From Concussion to Culinary School
Culinary Arts student Bethany Ezawa shares her risk-taking story ⎯ and how it's paying off.
“What haven’t you done?” Chef Pergl asked as I directed him and 11 beginning culinary students into neat rows and windows for our inaugural group photo. I thought about my high school yearbook days, my college newspaper days and my “one day I’ll be a photojournalist” days ⎯ I always have a hard-won skill tucked away for occasions like this.
Laughing darkly at myself, I looked up at the hopeful faces of my peers, some of whom are more than 10 years younger than I was when I decided to apply to the Institute of Culinary Education. As the camera timer began to count down ⎯ symbolism not wasted on me as I approached 30 ⎯ I got choked up and doubted myself. What am I doing? Do I belong here? Will I finally find a place in the culinary world? I’m surprised, looking at that photo now, that I look just as bright-eyed and optimistic as my new colleagues.
Like many cooks, I can measure my life in odd jobs, changed careers, and attempts at creating a happy, sustainable life around food. Before I worked, I loved when dinner was my assigned chore. My mom, who took risks that included moving to Japan on her own way before it was cool, showed me early on how to peel the potatoes just right for goulash and how to season the chicken thighs for Japanese brown curries. When I realized I needed to contribute to the household income as a teenager, I delivered newspapers to corner stores and bodegas, scrubbed grocery store bathrooms and made ice cream sundaes at a ‘50s-era drive-in. In college, I served muffins and granola to busy students in the morning, washed lunch dishes in the cafeteria and worked the late-night shift at the pizza place on campus. Then, as a broke and jaded college graduate, I found specialty coffee. I fell in love with the industry while working in cafes and attempting to elevate baristas as skilled artisans. I even co-founded a mobile coffee bar ⎯ a coffee food truck ⎯ in my favorite city, Durham, North Carolina.
My food story took a turn when I was accepted into a prestigious teacher-training program. I thought I found a higher calling serving urban public schools and eagerly left food and coffee behind. However, when my married-too-soon relationship imploded and teaching lost its glow to bureaucracy and the realities of institutional racism and sexism, I retreated to food. I felt comfort in my grandma’s country favorites: pinto beans and cornbread, chicken and dumplings, fried potatoes and eggs fried hard. I experimented and re-created Japanese staples like ochazuke (rice and green tea breakfast soup), omurice (tomato fried rice topped with a runny omelet) and pork gyoza (half-moon, pleated dumplings often pan fried and steamed). I began dreaming of a modern home cook’s diner ⎯ a fusion of my Japanese and European heritage ⎯ maybe a boutique hotel with an intimate dining room. I dreamed of a place that I could share and call home.
In my experience, there are people who are able to risk everything for their dreams (risk has a lot to do with privilege, access and positive risk-taking experiences) and people who have dreams but are bound to other circumstances. For a long time, I thought I was bound to my circumstance. I was broke, committed to my students, and under the impression that my age and recent heartaches were deficits rather than strengths. There was no way I could make my dream a reality, and even the idea of truly learning how to cook seemed out of reach.
Then, in a completely ridiculous twist, I fell and suffered a debilitating concussion. I took time off from teaching and laid in bed for weeks. I dreamt of food. It’s a bit funny now to think that I’m in culinary school because of a concussion! With newfound free time and perspective (thanks, bruised brain!) I began reading about culinary schools. I made lists of pros and cons. I interviewed other cooks, and I contacted students from culinary programs around the country. I dreamed of a place that I could share and call home.
ICE stood out almost immediately. It was clearly sending students into the country's best kitchens and equipping them with the skills and knowledge necessary to make their dreams ⎯ big and small ⎯ realities. It was also clear that ICE alumni came from all types of circumstances and that their risk taking paid off. Even though I was stuck in bed, I felt myself growing more and more confident. Without telling a soul, I applied to ICE’s Los Angeles campus. I blame the concussion, and the rest is a blur.
Now that I am a few weeks into classes, it’s hard to believe that I doubted myself. Every day I learn a new technique or taste a new element of food that leads to the thought, I’ll do that in my place one day. On pancake, waffle and biscuit day, I made evenly fluffy, worth-eating pancakes for the first time in my life. On one of many egg days, I was reminded of Japan’s tamago gohan (a raw egg mixed with steaming hot rice and soy sauce). Don’t get me wrong, I cut myself on day one, and just today, Chef Pergl announced that I looked like I was having fun for the first time.
Every day I have to remember that I’m not the teacher anymore, or worse, to not put my fingers in the Hollandaise. Regardless, wearing a chef’s coat is becoming natural, and one thing is certain: I belong here.
Your food dreams can become a reality in ICE's Culinary Arts program.