Those were my words. I said them during one of my finals at Leiths School of Food and Wine. The exam required us to cook a classic of French cuisine: a supreme of chicken with a tarragon sauce, served with mashed potatoes and green beans. On that particular day, however, I found that simple fare does not equal simple feelings. I have never eaten the dish since.
I recently wrote a piece for the journal Gastronomica about the stress of cooking; I gave it the title, MasterChef: a master class in fight, flight, or flambé?. Indeed, on the day of my exam I engaged in meticulous, MasterChef-worthy preparation: I donned my apron and sharpened my knives. My prep however wasn’t as savvy and sophisticated as some of my fellow classmates’; as we went about our mise en place I saw that one of my peers had brought with her a plastic piping bag to plate her mashed potatoes as squeezy swirls that Mister Whippy would have been proud of. Damn, why didn’t I think of that? I started to panic that my plan to have mounds of mash would render my plating more Neanderthal than Nouvelle cuisine. I could feel my stress levels rising.
I was mindful that I needed to show I was handling my chicken in a safety-conscious way. But I also needed to be efficient and save time wherever possible – every millisecond counted. So, I wrapped my chicken in parchment paper and put it on a plate right next to the hob. Our chef teachers yelled, ‘Ready, steady, cook!’ I put my frying pan on the biggest ring, quickly waved some oil into it and lit the gas, turning the heat straight to high. The problem was that I didn’t realise how close my parchment-covered chicken was to the flame. A split second later the chicken caught fire. I just stood, transfixed by the flaming chicken, like I was in some sort of Nando’s nightmare. Both it and I were going down in the most inglorious blaze. Chef Maclennan swooped in, grabbed the paper parcel, threw it to the floor and stomped the fire out. I finally saw how useful chef’s clogs could be. I stared at the ashy flakes on the floor. This definitely did not feel like a phoenix rising moment, more like a time for my inner phoenix to fly away and hide under the duvet forever. I could feel my eyes plump up with tears and my breath stalled in my throat. In my hot, stressed and shameful state, flight was my choice of strategy – I really didn’t have the resource to fight my way through my exam now. What would be the point anyway? I had clearly failed. I decided to reject myself and save any further public humiliation. Quietly, and wincing as though I was ripping off a plaster at a glacial pace, I said to Chef Maclennan, ‘I’ve set the chicken on fire. Do you want me to go?’ She smiled at me and laughed gently before responding, ‘Of course not! I’ll call the stock room to send up another chicken. Try again. You can do it.’ The huge sense of relief extinguished my personal flambé and I was able to start my practical from scratch.
Something that still saddens me is that I was so preoccupied with avoiding failure on the day that I couldn’t delight in the cooking process at all; I didn’t really see the soft fat of the chicken rendering to become golden crisp. I didn’t really hear the moment when the green beans became linguistically mature, going from squeaky to soft bite. I didn’t really taste the ‘just rightness’ of the tarragon in the sauce, where it whispered liquorice and thankfully didn’t end up heady like an Allsorts avalanche. I enjoyed none of it because I felt like I was plating myself; somehow, if my food wasn’t good enough, it meant that I wasn’t good enough.
Thanks to Chef Maclennan and her belief in me, my finale at Leiths had a culinary happily ever after and I had the opportunity to show that I was good enough. She was my favourite teacher; there was a warmth about her that I had noticed at our first demonstration, which had been baking. There, she had softly and effortlessly whipped up sweet scones and madeleines and macarons, like a fairy(cake) godmother. When my fear and stress made me wobble during my exam, Chef Maclennan was my secure base.
Building a secure base is exactly what we do in therapy. It is created when a person can speak without worrying about being rejected or judged by others – psychologists call this fear of negative socio-evaluative threat; as humans, we find this kind of threat just as stressful as we would a physical threat. But if you have a secure base, you don’t have to fight or flee or flambé; it’s safe enough to stand still and to talk about any and all of the feelings you are experiencing – even those to do with chicken and rejection.
This story inspired my recipe for Greek green bean and chicken stew.