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.