When I went to culinary school a few years ago, I wanted to make a change as much as I wanted to cook great food. I left the job I’d been working in Chicago for years, left the neighborhood where I’d been living all those years too, and headed west to San Francisco.
Growing up in our big, Lebanese family, I hadn’t experienced much solo time—time to hike the inroads that tell us who we are and that can only be walked alone. Even when I went away to college, I had brothers and sisters there, fun times I wouldn’t trade. But perhaps not eking out enough solo time, over time, played its role in keeping me at arm’s length from the things I did, and wanted to do, best. Maybe not enough solo time also played its role in leading up to the painfully brief marriage I entered, and exited, not long before the seeds of change (we’re talking watermelon-sized seeds, not mustard) started sprouting deep within.
I came across many Sherpas who helped me find my way. There was my Sherpa sister, who I’d lived with a long time and who kept the voice of you’re-going-to-be-ok thrumming in my ears. One way she did that was to gift me with a candy-making class at the French Pastry School in Chicago, a precursor to my culinary school leap. That week in the kitchen taught me about tempering chocolate, respecting the ingredients, and listening closely to what the process is telling you. In learning to make candy, I found the perfect metaphor for what was happening in my life, learning to temper, respect, and listen…to myself.
There was also my Sherpa bishop, the super-beloved Timothy Lyne at Holy Name Cathedral who passed away a few months ago well into his 90s. Peg, our friend Beth, and I had bought a fundraiser auction item to have dinner with Bishop Lyne years ago. When we had the dinner, he talked about how grateful he was for the life he’d been able to lead as a priest, and how happy he’d been doing his work. He asked us personal, heartfelt questions about our way in the world. His every word made me want to walk his way.
Which I did, right into his office, when I decided an annulment was in order (my experience with that was a good one, one that cleared the mind and the air). I was nervous walking in, a little shamed, feeling like a spiritual failure. Maybe that’s why I brought along a loaf of my sister’s date bread to soften the blow, for myself if nothing else. Bishop Lyne was interested in the sweet bread, but not so much as he was interested in listening to what had happened, and getting to the heart of where I’d been and where I was headed. Walking out I felt less the failure, and more the freedom one experiences when her life begins to find its way, when she has nothing to hide and nothing to hold her back. Before I stepped out into that snapping cold Chicago afternoon, Bishop Lyne took me by the shoulders and placed his worn, useful, shepherd hands on my head, and he blessed me, a kind of baptism for my future.
Not long after that, from the first day I walked through the doors of Tante Marie’s Cooking School, hiking the lovely, challenging hills of San Francisco to get there, I started having fun with what I do. My uniform of black-checked pants and chef’s coat with my happy green Dansko clogs gave me the sweet pleasure that only a uniform worn for work one loves can give: I’m becoming a chef! I thought, every time I donned my whites. Of course, I had that same thought, but without the smile, without the exclamation point, every time I sliced into my fingers, burned the caramel, or had to clean out the compost bins. But even then, I took the knocks and found there was nothing, nothing at all, that could detract from the joy of working hard at something one loves to do.
Culinary school is in large measure about learning to cook without recipes, without going back to a guide to figure out the next step. Our Sherpa, once we got the hang of it and could really let go, would be our own selves.
We learned to fly solo by tuning in to our senses—taste and sound and smell and touch—to show us what to do next, how to correct course when necessary, and how to end with a good result, no matter what happened on the way there.
Peggy’s Date Nut Bread
My sister made this bread regularly and gifted many loaves to Bishop Lyne in Chicago. He tended to think we were the same person, or at least that my number was Peg’s, because whenever he received the bread, he called me, not her, to say thanks!
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup hot water
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup toasted chopped walnuts
Grease and flour one 9×5-inch loaf pan or three mini-loaf pans. Heat the oven to 350⁰F. In a small bowl, dissolve the baking soda in the hot water. Add the dates and soften for 5 minutes. Add the beaten egg and combine thoroughly.
In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the date mixture, olive oil, and walnuts and stir just until no streaks of flour remain. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan, and bake for 1 hour for the larger loaf and about 30 minutes for the smaller loaves, or until the bread is golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.