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How Boot Camp Changed My Cooking…and My Life

Tracy Antonioli, CIA boot camper
"My life, as well as my cooking, has become more about quality than quantity."

Tracy Antonioli's Story

From a young age, I always wanted more. I recall sitting at the dinner table as a child, mournfully looking down at the plate of food my mother lovingly prepared for me. Lovingly, sure—but not creatively. In our house, it was spaghetti on Mondays, pork chops on Tuesdays, meatloaf on Wednesdays. The one thing that all of our meals shared, aside from predictability? Flavorlessness. And I remember thinking: Why can’t she just add more flavor?

In college, I rebelled. While all of my friends were playing beer pong and engaging in various other risk-taking behaviors, I was alone in my studio apartment watching cooking shows and making margin notes in cookbooks. There was no recipe I could not improve upon with the addition of more—more salt, more spice, more…bacon. More was always better.

For years, I applied this outlook to my other passion: travel. Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I cultivated a travel style that was as different from Pork Chop Tuesdays as is my super-spicy shrimp and andouille gumbo. Why visit one destination when you can visit two? I mean, Paris is right there across the channel from London. A week-long trip expands far too easily into a month-long trip, and I eventually found myself changing careers to allow for full-time travel. I seasoned all parts of my life very liberally. More was always better.

When I arrived at Boot Camp, I could not wait to dive in and learn the complexities of real cooking. I imagined them to be rather, well, complex. I was excited to learn more.

The first dish I made? Braised greens. The total number of ingredients? Six. Kale, bacon, onions, garlic, and stock, with an optional ham hock. I’d made this same dish at home dozens of times. Sure, I never removed the stems and I never blanched the greens. But I did always add vinegar and hot pepper flakes and, occasionally, beer. And, OK, I’ll admit it: bacon.

At the CIA, I was committed to following the recipe to the letter; I did everything that was required and nothing more. And those greens? Those greens were amazing. They tasted surprisingly like greens, and not like the almost-pickled, overly-spicy green mush I had previously and proudly served at home.

In the time since my Boot Camp experience, my travel style has shifted. My last trip was a reasonable seven days in Spain, split between Madrid and Barcelona. No side trips, no last-minute bonus destinations. I added nothing but some acorn-fed Iberian ham and some Rioja Reserva. It was a lovely, perfectly balanced trip. My cooking style has changed in the same manner. Gone is the girl madly shaking spices and salt into every dish. I’m now the one strolling the market with a basket, not a cart, selecting the best single piece of produce, the most perfect cut of meat. My life, as well as my cooking, has become more about quality than quantity.

Because sometimes more isn’t better. Sometimes better is better.

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