Stop, Cook and Listen

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

"The sauce is really syrupy," muses Dave. "And the inside's like a weird pancake."

But Tanner's eyes are shining. "I've never tasted anything like this," he says. "It's wonderful."

Jay Bevenour
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.
John Johnston
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.

Chef James comes into the classroom accompanied by Joan Brett. For reasons of health, he says, he is leaving the program. He tells the students that his kitchen door is always open to them. The students are devastated. Several of them weep. A couple of days later, Chef James clarifies by letter: He is not leaving voluntarily. He has been fired.

Brett returns to the classroom and explains the situation as best she can without disclosing the reason for Chef James's termination.

Karen and Ethel discuss what has happened. They had been told when they entered the program that they would not be allowed to drop out partway through and then later rejoin, because that would violate the bonding that takes place between students. Yet now they have lost Chef James and face the prospect of adjusting to a replacement -- surely a much larger violation.

"I finally get it, due in large part to him," Karen says of the pleasure of cooking, "and he's not going to be there to say, 'Look, Karen got it.'"

"It's a journey we were taking together," Ethel adds.

Quiet, stolid-seeming Brent had fired to the passion he sensed in Chef James. "They were cooking a dish once, and he was telling how the individual spices came over the Pyrenees from the Moors," Brent says. "I miss his input, all the intangibles he added to the class. I didn't want to just learn how to bake a cake or cook a chicken breast. I wanted the story behind it as well."

"It's exciting to see someone that driven about something you love and to have him right alongside, telling you how to do things," says Dave. "I felt I learned so much from him, and now it seems...I don't want to say wasted, but unfinished, I guess."

Chef Andy has to step forward, take the helm and oversee the hiring of Chef James's replacement. As he does, his own background and proclivities become clearer. His father worked as an agronomist for the Green Revolution. "He wanted to feed the world," he remembers. "He was passionate about doing that."

Andy spent many of his formative years in Morocco. His interest in food emerged when a neighbor was teaching himself to cook with a French book called Cooking Is Child's Play. "I got really excited by that whole thing," Chef Andy says, "mainly because of the reaction my parents had to the food he put out."

His mother bought him the book, and he began going through the recipes. He made his first reduction sauce at the age of seven. "I used to take the heat very high," he recalls, "and then turn it down low, back and forth, watching the bubbles increase and almost come over the side, then letting it simmer down, and finally taking it to where the reduction started to thicken."

He remembers riding his bicycle to the market, the smell of cumin and curry, the man deep-frying beignets. He'd buy croissants and pain au chocolat at the bakery and race home to serve his parents breakfast in bed. Their maid was in love with the baker down the street, and Andy spent many happy hours watching this man prepare bread.

With his father, he visited local farmers, who invited them for dinner. "You'd get started with a large platter of couscous mounded over vegetables and chunks of lamb meat," Chef Andy says. "The poorest people would be the most surprising in their generosity."

He continues: "My parents belonged to this Anglo club called the Churchill Club in Casablanca. Expats from England and the U.S. would go there for dinner and dancing." With some help from his mother, seven-year-old Andy cooked quiche Lorraine, rabbit in mustard sauce and chocolate mousse for a hundred club guests. "I got all kinds of applause for that," he says.

At age fourteen, Andy was back in the States, living in Washington, D.C. Although he'd fantasized about this return, he found himself "a stranger in my own country." After some restless years, his family sent him to a private school in Carbondale, Colorado, where he became interested in art and the outdoors.

In college, Andy studied telecommunications, but a lot of his energy went into cooking for friends. He and Brian Paterson, now executive chef for the American Medical Association, used to prepare Sunday brunches. "We'd have eggs Benedict, watch Bugs Bunny and drink bloody Marys," Andy remembers. "We also used it as a way of attracting women." He laughs. "I couldn't be a rock star. I had to find a different avenue."

After a brief attempt at a career in advertising, Andy decided to attend L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. For his apprenticeship, he worked at the Occidental Grill in Washington, under Chef Jeff Buben. "It was an extremely hostile kitchen," he says. "A bunch of hardcore, trench-war-type people."

On his first night, he found himself working beside Buben. "I learned pretty quickly what that meant," he remembers. "He was screaming at me to get food out: 'What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing that? Where the hell did you go to school?'

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