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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

Life in France: Why I Decided to Go to Cooking School

"What? Why would you do that, Madame?" exclaimed one of my students when I told the class that I wouldn't be returning as their teacher next year – instead, I was going to cooking school.

That question has honestly been on a lot of people's minds when I drop the metaphorical bomb. I'm giving up free summers and those infamous two-week school vacations to work long nights and destroy my feet and back? My student seemed to look at my decision as a step backwards... I'm doing a "CAP Cuisine," which is a certificat d'aptitude professionnelle. It signifies the "first level of professional qualification" and is, admittedly, several rungs below the Masters that I obtained last year. It even ranks below the high school diploma that I earned *gulp* eight years ago.

As we all know, the restaurant business is merciless and lacks glamour and glory (at least, for most of us lackeys just starting out). It conjures up images of fast food french fries, crying in the walk-in, hair nets, sweat, yelling, and even misconduct. Maybe you picture Carmy from The Bear getting berated by his Michelin-starred chef boss. But it also has a certain allure, especially French culinary school from an American point of view. Think Julia Child, think Le Cordon Bleu, think crisp white chef's jackets and dainty pastries.

I've always loved food, as you can tell from my past experiences (writing about food for the Chicago Tribune, working as a PA for Très très bon in Paris, posting weekly "What I Ate" blogs during my first year in France, producing a thesis about cookbooks for my Masters degree, regularly posting cooking videos on my Instagram...). And I knew I wanted to find a way to bring together my passions – language and cooking – in some way. For example, cooking and English or French classes, guided visits of Alsace for tourists, private dinners/conversation workshops, working as a food journalist... But I knew I couldn't build attract clients just by promising them how much "I love food!". I needed credibility. I've always wanted to go to cooking school and work in a restaurant to get first-hand experience in the culinary world and learn the basics from A to Z, and teaching was never my end game. So, when my two-year lectrice contract at the Université de Haute-Alsace came to an end, I decided to take the leap of faith.

However, I can't afford to pay thousands of euros for one of those mythical schools in Paris, so I decided to search for something more practical in Alsace. Most CAP Cuisine programs are two years, include general classes like math, history, and more, and are aimed at students who have just finished the brevet, or middle school, in France. Now, I couldn't really see myself in gym class with a bunch of 15-year-olds. So, I did some research and discovered the CEFPPA, which offers an accelerated CAP program in one year for "adultes en reconversion," or young adults who are looking for a career change (my classmates range from 16 to 32 years old). The school, which is located in Illkirch-Graffenstaden outside of Strasbourg, offers this program en alternance, which consists of a rotating schedule: one week in class and two weeks working in a restaurant. (Practical info for those interested: as my boyfriend and I are PACSed, I applied for a visa de vie privée et familiale, which allows me to work and go to school unencumbered by work authorizations and all that jazz.)

I chose to work at a restaurant in Mulhouse for my alternance and take the monthly trip up to Strasbourg for classes because I've built a life and even a community for myself in the Haut-Rhin, and that's where I plan on continuing my professional endeavors. It's earned a lot of questioning looks from my classmates and teachers at the school, as has my choice of internship. I'm working as an apprentice at a wine bar in Mulhouse called La Quille, under a young but super creative chef. Many of the students in my program are working in gastronomic restaurants, and I have to admit that sometimes I feel out of place at the CEFPPA. But I truly believe that I needed to find a restaurant that fit with my objectives and my values.

The menu at La Quille changes every few weeks, with fresh, seasonal and local produce, and it is mostly vegetarian and pescatarian. Every month there are special events like a "Soirée Champignons" which highlight specific ingredients, and I'm so excited to work one-on-one with my maître d'apprentissage and take on real responsibilities right away. The terrasse is constantly full; the vibe is cool, sans prise de tête (unpretentious), and I'll get to learn more about wine along the way, too. I wasn't necessarily looking for a traditional brigade de cuisine, and I didn't choose to do this program in order to have a highly reputed name on my CV, although I totally understand those that are looking for that perk. Maybe one day...?

But as for now, I'm super happy with my choices and excited for the future. Yes, I'm giving up some pretty good benefits as a teacher, but guess what? I also had to stand for hours at a time in front of my students, and at least now, I don't have to grade papers!

Thanks for reading! Bisous!

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