Service III

What a difference a day makes – or in  my case, a week.  This past Thursday I arrived at Dining at FernihurstFernihurst with a whole new attitude.  If I survived my last experience, I should be fine this time.  And now that I knew what to expect, I was a whole lot more relaxed.

My assignment was an early table of two, a lovely older couple who had been to the restaurant several times and loved it. We started off with friendly conversation about the school, the community and the great food.  I took the order AND entered it correctly, remembered to bring cream for the coffee, refilled water glasses, explained the menu, everything was a delight. And then, the woman didn’t like her appetizer.  I apologized, went to the kitchen to get information about how it was made, offered her another option. But she was totally cool about the whole thing. And the interaction was not unpleasant. Hmmm, now I know what it’s like for waitstaff when I don’t like my food. They are practically helpless in that situation – they didn’t cook it!

Just as I was delivering the entrees, which they both enjoyed immensely by the way, the hospitality student who was general managing that night called me over and announced that because I was doing so well she was giving me another table!  I thought it was going to be an easy night, maybe to make up for the stress of the previous week.  No such luck. But the second table was just two as well, and they had been waiting without a reservation so were so grateful to be seated and easy to serve.  I managed to complete everything for the first table, graciously serve the second, and get through the entire evening without any major mishaps.  Not to say it was perfect, but at least I was smiling, chatting, and just beginning to feel confident about being able to actually do the job.

I embarked on this culinary school adventure to stretch myself, find new challenges and learn new skills and information. Perhaps the ins and outs of restaurant service weren’t exactly what I had in mind. But the experience certainly met my goals. I am reminded to keep an open mind. We may not always get what we want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

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Service II

IMG_1656For the past two Thursdays I have been serving at Fernihurst, the historic house dining room that functions as the learning lab for AB Tech hospitality and culinary students.  It’s a great resource that allows us to get practice in all aspects of running a “fine dining” restaurant.  With lots of experience as a customer at those types of restaurants, I thought I should have no trouble with the service side of things.  I was so wrong.

The first week I was given a table of four, and a team member from the hospitality program. It was the first time for both of us; she was calm but I was nervous. And my guests didn’t help that situation.  As I walked them to the table (at their pace) and seated them (eldest woman first, placing the napkin gracefully across her lap) I thanked them for coming and supporting our educational program. I asked them if they had been to Fernihurst before. One couple had not, but one had, so I suggested that they could help as I learned the ropes. “Well,” one man said, “let’s see how you do.”

Wow. I didn’t know how to react to that. Was he joking? Was he teasing?  It totally put me off my guard and increased my anxiety about doing a good job. After all, the guests complete a comment card at the end of the evening and rate the experience, including the service. And, we students get graded on the service.

All I could do was carry on, but I was flustered. Right off I made a huge mistake and entered the wrong table number into the Micros system. That meant that my table wouldn’t get any food unless I corrected it, which required going to the instructor and asking him to manually fix the problem with the kitchen.  Oh my gosh! I managed to get through the rest of the evening, serving water, carrying food on those big round trays and setting them down on the tray jacks (did you know that’s what they call those folding platforms?), calling “corner” every time I went into and out of the kitchen, picking up my entrees on time. But I forgot to refill water classes, and was nervous about interrupting my table’s very energetic conversations to ask how they enjoyed the food or if they needed anything. And I’m sure I served from the right instead of left, cleared from the left instead of right, and served the wrong dessert to someone. Yikes!  This was not at all what I expected the experience to be. I was not my usual friendly, conversational self. In fact, I barely spoke with them at all, and second-guessed everything all night. What a relief when it was over and I could go back to the kitchen and polish glassware.

It was a long night, but I learned a lot. The hospitality management students and their instructors seemed to think we did very well, working as teams and keeping everything going smoothly. Perhaps my guests didn’t notice all my flubs, or were kind and ignored them. In any case, at nine o’clock I headed to my car with relief. Hopefully, I’ll do better next week.


One of the requirements of school is to learn about how the front of house operates by serving during lunch and dinner at Fernihurst, the historic building on campus at AB Tech that is connected to our classroom building. This means as first year students, we have to wait on tables in a fancy restaurant environment. The second year cooking students are in the kitchen cooking the food, the pastry chefs make really fancy desserts and the hospitality management students oversee all of the activity.  It’s pretty chaotic, all of us being students, but we manage to get the job done.

Two weeks ago I had my first experience, dressed in head to toe black polyester, clearing tables and serving beverages during the annual fundraising event for the college foundation.  Tents and food stations were set up outside and it was a beautiful night. There was a fire pit with home-made marshmallows for toasting, food stations serving crab cakes, tailgate specialties, fresh breads and salads, sauteed shrimp, sliders and more. A bluegrass band and autumnal decorations added to the festive atmosphere. I was dressed in my freshly pressed uniform and ready to go.

Strangely, it felt familiar.  Chatting with guests, picking up glasses and clearing plates, describing food, just like giving a dinner party at home or, even more, a flashback to the days when I staffed lots of these fundraising events as part of my job. (I used to say that I went to cocktail parties for a living) Even though I was wearing a uniform and carrying a “bev tray” I slipped easily into my role as host. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that many of the guests were friends, colleagues and supporters of other organizations I have worked with. Or that everyone was friendly and happy in that party environment. I even went so far as to introduce someone I knew to the head of the college foundation as a potential supporter. Once a development director, I guess always a development director. Hmmm, I thought, this isn’t so hard. Ah, but wait until next week.  More to come.

Ginger/Miso Cod in Broth with Spinach and Zucchini Completely unrelated to school, but I had to share this lovely dish I made at home.  Ginger, Miso Cod in broth with spinach and julienne zucchini from the garden.  Yum.  More about knife skills soon.

Sauce Lab

Bechamel, Espanole and Voloute

It’s 7:30 on a Sunday morning, and I’m at my computer writing a blog post. I’ve told so many people to check in so I can share my experiences, but I’ve been so slammed with homework that I haven’t had time to write. Unlike the (much) younger members of my classes, I can’t stay up late at night studying. At least not and try to actually learn anything. I was never a night-owl, but at this point in my life if I don’t get to sleep by 11:00, I’m pretty worthless the next day. Especially after a day like Friday.

My partner was absent from Culinary 140 Lab. That’s the one class where we actually get to cook food that is edible (unlike Food Science where we experiment and intentionally ruin everything). This meant that I had to (was allowed to?) make five sauce recipes by myself, in 3 ½ hours. The Chef gave me the option of working with a team of three, or “learning a lot” and doing it alone. Guess which option I chose.

It was exhausting, the stress, the unfamiliar space and equipment, the pressure of time and feeling like I had to keep up with the other teams even though they each had two people sharing the work. And, the product had to meet standards of texture, color, viscosity, and TASTE! Plus, I was on dish duty so had to keep running over and loading and running the dish machine.

My student colleagues were terrific. The cheered me on, pitched in and took on dish duty and shared food products and supplies when I ran out. Working slowly and methodically, I got through it, standing in front of a hot stove, stirring constantly, checking and then re-checking the recipes, browning, straining, seasoning.

The results? Four sauces made from stocks we made last week and one broken but fixed Bearnaise Sauce. Vegetarian Tomato Sauce, Espangnole Sauce (from veal stock), Veloute Sauce (from chicken stock), and Bechamel Sauce (milk based). They were all thickened with roux, a mixture of flour and butter, except for the Tomato Sauce, and three of them included mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion chopped and sweated, or browned for the dark Espanole). So many steps to process. But it was all worth it. The only criticism from the Chef when he reviewed and tasted my sauces was that they could all use some more salt!

Tomato Sauce

Truly Life Changing

Books and Backpack

Books and Backpack

When I considering going to culinary school I thought about lots of things. The impact it would have on my flexibility of time, the amount of physical and intellectual effort it would take, the feeling of being in a new environment and being completely outside my comfort zone, the new people I’d meet. What I didn’t think about was how all that would manifest.

I didn’t realize that since I would be spending so much time in classes and related activities on campus that the (mostly) much younger men and women in my program would become my new social group. I also didn’t know that modern education is so heavily dependent on electronic communication. All my coursework, homework, tests, messages from instructors and other students is on computer programs. I have a new e-mail account to check regularly and Moodle, an on-line learning program that delivers educational content and instructions. This has created a whole new learning curve. Not just culinary content, but learning process as well.  And here I was concerned about being able to manage all the hours on my feet in a kitchen, when what I really have to deal with is all the hours on my bum in class or in front of my computer.  Oh and the hassle of hauling around 20 pounds of books (I actually weighed them) and 12 pounds of equipment (no lockers anywhere!). Off to find a wheeled briefcase today to save my back!

First Week Report

BabstheChefLike a deer in the headlights. Shellshocked. In orientation overwhelm.  That’s how I’m feeling right now after four days of syllabus review, orientations, building and kitchen tours, instructions on how to dress, how to behave, where to go and when. Whew! So much new information to integrate, plus reading assignments in Sanitation and Safety, Food Science, Culinary I and Math. This is hard, and fun. Just what I hoped it would be.

Haven’t done any cooking yet. Still getting used to wearing my uniform. Here’s what that looks like in case you missed the Facebook post.  Oh, I add the toque (tall white chef’s hat) and apron when I’m actually in the kitchen for a lab.



Getting Started

The AARP magazine has ads about a section of their website that helps you figure out what you want to do when you’ve finished your professional life. Or, your first professional life, I guess, since lots of the suggestions are about how to find a new career.

I found this resource after spending the past two years decompressing from a 35 year career. A year of travel both near and far, and a year of what I was uncomfortably calling retirement (basically doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it, including lots of volunteer work) tired me out. Although I was busy enough, I wasn’t stimulated enough. My brain was just not firing and I felt intellectually lazy. It was exhausting. I needed something new; something that was challenging and engaging in a way that got me out of my comfort zone. But it had to be fun. It had to be practical. I had to be able to do it near my home.

During my time traveling and “relaxing” I took several cooking classes. I’ve always loved to cook and became entranced with the mysteries of cooking, the science behind the processes and flavor profiles. The more I cooked and learned, the more I wanted to cook and learn. One day, I was describing a cooking experience and stopped in my tracks – I realized how animated, passionate and inspired I was feeling,

This was it! I would go to culinary school.

Luckily, our local community college has a well regarded highly ranked program. Two full years and a summer internship and I’d be prepared (I hoped) to use my skills. I have no idea how – but I am filled with excitement and anticipation about this next adventure.

My friends and family seem to be excited too. This blog is my effort to share the experience with them, with you, and to document it so that I’ll have more than memories at the end.

Oh, a bit about me to create context – 62 years old, in a long term committed relationship with my partner, live in a food mecca (Asheville, NC) surrounded by mountains and lakes. My career has been in non-profit management, mostly but not exclusively in the arts. Working with food is my creative journey. We’ll see where it take me.

Oh, here’s what I was making when I had my epiphany. Veal Osso Bucco.

Osso Bucco