May-June 2011

The Making of a Chef

L'Academie de Cuisine student Jenna Meyer had all the ingredients for success at the culinary school. Then the real world entered the mix.

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In her first days at L’Academie de Cuisine, Jenna Meyer couldn’t stop smiling. She was exactly where she wanted to be.

The outgoing, upbeat 23-year-old had graduated from Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School in 2005 and gone on to earn a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland. But after internships at construction companies and law firms, “I realized that I just didn’t want to work at a desk and look at a computer,” she says. She wanted to work in a kitchen. And so, in January 2010, she entered the Gaithersburg culinary school’s professional program.

Many a great home cook dreams of owning an eponymous restaurant or chumming around with Bobby Flay. But learning to be a chef—and working in a professional kitchen—is no piece of cake. As Meyer would discover, it’s physically and emotionally demanding, requiring dedication, stamina and sacrifice.

Which is why, six months after starting cooking school, Jenna Meyer couldn’t stop crying.

Growing up with a big Italian family, Meyer learned to make homemade meatballs and from-scratch ravioli with her Grandpa Anthony DiGennaro, who lived in Massapequa, Long Island. They’d go fishing and clamming in warm weather and make fresh clam sauce. And every December, the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather for a traditional Italian seafood dinner.

“I have vivid memories of sitting on the countertop, watching him fry the baccalà [salt cod],” Meyer says of her grandfather, who passed away five years ago. “He was a big inspiration for me.”

As a kid living in Gaithersburg, Meyer helped her mom cook dinner; as a college student, she cooked for her roommates. And for four years, Meyer worked at Mamma Lucia in the Fallsgrove Village Center in Rockville, where she was in charge of takeout, but did a little of everything—even flipping pizzas if need be.

“I always thought she would be doing something in food,” says Jenna’s mother, Carol Meyer, a media assistant at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville. “She got the cooking gene.”

After college, Jenna spent the summer as a private chef, cooking for cousins at their summer home in Montauk, N.Y. When they invited her back with them to Los Angeles, she declined, thinking she needed more experience.

“On a professional level, I wasn’t there yet,” she says. “I can read a recipe and cook. That can only take you so far.” Which is why she committed to $28,500 in tuition ($29,260 now) for the yearlong program at L’Academie de Cuisine, which includes six months of instruction followed by a six-month externship at a local restaurant. Carol and Eric Meyer, a senior vice president for a technology trade association, thought their daughter’s decision was nothing short of “fabulous.”

“I need your bones, your wings, your legs, your breasts!” Chef Brian Patterson says. There aren’t many times a person can make such a statement and really mean it. But the chefs-in-training have just learned how to cut up a whole chicken, and Patterson, their instructor, wants them to bring up the separated parts, which will be used for the next day’s meal.

A humorous touch is par for the course for Patterson, a tall, friendly man with a quick wit who studied music at the University of Chicago and later graduated from L’Academie himself.

He is one of several alumni instructors at the school who came to it as students from different backgrounds and careers, and ended up staying to teach.

It is the first week of school for Meyer, 11 other women and eight men who hope to be among the 140 or so students who graduate each year from L’Academie (as opposed to the 13 percent who drop out).

During Phase 1, they’ll acquire skills and learn French techniques as they prepare three-course meals. Three months later, during Phase 2, they’ll apply those skills to more intricate menus. Throughout, they’ll take written and practical exams (being asked to make a perfect hollandaise, for example), complete homework, give reports, maintain a recipe notebook and learn the rules of etiquette in the kitchen (such as always addressing the chef by that title and keeping responses short and direct).

Meyer is one of the two youngest in the group. The others are pursuing second careers, in part because of the economy. One man was the regional manager for a paper firm that phased out his division; another used to work at a fire extinguisher company; and one woman was a loan officer.

Career-changers make up the bulk of the school’s students. Marketing director Barbara Cullen says graduates include former doctors, lawyers, military officers, models and engineers. Some have started acclaimed restaurants—such as Damian Salvatore of Persimmon and Jeff Heineman of Grapeseed, both in Bethesda—while others have gone on to do food research, become personal chefs or special events managers, or own their own bakeries, catering or cake design businesses, according to Cullen.

Living at her parents’ home in Gaithersburg for the first three months of school, and in a house with friends in Bethesda after that, Meyer has an easy commute. But a few who live in rural areas of Maryland have to leave home at 4:30 a.m. to arrive on time at the one-story building in an industrial park off Shady Grove Road. Class starts promptly at 7 a.m., but everyone must arrive earlier to change into chefs’ jackets and checked pants, tie their scarves, pull their hair back and slip on their clogs. Meyer, a lanky 5 feet 8 inches, will have to get used to tying back her long, dark hair, and learn to forgo makeup and nail polish.

On this particular day, Patterson and Chef Theresa Souther, the director of the pastry arts program and a L’Academie grad, are demonstrating four recipes. They stand behind a counter, with overhead mirrors tilted to reflect their every move to students seated in front of them, and rattle off a barrage of tips. When cooking hard vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, turnips and parsnips, start them in cold water, not boiling; otherwise they’ll cook from the outside in and lose their shape. Conversely, when hard-boiling eggs, place them in already boiling water; you can keep track of the 12-minute cooking time from beginning to end, and it facilitates the peeling process. The shell will pull away cleanly under cold or running water. And on it goes.

At 9 a.m., the students hit the kitchen, one in a warren of rooms decked out with heavy-duty, stainless-steel equipment. In three-person teams, they’ll have 2½ hours to prepare two salads, citrus vinaigrette, mayonnaise and pastry cream, plus roll and bake tart shells they made the day before, wash and hull strawberries, and then assemble the tarts.

Meyer has never made mayonnaise, can’t find the turnips for the salad, and later will burn the pastry cream, under-salt the cooking water for the haricots verts and unevenly dice some of her carrots. But she seems remarkably unfazed by it all.

With the strong hands that Patterson immediately recognizes as one of her best assets, Meyer spoons the pastry cream into her tart shell, stands the cut strawberries on end and brushes it all with apricot glaze. At 11:40 a.m. she calls out, “Chef, I have a tray.” She’s the first in the class to have her plated dishes inspected. Patterson tastes her macédoine salad, a mix of diced vegetables, and declares it under-seasoned.

At noon, several students still haven’t completed their trays. “Unfortunately, the customers have left the restaurant,” Patterson tells them. “Two dynamics of the rest of your life: doing a nice job, and turning the heat up on yourself to get it done quickly.”

“This is paramilitary,” one student remarks in mid-February, six weeks in. “They really light a fire under your ass.”

Although poised as usual, Meyer seems on edge. There’s a big menu to be prepared in just 2½ hours today: cream of cauliflower soup, seared pork medallions with a pan sauce, Brussels sprouts, french fries, corn bread, napoleons and palmiers.