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Do Hard Things.

Updating my culinary knowledge has been a long-time goal of mine, but as they say, “when you are working in the business, it’s very hard to work on the business.”  Or something like that.  And I know the importance of doing hard things.  It’s part of how we grow as humans.  But things get busy.  And normal life can be hard in itself, so purposefully doing hard things sort of loses its allure. 

So, at the beginning of 2020, with a beautiful and unsuspecting new year stretching before us, I figured now’s the time:  I would apply to challenge the Red Seal exam and become a Red Seal, legit, fully certified Chef.  You may be thinking, “Wait… I thought you were already a chef!”  And yeah, because I am the head of the kitchen at A Fine Fit Catering and I’ve gone to cooking school, I can rightly be considered a chef in that sense.  But Red Seal is a designation that not only opens new doors, it also represents the years of experience and knowledge gained over time.  The standard way to go about becoming a Red Seal certified Chef is to do a 4-year apprenticeship.  When I graduated from school those many, many *ahem* years ago, I ran after opportunities that inspired me–from lead cook at a water park dining room to tree planting camps, but I never did go through an apprenticeship program.  Life happened, with more school and finding a great guy to spend my life with, travel, kids—you know how the story goes I’m sure.

That brings me back to 2020.  The Ontario College of Trades required a package of recommendation letters and various proofs that I’ve put in the hours and learned the skills of the trade before allowing me to write the exam.  In fact, it was way back in March when I received permission.  And then COVID happened.  And exams were shut down across the province.  And then my brides started calling to cancel or postpone their weddings.  And business slowed to a crawl.  So, in hopes that exams would open up soon, I combined homeschooling my three kids with doing my own schooling.  But the test did not open up by June, or even by the summer, as expected.  We ended up buying a house and doing major renos, including recreating a catering kitchen, and this dream went on the back burner. 

Studying long into the evenings became a routine for weeks

And then suddenly, my phone rang one September day with news that exam writing could once again be scheduled.  So began my new life of renovation and studying along with all the other things of life in between.  It was certainly nerve-wracking.  It brought me back to all of my high school insecurities and anxiety around writing exams.  And let me just say, this exam is a doozy:  4 hrs long, full of classical French cuisine terminology and process, with a 70% passing requirement.    

So last Tuesday I finally sat down and tackled the dreaded test and today, my fellow foodies, I found out the results… I passed!  With an 80% no less!  I’m absolutely relieved and pumped! 

See, I’ve always experienced huge insecurity in this male-dominated industry.  A friend of mine in catering tells me this actually has a name: Impostor Syndrome

“A psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” 

Wikipedia

So, I have to tell you how empowering it is to tell that voice to shut up for a minute because I. Am. A. Chef. 

I’ve really enjoyed the study part of all of this, to be honest, especially the food science! I’m a bit of a nerd in that way, you could say. I’m especially looking forward to sharing this renewed knowledge with all of you foodies in my upcoming cooking classes!

Three amazing women in my life–and in the culinary industry–were incredibly supportive in both urging me to pursue this designation, and in providing materials and help along the way; Jennifer Labine of Jennifer Labine’s gluten free kitchen, Chef Rachel Globensky (a regular contributor to the Walleye and author of Seasons of Thunder Bay cookbook) and Miriah Harp (former owner of Sweet Pea’s Catering). 

Life is full of ways to take shortcuts.  Once in a while, whether it is super practical or not, I want to do hard things. 

What’s Been Happening with A Fine Fit?

I am posting this update as you may have noticed I’ve dropped off the radar for a little bit over the past few months!  With COVID and the associated restrictions, business as usual has been a thing of the past.  However, with the drop in business, I have spent more time with the kids (learned just how hard it is to homeschool my children), had a chance to experiment with specialty cooking (see my 50 days of vegan on insta!), have been upgrading my skills (more in this to come) and, most significantly, we as a family have chosen to finally make a move that we have dreamed of for many years – to a beautiful old home in the heart of the forest surrounding the University and golf course by Central Ave! 

The new property is a beautiful acreage with a giant garden and greenhouse that I am itching to incorporate in the future for “garden to table” style classes.  But the house needed/needs a lot of work and so for the past 3 months my husband and I fell into a steep learning curve as we figured out how to contract our own renovations during a pandemic.  It has been stressful, and fun, and exhausting and wonderful all at the same time. 

The good news is we are now moved in as of mid-October, and the not so great news is that we are still waiting on our kitchen cabinets (which I intend to stain myself!) before we’ll be finished. Here’s what our setup currently looks like:

Current kitchen sitch
Our kitchen is a mixture of boxes and plywood currently. Not ideal for hosting cooking classes 😉

A Fine Fit does hope to be up and running by December for Christmas events – if all goes well! In the meantime, for all of you who have enjoyed my custom classes in the past, or are itching to use your gift certificates, I am currently offering “Chef in your Home” style dinners for small groups of 6-10 (we would need to ensure adherance to COVID-19 safety guidelines of course). Connect with me if this is something you’d like to explore more!

I also have gift certificates available for the perfect Christmas gift!  Send me an email or call me at 708-3509 and I would be happy to hook you up!  

Oh and I am excited to announce a foray into virtual cooking classes coming soon! Once the kitchen is all set I will be offering cooking classes that will allow you to sign in from home and join me in a journey of delicious food creation online! More details to come on this in the coming weeks and months so stay tuned!

I must say that with the whirlwind of the past few months and 2020 being the tumultuous and unpredictable year that it’s been, I am so looking forward to getting back to some sense of normalcy and being back in the kitchen and doing classes is a great place to start! I miss these classes and I miss all you wonderful people who have attended over the years! It’s truly one of the main joys of the work I do.

So here’s to a great 2021 as we forge ahead and celebrate the good that is in our lives.  …And of course celebrate great food along the way as well!

The day my life changed, and coming back

It’s been a while since I’ve written.  6.5 months to be exact.  My husband, who is a social media and communications guru, tells me I need to blog more regularly.  And, typically, I agree, but I actually sort of have an excuse this time!

You see, July 27th was the day that my life changed dramatically, at least for this year, and maybe for life, as my “ever the realist” surgeon tells me.  But I digress.

The day started as any other day.  My husband came home early to pack for a fishing trip.  I was bringing supplies out to the vehicle for an evening site visit before my July 30th wedding.  As I mounted the stairs with a particularly large glass water dispenser, my foot caught on the stair, I pitched forward, sending the dispenser crashing down, and I inadvertently stopped my fall with my left hand.  All in the course of less than a second, the glass cut into my arm, severing all 8 tendons and a major nerve.  (Sorry about that gory detail! I’ll spare you the truly disturbing pics).  There was much drama that ensued, including a husband trying out the tourniquet approach (bad idea), an ambulance that whisked me away as I gave frantic instructions about dinner in the oven and what to say to the bride, and a giant mess of glass and, er, blood, that needed cleaning up before the kids stepped in it!

Hanging out post-surgery.

To make a long and disturbing story short-ish, I had surgery a couple days later and all was attached again.  My surgeon did a wonderful job, but warned me of the seriousness of this injury and of the particularly lengthy recovery for a nerve injury of this degree.  I couldn’t feel a good chunk of my hand, or move two fingers at the time.  It would take months and countless hours of physio to fully recover. I was disheartened that our summer travel plans were canceled and, for that matter, most of the plans for the next few months – but the most significant blow was to my cooking skills in catering, and specifically my passion for teaching cooking in the form of my studio classes that I’ve been running on a regular basis for the last three years.

Needless to say, I was in a bit of a funk.

Fast forward a few months and it’s amazing how perspective can change. I can look back on a successful summer of weddings, made possible by an amazing team who helped carry the weight as I managed the scenes from a less “hands on” place than I was used to.  I feel thankful that only my hand is injured and it continues to improve daily with new feelings as the nerve starts to fire again and I regain control of the muscles.  I learned self-care, which is hard for me, and became quite efficient with one hand for a time!  I developed patience – with myself and with others – out of necessity. I can proudly say that I am once again two-handed, while still doing regular physio (I’ve still got a ways to go in terms of complete functionality, but I’m definitely making strides!).  I’m starting to take on more catering, I am learning to ask for help when I need it, and, most importantly, I am finally gaining the confidence to tackle another cooking class where everyone will be watching my hands as I show intricate techniques in knife work, cooking and plating (ha!).

This month I plan on doing my first official cooking class since the accident.  I’m excited! And in January, I’ll start up my regular classes again.  So, for those of you holding on to gift certificates, be sure to keep posted on my classes!  And for those of you thinking, “Man, I would love to get in on this cooking class experience,” you, my friend, are in luck!  You will get to experience the kitchen from someone who has learned anew to appreciate the art and joy of the culinary world… because you never know when your world might be thrown upside down 😉 I can’t wait to host you. Sign up for my monthly notices of upcoming cooking classes in the footer at the bottom of this page and let’s make some amazing food together!

Call me at 708-3509 or drop an email and let’s chat about cooking classes!

Making progress! (And yes I applied a filter so the scar wouldn’t be so harsh!)

Success vs Craft

So I was reading a book the other day, and I came across this chapter comparing craft and success.  The author suggested craft is that deep sense of gratitude for that thing you do that makes you think, “I really get to do this!?”  Whereas the mentality that drives success-oriented careers says that regardless of what you do, you must do just a bit more to be fulfilled or find contentment in it, creating a whole slew of anxieties along the way.  It made me think about what I do.  I wonder what folks would consider a “successful” caterer?  One that makes a good deal of money?  One who is well known in the city as one of the best?  One who has perfected the particular niche that he/she has chosen?  With such definitions in mind, I don’t know if I would consider myself a “success.”  But here’s the thing: I also don’t think I want to pursue this kind of success at this stage in my journey.

Maddy

Hanging with this monkey between functions gives the perfect balance!

The truth is, if this is success, then I don’t think I could handle this along with my personal life and family.  Not to say that I don’t value setting goals, and striving for excellence, but what I’m talking about is the mentality behind the goals and the striving, that makes one feel continually discontent, pushing a little further to reach whatever will finally bring the satisfaction of “success.”

However, I do consider my work in catering as my craft.  And I LOVE developing my craft.  Part of the love is in good part due to my husband making the money that pays the bills and so the pressure to grow my customer base more and more and make the business grow larger and larger is really not a weight on my shoulders. That’s a big part of it, I realize that.  And I realize that not everyone is afforded that luxury.  This allows me to have a few customers who I can strive to make happy.  The niche that I have chosen with special dietary needs is one that means something to me, more than one that is meant to propel me forward financially.  Because I am not bogged down by business, I actually can take the time to discover new recipes for an upcoming cooking class, or go shopping for pottery, or work on my food photography skills, or write a blog like this one!  And when my little one, who is not yet two, wants me to read her a story, I can.  This summer, I intend to work on the craft of cooking with the bountiful harvest from our farms and gardens.  And I will likely blog about that too.  I hope to always feel that excitement of learning something new with my cooking, of meeting new people and being able to fulfill a need with my catering.   I want to think, “I really get to do this!?” when I think of catering as a career.  And if struggle for success or financial gain trumps the gratitude for what I have RIGHT NOW, I hope that I can see it, and can make the change that is needed.

What about you, and what you do?  Do you consider it a craft?

Catering for the Extrovert

I am a shameless extrovert. While others, after a long week of interacting with people, can’t wait to just chill by themselves, I am just the opposite. Spending time with people gives me energy. So this year, when I could afford a regular assistant, the amazing Sherri Brown, I was thrilled! Getting to do what I love, feeding people in a creative and healthful way, and having someone to share in the experience has been a wonderful thing. But at times, I still have this sense that I may be missing my calling. Because the truth is, the majority of my working life is interacting with food rather than people. Being a former elementary school teacher has given me some perspective on this. Food is low maintenance. It is predictable and completely dependent on my actions. Ingredients behave and do not talk back when I manipulate them into whatever I desire. But as a social being, there is something lacking in the fulfillment of that. It can be a lonely thing to see your impact being primarily focused on inanimate objects.

All this to say, I am truly inspired and fulfilled when I combine my love for food with my love for people. Cooking classes are my happy place. Now, I offer both dinner party-style classes in my home studio kitchen along with workshop-based classes out of the Regional Food Distribution kitchens. And recently, I was invited back to the HYS Kids After School Program as the “guest Chef” to teach a group of junior high students the art of Italian cooking.

image1

Demonstrating how to cut properly

You may recall in a previous post awhile back I wrote about my first visit to Kingsway Park Public School, where I taught the students how to make “Green Eggs and Ham” in the form of Spinach and ham omelettes. This time, the group was working on preparing for a year-end event, where parents and funders will all be invited to share in their experience and skills learned by having a dinner made entirely by the students themselves. My role was to teach the main course: lasagna roll-ups. The students got to pick the recipe and gather the ingredients in advance. I did a demonstration of knife skills and general Italian cooking knowledge and then put the students to work in groups. It was so good to see them take the initiative and get into the cooking experience! There were some humorous moments as well, like when I stopped by the marinara sauce station just in time to correct one student on his measurement of the black pepper. “It says, ¼ tsp, not ¼ cup!” In the end no-one was hurt, even though knives and hot pans were used, and they were so pleased with the final product! I’ve learned that if a teen say “This is pretty cool!” or “This is, like, my favourite dinner ever!” they probably mean it!

image 2The main instructor of HYS Kids After School Program, Joanne Tomlinson, has been working hard throughout the year to give the kids skills and knowledge that they otherwise would not have opportunity to learn. She noted that at the beginning of the year, one child was afraid of the toaster, and another could hardly spread jam on bread. Now they are taking ownership of the projects and are pumped to show their parents what they’ve learned. And I am pumped to be a part of it.

 

All this to say, this catering thing will be sustainable. I will not become that crazy person who chats to herself and to her ingredients as she prepares food by herself day upon day. Working with others and working in the context of cooking classes has rounded out this career choice personality-wise and made me feel like I do have something good to offer the community around me.

lasagna roll

Lasagna Roll ready to serve! Not too shabby.

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