Orientation and the first few weeks of school were pretty surreal. I'd be in the middle of doing something and then I'd suddenly realize I was in culinary school and start snickering to myself. It felt so random. I had one of these moments during "Intro to Stocks" day (we learned how to properly make white, brown, fumet and vegetable stocks - which are integral to french cuisine); I was washing a massive rondeau of fish bones and couldn't help but wonder how I got there and what someone would think if they saw me misplaced in this industrial kitchen, up to my chin in fish carcasses.
My teacher in Level 1 (or "chef", as we were to call them. This was one of the main rules they ingrained during Orientation. You were to answer your chef, "Yes, chef" or "No, chef". It felt a little militant for my liking but you get used to it pretty quickly). Anyway, our first chef was very old-school, passionate and European. He had a thick accent, a bushy moustache and loved all things French. He'd make us call out after him "Old-school = Good school" as nod to his generational values. He was right out of a movie. He would recount his youth, reminiscing on classic meals his mother would make, he'd talk fondly about his Apprenticeship years, he'd scold everything American and had this quintessential, boisterous chuckle. While he could be gregarious when he was in a good mood, other times his temper would change quickly and he'd be very... loud. Our Sous-Chef was totally the opposite; reserved, flagpole-level tall, skinny and exacting. They made quite a duo and in hindsight, I'm happy with our introduction to chef instructors.
My class was made up of a relatively diverse assortment of people, which was an extremely pleasant surprise. For some reason, I figured I would be one of the younger students among a group of adults who had decided to change career paths or devote cooks who had extended kitchen experience. I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, there were only a few older classmates (no one over 35) and the rest were from 19-27 years old. Most of them didn't have much kitchen experience either.
One of my first friendships was formed with a girl my age from New Zealand. We bonded over the fact that neither of us had much kitchen experience - we both just loved to cook and wanted to get better at it (I'm not counting a few years in high school I spent as a fish monger/server/take out cook because well, why would I). We became fast friends. We gravitated towards each other from the start when she sat beside me at orientation - but the funny part (that we discovered later when we were chatting and looking back on our first week) is that we both decided to intentionally veer away from one another, branch out and try bonding with everyone else in the class. Eventually we circled back to each other. We would laugh at the random kitchen duties we had to complete each day, contemplate the usefulness of the stiff, suffocating neck ties that were required to be worn around our necks and roll our eyes whenever Chef went a little too far in criticizing someone. I also ended up befriending the only other Canadian, a girl my age from Toronto. We met in the elevator and immediately bonded over our european extended-family and how different this school was from the more conventional, university we had grown accustomed to. In just a few short days Manhattan felt infinitely smaller and friendlier.
I thought it was interesting that so many young people in my class were so sure that they wanted to be in this intensive industry. I found it inspiring and it actually forced me to gain some confidence and own the decision I'd made. For a while I was unsure how I would make out and was felt like I didn't do enough to deserve this learning opportunity - like I hadn't paid my dues enough or something. Seeing everyone's passion despite the fact that they had a similar (and low) level of experience made me feel more at peace with where I was at.
What was unique about my class was that it was Culinary Arts + Farm To Table. The farm-to-table aspect was an additional focus that was incorporated throughout the course (on several field trips) and at the end of the levels, we'd have a week long session at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in upstate New York. Since everyone intentionally selected this program, it was really unifying and even propelled my class compared to some of the other rotations at school. It was interesting to see a group of people with like-minded opinions about sustainability and seasonality and this contributed to a huge passion which we were told seemed to radiate from our class. Whether or not everyone got along (sometimes we did and a lot of the times people did not) it was undeniable that our class was fiery and the peers I went from not knowing at all to spending every day for half a year with were going places. I was excited to be part of this movement, albeit small, that had set out to do something new and enriching.