Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You gotta hand it to the French

When I was in cooking school, I had two French chef instructors, Michel and Matteo. They were essentially the Laurel and Hardy of the pastry kitchen. Matteo was a heavyset guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bluto (from Popeye, not Animal House). His accent was so heavy, I couldn't understand a word he said. Except when he said this: "Scrape the fucking bowl!" He said, "Scrape the fucking bowl!" so many times, it is embossed on my sound memory, and I repeat it over and over again when I bake. I grab a spatula and scrape the fucking bowl every time.  

Michel, on the other hand, was like a tiny French bulldog with grabby hands and a gold stud earring shaped like a croissant. He always wore the traditional white pastry cap and little spectacles that rested on his nose. If you were a female, he would glance over the top of the glasses to give you the once over. Michel liked the ladies. All the ladies. It didn't matter how hefty, or pimply, or greasy haired they were. He was a diminutive Frenchman doing what Frenchmen do best. Likin' the ladies. 

Both Michel and Matteo referred to us students as "Motherfuckers." Lest you think it was a term of endearment, calling us motherfuckers was totally in keeping with how the French kitchen hierarchy works. We were the motherfuckers. We were the peons who were just barely a step above the cockroaches that scurried across the red tile floor when no one was looking.  

I tried to imagine what my undergraduate experience in college would have been like had my professors adopted the Michel and Matteo method. In statistics: "Please turn to page 175 for an explanation of probability density, you motherfuckers." In political science: "Ok, all you pieces of shit, there will be a quiz today on organizational behavior in post World War I Europe, so sharpen your fucking pencils, you motherfuckers."  

Michel also had a penchant for using the word "pussy" whenever possible. When a male student suggested using cinnamon in an apple dessert, Michel screamed, "The French don't like cinnamon, you motherfucker! They like pussy!" If you were at all thin-skinned, sensitive, squeamish, politically correct, or a feminist, this was not the place for you. If you expected to be treated with respect in a reasonably professional fashion, it would not be in this kitchen. 

A few years later, I heard that Michel had gotten fired for sexual harrassment. Imagine that. If Michel taught me anything, it was how to be inpenetrable in the kitchen, which served me well later in my career. So, thanks, Michel. You motherfucker. 

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