A culinary degree prepares you for being a chef about as much as a B.A. in chemistry prepares you to be a neurosurgeon. It’s a lesson soon learned when thrown (literally) into the fire in a professional kitchen and berated for being too slow or being too fast or burning something or leaving something in the wrong place committing a host of seemingly insignificant errors.
Part of this is kitchen culture, but most is due to the intense and, frankly, unrealistic pressure to push food out the doors to an ungodly number of hungry diners. The lone way to prevent nervous meltdowns is to turn the cooks into a smooth engine whose parts (the staff) work in synch. When you think about it, it’s a miracle a basket of bread gets to the table.
However, culinary school does serve one purpose (other than bankrupting its students): it gives one a semi-official imprimatur, a certificate of admittance into the food fraternity. You can wander through the food world with a sense of belonging. Whether or not you know anything is a different question. Is someone with a B.A. in English a better reader than the guy you last sat next to on the subway?
Anyhow, for us, culinary school is many moons ago, and I like to think we know what we’re doing. We cater parties; we keep up with trends and the rest. We’ve learned to sift through the mountains of food junk out there (overhyped restaurants, bad and overpriced greenmarket produce) and pick out the best (Kalustyan’s the spice guy, our Vietnamese market on Mosco Street), compiling a pretty solid understanding of what to do with what’s available.
We deal with Pino our fantastic neighborhood butcher, and look for the best ingredients around.
And yet, a gardener I’m not. We live in New York City for chrissakes. My idea of recreation is trying desperately not to get hit by Jersey drivers edging greedily towards the Holland Tunnel. Once we grew basil the windowsill until an attack of aphids forced us to bag them up and bring them downstairs to Alphonso who mans the garbage room. I could garden indoors, but prefer an unobstructed street view and sun access. This is New York, after all.
And so we come to beets and radishes. This month we’re on the Cape. Blackberry bushes surround the house much like Gingko trees carpet the upper east side. A cute line of grape vines runs up the hilly lawn, and a fruit tree in the back drops something green and weird that looks like a lime.
It’s a nice bike ride over back roads lined with trees and open meadows. The other day we biked to the Wellfleet farmers’ market and snatched up a nice bunch of radishes for our summer staple salad of radish, cucumber, and sour cream. Sliced paper thin on the mandolin, they were pretty discs of red and white concentric circles, which, tossed with the cukes, made for a lively bowl. It seems we had lucked out on some eccentric, beautiful radishes.
Until the mandatory tasting when we discovered our lovely radishes were, in fact, lovely beets. Some variety whose deviously cute interior was engineered to fool the shopper and wreck his radish cucumber salad.
Having already photographed, posted, and labeled as radishes a pic of these cute bulbs with their candy cane cross sections, I knew someone out there in food nerddom would catch the grave error and I was right. “Aren’t those Chioggia beets?” burst the tweet. “Of course, I wrote, our mistake.”
You learn something everyday, but some things aren’t necessary worth learning. Yes, it’s a cute little beet, but I tried it, and a thin slice tastes just like a thin slice of your average red beet. It’s nice to discover the Chioggia beet, but I’d rather craft a great short rib recipe or understand curry leaves or figure out the recipe for the steamed shrimp and coconut pudding at Co Ba.
Culinary school opened the door to the food world, a place I’m happy to inhabit. But I’m not a gardener and never will be. And I’m cool with that.