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I expect this may sound redundant, especially coming from me, a teacher of young (and old) cooks at Sullivan University in Lexington, but here I go again: Life teaches us many lessons, and we would be wise to heed them. I am talking about life in a kitchen primarily, but that has always been for me a partial reflection of my private life as well.
Of the many people I have met and worked with in kitchens stretching from New York to Kentucky, there are but a handful who have been able to compartmentalize their work and home lives so completely that I had no idea that their life outside work was crumbling around them. I have been a constant proponent of leaving your troubles at the door. Cooking for me has been an incredibly therapeutic art which has more than once saved me from the outer troubles that seem to dog young and old cooks alike.
To be able to concentrate fully on the moment is the very essence of cooking professionally and at the same time a delightful respite from life. The image of the tortured savant chef was never my image; I always reached for the most positive aspects of my craft because they represented release for me.
The release is found in creation, the blending of ingredients, the rush of prep time. Will I get everything I need in on time, will I get it ready for service, and most important of all, will anyone like it? That may seem like a lot of stress, and that all occurs before the doors open, but for me it is liberating.
Once service starts it is the team that takes over, and I’ve worked with some great ones. Contrary to the pressure of service, I try to teach the opportunity. Yes, it is hot and loud and at times incredibly abusive to body and soul alike, but there is no doubt that at that time you are in the midst of work as it should be: fluid, creative, bonding and rewarding all in the space of the kitchen, free from any other cares.
At the end, when the stoves are cooling and the floors are wet from a clean mop, then is the hardest time for blocking out the world. Adrenaline is done, teamwork is put away, and you have to go home. For some, home is a search for the next adrenaline rush; the dark side of the cook. We all go through that, and when we come out the other side we thank our lucky stars for the stability of home. If we don’t come out, eventually this craft can chew you up.
That is the life lesson we continuously try to teach, whether in the classroom or the kitchen; leave your troubles at the door but pick them up on the way home and deal with them. Unfortunately, our collective inability to do that as a group has given culinarians the reputation they sometimes richly deserve, but that image can change and will in time.
My advice for student and professional alike is just this thought: The good ones live to cook, regardless of the pressure, and when we cook with joy, free of pain, then the food sings. Without that desire culinary becomes a job, and the food becomes pedestrian and unremarkable.
Cooking as the next therapeutic trend? It’s been just that for thousands of cooks in generations of kitchens home and professional alike. Feeling down? Make yourself a bowl of pasta, snuggle up and finish the whole thing with a glass of wine. Brush your teeth and fall off to bed, don’t bother with the dishes or the problems tonight, you can handle both tomorrow.
Pick a pasta shape that makes you happy, and then decide what you want to dress it with. I like to take some leftover roasted chicken and shred it. Take a clove of garlic peeled and smashed in some rich chicken stock (also from the roast chicken bones) and simmer it with some thyme, parsley and oregano.
Strain out the herbs but keep the smashed garlic. Chop a nice garden tomato into big chunks, add some shredded spinach or chard and a little razor-thin fennel, and quickly run them through the hot stock to wilt the spinach/chard and soften the fennel and tomato. Place the ingredients, add the shredded chicken in a deep bowl with some chopped fresh basil and cooked pasta, and pour enough of the hot stock over the mix to cover three-quarters of it. Shave some good parmesan over the top, season with salt and pepper and enjoy.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.
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