The friends I never knew I'd meet in culinary school
Updated: Jan 21
Olive Garden’s slogan used to be, “When you’re here, you’re family.”
It suggests that your meal isn’t just about the food; it’s about who you eat it with. Awww.
More broadly, it suggests that life isn’t so much about what you do. It’s about who you do it with.
In that sense, I guess going to culinary school is kind of like eating at Olive Garden (whose slogan has since changed something not as good). As much as I will cherish what I’ve learned, cooked, and eaten in Florence, I might remember even more fondly the people who came into my life along the way.
My friendships with my dozen culinary classmates, who come from all over the world, didn’t necessarily form overnight. It was a slow burn and an adventure getting to know them through language and cultural barriers, busy classes, and the general excitement that comes with living in a foreign country. Now I can’t imagine this experience without them and what they have taught me about the world.
I’m writing this farewell post a bit sooner than expected. About half of our class are going back to their home countries to wait out the coronavirus with their families. Though this isn’t the goodbye I’d imagined (I was hoping for one last round of drinks at our usual bar in Sant’Ambrogio), I’m pretty sure my friends can make negronis and Aperol spritzes for me when I visit them in South Korea, Taiwan, and beyond — or better yet, at their future restaurants in New York City, Istanbul, and who knows where else.
Until then, here’s a glimpse at the wonderful personalities that helped make this year so special to me.
Cincin, ragazzi! A presto.
Jea, AKA Ginger (เจียระไน), from Phetchabun, Thailand: Ginger and I have a lot in common: our journalism backgrounds, our affinity for going to the movie theater, and even the same internship at Essenziale, which we bonded over this semester. But she has way cooler tattoos than me (I don't have any); she plans to get an artichoke next. She’s also the hardest worker in our class. She shows up early, stays late, and truly loves her job: to cook, learn, and improve every day, with care and respect. Her passion and kindness will take her wherever she wants to go.
Vasu, from Bellary, India: Vasu is the kind of person who gives an individual “good morning” and “how are you” to every single person in the room, no matter how he’s feeling. He’s generous with his time and cares deeply about others’ feelings. I look forward to texting him out of the blue to ask him what movies and TV shows he's watching; he seems to have seen nearly every one.
Logan, from Hyderabad, India: I've never met anyone with their eyes set so acutely on the prize as Logan. He has a dream: to move to New York City after graduation and eventually open his own restaurant chain. I believe that he’ll do it. Logan has taught me a lot of useful techniques, which is why I will think of him every time I separate egg whites and yolks. Aside from cooking, he has a talent for bringing people together, whether at his own dinner table (which he sets generously with multiple dishes and wine at every course) or at loud and smoky nightclubs.
EJ, AKA Georgia (은정), from Ulsan, South Korea: EJ is quiet, but so expressive. I love to watch her take pictures on her iPhone because it shows what she thinks is beautiful: most of the time, fruit, flowers, and smiling faces. I will miss her gentle presence, which makes everyone who talks to her feel at ease.
Hyun Jin, AKA Angela (김 현 진), from Ulsan, South Korea: Hyun Jin went from being one of the people I knew the least in our class to one of my closest friends. She is hilarious. My favorite actions of hers are when she 1) hits Logan, 2) speaks Italian, more enthusiastically than anyone I know, 3) makes almost the exact same face when she loves a bite of food or hates it (Both faces look like she’s on the verge of tears, so it is a very fun challenge to figure out which is which.) and 4) gives me a hug or a pat on the back, which always makes me smile.
Byungsoo (병수), from Ulsan, South Korea: Byungsoo’s name is not hard to pronounce (you say it exactly how it's spelled), but it is one of my great pleasures to hear what people call him instead. Highlights include Bingsooah, Bean Soup, and, his favorite, Byungdon, a nod to his hero Gordon Ramsay. Byungsoo is most comfortable manning the meats at the secondo station and hopes to become “the greatest chef in the world.” I’m excited to watch him do it.
Sue (수희), from Ulsan, South Korea: Sue knows how to live. She reminds me that life is way too short not to eat well, travel often, and drink and dance late into the night. Her clothes are bold. Her laugh is loud and full. Her sass and spirit keep you on your toes. I always have fun when I’m with Sue, whether we’re eating pizza, dancing at clubs, or lying down in the grass with our legs stretched up toward the sun.
Cagla (Çağla), from Istanbul, Turkey: I’ve never had what the youths call a style icon until I met Cagla, who looks amazing in anything from sweatshirts to bucket hats. She treated me like a friend from the first day we met, when she asked about my life and invited me into her Instagram selfies. Since then we’ve bonded over her dog, Artur, and our mutual love of desserts. I can’t wait to eat her signature tiramisu at her future café in Istanbul.
Simmy (歆禕), from Taichung, Taiwan: Simmy has always been a reassuring presence, from our time as partners in the kitchen to our day trips in Perugia and Siena. I know he will be successful at whatever he does, whether he is a chef or a model for Zara (just kidding, but he could be; he rocks a trench coat!).
Alice (宇彤), from Taichung, Taiwan: Alice has a contagious enthusiasm for cooking. Her excitement when we plan menus and talk about potential ingredients is so motivating. She even cheers me on when I attempt to do the notorious pasta flip. I wish her plating skills would also transfer over to me; I can only hope to make steak tartare and fruit tarts look as lovely as Queen Alice does.
Jessie (知熹) and Ann (晏瑩), from Penghu, Taiwan: And finally, my roommates, who I’ve been very lucky to have been randomly assigned to live with for the last year. Our communication started out shaky; they were still learning English, and I don’t know a lick of Mandarin. Now we’re family.
We’ve learned a lot from each other. Ann always surprises me with how much she knows about American politics, and she has enlightened me about Taiwanese culture. Jessie has combined her thoughtfulness and watercolor skills on multiple occasions with hand-painted cards for my birthday and just because. Both of them, plus Mia (敏華, also from Taichung, Taiwan) have taught me how to cook dumplings and the perfect steamed rice, and I’ve shown them American delicacies like chicken pot pie and banana pudding.
I’m sad they’re leaving me this weekend, but I know I’ll feel (and taste) their presence in our apartment long after they’re gone; Ann has been very adamant about leaving me with plenty of rice, noodles, and spicy sauces so I don’t starve without them. I don’t know when I’ll make my trip to Asia, but when I do, Taiwan will be the first place I go.
I’ve been trying to think of my favorite in-class memories. The first that comes to mind is our first theme dinner at Ganzo, when we collectively planned our first menu of many and got rave reviews from our teachers and customers. Another is when we cooked beef tongue and marveled at its incredible girth.
We laughed a lot when we burned things, caused vacuum-sealer explosions, and incorrectly cooked beans for the thousandth time, to Chef Massimo’s utter disbelief. (These things weren’t always funny at the time, but they are now.)
I also think a lot about our random acts of kindness for one another, like when Vasu handed us pieces of pear without a word or when Alice made us all caramelized pineapple just because.
Even when schools across Italy closed on March 3, none of us knew that the day before had been our last day together as a class. We were finally back in our school restaurant, Ganzo, where our journey first began. Those of us who are still in Florence might not even be able to go back to the kitchen this semester.
It’s sad that our schoolyear was cut short, but that’s OK. Our memories are pretty amazing. These friendships will always be in our hearts. No ending can change that, no matter how expected.