Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thirty-Mile Bounty

I'm not going to apologize for not blogging since my last entry. I'm just going to say...well...I've been busy and leave it at that! School, life, kids, holidays...blah, blah, blah!   Here's one thing I've been working on FOREVER that is finally done and I'm really happy with the way it turned big MENU PROJECT for school. The assignment was to develop a 4-course menu, with a wine pairing, cook each dish, photograph it, create the recipes, food cost one recipe, have it all follow some theme, then write an essay on that theme, the history of some item in your menu and talk about the wine pairing and (deep breath) make it all look good in a folder/binder or something.

I came up with the idea of a sort of "farm-to-table" theme utilizing farms right in my own area, which are quite ubiquitous. I source most of the ingredients for my menu from farms all within a 30-mile radius of my home in Hunterdon County, NJ. I visited all the farms, took pictures, saw how the animals were raised, talked to farmers, visited farmer's markets and got to taste some of the most amazing products out there...fresh organic goat's and cow's milk and cheese...grass-fed quails and was inspiring and insight-filled shopping for sure. I couldn't help but feel a connection to food, to where it comes from, what it takes to produce it when visiting these farms. In preparing the dishes from the products I bought on the farms I had a reverence for it that I can say I just don't experience when picking up a family pack of chicken breasts from Costco.

Those of you who know me, know I've shopped and eaten like a  "health-nut" for over 30 years....that's what they called someone way back when who shopped in "health food stores" and wanted foods produced without additives, chemicals, white sugar, white flour, hormones and antibiotics. Now it's a bandwagon being driven by everyone from Whole Foods to Walmart, The White House to the International House of Pancakes. But we still have a long, long way to go before more of our food is produced in an ethical, healthy way that benefits both consumers and the environment.  We have a  long way to go before before big argi-business and big food processors stop messing with our mass health by bio-engineering and chemicalizing our food until it's barely unrecognizable as food. If you haven't yet read Michael Pollan's books on food and food production, I encourage you's a survival primer for our generation. We need to start becoming conscious about food and its production and get back to real food in this country. Every aspect of our nations health—mental, physical, emotional and intellectual, depends on it.

The Menu Project made me realize that this is the direction I will go in my culinary career. What ever I do I want to be supporting sustainable, organic, humane food production and a return to people cooking and eating real food.  I want to be a part, a contributing part, of the culinary community that is carving out a road back to this more real, more conscious, more responsible relationship with food. I really believe that the culinary world has the spotlight and "star power" it does right now because we are meant to help popularize this "new" movement and galvanize the public to demand more of this responsibility from their grocers and from the big food producers.  ( I say "new" ironically because before agricultural industrialization during and after WWII, this small-farm, sustainable way of producing food was the norm for thousands of years before). I say "Enough!" with the "food-like substances" that line our grocery store shelves (as Michael Pollan says in his book, In Defense of Food). Anyway, whatever I do, where ever I end up placing my efforts—working in a restaurant, or starting my own business—I will align myself with this vision and with others in the industry who live and work this vision.

Check out my Menu Project. I used iphoto on the Mac to produce it as a book that I handed in...but here it is as a slideshow. Click this link My Menu Project then when you get to the site click on "Menu Project" on the top of the page.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


One of the great resources we have at The French Culinary Institute is the online student portal. There we can stare at our grades (What!? A 93!? I got robbed!), read up on alumni news, scan the job listings,  and my favorite section, the volunteer opportunities. As students, if we volunteer for a minimum of seven events we become eligible to receive the Outstanding Service Award at graduation. I guess the student in my class who does the most events wins...or maybe anyone who does at least seven gets one...I'm not sure, but it's not really the point. (OK, I do like awards. I really want the award. But it's still not the point.)

The point is that because of these volunteer gigs I've gotten to hand knives to Jacques Pepin and watch him cook and listen to him tell stories that amount to culinary industry lore by now; I've wielded an immersion blender in a gargantuan stockpot full of boulliabaisse made by Alain Sailhac of Le Cirque, The Plaza and 21 fame. I've prepped for a famous Hungarian chef who came in to teach a pastry class to amatuers and show him the picture of my Hungarian Viszla I had on my phone; and most recently I got to meet the mayor of New York when I volunteered to be among the vast crew assembled to put out a spread for Italian Heritage Day at Gracie Mansion. I'm a born and raised New Yorker and I'd never been to was a stroll into New York history. Even as I was charmed by the Victorian beauty of the house I knew right away that Mr. Bloomberg wouldn't actually live there. It was creaky and old and quaint, not the east side power palace I imagined he would live in.

And for some reason I'd always envisioned Michael Bloomberg as this tall, powerful figure of a man. In my mind his billions translated to stature. I'm not a news watcher— I get most of my news from NPR or the internet or Sunday Times—so all these years I did not actually realize that Mayor Bloomberg is, well, SHORT! Someone amongst the many organizers of the event that day made sure the volunteers got a chance to line up ahead of hundreds of others who were eager to have a millisecond with Hizzoneer, shake his hand and get a picture snapped. So, I shuffled down the front porch of Gracie Mansion, clutching my requisite filled out mailing label, and as I came to the head of line and saw him I was struck speechless. He was so not what I had pictured! Then, I was literally pushed toward him—a photo needed to be snapped every few seconds if he was going to get through the throng by midnight—and he took one look at me in my "whites" and said loudly, "You must be a cook!" I just burst out laughing, found nothing clever to say back, and that's when the shutter clicked.

The whole experience reminded me that my minds-eye version of life (or of celebrities) can be ridiculously outsized, or in this case, undersized. One thing that wasn't undersized was the amount of food prepared for this event, and the amount of people who attended. Eight Hundred Italian American NewYorkers from the five boroughs flowed through the Gracie Mansion gates and passed under the tents in the yard to the tables laden over-flowing platters of food. I'd been there since 10 a.m. helping fill those platters and I was amazed at what could be produced out of the tiny kitchen in the house and the off-site kitchen set up in the far corner of the grounds under a another large tent. Italian restaurant chefs from around the city brought their signature dishes to be finished and served as well. What blew me away was that the executive chef at Gracie churns out 3-4 events like this on any given week at the mansion or at other venues around the city with a pretty tight staff. He seemed to be everywhere at once, a wild, adrenalized look in his eye by the time the party was in full swing. But at the beginning of my shift he was calm and took the time to set me up, give me a tour and make me feel like an important part of the team.

When I finally left there exhausted around 8 p.m. the party was winding down. I changed into my street clothes down in the musky bowels of the mansion and then headed out the gates along with others who had come for a special New York experience. I was handed a goodie bag as I left the grounds...some Italian chocolates, a bag of pasta, a tiny bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a brochure on the Italian-American Association of New York.

As I waited for my car in the garage across from Gracie I was served up a delicious slice of Italian-American life. About six of us, some couples, stood around waiting for our cars when a silver-haired man in a good suit and polished, expensive shoes strolled in to the garage like he owned it. The attendant who heretofore had moved at the pace of cold molasses sprung up on his toes and jogged to a spotless black Mercedes parked right opposite the cashier window on the ground level of the garage. This car had not seen the inside of the garage elevator that had whisked all of our cars away to some dark nether region in the building. The now eager attendant three-point turned the car with impressive precision and delivered it within inches of the silver fox's shiny shoes.

I overheard the wife of one of the waiting couples lean over and ask the Mercedes owner, "How'd chew get yaw caw pawhked down heeya? Huh?"

If the faux-fur jacket and her big hair hadn't screamed Staten Island already, her delightful accent confirmed it for me. The gentleman turned toward her, gave her a toothy, Rat Pack grin and mimed for her the close-to-the-body quick peeling off of paper money from a big wad. Then he winked and slid onto the buttery black leather seats of his waiting car, slammed the door and rolled away.

"He juiced him!" She whispered at the top of her lungs to her sheepish husband, a bluish-collar guy with a big belly and a shiny helmet of dyed black hair. "How come you di-int think ta juice the garage guy? We'd be outta heeya by now if you wasn't so cheap!"

I laughed quietly and bit into the dense chocolate truffle from my goodie bag, savoring both the confection and this classic New York moment.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Four Ingredients to Heaven

I haven't said much about Level 3 and now that we are eleven weeks into it and I've regained a slice of my confidence back, I can talk about it. One of the first things Chef Veronica told us about Level 3 is "this is where a lot of people start to question, 'what am I doing here' or 'do I really want to do this' because it starts to look more and more like a real work situation and reality hits." 

Reality. Like bringing in two dishes per night at timed intervals. Like having to prepare two recipes the day before and create a timeline for completing each recipe so that you can multi-task and get your four perfect plates up to the "judging" table when they are being called for. Like exact plating, "hot food, hot plate, cold food, cold plate" and also doing this with a partner who may or may not agree with your timing and instincts.

The first few weeks did not feel good. My partner was a woman who was just joining the class after a leave of absence of several months, so I didn't have the easy familiarity I'd established with most of my young classmates. And whatever confidence I'd built up during levels 1 and 2 flew out the exhaust fans as my partner and I brought in sloppy dishes, late dishes, overcooked, undercooked and misplated messes all while trying to get used to Chef V's tougher, dryer, less playful teaching style.

But something happened right around week 8 when I was due to take on the dessert station and do Pot de Creme as one of my solo dishes for the night. Pot de Creme is pure alchemy. It embodies the magic of cooking for me. Just 4 simple ingredients.

A few basic steps. Some heat, a little bit of time and you have spun gold. A golden, creamy custard that makes you moan, just a bit, when you take your first bite. I'm not saying there was no stress that night with the Pot de Creme, but the stress came mostly from the razor thin Tuile (tweel) wafers we had to make to go along with the custard, and the little matter of the lemon tart that had to come in before the Pots. But when Chef V said mine had "excellent texture and flavor"and were "exactly as they should be" I knew I'd turned the corner in Level 3.

Make these and feel the way I did that night, and this afternoon when I made them again and took these photos. Just like a real chef.

Pot de Creme (adapted from the French Culinary Institute Level 3 textbook) 
14 oz. milk
4 egg yolks
2.5 oz of sugar (little over 1/4 cup)
1 t. vanilla extract 

Preparing the Custard:
1. Place the milk in a saucepan. Add the vanilla extract. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Watch it so it doesn't boil over.
2. Separate the eggs. Save egg whites for another use. Combine egg yolks with the sugar in a medium sized bowl. Beat the yolks and sugar until they take on a pale yellow color. (The French term for this is blanchir.)

3. Once milk is boiled, slowly add it to the egg mixture, stirring as you add it. You don't want to add it too fast and "cook" the egg. Use a paper towel to blot up any foam that was created from the mixing or milk boiling. You want your custard to have a smooth, glassy look to it. If you leave the foam on there, the bubbles will burst in the oven and leave your custard all swiss-cheesy looking.

Baking the Pots de Creme:
1. Preheat the oven to 325. Bring a pot of water to a boil.
2. Fill 4 porcelain ramekins/pots (you could use small pyrex bowls too) with equal amounts of the custard mixture, only filling them about 1/2 or 3/4 of the way full. Cover each with a piece of aluminum foil with a few tiny holes poked in the foil. Make sure the foil does not slope down and touch the custard. The little holes will let any condensation escape and not drip down and ruin the surface of your custard.
4. Find a roasting or baking pan that will fit the pots of custard. Make sure it is level. Line the pan with parchment paper so the pots won't slide around.

Place the pan on the rack in the oven FIRST. Then carefully transfer the filled pots to the pan. Using a measuring cup or a gravy boat, pour the boiling water into the pan so that it comes up about halfway up the pots of custard. This is called a "bain marie"—a water bath—and it will insure even and gentle cooking of the custard.
5. Bake for 40 minutes. You know the pots de creme are done when the surface of the custard no longer shakes loosely when you jiggle them. (Don't jiggle the whole pan! You don't want water from the bain marie to slosh up into your custard. Just gently jiggle one pot to test it....but 40 minutes should do the trick.)
6. Remove the pots de creme from the bain-marie, and cool. Once they come down in temperature a bit they should be cooled in the refridgerator and served cold. But you'll want to taste them when they are warm. Resist. Serve with a biscotti, a fancy cookie or simply as is. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

NY Culinary Experience

The New York Culinary Experience. Last year I read the ads for this wet-dream weekend for cooking enthusiasts in my weekly copies of the New York magazine and sighed at the $1395 ticket price. Alas, I would NOT be attending the starchef-studded event and learn along side well-healed New Yorkers with enough discretionary income to do so. I wouldn't be choosing from "24 Master Classes" with "28 world renowned chefs" over two days at the French Culinary Institute. The promotional video on teased me, showing giddy apron-clad participants from a previous event in hands-on classes with Eric Ripert, Morimoto, Anita Lo, David Bouley, Andre Soltner, Wylie Dufrene and many other top chefs. (To see this video go to:

But this year I was an insider. The 2009 New York Culinary Experience was scheduled for October 3 & 4 and as a student of FCI I was eligible to participate as a volunteer. Not only was I going to volunteer, but I was requested to assist one of the chef-instructors, Alain Sailhac. Alain Sailhac is the Executive Vice President and Dean Emeritus at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he has been since 1990. An extremely accomplished chef, Sailhac earned the first ever four star rating from The New York Times while at Le Cygne in the 1970s. He went on to be a chef at Le Cirque, the 21 Club and the Plaza Hotel.

I met Chef Alain when I volunteered to a assisst at a demo he was doing at school, along with 3-4 other students. One student, an older woman had positioned herself out front to assist the chef during the actual demo. The rest of us would be "backstage" getting trays of samples ready for the student audience to eat towards the end of the class. But a few minutes into the demo, the woman comes back to the kitchen behind the demo theater and says, "I can't understand what he is asking me. He wants something but I can't understand the accent!"

Cue Mrs. Fabulous! I quickly offered, to the chef supervising us, "My parents are French. I grew up around that accent. You want me to go out there and help him?"

"Yeah, you better get out there," he said.

So I got to "sous" for Chef Alain. I hovered around him in the small demo kitchen and tried to anticipate his every need. I pulled bowls out of his way, cleaned his board after he cleaned the fish, ran to get tools he needed. At one point he said to me but it got broadcast over the mike he had attached to his head for the demo, "You must have worked in a professional kitchen before."

"Yes, chef." I said.

"Because you know how to move around a chef."

"Thank you Chef."

I was thrilled. He delegated some actual cooking tasks to me during the demo and it ended up being such an incredible experience. When the demo was over and it was time for me to run to class, I asked him if I could snap a quick picture and he graciously obliged.

The next day I sent him an email thanking him for the opportunity and asking him to think of me if he ever needed an assistant for any future events. He replied almost immediately —

"Hi Rachel, I think you have a great sense of moving around a chef with efficiency. You look good in that picture. Saturday October 3 at 9am to 1pm I have class with participation it will be good if you can help. Ask your chef to be register. I think the class we’ll be in level 2 where you are right now. Thank you again, Alain Sailhac"

So that's how I got to assist him at the New York Culinary Experience.

The morning of Oct 3 I had to arrive at FCI at 7 am and help prep for the class which would begin at 10. There was a buzz that day at FCI that was incredible. When I walked in the back door a crew of maintenance men were still painting walls...everything had to be up-to-the minute-perfect for the paying customers and luminary chefs when they arrived. There was a chaotic precision to how this enoromous event was being pulled together throughout the school. Photographers roamed the halls. Espresso and latte stations with trays of continental breakfast were set up outside classrooms for the participants....dozens of white-coated students, FCI chef instructors and black-clad workers from New York Magazine got the job done. Chef Alain arrived about 9 and by 9:30 participants were filtering in and taking their positions at the cooking stations. I was assigned to assist an "island" of four participants and make sure they kept up with their "hands-on" completion of the recipe as Chef Alain went along. It was exhilarating.

Here is a shot I snapped with Chef Alain and two of the participants I helped that morning.

The team of volunteers for the class.

I realized that day how much I love being a part of this. I remembered how much I thrived on the buzz and excitement of the industry when I was a 17 year-old lying about my age I got my first restaurant job and became addicted to that adrenaline rush of the kitchen/restaurant/bar. Later I resented that work because I wanted to do what I was "supposed" to be doing—theater. But while rushing around that morning getting ready with all my fellow students and the chefs, I understood that food service was theater on a grand scale and much of what I loved about theater I saw in the food service industry too...the effort that could only be achieved by ensemble, the "family" that is created by the cast of characters needed to pull it off, the chaos, the adrenaline, the deadline, the audience that we ultimately must please, the drama, the attention to detail, setting the stage, the romance and the joy. And then...after all that...the room goes dark....and it starts all over again the next day.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sucking Wind

To those who have been emailing or Facebooking me with "when's the next post?" I apologize for sucking as a diarist. I knew keeping up with keeping track of my journey was going to be challenging—as a writer I tend to procrastinate—but I had no real clue what being in school was going to be like. I've whined about it before, but while this culinary school thing is exhilarating, adrenalizing, stimulating and really fun in a lot of ways, it's also a lot more raw hard work than I ever imagined in the soft-focus fantasy I had about the whole thing before I started.

So, if I'm not posting, just picture me studying for the written tests we have every couple of weeks, which are getting harder, by the way or practicing recipes at home for the practicals. During my last test, the level 2 final exam, one question demanded we write out the entire recipe—ingredients, amounts and procedure–for a basic French sponge cake called a Genoise. It's an "egg foam" cake. Very light and full of the air. What happened to me during that test is exactly what happens to the Genoise if you open the oven door while it's baking and before the requisite golden crust has formed: it loses all the air you pumped into it with your whisk and aching frozen-shoulder arm and becomes an empty, pitiful shell of it's former self.

OK, maybe I'm taking this cake analogy too far, but the fact is that I knew all along that the Genoise was made with WHOLE EGGS that you beat furiously over a warm water bath, but on the test I wrote "separate the eggs" and "whisk the yolks and sugar to a pale yellow" and "whip the whites to a soft peak and fold them in" thereby creating an un-Genoise concoction drawn from bits and pieces of the several recipes I'd tried to jam into my hormone-drained brain in the hours before the test.

My consolation was that during the practical part of the test when we had to produce eight perfect cocottes of potato from one Idaho, and a creamy vanilla Aglaise sauce without a trace of scrambled yolk in it, I did. Thank you God!

My further consolation came today, a week after the final when I had the nerve to look at my grades online and saw that I got a 100 on the written test! ONE HUNDRED. Did I just dream I totally screwed up the Genoise recipe? Or did Chef X finally cut me some slack and forgive my little mix up with the eggs? I'm going to miss that guy. Really.

But I won't miss my "baker's lung."

"It's reported in people who work around flour for hours at a time...baker's, pastry's a type of allergy to the gluten," the young and earnest pulmonologist told me after I scored rather low on the breathing out part of my pulmonary function test.

He gave me 3 sample inhalers and showed me how to use one the next time I found myself sucking my breath through a clutched fist feeling in my upper chest after a 5 hour class in pastry making. Baker's lung!

With most of the past month's classes centered around pastry lessons, flour flying in abundance around the class kitchen, I've been breathless many a night. And while I was glad to put my paranoid psychosomatic delusions about lung cancer, tuberculosis, consumption and spore-like aliens lodged in my bronchials to rest, I was none to thrilled to add asthma to the growing list of physical limitations connected to the growing number of years I've been alive. As of September 30 that number is now 53. Whoopee!

I knew I had a wheat or gluten "intolerance." I could eat it if I didn't mind being bloated, gassy, having the runs and breaking out in a rash on most of the mucous membranes of my body. Now I can't hardly be in the same room with it. Life is cruel. Just try eating rice bread. Or soy pancakes. Or kamut pasta.

But what's a little bit of asphyxiation when you can finally turn out a perfect pie crust? Or understand what makes the puff in puff pastry (it's all about a huge block of butter and trapped air) or pipe out a doughy little blob on a cookie sheet that miraculously turns into an airy container for pastry creme once you bake it. Here are some of my Level 2 creations.

Apple Tart

Genoise Cake with Mocha Buttercream/ Toasted Almonds and Quiche Lorraine

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Chef Envy

Can my complaining about Chef X in my last entry have unleashed a viral hex on him and sent him sprawling, as if from the impact of a well-targeted arrow, into his bed with pneumonia for the past two weeks?

(Chef X and Jonathan, my partner from week 2)

I don't think so. I have only to think of all the hundreds of lotto tickets I've bought, plans, wishes, affirmations for fame, fortune and publication that I've scribed into journals or onto notes I've hidden under my mattress according to instructions from my Feng Shui consultant, and that time I walked the perimeter of my property dusting the four corners with some toxic red powder using rooster feathers while chanting my best intentions for the future, to realize that as much as I'd like it to be so, my thoughts, negative or positive, don't have the "secret" impact on the world that all the new age gurus would have me believe.

So, I'm off the hook as far as Chef X is concerned. I am not psychically responsible for his ill health. I wish him a speedy and full recovery. I've had pneumonia and it is not fun.

In the meantime, we are four sessions into Level 2 without our French taskmaster and we've had an opportunity to experience some other chefs at FCI. Chef Candy was our first substitute teacher and she took us through the lesson on Lamb and Mutton, which included a delicious and hearty recipe for Navarin Printanier D'Agneau (Lamb Stew with Spring Vegatables) and oddly, a Poulet Braise au Vin Rouge (Chicken Braised with Red Wine). Chef Candy is a wiry, compact woman in her 50's (I'm guessing) whose no-nonsense approach and passion for her craft my team partner, Emily and I agreed was refreshing. She answered questions without sarcasm, asked questions without trying to trick us, and gave criticisms and praise in an honest, straightforward manner. We made Spatzle as a side dish, which was a revelation. I simple and delicious alternative to pasta. (See recipe below).
(Me and Emily)

By the way, it's been a pleasure working with Emily these past weeks...we seem to have gotten into a great groove of partnership, instinctively dividing up tasks and ending up with some great results. One happy benefit of Chef X's absence has been that we haven't been rotated to new partners as we would have at the beginning of Level 2, so Emily and I continue our run.

The second session, there was no Chef X again, and in his place was Chef Roger (Roj-ay), a youngish, darkly handsome French chef who started out shy and nervous and ended up funny and playful. We cracked up everytime he pulled a tool from his kit...everything he had was inordinately over sized. He mentioned having worked with Chef X at Picholine, many years ago and the ironic smile he gave while sharing that bit of history, told us all we needed to know about that experience. With Chef Roger we learned about Farci. Farci or forcemeat consists of coursely or finely chopped ingredients that can be raw or cooked. These "stuffings" can be used in vegetables (eggplant, large mushroom caps, zucchini, tomatoes) or inside meat, chicken or fish. They can also be formed into terrines, pates, galantines, ballotines or spreads. Who knew, chopped liver is a farci! With Chef Roger's gentle guidance we pounded top round and rolled and stuffed it with mushroom studded sausage, to make a Paupiette de Boeuf. We sauteed more mushrooms with shallots, bacon and the scooped insides of squash to make a stuffing for various vegetables for Legumes a Farcis. Chef Roger demonstrated a Mouselline, which was basically a chicken mouse you could use in a variety of preparations and threw in a really cool demo of how to make clear and delicate "pearls" of watermelon consomme using a vegetable gelatin Agar Agar. We got a real dinner break! No one threatened not to feed us or send us home or keep us until midnight. And we got the job done nicely, thank you without all that hanging over our heads.

In Session 3, Chef Sixto, another French chef who has succeeded in debunking my theory about French chefs, with his delightful way of laughing at his own jokes and charming "let me tell you a story" way of teaching, took us through the hell that is Organ Meats. That awful realm of offal. We made Sauteed Kidneys with Mustard Cream Sauce, Braised Sweetbreads with Country-Style Peas, Sauteed Calf's Liver with Caramelized Onions and Lamb Tongue with Sauce Piquant.

The lump that is a pre-condition of vomiting stayed in my throat pretty much the entire class, but I refused to get wimpy about the whole thing. I boiled and peeled a pair of lamb's tongues, sparing my vegetarian partner the task, all the while instructing my brain to NOT think about what it was I was peeling or to picture the lolling tongues of my dogs as they raced breathlessly around the yard or sat next to me on the couch and licked my face. NO. I WILL NOT THINK ABOUT THAT. I will just peel, slice and nap the grayish/pink protein with this beautiful, dark, piquant sauce I've made with shallots, black peppercorns, red wine vinegar, veal stock, tomatoes, butter and chopped herbs. My consolation comes with the assistant Chef's praise that the sauce was the best she'd tasted in the class. My dark secret about this session is that I did not taste any of the offal meats, even though the chefs instructed us to, even though Chef Sixto insisted we would be pleasantly surprised how tasty it would all be once we disguised them sufficiently.

And I was relieved that they sent up a dinner for us from "family" kitchen that consisted of fish cakes, cous cous, sauteed vegetables and salad. The compost barrel brimmed over with untouched organ meats glistening with their glazes. Chef Sixto dumped his own demo of the dishes into the barrel and admitted, "No one wants to eat it. Liver? It filters out everything. Disgusting!"

Spatzle (Shredded Egg Noodles)

Ingredients (for 4 servings)
1 Egg
1 3/4 oz milk
Salt and Pepper, ground nutmeg
1 T chopped herbs (parsley or tarragon...your preference)
3 oz. all-purpose flour
Butter for finishing

1. In a bowl, combine the egg milk, spices and herbs. Work in the flour and let it rest for about 15 minutes.
2. Set a large stockpot on the stove with water. Salt the water and bring to a boil. Prepare a large bowl with ice and water and set aside.
3. Set a colander or cooling rack over the stockpot, above, but not touching the boiling water. Pour the batter through the holes using a plastic pastry scraper or rubber spatula to press the batter through the holes.
4. Let the spatzle simmer for 3-5 minutes depending on the size. Remove the spatzle with a skimmer and place immediately in ice water bath. Drain well and refrigerate until needed.
5. To serve, saute the spatzle lightly in browned butter and season to taste one more time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


We lined up in the stuffy hallway, an unwieldy snake of starched white interrupted only by our already red and sweating faces, just outside the production kitchen on the first floor of the French Culinary Institute. Some of use reviewed homemade flashcards, others talked and speculated what the practical and written tests marking the end of the 19 sessions of Level 1 would entail.

I had spent most of the day at my desk trying to anchor information into my post-menopausal brain, which is something like trying to affix an over-handled post-it note to your just wants to drop off and flutter to the floor. I pressed on, nonetheless. I needed these to stick until around 9 pm: French culinary vocabulary, cooking times and temperatures, procedures for simple sauces like mayonnaise or veloute, basic techniques for making stock, braising a lamb shank, poaching fish in one of four different types of court bouillons... I took a break and peeled 4 potatoes and practiced the art of "tournage"....making perfect little potato footballs called cocottes....4-6 from each potato...a skill we'd have to demonstrate for the practical. I sliced carrots into little batons called jardiniere and turned jardinieres into little bricks called macedoine. Turnips ceased to be bulbous and homely and became delicate juliennes, thin and translucent. Chopped into pebbles, the julienne are now called brunoise and would help transform a plain broth into a Consomme Printenier.

We were finally allowed to file into the kitchen. At each station there was a cutting board and a bowl in which a turnip, carrot, potato and onion sat waiting to be peeled and shaped. I ended up at a station that faced the wall and straddled a sink and the compost barrel. In 30 minutes we'd have to make all our shapes, drop our knives, clean our stations, leave our student ID on the cutting board and leave the kitchen.

I knew I spent too much time on the turnips and ended up with too little macedoine of carrots and would lose points for that. I found out by chatting with my fellow students as we waited in the hallway that I'd screwed up by not keeping my potato trimmings submerged in water so they wouldn't turn pink. But, why? We were going to toss them in compost anyway! Well, in the professional kitchen universe we need to train ourselves to use every scrap, honor the food, fight waste and save money at every turn...those trimmings would make a fine mashed potato for that night's "special" or for a "family" meal for the staff. This is a lesson, if applied to our home kitchens, our industries and most of the western world in general, would go a long way toward saving the planet. So, even if we weren't going to save them TONIGHT, we should always treat the trimmings as though they could be saved. It was all about building habits.

I ended up with a 92 on the test. 10 out of 10 for organization, 10 out of 10 for cleanliness. 9 out of 10 for knife skills. 8 out of 10 for final product in cutting, 9 out of 10 for final product in cooking (not enough macedoine....a bit uneven perhaps? Not enough salt in the blanching water when I cooked them a l'anglaise?) I wasn't the best, but I was by far not the worst. Chef X gave us a little speech as he handed out the grades. "Some chefs give out 100's but I don't very believe in dat. How can you give a 100? There is no such thing as perfect in a kitchen. One minute your jacket is clean, then the next minute it's dirty, so how can that be 100? Your station is clean one time, but the next time I look there is a towel on your cutting board, so dat is not perfect. It happens, but what can I say? It's not 100! These chefs that give 100 they maybe want to make themselves look good!"

Or maybe they want to make their student feel good, feel accomplished, I think. What's wrong with that?! What is it about the French? Would it ever kill them to give you glowing praise? All of Chef X's compliments seem begrudging..."left-handed" kind of kudos that leave you feeling confused about whether you've been praised or dinged after all. This inevitably leads me to think about my father...not just to think about him, but to react viscerally, to feel my ancient history being triggered like a string of dormant land minds, by Chef X's rhythm of speech, his accent, his vaguely familiar humor and sarcasm, into feeling anger, humiliation and tears rising at the most inopportune moments.

A Frenchman, reared by a tyrannical chief-of-police French father, my father didn't believe in might make you into an "egoist", so was best avoided. I cannot remember a single time he told me he was proud of me or that I'd exceeded his expectations or that I was good at something. When I got good grades at school he took the credit saying it was only due to the fact that he pressured me or threatened me into performing at my best that I pulled A's or dean's list or won an award. Things I had passion or talent for (writing, singing, performing) he disparaged or dismissed as folly, or worse, a sign of my self-indulgent and selfish nature.

I'd knew I'd be stirring up a lot in culinary school, but I was thinking more in terms of French sauces....not the stew of my French-accented childhood.

Normally, we would move on to Level 2 and a new chef, but for some reason we've been assigned Chef X again for level 2. I hate the "every thing happens for a reason" cliche that gets thrown around when bad things happen and people want to be able to find a logical explanation to hold on to for it all...but I'm wondering if another 6 weeks of Chef X pushing my buttons isn't just what I need to "ecumer" the cauldron of bloody and bloated old feelings that have been bubbling over in my kitchen. If it helps me to take the cloudy stock of my old life and once and for all turn it into a clear, golden comforting consomme, then bring it on. When it's all over I'll be grateful for all the expert advice, techniques, habits and culinary lessons imparted by the chef, but I'll be most grateful for the unexpected gift he's giving me....a chance to heal some old wounds.

Ecumer: to skim off impurities such as blood and fat that rise to the surface of a simmering stock or sauce.