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?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Salad Daze

The best thing about starting on the Garde Manger station is the chance to work with Chef Laura once again. Our assistant Chef for Levels I, II, and III – she brings a calming air to the kitchen.

Chef Laura walked us through the process for the evening, showed us how the two appetizer dishes we make are prepared and she gave us the lay of the land. The Garde Manger kitchen is its own separate space amidst the sea of controlled chaos.

There are four appetizers on the menu of L’Ecole – Level V students make two and the other two are made by Level VI students with whom we share the space. Our job is to coordinate our orders so they go out together. On the menu, we are making an Arugula, red & yellow roasted tomato, goat cheese and olive tapenade tart on puff pastry. Our other dish is a sautéed calamari with garlic and lemon dusted with herbed Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) served with a salad of shaved fennel and haricots verts. Level VI students make a consomme with foie gras gnocchi and a salmon roll with a lemon sauce.

Chef asks me to tackle the puff pastry (that was made from a previous class) and roll out two of them so it will be ready to bake. As I roll out the delicate dough I notice that it is tearing from the gentle pressure of the rolling pin. As I baked the puff pastry and took it out of the convection oven our faces dropped – the butter in the dough was never properly incorporated when it was first made and it basically produced a flat, lifeless hard cracker that we had to toss out. Chef asked me to run up to the second floor pastry kitchens and ask the chefs if they had any dough to spare – no dice. However, Chef Karen who is in the Production kitchen miraculously came to our rescue with frozen dough that she had in the freezer. Towards the end of the night I started making puff pastry for our next night so we would be aptly prepared for service.

As the orders rolled in we took turns calling them out and coordinated our dishes very well. I spent a good portion of the evening running trays of appetizers up to the front of the kitchen. Mid-way through service the orders for digestive salads started cranking out. The restaurant serves a small mixed green salad with ricotta salata and a quenelle of sorbet to aid in digestion and clean the palate before serving dessert – which look spectacular.

When the final orders for digestive salads were completed we started to clean up our space and call it a night. We worked really well under the fast-pace getting our appetizer plates out quickly and artfully prepared. The Level VI students pitched in when it was quiet for them and I was impressed by their willingness to help out. As always its a pleasure working with Chef Laura, she is a consummate professional with a great sense of humor and I’m looking forward to the next 3 classes dishing up the apps.

Make your reservations now for L'Ecole (reservations can be made on (www.opentable.com)! Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday - I'll be dishing out something good and I may even surprise you with something special. Let me know if you make a reservation so that I'm aware.

To learn more about L'Ecole and browse the current menu - click here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Orders Up!

Our last night on the Entremetier station, I had mushrooms on my mind and wanted to make something with them. The storeroom usually carries shiitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms so I knew we could count on them as being a core ingredient in whatever we made for the vegetarian option.

Chef asked Tim and me what we had in mind for the impromptu vegetarian choices for the evening. We discussed doing an orzo salad with sautéed wild mushrooms, roasted red peppers and fresh herbs accompanied by an Arugula and petit pea salad dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, ricotta salata and a macédoine of tomatoes. Chef liked the idea and added frizzled leeks and carrots to the mix for garnish.

For the vegetarian fish option I suggested a tomato and grilled peach salad – and after discussing components I went to work to create it. I grilled slices of red onion and tomatoes, peaches were quartered and grilled as well. For the presentation I chose rounded edged rectangular plates – a small amount of dressed Arugula was placed in the middle section of the dish, then three slices of tomato, some soft red onions and two beautiful slices of grilled peaches on top. We drizzled an amazing balsamic reduction over the peaches and sprinkled a little Maldon salt over it. Balsamic was artistically drizzled on the plate around the food and chopped pistachios finished the entire look. It was a gorgeous looking dish.

With service beginning at 8:00 pm sharp, the team was on its toes and we were flooded with lots of orders, more so than any other night. We were thrilled to make so many dishes and were careful to make each one an exact replica of the last one. It was a busy night in the restaurant and the energy was great – the Entremetier team is a cohesive, hard-working group and we are happily on our way to the Garde Manger station.