By Danamarie McKiernan
Culinary school has been calling to me since I was 17, but I just wasn’t listening. Raised in Brooklyn, I have been surrounded by good food for as long as I can remember. Holidays with my Irish-Italian family meant days of preparation and cooking, finally gathering around our oversized table for the main event.
This is a photo of my Christmas Eve table when I was a kid. Amazing! My grandfather, “Gramps” oversaw the feast each and every year. Our family of astounding home cooks whipped up homemade delicacies such as crab sauce or calamari with baby lobster tails. My mom, uncle and I would stay at the table long after the others, sucking on crab legs to extract every last piece of meat. Alongside the crabs, we served perfectly golden, stuffed fried shrimp and baked clams. The meal continued with flaky fish filets, tangy, lemony seafood salad and perfectly al dente pasta. If I close my eyes I can still smell and taste everything.
That is reason why I am going to culinary school. It is because of the women and men in my family that surrounded me with food and shared their passion for cooking. My mom taught me how to make the most amazing chicken cutlets and buttery mashed potato pie. My Aunt Annie introduced me to the importance of fresh produce and shared the secret to her amazing crepe-like pancakes. Uncle Frankie was the adventurous one. He always used spices and animal protein that I didn’t even recognize. My grandma Margret taught me consistency. The most saintly, wonderful woman, she made the best butter smothered shrimp and bacon-wrapped potatoes. They taste the same every time she cooks them – even today, at age 94! Aunt Lizzie pushed me to do things my own way, to be creative. She would pop open that refrigerator door, pull things out randomly and, an hour later, a masterpiece was served. It was her recipe I adapted to make the best lobster bisque my family had ever tasted.
But more than anyone, it was my grandparents, “Lucy” and “Gramps” who inspired my interest in food. Each night, I would walk downstairs to their apartment to help Gramps get dinner ready. At first, I was in charge of salad dressing, placing the spices he had laid out in the correct shaker. At that age, I remember he would eat this horrible, dark green, spinach-like vegetable with pasta, and the oil would drip down his chin. I thought it was horrible, but today pasta with broccoli rabe is one of my favorite things to cook and eat.
My Lucy made everything from chicken, fish, pasta, pizza to desserts and pies. Late at night, she would whistle for me to come downstairs, and we would make apple pie together, trying not to wake Gramps with our giggles. The first meal I ever cooked alone with no help was for her and Gramps. It was a “Buttermilk Chicken” from my mom’s red and white Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I still have the book, with its stained and ripped pages.
The first all-adult dinner party I prepared was for my Lucy’s 70th birthday. I planned out the menu, cooked everything myself, and even hired a waitress to come to the house and help. It was during that dinner party that Uncle Frankie suggested, “Dana you should go to culinary school”. From that point on, it was always in the back of my head.
I looked into a cooking school in Manhattan called “Peter Kump’s Cooking School” (today, the Institute of Culinary Education). But instead of going to culinary school, I ended up in the service industry. I have bartended and managed bars and restaurants, but none of those jobs ever stuck. I now know why. This is what I was meant to do and it has just been waiting for me. After leaving my last job, I said to myself, “This is it.” I applied for the Culinary Management Program at ICE and have never been happier. In September 2012, I graduated, winning an additional award for Leadership.
Now, I’m in the Culinary Arts program. This is the best decision I have ever made in my life. Things are going to change. I will be a chef, and I am ready. My application papers are signed, the knife kit is in my hands and I have been fitted for my chef coat. I cried when I put that coat on for the first time. There is an amazing culinary road ahead of me. Stay tuned; it’s going to be a fun ride.