It was the challenge she'd been waiting for. But could she do it?
Posted in , Sep 19, 2013
Screech! The knife cut through the onion and scraped against the stainless-steel countertop. The metallic clang sent a chill up my spine.
“Don’t forget your cutting boards!” I called from the front of the kitchen. I looked around the room at my new students. A dozen in total. All men. All recovering from addiction. It was our first cooking lesson, and I’d chosen an easy dish—chips and salsa. No sweat, right?
Across the room, Anthony volunteered to blend the ingredients. I watched as he carefully poured the tomatoes, onions and jalapeño peppers into the blender.
Before I could stop him, he pressed the blend button. Little vegetable pieces went flying all around the room. A piece of wet tomato landed splat on my cheek. He’d neglected to put the lid on the blender.
Have I made a mistake? I had recently left my job as the head chef at Camp Alta, a local camp and retreat center. After 20 years, I’d felt the urge to nourish others with something more than just food.
One day, a 12- step addiction-recovery program approached me about a new position. They had purchased a struggling restaurant in the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the Rustic Table, and they wanted me to train men from their program to run the kitchen, giving them a skill they could take pride in.
I asked the Lord for guidance. Could I leave my safe, comfortable job for a project like this? I talked it over with Del, my husband. “Maybe this is the challenge you’ve been waiting for, Sue,” he said. I accepted the position.
Now that I was in the kitchen, I saw just how unprepared the men were when it came to cooking. They could barely chop vegetables or use a blender without my supervision. Basic kitchen skills? Most of these men didn’t have basic life skills. They could hardly feed themselves.
We shared our snack at a large table inside the lodge. The men scooped up bits of chunky salsa with their chips. “Not bad,” said James as he took his first bite.
“Beats my usual meal, a bowl of canned ravioli or a candy bar,” said Mike. The other men agreed. It was clear they hadn’t eaten homemade food in too long, let alone prepared it themselves.
“I’m excited to become a gourmet cook,” James joked. “That’ll be easy with you around, Sue.” My face turned red. I mustered up an uneasy chuckle. Could I live up to those expectations?
Anthony said cheerfully, “One day at a time.” He was speaking to James, but he looked at me as well. He must have detected my nervousness. “That’s something we say here.”
“Back to basics,” added Mike. “That’s another big one.”
Of course! Something clicked. These sayings, which were so helpful to the men in their commitment to sobriety, were simple reminders that you can’t do everything all at once. That’s how cooking is too. After all, I hadn’t become a chef overnight.
“It’s the same thing with cooking, you know,” I told the group. “You follow a new recipe one step at a time. But first, you have to learn the basics.”
Over the next few months, I helped the men focus on the process of cooking.
So much goes into running a kitchen! From measuring out the right ingredients to improvising with herbs and spices. From cooking an omelet to keeping your eye on four omelets simultaneously. Knowing how hot to keep each burner, how to melt sticks of butter evenly. I gave the men tidbits of advice:
“When dicing, cut food to a uniform thickness.
“When sautéing, don’t overcrowd; leave a half inch between each piece of meat or vegetable.”
The more I broke cooking down into steps, the better the men learned. Whisking and dicing, frying and sautéing, they seized on the opportunity to learn the skills that would help the restaurant kitchen run smoothly. They were really getting the hang of it. Dish by dish, they saw that they were capable of mastering the basics.
One day, just before the restaurant reopened, the men approached me with a new idea. What about adding a breakfast menu? The Rustic Table didn’t have one yet. They already had an idea for the first item.
“Can we test the recipe on you today?” Anthony asked.
He didn’t have to ask twice. The class quickly got to work, making use of the skills they had learned together. They carefully measured ingredients, whisked eggs, diced potatoes—this time, with no metallic screech. They remembered the cutting boards.
When the food was ready, they covered my eyes and handed me a steamy plate.
I opened my eyes: they had put together eggs, sausage, roasted potatoes and melted pepper-jack cheese, all folded inside a warm tortilla. A breakfast burrito! They had even included a dollop of fresh salsa on the side, a tribute to our first recipe together.
The food was delicious. The men beamed with pride. They had really come a long way, and I knew they could go further—letting go of their addictions, focusing on the present and keeping a higher power in their lives.
As for me, I felt good. I’d been a chef for 20 years, but this job taught me something important. Cooking isn’t just about the food. It’s about the basics too—nourishing yourself and those you love, one day at a time.
Try Sue's students' breakfast burrito recipe for yourself!
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