July 16, 2014

Knowing Your Limits in Culinary School

By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student

Knowing Your Limits 3In the past five days, I’ve written somewhere around ten thousand words, gone to three days of class, hosted a birthday get-together for my friend Rose, conducted seven interviews, prepared for two more, and parsed through dozens of photographs for upcoming articles.  Currently, it is 4:15 on a Tuesday and I am not in class.  I awoke last night with pretty bad abdominal pain, and managed to get sick three times before it was time to wake up and start my day.

If you happen to be a regular reader of mine, it might seem like I’ve been griping about my busy schedule quite a bit lately.  And I realized this morning that there’s a reason for that—I am reaching my limit.

If you’re like me, or any number of other children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, you grew up with heroes that weren’t necessarily human.  Chances are some of them were robots, or magical, or Batman.  I think that an unintended side effect of having heroes that are capable of much more than the average human is that we have a tendency to push ourselves farther than we should.

To continue with my example, I’ve been running on four hours of sleep and two meals a day for some time now, and to be completely blunt with myself, I deserve my current illness.  I’ve been reminded by friends and mentors to take care of myself, but like most of us, I often find myself ignoring that wonderful advice.  I have personally written articles about the value of unwinding, and yet I ignore my own advice and find myself constantly saying “I can do with less sleep” more often that is health.

I’d like to be able to present some kind of formula for finding a magical balance between what you have to do and what you want to do, but that’s just not possible.  Because while I may have gone over the edge a bit and am currently paying for it, it’s important to push yourself just enough in order to find out what your limits currently are.  And the only way to do that is through experimentation.  Push yourself to the edge, then work your way backwards.

Sounds like self-destructive behavior, doesn’t it?  If you’ll allow me some clever(ish) wordplay, that’s exactly what it is.  You’re destroying your current self down in order to build yourself back up as somewhat stronger, smarter, and more skilled than you used to be.  Without pushing your limits, you’ll never grow as a professional or as a person.

But this is meant as a metaphor.  The real challenge is in making sure you don’t literally self-destruct, which is what happens when you’re doubled over at three in the morning.  It’s what happens when you have a breakdown and wind up in tears from the stress.  It’s what could ultimately put you in the hospital.

Sounds risky, I know.  But as they say, them’s the breaks—talent alone will not make you a great artist, regardless of medium.  Hemingway lived his whole life nearly crippled by insecurity, both about his writing talent and about himself as a person.  St. Augustine wrote an entire tract of confessions, focusing on his sins and aggressions.  Franz Kafka (author of Metamorphosis, one of the most influential books in modern literary history) refused to believe he had any talent and wanted his work burned after he died.

But as chefs, there is no hiding our work in a chest in the attic, only to be unveiled to the world after we die.  There is no “phoning in” work, going at 70% to skate through our time in the kitchen.  For the real artists out there, settling for “good enough” doesn’t cut it.  And while that does lead to great advances in our own abilities, it comes with its own set of dangers as well.

Five things you learn about yourself at Auguste Escoffier3This is one of the reasons I find my education at Auguste Escoffier so fulfilling.  Sure they push you.  Sure they criticize.  Sure they’ll tell you when you’re not working hard enough, when you’re settling, when you could’ve done better.  But when they see that you’re at the brink, they also know when to give you a break.

As an example, near the end of my time in the Pastry Arts Program, I came down with a migraine in the middle of class.  My migraines are rare, but in my case they’re very dangerous because my “aura” encompasses almost all my field of vision, rendering me effectively blind.  But this class was a lead-up to the final exam we were going to take, and I didn’t want to waste classroom time.  I drank water, ate some snacks, took medicine, etc., but nothing was improving my condition.

Chef Jon, noticing my obvious struggles, pulled me aside to ask what was wrong.  I explained the issue, and Chef Jon told me to sit in the classroom and recover.  “You look miserable Ryan,” he told me.  “Do what you can to feel better, I understand.”

Having spent too much time with football coaches and command fitness leaders who had nothing but contempt for people who couldn’t keep up because of one reason or another, his kind words really hit home.  I really appreciated his kind-but-not-condescending method for dealing with me on that day.

My point here, before I retire to the couch for more rest, is that Escoffier will help you push your limits, but will never demand more than you’re capable of.  As someone who’s been subjected that kind of abuse, it is refreshing to be around teachers who understand how education is supposed to work.