It’s no secret that the last year has been a tough one for me. Tough by third world standards? Probably not. Tough by mine? Affirmative. It’s been a time of growth and reflection that landed me in Palm Springs Chefing at a pretty well-regarded shop with a solid crew despite some geographical challenges. It’s taught me a lot of humility – that seems to be the theme recently – and it’s turned me from a food photographer/desk-bound Executive Chef back to slugging out in the belly of the kitchen. It’s helped sharpen my painfully rusty skills and slowly but surely I’m getting my knife hand back. At my advanced chronological age I never thought I’d pack up my dog, knife roll and bag of tricks to venture off into the personal and professional unknown far from the safety of my well-engineered cocoon here in the OC.
Hell has, indeed, frozen over apparently.
In the course of this journey I decided to volunteer at a local High school in their culinary arts program, hanging with the kids and sharing my screwball approach to things. It’s in the spirit of paying it forward and connecting with the local food community, for only the second time in my half century on the planet I’m the new guy in town and it seems like a smart move on a number of fronts.
The facility is great, a fairly new build with all the bells and whistles. Those kids keep the place as clean as an operating room and all in it’s almost as well-equipped as the kitchens my Chef buddies at Disneyland get to utilize. It’s run by Mary, a spry woman who defies the laws of time by being as energetic as any newbie Kindergarten teacher despite her years and runs those kids ragged – but in the good sense of the word. It’s her way or the highway and she’s as adept at teaching proper restaurant procedures as she is dispensing valuable life lessons that extend far beyond the coral-colored walls of the school.
During the course of conversation with her and one of her equally well-qualified compatriots we discussed the merits of the pronunciation of their program there – and I’m not taking about how to spit out “La Quinta”. It was about the word “culinary” and the subtleties of its pronunciation. It made want to chime in about it and to be perfectly honest I needed a break from penning my grand opus about the proper way to build a burger. That is also a journey that is teaching me humility.
I’m pretty unconventional and in general could give two fucks about propriety. That goes for the rules of pronunciation of this particular word. I say “kewlinary”, like some valley girl from the 80’s says “ewwwwww” when she sees someone barf. I have a few Chef buddies who do it too although I doubt I could get them to admit it in print much less out loud – but they do it. And don’t forget, we pronounce “chef” with a soft “ch” not like “chair” – unless you’re Cheech Marin in which case all bets are off.
Contrary to popular belief, both are considered okay despite the earnest protections of my more erudite compatriots in The Biz. Certainly the classical pronunciation is the sermo nobilus of the restaurant world and all the associated gentry are well aware of the finery of it’s usage. My litmus test for all things linguistic concerning The King’s English rely upon the 1956 Oxford dictionary – the Stonehenge of phonemic reference. It designates both pronunciations as appropriate unlike “cumin”, which had the singular enunciation of “KUM-in”-which just sounds dirty to me. If I was saying it on TV or at a snobby cooking demo I’d say “Koo-min” but in the midst of a rush while I’m doubling back making chili verde it’s “Kew-min” as a default setting.
So what’s the difference and when can you use this trashy, alternative to the classic pronunciation? It’s like learning photography, a subject near and dear to my heart. When I was studying it they handed you the most stripped-down, janky manual film (gasp!) camera and showed you the basics of aperture, ISO, shutter speed and exposure. All lessons in life should be taught this way. If give paid your dues and have it halfway figured out I think it’s okay to show your SoCal/OC/West Coast roots and say “kewlinary”, it’s a little endearing actually. It’s not a bad thing but if you’re looking to impress, fit in or just seem more continental then use the proper pronunciation – that’s fine too. It’s apples to oranges to me. But on the face of things “kewlinary” seems to roll off the tongue all the better on a hot HB afternoon with a gyoto in one hand and a bong in the other.
“Kuh-luh-ner-ee” or “Kyoo-luh-ner-ee? Let’s call the whole thing off. But maybe there’s a place for this linguistic mutt in the “culinary” world no matter how you pronounce it.