Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly
Have you ever examined your life and felt that something was missing? My friend Jean Shelledy Denham did. Instead of living with what ifs and regrets, she made a decision that rocked her world. Jean is a living example of the old adage, It's never too late to achieve your dream.
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The Jean Denham Story
I turned 59 in 1999 and it was an eye opening experience for me ~ I didn’t so much hate the idea, I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. Until I looked in the mirror, I was still the frizzy curly red-headed tomboy with more freckles than a speckled egg. But, that little girl had morphed into the mother of eight (blended family), grandmother of 14 and if anyone had asked me that year what I had accomplished in my lifetime, what a friggin’ blank stare they would have been given. Nothing, other than being proud of my children and their offspring plus having a wonderful second marriage…but nothing, I really had achieved by or for myself.
I had had my first heart attack in 1993 and over the following years I had at some level asked myself, if I died tomorrow, what would I regret? In 1999, I finally answered myself…Why, oh why, did I not pursue becoming a chef? Since I was 19 years old I have had a love affair with cooking – I devour cookbooks, I hear a cooking term and I’m not satisfied until I teach myself how to do what ever it is. I’ve cooked for family, friends, done nonprofessional catering, and was never happier than when I had blown the socks off friends with a dish that I was so proud of.
In the summer of 1999, I learned of the American Culinary Federation and that this association sponsored a three-year accredited culinary program in my area. By September I was enrolled in a class that would literally change my whole family’s life – especially my husband’s; the husband who was used to his wife working 9 to 5, Monday-Friday jobs. I committed to three years of one night a week classes plus I had to document 6,000 hours of cooking at all the 10 stations of a restaurant – from Garde Manger through Butchering, Soups and Sauces and ending with Lead Cook. Each apprentice was responsible for finding work in a restaurant during the duration of our schooling. Well, I knew I’d probably be headed for divorce court if after 31 years, I came home one day and said, “Honey, I’m not going to be around anymore evenings, weekends, or holidays.”
So, for the first 8 months of school, I hid ( I thought) the fact that I was not working at a legitimate kitchen job from my Chef/Instructor, Chef Trung Bui, the most fantastic Vietnamese French Chef who ever landed in the U.S. I was sure I would be expelled as not being ‘serious’ chef material. Instead I started my own personal chef business, which was an occupation that was just getting off the ground and really received no respect from the ‘real cooking world’ and the chefs who inhabited this world. With this job, I could work for customers during the week days – they didn’t want you around evenings, weekends and holidays – they just wanted food prepared for them and waiting in the refrigerator or freezer. In addition to my business, a Chef’s Journey…to your home,” I volunteered with every country club, restaurant, and professional caterer I could convince to take me on and at the first, I didn’t get paid – I was a stagiaire (stah-zhee-EHR), a French term which literally means you are an unpaid apprentice, but you are compensated with the most wondrous education an apprentice could ask for. I eventually achieved status with the chefs I met and worked with, and before long, they were paying me to fill in and I learned the restaurant world of Sacramento valley in California.
During the last year of school, I was voted in as Apprenticeship Chairman of the local chapter of the ACF (American Culinary Federation) and I kept that chair until we retired in 2005 and moved home to Washington.
During the few short years of 1999 and retirement in 2005, I was so lucky in my cooking experience – by 2003, I got my dream job of Chef at a little hotel in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I worked harder than I had ever worked in my life, but it was the most rewarding and fun time of my working life.
Now, I look back and think, “My God, what if I had died when I had my first heart attack, October 3, 1993?” I would have missed the best years of my life. If anyone reads this who has a dream they think they are too old to accomplish, I hope they will take a page from my book and go for it. I was taken seriously from day one and my fellow apprentices never snickered about my age – in fact they took advantage of it knowing I was such a perfectionist, they ‘let’ me lead all our group efforts. The icing on the cake for me in school? Well, it is a two layered cake – one layer is being the apprentice chef that my beloved Chef Bui recommended for catering jobs he couldn’t or wouldn’t take on. They were mine. The second layer icing was when I was presented with a beautiful wall plaque from Chef Jim Schanel and his country club where I first started volunteering and before long was a paid part-time employee that said, “Certificate of Appreciation Presented to Jean Denham, for outstanding and dedicated service to Cameron Park Country Club.” Now, in my eyes, that is an accomplishment for and by me!
And now, I don’t want to work so hard, so I am having a ball writing cookbooks and keeping up my knife skills by catering for local wineries.
C. Jean Shelledy Denham, CC
29 June 2011
This is truly the way to watch a movie at home, champagne for the adults and faux champagne for the children, while munching on Truffle popcorn – true decadence. Be sure to have extras in the pantry when you serve this ~ I’ve always had to make more than I planned on of this punch. Everyone, all ages, loves it!
34 oz. bottle carbonated water, chilled
34 oz. bottle ginger ale, chilled
24 oz. bottle unsweetened white grape juice, chilled
Ice cubes or party ice cubes (see directions below)
In a large pitcher, combine carbonated water, ginger ale, and grape juice. Pour over ice cubes in a punch bowl. Serve in chilled champagne glasses or wine glasses. Serve immediately. Makes about 20 4-oz. servings.
CJ’s tip: for special party ice, place small pieces of fruit (berries or tiny citrus wedges), small sprigs of fresh mint, or 1/2" strips of orange peel into the compartments of ice cube trays. Add enough water to fill, and then freeze.