IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Survived a Cooking Class (But Wished for Death the Whole Time)

About halfway through our five-hour jail sentence, Adam and I are bored, hungry, and stealing parsnips for sport.
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Sabrina Marie
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About halfway through our five-hour jail sentence, Adam and I are bored, hungry, and stealing parsnips for sport.

Typing my credit card number into the payment field on Seamless is the extent of my culinary skills. Even that proves to be difficult at times — waiting for the delivery guy, buzzing him up to my apartment, vigorously removing the white lids from the foil containers. It’s 2015, there’s got to be a better way. 

Yet, somehow, I find myself at Grand Central Station on a Saturday morning boarding a 6:43 a.m. train to Poughkeepsie. I also find myself having to spend the following five hours in a classroom doing the activity I hate most: Learning about the various ways to cook chicken.

My boyfriend, Adam, and I were gifted a class at the Culinary Institute of America. Cooking is something we neither enjoy nor willingly do. On Sundays, Adam makes enough chicken cutlets to feed all of Midtown at lunchtime. We then eat the same meal all week long to avoid spending any more time than necessary slaving over the stove. Like the old game of rock, paper, scissors — where paper covers rock — lack of variety trumps using oven mitts. If eating were not essential to living, we’d treat it more like going to the gym and do a lot of thinking about it, but a minimal amount of participating in it.

I love chicken — don’t get me wrong — but this doesn’t seem like a gift at all. This seems like some cruel form of punishment that the Transit Gods and The Cooking Gods concocted especially for me. If there will ever be a time in my life that I’m faced with the unfortunate event of being killed in a catastrophe, I would mind less if that time were now. Adam and I have been wishing for the flu all week to avoid this class. We spend the entire train ride there discussing the more practical couples-themed gifts we would have been the happy recipients of, like Couples Massages, Couples Painting Classes, or Couples Therapy.

We arrive at the Culinary Institute of America and are ushered into the waiting room. It is full of chipper people drinking free coffee and mingling at communal tables. Adam and I take our Starbucks cups and find a desolate table blocked off from the rest of the room by two pillars.

Eventually, a man in striped pants and a chef’s hat starts calling out classes. When he gets to ours, the entire hall bursts out into roaring laughter.

“The Bird Is the Word, taught by Chef Simon.”

If nothing else, at least we can get some amusement out of the name of the class.

We enter the classroom (a.k.a. kitchen) and are shown lockers to put our belongings in. They have no locks. I put my most prized possessions — $3.67 in cash, a credit card with a demagnetized strip, and a keychain — in apprehensively, assuming I am going to be robbed. I will check the lockers in 10 minutes, hoping to realize I am missing money, which will lead us to the Dean’s office, ending this painful experience once and for all.

Adam and I join the other students in front of Chef Simon’s station. He begins to prepare a foie grois. I give Adam a telepathic stare that says, “I thought the website said this was a class all about chicken.”

“You must pull it apart like so. Make sure you split it directly down the center,” Chef Simon instructs, in his British accent. I feel annoyed, having been stuck with a Brit for a chef, and not a Frenchman. He takes a small knife from the table and holds it at eye level to show us. I pray that whatever meds he is on to deal with teaching an amateur class wear off and he goes ape shit. Maybe he’ll think he’s playing darts. I manufacture a sadistic smile, hoping he will see it as a bull’s-eye.

The meds win and he decides not to cut me, but to cut the grotesquely large duck liver. The class goes on. I’m going to write to Pfizer about this.

“You must carefully separate the muscle fibers.” He weaves the knife in and out of little vein-looking parts of the meat.

At the sight of this barbaric act, the gin I consumed last night threatens my esophagus. I choose to stop paying attention until I hear the words, “You may choose your work stations,” and immediately regret that decision. Vomiting on the floor of a prestigious kitchen, albeit embarrassing, would have at least gotten me out of class. Culinary Institute - 1, Sabrina - 0.

Adam and I look around and realize that we’ve been duped. There is not one chicken recipe to be found. In place of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs are pheasant, game hen, and pigeon carcasses. They’re lying on the tables, naked and vulnerable. I imagine them in their prime, all feathery and energetic, and feel bad for the little beaked creatures. Well, except the pigeons, of course. Serves them right for playing chicken with me on my walk to work every morning.

Take me now.

Take me now.

Locker inspection. Cash: still there. Credit card: present. Coors Light keychain that doubles as a flashlight and bottle opener: check. Culinary Institute - 2, Sabrina - 0.

We pick the easiest dish to prepare, skewered quail with a honey-spice marinade. I mix the spices for the marinade in a large, stainless steel mixing bowl, while Adam works on the quail, clipping the wing tips and doing something known as “Frenching the legs.” I become overwhelmingly jealous of the fact that this little bird is getting Frenched while I standby, watching. If this is what a threesome feels like, then, no, thank you.

After 20 minutes, our menage-a-fowl is over. The birds are ready for the oven, and I’m ready for a cigarette. We hang out the rest of the time in our fashion-less aprons and silly chef hats, wishing for a piece of chicken. Perusing the room to check in on the competition, my sneaker catches something slick and I half-slip but gain my balance. Someone spilled olive oil on the floor and failed to wipe it up. I’m enraged with my body’s natural instinct to catch myself from falling. Yet again, I’ve managed to avoid being dismissed early from class by way of a broken arm. Culinary Institute - 3, Sabrina - 0.

About halfway through our five-hour jail sentence, Adam and I are bored, hungry, and stealing parsnips for sport. As the people who willingly took the class are bringing their reduction sauces to a simmer, the fire alarms go off. Unlike similar situations I’ve encountered at work — where everyone remains seated, huffing and puffing at the inconvenience of the noisy distraction — we are actually told to leave the building. Finally, our chance at escaping this prison has come! Culinary Institute - 3, Sabrina - 3. Three pointer for this one. Tied. I feel like a winner already.

“We must evacuate!” Chef Simon bellows.

I grab my purse from the insecurity of its locker and make a frenzied dash for the door. In the hall, I meet frantic students from other classes who are screaming, “This way!” The fogginess and smell of the smoke mixed with fried Daffy legs make my eyes water and my lungs panic. I turn back to realize that Adam is not behind me. Peering over the line of students exiting cooperatively in single file, I see Adam in the back of the line.

“Adam, let’s go!” I scream.

When he meets me in the hallway, he is miffed.

“I was making sure the burners were off. What’d you want me to do, run over the entire line of people in front of me?” he defends himself. “You’re running over women and children just to get out, like George Fucking Costanza.”

I flush with embarrassment, but quickly get over it as we make our way to freedom.

We exit the building and are ushered to stand away from the entrance to make room for the fire trucks. After a 45-minute interlude in the cold with nothing but silly paper hats and fashion-less aprons warming us, we are told that there is no fire after all, and that our classroom was the cause of the alarms; Chef Simon forgot to turn on the hoods above the pans of smoking duck. Chef Simon informs us that it will be at least another 30 minutes before we are allowed back into the building.

“Think Seamless covers this zip code and will deliver to a school?” Adam asks.

I shake my head with disappointment. “No, but I saw a cafe down the road.”

We shiver-walk to the restaurant and realize that we still have our hats on when the waitress addresses the tops of our heads.

“Hi. What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a grilled chicken salad,” I say.

Adam scans the menu. “Roasted chicken for me.”

Culinary Institute - 3, Sabrina - 12.