Cooking School

Making the Leap from Nurse to Chef (with a Little Help from the ATK Cooking School)

Elizabeth Bird has her dream job, working as an executive chef at a resort. But it wasn’t always a dream she knew she had—and it certainly wasn’t an easy road to get there.

By Mari Levine | July 17, 2018

In our Student Spotlight series, we'll be featuring some of the star students who have used the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School to improve their cooking confidence. The School welcomes all types of cooks—from the true novice to the impressively experienced—into our digital test kitchen, where they’re greeted by familiar faces in one-of-a-kind videos and interactive exercises that go beyond the recipe.


 

America's Test Kitchen Cooking School is filled with passionate home cooks, and there’s nothing we enjoy more than learning about their cooking journeys. Today we’re spotlighting Elizabeth Bird, who relocated from Pennsylvania to Ohio to take a chef position at a year-round camp and conference center. But the road to her dream job didn’t come easy.

A nurse for 30 years, Elizabeth and her busy family ate most of their meals out. But when her son was diagnosed with leukemia and told to change his eating habits, Elizabeth stopped working to focus on his health. A big part of that was learning how to cook homemade meals for him and the rest of her family. She joined the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School and through her own hard work and with the help of the online classes and instructors, Elizabeth discovered an untapped passion for cooking. She went on to complete the culinary program at a local community college and land a job as Food Service Director at SkyView Ranch. Read more about her inspiring story below.

Elizabeth Bird and her

Tell us about your cooking habits before joining the cooking school.

I have been a nurse for over 30 years. I worked in a trauma emergency room and as a paramedic. Cooking wasn’t quite in my vocabulary! My schedule was very hectic, so my husband cooked while I was at work, and on my days off, we went out to eat. My cooking—when I did cook—was horrible. I was so embarrassed that if someone at my church needed a meal, I would volunteer, but honestly, I would never make anything; I would buy something at a restaurant and take it to the family that needed food. If that TV show Worst Cooks in America was on at that time, I would have been the star of the show.

What inspired you to join the cooking school?

I most likely would have never enrolled in the cooking school, but my family had a life changing event. In 2012 our twenty-two-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. Our whole world changed in that moment. I stopped working to care for our son. When he wasn’t in the hospital he was home, and the first thing the oncologist told us was that we had to stop going out to eat; the chemotherapy dropped our son’s immune system so he had to eat only what I cooked at home.

I was horrified, knowing I couldn’t cook anything. What was I going to do? For the first time in my life, I went online and was trying to look up recipes on how to make anything! In doing so, I came across America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School. I signed up and the rest is history.

How have your cooking habits changed since you joined the cooking school?

Talk about a total transformation! It is unbelievable. I am no longer embarrassed to cook for anyone. Now I love to cook. I love food that smells and looks good. While I was enrolled in the ATK Cooking School, I would make a dish or bread and my kids, now adults, would say, “Mom, this is so good, it is like eating in a restaurant!”   

I enrolled in the cooking school working with an instructor. It was so exciting—I would make a dish and take a photo of it, and send it to my instructor along with any questions that I had. I loved the feedback, and even though it wasn’t in person, I felt like my instructor was right there with me.

What has been the most useful skill you’ve learned?

Mise en place! When I was first starting out, I was the most disorganized person. I would start a recipe and then find out I was missing something, so I’d have to stop and make something else. Now everything is prepped and ready before I start to put anything together.

The second most useful isn’t so much a skill but a pearl of wisdom: If something doesn’t come out the way it was supposed to, there is a reason. Somewhere something happened—a step was missed, something went wrong. But it’s ok! You just start again, and again, and again if need be, until it’s perfect!

What is a recipe or technique that you were afraid to tackle before starting cooking school that you feel comfortable with now?

Everything! I know that’s very broad, but it’s true. I was afraid because I was unlearned. The wonderful part of taking ATK’s online cooking classes is that the instructor is right there, doing the same recipe as you are, step by step. If you missed something, you can stop, reverse, and watch again and again. And that is exactly what I did. I watched and watched, step by step.

What was your favorite course?

Rustic Italian Breads, Classic Cakes, it’s hard to just pick one! I’ve learned that I can make soups, braised beef, beef stew, a cake that didn’t come out of a box, sourdough bread—any kind of bread for that matter!

I am no longer embarrassed to cook for anyone. Now I love to cook. I love food that smells and looks good.

Have you shown off your new skills? If so, how?

I watched the lesson on Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes with Ganache Filling, then I made the cupcakes and took them to the doctor’s office for my son’s oncologist and office staff. They loved them. From that moment, I would bring them in cookies. It was so fun to hear their comments and see their smiling faces!

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience with America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School?

The cooking school changed my life. I was going through a horrible experience with my son with his cancer diagnosis and his treatments, and I poured myself into the cooking school. It was not just fun—it was very therapeutic for me.  

After being enrolled in the school for about a year, I wanted more. I wanted to go to culinary school. As my son’s health got better, I enrolled in the Northampton Community College Culinary Arts Program. I graduated in May of 2016 at the age of 58 years old with my A.A.S. degree in Culinary Arts.

I retired from nursing and took a job as the Food Service Director of SkyView Ranch in Millersburg, Ohio. My whole family moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio in August of 2017. I live and work here at the ranch. I love my job—I can’t believe it, I actually get paid to cook every day! My son is in remission from cancer, and I am in my happy place.

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Join thousands of other home cooks like Elizabeth and see for yourself what the cooking school has to offer. More than 200 how-to videos, 5,000 up-close photos, a student photo gallery, and convenient buying guides await your arrival—and you can access everything on any device (start on your phone, pick up where you left off on your tablet).

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