On being … out of your comfort zone

By Ingrid Sapona

Earlier this month my sister Sonia marked a milestone birthday. As part of the celebrations, Sonia, Regina (my other sister), and I took a two day cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America (affectionately referred to as the CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.

Originally the plan was for the three of us to meet in Ottawa and for Sonia and me to take a one-day class at Le Cordon Bleu (Ottawa). Both Sonia and I love to cook. Regina does not. In fact, she often jokes that she was not born with the cooking gene.

When none of the classes at Le Cordon Bleu interested us, I looked into classes at the CIA. When I read about their two day basic skills boot camp, I thought it’d be fun if the three of us took it. Regina said she’d be happy to go to Hyde Park with us, but she didn’t want to take the class.

But, as is often the case with her, after I planted the seed of the idea, she did some research. She read about the CIA and about things to see and do in Hyde Park (FDR’s home and presidential library, for example), and she even found a lovely inn. Within a few days she had come around. Soon after that she booked the inn and, though I knew she had some reservations, she registered all three of us for the boot camp.

Before the trip there were hints that her anxiety level was ratcheting up. For example, when we received the schedule from the CIA, she pointed out that each day ends with a critique, which she was sure was going to involve Chef commenting on her cooking skills. I laughed and said I thought the critique would involve us talking about how we felt working through the different recipes. She didn’t find this idea comforting, however, because she didn’t think she’d have anything to contribute to such a discussion.

Also, she mentioned she told her boss (an avid cook) about the course and he suggested she focus on learning one thing she can teach him. I thought this was a brilliant idea – a great way to keep her mind off her self-described cooking disability. Unfortunately, the way she was taking notes during the initial lecture, it was clear his assignment only added to her stress.

On day one, the first order of business was changing into chef’s uniforms. We laughed in the ladies room as we took pictures of the sister chefs. Then we had a campus tour and a formal lunch. During lunch, Sonia’s and my excitement grew. Regina was markedly quieter. I took a picture of her and we joked that it was the last time for the next two days that she’d look relaxed. Little did I know how true that was.

After lunch Chef briefly lectured us on basic knife skills (for example, the difference between a fine chop, a mince, and a julienne) and terminology, like Mise en Place (basically setting out all the ingredients needed before you start cooking). He then divided us into teams – Regina and I were on Team Three – and assigned us our recipes for the day.

After a quick orientation to the kitchen’s layout, we went to our stations and basically began. We divided the recipes among the team members and each set to work. Next thing I know, Regina put down her knife and I notice a bit of blood on her finger. It wasn’t a particularly bad cut, but I insisted we get her a band aid. (We had been shown where the first aid kit was!) Though she joked about being the first casualty of the day, I could tell she was upset.

A little while later I went to see how she was doing and she was practically in tears. I asked her what was wrong and she just shook her head. When I pressed her further, she said she was so far out of her comfort zone that she hated it and she intimated that she didn’t think she’d return for day two. When she added that she wished Chef had explained things a bit more, I made it my mission to get him to help her and (I hope) reassure her.

I felt terrible that she was having such a horrible time, especially since the course was my idea in the first place. Though I couldn’t relate to why she felt stressed by this particular experience, I certainly know how it feels to be even a wee bit out of your comfort zone – let alone WAY out of it. So, if she had chosen not to go back for day two, I certainly would have understood. In the end, she decided to return the next day, and I think it went better for her. The fact she was all smiles when she received her Certificate of Completion from Chef was nice to see, but I suspect it was more a sign of relief than true happiness.

On our way home the three of us were talking about the experience. It was important to me that Regina know how impressed I was with her willingness to join us in the first place. I also admitted that, going into it, I hadn’t really realized how big a stretch it was for her. She sort of shrugged off the intended compliment and said, “Well, I just figured if there was something I really wanted to try you guys would do it for me, right?”

Well, it turns out Sonia and I aren’t quite as open to the possibilities as Regina! In unison we responded, “What, are you kidding? It totally depends on what it is!”

Hey – what can I say? There are comfort zones and there are comfort zones… Indeed, it seems the older I get, the less willing I am to venture beyond my comfort zone. That said, given what a terrific role model Regina’s been, I’d like to think that for her, I’d try…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


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