Stop, Cook and Listen

Six months and $20,000 later, student chefs prepare the meal of a lifetime.

"I'm not attached to it," says Elizabeth. "To me, it has to have a perfectly pointy tip to look nice."

Eventually, the cones will stay but their chocolate coating will go, along with the fantastical sugar shapes.

Although bread and cold cuts were set out earlier, the students have been working too hard to stop. Now they fall on the presentation plates, picking at the chops, wolfing down milk rolls. Even as they eat, though, there's an undercurrent of concern. What they've achieved seems far from the elegant meal they want to present at Friday's gala. "It's always interesting the first day, just getting a feel for what you're going to do," says Chef Andy, his voice carefully poised between anxiety and reassurance. "Every one of you should go home and write a sheet on where you're going to go tomorrow."

Chef Andy (center) and Chef Dan listen in as Chef Gallit gives Karen some pointers.
John Johnston
Chef Andy (center) and Chef Dan listen in as Chef Gallit gives Karen some pointers.
Leaf us alone: Meg garnishes a platter while Don looks on.
John Johnston
Leaf us alone: Meg garnishes a platter while Don looks on.

Chef Gallit adds that communication is essential. "There's a person working beside you, and you don't know what that person is doing?" she asks. "Come on. You're creating a dish together."

The students nod. Tomorrow they'll try again. And again the next day.

Months of listening to the chefs, struggling with equipment, chopping and peeling, roasting, steaming, baking and sautéeing, stirring, straining, smelling food, arguing about taste and texture, forgetting what the chefs have said, re-remembering, planning menus and talking to the purchaser are behind the creation of these dishes. There's been an exhilarating stay in France attending wine tastings, market days and classes, and working in bakery or restaurant kitchens. There have been burns and cuts, strained backs and twisted wrists. For some of the students, there's been loneliness and homesickness. Hugely disparate in age and background, having met each other for the first time only five months ago in this same kitchen, the students will now come together as a team and attempt to deliver the meal of a lifetime.

This past July, ten new students assembled for their first Cooking School of the Rockies class, wearing spotless chef's jackets with their names embroidered over the hearts, checked pants and either clogs or sturdy, non-slip shoes. All of them had paid $19,500 for the six-month course of instruction that would prepare and qualify them for jobs in the food industry. Each had invested an additional $600 in a black bag containing several knives -- critical tools for their craft.

The professional kitchen is an efficient place. Along one wall stands a row of freezers and refrigerators; along the opposite wall, several stoves. Near the door is the counter where most of the work on bread and pastries gets done. There are peels, sheet pans and stones for bread and pizza by the stove. Pots and pans gleam on shelves; skimmers, ladles, whisks and spatulas dangle from hooks. The convection oven hums, the ice maker clanks; sporadically, the entire kitchen begins muttering and burbling.

Chef James Moore, who created the program curriculum with Chef Andy Floyd, presides over this session. Chef Andy is in Thailand on his honeymoon (he has sent the students a letter that begins, "Sorry I won't be there to help you with your cuts and burns"), so Chef Jason McHugh is helping out this week. Tall and muscular, with a wild mop of curly hair, he putters in the background, preparing the students' lunch, while Chef James gives them a little of his own background. He describes his Slovak grandmother, who grew vegetables and whom he remembers constantly cooking and humming at the stove, as well as his other grandmother, whose sole culinary practice was the simmering of huge cans of food in saucepans every Thanksgiving. He talks about his cooking experiences and his education at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Chef James's specific interest is sensory awareness; he promises to teach the students how to taste.

There will be other teachers, too. The students will study bread baking with B. Young of Breadworks and pastry with Dan Widmann, consulting chef for the Denver Convention Center.

"Chef Dan has tremendous production skills," says Chef James. "We asked him, 'How are you with croissants?' and he said, 'Do you want six or six thousand?'"

Now it's the students' turn to introduce themselves. The first is Meg Albers, a woman with a warm smile and a soothing manner. She says she has three adult children and that her last profession was teaching preschoolers with special needs. She has attended the Naropa Institute for two years and has also studied massage therapy. She's interested in writing and self-discovery and feels cooking school "will be another opportunity to discover my skills."

Dave Scarbrough is 26, with tousled dark hair, a diffident manner and a pronounced Georgia accent. He studied biology in college with the idea of being a doctor, but knew by the time he graduated that he "wasn't going to make it." He's been interested in food since he was ten or eleven and is encouraged by the fact that "it's not as black-tie as it used to be." He doesn't know what his long-term goals are.

At eighteen, Cody Schultz is the youngest. He grew up in Michigan, has worked in a microbrewery and says he was always interested in cooking. Karen Quinn, in her thirties, has worked in restaurants as a manager and "wants to get into the catering side, where I can do both front and back."

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