Adamr927 you are pretty well informed by your friends and old professors. I have had in the meanwhile a chat with my nephew who learned the trade at Ter Groene Poorte in Bruges and is thanks to that nowadays a chef of a well visited middle class restaurant and he says that Belgium, more specifically Flanders is the place to go and well for the next reason.
So why Flanders? Maybe other countries like France are the iconic places for gastronomy, but it is more for their famous products like wines, cheeses etc. but they are also (a bit) chauvenistic, the focus is more on their own (ofcourse further excellent) kitchen. Belgium, actually more Flanders is not so well known for iconic products (ok their beers) but there strong point is that they have an open mind for European cuisine (and beyond) as a whole and are experts in combining the best of it and they belong to the very top how to prepair food, so they can cook actually without limitations, so with maximum room for creativity for getting the best result.
For instance the French can be proud about their Limousin meat, but the best steak comes from Germany and the Belgians prepair it for instance with the best (French) Bearnaise sauce, so combining the best of two nations just for getting the most tasty meal possible. So Belgians are not so much bothered by a biased approach and for that have in general the best knowledge / overview of the European kitchen.
If you draw a horizontal line on the Belgian map just a bit south of (bilingual) Brussels everything north is actually Dutch / Flemish speaking Flanders, everything south is French speaking Wallonia. From time to time there is a serious tension between the two because of the language.
Flanders is considerably richer and people there are in general better educated as in Wallonia and has definately a food culture. The Flemish are very well willing to fork out the cash for a tasty meal with lesser consideration about costs. Food has traditionally a serious place in daily family life and there is where culture begins. Aslo I am sure there is no real reason to be afraid of bad communication in English even with some elderly people, maybe not always without an accent or as polished as it should be, but good enough to explain how everything works. In Wallonia as said already way lesser people can speak decent English there, but is anyway not the region to recommend.
Dutch and Flemish language are very similar, but there are some differences that can lead to (sometimes funny) misunderstandings. Mentality is also different, the Dutch are more rational and have also a more moralistic approach to life and food traditionally must be in general functional, nutricious, not too expensive so no thrills. Belgians have a more Mediterranaen temperament, are more materialistic and food is part of their “Burgundian” lifestyle, you will learn what that means as soon as you know them better.
Many Michelin star chefs have had their education at Ter Groene Poorte, among several with 3 stars and the institute is even regularly hired in for catering the Royal Family.
It is not my intention to push you, but in short for learning the skills I would take Belgium / Flanders serious and I pm my nephews e-mail address to you, he can explains very well what to do without being biased and says is willing to help you further. Finally nowadays there must be Flemish restaurants in New York, so contact them and talk about what interests you for getting more insight and tips. So hopefully you can get a better idea how, where to start and to meet the right people to built up your network as it remains obviously a jump in the unknown.