Week One: Vocabulary

I learned a new word two weeks ago.

In a comfortable auditorium, I sat surrounded by a collection of people, who’s ages ranged from 18 to possibly over 60, residents of several countries, from numerous communities, races, religions, genders and orientations, abilities, experience levels, and careers. We were the rule-followers, rule-breakers, and rule-makers; the curious by fire and the curious by book; the ones who made the news and those who reported it. Our differences collected somewhere between the Breakfast Club and Community. Yet we shared one common thing: we all came to the auditorium that day to be welcomed as students into the Fall quarter at the Seattle Culinary Academy!

One by one, the chef instructors climbed onto the stage (met by boisterous applause by returning students), greeted us, and introduced the school’s many policies. It was here that one of the chef instructors described an unfamiliar term.

The word is kaizen. It literally translates to improvement, and in a business sense, to “continuous improvement.” Yes, yes, I’ve heard of continuous improvement (as in cutting the fat at big corporate), but that’s not the way this chef described it. He was talking about self examination, striving to do better and better each time. When you reach a skill level that others might consider perfection, you must re-evaluate and work toward your next level of improvement. Even though I really wanted to keep my mind following his speech, I began to think about all of us students in the auditorium.

We are kaizen. We became students to improve ourselves! Whether that meant tightening up our knife skills, mastering our ancestors’ recipes, owning and building our own menus, advocating for sustainability and nutrition in our food chain, pushing for change in a hundred different aspects of food — we were there.

I held this thought in my mind as a few big tears formed in the corners of my eyes. Was I chopping onions already? The pride and honor I felt as a member of this diverse team forced me to tilt my head and feign extreme interest in the auditorium ceiling for a while as the chef instructor changed his topic to the importance of clean and pressed uniforms. (On the first day, I couldn’t let my classmates think I’d found my calling in the sleeve creases of a chef’s coat).

Once I felt it was safe to look at the stage again, I noticed that the associate dean had taken the podium. Her Leslie Knope-style enthusiasm (but without the weirdness) and genuine transparency completely caught me off-guard. She was ready to share our excitement and wanted to hear about anything we needed. The dean asked if any first quarter students would agree to share our stories from the culinary school experience. A few of us (front row, hands up first types) volunteered without hesitation.

So I’m here to share with you an insider/newbie view of “Freshman” quarter at Seattle Culinary Academy. I also hope to climb this mountain of growing homework AND still find a little time to write about it. The sprinkling of successes, the epic fails, the eggs broken on the floor, and the tears (hopefully only from onions).

That’s totally kaizen, right?

(Photos Courtesy of Byron Gronseth)