The road to becoming a chef – part one

My career has had some really interesting and hard moments contributing to some amazing opportunities and learning experiences. The path to being a chef is one that is chosen for a variety of reasons – some have a history of cooking in their family, some just like the idea of the job and for some it is a lifelong passion that takes them to the stove.

My journey to the professional kitchen started at home. I didn’t always want to be a chef. To be honest my first love was art and I saw myself as an art teacher – the practical part of me considered this to be a safe bet – explore my interest whilst having a steady income – or so my childhood brain reasoned.

I always loved being in the kitchen though. It wasn’t uncommon for one of our household duties to be to peel potatoes, top and tail beans or just generally assist in the kitchen. I didn’t know it at the time but I was lucky in that my mother loved to cook. She experimented, she explored and she included me in these adventures. My father was also instrumental in my food fascination – an Italian farmer turned builder, his green thumb saw our large backyard vegetable garden turning out fresh crops of seasonal produce year after year. Both these things I just accepted as what our family did – I didn’t realise that not everyone’s house has a vegetable patch the size of most courtyards or that their mums actually like to cook meals for six hungry mouths.

I was also one of those kids who grumbled that their mum made their biscuits for their lunch box – why couldn’t we have the ones off the shelf like all the other kids? The horror I know. A defining moment for me in how simple food cooking with love can be an invitation is a strong memory from primary school – it was multicultural day and we could dress in national dress from other countries and were to bring a plate of food to share. We had a Polish costume (my mums heritage) on hand for just that occasion but the food part wasn’t prepared yet. My mum offered me a plate of freshly cooked pikelets with a smear of strawberry jam on top. I was mortified. Pikelets? Really? But soon I was to be shamed more at myself for my behavior as my classmates eagerly devoured the plate of treats and told me how good they were. Needless to say I ate my words along with the pikelets that day. That memory serves as a gentle reminder to me often of the power of simplicity and has shaped the foods I enjoying cooking and the meals I relish.

Having access to fresh seasonal vegetables and even visiting the produce markets at Rocklea as a child also shaped my interest in food. Dad planted all sorts of vegetables – from the much maligned (by me) broccoli and cauliflower to the crisp and sweet greens beans and my favourite, the deep red tomatoes. It wasn’t uncommon for him to return home from the local fruit shop and delicatessen with a tray of fresh peaches and paper wrapped parcels of salami and prosciutto.

 

(picking oranges with Dad)

Having so many varieties of foods growing in my backyard taught me about the seasons, the work and care that goes into producing such crops and the joy of eating fresh foods. As we we used to fight over mum’s salads, from the crunchy slightly pickled cucumbers to the finely shredded bitter radicchio dressed in olive oil and vinegar. We used to love biting into the leaves of cooked artichokes, fingers dripping with dressing as we scraped the leaves with our teeth before indulging in the soft choke in the middle. All of these sides were simple home cooked fair but they revealed the simple pleasure of sharing food together. I used to love peeling roasted chestnuts with my Dad that had been buried in the coals of the barbecue whilst we ate, their scored skins gently cracking open and the nut becoming golden and inviting. These moments were about food as an invitation to come together and share – share our meal, share our stories, share our love.

As I grew older I started to contribute more and more to the family meal times. I found myself enjoying the process and starting high school introduced me to Home Economics. Here is where I started to really relish the joy of following a recipe and turning out food items others wanted to taste before they had come out of the oven or off the stove. I was lucky to have teachers who were just as passionate as me and guiding my love of food and nurturing my budding talent, allowing me to extend myself and try new things.

By senior year Hospitality as a subject was calling. Here was my chance to really see what possibilities could await in a career in food. Each lesson was a chance to push myself and try new things. Work experience at the Sheraton Noosa opened my eyes to a whole new world. Again I was lucky as my teacher knew I was contemplating a career as a chef, so she allowed me to spend the four days in the kitchen, versus swapping into another area after two days, as was protocol at the time. I felt so at home. I knew that this was where I belonged.

(work experience at Sheraton Noosa)

Soon after I started cooking more interesting foods at home, our Sunday lunches turned into my chance to cook two to three course meals to test my talents. Recipe books were poured over as I sought inspiration for meals. I remember one of my first dishes was pumpkin soup. I was so proud as I created the cream swirl and sprinkled chopped up parsley on top. Another successful recipe was chicken tortellini but I was soon regretting embarking on such a labour intensive recipe. It seemed I was eager to try it all.

Of course with any learning curve there were also the flops. The big ones. My family still snigger occasionally and bring up what they refer to as the crème caramel surprise. The surprise was how awful it tasted. Imagine seven eager faces looking to my creation (my siblings had partners over at the time) and this awful slurping sound coming from the dish as I upended it – this was followed by a pale sad caramel gushing out before the undercooked custard flopped unceremoniously to the plate. Needless to say we didn’t all rush in with our spoons for a taste of that one.

These moments though taught me to keep trying. To investigate what went wrong and how to fix it. It taught me that attention to detail when cooking can mean the difference between success and failure. I hadn’t cooked the caramel enough before adding the custard mix contributing to the watery undercooked mess that day. Years later I could turn out over 50 individual crème caramels that had a beautiful dark caramel and that much sought after wobble on the plate. That one setback wasn’t going to inhibit me from trying again.

I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t choose to be a chef. It seems to be in my blood. My hands itch when I haven’t cooked for a few days, especially on holidays. My childhood adventures created a pathway for my adult realization of a dream. Stay tuned for my next exploration of becoming an apprentice and cooking in competitions in front of a crowd.

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