BasqueStage: How it all began

A little less than a year ago, I found myself on the cusp of returning to Le Cordon Bleu Paris for intensive intermediate pâtisserie for a month. Quelle bonne–another sweet month of aventure in Paris! But something was missing. A plan of action was needed. Naturally, I’m a planner. I consider myself a pretty good planner [when I want to or have to be]. Truth is, I didn’t have plans for post-Paris yet, I just knew I wanted to cook abroad and learn as much as I can.

A good planner knows to plan for the unexpected. Unexpectedly, I got an e-mail from a chef friend one evening, mentioning a scholarship to cook in Spain, namely the ICEX gastronomy scholarship. Unfortunately, the deadline for the application was within three hours. Joder. I am not a last-minute essay-writing machine and writing an application essay for an incredible opportunity to be one of 20 international chefs selected to stage in the top restaurants of Spain was the last thing I wanted to rush. Joder. To worsen matters, the ICEX website was difficult to navigate, especially in a time crunch as such. I came to terms with banging out an essay and application in an hour. Fine. But where the heck was I supposed to mail them? I e-mailed the contact person, knowing already it was too late to expect a response before I had to mail my materials so I sent my application to the ICEX offices in Madrid with my fingers crossed. Ten days later I received notice that my application should have been sent to their offices in New York City. Joder.

Needless to say, with my application 10 days late, even a letter of explanation was not going to get me accepted into the program. As bitter as rejection was and as much as I hate losing, it made me that much hungrier for a win the next time around. The ICEX program reminded me of a dream I had put on the backburner since enrolling in LCB Paris, to work in the kitchens of Spain. I was reminded of May 2009. Shanghai. Orchids. Large flute breadsticks and a specific crispy pork chop in Restaurant Martín Berasategui. I’ve gushed about it once or twice before.

Ting plays the flute

This pork enlightenment prompted me to learn more about Basque country. Every now and again, I’d come across a blog or article or headline about Spanish cuisine and follow up with a day of endless googling and link clicking. My mind wandered as I spent countless, mouth-watering hours immersed in the stories of green pastures, grandma’s recipe for bacalao, artisan-produced cheeses and effervescent wines. I craved the unknown. Estaba encantada (enchanted), but I knew I was still dreaming.

A dream remains a dream and always will be without a plan. So I set to planning. A finance degree from Boston College may not have taught me how to cut a brunoise or how not to sink a souflée, but it did teach me due diligence. I researched the top restaurants and chefs in Spain. I talked with chef friends who had apprenticed in Europe. I looked for personal accounts of chefs who had staged with the Spanish kitchen gods and more importantly, how they had done so. In the U.S., the majority of chefs are one of two breeds, either graduates of culinary schools adorning awful patterned pants or Spanish-speaking kitchen lifers that began at illegal working ages. I am neither. No one ever told me or taught me how to become a chef, I just had the drive to do what makes me happy, to cook. After all, that’s how I kicked off my cooking career at o ya, because I simply walked in the door and asked for it. It’s as old school as it gets but it worked. That strategy may have worked in Boston but I wasn’t about to tell my conservative Chinese parents that I was moving to Spain with knives, suitcase and ambition. My mother would have had a hernia.

Anyhoo, to play catch up to the teenagers of chefs that have years of experience on me, I used technology to my advantage. Thank you, Google. I was determined to find a way. ICEX couldn’t be the only Spanish gastronomy scholarship out there. For extra umpf, I drooled over more images of San Sebastián cuisine from the kitchens of Martín Berasategui, Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak, I inputted ‘stage basque’ and by chance, the BasqueStage site came up in my search results. I couldn’t believe the project was what it claimed to be–a way. The way. This was the door to Berasategui I had been searching for. The deadline was halloween; I had a week to submit a video, essay and application.

Tripod. Camera. Floor lamp.

Lights, camera, action.

For the next week, I spent day and night in my apartment.

Cook, film, edit.

And as much as I kicked myself for being a perfectionist, I relished every minute of the experience, even when my dry eyeballs felt like they would never see again. It foreshadowed the months of hard work that followed. It’s befitting that the missed meals in between pushed me harder to get what I wanted. I may have missed the fastball the first time around but I made sure to knock the change-up out of the park. Like I said, I was [literally] hungrier this time around.

So what have these experiences taught me? Stay hungry, work hard and do your homework. Have some faith; believe in karma.

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