Grading student journals and project assignments isn’t a favorite pastime, but if you are the adjunct instructor of College Writing at The Culinary Institute of America, ya gotta. More correctly stated, I gotta. The semester usually starts with the same complaints:
You want me to read HOW MANY PAGES?
I have to write HOW MANY WORDS?
It’s due WHEN?
Receiving complaints about writing, an activity that I treasure, is grating. I feel the same way when I overhear friends complaining about cooking a meal for their family because they have to scrub the roasting pans afterwards.* Being in the kitchen is the greatest joy in my life, while the second greatest joy is writing about food. On my best days, I get to do both.
Chefs in training are rarely enthusiastic about CIA’s writing requirement. My casual guess for their reluctance is that writing requires them to slow down. The physical demands of a culinary career require students to make split second decisions while on the line. They have to be on their toes. Although writing is not a lethargic activity, the energies of the body and mind are channeled into dreams, imagination and memories, as opposed to staying alert for the fire, knives, steam, water, and hot plates whooshing and whizzing past a chef’s face. At first glance, writing can seem like the opposite of cooking.
I require students to write a 500-word journal entry every week. I don’t really care about the students’ grammar or spelling, but I do count every single word that they put on the page. Honestly, how can anyone learn to write without writing? It would be like asking a chef to improve their skill set by cooking less. Writing and cooking are both practices. This is where the synergy between both art forms begins to emerge.
At first, the students struggle. The sentences are choppy and fragmented, or the thoughts ramble, falling into musings tinted with micro-aggressions for having to complete a writing assignment. Worse, there is no understanding of paragraph structure, which I compare to the meticulous art of plating up. I get full pages of words without punctuation compacted into one gigantic block. Visually, some of these first essays look like whole unsliced meatloaves plopped onto an 8 1/2- by 11-inch white plate. Where do I start?
But as the semester rolls on, something magical happens. The cold shoulder my culinary students turned towards the writing desk begins to thaw. I follow their chef-to-bard transformations word for word in every weekly assignment that is submitted.
The most transformative essay writing exercise is the Personal Narrative. Students are required to write their life story. At times, these essays have caused me to tear up and walk away from my grading for a few hours. Whether the chef-in-training writes about their life’s triumphs or tragedies, every story is emotionally moving. Most students write way more than the 500-word minimum requirement.
The majority of the Personal Narratives are charmingly jubilant about their acceptance letter from the CIA. Other stories are unbearably tragic. More than one student has written about drug addiction, family dysfunction, or abandonment. Several have written about near-death experiences, crossing over, seeing a white light, and then returning to become chefs.
Many write about beautiful family time spent in the kitchen. I remember one student (a military veteran) from New Orleans whose aunt Sheila and grandmother Octavia taught him how to cook and bring the family together. There are so many loving kitchen memories of grandmothers.
After the students complete the Personal Narrative exercise, there is a change in the way they write, as if they have taken command at the helm of their thoughts. Their words become dynamic and their opinions have clarity. They are less afraid of being graded. They become bold and experimental in their metaphors. The struggle with paragraph structure persists, but that is a minor detail. They are writing.
The final journal assignment for the semester is one of self-evaluation. With permission, I can share an excerpt from student Cameron Carr ’24 and his final journal from the semester:
“The change in my relationship with writing has in no way changed my career path. However, I wouldn’t mind writing reviews on the sides for restaurants or something along the lines that has to do with writing. I still want to be a Chef in the long run, but this class has helped me not only understand the readings we were assigned, but the authors behind them.
My college writing course has made me aware of the important role writing plays in culinary arts, logging the wisdom we have of chefs in our past. It is wildly interesting to know the life of Escoffier and the thought process behind his genius, which is all thanks to him writing down his work. Writing has helped me log the recipes I have created so that they can be around for longer than I am. Hopefully someone will use my recipes as I evolve and improve as a chef.
All in all, this class has helped me more than any of my other classes by just allowing me to write, by in theory, putting pen to electronic paper. In every way, I know what it means to write.”
One of CIA’s most recognized alumni Anthony Bourdain wrote thirteen books. Graphic novels, memoirs, cookbooks, murder mysteries – Bourdain quietly genre-hopped with his literary projects while simultaneously hosting No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Maria Bustillos writes an excellent article for Eater Magazine on the writing career of Bourdain. In the byline, Bustillos asks the question “Is the real Anthony Bourdain lurking in his early novels?” I have a copy of his non-fiction historical biography about Typhoid Mary on my shelf. His curiosity about the world and his tenacity in his writing practice left us with a feast.
I often wonder which of my students** will take their writing as seriously as Bourdain and courageously experiment on “electronic paper” the way he did. We are lucky that Escoffier took time to write out his thoughts. Not all, but some of the students may continue to write. I hope so. As their instructor, it’s exciting to think that the next Escoffier, Bourdain, Fisher, or Angelou is among their ranks.
Few of the CIA’s College Writing students would trade their toque for a tweed jacket with elbow patches, but then again, you never know.
*For the record, I am not that crazy about scrubbing roasting pans either. But the drudgery of washing dishes never stops me from cooking.
**Message to my CIA students: Please note this essay is well over 1000 words. I used my 100-word Professional Bio and when I submitted the essay, which was formatted in Times New Roman font 12pt and had an MLA style header. My paragraph structure is delightfully nuanced yet organic like a meticulously crafted plate-up.
Melissa Guerra is an adjunct professor at our Texas and New York campuses, where she teaches food history and college writing. She is a self-taught culinary expert and food historian, specializing in the food ways of the American continent, especially Texas regional, Mexican, and Latin American cuisine. Guerra holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, and continues to write and publish articles about life along the U.S./Mexican border. Her second cookbook, Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cuisine of South Texas, was a finalist for a James Beard Award and for an International Association of Culinary Professionals. Guerra also works as a freelance recipe developer, photographer, and content creator and manages a food blog, “Kitchen Wrangler.” @kitchenwrangler