef McAffee asked our food purchasing class to visit the oriental super market in Little Rock. It seemed like just the sort of adventure to share with my daughter.

We headed across town to Mr. Chen’s Oriental Supermarket on University Ave. I was surprised by it’s size. It really is a “super market” as large as most American grocery stores and complete with sections of produce, seafood, dried goods, and housewares.

It was fun looking through all the different items, many that I didn’t recognize. We tried to imagine how they must taste or how they are meant to be used. We giggled over things like Grass Jelly Juice and Horny Goat Weed, puzzled over Dried White Fungus and White Fungus Soda, and felt the urge to touch all the fruits and spices, gathering a few curious stares along the way from other shoppers.

 

 

 


It was astounding how many spices and teas there were. An entire aisle of each had us exclaiming over every item. In the end I chose a package of Chinese Five Spice and my daughter bought a canned version of tapioca tea. We were really tempted to take home a tea set and bowls, but I think I’ll surprise her by giving them as Christmas gifts. (Shhh! Don’t tell!)
It was nice to find so many items that are standard in Asian recipes but hard to find in the store. We decided to come back next time with recipes in hand so that we can finally tackle our favorite restaurant dishes at home. As a matter of fact, we saw someone there doing exactly that. I saw her hand the recipe to the cashier and ask for an ingredient she couldn’t find. It was nice to see how eager the clerk was to help her, and it made me realize what a treasure we have here among us. We can explore and experience other cultures right here without ever leaving the state and that is a gift to be treasured – and shared. So, grab a friend and your favorite Asian recipe and head across town to the Oriental Market. You’ll find a delicious adventure there.

Want to see more finds from our trip to the Oriental Market? Check out the gallery below.

Oriental Market

An entire aisle of tea

An entire aisle of tea

The housewares aisle was full of woks, steamers, and many other fabulous tools.

The housewares aisle was full of woks, steamers, and many other fabulous tools.

We always wondered what Udon was!

We always wondered what Udon was!

Chinese Five Spices Blend

Chinese Five Spices Blend

Tapioca tea is delicious

Tapioca tea is delicious

Hmmmm.... Nope. No idea.

Hmmmm….
Nope. No idea.

A shelf of medicinal teas

A shelf of medicinal teas

Hahahahahahaha...Ahahhahahahahaha

Hahahahahahaha… Hahahahaha

 

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No idea, but it's cute

No idea, but it’s cute

Canned espresso! Yes, please :)

Canned espresso! Yes, please 🙂

Dried shrimp...because why?

Dried shrimp…because why?

Frozen dumplings

Frozen dumplings

Assorted mochi I think they are cakes with filling inside

Assorted mochi
I think they are cakes with filling inside

Squid snacks

Squid snacks

Fresh seaweed

Fresh seaweed

A family favorite

A family favorite

Mmmm...Noodles

Mmmm…Noodles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field Trip: Fresh Market

Chef Mcafee gave us a fun assignment this week: a self-guided field trip to Fresh Market. I decided to let the kids tag along for this one and watching their enthusiasm over every random thing made my heart smile. It also made me feel a little less ridiculous for yelling out things like, “Oh my gosh! Look at the tiny little endive! It’s hiding here in it’s own treasure box!” If that sentence makes no sense to you (and why should it?), consider it a challenge. A scavenger hunt, if you will.

We were greeted at the door by stacks of fire wood, huge pots of mums, gourds in every shape and size, and loaves of fresh baked pumpkin bread; Everything we city dwellers need to turn our homes into shrines of autumnal delight.

We saw produce that ranged from beautiful to the absurd including the most enormous artichokes I’ve ever seen and very trendy white asparagus.

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I was intrigued by a large display of freeze dried fruit snacks and decided to try the cantaloupe. One word of advice: Don’t! However, the collection of dried mushrooms, tomatoes, and peppers was impressive and made me want to hurry home and whip up an autumnal soup. (P.S. – my daughter now wants corn husks for Christmas. I may be making her weird.)

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Next on the list of “most bizarre foods” was a display of “gourmet” sauces that looked a lot like juice boxes to me. I’m not exactly sure how these work, but I’m fairly certain no gourmet chef is using them. Still, at $3.99, that’s a steal, right? {insert sarcasm font here}

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I nearly cried when I saw their meat case. Rack of lamb?! Are you kidding me?! Seriously, they had leg of lamb for $6.99/lb. how is this possible? I ran all over town searching for it two years ago and finally found a frozen hunk imported from New Zealand that cost me $24/lb.! Ugh! Sorry, I got caught up. Where was I?

Oh, yeah…check out their extensive meat counter. It has many hard to find and delicious meats. Then, cruise over to the deli and check out the pâtĂ©. Honestly, where else are you going to find pâtĂ© in Little Rock to impress your friends? My son was not impressed, but he’s twelve. My kids were more interested in the gourmet pizzas. And, to be honest, they looked delicious. I haven’t seen a Greek pizza since we left Maine.

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Actually, we found a lot of favorites from our time in the northeast around the store, like Moxie soda, Pirate’s Booty, and Barbara’s cereals. My son even found an Italian in the deli that he fell in love with and just had to take home. For you southerners, that’s a sandwich – a delicious sandwich that can be found in every corner of the great state of Maine. (But Fresh Market’s was better. Shhh! Don’t tell!)

This brought us to the cheese section. The only time I’d ever visited Fresh Market before was in search of a particular cheese, and they never disappoint. There were cheeses from all over the world. While we were there we caught them cutting into a wheel of Reggianno. We stood debating how much it cost to buy an entire wheel until finally asking a sales associate. The answer? Over $2000. This does not surprise me when you consider it took 2 years to make that mountain of cheese and then the cost of importing it from Europe. I’m glad my children are learning an appreciation for such things in an age of budget-obsessed consumerism.

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My oldest daughter got lost in the tea section while I stood drooling over the loose spices. It took me back to a defining trip to Seattle when I first saw a spice and tea shop. If I had my way, I’d open one right here in town. Alas! That’ll never happen, so I’m glad to know I can run over to Fresh Market when I need a hard to find spice or a specialty salt like fleur de sel.

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As if that wasn’t enough…the pasta aisle. Oh my word, the pasta. There were pastas here I’ve never seen in a store! Torcetti, tagliolini, long fusili (fusilli con buco), even mushroom pasta! Goodness. How on earth I walked out of that store without a collection of pasta is beyond me. Believe me, next time I’m drooling over an authentic pasta recipe I’ll be making the trip across town to grab a few boxes of imported happiness.

I could go on and on. We wandered around for over an hour oohing and ahhing over every little thing. I’m sure we were quite a spectacle. But, in the end it was worth it. Not only did we learn a lot, but I found a place to purchase some of the hard to find specialty items I’ll need as a chef-in-training. I’m sure it won’t be long before I make another trip to Fresh Market…at least for the pasta!

Oh, and if you take me up on that endive scavenger hunt, here’s a clue:
It’s Belgian endive from the Netherlands. Go figure! If you find it, come back and post a photo for us.

First Day Jitters

A new meAcross the country children are starting school this week and along with all the new students, returning teachers, and happy mommas is a little celebrated group: the adult who is starting a new life with their first day of school. Whether it’s a technical school, a community college, or a big university, thousands of adults will find themselves on the path to a whole new life this fall as they go back to school.
I’m proud to say that I’m one of them.
This week I join a brave, small crew known as the new freshman class at Pulaski Technical College’s Culinary Institute. It was such a relief to find myself not only NOT the oldest student in the classroom, but in the solid middle range of students both in age and culinary experience. I was inspired hearing the stories around me as my fellow classmates introduced themselves. One woman told how she had graduated in 1979 with a food science degree and has worked in test kitchens across America for prestigious companies including Kraft and Southern Living. She’s starting a new chapter, hoping to become a professor someday. Another student was a man from Lebanon who is in the midst of becoming an American citizen. He has traveled the world but now hopes to settle here in Arkansas and share his love for Mediterranean food with those of us here in the south, bringing a new level of authenticity to a growing market. Frankly, I found my own story boring after hearing about the obstacles others have overcome and how they long for something big and beautiful that they can point to and say, “I created that!”
As some declared their desire to own a restaurant or a small hotel, or, as one girl stated, to become a Master of Wine (a very prestigious honor only bestowed on a few people in the entire world!) I had to admit humbly to the room, “I still have no idea what I want to do when I graduate, but I want to feed people.”
Our professor challenged us to think about our own story and how we can share that with the world. “In the end,” he said, “people just want to be a part of your story.” It’s funny how I feel like I’ve been searching for my story for a while now. I’m such a jumble of passions and pursuits. Am I a writer? A homeschool mom? A housewife? A cook? Truthfully, I am all of those things… and more. I’m a child of God. I’m a seeker, a curious deep thinker. I’m a servant, looking for my place. I’m a people-gatherer. I want to fill the table with good food, surround it with people who need to be reminded they’re loved, and fill them up so they can go out and spread that love and joy to others.
Do you know someone going back to school as an adult? Please, encourage them this week. Cheer them on! It’s a scary thing to start over again, seeking out a new purpose and a new direction. Let’s spread some love this week and let them know we are rooting for them. Your words might be just what they need to face that first day of school… and a whole new life.

A New Beginning

studyingNext week I’m embarking on a crazy new adventure.
Culinary School.

It happened like this:
I love to cook, right? Well, for a while I’ve been praying about how I could use this talent (Not sure this is the right word for my “abilities”, but whatever) to please God and serve his people. I spent a year cooking for the teens on Sunday nights.  Last winter I taught a community class on how to cook healthy foods within a very tight budget (that was such fun!) but neither of these opportunities lasted very long. I wanted to do something more. Bigger! Something that would last and really help someone.
Then, I had a new thought. A big scary thought.
What if I went to culinary school?
It seemed crazy. I mentioned it to my husband expecting him to hate it, but instead he was excited. So, I did a little research and a lot of praying. I even went ahead and filled out the application and got accepted. It all seemed so exciting. What could happen? What kind of work could I do? I fantasized daily about all kinds of work: as a personal chef in the Hamptons to celebrities, as a TV show host on Food Network, a chef running her own restaurant, and a whole slew of ideas about working in non-profits like Homeless Shelters and Children’s Homes. All of it sounded like fun and as I began to get excited I realized that I was on to something here. This could be big. This could be fun.
Then, I got a message from the director at Camp Caudle. He was looking for a full time Kitchen Manager for the summer to oversee all of their inventory, ordering, menu planning, and kitchen volunteers. Well, I love camp and this seemed exactly like the kind of work I wanted to be doing, so I said “YES!”I started working on the menu and pricing right away and all the while I was praying, “Lord, is this what you want me to be doing? Is this the work you have in mind for my cooking skills? What do you want me to do?” And everytime I would pray, I would hear this word in my head: Prepare. Eventually, “Prepare” became my prayer.  “Please, Lord, prepare me for this work.”
So, a few days later I get this message in my inbox asking me to please consider finishing up my application to culinary school. It seemed a perfect answer. How better to prepare for using my skill at cooking than to go to culinary school? So, I jumped on board and finished up all of the remaining paperwork, turned in my transcripts from college and waited for my advising appointment to be scheduled. A month later I still hadn’t heard from them and my online status showed they still hadn’t filed all of my paperwork. I called and called, but every time they assured me they would take care of it. Meanwhile, the summer was inching ever closer.
Then, camp started. I went in terrified I would fail and guess what – I did! I failed a lot. But I didn’t only fail. I also learned and grew and succeeded and cried tears of joy over more days than not. It was thrilling and overwhelming. It made me want more and at the same time it made me afraid I would never be any good at juggling all that a chef has to manage in a kitchen at once. It’s a lot, y’all. You just have no idea. This was the one thing that became very clear to me over the summer. WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT TAKES TO RUN A BIG KITCHEN! It’s crazy hard. And I think of how impatient and unkind we are toward kitchen staff in general from cafeteria workers to waitresses. It’s hard work and long hours of sweat for a lot of complaining people.
And it’s something else, too. It’s beautiful. I’ve always thought so, but even more so on a grand scale, this thing about turning raw unpolished things into something delicious and oh so satisfying. It makes me weep. And you know what is even better? Doing that for someone who is hungry. I mean REALLY hungry. Now that is good stuff! I love the way food brings people together and literally creates community right there in front of your eyes. It’s gorgeous and THAT’S the good work I want to be doing with my life. Every. Day!
So, in the midst of all of this I realize that I never ever heard back from the admissions office. My status was still listed as incomplete and the summer was nearly over. I decided maybe it was time to let it go. I was probably being silly to think I could do it anyway. Then, a friend came to visit at camp and it wasn’t long before she was asking me about culinary school.
“Are you excited to get started?” she asked.
“Well….” I told her the whole story. She pulled out her phone and began typing.
“There. It’s taken care of. You are going to school and it’s going to be awesome. You were clearly meant to be doing this, Heather, and you’re not going to let a little paperwork stand in your way.”
And she was right. The next morning I had an email from the school president apologizing for the “misunderstanding” and before the end of the day I had an advising appointment scheduled. A week later I was enrolled and it was all official. I’m going to culinary school.
It’s big and scary and absolutely exciting, too. I’m half convinced I’m going to completely humiliate myself (again) and half sure I’ll be the best chef on the block. It’s such a jumble in my head and in my heart that I am still reeling from it all. And when Monday comes I’ll be a nervous wreck, just like any first time college kid in a new school who has no clue how hard the next few years are going to be. But I’m ready and succeed or fail, I’m determined to give it my best…and to share it all with you. So, say a prayer for me, friends. I’m going to need it.