When the Culinary Student Becomes the Teacher…

Facebook is mostly annoying, but it does have some perks — not the least of which is reconnecting with old friends. This is the story of one such incident that happened a few years ago.

A former student reached out via Facebook and invited me to eat at her restaurant. In my past life as a culinary instructor, I had hundreds of students, but this one stood out, as the best ones always do. She was not in love with pastry making, as I recall, but she passed it with a determined attitude.

My husband and I drove out to her kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, in Culver City and enjoyed what was surely one of our top five meals of all time. I was familiar with kaiseki but had never experienced it. It is the most formal type of Japanese dining, blending two culinary traditions — that of the temples and that of the palaces. From the Buddhist temples and tea ceremony comes an economically restrained preparation of food, intended to highlight the natural essence of each ingredient. The more opulent cuisines of the imperial court and the samurai household include multiple courses of ornate, costly ingredients. Modern kaiseki chefs weigh these two principles, mix in a keen awareness of local micro-seasons with a dash of foraging and highlight local ingredients to present a culinary story of a particular time and place. The meal typically hovers around 13 courses presented in a prescribed order, but the chef is free to add or subtract courses based on the season, region and personal style. Portions are small, delicate and presented on special dishes designed to visually represent the terroir. It is widely accepted that French nouvelle cuisine was inspired by kaiseki, and that is certainly possible, although I have never met a French chef as thoughtful as my former student.  Her work is intricate, deliberate and amazing.

After the meal, she came out and asked if I would offer her a critique of the meal, especially the dessert portion. I wrote up a short summary of observations, and we met for lunch. I learned that she was to be featured in a documentary series that was about to drop on Netflix, and she was expecting a surge in business. She was not happy with her current dessert offerings (she was still baking off the notes from my class some 20  years earlier) and, after hearing my suggestions, she asked if I could just come and cook for her for a little while.

I was stunned.

I’d been out of formal fine dining for decades. And although there were a few bakery jobs here and there, none of them featured tablecloths. I had mostly been earning my keep as a food writer and occasional culinary teacher. But I certainly knew how to do it. And it just so happened that I was between gigs, having tried, unsuccessfully, to switch careers with a newly minted masters degree in art history. Also, my nest was recently emptied. So I was happy to have something to do besides sobbing in a fetal position in alternating empty kids’ rooms. I agreed to help, intending to work for a few months to set up a pastry program, then move on.

That was three years ago. This month, with mixed emotions, I am saying goodbye.

I am finally getting a chance to use my new degree, teaching in a real college that gives degrees (unlike culinary schools, whose motives I will forever question). Though I will always keep my fingers (so to speak) in the food business, I am anxious to do something a little more personally meaningful. Not that cooking can’t be meaningful — it’s just that there is a limit to the satisfaction I can get from making fancy food for rich people.

There is another reason I am looking forward to stepping back. I am feeling my age. My feet, back and various bodily joints hurt more and more each month. My flour allergy (yes, a baker with a flour allergy) is getting harder and harder to manage. Also, I’m tired of getting up at 4 in the morning, and falling asleep at 7:30 at night — I basically have no nightlife (that is, it’s night when I never go out).    

My age has manifested also in the work I do. I have become a culinary curmudgeon. I was trained in the ’80s, which is a culinary light-year away from what’s happening on the scene now. I have never wanted to be an overly fussy tweezer chef, I am not interested in newfangled techniques, I fear fancy equipment and I loathe everything molecular and architectural. I don’t need a Thermomix to magically blend and cook my custards; I have a stove and a bowl and a whisk. I don’t need a silicone mat to line my baking sheets; I have parchment paper. I don’t want to use stabilizers or liquid nitrogen in my ice creams; I consider that cheating. I am not a chef who embraces change. I am the Grumpy Old Man of the restaurant world. Get off my (culinary) lawn!

That said, I have learned some things — a little about Japanese tradition, and a lot about myself. I became a faster and more efficient cook. I learned how to be more frugal in my work. I learned to appreciate ingredients in a new way and gained respect for the most mundane elements of my pantry. (I can work magic with rye flour and a lemon now.) I learned that greatness has nothing to do with size, or gender, or ethnicity, or funding; rather it is about heart, empathy, stamina and determination. I learned that I am not alone in my disdain for the “female chef” moniker, and that we’d all just like to be plain ol’ regular chefs. I learned that the student can, in fact, surpass the teacher. Often. And always in the sweetest, most delightful ways.

But most important, I learned that, despite everything, at 53 I can still throw down. And I probably still will. In a month or so I will miss it and have regret, because that’s how I roll. I try stuff, get bored and move on. I’m lucky I am able to do that, and lucky to have always loved my work. I realize most of the world doesn’t live that way, and I am grateful.

I have met my replacement. She is about 20 years younger than I am. She is well trained and well traveled. She has a great attitude and a sunny disposition. She’ll be amazing.

Thank you for everything, Niki-san.


n/naka’s Matcha Sablé

I’ve turned to this recipe time and again, because it exemplifies buttery shortbread while, at the same time, honoring the traditional flavor of matcha. In case you didn’t know, matcha is the powdered green tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. When I started my career, matcha could only be found in Little Tokyo or via mail order. Now you can get it at Ralph’s. 


Ingredients

12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1¼ cups powdered sugar

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon matcha powder

Method

1. Don’t bother sifting anything. Just combine it all in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and blend slowly — for 3 to 5 minutes — until it forms a dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, press into a disc and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be stored in the fridge for a week, or if frozen, much longer.)

2. To bake, preheat oven to 350° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone mat — for you modernists). Remove the dough from the fridge, and knead it slightly until pliable. Roll out on a dusted work surface to a quarter-inch thick, and cut into desired shape. (Alternatively, you can roll the dough into logs, chill for an hour, then slice into coins.) Set onto prepared baking sheet a half-inch apart (they don’t spread much), and bake for 20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through baking for even browning. Cool completely before removing from the tray. Serve with a cool glass of milk, or a not-too-sweet dish of vanilla ice cream. Simplicity is delicious.


Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.