By Liz Castner
Julia Child can remember the meal she that changed her life: sole meunière, her first meal in France, and “the most exciting meal of her life.” Before that, she says, she didn’t know that food could be both simple and good, better still because of its simplicity and sheer foodness.
Okay, she didn’t say “foodness.” Foodness is my word, meaning when food tastes like the best version of itself. Julia also talks about this phenomenon when she discusses a good roast chicken, gushing over how chickeny it can be. My cooking philosophy is the same; I love highlighting a particular ingredient, bringing out its best qualities in simple ways, like using herbs in a fruit pie or a little nutmeg to warm up a cookie.
As for myself, I don’t have a clear memory of a perfect, life-changing meal. All I know is that I have grown up loving food. I was “spoiled” growing up by the amazing produce in Southern California, and I love fresh, vibrant fruits and veggies. Beyond that, I love meat, desserts, bread, cheese, wine. My parents also love food. My dad is a skilled and adventurous cook and eater, who will try anything once, and is often responsible for cooking almost everything for our large holiday meals. My mom likes simple foods, with roast chicken being her absolute favorite. She also has a (clearly genetic) sweet tooth, and has encouraged me to bake since I was quite young. They are incredibly supportive, and a clear influence on how my career path has turned out.
My path to becoming a pastry student was not a straightforward one, however. Though I was very interested in going to culinary school as a teenager (and worked out a lot of stress baking all kinds of tasty treats), I found another calling: special education. But after going to college and getting a bachelors in psychology, a stint in a doctoral program, a lot of work experience in special education and an emotionally draining ankle surgery, I found myself looking for a change in my day-to-day life. I wanted to start something fun, fulfilling, energizing, inspiring and new. Basically, I wanted to find my own foodness factor.
While mulling this over one day, I had the thought, “What if I went to culinary school?” Impulsively, and on a level that didn’t really generate words other than “yes,” I thought about it constantly. I did have some misgivings about leaving a budding career in special education and the students I love, but I realized that starting a career in food doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t work with people with special needs anymore. All it means is that I can’t do that full-time.
I began baking more, something I had not done much in the various tiny New York City apartments I’ve inhabited over the years. And I began trying new things, even creating my first wedding cake, for a friend’s July nuptials. I began feeling really good. So, even as the Program Director of Daytime Moon Creations, a non-profit organization that provides theater programs to special needs kids, teens, and young adults, I started telling people, “I’m going to culinary school.”
I enrolled in the Pastry & Baking program at ICE, as well as the Culinary Management program, which will start in October. The double diploma was a great fit, because I’d like to have my own bakery one day and know very little about business. In this hypothetical, beautiful little shop, selling some wonderful pastries and coffee, I would love to hire a few workers with special needs, to teach baking and decorating classes, both special needs and not, and to decorate some lovely wedding and occasion cakes.
So now I’m a pastry student, and I am enjoying it so much. It’s flying by, actually, and I almost wish the program would slow down just a little, though I am relishing the jolt of energy it has injected into my life. Time really does fly when you’re having fun. We’re halfway through the second module of the program, and I have started to take some time to reflect on my learning and experiences. This is a program that really values the foodness of our ingredients; when we first started out, we learned extensively about and tasted all of our ingredients, from different kinds of flours to sweeteners to fruits. My favorite ingredient so far is passionfruit—that fruit is pure foodness in and of itself!
I look forward to sharing the incredible joy that fills the pastry program—learning new things, working with your hands, and being proud of what you’ve created. My favorite thing that we’ve made has changed several times: chocolate mousse, creme brûlée, peanut brittle, cheesecake, bombes of homemade ice cream, sorbet, frozen mousses, eclairs, baguettes, Chelsea buns, focaccia, bagels, gorgeous croissants, pain au chocolat, and doughnuts!
Talk about foodness – every single thing we’ve made has really elevated the ingredients to taste like their best. Bread is a prime example. No one wants to eat flour on its own, but when it comes together with water, salt, and yeast in the proper way, we have a life-sustaining, delicious, French delight—the best that flour can be. I’ve only had 35 lessons so far, and can’t believe I’ve already learned to make so many wonderful things. Every day only gets better.