Thursday, February 24, 2011

Best. Week. Ever.

So, the major reason it has taken me a while to get caught up on my posting is due to a volunteer commitment I was fortunate to be a part of last week, from Monday February 14 through Thursday February 17. A few weeks ago, Chef Jeff Alexander approached me and asked if I would be interested in being a student assistant for a cookbook photo shoot. Um, hell yes I'm interested! Seriously. How could I not be interested? The opportunity to participate in something like this, no matter what type of role, is not an opportunity that knocks on your door on a regular basis. Knowing this could be a once in a lifetime experience, Chef Jeff helped me put the ball into motion. I reached out to the author via email, and she responded quickly saying that my availability would work for her, so I was signed up and ready to go!

The author's name is Virginia Willis, and she is seriously one amazing woman. As I normally would before new experiences, I tried to gather as much information as I could before showing up for this assignment. With the help of Google, I found Virginia's website and read about her background, her company, her first cookbook, and the upcoming cookbook, which is called Basic to Brilliant, Y'All: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. I also headed to the downtown library to look through her first cookbook, which is filled with great recipes and equally great stories. I was starting to feel a bit awe-struck in thinking about spending time with a woman who is so very successful, but I was also excited about meeting her and learning from her.

In her email, Virginia mentioned that her friend and colleague, Gena Berry, would serve as the kitchen manager for the shoot, and the volunteers would be spending most of their time with her in the kitchen, preparing the dishes for the photos. Again with the help of Google, I found Gena's website and read up on her background as well. Gena is equally as amazing as Virginia, and so my awe-struck feelings had returned. Again, I was feeling excited about meeting Gena as well, and spending time with her in the kitchen where I was sure I would learn tons of new techniques and strategies.

I also took some time to gather information on the photographer, Helen Dujardin McSweeney, who lives in Charleston. I knew of Helen previously because she was a pastry chef in town for a number of years and she writes one fantastic blog. Her stories and photos are absolutely amazing so I knew this would be one exhilarating experience.

In the days leading up to the experience, I was balancing tons of emotions. I was extremely excited to even have the opportunity to be a tiny part of such an amazing experience. I was excited to meet these wonderful people, and the rest of the crew, and observe them doing the things that they love and are so passionate about. I was curious about what the days would be like, what the process would be like, what the schedule would be like, and I was trying to figure out how everything comes together. I was also thinking consciously about myself and my approach to this situation. It meant a great deal to me that Chef Jeff recommended me for this experience; I knew that he had to recommend a student that he had faith in, who would show up to the experience and represent him and our program in the best way possible. I also knew that I couldn't let him down, so the stakes were high. I ultimately decided to approach the situation like I would approach a job interview (which I sorta feel like an expert in given the last few years of my life).

My approach included the following: I showed up on time with my tool kit, I listened to instructions and asked for clarification when necessary, I asked a lot of questions, I worked hard and kept a clean work environment, I observed opportunities where I could learn new skills even if it wasn't something I was working on directly, and I generally tried to soak in as much as possible.

Throughout the four days, I worked in the kitchen with Gena. She assigned me recipes and tasks to complete, which included things like lemon filling for a lemon meringue pie, three cake layers for a caramel cake, peach pancakes, a bouillabaisse, financiers, and components for other dishes. I had the opportunity to shop with Gena for ingredients for the recipes so I learned more about purchasing the supplies for the dishes. I helped prepare lunch which was a combination of the dishes that were being used in the photo shoot. Gena taught me how to break down a duckling which was used in one of the dishes, so I learned some specific culinary techniques. And in between, I had the chance to observe how the props were set up for each of the photos. But most of all, I had the opportunity to observe and soak everything in. The whole week was choreographed beautifully - each person had a specific role to fill and the timing came together to allow for success during each step of the process. It really was fascinating to observe.

I'm not even sure the words I have written thus far truly capture the sentiment and emotion I have for this amazing experience. I am overwhelmed in such a great way with respect, honor, and privilege to have worked alongside such amazing women for a few days, and I will remain forever grateful and appreciative of their kindness in teaching me and opening up this experience to me. I am also truly appreciative of Chef Jeff's confidence in me, and his willingness to put his faith in me that I would represent him and our program well. I hope I have made each of them proud.

Virginia's cookbook will be released in September, and she has plans to have launch events in Atlanta and in Charleston. I'm so looking forward to the chance to attend the Charleston event and I can't wait to see the finished cookbook. The suspense is already crazy! And because I had the chance to eat some of the dishes, I can tell you that the food is absolutely delicious. Virginia's first book is definitely one to add to any collection, and her second cookbook will be equally amazing. I'll be sure to keep you posted in the future on these events.

I'd like to take a moment here and say thank you again to Virginia, Gena, Helen and the rest of their crew for their amazing kindness and for everything they exposed me to and taught to me. It was truly a privilege.

I'd also like to take a moment to thank Chef Jeff for his recommendation and for opening the door to this experience. And I have to thank Chef Laura for allowing me to miss her class one night to be a part of this experience. (I hope you enjoy the post!)

And finally, I want to say a few more things. Overall, this is a defining experience for me. It took me a long time to make the decision to even attend culinary school, and I feel like all of the emotions I've experienced since August - the ups and downs of managing my way through this chapter of my life - were all worth it because they led me to this amazing experience. I try so hard every day in school to be the best student I can be - and to demonstrate to others that I come from an amazing family and have amazing friends who have helped shaped me into the person I am today. And so I find it appropriate to say thank you, not only to the women I worked alongside last week and the Chefs who helped make this happen, but to everyone out there who has supported me on this journey. I promise to repay each of you someday with dessert ;)

For more information:
Virginia's website:
Gena's website:
Helen's website:


  1. Wow. You humble me. Thank you so much for your kind words and thank you for all your hard work.
    Best, va

  2. Carol, it was great to meet you and have you cook at the house. You will go far. You have skills and a good head on your shoulders.
    Stay in touch!

  3. what an awesome experience, Carol!
    So glad you had the opportunity to do so and seized the day with it! :)

  4. Thanks for such kind words and all of the support! I am so glad to be able to share such a great experience with so many great people!