Sunday, December 21, 2008

With Honors

It has taken me a little while to write about graduation day – a day that I won’t soon forget. When school finished that week, I had some foot surgery that I’ve been putting off. Standing in the kitchen for the past nine months has exacerbated pain in my feet, specifically my toes. Although I had a pair of fantastic Dansko Euro clogs to wear at night, it was during the day that my feet would feel crunched wearing dress shoes. So, I needed to have my toes fixed.

I went back to work full time at Wildlife Trust – in the evening time when I would find myself home at 6:30 pm I would experience an overwhelming sense of loss, not being in the school’s kitchen was so odd to me. I was meant to be there, I thought to myself, it’s 6:30 pm I should be prepping for service. It was a strange transition, leaving the professional kitchen made me long for it even more. Troubling!

But back to graduation day, mind you, that was the day after our food final. We assembled at school in the late afternoon and had our class picture taken with our tall chef’s hats. It was amazing to see everyone dressed in chef whites and tall toque.

Family and friends assembled in the culinary theater waiting for us to appear. Happily my mom, brother and two sisters were present for the ceremony. It meant a lot to me that they were there.

The soon-to-be graduates sat in the front row of the theater and our Chefs from different Levels stood up front. Chef Candy welcomed everyone and spoke about the accomplishment in graduating from the FCI. Chef Candy introduced our Chef-Instructors and one-by-one they spoke and gave us sage advice.

Chef Candy asked us to line up so we could officially receive our diploma and toque. Once called you were met with Chef Phil, our Level VI Chef who presented the diploma and then each of us would go down the line to thank our other Chefs including, Chef Nic, Chef Veronica, Chef Janet, Chef Laura, Chef Wanda, Chef Candy and finally Chef Marc.

With diploma in hand and toque proudly perched on my head, I went through the line and thanked all my Chefs before I headed back to my seat. Next, the presentation of awards.

Two of my fellow students received awards for never missing a class – unfortunately travel plans had me out of the kitchen twice. Awards for honor students was next on the agenda, Marcela, Michal, Sasi and I were called up to receive an FCI pin to affix to our jacket signifying that the four of us graduated with honors. I was thrilled to have the privilege to graduate with honors and stand up there with my fellow students. A round of applause and we were ready to head back to our seats when the Director of Student Affairs asked me to stay up on the dais.

A little bewildered, I didn’t know what to quite expect but I could see a Chef’s knife on the granite table in front of us. The Director went on to present me with the Chef’s knife inscribed with “Graduated Top of the Class” it was an emotional moment for me. The past nine months I’ve worked hard to excel, become better at my craft and to prove to myself that I could do it. Before I received the knife I was asked to make a speech. I could see my family in the audience, my fellow students in front of me and I grabbed for the appropriate words.

In short I said something like, I wanted to thank my family and fellow students for making this journey so incredible. Each of them have enriched my life in a different way, and I am grateful for that. I remarked that going to culinary school has been a long-time dream and at the age of 39 it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Lastly, I said that the wonderful thing about food is that it tells a story and has a rich history and all I could ask my fellow graduates was to continue telling their story.

It has been an incredible nine months of my life, as for my next move, I’m not sure yet. What I do know is I will never approach food and cooking the same way ever again and for that I’m proud.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Grande Finale

Everything hinges on this one exam – walking into school I am apprehensive about the dishes I will have to cook for my final. Once we’re all settled in we take a written exam and are tested on the ingredients and procedure for a dish we’ve prepared over the past few weeks in the restaurant. I’m hoping we will be tested on the Porcini-flavored Consommé with Seared Squab and Butternut Squash since it is seared into memory.

Chef Phil hands out the exam and we have 20 minutes to complete it. I use every minute of the time allotted to describe all the details (it was the consommé!) of the dish and I complete the exam feeling good about it. Next the “fun” part – each of us takes a piece of paper with a corresponding letter/number combination from a stainless steel bowl that is passed around – here’s where our fate lies! The numbers correspond to the dishes we will have to make and present to the judges.

Out of all the combinations, no one wants the cavatelli and duck since those dishes are the most labor intensive. I grab my number and hope for the best…but luck was not on my side and I was stuck making the dreaded two dishes. I took a deep breath and headed into the kitchen to start what I knew was going to be a stressful and long night of cooking.

Getting set up I knew I had to make the pasta dough first as it needs to rest for at least 30 minutes. I hate making dough of any kind, it never comes out right – dough is my nemesis! As I kneaded the floury mess I gauged how much water to add all the while thinking, I gotta get this right. After about 15 – 20 minutes of kneading Chef came by and checked out my dough and gave me the eye letting me know it looked done. My gut said to add more water but I didn’t and thought the consistency was alright with Chef then it should be fine.

Next I tackle the crustacean broth cleaning the lobster and crab bodies and chopping the mirepoix to get the mixture on the stove so it could simmer for an hour. This broth is served with the cavatelli along with crabmeat, sea urchin, scallions and seasoned breadcrumbs.

After that the spicy duck broth is my next recipe to tackle then time to make the pasta. I took my dough out and started to shape it in long strips. At the hand-cranked pasta machine my worst fear was once again realized. The dough was a little dry and the machine was not curling the pasta into the familiar cavatelli shape. I’d crank out 4 or 5 pieces of dough and then 1 or 2 salvageable cavatellis would emerge. I made the best cavatelli I could knowing that the pasta was not perfect but hopefully passable.

With my first dish only about 20 minutes away from being plated I raced to cook the pasta, make the seasoned breadcrumbs, pick through the crabmeat, strain the crustacean broth and prepare any last minute garnish. I cooked the fresh pasta probably a minute too much – now two strikes against the pasta. I seasoned, tasted and plated thinking the flavors were there. At 8:57 pm I raced my four exact dishes of cavatelli down the hallway to the judges hoping for the best.

With one dish out of the way a wave of relief washed over me but that was only for a mere moment. Chef came into the kitchen and told me there was a hair in my pasta! I was so aggravated that I didn’t see it and I know it wasn’t mine. With that piece of news I refocused to get back on track for my next course to go out – Braised Duck Leg and Seared Breast in a Spicy Broth. I had 45 minutes to execute the final four dishes for the judges. My spicy broth was strained and degreased, the legs were seared and braised, the duck breast was cooking in the circulator and my focus was on the garnish of broccoli rabe, ham, cilantro, mushrooms and carrots. With time winding down I plated my four duck plates without a moment to spare. Racing down the hallway to judges table I handed over my tray of food and my adrenaline wave crashed.

It was over…my nine months comes down to this…three well-respected industry judges will taste all the food I’ve prepared and at the end of the night give me my final critique in front of my peers. Except for the hair incident, and the pasta debacle I felt good about everything. Immediately, I knew what I could have done better and would probably be criticized on.

I trudged back to the kitchen to clean up, hug some of my fellow students and drink some water. At this point in the night, none of us have eaten or taken even a bathroom break. Chef gave us some time to compose ourselves and some students still had dishes to get out the door. I had to brace myself for the last part of the evening I felt my cooking was mediocre at best and that I could have done so much better. You can imagine I am highly critical of my own food and even worse when it comes to dining out. I guess it comes with the territory – we are trained to cook, to taste, to judge and be consciously critical about what is presented on the dish.

Split into two groups, we marched into the judges’ room, meeting our jury for the very first time. On my panel, we had a senior chef from the venerated Lutèce Restaurant - the famed French restaurant in Manhattan that operated for more than 30 years before closing in 2004. The two other senior chefs were from Saks 5th Avenue and the Food Network.

One by one, they reviewed each dish we presented, critiquing every minute detail: flavor, temperature, presentation, and balance. I faired better than I expected and took their advice to heart as I hung on every word. Sitting there I reviewed the night’s play-by-play and felt I did the best I could – having never lost my cool throughout the stress was by far one of the things I could be proudest of.

The night drew to a close with a round of applause, Marcela turned to me with a look of shock on her face and said, “it’s over.”

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Calm Before the Storm

After a long holiday weekend trying not to stress about the final exam I spent some time on Sunday reviewing my recipes and writing some notes. Going in to the final we know what to expect. We will pick a number that corresponds to two dishes – a fish and dessert or an appetizer and meat dish that will be presented to judges.

One thing that works to our advantage is that we already know how the dishes are paired for the final we’ll have to make the consommé with the lamb, the cavatelli with the duck, the bass and the tart, or the tuna with the chocolate bread pudding. All of the pairings are pretty reasonable but the most dreaded is the cavatelli and the duck. No one wants that combination and neither do I since it is the most labor intensive. Not only would you have to make the fresh pasta, but at the same time the crustacean broth has to be made and a spicy duck broth immediately following. There’s a lot of room for error and on the night of the final there’s no time for mistakes.

I review my recipes and write down all the ingredients and ratios to prepare 4 – 6 dishes. We are required to present 4 identical dishes of each course and timing of the dish must be exact. I’m trying to keep calm and go into the kitchen tomorrow night with a knock out list, a steady hand and a clear head.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

Walking into the kitchen tonight I immediately become nostalgic. The people I see around me are all familiar faces that I have worked with for the past couple of months. We’ve joked, laughed, gotten in each other’s way, pissed each other off and shared an intensity that only a kitchen environment provides.

Tonight, the evening before Thanksgiving, the restaurant is booked up so I am anticipating a busy night. Ashley couldn’t make it tonight since she was traveling and Spencer and I are in charge of the Saucier station. Happily, Michal came over from the fish station to help us out to become reacquainted with the duck and lamb dishes.

The night of service was without any drama, all the food went out perfectly and we were more than organized and experienced some downtime occasionally. My fellow Level VI students seemed quiet, pensive, all concentrating on this last night of service before our final cooking exam on Monday after the holiday.

Come close of service, pictures were snapped, hugs given, pats on the back and the team disbursed to get ready for a holiday that I think was made for Chefs and the people that love them.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays – I love the flavors and food combinations. I make an easy homemade fresh cranberry sauce that I just love. Growing up my mom would break out the solidified canned cranberry sauce – and I would just look at it and pass it up. Hey, that’s what was common for T-day dinners in the 80s. Something about that wiggling, jellied, cranberry-colored, can-shaped blob just didn’t appeal to me. I think aesthetics has a lot to do with food as most of us eat with our eyes before our palates.

Leaving FCI that night, I was thankful for my nine months at school, I was thankful for the Chefs who taught me and the students I’ve bonded with over this time. Realizing what we are thankful for puts everything into perspective.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The French Culinary Diet

Why don’t the French get fat? With all the butter, eggs, cheese, bread and pastry that is consumed one would think that French people should be obese. On the contrary, studies have shown that the French diet is something quite special. French gastronomy is an enigma of sorts – have you ever seen a chic French woman in a plus-size Chanel – it’s just not the case.

Going in to culinary school I feared my regular diet and the addition of French food would pack on extra pounds that I didn’t want! Somehow, I’ve miraculously lost about 15+ pounds while at school. How could this be? Maybe I should write the next diet book, “The French Culinary Institute Diet” and the subhead would read,
“How becoming a Chef will shed the pounds!”

Seriously, losing weight by attending cooking school is probably short of a miracle for some. Somehow I did it, lugging my heavy 40lb. bag over my shoulder day after day filled with my knife pack, uniform, books, etc., walking all over the city and going up and down subway stairs and the stairs at school helped me drop excess weight.

Now for the eating part, I simply ate smaller portions, lots of protein and veggies and also indulged in ice cream, sweets and anything chocolate. For me working around food for hours at a time, I just lose an appetite to eat a large meal, taste testing and sampling goes a long way and the desire to have a huge meal vanished.

Many nights my dinner would be the end cuts of lamb and duck, some salad and not much else. Tasting food is part of the job as a Chef, making sure the food you serve is the very best makes for lots of little bites here and there. Spoonful after spoonful of a spicy duck broth or decadent lamb sauce goes a long way and as a Chef I’ve learned that moderation in any diet is really the key to success.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Show Me the Love

These last few nights in the L’Ecole kitchen are bittersweet – happy that I’ve accomplished so much in nine months and sad that it is ending all in the same rush of emotions.

By the second night on Saucier, the pace is easier and less frenetic knowing what to prep and get ready is half the battle. I love to get into the kitchen early and start the set up. It’s always quiet since with the shift from day students to night students. The kitchen has been cleaned and is ready for round two so to speak.

With my Iced Venti Two-Pump Vanilla Non-fat Lite Ice Latte in hand I gather the items that my team will need to get the night going. I start by turning on the ovens to 400 degrees to pre-heat them for the night. Next I get three to four cutting boards, prepare a sanitation solution, wrangle up sheet pans, racks, bowls, square boys, bain-maries, kitchen towels, stock pots, sauté pans, sautoirs and plates to go into the warmers. Everything we will need to have a smooth evening so we can focus on the work rather than running around for this, that or the other thing. This way Ashley and Spencer can come into the kitchen and be ready to hit the ground running – it’s my little way to show them how much I care and appreciate the team work that goes into each and every night of service at L’Ecole.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Last Station

The final station, Saucier, is usually the most intense and demanding. We are serving a Sautéed Breast and Braised Leg of Duck in a Spiced Broth and Lamb with a Cabbage Ragout. The realization that I only have four more nights in the restaurant is numbing.

Making the lamb dish is somewhat easy, the cabbage ragout needs some attention but the components of the plate are straight forward. One night I took charge of plating the lamb per order and the tricky part is cooking the lamb loin the way the patron requests it – medium rare, medium, well-done, etc. The finished plate has three quenelles of mashed potato, cabbage ragout, lamb sliced on a bias with a panko-crumb topping, sautéed seasonal mushrooms and a ladle of lamb sauce.

With one night on Saucier completed, I try to mentally note everything I’ve learned on each station. With my Final exam just a little over a week away I am trying to prepare myself for anything.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shallot Sometimes

A quiet Monday night in the restaurant, only about 50 covers for the evening as I recall. Looking at the prep work ahead of me I knew we must make smoky shallot sauce again since the recipe only makes enough for an evening of service plus a little extra. I like to use that little bit to reinforce the new sauce to give it a deeper flavor profile.

Going to work on the shallot sauce I take my time with it to make it perfect. It is really easy to burn the shallots if you’re not paying attention, they should cook slowly on a low heat to really caramelize. At the point I was ready to puree the shallot sauce I took it off the stove to cool slightly.

I searched for the Vita-prep blender and found the base and pitcher but no top cover. Often the equipment in the kitchen goes missing, students don’t return things to where they belong or the item sits in a sink somewhere waiting to get washed.

With service time quickly approaching I had to purée the sauce immediately. I poured the still very hot unfinished sauce into the blender and placed a kitchen towel over the top. Carefully checking to make sure the dials were on low I proceeded to turn it on, in the instant that switch flipped I found myself and almost everything around me covered with hot sauce. In disbelief with burning sauce on my arms I was in shock about the explosion of sauce from the Vita-prep. Not only did I burn myself but I wasted more than half my sauce.

Luckily, Chef did not see the accident and I asked Spencer to help me quickly wipe down the station and just brush the mess into the sink. My chef-whites were brown and I looked a mess. Once the area was clear I went to task cleaning myself up.

In the men’s room I rinsed parts of my jacket and scrubbed the stains with soap. Scraping bits of shallot off myself, I turned my apron around to hide stains. I reversed the placard on my chef jacket to cover some of the mess and returned to the kitchen to salvage what I could of the shallot sauce. I added the cold sauce from the night before and stretched out that mxiture with reduced veal stock as best I could since there was no time to make more. With only 50 covers that night we had just enough sauce to finish the night.

What happened? Well, there’s a button on the Vita-prep that I never noticed before and it was turned up to top velocity hence the shower of shallots. As I’ve said before, the kitchen is a dangerous place for the uninitiated and even the most experienced. I fall somewhere in the middle of that range with a notch closer to experienced based on that foolish mistake.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Phish Food

Rolling into the kitchen early on Friday evening, I wanted to get a head start on the spicy caponata. There’s a lot of ingredients to prep and gather including Japanese eggplant, celery, onions, garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, capers, tomato paste, pine nuts, anchovies, currants, basil and spices to bring this medley of flavors to life.

Once the caponata is in the works I like to multi-task and get the smoky shallot sauce together – something I’ve made already so I can do it without really thinking. Tonight it was my turn to take a back seat and let Spencer and Ashley push out the orders for bass and tuna. I assist both of them in any way they need, getting hot plates from the warmer to saucing the dish.

The seared tuna and scallop is presented with a squid sauce made from carrots, onion, tomato paste, white wine, green peppercorns, vegetable stock and of course squid. The thought of a squid sauce makes my taste buds quiver a bit thinking how can that be good?

Making the sauce is rather easy – all the aromatics are sweated along with the rings of squid for about an hour. After that the sauce is pureed to achieve that saucy finish. Tasting it, I realize it’s not a flavor profile that I enjoy but my job is to make it taste as best as possible – now that’s a tall order.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sauce Me

The second night on Poissonnier is always easier – we know the drill and understand what needs to be made prior to service. We make all of our sauces, prepare the celery root/apple puree, cook the caponata and clean the mushrooms and mustard greens. Lots of work goes into that single dish with many hours of preparation and care.

I’ve come to realize that I love making sauces, I think I may have a knack for it. The shallot sauce we prepare for the Bass is simple in theory but requires many steps to complete. Here’s the breakdown: I thinly slice (émincer) 8 large shallots and sweat them in butter until they are a gorgeous caramelized color. Vermouth is added and the mixture is reduced until it is almost entirely evaporated leaving about 4 T. of liquid, next equal parts of brown chicken and veal stock are added and placed on a low heat to simmer for 30 minutes. The mixture is allowed to cool slightly before puréeing and then run through a fine chinois and placed back on the stove to reduce a little more. When the desired consistency is achieved I season with salt, pepper and hickory smoke powder. The resulting sauce has a depth of flavor and mild smokiness that pairs beautifully with the other components on the dish.

I know I’ve succeeded when two things occur – the sauce has a well-rounded taste that is properly seasoned and when ladled onto the plate it pools delicately around the celery root and fish and can hold its own. As orders come in and a number of plates are fired I set up a little assembly line of burning hot plates, dabbed with a quenelle of celery root puree, I ask my cooking partner to “sauce me” with smoky shallot goodness so I can tend to the fish and sauté the mustard greens at the same time. There’s nothing like a classic French sauce done right it simply satisfies the soul.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Go Fish!

The Poissonnier and Saucier stations are the last two stations to man before graduation. I’m in a state of disbelief, where did the time go and how did nine months of culinary school fly by so quickly? Where is that student who panicked in fear when his hollandaise broke? Those many months standing at an FCI stove with utensils and knives in hand is coming to a close. I’m saddened and excited all at the same time and will miss school and the camaraderie with fellow students. I don’t know how to quite explain it these past 7 weeks working in the kitchens of L’Ecole have been a very good challenge for me. I’ve cooked for paying patrons and put my heart and soul in the dishes I’ve made – working the Chef’s line is not an easy job by any means. I’ve learned that I can keep my cool, work hard and give my best under pressure.

On Poissonnier our two fish dishes are Seared Tuna and Scallop on a Spicy Caponata with a Squid Sauce and a Bass with Celery Root/Apple Puree, with a Smokey Shallot Sauce, Chanterelles and Mustard Greens. As usual my organized team breaks down the “to-do” list and we dive into our prep work. That night I took command of making and plating the tuna. Ashley worked on the Bass and Spencer was our “gopher” for all practical purposes. This is generally how we work and each evening take turns working on each dish.

Lately, the restaurant hasn’t been as busy as prior weeks, I think the economy has many restaurants in the city wondering how they are going to survive in this down turn. Luckily, L’Ecole has a nearly endless supply of free labor (the students) and a prix-fixe that is reasonable. I’m hoping that my friends and family venture out to L’Ecole while I’m still cooking during my last few weeks before graduation.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

More Tales from the Kitchen

Friday night, last time in Garde Manger, we had a substitute Chef for the evening as well. Remembering how to prepare the recipes we are learning in this last level is vitally important since they will be our final practical exam. In the final we will be given an appetizer and meat course to complete or a fish and dessert.

The days at FCI are winding down and I’m sad to think this part of my food adventure will be over. It has been such an amazing experience but I’ll hold off on all the nostalgia until the very end.

Spencer and I worked our tails off that night, Ashley was out for the evening so it was just the two of us. We went down our knock-out list to ensure we were set up for the evening’s service and were working on the prep for the incoming students on Monday.

I wanted to tackle making the cavatelli again using the right flour this time. I kneaded my pasta dough until it had a leathery feel and then allowed it to rest for at least 30 minutes. I was still nervous that somehow I was going to be doomed again. I set up the hand-cranked cavatelli machine and hoped for the best.

While I cranked out the cavatelli, the first few didn’t come out perfect, but I finally figured out the necessity of over-flouring the pasta dough so it wouldn’t stick in the machine. Over the next few hours I found myself cranking out cavatelli that actually looked the way it was supposed to – I battled the dough and won this time.

We were all prepped for service, we had a porcini flavored consommé on the stove, crustacean broth simmering, and butternut squash roasted. My favorite remark from Spencer that night was, “a blind person could plate these dishes,” referring to the amazing organization and access to our necessary ingredients. I agreed, we were rocking it out and ready to send out orders.

At the end of the night, I found myself immersed in lobster and crab bodies that needed to be cleaned for the Monday’s crustacean broth. The lobsters were without tails and had their legs and green tamale in tact. The crabs needed to have the legs removed and the bodies discarded. It was dirty work and the shellfish smell invaded my hands and clothes. When the night finished up I was pretty crabby too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tales from the Kitchen

The professional kitchen is a fast-paced and laborious environment. Every person involved needs to pull his or her own weight to accomplish a nightly dinner service in a busy restaurant. From dishwashers to servers and from Chefs to students there are many well-oiled cogs to making a restaurant run smoothly.

In every class there are students that I take notice of and I think, “what are you doing here?” The tuition is expensive with the cost hovering about $35k for the part-time program. Why would anyone pay that much money and not take it seriously. I know maturity plays an important role here from kids coming right out of high school to second-career folks like myself the difference in respect for the program and willingness to learn is vast.

I’ve said this before many times, when I started culinary school I purposely left what I thought I knew about cooking at the door. I wanted to approach the experience with a blank slate and not taint my learning with what I thought I knew. It was scary and challenging and to this day I still ask questions of the Chefs just to ensure I am on the right page. I ask because it reinforces my learning and I respect their many years of professional experience.

I don’t rant often but one particular student (code name Chatty Kathy) is usually a non-stop gab machine, or Chatty will disappear for 20 – 30 minutes at a time, Chatty is always eating something, and just never takes the initiative. This behavior infuriates me especially when I see Chatty’s other team members working their tails off to keep up with orders. I can only take so much in one night and then I start to bark orders and become a drill sergeant. I aim my barbed comments right at Chatty, who's so engrossed in another conversation some of the barbs fail to stick. Then I belt out orders, “bring this to the store room,” “clean out the sink,” “go get some serving trays,” “run this food to the wait staff” and “bring these pots to the dishwashers.”

I think if I ever run a kitchen in my future I may become Anthony “Gordon Ramsey” – the kitchen is no place for inertia – not moving fast enough, how about an espresso and a kick in the ass to get you going?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


This past week has been somewhat of a challenge in the kitchen. I’ve been terribly distracted with other things on my mind and I’m having a hard time focusing on my work. In the Garde Manger kitchen we prep stocks, consommé, and most everything for our next class as well as prepare fresh pasta every night and sauté fresh squab and the daily task list goes on. As part of our prep time I started working on the clarification mixture to make consommé from beef stock commonly know as marmite.

When I started culinary school consommé was a mystery to me. When using marmite the stock is cloudy and a little flavorless this is completely normal. By preparing a clarification mixture of egg whites, lean ground beef and aromatics the marmite transforms into a sparkling clear broth that obtains added flavor from the aromatics. The mixture draws out all the impurities in the marmite and attaches to the proteins in the egg whites and beef as it simmers for an hour.

I started by heating up 2 gallons of marmite in two separate stock pots just to make it manageable and then added the clarification mixture. The process is to bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring constantly to help form a “meat raft” – yes, that’s what we call it.

Here comes distraction – hungry – so I leave the stove and go to the family meal kitchen to get some grub. While I’m there I start chatting with Chef Laura and completely forget what I was doing – not good. After some time, like a lightning bolt striking the ground I realize my stupidity and race back to Garde Manger. Chef Wanda had saved my consommé – the meat raft wasn’t forming and started to stick to the bottom of the pot. Chef replaced the pots and scolded me in a nice way. Apparently my brain left me for a period of time and I was on auto-pilot. My near miss almost cost me an additional 2 to 3 hours of work starting from scratch. I felt like an idiot and apologized for my lack of focus.

That evening I finally realized what I did to create the pasta disaster from the night before. I used the wrong flour to make the dough. The recipe calls for “00” flour which is like talcum powder. My brain once again on auto-pilot used all-purpose flour that resulted in a dry, unworkable dough. Another “ahuh” moment.

The evening did end on a funny note, a Level IV student came in and asked if we were “guarding monger” we figured she wanted to know if she was in the Garde Manger kitchen – we all had a good laugh – I thanked Mon Dieu that I studied French for so many years!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Away in a Manger

First night in Garde Manger was a pasta disaster! Armed with the recipe for cavatelli I proceeded to make the fresh pasta dough so it could rest for 30 minutes before cranking it out on the cavatelli machine.

I worked the dough to a leathery softness and wrapped it in plastic wrap to sit in the refrigerator. When it was time to make the cavatelli the dough seemed very dry and did not cooperate with the pasta machine. Every fifth cavatelli was somewhat useable the rest was just a mess of malformed skinny rejects. I was getting so frustrated and Chef Wanda thought the pasta needed more water to moisten it up. So I added more water, kneaded it again and let it rest.

My second chance at making the pasta was a complete failure as well. We were baffled why this simple and easy recipe was producing the most terrible cavatelli. Luckily, another Chef had cavatelli from the night before and we used that for service. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong, I used the right amount of flour, semolina, ricotta and eggs. It was the most annoying thing and only added fuel to my already dough-phobic psyche.

We stretched that borrowed cavatelli for about 12 to 15 orders. We cut it extremely close to running out completely. The dish is composed of cavatelli with crab meat, sea urchin, a crustacean broth and flavored breadcrumbs. Trying it made me wince a little – too fishy for my taste.

I called it a night befuddled by the mysterious plague that cursed my pasta dough. My mind ran circles around the recipe and procedure trying to figure out what went wrong.

Friday, October 31, 2008

En croûte

I’m such a nerd when it comes to school, I missed one class to go up to Boston in September and I wanted to make up those missed hours so I could have perfect attendance when I graduate. I know, geeky, I just can’t stay away from the kitchen.

Having missed a Level V class, I had to work with the current Level V students whose rotation is Tues/Thurs/Sat nights. Luckily my head Chef is also their head Chef so I was much at ease coming in for the night and he put me on the Entremetier station.

Chef mentioned to me that he had tons of chanterelle mushrooms to use and immediately I wanted to make a soup. I brought up the possibility of using puff pastry and somehow do a play on French onion soup. He said go for it.

I slowly sautéed lots of onions, leeks and shallots to develop their rich flavor as the base of my soup. I had a stock pot of vegetable stock simmering and two bulbs of garlic in the oven roasting. I added the beautiful pale orange-hued mushrooms to the sauté pan and cooked everything until soft. I also had some oyster mushrooms that I sautéed to use as garnish for the soup under the puff pastry.

With my Vita-prep blender I pureed the mixture with some stock and the roasted garlic. A touch of cream and sherry were added to give the soup a little more richness. I balanced the seasonings and was ready to work on plating a prototype.

The puff pastry was somewhat deceivingly easy to work with, I cut square pieces to fit over the bowls and popped my creation into the convection oven. The pastry was slipping into the bowl so I had to figure out a way to make it stick with egg wash.

The soup emerged with a flaky golden crust that sagged in the middle since the bowl was very wide. Not exactly how I pictured it but I knew I’d have at least 15 orders that I could perfect it as I went along.

The orders started rolling in, we called it a mushroom soup en croûte. Bowl after bowl were popped into the convection oven and when the order was fired there were a few times that the expediting Chef had to wait 3 – 5 minutes for my dish (Chef Candy kept belting out, “I’m still waiting for the soup!” it’s not a great feeling when you are holding up orders – trust me). My puff pastry was fussy and decided to take on a life of its own. Sometimes it would puff up, sometimes it would sink in the soup, it took longer to turn golden brown than other times – a nightmare!

As the night wound down I was trying to get ahead of myself and start soups in the convection oven earlier – this was the winning solution and I finally got my puff pastry to do what I wanted it to – stick to the bowl and completely cover the soup. The photo I took was the last soup I made – and I enjoyed it from my dinner.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fresh Roll

My foodie pal, Barbara, brought me these 2 x 2 inch square rice noodles that she uses on occasion. The opaque squares were unique, I was used to seeing rice vermicelli and round rice wrappers but never these. Inspired by the little noodle I knew I wanted to use something similar for canapés.

My team huddled around the canapé station and I expressed my interest in using the wrappers. Chef brought us a hunk of sushi grade tuna that Ashley marinated with a mix of soy, ginger, and rice wine. We soaked the rice wrappers and julienned carrots, and cucumbers. Spencer carefully cut the tuna and proceeded to wrap the mini fresh rolls.

I toasted black and blonde sesame seeds to decorate the roll and made a spicy aioli. The final little dish was a burst of color – a perfect introduction to a meal.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Smoke House

There’s a moment every day where I day dream about food, what to make, ingredients to buy, dinners to plan, recipes to look for…and working the canapé station only fuels that dialogue in my head. Making canapés at the restaurant allows us to create and experiment with food and flavors.

For part of the day, Ashley, my team partner and I were texting back and forth discussing what we would make for that evening. She wanted to bake apples then we talked about poaching them in port that then evolved into poaching melon-balled apples or pears in mulled wine then covering them in a goat cheese mixture and toasted spicy walnuts – like a truffle. Then I thought we could reduce the mulled wine to make a syrup. The creative back and forth is something I really enjoy and building on ideas makes the whole experience more interesting.

With an idea in my head I jaunted down to school. In the kitchen I spoke to Chef and wanted to check in about anything that needed to be used that evening. He immediately sent me upstairs to the fourth floor to fetch two very large sheet trays of trout that had brined for two days. I figured our apple truffle will have to wait for another day.

Chef instructed me to cold smoke the trout and use it for our canapé – he left us to think about how we would present it and we started to brainstorm about different ideas. I love a good food challenge – how can we make smoked trout presentable and more delicious? It’s something that was hard to get excited about – not my favorite thing.

I thought we could serve it on a potato gaufrette – a crisscrossed slice that would be deep fried and Spencer wanted to make an apple/radish slaw to top it. Chef buzzed around our station, he liked the gaufrette idea and suggested using sweet potato instead. With two whole sheet pans of trout to smoke I took charge of that task since we had SO much fish I had to smoke it in batches. Each time I would open the smoker I would be blasted with grey smoke that would fill part of the kitchen with a woodsy aroma of wood chips. My eyes would water and burn a bit from the blast.

We flaked the trout, placed a small amount on the sweet potato chip and added a bit of the tiny julienne of apple and radish – looking at it we knew it was missing something. I suggested making a lime aioli with fresh lime juice and garlic. Ashley liked the idea and she went ahead and started the mayonnaise. On the plate Spencer swirled the aioli with a decorative flare and we added some of the mixture to the trout. For an ingredient that none of us liked the canapé turned out to be an attractive little bite – and by the end of the night I could have passed as a smoked trout the way I smelled!

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Coming into the kitchen, I remembered Chef Phil asking me to use the pâte à choux dough he had from a previous class for that evening’s canapés. I searched the walk-in, found the containers of dough and decided that it was a little past its prime. I decided to whip up a new batch – this is the very same dough that you would use for éclairs, profiteroles, cream puffs, etc. At this point, I can make this type of dough in my sleep and I think I must have been sleeping when I gathered all the ingredients because it didn’t quite come out the way I expected.

The general recipe for pâte à choux is:
- 250 ml water
- 110 g butter
- 140 a.p. flour – sifted
- Pinch salt, pinch sugar
- 4 to 5 whole eggs

With 85 covers booked at the restaurant I planned to quadruple the recipe – giving me more than enough choux for the night. The procedure is very easy, water and butter (cut into small pieces) are placed on the stove heating the water and allowing all the butter to melt. Don’t boil away the water or it will mess with you flour proportion – this is why we cut the butter into small pieces – it melts quicker.

Take the pot off the stove and add all the flour all at once – return to low heat and stir with a wooden spoon to dry out the dough and remove some of the moisture. The dough should come together and be a smooth mixture.

I added my quadrupled amount of flour and started stirring to combine it – something was wrong because it wasn’t coming together and I thought to myself – why is this so watery?? Almost immediately I realized I must have been asleep when measuring the amount of water – in actuality I put 8 times the amount of water into the pot. Stupid me I was annoyed with myself, time was running out and I needed to get it piped and into the convection oven immediately. I ran around the kitchen like a fool and got 4x more flour and butter. I melted the butter in a sauce pan and sifted the flour into the watery mess of dough clumps. Once the butter melted I added it to the mix and prayed it would turn out alright.

I placed the now massive amount of dough into a stainless bowl and then started to add the eggs. So here is the deal with the eggs – one is added at a time and incorporated fully before you add the next. I quickly did the math…8x the recipe equals 32 to 40 eggs!! I laughed to myself and just worked with half the dough to bring it back to a reasonable portion, and 15 to 20 eggs later, my dough combined to a perfect consistency.

I piped the dough into mini-sized balls of dough, brushed them with a mixture of egg wash and cream and rushed two giant sheet pans into the convection oven for about 20 minutes. The little mounds of dough puffed up and turned from pale to golden brown.

While all of this was going on, I left Ashley to create a wild mushroom filling and a cranberry compote which were both equally delicious. We were ready in time for service and cranked out plate after small plate. At the end of the night, with so many little puffs left over, I made some Crème Chantilly and plated mini-sized cream puffs that were shared with Level V and VI students throughout the kitchen. A little something sweet to end the busy night.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Canapé [kan-uh-pey]

1. a thin piece of bread or toast or a cracker spread or topped with cheese, caviar, anchovies, or other savory food.

Moving to a new station is like waking up in a house you just moved to. You fumble around looking for familiar things in a new environment and slowly you become comfortable in your surroundings.

The canapé station is a place for Level VI students to practice skills, show creativity and demonstrate resourcefulness. Chef Phil will come to the canapé station and say, “I have such and such in the walk-in, what can you guys make with that?” and that ingredient must become a part of our planning.

Our first night, the weather in New York City had turned colder than normal so I felt like it was a soup night. Having arrived in the kitchen a bit early, I asked Chef if there was anything we needed to use up and he said that we had a clean slate to start. So, I tossed the idea of a purée of butternut squash soup served in little white ceramic shot glasses. He liked the idea and said go for it.

When Ashley came into the kitchen, I had told her what my plan was and she complemented the soup with her ideas. Ashley baked off small phyllo pillows, we made a goat cheese/crème fraîche topping and prosciutto straws.

Chef Phil gave us this great idea to take thin strips of prosciutto and wrap them around skewers. The skewers are baked in the oven for about 10 minutes, then allowed to cool. The prosciutto straws slip off the skewers and hold their cylindrical shape.

Our canapés need to be ready to plate slightly before 8:00 pm. We usually figure out the plating design close to this time and make a few samples for the Chefs in the kitchen to munch on and give their opinions.

With thumbs up from the Chefs we are ready for service and ready to knock out anywhere from 50 to 75 small plates in the span of an hour or so. The canapé is the first impression our patrons receive at the beginning of their meal – so we need to hit it out of the ballpark.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Party Season

Monday night, the restaurant was closed again for a private party. Many fellow students were annoyed that their time in the kitchen behind certain stations was being interrupted by yet another private party.

With my last night in the pastry kitchen I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to make one of the desserts that may be on my final exam. Around 5:30 pm it was clear that Chef only had 6 students to help out to make the night successful and he was very upset. I headed back to pastry after he called attendance and was the only Level 6 student doing pastry that night.

I consulted with the pastry Chef and got to work making the chocolate brioche bread pudding so I could serve at least 50 portions. I got to work making maple ice cream, chocolate custard, and candied orange peel for garnish. I have to admit it was a slow night, once I got everything prepped and ready there was a long lag time until we actually had to plate desserts. While some protested and decided to skip the night, I was happy to be there to make the dessert practically by myself. Sometimes it’s nice to be a one-man show.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

VIP Dining

Ending the busy work week in a bustling, chaotic, time sensitive professional kitchen may be too much for some people. I find it exhilarating and I always look forward to my nights behind the scenes at L’Ecole.

That very evening I had three guests dining at the restaurant – friends that have supported my new venture and have been wonderful followers of my blog. I alerted the expediting Chef that a VIP table was coming in for dinner and to please ensure they have a wonderful dining experience. Ret, Mimi and Andy arrived for their reservation and in between the appetizer and fish course I was able to sneak out and see how everything was going. Moving from the brightly lit kitchen to the dim lights of the dining room – it took me a couple of seconds to be able to focus. The waiter pointed me in the right direction and I arrived at Table 22 to find my VIPs.

My guests all seemed excited and ready for the evening’s dining excursion. I was so happy and proud to be a part of their experience. I had to know what everyone ordered and was thrilled that each one of them ordered something different off the prix fixe menu. After chatting for a few minutes I had to excuse myself to get back into the pastry kitchen to finish my work.

That night, I prepared the dough for the tangerine tarts, the cream cheese/goat cheese filling, I worked on part of the chocolate custard for the brioche bread pudding and worked on putting it together with Chef Alain and Ashley.

Nearing the end of the night, I saw the dessert order for Table 22 come in and noticed Ret & company ordered three different desserts – well with four desserts on the menu, I had to make sure they also received our toffee pudding so I marched it right out to the table to surprise them.

Again, I was met with faces of delight and compliments and I thought, what a wonderful way to end the work week.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Privé Party

The restaurant was closed for a private party on Wednesday night. Our goal for the evening was to feed 70 patrons all at once for every course. Not so hard if you're organized. The kitchen seemed empty when I got there and I saw Chef Phil working away. I asked him if he needed help and he requested I make Pâte à Choux for an hors d’oeuvre he planned to serve. I went to work and whipped that pastry dough into shape and it came out perfect.

My tour of duty was in pastry that night – so I went back to Chef Alain and asked him what we needed to accomplish for the night. Chef decided to make Tarte Tatin to feed 70 guests – it was great to see how another Chef interpreted this classic dish – since I made this dessert for my Level V project it was still fresh in my memory how I prepared it.

The night dragged on as there was not a lot for us to do – our moment to shine was when we plated 50+ desserts at once in an assembly line format. I brushed on a caramel sauce, another student studded the plate with finely chopped walnuts, a slice of tarte and a quenelle of rich vanilla ice cream.

At the end of the night, all the students went out into the dining room to receive a round of applause – it felt good being appreciated – we were rock stars in that moment.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sticky & Sweet Tour

My first night as a Level VI student and I find myself back in the pastry kitchen making new confections and sweet desserts. The entire L'Ecole menu has changed and that goes for desserts as well. Our newest creations include a tangerine cream cheese tart, chocolate brioche bread pudding, an individual Tarte Tatin and a toffee pudding. My group is responsible for the tangerine and chocolate brioche menu items.

The first day in the kitchen with a major menu change is always frenetic. Recipes change, plating varies with the whim of the Chef and some students look like deer caught in headlights. Chef Mimi was filling in for Chef Alain on this first night and she walked us through a priority list of "to-dos" so we could get organized and have a smooth evening. My team, Ashley and Spencer, and I knocked out the list and were done prepping everything by 8pm.

We share the kitchen with the new Level V students who looked as nervous as I was on my first day working in L'Ecole's kitchen. Everything did go smoothly that night, and we all worked well with each other. I really enjoyed making the maple vanilla ice cream that is served with our chocolate bread pudding. We start with a rich Crème Anglaise with the addition of a good quality maple syrup and cook the sauce until it is nappant (thick enough to coat the back of a spoon).

The ice cream maker in the pastry kitchen is this incredible stainless steel behemoth compared to ice cream makers on the consumer market. The now chilled Crème Anglaise is carefully poured into the machine and with one flick of a switch the ice cream is ready in 10 minutes. As the machine freezes the mixture I check it at different intervals to see how it is forming. Once the consistency is similar to soft-serve ice cream than I know it is ready. Extruding the ice cream into super chilled hotel pans I take an off set spatula to smooth it out and pop the trays it into a small freezer called a blast chiller. The blast chiller continues to quick freeze the ice cream and hold it until service. I have to admit the ice cream we make is one of the best I've tasted, super creamy, slightly dense, and made with nothing but all natural ingredients - who wouldn't scream for that?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The United Nations of Food

For weeks now Barbara, my foodie pal, and I have been planning an ethnic food tour of Jackson Heights, Queens – the neighborhood where she resides. Barbara has been telling me about all of the green grocers and spice markets and how one could find hard to come by ingredients. From Colombian meat markets to Indian spice stores and Peruvian restaurants to Indonesian – my curiosity and appetite for new cuisine was peaked.

We started mid-morning with a walk down the main street with bakeries, restaurants and stores featuring Latin foods from South and Central America. It was a Spanish cornucopia. The Colombian butchers and bakeries were bustling with activity – we walked into one of the bakeries to check it out and I picked up a sweet roll for our walk to Little India a mere few blocks away. Like from day to night, the store fronts went from selling plantains to exotic curries and gorgeous saris.

The Indian shops were fascinating, rows and rows of fresh vegetables, spices and giant bags of rice. I was like a kid in a candy store when my eyes feasted on all the bagged spices. I would find things and ask Barbara, “How would I use this?” or “What in the world is that?” She was delighted to tell me about the veggies and spices that I had never seen before.

I had my mental shopping list in my head and as we continued our tour I kept on adding exotic ingredients that I wanted to buy. The air was perfumed with the scent of incense and the blare of sitars flooded my senses. We headed to Patel Bros. Supermarket to knock some items off my list. Inside the busy market it was hard to focus on one single item – again the kid in a candy store problem – but I zeroed in and found cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and black sesame seeds. Barbara told me to ask for saffron at the cashier – I thought she was kidding – but knew I wanted some. So, I asked and from below the cash register vials and containers of saffron emerged like highly-guarded jewels. It almost felt black market and clandestine so I had to buy some!

After our jaunt through Little India, we headed to lunch and had spicy, wonderful Indonesian food at a small local restaurant. The sauces were sweet, spicy, peppery and just delicious. With our stomachs satisfied we went through the Asian markets which is always an eye-opener for the uninitiated.

Sweet soy, star anise, frozen banana leaves were all crossed off my international shopping list. Just meandering through the aisles is an education in food – I wondered what half the ingredients are and I am amazed by the variety. Where else can you find Chinese chives or galangal? The eggs in the dairy section had a small sign that said “baby chicken inside” – ok, I’ll pass on those! – nearby there were trays of duck eggs and speckled quail eggs.

Laden with my purchases we sauntered back to a Latin market to pick up some plantains since I was craving them all day. The October day was filled with bright blue skies and cool weather. Walking along the streets in Jackson Heights you would come across specialized food vendors making homemade quesadillas, tacos, freshly cut fruit and Chinese dumplings with lines of pedestrians queued up for tasty snacks.

I was comforted by the array of cultures represented in this one neighborhood and thought if these people could live together and co-exist in such harmony with respect to their varied cultures, food, language and customs then why in today’s world is there so much aggression with war, genocide, and hatred. It makes one consider how special this country really is – accepting all people to have a place at the communal table.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Out with the old...

As I mix the ingredients to make our green apple sorbet, it strikes me that this is my last night in pastry and the last night in Level V. I wonder in amazement how quickly time has passed and realize that I have only 7 more weeks of school left until graduation.

Tonight, the current Level VI students experienced their last night in the kitchen in anticipation of their final cooking exam on Monday. At the end of the night, pictures were being taken, voices were raised in excitement and many family members dined that night at the restaurant. There was an air of finality but also one of accomplishment. I wondered how I would feel on my last night in the kitchen with our final looming just days away. I quickly tossed those thoughts out of my mind and focused on making the sorbet in the ice cream machine. The ice cream machine is a professional kitchen model that makes sorbet and ice cream in the matter of 10 minutes or so. The sorbet is made of frozen apple purée, simple syrup and freshly squeezed lime juice. Once the sorbet it extracted from the machine we smooth it out on to a half sheet pan and place it in the blast freezer to set properly.

Our team raced through our prep work and we were careful not to over produce since the restaurant’s menu will change on Monday and we will begin rotations through the stations once again as new Level VI students. These new recipes will be the ones we are tested on for our final – so it is vital to learn them inside and out.

As the night wound down, Chef came over with our evaluations and new group assignments and starting stations for Monday. I was concerned and wondered who I’d be partnered with – there are some students that would make this last rotation difficult (I’m being polite) since our work ethic/focus/skill level doesn’t mesh well. My current partners, Ashley and Tim, have been so wonderful to work with – we are a well-oiled machine and we just rock-it-out every night in the kitchen. We can pull each other out of the weeds, we split tasks evenly, we all get a chance to work on part of the recipe and we define our duties for service way in advance. We “work” not only in the literate sense but in the way you want your left hand to know what your right hand is doing. So, the change in groups is always a worrisome dilemma for most of us.

I braced myself, Chef showed me my evaluation and finally revealed my new group – and the envelope please…I’m working with Spencer and Ashley yet again! I took a deep breath and Spencer came from no where to give me a high-five. The smile on his face led me to believe that he had already learned about the latest trio. Spencer is great to work with he’s funny, easy-going, plays well with others and he can cook. I might have to slap him around a little but he won’t mind – I’m Alpha dog and he has a thick skin. Having Ashley on my team is like having a warm hug from Jesus, we work brilliantly together and have bonded as friends.

The most ironic part of this whole plan for Monday…can you imagine what station we will be working on first? Sweet Jesus, the pasty station! for another week and a half. We’ll survive, we always do and we’ll kick ass as we have in Level V.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

Adventures in pastry continue, and one of the recipes I would like to share is a Chai Crème Anglaise. The cream and milk are infused with chai spices and the resulting sauce is rich, velvety and delicious. This sauce goes really well with fruit-based desserts.

Chai Crème Anglaise
8.5 oz. milk
8.5 oz cream
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp. ginger powder
½ tsp. whole cardamom seed
4 whole cloves
½ vanilla been split and seeds scraped
4 oz. sugar
4 egg yolks

Heat milk, cream, spices, vanilla bean and half the amount of sugar. When the liquid simmers turn off the heat and cover pot to allow the flavors to infuse for at least 45 minutes.

After the liquid has infused, put back on the heat. In a separate bowl beat together the eggs and sugar by hand until pale – this takes a minute or so.

Temper the sugar/yolk mixture by adding some warm milk infusion then return this mixture back to the pot. Cook until the Crème Anglaise is very thick and coats the back of a spoon. Working over moderately high heat, continue stirring the sauce with a wooden spoon so as to keep the mixture moving.

Strain Crème Anglaise through a fine Chinois and immediately cool sauce in an ice bath. Once sauce is brought down in temperature then refrigerate until needed.

Our pear dessert begins by poaching the fruit in a chai-tea liquid until soft. Once the pears have cooked, they are removed and set to cool. Afterwards the pear half is topped with a small piece of pear bread and covered with Swiss meringue. The pears are then baked to give the meringue a beautiful bronzed color.

At service, the pear is warmed slightly in the oven, a pool of Crème Anglaise fills a shallow bowl the pear is placed in the center and a drizzle of pear sauce is added with some toasted pine nuts. All the hard work making all the separate components come together beautifully and the real satisfaction is watching the empty dessert plates coming back from the dining room.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reprise in Pastry

The pastry kitchen is air-conditioned to help keep dough, marble tops and sticky sweet confections at a cool temperature. Unfortunately the AC doesn’t do anything to help cool tempers.

Our second night in pastry was instructed by Chef Mimi since Chef Alain had the night off. It’s funny to work on the same recipes with a different Chef – everyone puts a spin on how they do it their way. As students, it is almost like we are starting at square one with the same recipes.

Chef Mimi instructed us throughout the night and gave us her spin on plating our two desserts. I don’t know what it was but I was not playing my “A” game that night. It all started with the nougatine…(insert fuzzy dreamscape here)

Nougatine is made with corn syrup, fondant and butter – the corn syrup and fondant are melted until golden brown, removed from the heat and the butter is stirred in and allowed to cool. A half sheet pan is with lined with parchment and the mixture is poured out and resembles amber-colored glass. Once the nougatine is sufficiently cooled it’s then cracked into many shards to get ready for the food processor to blast it into a sugary dust. I know you are thinking…what is the purpose of that?! Here’s where our luck runs out.

The sticky shards are pulverized and then sifted through a fine mesh strainer onto a Silpat-lined sheet tray. The dust is carefully applied to the Silpat in an even thin layer. The sheet pan goes into a 350 degree oven for a 60 to 90 seconds and then emerges to resemble a opaque sheet of melted sugar that is thinner than a millimeter thick. Immediately we take a square cutter and score the glass sheet while it is still warm. The nougatine sheet is then allowed to cool once again and then very carefully we chip away to remove the perfect 3” x 3” squares. These nougatine squares are part of the garnish for the apple sorbet dessert.

That night, nothing was going right with our nougatine, we tried to make the opaque sheet of sugar 3 to 4 times and each time the sugar would crack, or come out of the oven bubbled and warped – we just couldn’t get it right. Luckily we had some squares from the last class and tried to salvage what we could of the new batches.

I think we were cursed that night, our first meringue didn’t form properly, our apple foam was flat, and plating the desserts was a bit haphazard – not our best night – but I blame the temperamental nature of pastry – it is never straight forward, always fussy, and needs constant care every step of the way.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

How sweet it isn't

Our first night on any station is always a bit unnerving and switching to pastry/dessert made for an interesting night. Our pastry Chef runs a tight ship, he laid down a set of guidelines that he reiterated, “I'm only going to say this once." Sharing the mid-sized pastry kitchen with us are three Level VI students, they handle two desserts and we deal with the other two. I decided to head into class a little early that day, in case there was a lot of prep to be done. Chef Alain was puttering around the kitchen, I said hello and asked what I could do first and he responded, "make simple syrup."

My other team members filed into the kitchen, made their introductions and we talked about our game plan for the evening. Chef outlined what had to be prepped for service in order of priority and we went straight to work. Chef has the most interesting accent and sometimes I have no idea what he is telling us which makes for interesting results. At times, he sounds German, South African, French, English, and Australian, and this is all at once in one sentence giving the listener a round the world aural experience.

On the dessert menu we are preparing a green apple sorbet with fennel foam and a tea-poached pear with pear bread and meringue finished with a chai Crème Anglaise. There are lots of components to plating both desserts and our list of “to-dos” was quite long. In pastry the only drawback is getting out of the kitchen last. Usually, we see a parade of our fellow students on Poissonnier, Entremétier and Saucier leaving and waving goodbye to us with smirks on their faces as we wait for our orders to come in. They’ve all been there so it’s now our turn to wait it out until the last patron has had their final course on the prix fixe menu.

Mid-way through our evening, Chef had a slight freak-out on two of the Level VI students – I was ready to hide in the walk-in refrigerator at that point. Chef was great with our little team, we just kept our nose to the grindstone and said, “Yes, Chef, No Chef.” We are no fools to tangle with a Chef who seeks perfection.

I’m sure the next few days in Pastry will be quite interesting – I just wish it came with subtitles.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Chop, Chop!!

Our last night on Saucier and I’m a little sad because it has been a very good experience for us as a team. We were all a but apprehensive about the meat station having seen melt-downs, fights and chaos from other teams. Tonight, we are down one member from our usual three-person team so Chef assigned some students to help us with our prep work. We also had a Level VI student who needed to make up a class before graduation to work with all night. Ashley and I felt calm about the work we needed to get done, she and I would tick off the list of “to-dos” and assign them or do them ourselves. That’s one of the reasons my team rocks, we communicate with each other – and communication is key for my sanity and for everything to work properly. I want to make sure we are all on the same page, we are doing things by priority and we are watching the clock.

By this fourth night on Saucier, we know the score, we decided to take charge of one dish each. I am back to lamb chops and Ashley works the rabbit orders. Our Level VI student focuses on making the Pommes Anna & Darphin, something that can take an hour or longer to complete. The best advice on the meat station is to be organized and ready…when orders come in I begin by searing the chops in a extremely hot sauté pan with blended oil on both sides. I time them based on thickness and judge their doneness by touch. Usually the chops are ordered medium rare, some medium and a few well-done.

So orders begin to be called out, I sear my chops and get into my groove. Once the chops are seared they are set aside until the next step in the cooking process – a round of composed herb/hazelnut butter is placed on each chop and then placed under a salamander (broiler) to develop a golden color. Once the chops come out of the salamander and the order is fired then I can start plating. Here is the logistical problem – the salamander is not next to my station, so we’ve learned that having someone run the chops to the salamander back and forth was vital to keeping us on time and running smoothly – as simple as that. I ask our Level VI student to do this as part of her duties for the night.

Orders are coming in… 3 rabbit, 3 lamb medium,…then 2 lamb medium rare and rare, 1 rabbit, then 1 lamb well-done, 2 rabbit…and the orders stack up. Watching the order board helps us stay in tune with what is going out and when orders are ready to be fired. It is a simple system but one screw up and you can set yourself back quite easily.

My first set of chops sent to the salamander came back with the composed butter dark brown almost burned. I said to the student that she needs to continually check the chops under the broiler since they go from pale to golden brown quite quickly. She started to scrap off the charred part of the butter thinking we could serve it and I decided that it needed to be re-done. Note to self: screw up #1.

I sent her back with the chops with fresh herbed butter and as I was searing chops to order I look over and see her chatting with her classmates and NOT watching the chops under the salamander. Note to self: screw up #2 is not happening on my watch. So, from across the entire meat station I yelled, “Watch those chops, pay attention!” and proceeded to stamp my feet up an down like a crazy person to get her attention. I was pissed!! She was going to burn the second batch if I didn’t catch her. Luckily with my vocal intervention the chops came back to my satisfaction.

The orders continue, I pass the seared chops to her to be patted with the herb butter and run to the salamander and half the time I’m applying the butter myself and she’s oblivious. I don’t understand why this is so difficult to comprehend. I give you the chops, you place a tablespoon of butter on it, and you run it to the salamander. Note to self: annoyed and wonder if I don’t speak English?

At once, I have 6 lamb chops that need to go out at once. I start plating the chops in a line, first the Ratatouille is place in a ring mold on the plate and slight pressure helps it form into a perfect disk. Then the burning hot chops crisscross and lean on the Ratatouille, a wedge of Pommes Anna and finally napping the dish with a luscious sauce. I turn around and hand “our helper” the dish to start running them to the waiter station. The dish sits on the stainless steel table for another 30 seconds and as I turn around with my next plate and notice this dish just sitting here I belt out, “RUN THESE DISHES NOW!” Irritation and anger set in for both Ashley and myself but we hold it together. Note to self: Perhaps, deaf, dumb, blind? Maybe all of the above!

The real deal breaker came mid-way through the height of service, Ashley and I are working our tails off and we turn around to see “her” shoveling down a huge plate of food from family meal and shooting the shit with the Entremetier station. Here Ashley and I are hungry and busy, we haven’t eaten since lunch and lazy-girl is stuffing herself with food – clueless to what we are doing. That was really the final straw, she was practically useless to us all night and we put her on menial prep tasks after she finished her hefty plate of food – we needed to keep her away from us and get her out of the way. Note to self: Am I being punished or tested?

Now, I can understand why British Chef/Restaurateur Gordon Ramsey is such a freak of nature in the kitchen and expletives run from his mouth like water from a faucet. To quote him, “I have a very assertive way. It's wake up, move your ass, or piss off home.”my sentiments exactly!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Foodie Friends, Finds & Frivolity

I can sit for hours simply talking about food, culinary school, past food experiences, restaurants, you name it. I owe so much to my very dear foodie friend Barbara – who is always encouraging, interested and excited to hear about my latest food stories and happily she can also dish out her own tales like a line cook at a busy brasserie!

Food is meant to be shared, enjoyed and I feel the same goes for the discussion of food. I am always surprised and happy to hear about a new spice, food or technique – many times I feel like I’ve heard just about everything and then it happens, Barbara will talk about papatzul and I’ll say, “What!?” Something I never heard of! – and she will go on about how she learned about it and weave a story that makes me hang on every word – I’m also mentally taking notes. Now, I know I don’t know everything by any means and I don’t ever want to sound like a know-it-all or a jaded foodie – that’s just not me. My surprise and shock comes from a child-like fascination as if food were magic and I just saw the most amazing trick ever!

Our foodie friends, dine with us even when we are not at the table. Chatting about food and experiences in the kitchen fills me up just like a savory braised stew. I appreciate Barbara’s experience and love to trade stories. When we sit down to chat it is the first topic we cover especially on a Monday morning, she'll inquire, “what did you cook this weekend?” and from there on we recount the moments of inspiration, rare shopping finds and the trials of new recipes.

Sharing food is a wonderful experience, bringing family and friends to the table is something I encourage everyone to do. This blog was a way for me to share my love for food in whatever form it takes, to bring people into the FCI classroom and recount what it is really like, but most importantly to take a walk with me on my culinary journey. I’m grateful for all my foodie friends and I aspire to continue sharing these sumptuous moments one bite at a time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

TGIF! (Thank God It’s Friday)

I used to love going to dinner on a Friday night, the end of the work week, a cold martini, fantastic food that I didn’t have to cook and the best part – being served, oh, and no dishes to wash! Those evenings are a distant memory because since February every Friday has been (happily) spent at The French Culinary Institute.

Being on the opposite side of that equation has its perks too. After a long day at my 9 to 5 job, I head down to SoHo, put on my Chef clothes and start the second half of my day. Walking into the kitchen, my first stop is the coffee maker – no matter how full the carafe is I always make a fresh pot and then proceed to my assigned station for the evening.

I try to get into the kitchen as early as possible so I can access the amount of prep needed and get ahead of the curve. I’ll to talk to Chef Phil and he’ll alert me to what we are running low on and what I should start first.

On Friday, I immediately tackled the somewhat labor/time intensive Ratatouille served with our lamb chops. The peppers (red and green), eggplant, onions, zucchini must be chopped macédoine and the tomatoes emondé (blanched, skin/seeds/pulp removed, chopped coarsely) and concassé – all prepared and sautéed separately then combined to marry the flavors.

At that point, the laundry list of “to-dos” is almost never-ending. About a dozen potatoes are washed, peeled and placed in cold water in preparation for their date with the French mandoline. Half the potatoes are julienned (for Pommes Darphin) and the other half sliced into very thin rounds (for Pommes Anna). Working quickly (oxidation happens quickly), the julienne potatoes are seasoned with salt and pepper, the excess moisture is gently squeezed out and await a hot sauté pan with some blended oil. The julienne potatoes sizzle in the hot oil and form a nice crust with the addition of unsalted butter. The same application for the Pommes Anna, however the potatoes are laid out into a spiral design and take a little more time to put together. Both preparations done properly yield a crisp, round potato cake that is sliced into six servings for service. We generally prep for 40 – 45 covers on the Saucier station, our lamb and rabbit dish have been very popular.

And the list goes on…pears are cut into perfect cocottes (football shapes) then sautéed and caramelized. Cipollini onions are soaked in warm water to ease the removal of the outer skin and they are cooked glacé à brun (glazed to a brown caramelization – cooked in some water, butter, salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar to boost their sweetness). Bok choy is washed, trimmed, cut and blanched in salted boiling water, then shocked to preserve its bright green color. Bacon is cut into small lardons and gently sautéed. Herbed-compound butter is prepared for the lamb and chilled. Most nights we start the rabbit and lamb stock as the base of our two sauces and those simmer for a few hours to extract all the rich flavor from the bones, mirepoix and bouquet garni.

Finishing the final two sauces, isn't that why French cuisine is so revered – those complex, rich and flavorful sauces that have an unparalleled depth – and that Madames et Messieurs is a whole other story.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The first night on the Saucier station the team got right down to work. Lots of prep needs to occur before the first plate goes out. For the meat course Level V students prepare two dishes – Lamb chops with an herb/hazelnut pesto crust, ratatouille, potatoes Darphin and a lamb reduction sauce that is dark, rich and packed with flavor – secondly a braised and grilled rabbit with bok choy, potatoes Anna, cocotte of caramelized pear, bacon and a cipollini onion all finished with a rich rabbit reduction.

My teammates and I decide on a plan of action as we knock out all the prep. We decide Tim will handle the rabbit orders, Ashley will be a runner and help plate, I will handle the lamb. As orders come in I sear off lamb chops to obtain a nice caramelization and when the order is fired I blast it under the salamander with a mound of pesto crust that melts into the chop and flash it in the oven to finish.

Our sauces stay hot in a bain marie on top of the stove, sides are heated to order and we carefully plate each dish artistically. We had a fair amount of orders and our station was hoping with activity. The adrenaline rush is addictive and you run on a high through dinner service. Keeping up with orders and working rhythmically puts me into a work trance. I’ve always said cooking for me is very Zen – a way for me to relax at the end of a normal work day. My mind clears, I focus on the tasks at hand and I’m very centered. It’s a good place to be mentally when you are physically challenging yourself over hot stoves, running plates up to the waiter station and standing on your feet all night.

I’ve come to realize the professional kitchen is really not for everyone – the stark, sterilized environment is not at all glamorous, or comfortable. It is a hard place to work and demanding on your body and mind. When some colleagues dined at the restaurant I was able to go out into the dining room and chat with them to see how they enjoyed everything. As I left the kitchen and proceeded to the dining room in my Chef-whites I emerged into a dimly lit space with tables full of patrons and I found my friends. Seeing all those people made me feel kind of special – some how in some little way I was a part of their evening. I walked proudly through the sea of tables knowing that not everyone can do what I do and I felt grateful and humbled as I returned to my place in the professional kitchen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A School of Fish

One important lesson to learn in the kitchen is to be flexible and ready for anything. Whether you’re slammed with orders, run out hot plates or need to improvise on a recipe, it’s all about going with the flow and making things work – like swimming with the current. Monday night, lots of classmates were MIA and we were understaffed for some of the stations. The Entremetier station only had one person on it and Chef asked for volunteers to step up to the plate and fill other roles. Having made both fish dishes I was happy to help my buddy Marcella out on vegetarian dishes.

Marcella and I had some immediate thoughts about what we’d like to prepare, seared polenta, with sautéed wild mushrooms flambéed with sherry, a quenelle of mascarpone cheese, candied walnuts and freshly chopped herbs. Our second dish was harder to imagine so I went to the kitchen’s storeroom and asked the stewards for whatever vegetable they had an overabundance of…and out came broccoli rabe.

Now broccoli rabe is not my favorite vegetable, but I was open to raising the bar and making it delicious. We decided to blanch the rabe and then shock it in ice water to preserve the color. Upon ordering, I would sauté the broccoli rabe with some blended oil, salt and pepper, then plate the crisp vegetable in a nest with a dressed salad of grape tomatoes, shaved fennel, thinly sliced red onion and roasted garlic. Finished with a drizzle of garlic-infused oil and 8 year old balsamic the dish looked vibrant. That night the vegetarian dishes were quite popular and the orders kept us busy for most of the night. I guess there’s a healthy market for broccoli rabe – a surprise!

With trepidation, I watched the team on the Saucier station, probably the busiest and fastest-paced position in the kitchen. Starting Wednesday it’s my turn to get behind the grill and sear up some of the meat courses featured on L’Ecole’s prix fixe menu. I’m sweating just thinking about it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Menu Project

With the deadline for our project looming and just days away, I spent the past weekend continuously working on all the details. Looking back, I’m glad I started weeks ago – there was a lot of cooking, shopping, prepping, research, plating and photographing involved. I plated and photographed dishes two and three times before I was happy with the final result.

My menu’s theme is Sunday dinner in Paris, a special meal for family – where the food is part comfort, part sophisticated and made with a lot of love. I begin the meal with an Amuse Bouche – a savory gougère (baked pastry dough with the addition of cheese similar to a popover) with a white bean and roasted garlic purée. My first real course is a butternut & acorn squash soup which is puréed. The soup is garnished with crème fraîche, pepitos (roasted pumpkin seeds) and drops of pumpkin seed oil. The velvety soup is wonderful for this time of year, the color and depth of flavor make it a real winner.

Next, a fish course – sautéed sea scallops with mussels in a saffron broth. I served this dish in a real scallop shell on a bed of smoked salt that I mixed with smoked paprika to produce a pink “sand” under the shell. The dish presented itself beautifully and photographed well. I must have spent at least three to four hours on that dish alone.

Before my meat course I wanted to have a palate cleanser so I whipped up a citrus & mint granité – which was so easy to make! Simply make some simple syrup, I added the juice of a couple of lemons and an orange plus the zest. To thin out the mixture and extend it, I added about a cup of water. Poured in a metal pan and right into the freezer. The granité must be raked every 30 minutes to produce ice shards. The granité was a gorgeous canary yellow and the chiffonade of mint a nice contrast.

For my meat course, a rack of lamb persillé with a parsnip and potato purée, sautéed swiss chard with garlic chips and a niçoise olive tapenade. The first time I made this dish I plated it in a hurry and it looked too messy – but it was delicious! So I knew I would have to make it again, and re-think the plating design.

A digestif salad follows, heirloom tomato with baby greens, endive and radish with a sherry shallot vinaigrette. I think I was the most astounded how beautifully this dish photographed.

Lastly, a tarte tatin with lavender-scented crème Chantilly. The tarte is an upside-down caramelized apple tart with puff pastry. A classic French dessert that I’ve never made before – so it was a challenge on my first shot. Happily it turned out well and I had many slices after I photographed the finished tarte.

A few more items to finish before handing in my project, wine pairings, costing sheet and a summary needs to be edited. After all that, it needs to be printed and bound for final review by three different Chefs. I have a lot of work still ahead of me!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Filet o' Fish

Our first night on the fish station was not as hectic as I imagined it to be. It was a Monday night and the restaurant only had about 50 – 60 covers.

Our recipes on the station are as follows: Arctic char in a lemongrass broth with leeks, carrots, potato and asparagus, drizzled with a little lemon oil. The other dish is a filet of cod with white sardines, roasted tomatoes, a mussel sauce and a brioche crouton with a parsnip purée.

Luckily, we started the night with a lot of prep work already completed for us by the last team. Tim took charge of the cod and I managed the char orders. When the char was fired, I quickly sautéed it skin side down in a very hot pan with some blended oil. Once the skin was crisp I removed the filet and kept it warm. Next the lemongrass broth is heated up with the vegetables and the char is returned to the pan flesh side down to gently poach. To plate, the char sits in the middle of a wide rimmed bowl, the broth and vegetables surround it and a little diced tomato and lemon oil drizzle finish the dish. With service coming to a close, we wrapped up our final orders and called it a night.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Changing of the Garde

Our last night in the Garde Manger kitchen was mostly uneventful, no fires, etc. We had a busy night as the orders kept rolling in. Chef Laura is wonderful to work with, she is focused, and makes sure each of us are on the ball.

As I was making digestif salads I thought about our next move to the Poissonier Station. Learning new recipes and plating guidelines on the first day is always a little scary. Also, timing is everything, once an order comes in, you are on high alert until the expediting Chef says, “Firing, one cod and one char!”

My team is really good, the three of us really work well together and we help each other out as much as possible. I know when we get to the fish station we will pull it together as usual and work as a well-oiled machine.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Project Update

Last night, the kitchen was very tame, I didn't set the school on fire, no celebrity chefs, I kept up with the pace of orders and all was fine in Garde Manger.

Today, after shopping for ingredients, I continued to work on my menu project that I need to hand in on Wednesday, the 17th of September. I plated my dessert, salad and re-did my soup so I could photograph it in daylight. It was overcast this afternoon, and the light was clear and soft - I thought, a good medium to work in.

Working on the dessert first, I cut a very clean slice of Tarte Tatin and glazed it with some apricot nappage to give it some shine. I made a caramel sauce to decorate the plate and added a swirl of Crème Chantilly to add a creamy taste to every bite.

Next the soup was reheated, seasoned and poured piping hot into a bowl. Garnished with creme fraiche, pepitos (roasted pumpkin seeds) and pumpkin seed oil the butternut and acorn squash puree didn't look picture perfect to me.

Lastly, the salad napoleon with heirloom tomato slices was dressed with a warm leek vinaigrette and accompanied by mache, herbs and baby greens. As an addition I added toasted baguette slices with creamy goat cheese.

I'm calling it a day for now, the kitchen is a mess and I have lots to clean up. Just two more dishes to go - my shellfish and meat course - that I will complete on Saturday. This Chef-in-training is tired.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Burnin' Down the House

Since we only have a limited amount of days on each station it is important to master each dish and be in total control of it for at least one night. Last night I concentrated on the calamari appetizer. Getting into the kitchen at 5:30 pm I went straight to work cleaning the calamari – removing the head and tentacles from the body. Once that is done, the body tube needs to be skinned and the cartilage that gives it shape needs to be removed. Back to the head, I proceed to cut off the tentacles right below the eyes (which stare at you in a creepy way) and clean out both extremities. It’s important to be careful to remove the tooth and cautious not to pierce the ink sac which is not always possible. It is amazing black ink gets ALL over everything and when wearing white the combination is a disaster. One looks like that had a fight with an army of pens and lost!

After painstakingly cleaning the calamari, the haricot verts needed to be blanched, fennel shaved thinly with my nemesis the Japanese mandolin, garlic cloves peeled and sliced, fresh lemon juice squeezed to deglaze the pan and Parmesan cheese flakes for garnish. We had herbed Panko on hand, good extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dress the fennel and green beans.

While I was prepping for service, I noticed a gray-haired man walked through the Garde Manger kitchen and he proceeded into the main working kitchen. He wore a chef’s jacket but not chef’s pants, so I thought that he was just someone that was visiting the kitchen and put it out of my mind. Next thing I know, the same gentleman comes back into our small kitchen and I was surprised to see it was Chef Jacques Pepin in person! He asked Chef Laura if she could make him a small salad and she happily obliged. I was thrilled to be in his presence, he is approachable and very understated quite honestly a veritable legend in the cooking world. My surprises for the night didn’t end there!

Once service began I was ready to whip out dishes of calamari per order. I was a little nervous manning the stove, the dish isn’t complicated it is just very easy to overcook and the calamari is sautéed on the stove and then Panko breadcrumbs are added and the entire sauté pan goes under a broiler to brown the breadcrumbs. With too powerful cooking sources it was tricky to ensure that nothing was overcooked. While behind on two orders of calamari, the gas flames licked the outside of the pan and ignited the oil in the pan, I quickly moved the pan away from the gas and fumbled to get another larger pan to cover the flames and extinguish my “little” fire. Instantly the flames reached up in between the two salamanders (over-the-stove open broilers) and the greasy mechanical parts caught fire. With one fire out and another started there was no easy way to extinguish this new problem that was not burning out. I blew into the one inch space betwen the salamanders as hard as I could and Chef did the same and after a few heavy huffs and puffs we managed to stop the flames and smoke.

I imaged myself standing out in front of the school’s restaurant with the fire trucks surrounding us and the diners and Chefs all pointing at me because I set the school on fire. Not what I want to be remembered for – luckily that scene never played out and I gained my composure and caught up to my orders. That being said, whenever you face a grease fire the best way to stop it is by smothering it with a large pot lid and never use water! Sometimes a lot of baking soda can put it out too but that usually is not as convenient. Smother a grease fire and be sure not to get it close to flammable curtains, wood cabinets, etc. Smokey the Bear says, “only you can prevent forest fires,” did he mention anything about the perils of cooking?