There are many things about The French Culinary Institute that are very French. The cooking terms and techniques are French, many of the instructors are from France and most dishes contain "a little bit of butter," as one chef liked to say as she added an entire stick to the pan. Yet I didn't realize how American in nature The FCI was until I was interviewed by Veronique Radier of the popular French weekly magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur.
I was interviewed by Ms. Radier when she visited The French Culinary Institute over the summer, and remembered our conversation when someone pointed out that I was quoted in Le Nouvel Observateur ’s article, "A la 'Chef Academy' de New York." The article features The FCI as a training facility equal in price and prestige to an American business or medical school, and emphasizes much of what has become un-newsworthy in an American publication: the celebrity status of cooks in America, the lofty dreams of culinary students and the financial success of culinary schools. In the article, I was described as a "petite brune petillante," a.k.a "a small, brown-haired, effervescent girl," who is getting a master's degree from Columbia University and has dreams of being a food writer. A student like myself probably wouldn't interest an American magazine. But in France, attending a costly culinary school with two academic degrees is still news.
As Ms. Radier and I talked in FCI's comfortable, brightly lit student lounge, she explained that the attitude towards cooks, and of cooks, is entirely different in French culture. She said that cooking was widely viewed as a secondary profession, a job that someone would do if they didn't have the smarts to be a lawyer or doctor. The current American mentality towards cooks is often one of respect and even reverence. In comparison, it lacks the celebrity appeal in France, a fact that fails to attract young people entering the profession or applying to French culinary academies. Because of this, Ms. Radier worried about the future of French cuisine in France without a new generation of leaders.
I'm grateful for my degree from FCI, and as someone who loves to cook, for the American mentality towards cooks. It's often a profession of social misfits and debaucherous party persons, but among those, there are many hard workers and even artists. We’re lucky to be considered among the ranks of the creative, eccentric work force that gives color (and taste) to our society.