The concept of becoming a chef was filled with both anxiety and anticipation.
When I first enrolled in culinary arts classes, I noticed that the course descriptions in the college catalog stated, “In addition the student must provide the required uniform, a white chef coat, scarf, apron, checkered kitchen pants, black closed toe shoes and a chef hat.” A mandatory orientation session for all Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism majors was scheduled for the next day and we had to wear our uniforms. I inquired about where we were to get this “uniform” and learned that the campus book store, located in the Student Center, sold uniforms along with all of the text books and supplies I would need for my classes.
The bookstore was noisy and crowded when I arrived. Long lines of students were queued in front of the registers, their arms laden with heavy texts. They chatted amicably with friends, listened to iPods or text messaged on their smart phones as they waited their turn to check out. The store aptly sold textbooks grouped by subject matter, a small selection of current paperback books, art supplies, spiral notebooks, college t-shirts and memorabilia. In addition, there was an assortment of required equipment for various majors – stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs for the nursing students, brushes, easels and large, black portfolios for the art students, and knife kits and uniform essentials for the culinary arts students. The uniform components were stacked in cubbies against the wall. I picked up one of the plastic shopping baskets by the door and snaked my way through the crowd. My eyes were wide with wonder. I saw the white, cotton aprons (one size fits all), the black and white checkered pants with elasticized waist (I picked a medium but wondered if that was “men’s” or “women’s”), the triangular neck scarf, a hat (which resembled a deflated mushroom), a white cotton apron with long ties and a front pocket, and then saw the white chef’s jackets.
Oh, my – a real chef’s coat! It was stiffly starched, carefully folded and lovingly (I was sure) packaged in cellophane. I put down my shopping basket and lifted a package off the shelf. The sticker on the package read: “Traditional Chef Coat – 100% Pima Cotton.” It had a short, upright collar; long, cuffed sleeves; a reversible, double-breasted panel on the front with two rows of fabric covered buttons; and a deep double pocket on the sleeve for a digital thermometer and a marking pen. It was sublime! I added it to the other uniform components in my shopping bag and headed for the registers.
Later that evening, I decided to try everything on and see how I looked as a real chef. Let’s see, first I pulled up the pants and tucked in my white t-shirt. Then, I put on the chef’s coat. The double-breasted front allowed you to reverse the jacket and place a clean, white front on the outside and hide the one splattered with food and grease. Next, I tied the neckerchief around my neck according to the directions that came with it – much like a man would tie his necktie. Apparently, the neckerchief is designed to keep perspiration from your face from dripping into the food you prepare. A professional kitchen is HOT with all those ovens and gas stoves going and everyone rushing around. I donned the apron over my chef’s coat and wound the strings around myself to tie them in the front. This allows the chef to hang a hand towel on the apron strings. I pulled black socks onto my feet and slipped them into the sturdy, black clogs that would protect my feet from any spills and keep me from slipping on a damp kitchen floor. Last, I placed the chef’s hat on my head and beamed! I walked proudly over to the full-length mirror in our bedroom and my wide smile faded.
I looked exactly like the Pillsbury DoughboyTM! I was so bundled up that I appeared to be as wide as I was tall. I didn’t look like a professional chef at all and my misery was apparent in my facial expression. A big, fat tear rolled down my cheek. It was going to be embarrassing to show up in this outfit for the orientation the next day, but there wasn’t anything I could do.
The next morning, I repeated my dressing regimen without enthusiasm. I felt so self-conscious and awkward when I got out of the car in the college parking lot and waddled to the auditorium. As I entered the room, there were already a dozen students in attendance. Our instructors, all executive chefs from local restaurants, were milling around a long table on the stage. Then, I realized that they ALL looked rather portly wearing their chef’s jackets! I lifted my chin, stood a little taller and made my way to one of the seats on the aisle.
As the next two years progressed, I became more comfortable in my chef’s clothing and my chef’s jacket, in particular, became a symbol of pride in what I was to become – a professional chef!