This was an emotional week. “They” told us it would hit during week 5, but for me, I guess it came a little earlier.
Because we rarely have time to stop to pee, I rarely think about what I’m actually doing — and all that I’m taking on. So sometimes the universe hits me on the head to remind me. It hit me pretty damn hard on Thursday. Ironically, I started my day before sunrise at the dairy to milk the cows. My first time. And while my initial attempts at squeezing were a bit off at the start (I wrongfully equated the cow’s utter with a similar-looking body part on humans), I picked it up quite quickly and came away with a new friend, Peaches. She was the last cow to milk (and yes, we do use machines to get the milk out but the prep and clean-up is still all done by hand, a gentle one at that), and on her way out of the dairy she stopped, turned her head in my direction, nodded, and carried on. As a good friend said, we had a mooment. It was a blissful beginning to another gorgeous day in Ireland (and no, I’m not being sarcastic). And then I went into the kitchen.
Some days in the kitchen are better than others. There are the days when you finish on time, get very positive feedback and are proud of your work. Then, there are the other days. We start our mornings in the kitchen by 8:30 am at the latest — some days as early as 8 am if there is a lot of prep work to be done. Often we’re up way before then for morning duties — milking the cows, gathering the fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden, making the soup stock, preparing the salad for lunch, etc. There are massive rotas that organize where we need to be every hour of the day and who we’re meant to be with. It’s all quite amazing, if not slightly insane. But, it works. Thursday morning I practically skipped from the dairy to the kitchen, my tummy filled with fresh warm cow’s milk and my arms still smelling of (and slightly covered in) cow poop. Putting on my chef’s whites in the demo room, I stopped to take in the insanely pink sunrise and almost quite literally smell the roses (there are only a few rose bushes outside right now and barely enough petals to decorate our cakes). In the kitchen every morning we cook the recipes that were demonstrated to us the day before. We learn about 20 new recipes a day, plus a variety of techniques that we must complete to the school’s standards before we finish the course. We have technique sheets and grade sheets (each dish is given a mark) and recipe sheets and rota sheets and order of work sheets and binders to hold all of the craziness. It’s all quite mental (a phrase I have happily adopted from one of my cottage mates) and absolutely awesome. When I do stop for five minutes to smell the roses and the fruit tarts blistering in the oven, I can’t even believe how much I’ve learned in just three weeks. And I can’t even believe I’m really here. But once I snap back to reality, I am surrounded by a bustling kitchen with sounds of chopping and peeling and whizzing and whisking and stirring and creaming and rolling and what not. And, a million sheets. On this particular day, my regular teacher (we rotate teachers and partners each week) was called away to another duty, so my group had a sub. My game was thrown, as they say. An important lesson for me if I ever work in a professional kitchen one day — we come to get used to a specific style and order of things and it can change in an instant. Cue the beginning of a comedy of errors that was my kitchen morning, from a chicken-jointing massacre to squashed sweet potatoes to my middle finger sliced and covered in blood from a slippery mango and me in the cafe with my head between my knees, holding my hand higher than my heart to stop the bleeding. It was that kind of day. Despite the insanity of it all, I did manage to finish all of my dishes and was quite proud of them, even if my substitute teacher did not agree. To me, getting back in the game, keeping calm, and finishing with my head up was the victory.
I reckon that my exhaustion, oncoming cold (in full swing right now) and a slight case of “what happens when I leave here” all played into the disaster that was Thursday. But I was absolutely floored by the compassion and camaraderie of my classmates — feeding me orange slices (perfectly segmented, I might add) to keep me from fainting, staying late after demo to give me a pep talk about my meringue, and taking a long walk in the freezing cold to the local pub to buy me a Guinness to wash away the day, among other random (or not so random) acts of kindness. Spending all of these years in “Corporate America” have jaded me, sadly. I honestly forgot what it was like to work in an environment when we are seriously and truly all in this together. And the power of that, in and of itself, is absolutely amazing. (And a bit mental.)
Needless to say, I survived Thursday and the remainder of the week. My finger is healing, my water canteen is full of my teacher’s magic concoction for curing a cold quickly, and my cottage mate brought me a lemon from the petrol station this morning, which nearly melted my heart. I might be a tad more fragile than usual these few days, but my new friend, Peaches, and I have a lot more ground (or should I say, grass) to cover over the next few months. And no matter what anyone says, I’m still pretty damn proud of my meringue.