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“So, do you study at Le Cordon Bleu?” I asked the man sitting next to me.
It was an idiotic question. He was wearing checked twill pants, a crisp white chef’s coat and sturdy shoes. Around his neck was the culinary school’s jaunty blue ribbon lanyard, and he clutched a spiffy new food hygiene textbook to his chest. He looked me as if I were daft. Of course he studied at Le Cordon Bleu!
“Do you like it?” I asked.
He grinned at me then, a huge smile that lit up his face and shattered the ice between us, two strangers on a train.
We talked for a while as our train rattled and lurched toward downtown. He showed me his food safety homework and said that although he had just started classes on Monday, he had already learned enough nasty secrets about how our produce is harvested and sold that he had, at least temporarily, lost his appetite. (I knew what he meant; I had once seen a documentary about the despicable treatment of migrant strawberry pickers, and was shocked to see that they were picking the fruit off the plants and packing it, unwashed and no doubt crawling with bugs, dirt and pesticides, directly into the clear plastic boxes we buy it in at the grocery store. Moral of the story? Wash every bite of produce you eat. Twice!)
He told me that he was really looking forward to getting through these fundamental classes, then on to his internship and his first cooking job. He had very specific dreams of being a chef, hoping one day to move to Florida and “cook for Disney.” He reasoned that since visitors to Disney World came from all over the world, the food had to be extra good. I could see the logic in that.
He told me how his first real knife exercise at culinary school had been an assignment to cut potatoes into cubes. “How many potatoes?” I asked.
“Six,” he sighed. He still sounded a bit nervous.
“How did you do?”
“Fine, I guess.” He showed me his fingers, none of which were bandaged or bloody. “Fifteen people in my class cut themselves,” he said proudly. “Not me, though.”
“Wow! Fifteen? How many people are in your class altogether?”
I had to laugh.
I told him that my culinary adventure club had just enjoyed dinner at Technique, the open-to-the-public restaurant/practical classroom where advanced Le Cordon Bleu students show off what they’ve learned before going out into the real world to sink or swim in the shark-infested waters of the restaurant business. I said that we’d been quite impressed with the students’ efforts – our food had been really, really good. He had lots of questions about Technique; apparently he hadn’t learned about that particular exercise yet. He made me promise to come back later in the year, when his class would be taking their turn running the dining room and cooking for the public.
The train had pulled into the station now, and we stood to make our goodbyes. I told him that someday we might all taste his food at Disney World, and this made him smile big again. As he turned away and melted into the crowd of commuters, I felt a sharp pang of worry for him, and more than a little envy. He was not a young man, but still here he was, rolling the dice on a new beginning in culinary school. He had found the strength and determination to follow his dreams, poising himself precariously on the edge of a real adventure. From here, he could either soar to the top and became a celebrity chef like fellow Le Cordon Bleu alums Stephanie Izard and Mario Batali, or he might sink to the bottom and be washed out of the program without ever setting foot in a professional kitchen. He might graduate with honors just to toil away for the next thirty years in a dark and dreary Denny’s somewhere in North Dakota. But he might, just might, find his happy home someday in the sunshine at Disney World, plating brick-oven pizzas and turkey paninis for Japanese tourists.
I wished him well.