My brother, father, and I assembling and eating dumplings and spring rolls.
When I first told my mother I wanted to go to culinary school, I saw her face fall. I tried to explain myself – I thought it was absolutely perfect, but I could tell she wouldn’t be convinced. And when I took out the Kitchenaid, I could hear her sigh from across the house. “Do not make a mess out of my kitchen,” she said through clenched teeth.
But I knew I had to try, however hopeless it may be. So I set to work proving myself the only way I knew how – practicing. Since I intended to be a baking and pastry major, I bought up all the chocolate, flour, and sugars I could find. From the beginning my eyes were bigger than, well, my ability. I attempted to make towering cakes, I experimented with fondant, and made frostings based on package labels that were made entirely using shortening and left a disgusting film on the top of your mouth. I tried to make candy for my grandmother for Christmas. I died white chocolate green and dusted it with sprinkles to make what I thought looked somewhat like Christmas trees.
This line of practice lead to my worst cooking experience ever, when I microwaved chocolate in a bowl that was not microwave safe, resulting not only in burnt chocolate, but the microwave catching on fire and the bowl exploding – sending chocolate, glass, and melted plastic to all corners of the kitchen. Luckily, I was able to clean up the mess before my mother made it back inside. The only evidence that lingered was the smell – it took days to air the kitchen out.
My niece, a friend, and I making pizza the day before I left for culinary school.
It wasn’t long after that I realized that I was focusing on making the food look good, instead of taste good, and a real cook or baker couldn’t do that. I managed to finagle my way into a job at a bakery, where I started at the very bottom (scone mix all day, every day) and worked my way up to head of the morning bake. My niece (three years old at the time) began to associate my presence in the house with cake (“Hi Aunt Erin, where’s the cake?”), which I not-so-secretly cherished. I got into The Culinary Institute of America, and I finally talked my parents into taking me to New York to attend a day of classes at the school to make sure it was the right fit.
From the moment we drove onto the campus, I knew it was just that. I was whisked from classroom to classroom where students in pristine chef whites were making the stuff of my dreams: towering cakes, gorgeous loaves of bread, and rows of perfect chocolates and candies. The halls smelled heavenly, and even my parents had a dazed look about them. I saw them, touring the campus, from the window of a busy bakeshop. I knew I had the most ridiculous smile on my face, but I was surprised to see that so did they. We were all hooked.
Two friends and I in Hearth Breads and Rolls class at The CIA.
The best part about culinary school, especially at a large school like the CIA, is that you have the ability to learn absolutely everything you are interested in. I studied beer and wine, agriculture and farming, and even traveled to a tiny island one summer and Spain the next to eat and drink as part of my studies. Classes ranged anywhere between 6 and 10 hours in length, but the time flew by. Everyone spoke the same language – we understood obscure ingredients, and traditional French methods. We made horrible jokes about underbaked bread and learning to temper chocolate. I scribbled recipes or ideas everywhere I went and read cookbooks like novels each night.
Half of our family table at the holidays.
And before long I realized something. I had spent my months prior to attending culinary school thinking that it was only my mother’s approval that could hold me back. But once I had it, and started cooking, I realized it was because of her that I was there. She had raised me in a house where we sat down every night around a table to eat together, she baked bread from scratch all the time (the pre-sliced stuff in the store was confusing to me, and sort of freaked me out), and exposed me to foods that not every child in Midwestern America eats. She made food a part of everyday life and a crucial part of special occasions and holidays. I had grown to associate food and cooking with almost everything I did. It was just up until age 18, I had been the eater, not the cook. But once I had that spatula in hand, I couldn’t stop.
Me alongside several much more successful projects in my mother’s kitchen.
Photos 1, 4, and 5 courtesy of my brother, Matt Needham (www.mattneedham.com).