Styled by jdlv, photo by Bethany Pickard

Culinary Autodidact

Toss away the recipe cards.

Jenn de la Vega
May 25, 2013 · 6 min read

The tiny hairs on forearms prickle up when anyone addresses me as “chef.” I’m certainly the head of my kitchen, but I’m no director of other cooks (O.K.,sometimes). I’d say that I’m a curious home cook. Culinary school was not for me. I nervously tied my neckerchief a little too tight and was overearger with my “Yes, chef.” Even though it was a large classroom kitchen, I was suffocating from the heat, itchy coat, anxiety and worst of all: the method.

I’ve never been good at learning in the classroom. That doesn’t mean I was a bad student, but my brain didn’t sparkle and crack the way they it does when I get my hands dirty. I’m the kind of person that figures out a new toy without reading the instructions. I will whap your hand out of the way if you try to show me “the right way”, too. It’s gotten to a point where I skim food blogs in the morning and stop on a photo that makes me think that I can reverse engineer it.

On the eve of Thanksgiving year 2000, my mother told me to wake up at 6am because I was going to learn how to cook. At 16, I was on a steady diet of Taco Bell, In N’ Out cheese burgers with fries animal-style, packs of chicken ramen (noodles cooked, drained and tossed in the powder), Costco pepperoni pizza and broccoli beef from Panda Express. If I didn’t like something my parents made, they’d tell me to cook something for myself. With unrelentless spite, I’d scowl with my soda and sit there hungry while everyone ate. Thanksgiving was one of my least favorite holidays but I figured my input was important this time around.

I came downstairs to find that my mother had gotten called to the hospital for a work emergency. There were three handwritten pages. Dinner had to be on the table for guests by 7pm. Just to be sure, I peeked into her room to see if she was hiding from me. The turkey had been brined already, it was the foreign vegetation that terrified me. Scouring the pages of cursive, I read and re-read, recited directives out loud and pulled it together. Mom came home in her hospital scrubs, happy to have someone else cook for a change. Saving Thanksgiving wasn’t the miracle, it’s what happened to me afterward. I sat around during my holiday break flipping through the cable channels and found the Food Network.

2010, An improvement.

Research

You could see the tv from the kitchen counter, so I’d be peeling potatoes or doing other mindless preparation while I watched. Of all of the celebrities, Alton Brown really spoke to me. He not only told you what he was doing, but why. The “why” was really pivotal information because it allowed me to improvise later on. I started subscribing to Gourmet Magazine and would only look at the photos. Published recipes became restrictive and choking in that same way I felt when I would enter culinary school years later. I’d reluctantly measure, follow the instructions exactly and would be so unappetized by my failure. My mother would throw fits about me wasting food and she’d sigh, dutifully eating the overcooked steak, dry chicken, chewy pasta and cookies that had gone-too-far. We didn’t have the freshest ingredients, correct tools and desireable altitude (the Mojave desert has an elevation of 2,657 feet!). Later on, I’d figure out how to revive and fix these variables.

The Mojave.

Fast forward to my first post-college job. I was making friends and inviting them over for grilled cheese every Sunday. I’d go on Google search binges, comparing recipes across multiple sites and writing down the common denominators and practices. Grilled cheese night got fancier and more elaborate. I decided to leave my music job for culinary school. I panicked and left school for a two week trip to Barcelona with my mother. We ate a lot of tapas for dinner. I haunted La Boqueria for ingredients to make breakfast and lunch. The only Catalan phrase I remember is “Un quarta, si us plau” (A quarter [pound], please).

La Boqueria, Barcelona.

I got my first and only restaurant job at Tini Wine Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn*. I was hired with zero experience and merely on wide-eyed enthusiasm for learning (it may have also been because I bribed them with cheese). You’ve really got to be hungry. People start to notice your voracity. Culinary school-bred cooks would come through and not last long in our small kitchen. It was probably because they expected glory and not repetition. I knew that it wasn’t my kitchen, so I never acted like it.

My mom came around to the idea of me being a serious cook and supported me when I planned a month-long trip to The Philippines to learn about the food that I refused to eat as a teenager. I took to the local markets snapping photos and pointing at colorful fruits “Ano ba ito?” (what is this?). Each hosting household spent a day with me in their kitchen, bestowing regional variations on national dishes like pancit, bangus and adobo.

*Later renamed to Home/Made Brooklyn & Roquette Catering.

The weekly market in Jaro, Ilo-Ilo; Philippines.
“Salazar Family Cooking School for Wayward Americans.” Learning to make Kinilaw (L) and beef tapa (R).

I got stars in my eyes when we visited Mely’s Garden in Bacolod, a successful turo-turo* restaurant with Spanish decor and catering hall. It turns out that my father’s side of the family can cook! A tingly feeling stirred in my chest, I was on the right path.

*Turo-Turo means “point point” to mimic the action of choosing dishes from a buffet behind glass.

Mely’s Garden in Bacolod, Philippines.

Refinement & Repetition

My self-assigned homework was to read and practice through Jacque Pepin’s Complete Techniques as well as Escoffier’s Cooking and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery. Even though I didn’t make it through a French style education, I knew I needed building blocks. Discipline isn’t hard to uphold if you’re completely in love with the task at hand. These books are thick and daunting but I started to notice patterns in the ingredients and logic. Think of variations as addition or subtraction of specialty components. Basics of broth, sauces and dressings were now in my mental toolbox.

Shots from the Randwich Kitchen in Brooklyn.

I fell asleep with these books by my pillow for three years before I finished. Most people don’t read reference books straight through like that but I had a plan. I circled recipes that I wanted to try and wrote notes in the margins of things that worked and didn’t work. The amazing thing about Escoffier is that all of the recipes are in paragraph form. No lists or step by step instructions. You get a grasp of method and proportion that you don’t get from the modern recipe card. I broke out of the Rachael Ray notion of quickness and shortcutting. I started to combine cooking methods and refining my touch almost to a degree of laboratory titration. I could feel the tightness in my chest go away.

A cooling sensation overtook me as I began to breathe it all in.

Roquette Catering team and… our wine.

I. M. H. O.

The Editorial Page

    Jenn de la Vega

    Written by

    Author of Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ. Caterer behind @Randwiches. Resident Kickstarter & TASTE Cooking. Veteran community manager.

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade