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.
Paul Schmidtberger, the author of Design Flaws of the Human Condition, lives in Paris. Send comments to email@example.com.