Like a lot of my fellow chef instructors here at the CIA, food is my life, but it is not my whole story. Before I was a chef, I was a professional jai alai player both in my home country of France and here in the United States.
Jai alai is a fast-paced game played on a large, enclosed court. The players hold small baskets (called cestas) that they use to catch and then throw the ball against the walls of the court. If your opponent does not return the ball, you score a point, much like tennis. The game can be played as singles or in doubles, with players rotating to play against others until one scores the winning point.
I played jai alai for years, but I finally found my way to the next stage of my life: professional cooking. I’ve worked in restaurants throughout the world, from France and Spain, and then eventually to San Antonio, Texas, where I now work as an instructor at the CIA’s Texas campus.
In this role, as I watch my students learn to navigate our teaching kitchens, developing new skills and forming new muscle memories, I see how my time as an athlete prepared me for my years in the kitchen. Not only am I grateful for my physical strength and stamina—essential for long days and nights on your feet—but for the lessons I learned in focus, teamwork, and preparedness.
Much like professional cooking, jai alai is high-energy, and no two games will play out the same way. You are on high-alert, knowing that people and items are in constant motion around you, while you focus on your small piece of the puzzle. In the kitchen, much like in all sports, you must focus on the task at hand but never lose focus of the greater goal of the team.
And just like in sports, when something is new to you, it can seem impossible. The motion of a working kitchen is unlike anything you’ve seen. It looks effortless, as plates of hot food move down the line in near synchronicity, ears trained to hear the information they need and filter out what they don’t. But what seems effortless is anything but. It requires skills, yes, but most importantly, it requires practice.
This is ultimately the most important thing we can teach students at the CIA. Practice truly does make perfect, and while reading and eating and learning new things is essential in mastering any skill, when it comes to cooking, the key is effortless execution under the most intense of conditions. And just like scoring a game-winning goal, kicking a field goal, or sinking that last putt, over time, the most successful outcome often seems to be the result of less thinking and more doing. You may have heard chefs describe their work as a series of gestures, and that’s exactly right. You might know how to debone a fish, but it is the practice—the memory that will come to live in your arms and your hands, and by extension, your knife—that makes it perfect. Why is the chicken at a restaurant better than others you’ve had? Because the person who cooked that chicken has done it not tens of times, not hundreds, but likely thousands.
Of course, practicing is more about perfecting one job to be done over and over until you retire. Even for athletes who, to some degree are doing the same thing over and over until they retire, practice also helps prepare us for the unexpected. After all, curveballs are inevitable in sports and kitchens, and the more you’ve faced with them, the less intimidating they become.
With all of this talk of the individual’s place in the kitchen, it can be easy to forget that professional cooking is usually a team sport. In classic French cooking and in many restaurants today, kitchens are organized in a system called the brigade. The brigade creates hierarchy, but also structure so that each person in the kitchen knows exactly what they are responsible for accomplishing. Rather than one cook being tasked with a dish from start to finish, different parts of the kitchen might work together to create a finished plate. Proteins are handled by one team, sauces by another, and garnishes may be added by yet another.
Rather than taking responsibility away from any one person for a dish, this system allows each team member to focus on their specific task, whether it’s grilling meats, preparing a creamy risotto, or ensuring perfect seasoning for each purée. Members of the team rely on each other to give their all for the good of the finished product. In the brigade system, it is common for cooks to move to new stations and cross-train with their peers, allowing for focused practice across a range of competencies—creating well-rounded kitchen professionals ready to take on any task.
Maybe my favorite part of both jai alai and cooking is not about the work at all, but rather the camaraderie. Whether you are an executive chef or a prep cook chopping carrots at 5:00 in the morning, you are part of a challenging industry that demands long hours and hard work. Your office is loud, and it can even be dangerous, but your coworkers might be the people you spend Christmas with year after year. You may face fires—literal and metaphoric—and challenges, but at the end of the day, you are a team. And whether your goal is a jai alai championship or dinner service for 100, you will always cross the finish line together.
Chef Vincent Carvalho is an assistant professor of culinary arts at our Texas campus, where he teaches various culinary arts courses to CIA students and classes for industry professionals through CIA Consulting. Chef Carvalho is a member of the World Organization of Gastronomy and an expert on the culinary transmission of Mediterranean cuisine. Prior to joining the CIA faculty, he was the executive chef at Central Market in San Antonio, TX, where he provided meals for the San Antonio Spurs, and served in various culinary positions at many hotels and resorts in the United States, France, and Spain. A native of Bayonne, France—Chef Carvalho holds a Diploma de Cuisine from the Lycée Hôtelier and was a professional jai alai player in France and the U.S. for 16 years.