Stop, Cook and Listen

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

"At the end he said, 'You did better than I thought you would.'"

This stint was followed by a stay in France, where Andy cooked for several restaurants, including one with three Michelin stars. Then he worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington -- under Buben, his old mentor and tormenter. When he tired of the city, he moved to a kitchen in Crested Butte. "Crested Butte was heavenly," he says. "The family feeling of the whole town. I went skiing every morning. I was in a continuous state of exhaustion and elation." Three years ago, he learned about a job opening at the Cooking School of the Rockies.

His work with Chef James Moore on the curriculum was "unbelievable," Andy says. They had two and a half months to get it done. "He spent hours and hours going through it, giving it to me for feedback and revision. It was very stressful -- and very exciting."

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

The two men argued, Chef Andy says, because of the amount of information James wanted to cram in. "He could see all of it at once, way beyond the scope of what you could physically do."

But the result was a solid curriculum. "James's efforts are going to live on as long as I'm around," Chef Andy says.

The trip to France is now only two weeks away. On separate days, three chefs come to audition for Chef James's job by cooking with the class. The shell-shocked students find one of them highly appealing; Joan Brett hires her almost immediately. She is Gallit Sammon, 29, and her credentials are extraordinary. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she apprenticed at the Greenbriar Resort, a five-star restaurant and hotel in West Virginia, eventually becoming sous chef and chef there. She then worked for two years as sous chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Chef Gallit has known almost all her life that she wanted to cook. "In sixth grade, I saw a movie on the Culinary Institute of America in home ec class and decided that was where I was going to school," she remembers. She will join the class on their return from France.

The students leave the country feeling unsettled -- but every one of them will return transformed.

They spend most of their month in Provence, studying at a cooking school, going to wine tastings and visiting artisanal producers (including a goat cheese farm), and each spends a week at a stage -- that is, working in either a bakery or a restaurant. In the past, under the stress of travel, some classes have become difficult or contentious. This one pulls together. "Certain people took on certain roles for me," Cody says later. "Don was kind of like my dad, Brent and Dave like my brothers, Karen my aunt. It felt like I had my whole family there."

The markets alone were a revelation -- the impeccably fresh produce; the variety of meats, including horse and skinned rabbits; the nuts and spices; the sense of how central the market is to daily life.

Don was working at his stage, cleaning lettuce, when a man walked in with a burlap sack, pulled out three rabbits and five pheasants and asked for the chef. This haul was transformed into the next day's specials. "I was in awe," says Don. "Here, I'm not sure a transaction like that would even be legal. We'll never be able to compete with the freshness of the product the French have the opportunity to cook with. Or the passion and seriousness with which people take their food -- and not just people who work in restaurants."

Elizabeth acquired a much deeper understanding of wine in France. She, too, has a restaurant anecdote. The kitchen staff was cleaning porcini mushrooms when the maître d' came in and started talking about how his grandfather had cooked porcinis. Everyone chimed in, describing their family recipes. The maître d' took a couple of the porcinis and returned half an hour later, having sautéed and prepared them, to offer pieces to the staff. "Everybody was so into it," says Elizabeth.

At first she found it difficult to persuade anyone to give her anything to do. "I started floating between stations," she remembers, "seeing where people needed help. One night the boys at the garde manger station were getting hammered. I said, 'I could help do that,' and this guy just said, 'Yeah.'

"The pastry person came up and said in French, 'Oh, she's working.' The garde manger guy said, 'Yeah, and she's working really well.' After that, they let me do stuff."

Karen worked in a pastry shop and communicated with her chef by tossing flour on the counter and drawing stick figures in it. She particularly remembers the group's visit to Paul Bocuse's three-star restaurant, where she was reluctant to try the pigeon because "I was on the New York subway one time and saw a man eating a pigeon he'd caught, plucking the feathers and just biting into it." To her surprise, the pigeon was delicious.

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