Sometimes the past comes up to bite us firmly on the butt. Other times, though, things seem to miraculously come together.
As a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, San Antonio Chapter, I’ve worked on the Olives Olé: The International Olive Festival of Texas for three years now. The one this past weekend was held at a new location, the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. As does any event of this kind, it reflected changes made from lessons learned during the first two events, held at the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard near Elmendorf.
Asking for assistance from St. Philip’s College culinary students (along with many other terrific volunteers) was one of the good moves we made. The number of hours the students put into the food preparation was awesome, as were the skills and good spirits that went into it. Then, the next day, they came out to the festival to help some more!
The school’s culinary program is under the benevolent dictatorship of William Thornton, a chef, program director and all-around nice guy who keeps his students in line with an appropriate kind of tough love. After all, many of them will be going to work in the challenging culture of professional food service and will need to have not just the good skills they are learning but the ability to roll with the punches on a daily basis.
I worked alongside them the day before Olives Olé on Saturday. Their spirits were good, and they weren’t averse to taking occasional instruction from me.
In the 1970s, before most of these students were born, I was developing my own professional culinary skills in the old-fashioned way: working for veteran chefs in the restaurant business. It was more toughness than love, on their part. They just wanted the job done right, and woe betide the kitchen worker who dropped knives, burned pans of bacon, or sliced themselves so badly that a fingertip had to be located somewhere in a blood-spattered pile of onions.
Those were just a few of my own mishaps. And I was not an inexperienced cook, having done much of the family cooking since the age of about 10. Eventually, I was able to do a good job of running a Continental kitchen, often on my own, as a sous chef.
Then, one day, I decided to finish my journalism degree and stay on to get another one in food services. In all, I worked in kitchens and went to school through most of my 20s.
As I cut lemons and sliced eggplant on Friday, I felt right at home, despite it being my first time to work in one of Thornton’s kitchens at St. Philip’s.
How things had changed since the days that I had aspirations to be a chef. The class had as many women in it as men. When I was working in restaurants, there weren’t many women aspiring to be more than pantry or pastry cooks. Much of this was because women weren’t supported in the industry. It was largely the province of males.
I can’t say that latter fact has changed as much as I would have liked. But far more women are going to culinary school and getting certification and degrees, more are working in professional kitchens and I’d like to think that many more are aspiring to be chefs or to own their own restaurants and other food-based businesses.
Male chefs taught me the basics of professional cooking, and I am grateful to them for that. Women, too, are eager to carry on the teaching tradition that is an integral part of being a chef.
Which brings me to Les Dames d’Escoffier: This international organization would have been a place for me to turn for support when I was young; not just financial and professional support, but just plain moral support as well. Our fundraiser, Olives Olé, raises money to help women who want to enter or advance in culinary fields, whether it’s as a restaurateur, business owner, teacher or cookbook publisher. The members of the San Antonio chapter of this organization offer a wealth of experience for any woman, young or older, needing a good brain to pick, words of encouragement or a scholarship to help them finance culinary school.
Thinking back on my own history as a cook, and about my jobs as food writer and editor, website founder, and member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, I can see the pattern pieces of my life fitting together. Something that I love became an important part of my career, and my hopes remain high for ever more women to succeed in their culinary endeavors.