Or more specifically, “Oui, chef.”
This is how our group of thirty uniformed-clad students is to acknowledge orders and questions — both inside and outside of the kitchen.
We are to arrive precisely ten minutes early to each class, so that roll call can begin. Each student receives standard-issue whites, a knife set, and a key-card with their name on it. Any deviation from rules, including tardiness or a soiled uniform, is punished with a mark of absence. We sit in exceptionally clean, brightly lit rooms on blue plastic chairs — the type that have writing surfaces attached by means of a thin metal bar, protruding from below the seat. For three hours at a time, stern-faced instructors lecture in French while demonstrating the preparation of classic French dishes from behind long stainless-steel and granite counters, pausing to allow a translator to explain their instruction in English, and allowing, briefly, for each of us to catch up in our furious scribbling.
After each lecture, another three hours with a different instructor. This time in a large, long kitchen-classroom, equally spotless; sixteen identical workspaces, each with a range, oven, and prep-station. We must prepare the dish we have just learned perfectly, using only handwritten notes and a list of ingredients. From the second we walk into the room, the chef bellows in a heavily accented mélange of English and French, urging us forward as if he is mush-mush-mushing a pack of huskies across the arctic circle. Only we aren’t huskies, we are three-legged, half-blind chihuahuas. We have no sense of direction, no animal instincts, no coordination, bearing, or poise. We are constantly behind; we run into each other, trip over our shoelaces, we cut and burn ourselves and our food. We race around the kitchen in half-panicked dazes.
The ritual repeats daily, as if we are rehearsing for a broadway show — probably a dark comedy. We bumble through our assigned tasks and the chefs act surprised and disappointed despite our obvious incompetence. They remind us, during our work and after we finish, that our workstations are not clean enough, our cuts not precise enough (we are to use rulers to measure them, and a single leek or tomato not perfectly square is grounds for reprimand). They contradict each-others’ instructions constantly, and even seem to disagree on such fundamentals as how to hold a knife. Yet, no matter how absurd the command, no objection will be sustained, only “yes chef.” Chef is the law, and the law must be obeyed unquestioningly.
At the end of each practical, we are timed and graded; marked on presentation, taste, seasoning, and organization. If the dish is incomplete, the student is failed. Everything must be perfect… yet, we are told that nobody is given a perfect mark — the message is clear: strive for perfection, have discipline, work very hard. If you fail, accept it and move on. If you succeed, don’t expect applause.
All of it — the rituals, the yelling, the gaslighting, the rushing, the obviously too-high standards — seem designed to instil the kind of resilience and blind discipline required for survival in the types of esteemed kitchens the school hopes to send students onwards to. Thankfully, the chef-instructors are not really psychopathic, although they sometimes play the part. Outside of the classroom they are jovial and kind, will wave at you with a quick “bonjour” as they rush by, then disappear into another practical room. Of course, this only adds to the notion that the whole thing is staged.
The speed and intensity of the coursework has been difficult to adjust to, but deep down, I love the challenge of the exacting standards and rigor. It is hard, but it is good hard; lungs-screaming-during-the-last-kilometer-of-a-marathon hard; so-focused-you-barely-notice-the-clock hard. I can feel myself slowly stretching. We students, all presumably having arrived here with some vestigial notion of competency, have learned — to put it bluntly — that we suck. We who gleefully roasted pork shoulders, baked sourdough, pressed tortillas or pickled vegetables for appreciative friends and family now know beyond any doubt that we have no real skills as professional cooks. I might be able to hack a flavourful meal out of whatever is in the fridge, but can I gut, scale, and filet a sole in two minutes flat? Nope. Dice ten kilos of onions without looking at my hands? Nope. Whip up a sabayon whilst trussing a chicken, blind-baking a quiche, preparing a tempura batter, and reducing a beurre-blanc? Not in my wildest dreams. The classes, which sometimes feel like slapstick re-imaginings of Top Chef episodes, have driven one thing home: we are all amateurs.
Beyond the Frustration Barrier
It is frustrating, oh-so-frustrating, to suck this much every day; to look forward to months, even to years of sucking. The school and its staff fail their students daily in this regard. The packed schedule and language barrier often make getting specific, nuanced feedback impossible, and the learning objectives are murky. Yet, despite these headwinds, each day's failure brings another lesson, and while before there was only a hazy notion of “better,” now it is an increasingly known quantity, a pinprick of light on a distant, dark horizon. We wander towards it, feeling our way forward as the landscape around us begins to emerge. It is like walking the Camino de Santiago or the Kumano Kodo. It is so far away, but every day we inch closer. The question I am asking myself now: how can I inch just one more inch? What can I do to get closer to the light?
Practice, certainly. Cooks talk about reaching a state where cooking is “in your bones” — and it is generally held that arriving at such a place requires many years of experience and long hours of devotion to the craft; a physical, autonomic set of reflexes more akin to those developed by professional athletes or performers than to the sharpened intellects of successful knowledge workers. As I continue to grapple with my own impatience to just “get on with it”, I am reminded of a TED talk by author Josh Kaufman, in which he discusses the “frustration barrier” at the top and bottom of the “S” shaped growth curve (one model used to chart proficiency against experience in skill development).
According to Kaufman, these levels — correlating to both beginner and expert — are the hardest to surpass, as the frustration involved in bungling your way through a new skill is actually a deterrent to putting in the practice needed to feel a little less silly every time you, say, pick up a chef’s knife.
His premise is that twenty hours of practice (not ten thousand, as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-quoted-out-of-context book Outliers) is enough to get past a frustration barrier, which is probably true if you define a skill at its most practical atomic level (say, making an omelette or pedalling a bike), but less so for activities that require the coordination of many overlapping skills, like cooking or velodrome racing.
Yet if this is true, it explains why the amateur-to-professional chasm is so hard to cross: not only do you have to push past the frustration barriers found at the advanced levels of whatever skills you might already possess, but you must also develop entirely new skills; the net effect being a loss of any sense of competence you may have gained as an amateur. This experience is far more frustrating than never having been competent in the first place. It also speaks volumes to the cyclical nature of pursuing excellence… the moment you reach what you thought was a peak, another emerges behind it, each one more difficult and inconvenient to ascend. I’m thinking of Jiro Ono in Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
For a truly wonderful meditation on this subject set against an entirely different backdrop, I can’t recommend enough Patrick Imbert’s Summit of the Gods, a French animated film based on Jiro Taniguchi’s Japanese Manga series, depicting a young Japanese reporter’s ascent of Mt. Everest as he tries to solve one of the greatest mountaineering mysteries of all time. As much as I enjoyed nerding out on the actual climbing in the film (it is beautifully reproduced, even down to the choreography of the individual moves) — it is the story that is compelling, and its inquiry into the meaning of climbing and mountaineering.
In the final scene of the movie, the narrator Fukomachi answers the film’s central question, posed off-camera:
“Why climb? I know why. There doesn’t have to be a reason. For some, mountains aren’t a goal, but a path. And the summit, a step. Once there, all that’s left is to keep going.”
In the tradition of all schools with pedigrees to uphold, Le Cordon Bleu is a little full of itself. In the lobby (open to the public) they sell branded smocks and bags and run afternoon cooking classes for wealthy British urbanites on vacation. The hallways, locker rooms, and waiting rooms are decorated with photographs of famous chefs associated with Le Cordon Bleu like Julia Child, alongside inscriptions describing, in French, La Gastronomie Francais. The message, implicit here and in every classroom and lecture, is that we are not just cooking, but participating in a tradition of service, art, and culture that has existed since the middle-ages. To ignore that importance, to treat any aspect of the work, the ingredients, or the school with disregard — even a transgression as simple as a wrinkled shirt or a missing neckerchief — is not simply a careless act, it is a middle finger to the entire institution of cooking, and a dismissal of anyone who has ever devoted their lives to the craft. While it may seem a little excessive, to me this gravitas and deeply held respect — a collective kneeling at the alter of the culinary arts and all they represent — is wonderful both because it is so distinctly European and because, in a world where we lionize a few famous chefs but generally dismiss or pity cooks, it elevates food-service from an abysmally-paid, quotidian vocation at the bottom of the social and cultural value-chain to a position right at the top — as important as art or social service; something not merely essential and desirable, but a critical element of the restaurant, a third space to be preserved, invested in, and protected. In my world, we always ate well at home but even casual restaurants were regarded as once-in-a-while indulgences. This reverence for the restaurant and all who contribute to them is inspiring.
Government Holidays & Alain the Harley Guy
Outside of school, life is occupied by other forms of labor. Uniforms must be washed and pressed, home study completed, and a never-ending litany of visa and social-security related paperwork must be downloaded, translated, notarized, signed, filed, organized, and mailed — by internet, post, and carrier pigeon — to a quintillion government and pseudo-government agencies. The French love paperwork. They are mired in process and bureaucracy. Their systems are obscure, vague, often unreasonable. Rules must not only be observed perfectly, but rigorously researched and interpreted (the French reject anything and everything non-French, including, obviously, English). When you have finally decoded the impossibly complex combination of correct forms to file and government agencies to address them to, you will encounter months, or even years-long delays due to the never-ending, round-robin holiday schedule of French bureaucrats (3 months in the summer, intermittently throughout the rest of the year).
Beyond official matters, the ordinary work of existing here is often punishing and onerous. Navigating the healthcare system is so difficult that many simply opt out, and renting an apartment can be costly and time consuming as achieving a doctorate in most countries.
On the subject of apartments, I am on my fourth. For my first month, I spent brief periods between exertion, sleeping and waking in a small 1-bedroom flat amidst boxes, peeling wallpaper, old junk furniture and piles of rubble. There was a bed and a dining table. The toilet usually worked, and there was an old sink in the demolished room where the kitchen had been. Unable to find a long-term bed before I arrived, I had negotiated a sublet from an Argentinian couple that owned the apartment and would be on holiday. They had planned a renovation, and plans changed at the last minute, leaving a large overlap with my stay. Luckily, the wifi was functional, so after returning from class each night I would sit at a table next to the router — the only place with a signal — and work. The contractor was a paunchy Frenchman named Alain who wore an old Harley tee-shirt nearly every time I saw him, and always spoke to me in rapid-fire, thickly-accented French despite my obvious incomprehension. He worked while I did, often late into the evening, muttering and swearing to himself quietly. Occasionally these monologues would crescendo into paroxysms of elaborate French curse-words accompanied by loud clangs, bangs, or thuds. We suffered through my first humid nights in Paris together.
As renovations finally rendered my urban campsite uninhabitable, I moved into a basement en-suite with a narrow window on the south side of town for a week, then to a furnished studio back on the north side — another short-term sub-lease — where I briefly luxuriated in the presence of a washing machine and a working shower. Earlier this month I moved yet again, this time across the Canal Saint-Martin to a third small studio with a dysfunctional fridge and plumbing issues, a privilege for which I pay the maximum legally-allowable rent. I will be here until I find a new home.
I fall asleep around midnight each night and often awake in darkness. I ride my bike, forty minutes to school through deserted streets, then home again afterward, stopping for groceries, coffee, or a quick meal before returning to my apartment to begin work for the evening. When I can find the time, I catch up on sleep.
Without a doubt, the Sisyphean effort required to abide here has taken a toll. I remain ring-side, ready for the next round, thanks largely to the support of a good therapist, friends, and family from afar. To be on the receiving end of so many votes of confidence and love is a profound reminder: no demonstration of care to another is ever too small to be worthwhile, and one never knows how a kind word or gesture might brighten someone’s darkness.
So it goes. Mostly, I am tired, sometimes overwhelmed, usually distracted, and doing my best to take it all in as I zigzag back and forth across the city. In rare moments of quietude, I am present and speechless. The charm of Paris abounds. To sit on a curb beneath a 400-year-old church, watching electric scooters hum back-and-forth under streetlights and listening to French and Arabic revelry spill from bistros onto cobblestone streets, is to feel, palpably, what it is like to live in two eras at once. To recline at an ornate, circular, street-side brasserie table with a shot of cheap espresso in the morning or glass of iridescent wine in the evening; to bite into a still-warm baguette outside of a crowded boulangerie — these are diurnal acts of goodness overflowing, even bursting, with centuries of culture. The scents of tobacco and grape must and the faint tang of the sweat and perfumes of two million people hanging in heavy air are constant reminders of the passionate energy of this place. I love the primeval, turbulent, beautiful chaos of it all.
In moments like these, a truth, intermittently lost and then found again, comes flooding back to me. Why I am here: to learn, to metamorphose, to search for something missing. It is hard, but I knew it might be. In such a world, to endure so that we might strive again tomorrow, is precisely the point.