Our AP Culinary Arts teacher was AWOL on the first day of school. I arrived nine minutes and fifty seven seconds before the bell, punctual as usual, albeit dripping wet. There was a vicious thunderstorm outside that was pounding the grass into the ground. Five minutes before the bell, and still there were only two people outside the dark classroom; apparently nobody else had found their way to the “cooking wing” yet, probably because it involved venturing up the derelict stairs in the “forgotten” corner of the school. To add to the dilapidation, the floor was repressively crunchy and chewy at the same time as hundreds of potato chip wrappers protested under my feet. There was a sign on the door, which Charles read aloud: “‘Cooking is not like painting or writing a song. There are only so many colors or notes, but there are infinitely many flavors to be explored. It’s how you combine them that sets you apart.’ –Jean-Paul Syme.”
“Is that it?” I asked
“There’s stuff under the quote too. Come look at it.” I stood before the door and stared at the sign. It was written in clear English, but in such a way that made it impossible to read. Oh I could see the letters clearly enough, but it was as if they were far away and screaming some unintelligible message: I couldn’t quite make it out. Already I was having misgivings about taking the class. Who was Jean-Paul Syme, anyway? I had never heard about him in any cooking universe, and I had read every book, watched every celebrity show.
At that moment Lisbeth showed up, out of breath, her soaked hair falling in stripes across her burnt orange shirt, so she looked like a tiger.
“Hey,” she said breathlessly to both of us, but mostly to Charles. When Charles deigned it not necessary to reply, instead shrugging his backpack off his shoulders and burying himself in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I made a sort of hopeless gesture and Lisbeth resignedly slid on to the floor, making a sort of trumpeting noise. Soon after, I discovered there was an elephant about to squash me, and I found it necessary to remove myself from the situation by looking over the paper on the door into the classroom, which, to my surprise, was not empty. A solitary lamp, on a tall file cabinet on the far side of the room, quietly illuminated the teacher’s desk and the man sitting behind it. It was hard to distinctly make out his features and in the light, everything about him looked gray: his hair, his eyes, his beard, his suit, the book in his hand; every so often, he glanced up at the light, like he was afraid it might sputter out.
“Is he our teacher?” asked Lisbeth, who had joined me in front of the door.
“I think he might be.”
“Why doesn’t he come greet us? Does it have to do with the message on the door?”
“Did you read it?”
“I can’t.” Lisbeth shrugged, her face reddening.
“What? That’s fine. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“I’m not!” Lisbeth interrupted hotly. “Just because your face reddens doesn’t mean you’re embarrassed. Do you have any idea how red your face gets around Julia?” Well there was no comeback for that one.
“None of us can read it. Maybe he just wants us to go in.” I tried to turn the doorknob, but it was locked. I then banged on the door to get the man’s attention but he never moved an inch. Apparently, the door was soundproof. “Ah, maybe we can just stay outside, until he’s done reading and comes to get us.”
In twos and threes the rest of the class trickled up the stairs; by five minutes after the bell we were all more or less present—all the people I wanted to see, excepting Julia of course. She was in another grade. And who knew if she wanted to see me. I sighed. If only I could tell what she meant when she didn’t respond for hours at a time, then offered a cryptic reply? Shouldn’t it have been pretty black and white, because she either liked me, or she didn’t, right? I had tried to make my feelings pretty plain to her.
Nobody was able to read any more of the message on the door. Our chatter ballooned out, echoing in all directions in the tiled hallways—surely the man could hears us now? When we pressed our faces against the door, he gave no indication that anything had happened. Apparently, the door was soundproof.
Time marched by, with most people standing in the hallway using their phones. It was uncomfortable too, because the floors were too filthy to sit on, the walls too grimy to lean on. Charles read his book, and Lisbeth sat on the floor, toying with the stuffed pandas on her backpack. After fifty minutes of staring at the second hand of the clock chase its tail and the firefly-like lights overhead wink at me, I gave up trying to scratch my feet with my shoes on. Right after that, the clock stopped. So did the flickering. A few seconds later and our mysterious man came through the door.
“These lights. Whenever there’s any weather at all, they’re on one second, off the next. Impossible to understand anything these days. I suppose you guys are the culinary arts class?” The man’s voice wasn’t amicable or unfriendly, but somewhere in between. It was, I thought, as gray as the rest of him. We nodded. Or at least Charles, Lisbeth, and I nodded. Nobody else really moved from their phones. “Did all of you read the sign? Never mind, of course you didn’t. Otherwise we’d have started class. It’s irrelevant now, but the sign says...how many of you are interested in what the sign says?” We raised our hands. Or at least Charles, Lisbeth, and I raised our hands. Nobody else really moved from their phones. “Well, for you guys’ reference, the sign says ‘pull on the door’. OI!” he addressed everybody, shocking us with volume. “Next time there’s a sign written in size 144 font you might do well to read it!”
“But we’re only taught to read small print! When would whoever want to read large font?” Charles protested.
“When you want to get in the classroom, clearly, but cooking requires quite a bit of staring at the obvious. Now look what you’ve done. There’s five minutes until the end of class, y’all might as well leave.”
That was it; our first day was five minutes. At least we learned how to open the door.
On the second day, I was able to arrive early and sit in my seat properly, prepared for class. It was storming again, and I watched trees being given a good thrashing while I inched along the road. The ceiling lights were on, and I gratefully bathed in their rays as the bulbs washed the countertops with the familiar starchiness.
When the bell rang, everybody was in their seats. The man stood up and started talking immediately. Oh good. None of that snippy business from yesterday. “Well, hello, potatoes. We didn’t have time for a proper introduction yesterday, so I guess one is in order. I am Mr. Jean-Paul Syme.” He inscribed it on the board in glaringly gray letters. We were already running commentary in our heads about the arrogance exuding from his person. Who quoted themselves? Only those who preferred to judge others by their own standards—losers. “I was born in 1984 in London, I think. I was raised in an orphanage, and we never really kept track of dates.” Mr. Syme continued. “I’m new in this particular class, just as you are; I do believe I got a little too sassy with administration about my paper cutter and got stuck with you all.” He glanced around, as if his comment was funny. Too bad. There was only tomblike silence in the room. Charles did raise his hand though, with pencil poised mid-stroke.
“How do you spell your name? I can’t quite see it on the board.” Everybody else shot a contemptuous look at him. Who took notes on the teacher’s name? But then again, we were all wondering too, because we couldn’t read the board either. Mr. Syme kind of rolled his eyes and emitted a little choking noise, much like bullfrog.
“Of course you can’t.” He rewrote his name in black, and in much smaller letters, requiring us to squint at the whiteboard to read it. “That better?” Charles grunted his gratification. “Anyway, no doubt you all have misgivings about yesterday. But rest assured. You will receive very good cooking instruction! Now to work. How many of you have poached an egg before?” We all raised our hands. “How many of you have poached an egg that tastes good?”
Lisbeth piped up. “We’ve never been allowed to taste anything before”
“Why am I not surprised? Today we’re all going to poach an egg. And eat it too—so you better make sure it tastes good, because you’re not wasting food. If any of you get salmonella, then I’ll probably be sued, so don’t undercook it!”
This elicited a few giggles. “I’ll show you one way to do it, but ultimately it’s up to you to make your egg taste good and come up with your own process.”
We crowded around his cooking station as he chose an egg and cracked it, then expertly slid it into the minutely simmering water, gently fetching it out of the water with a silver spoon. Soon the egg was a gently wrinkled white pebble on a pristine plate. Mr. Syme might have been arrogant, but definitely knew how to hold a spoon, and as first impressions go, I was pretty impressed. Judging by the awestruck looks on everybody’s faces, they were impressed too.
When Mr. Syme cracked his second egg, it was if he cast a spell, and we again watched, mesmerized, as the snout of the spoon gently probed the water, sniffing the egg, but this time, it pushed too hard and the egg broke, spilling the yolk into the water.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Mr. Syme in surprise, but he seemed duly unconcerned. Quickly bringing the egg out, he whipped the still liquid yolk and poured it over the first egg, dressing it in a lustrous golden robe. As he worked, he calmly explained, “Cooking is irrational, like many things in life. But people can find rationality and purpose in the irrational, as long as they are flexible and ready to change plans.” He then reached on top of his tall file cabinet and took down an unmarked gray jar of sorts. Turning his back to us, he added some of the contents to his plate and then presented it to us. Somehow, the yolk sauce glowed more, the egg’s edges looked more distinct, and it seemed to beam at us. Clearly, it was a finishing touch that was needed. But I wondered at what was in the jar. “Would anybody like a taste?”
We were keen to judge, and we thought we knew what poached eggs were supposed to taste like. So eagerly, carefully, we scooped up forkfuls of the delectable substance and put it in our mouths. It was egg, but so much more than egg. They were cheesily flawless, and on could describe them as if in a cooking show: fireworks, silkiness, and all that jazz. Somehow Mr. Syme was just very, very good at this. Nothing though, had been out of the ordinary—except what in the world was in that unremarkable jar? The spell was quickly broken though, because somebody whispered viciously,
“That’s what Eric looks like when Annie’s around.”
After that, we all poached our eggs, but no matter what or how or when I put my things on the plate the eggs seemed in every bit unexceptional. When I tasted my eggs, they were colorless and weak, like a watercolor painting left in the rain. Looking around, nobody seemed to care that their eggs were inferior. They were all tucking into their own eggs like they hadn’t eaten breakfast, which probably a great many of them hadn’t, but that was beside the point. I raised my hand.
“Why don’t my eggs taste as good as yours? Could you tell me what I did wrong?”
He came over, tasted my eggs, and pronounced, “I disagree. You didn’t do anything wrong. These taste great!” Definitely one of the weakest lies I’d ever heard.
“Mr. Syme, what’s in your jar?”
“The jar?” He unscrewed the lid. There seemed to be nothing inside, except a scrap of paper stuck to the bottom. “It just symbolizes what I’ve learned over the years—and it’s a reminder of how far I’ve come from that orphanage. Sounds cheesy, I know, but I like to infuse my dishes with that grateful essence.”
I didn’t believe him. There had to be something special. If I could just poach an egg. Why didn’t I seem to understand anything? A sudden clap of thunder and a momentary blinking off of the lights made us all jump, save Mr. Syme, who seemed unperturbed.
“Come on, it’s nothing. Get back to work!”
In the twenty minutes remaining to me, I poached five more eggs. To each I added all manner of ingredients I could find: sugar, salt, spices like rosemary and thyme, turmeric, even saffron, which for some reason was in the store cabinet (so that’s where our school budget went). Every single time I followed the steps exactly, swirling the water, making sure it was just boiling, putting the egg in, and most of the time my eggs were aesthetically fine. But taste-wise, they were failures. Nothing seemed to work together. By the end of the hour, I was frantically double-checking the way I removed the eggs from the carton. Mr. Syme saw my condition and said,
“Why don’t you just give it one more try? I’ll write a pass for you. Don’t worry so much. Just do it.”
I couldn’t help but burst out, “But our teachers always told us to follow the directions exactly! Then everything was supposed to work out that way!”
“Well has it? Just try following no directions this time. Add whatever you think is right.”
So I did. My hands trembled as I didn’t think through every action, but I pulled it off—somehow. In the end, my egg looked like a mess on the plate. I had broken an egg in the pot accidentally, and tried to do exactly what Mr. Syme did, but ended up failing to replicate it. It didn’t taste too good, but nonetheless better than my old attempts.
By this time, everybody had trooped out of the classroom; it was just me, and Mr. Syme, who kindly walked over and pointed at my egg. “What happened here?”
“Ummm...I didn’t follow any directions at all. And look how it turned out!”
“Of course it didn’t work. There have to some pointers. So now try finding the medium.”
“An in in between? Kind of follow the directions.”
So I tried it, and ended up again producing an instruction-based egg. I just couldn’t seem to let go of those steps. And was that a bad thing? I didn’t think so.
Mr. Syme sighed. “Following directions is never bad. But there’s much more to everything just following directions. In between. Like a gray, instead of black and white? That gives you more flexibility, see.” He again showed me how he did it, and this time it was different from before, with no lustrous yolk coat, but he still added something from the gray jar. And more than ever I was convinced all the secrets were in that gray jar.
Half an hour later, I was still poaching eggs when Mr. Syme left the room. And that was my chance. I retrieved the jar from on top of the tall file cabinet. Of course, right at that moment, the lights flickered off; I lost my grip on the thing and the gray jar dived on to the ground nose first. Truly it was a scene from a movie; except that I couldn’t scream as shrilly as actors.
The light came on and I rushed to survey the wreckage, but there was none. The cap had simply rolled off and disappeared. So I took the jar and shook it over my eggs. My heart sank like a stone as I tasted them—there simply seemed to have been no effect. I think I actually tried to throw an egg out the window, only to see it splatter against the curtains. I sighed. Was there no way around this? I cracked one last egg. Gray jar or not, I was going to do this. So I scooped it up out of the water a full five seconds before the instructions said it was due, reasoning that it would make the yolk runnier. I added Tabasco sauce, which was not the recommended seasoning type for such eggs. Lightning struck outside and the lights grew a little brighter as I lifted my fork to my mouth. And it tasted good. So what did I do, exactly?
Just then, Mr. Syme came back into the room. I can only imagine how my pupils must have dilated and was about to offer some lengthy apology when he took the jar and said to me,
“The piece of paper is missing. Why don’t you replace it?”
“With what?” I asked blankly.
“Another piece of paper, of course.”
“What should I write on it?”
“Write what you think you should write. What have you learned?”
Literally? So I wrote on a clean, fresh sheet of paper. “The piece of paper is replaceable periodically with new ones.”