Bruno chose me out of thousands of other hungry people.
Bruno is the chef at an elegant Paris restaurant, but he moonlights as a teacher in the city’s adult education program. Cooking classes, in other words. At $75 per semester, municipal cooking school is a bargain, which explains the intense competition — thousands of applicants for just a handful of spots. But despite the long odds — and the fact that I’m both American and klutzy in the kitchen — Bruno picked me.
Our classes were held in a vocational school for juvenile delinquents. After orientation, Bruno dispatched us to buy our uniforms — shoes, trousers, apron, and, of course, the iconic hat. There’s also the classic double-breasted tunic. Bruno explained it’s double-breasted for a reason — you can spill gravy on yourself during the lunch service, then reverse the buttoning and appear perfectly neat and tidy for the dinner service. Each of us was issued a set of knives, which came with a dramatic-sounding license to carry them on the Metro.
Bruno started each lesson with a classroom lecture, then demonstrated techniques in the kitchen. Afterward, we prepared a full meal ourselves under his careful supervision. “Remember,” he’d tell us as pans started clattering to the floor, “nothing in the kitchen is created or destroyed — just transformed.” His gestures were so fluid, so dexterous, there was almost a musical quality to them. Watching him debone a chicken called to mind a skilled surgeon, only without the regular surgeon perks (like MD license plates and God complexes).
I loved Bruno’s classes because they were so eye-opening for me. I’ve always had a utilitarian view of food. Growing up as one of six kids, all raising a ruckus at the table, eating to me was like pumping gas: a way of refueling. I paid no attention to the food or the care and effort my mother must have put into preparing it. As an adult, I kept the same no-frills attitude — making dinner meant opening whatever can was within reach.
But then the glue that bound that raucous family together — my mother — died, and suddenly life itself seemed so shaky, so fragile. Life needed to be gently nurtured, I thought, and what better place to start than the way I ate? It was too late to ask my mother to teach me her recipes, but I could try my luck with remedial cooking school. Six months later, Bruno had given me that second chance and was patiently explaining what had gone wrong with my pot-au-feu (basically everything).
Bruno’s lessons went beyond food. “Knives never go in the sink,” he said, for example.
“Because they’ll rust?” I offered.
“No, because someone will reach in and cut himself.”
His insight ranged from handy tidbits — the way ground pepper can stop bleeding — to some of life’s most fundamental rules, such as if you make a mess, clean it up.
For the final exam, he assembled a basket of ingredients for each student, then turned us loose to create something. He didn’t make it easy; I noticed beets in one of the dessert baskets. I drew an easier lot — Bruno may have rigged the draw — and two hours later, I wiped the last fingerprint off the plate as I set it in front of him.
Was what I made sublime? Nope. But it was good. My dish was the first tangible result of a commitment to taking care of myself with a hint of the same loving attention that was once given to me so freely — three meals a day — and that I’d taken for granted. Like Bruno said: In the kitchen, nothing is created or destroyed, only transformed. And that would include me.