I was not your average student when I enrolled in cooking school at the University of the Slow Food Movement in Italy to earn a Master’s degree in the Slow Art of Italian Cuisine.
I was a mid-career professional leaving behind an office job in New York City. I did not want to become a chef. I just wanted to learn. I didn’t even speak Italian yet.
But what is a normal cooking school student? My class was the first English-speaking cooking degree offered at the university. There were 13 of us from 11 countries, ranging in age from 18 to 45. I was 36 years old and one of three American women.
We had to complete two internships. The school helped facilitate but we could choose the restaurants. I opted for an internship at a remote agriturismo about an hour and a half south of Rome and at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome.
The two internships were wildly different and both had a lot to teach me.
Here are four things I learned.
1. Butchery can cross language barriers.
The chef at the agriturismo was short and bearded. He wore an Irish cap and never drank. On slow nights, he would take me on a tour of the kitchen garden with its meticulous rows of tomatoes and beans.
He laughed at me when I insisted on wearing gloves to pick stinging nettle in the nearby fields. We sometimes served a simple crespelle or thin folded pancake in the restaurant and filled it with ricotta mixed with nettle and other herbs. He would pull the electric plants with his bare hands. Have you ever picked stinging nettle with bare hands? It does in fact sting and leaves a painful buzz behind for hours. The first time we went, I was cautious but gloveless and my hands were on fire all night long.
He sometimes hummed the melody to “That’s Amore”. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…” He didn’t speak English so it had no words, just the melody. Even without the words, it was comical to hear an Italian chef humming such a stereotypically Italian tune.
Yet, the language was a big problem. No one in the kitchen spoke English and I didn’t speak Italian yet. The chef wanted to teach but I couldn’t even make out the words.
He would invite me to dinner with his family at his home in order for his eldest daughter who did speak English to translate for us. We’d drive over in an ancient green Panda that he also used for gardening, with more than one plant growing out of the dirt in the backseat.
He also couldn’t understand how a student could go to cooking school before learning how to butcher meat. As a former office worker in New York City, it was hard for me to fathom that this expectation could exist.
But butchery turned out to be our saving grace. The chef could teach me something he knew well and that I wanted to learn without words. He would demonstrate and I would imitate and practice until I could handle it on my own. I never would have thought that I would like butchery but it’s basically an in-depth lesson in anatomy. I loved it.
The chef did still laugh at me as I learned to swing the butcher’s cleaver. It takes momentum and bravery, and for me, more than a little practice to pull off.
2. Internships in Michelin-starred restaurants are tough.
We dressed all in black in the kitchen at my Michelin-starred internship. With scarves tied around our heads to hold back our hair and sharp knives in our hands, we looked more like a band of pirates in pajamas than cooks. I often imagined that our kitchen was on a boat and that we were out at sea. It helped that the kitchen was in fact small enough to fit on board.
The classic chef’s uniform is basically pajamas–roomy pants, a loose jacket, and comfy clogs. And there is a reason for that. Working in a kitchen is hard physical labor, and when enduring a Michelin-starred internship, it is also an endurance feat that not everyone survives.
There were two other interns in the kitchen with me which is not a lot for a high-end restaurant. Some kitchens have armies of interns. But our kitchen was small enough to fit on a boat, and we worked for free so the main constraint was space. We couldn’t fit anyone else in.
The first intern left without a word before her internship was up. She didn’t come back one morning as if we were in fact pirates on a ship and she had silently fallen overboard in the middle of the night. The other called it quits after a visit to the hospital emergency room. Walked the plank?
That is all to say that kitchen internships can be tough, particularly the Michelin-starred ones. I worked 6 days a week for about 12 hours a day and some days I worked more. One weekend I was clocking about 16–17 hours a shift as I was also prepping and plating at a high-end food festival — and I had a long commute on top of it.
And you’re not sitting during those long days. At most, I would sit for the family meal before service which depending on where we were with food prep could last anywhere from 5 minutes to 1-hour if we were lucky.
It quickly became clear to me how a tiny, slender female intern I worked with could regularly eat at least two heaping plates of dinner each night at the family meal, pasta dangling over the edge. And no it was not an amazing metabolism. It was physical labor. I ate so much food while interning and yet lost so much weight. I came out lean as if I had trained for an endurance sport. Which I guess I had.
3. It doesn’t get easier, you just get better.
The beef for the tartare was frozen when we sliced it. It was early in the morning in the back of a tent at a high-end food festival in Rome. We sliced frozen beef for over 3 hours.
My hands went numb and the frozen meat was as slick as ice as it slid around the cutting board. I balanced the large kitchen knife against my knuckles as best as I could and braced myself by firmly pressing the palm of my hand into the cutting board. You learn how to reduce the chance of injury in a kitchen whenever possible, and a Sicilian chef taught me that trick with my palm. It’s even handy when you aren’t chopping boatloads of frozen meat.
You learn practical survival skills every day in the kitchen. Like never grab a frying pan from the stove without first checking if it is hot. Burns suck. You curse cuts and do your best to silence and bandaid them as they only slow you down. How many times did I think please don’t bleed before wondering how badly was I hurt?
My fingers at the end of a shift were generally mutilated. At first. I cut frozen beef for over three hours that morning at the food festival and quickly too. It didn’t seem like a magic trick until the other two interns hacking at the ice asked for bandaids and new plastic gloves. They were new to the kitchen and it showed. My hands, on the other hand, were callused but no longer mutilated. I was getting better.
4. The pasta gets better as the night goes on.
Starch is the trick to a great pasta dish. When the pasta is boiled, it releases starch into the water which can be used to thicken the final sauce. This is why you should save some of the pasta water when you drain pasta after cooking.
In a professional kitchen, many pasta dishes are finished by being tossed with some pasta water and sauce in a pan over high heat. The heat and starch thicken the sauce and blend it together with the pasta. This is a trick I often use with pasta dishes at home.
Pasta is also not typically boiled pot by pot in a restaurant. Rather, it is cooked in a large dedicated pasta machine that stands about waist high and which is filled with fresh water at the start of a shift.
All the pasta is cooked in the same water which means that as the day wears on, the water gets starchier with each order of pasta. Starchier water leads to a better sauce which means the pasta gets better as the night goes on.