Friday, May 29, 2009

Graduating, and the importance of family

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I forgot about my culinary school graduation ceremony until a week before it occurred, except I think I've been so immersed in work that my time at Oregon Culinary Institute seems so far behind me. Yet it wasn't that long ago that I was going to class every day and being pushed by my dear chef instructors to work faster, work cleaner, do better.

For a nearly-forgotten incident, my graduation this past weekend turned into one of the best weekends I've had in a long, long time.

A last-minute invite to my brother and sister worked out, and by Friday night they were on their way from Seattle with their significant others and my brother's ridiculously cute dog, Ollie. I walked home from work that night, and they had made themselves at home thanks to my brother's copies of my keys. Excited as I was to see them, I was weary and beat from work, but mustered the strength to give them the full tour of the new place. I got this painted here, I changed that there, I think I'm gonna try and install this here... I walked them toward the bedrooms, and wondered why my bedroom door was closed.

I opened it... and found my mom standing there. My mom, who lives in North Carolina, who I assumed wouldn't be able to make the cross country trip, especially not so last minute.

I shrieked, stunned, then started crying.

It's been a tremendously hard past few months, between buying a new place, working six days a week, maneuvering major transitions at work, trying to get settled into my new place essentially on my own, and just not having had a real break since Christmas. It's the life we lead, I know, but knowing that doesn't really make it any easier. I've spent a lot of time recently feeling overwhelmed, yet we all just keep plugging on, knowing it's leading up to something better. Upon seeing my mom, such a sight for sore eyes, the tears of joy came immediately.

Saturday morning, I put on my OCI chef's whites for the first time in over six months, and joined about 65 of my fellow graduates in a giant ballroom at the Governor Hotel.

Graduating. Photo by Woody Bailey. See the rest of his set here.

As expected, the ceremony itself was a practice in self-deprecation and not taking oneself too seriously. Lots of jokes, lots of silly speeches, some meaningful and serious ones too, but the morning was dominated by a general light-heartedness.

That's what I've loved about OCI and its instructors and founders since I first visited--you get the feeling that events such as graduation, as meaningful as they can be, are not, ultimately, why you attend school in the first place. I'm proud that made my way through the entire program, as it's not an easy accomplishment, but I had to go to work right after the ceremony, and I honestly think that's what they're after: Students who work hard, have goals, and find themselves in positions where they barely have time to squeeze in a graduation ceremony on a Saturday morning, knowing they'll have to be deep in prep for Saturday service in a few hours.

Not to say we still can't enjoy ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done. My classmates and I cheered happily for each other, knowing how much we'd been through to get to that point. My family cheered loudly for me when my name was called, and despite the initial unseriousness I felt about graduation, I have to admit it was pretty awesome to hear their whooping and yelling.

So here's where I'll tell you why my family is, in my opinion, the most amazing family one could ever ask for. Besides surprising me with my mom's visit, besides being a personal cheerleading section at my graduation that I nearly forgot, I came home Saturday night after 10 plus hours at work to find that they cleaned my entire apartment top to bottom. They washed the windows, unpacked all the leftover boxes, constructed a bookshelf and bed frame I hadn't yet gotten around to, and purchased new sheets, towels and a bunch of organizational gadgets for my use. They even bought me a lavender plant and a huge bouquet of lilacs and pansies that made my dining room look like a spread in Martha Stewart Living.

family portrait
At the dining room table: Rob, me, Ollie, Sylvia, Ted, Christy, Mom and Josh. Taken with Sylvia's trusty camera and Josh's helpful tripod.

I mean, come on. Seriously? How much luckier does a person get?

What else could I do but make them Sunday brunch?

Taken by Sylvia, see the rest of the awesome set here

Blueberry pancakes with caramelized bananas (they worked so well the first time around!), roasted asparagus and spinach omelet with Mt. Tam triple creme, rounded out with a pork trio of country sausage, maple bacon and pepper bacon. Many happy bellies.

The Seattle crew departed soon after the crazy carbo-load, and my mom stayed in town for a few more days. I miraculously got Monday off from work and was thus able to spend some much-needed quality time with the momma.

Getting some sun at Laurelhurst Park

Any part of my personality that is even-keeled and laid-back, I give credit to my mom. She's the most understanding, compassionate and zen-like person I know. She's been through more hardship than any person should ever have to withstand, and has conquered it all with a force that none of us knew she had. And she's been nothing but humble and unassuming about it all, never demanding credit for her hard work, never complaining about putting in insanely long workdays. I know a lot of people (myself included) who could benefit from borrowing a page from her book.

Who else takes the time to listen to the trees?

This weekend was about remembering my fortune, despite all the hardships: A line cook job at a top-notch kitchen, a home I can legitimately call my own, and a family I wouldn't trade for the world. Not bad, ya'll. Not bad at all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting back to it

Portlanders love their brunch. I've never heard of another city that is as maniacally into late breakfast as Portland. While I hate the idea of spending $20 on a meal I can make at home for $3 and without the 40-minute wait, count me guilty--I love breakfast any time of the day and I'm a big fan of bacon and sausage, not to mention quality time with friends around giant plates of carbohydrates.

Today, my dear friends Bonnie and Jim were the recipients of brunch at Casa Del Ingrid:

Jim and Bonnie
Jim looks stoked, doesn't he?

Hello, blueberry buttermilk pancakes with caramelized bananas, cheesy black bean and cilantro scramble, and chicken breakfast sausages. Nice to meet you.


While it's nothing out of the ordinary for a person to be making a meal for her friends, my recent (and more frequent) forays into home cooking are something of a revelation for me.

Six months ago, the mere thought of putting the energy into making a meal for myself outside of work was enough to make me take a long nap. I went through a stretch of several months where I ate nothing but post-work bar food, Pita Pit and canned soup. The greatest secret shame was my freezer--stacked with frozen dinners, chicken fingers and a Hot Pocket or two.

While I have nothing against a good ham and cheese Hot Pocket every now and then, it was truly depressing to think that I was so exhausted from cooking awesome food all day that I couldn't save any of that energy to treat myself. Between school and work, I'd go whole days sustained on a granola bar eaten on the three block walk to school and a dry pastry (the results of newbie patisserie students) on the walk to work.

What's so guilt-inducing about not cooking for myself was the idea that I was lacking in not just physical energy but creative energy as well. As a rookie in a professional kitchen, I'm often so focused on the particulars of technique involved in cooking my chef's recipes that I often forsook my capacity for creativity.

In the past few months, however, something changed. Maybe it has to do with moving into a place with a proper kitchen, or maybe it's the encouragement I get from my friend and coworker Jordan who is constantly whipping up awesome baked goods and soups at home, but the excitement and appeal of coming up with something in my own kitchen has reformed itself. I started buying whole chickens again to break down into pieces for soups and stocks, and I'm finding myself excited about coming up with yummy goodness late at night with the scraps of meat or veggies I get to bring home every now and then after work.

I'd like to think it has something to do with becoming more comfortable with myself as a cook. All day long I'm surrounded by people who are more experienced and more knowledgeable than me in the culinary field, and though there's no better place in which to learn, it can be incredibly intimidating. On my worst days, I'd find myself thinking in despair, 'How the fuck will I ever be as good as these people?' Add to that the fact that I'm a perfectionist who never likes to be wrong and it's a fine recipe for quick self-destruction, or at least early-onset ulcers.

Maybe one could say I've started to find my sea legs. Regardless of what it is, there were some happy bellies in Portland today. Here's hoping I keep making cooking at home into a more frequent occurrence.