I rarely discuss my family in public, either in this blog or on social media. Much of what I do say or write is invented or exaggerated for comic effect, which has led some readers to tell me, “Your wife is so funny!” (Trust me, she isn’t.) I have no trouble discussing my own life in detail – battles with depression and writer’s block, for example – but I consider their privacy to be sacrosanct. My wife jokes that if she died, I probably wouldn’t tell any of my virtual friends, which I think is nonsense…. no wait, she’s probably right.
Today, however, I make an exception. This past weekend was notable for two reasons. It was the anniversary of an event that has had awful consequences for our family; and it was the date of an event that made us gloriously happy.
First the bad. It was two years ago yesterday that my wife lost her job with a Fortune 500 company. She hasn’t worked a day since. She had worked full-time from the mid-1970s and had experienced only three months of unemployment in all that time, but now that she is in her sixties, she has trouble even getting an interview. After many starts and stops, I’ve finally hunkered down to write an e-book about age discrimination and her long-term unemployment – finally finished a first draft, yay me – so I’m saving the details for that. Suffice it to say that it has been a difficult time for us financially and, especially for her, emotionally.
But if my wife’s future – and mine – are looking a little dim, my daughter Nicole’s is looking very bright. Friday was the day she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
Like many high school graduates, Nicole went off to college with only a vague idea of what she wanted to do with her life, and one year at Boston University did nothing to clarify it. She had long been interested in baking, especially desserts, and after repeatedly filling our DVR with shows from the Food Network, she realized it was her true passion. She applied to, and was accepted by, the Culinary Institute but before starting there, she spent a couple of years working, including stints at two different bakeries that went out of business, saving money for tuition.
The Culinary Institute, a beautiful campus along the Hudson River in Hyde Park, just a mile south of the FDR estate, is not like other colleges. Its curriculum is not the usual “Math class at 9, spend an hour lazing on the quad, American Literature at 11.” Rather, it is broken up into three-week segments, each with one intensive class on some aspect of the business. They have a new entering class every three weeks, with the majority entering the Culinary Arts program (the path that leads to being a chef), with a lesser number joining the Baking and Pastry Arts program (Nicole was one of about 20 in her group). You have the same classmates in each class; it’s like Army enlistees going through basic training together. Nicole herself said it’s like a military operation, and the expectation for co-operation and hard work is high; the easy A’s and grade inflation that occur at other schools does not exist here.
Since many of the classes include work at some of the campus restaurants, students are often required to be up before the crack of dawn. The program also requires a four-month internship at a food business; Nicole spent last winter working at King Arthur Flour in Vermont, which required the girl who used to hate rising before noon to be at work at 4 a.m. five days a week, often in sub-zero temperatures. The difficulty of the program weeds out the students who aren’t serious.
Nicole was serious. Which is why, on Friday, the school gave her the Katherine Angell Academic Achievement Award for having the highest GPA of her graduating Baking class (she was the only one above 3.5; only one of the Culinary students had higher).
After a ceremony which included the singing of the only alma mater to rhyme “our own way” with “Escoffier,” graduates and their families celebrated at a buffet with hors d’oeuvres created by the current students, who showed off their skills and precision. Honestly, I didn’t know what half of the dishes were, but I sampled as many as I could. All of them were beautifully presented; my favorite was a lemon meringue in the shape of a tulip.
As I write this, Nicole is somewhere in northern California, probably sitting in a bakery or restaurant. The day after graduation, she boarded a flight to San Francisco with two of her classmates, one of whom lives in Napa Valley, for a well-earned ten-day vacation, eating their way up and down the California coast. They had a long list of places to try, to which some of my California friends on Facebook kindly added. A week after she returns home, she will begin working in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant near Union Square in Manhattan. It will be hard for her – the starting pay isn’t great and the commuting costs and time will be extensive. (Heck, it will hard for me – I’ll have to pick her up at the train station after midnight five times a week.) But she has a plan, she has dedication, and her future promises to be quite a feast, to which I say: Mangia!