Thursday, November 26, 2009

HiZZonner

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 Gracie...it 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 nymag.com 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: http://nymag.com/nyce/test/video/nyce_video.html)

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 younger...as 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 chefs...it's a type of asthma...an 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

Skimming

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 refrigerator...it 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 praise...it 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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jacques Pepin Jokes Around

"Get me a knife." Jacques Pepin said to the assistant event chef who I happened to be standing behind in the impossibly small wedge of a kitchen behind the demo auditorium at The French Culinary Institute.

"Yes, Chef. What kind of knife, Chef?"

"A sharp one." The Frenchman said as he caught my eye, winked and included me in his joking dismissal of the young chef. The assistant walked out of the kitchen muttering. I went to my knife bag which I had stowed under a prep table in the hallway and took out my paring knife and sharpening stick. I passed the blade back and forth to hone it, then quickly stashed the bag back under the table. I went back through the kitchen into the auditorium where Chef Pepin was checking his ingredients for his upcoming demo.

"Here you go, chef." I laid my paring knife down with a click next to his cutting board. "Be careful. It's very sharp." And I winked back at him. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" And there was. I ground some fresh pepper for him in a mise en place cup. Filled another with salt. I made sure his station was wiped down with white vinegar to degrease it from all the prep cooking I had been doing before he came (frying about 200 2" baguette slices in clarified butter that would become little "rolls" for an exquisite lobster salad.

"You are cleaning, that's good."

"Yes, I heard someone important is doing a demo today." I smiled and he smiled back.

Pepin, one of the FCI directors was hosting a cocktail party for a group of journalists and PR people who had come to hear all about a cruise line that he had designed the menus for and to watch the old master do a cooking demo. And I had volunteered that day to do 8 hours of on-your-feet-with-no-breaks prep work and hors d'oeuvres assembly for the party, all in hopes of meeting the icon.

And so I did. I was wondering if I was going to have the guts to ask him to pose for a quick picture, but my camera's dead battery solved that problem for me. Too bad. I would have loved to be able to post a pic of me and the old chef. He was a lot shorter, a lot older than I expected. I have him frozen in my mind as he was in those wonderful PBS shows I'd borrowed from the library. He was older in them...but sort of "Uncle-old". When I saw him in person I was surprised to see him be more "Grandpa-old", and taking careful steps around the kitchen. Heck, I'm surprised when I see myself in the mirror lately and I look like I'm knocking on the door of Grandma-old myself, so who am I to judge.

I was glad to have done the event just the same, photo op or not. I learned a few things...particularly some cool finger food ideas...the amazing lobster salad in their butter-drenched rolls, an incredible wild mushroom and cream "bruschetta" on crispy toasts, fried rigatoni pasta stuffed with a ricotta/herb filling, a raw kobe beef roll with kobe tartare and mozzerella in the middle....and I learned I probably will NOT work in a restaurant or full-time catering operation when I'm done with school. I was so bone-achingly tired after my 11-7 shift that I could have cried. Eight hour shifts in restaurants are the norm....ditto in catering.

I guess somewhere along my fantasy loop about what I would do with my life once I graduated school, there was a notion that I might want to intern or work in a top restaurant in NY for 6 mos or a year to experience what that would be like and to have something like that on my resume. Like my son doing his stint at Le Bernardin, I too could find my way into some 4-star establishment and forever have that notch on my apron string. But after the volunteer day, I don't know if this body can take it. I know...never say never...but Max is looking at 50-60 hour work weeks at Le B....and at 20, they'll be a bitch, but he probably won't feel like crying at the end of his day. He'll be saying..."let's get a beer!" At the end of my day of volunteering I was satisfied I'd done a good job, I got a chance to meet one of my heroes, and I was ready for a long nap and some Advil.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bad, Bad Blogger


Ok, I'm a bad, bad blogger.

I'm reading Julie/Julia, the book about the Julie/Julia Child project and blog that the Meryl Streep/Amy Adams movie coming out in August is based on and I feel appropriately ashamed. Julie took on completing all the recipes in the Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and pledged to blog about it all. According to the book she did the recipes at night...sometimes not sitting down to eat with her husband until close to midnight...then got up every morning and wrote her blog entries before work. So she did all this cooking, shopping for ingredients, working full time and blogging every day....and I'm going on nearly two weeks since my last blog entry.

My original plan was to make entries three days a week, after each class, detailing everything we cooked and learned along with my very witty and insightful observations. But one month into this Mrs. Fabulous Goes To Cooking School adventure I'm up to my nose in the reality of what I've taken on here. Just to illustrate my mental state let me briefly describe to you two consecutive dreams I had last night:

In the first dream I've agreed to be part of a group attempting to swim across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to England. The atmosphere of the dream is sort of film-noirish...black and white...shadows and dark clouds hanging over the black water of the endless ocean stretch. As I am being pulled out to sea by a line attached to an ocean liner (very possibly the Titanic) I am experiencing an all-encompassing panic and sense of dread about what I have gotten myself into. I know I will drown or be consumed by a shark.

As dream sequences are wont to do, one second I was taking on saltwater through the nose, the next minute I was on the floor of a super busy country-side restaurant and asking a large party seated at a big rustic table if I could take their order. I must not have been the regular waitstaff because I wasn't prepared and had to rip a page from one of the diner's address books and borrow a pen to do so. I wrote down what the party wanted to drink, then went back to the kitchen to fill the order. Once there, I found I couldn't interpret what I'd written, or couldn't find what I needed in the crowded fridge. I was sweating and confused and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't figure it out and pull the order together. I called out to a young waitress to please help me get the order out. She looked at me in a mocking, angry sort of way and said "Why should I? I'm not helping you!" Whereupon I shouted the only appropriate answer: "Well, Fuck You, Bitch!" When I finally got back to the table with my tray of drinks, they were all wrong and everyone was rolling their eyes at my complete and uncool failure as a person.

I don't think we need to call in Dr. Freud to interpret these somnolent panic attacks. It's safe to say that 4 weeks into this I'm feeling just a tiny bit overwhelmed.

I know it's only 15 hours a week of classes...but what you don't plan for is everything else that goes along with it. For instance, there is homework. I've got to read the lesson chapter before each class and copy each of the lesson's recipes out on 3x5 cards and bring them with me. It doesn't matter that Chef X promptly changes all the recipes...the ingredients, the procedures, declaring "I'm not very agreeing with how dey do do dat, so we going to do it my way..." and we have to copy his recipe down once we get to class and then follow his demo for the new altered procedure. Why then, you ask, would you have to waste time copying the recipes at home, when there is a good chance they will be changed or that you may not even cook all the recipes and in fact, end up cooking totally different ones? You waste this time because Chef X will randomly go around the room and check to see who does or doesn't have their recipe cards prepared and if you don't have them you get point off on your evaluations.

Then there are the tests, every 5-6 lessons that you have to study for...drill the vocabulary both French and English...the cooking terms, the product distinctions (round fish like bass and salmon have two filets and up to 27 pin bones that have to be removed when fileting, while flat fish like flounder have 4 fillets and no pin bones...what IS the difference between a bi-valve and a cephalopod?) I usually study by re-reading each chapter, underling and reviewing class notes and then reducing it all down to a one or two page study guide. There goes THAT day.

Then there is the practicing. Since my hollandaise debacle I've decided I need to be trying some of these skills at home to avoid future embarrassment and to hone my skills for the looming black shadow of the practical test (this could be what that Titanic image was all about) that's coming up. For this test we will have 70 minutes to complete some mystery plate of food (we find out only the day of the test) and present it to a panel of judges. We'll be graded on technique, execution, plating, cleanliness, organization, and taste. So...I've bought bags of carrots and turnips and onions and stood, shoulders hunched in my kitchen, trying to master the ciseller (a small dice) or a julienne (a thin strip) or an emincer (a really thin slice) without slicing off my fingernails; making a sabayon (an egg custard base for sauces and deserts) that fluffs up the way it should over a cold bath (or is it hot bath?); and sliding my fish knife in at just the right angel to separate the delicate trout flesh from the bone without making ribbons of it.

How about the uniforms? I always have to have a cleaned and pressed uniform ready to go. Chef's jacket, checkered pants, neckerchief, apron, side towel and hat. I iron daily now, it seems.

And the commuting? I have to leave a window of 2 hours to get to class because though the drive time is really only about 70 minutes, the traffic into the city is always unpredictable. And if I get in to SoHo by 4:40 I can get street parking just 6 blocks from the school as opposed to using a garage and paying to park. Since this saves me about $250 a month, I try to always get a street spot. So, this means I MUST leave my house by 3:00 for a 5:45 class start time, or earlier on Saturday when the bridge and tunnel crowd decide a summer afternoon in the city is just what they need. And my nap...I have to have a 40 minute nap the day of class...(yeah, right!) or else I might fall asleep on the drive home...THERE GOES THAT DAY...

Now, as for the drive home...class is supposed to be over at 10:45 pm. Due to the extended charming and sometimes repetitious anecdotes that make Chef X's demos run long, combined with our overall beginner's skill level, we have never finished class on time. We usually finish between 11 and 11:15. Which means after changing out of my uniform, packing my nerdy wheely bag with my dirty clothes and knives, filling up my water bottle for the drive, taking one last pee before I go and dragging a wet paper towel over my face to swath through the layer of sweat and grease that has accumulated on it over the last 5 hours, along with the 6 block walk back to my car, I never get on the road home before 11:45. With the late-night construction going on on the I-78 I get home about 1 am and finally wind down ( I should say "wine down" since I inevitably need a bit of the grape to settle down) around 2.

On my sleep-deprived days off I'm rushing around trying to get done everything related to school plus all that I was doing before I started this, like taking care of my house, my kids, the dogs, our banking, bills, gardening (forget it...the weeds win), finding my son an apartment in the city for his 4-month externship and dealing with slimy, craigslist scammers, laundry, feeding everyone, and driving my daughter and her friends every where on demand. Because of his schedule, I now actually only see my husband Friday nights for a few hours, Sundays, and Monday nights. Depending on your view on long marriages, this could be a good thing, a schedule that enforces separation and therefore deeper appreciation for one's life partner, or it could make you feel like "who are YOU?" when some guy comes up behind you in your bathroom and scares the shit out of you don't because it's been so long that you don't recognize him.

All this and FUCKING BLOGGING TOO.

OK. DEEP BREATH. IN. OUT. IN. OUT.

I'm done whining. I promise. And I'm done with this entry. I've got some Sunday left to try and figure out who that guy snoring on my couch is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hollan-Daze

I totally fucked up the Hollandaise. I was the last student in the class left laboring at my station, beating the shit out of two egg yolks so that they would somehow suck up 300 ml of butter and morf into that sunny, airy, lemony component of Eggs Benedict and companion to asparagus everywhere.

Chef X leaned over his marble workstation and stared at me. He could do this easily now since he reassigned us all to new partners for this class and relocated me from the back corner station to the front.

"Look, you are the last one. You are the only one who has to do it again."

Why thank you for pointing that out to me. I was wondering why a veritable white-water river of sweat was flowing between my tits and a greasy sheen of humiliation was building up on my T-zone.

"I know, I'm a bad girl." I tried to smile and shook my head. This is what I get for declaring I'm going to be perfect.

See, here is my theory about how life for humans is organized. God is like the chief executive of a big film studio. Instead of the pearly gates, I picture the grand archway and security booth of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood where I used to do administrative temp work when I lived in L.A. and was chasing an acting career. Inside the endless gargantuan hangars that populate the lot, separate realities are unfolding. War pictures, love stories, family dramas, dark moody films with shady characters and bad outcomes, uplifting stories where the sentimental protagonist beats all the odds to triumph, suburban soap operas and emergency room urgency are all playing out at the same time behind the heavy doors of the sound stages.

The one that I'm stuck in is a cheesy sit-com.

God is too busy to get involved in the minutiae of each individual storyline on the lot. Instead, each "project" is a assigned a group of writers that sit around and brainstorm. In my case they might say, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if right after she tells the world she's going to be the best student in the class, that she's dedicated to perfection and becoming an expert, that she totally screws up!" It's like Lucille Ball chasing bon bons on the conveyor belt, stuffing them in her bosom and mouth trying to keep up with the task at hand and from getting fired, but ultimately failing because it's funnier than if she just did the job well. For a more un-dated reference, it's like Seinfeld not being able to admit to his girlfriend that he dropped her toothbrush in the toilet and she's been using it all this time....and I'd play the girlfriend.

Ha. Ha.

Did I mention the test? The written test we had at the beginning of the class? I prepared a study guide that took me two days to make. All the vocabulary, all the techniques, French names of the dishes from the first 6 sessions. I reviewed. I had my son test me. I was ready. I could hear the Rocky music playing in my head as I answered each question with ease. Yes! I know this! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! .......NO! Wait, what is the Goddamn word for that other method of cooking vegetables...the one where you take the raw vegetables and cook them "a la minute" right before you serve them, instead of in advance, as with the other method. Come on, Rachel...it's the one where you do a paper airplane folded thingy out of parchment and cover the veggies, water, butter and salt while they are simmering. WHAT IS THAT FUCKING WORD! I KNOW THIS!

But in the end I can't remember. I have a big, menopausal brain fart and fume over why we even have to know it in fucking French. I write out the description of the method, preceded by a "E_______????" I know it begins with an E and sounds like "Ecriv-ay", but I also know that Ecriv-ay in French means "to write" and that is not the word for the freaking vegetable preparation. So I leave it blank and hand in the test when the time is up.

Hey, now that's hysterical guys! What a side-splitting episode of Mrs. Fabulous' Life!

I guess the good part about being in a life-long sitcom, as opposed to a saga about life in the slums of India or something like that, is that while things can get messy and chaotic and embarrassing, nobody ends up shooting themselves in the bathtub over it all. Nothing is too complicated that it can't be figured out within three commercial breaks or at the most a "too be continued" two-part episode. And there's always a warm, fuzzy moral to the story.

I can hear the writers now. "So, Mrs. F spazzes out and can't remember the term for cooking the vegetables. Then she destroys the Hollandaise and has to ask the assistant chef to take her through the second one, step by step. Her 24-year old partner, tries to bump fists with her to congratulate her on their solid, team-effort Bernaise sauce, but she high-fives him instead. He laughs and says, 'oh, I forgot, Mom's don't know about that.' High fives are sooooooo old school. She feels totally unhip and ancient. But then, as she walks to her car in the soft, summer rain, tired and breathless, she feels strangely alive and warmed by her Mary Tyler Moore-ish outlook on the evening.

" 'SO WHAT!' she says outloud and a homeless person resting in a nook between the columns of a SoHo building looks up at her briefly before hunkering back down under his garbage bag blanket. 'So I didn't get it all perfect!" True, the first Hollandaise sucked. She wouldn't end up with a 100% on the test. But the Bernaise, Buerre Blanc, and Gratin a L'Orange Sabayon Au Grand Marnier she made with her partner were pretty damn good. The mayonnaise she did on her own would have made Hellman's nervous."

The writer's are anxious to wrap up this episode and get home. "So she gets in the car, and it comes to her. 'L'ETUVEE!', she finally remembers the fucking term for the vegetable preparation and laughs and pounds the steering wheel. She's not beating herself up or feeling like quitting even thought she might not have been the best or most brilliant one in class today. This surprises her because she knows that there were times in her life that similar, insignificant failures would have derailed her. She drives uptown to pick up her son who is doing his CIA externship at LeBernardin. He listens to her recount the evenings class and then says to her, 'Good for you, Mom. It sounds like you did great overall.' He looks at her like he's genuinely proud of her, and she realizes she's proud of herself too."

"So it's a wrap." The writer's say as they gather their empty coffee cups and crumpled pages into the waste basket. "Mrs. Fab realizes in the end that mistakes will be a part of the "perfection" of the journey. And she is OK with that."

"Hey, shouldn't we have her throw her hat up in the air or something?" one of the writer's suggests. "Nah, it's been done," says another writer as he flicks the light off in the conference room.

I can't wait to see what happens Tuesday with Session 8: Salads. How can you screw up lettuce?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Taking Stock

Chef X held the strainer over the bain marie, (doesn't a long, cylindrical, metal container sound so much better by it's French name...evoking a woman in a Parisian salle de bain luxuriating in a claw-foot tub, soaking in bubbles, humming a vague tune...) while I, gripping my steaming stockpot with two towels, slowly poured one of the results of tonight's class, a golden chicken stock, past his discerning eye.

"Ah, look at that color. See how clear it is. Dat is perfect. Good job."

This, my first feedback from our Chef on anything I cooked, sets the bar, hones the target for what I know I will be obsessing over in the coming months...GETTING IT PERFECT! I have now found my culinary school persona: Quietly Perfection Driven, Subtly Brown Nosing, Wryly Knowing, Seriously Attentive, Consistently Achieving.

I know, I know. Longing for or even working toward perfection is a slippery slope. It can lead to chronic disappointment, self-flagellation, terrors about the slightest errors, anxiety dreams and even insanity in a medium such as cooking there are so many variables and so much can go wrong and everything is subjective. I don't care. I really, really, really want to get it right.

I have my long walks back to my car after class is over and the long drive home to think about these things. I want my experience at FCI to be like the veal, chicken, fish and vegetable stocks we made gallons and gallons of tonight in class. I want my education here to be a highly concentrated distillation of quality ingredients. I want to come away with a rich, flavor-dense foundation for whatever I want to do next. A good veal stock is best when it simmers for up to 12 hours—the water added to the bones and vegetables extracting every last cell of nuance and flavor to be had from them. I want to be that water, soaking up everything, grabbing every bit of this experience and holding on to it and becoming that beautiful, clear, expertly executed stock that can lead to the next beautiful creation...a sauce, a soup, a glaze....a life as a skilled chef.

I want to become an expert. I want to feel like I really know what I'm doing. I want to produce gorgeous results, and be acknowledged and receive accolades for it. I think I've just described the underlying, driving force of my entire attention-and-love-seeking life. (see: acting career, writing career, relationships, caretaking, enabling, parenting, various business ventures, etc.) But this time, I mean it! (Are you listening, Oh Mighty Organizer of the Universe?)

I'm not trying to disparage all the other paths I've taken in life, or pursuits I've undertaken, but the truth is I may have fudged my efforts and expertise along the way. I've done a lot of things, even impressed many with all I've done, but I don't have a sense that I've done many things at the highest level I could. For whatever reason: fears, insecurities, insurmountable circumstances, or just plain laziness I have not always reaped the results that I'd hoped for. With this, I think I have what it takes to give something my full attention and all my best efforts. I have the maturity, the losses, the 20/20 of hindsight, the patience and the humility to do it.

Recently, I came across a piece of paper printed with a quote I used have pinned up on the bulletin board in my office, but at some point it slipped to the floor and got lodged behind a big hutch. It's by Marianne Williamson and it starts out We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? and continues, "our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us."

I stopped making goals a few years back after a particularly nasty series of disappointments and financial losses. I was done believing I could shine and I was a bit embarrassed too—what did I have to show for all of my risk-taking and goal setting, after all? Williamson goes on to say, "Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won't feel unsure around you." If I'm not mistaken it was this quote that had me take on the Mrs. Fabulous moniker to begin with.

So here I am "playing big" and setting a goal: I will graduate FCI first in my class. When I do, I will know I have extracted every possible molecule and every penny's worth of expertise I possibly could from the experience. I don't see this as a competition between me and my fellow students, but more as a long, solitary marathon I'm running hoping to improve upon my own last best effort. Besides, Williams also points out, "As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated...our presence automatically liberates others." So maybe I'll inspire and liberate while I'm at it, and cook some really goddamn perfect food.

Make this Fabulous, Gorgeous, Brilliant chicken stock and keep it in your freezer. You'll never have to waste good money on store-bought stocks that tend to have stale or too heavy flavors and way too much sodium. Freeze for up to 3 months in 8 or 16 oz plastic containers, or spray a jumbo-muffin pan to make frozen "stock muffins" that you can transfer to freezer bags and use when needed. Remember: do not salt a stock. It becomes more and more concentrated as it cooks down and you are trying to create a neutral but flavorful foundation for other dishes, sauces, etc. that you will season appropriately later.

White Chicken Stock - Fond de Volaille Blanc

Ingredients

  • 4 pounds chicken wings, necks and backs
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2
  • 4 ribs celery, cut in 1/2
  • 1 leek, white part only, cut in 1/2 lengthwise
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 8 sprigs fresh parsley with stems
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 to 10 peppercorns
  • 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 gallons cold water

Directions

Place chicken, vegetables, and herbs and spices in 12-quart stockpot. Cook on high heat (but not so high that meat or vegetables sitting on the bottom of the pan will burn) until you begin to see bubbles break through the surface of the liquid. Turn heat down to medium low so that stock maintains low, gentle simmer. Using a slotted spoon, or more finely meshed skimmer, skim the debris and foam from the stock with a spoon or fine mesh strainer every 10 to 15 minutes for the first hour of cooking and twice each hour for the next 2 hours. Add hot water as needed to keep bones and vegetables submerged. Simmer uncovered for 4 to 6 hours.

Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer into another large stockpot or heatproof (not plastic) container discarding the solids. (I will use these solids actually...I salvage as much meat and vegetables as I can, toss the bones, and make a mush of it in the food processor. Then I add this mixture to my dogs' food. They love it and it's good for them. No waste, which is the classic French tradition.) Cool stock to 70 degrees by submerging the pot or container in large cooler of ice or a sink full of ice water to below 40 degrees. Once it reaches 70 degrees or in cool in the center to the touch, place in refrigerator overnight. Remove solidified fat from surface of liquid and store in container with lid in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to 3 months. Prior to use, bring to boil for 2 minutes. (Don't throw it frozen into a dish in progress.) Use as a base for soups and sauces. (Tip: spray container or muffin tins you use for freezing with a little natural, unflavored non-stick spray before filling with stock. It will slide out easier.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

Yesterday at 5 pm. I stood across the street from the French Culinary Institute on Broadway at the corner of Broome. It's a wide, noisy street with one-way car traffic barreling toward Canal but the pedestrian traffic flows every which way. I was like a fat rock in a rushing stream with my bulging FCI-issued bag, stuffed with the uniforms I'd gotten the day before at orientation, and the notebooks and black non-slip shoes and protein bars and water bottles and band aids and Neosporin and deodorant they told us to bring too. I had my steel lock for my locker and bobby pins for my hair which would have to be hidden under a chef's hat. I clutched the double espresso I'd just gotten from Starbucks to ensure I'd make it through the next six hours on my feet and another one driving home, since all this was going to be way past my regular bedtime. I let people pass me and bump my bag when the light turned green. I wasn't ready to cross. I wanted to take in all my caffeine, but I also wanted take it ALL in.

There was the bright orange banner flying in the hot breeze that marked the building as the INTERNATIONAL CULINARY CENTER, home to The French Culinary Institute and Italian Culinary Academy. On the ground floor was L'Ecole, the school's restaurant and real-time classroom, where I'd spend the last part of my program as a working cog in the wheel of that kitchen. To the left was a few steps and a non-descript door that lead a tiny foyer and an elevator. That's it. No big impressive lobby. No sprawling, picturesque campus like the school my son attends. Still, as I tossed my cup in the corner trash and entered that modest foyer I was acutely aware of the fact that my life was about to shift in a seismic way. I was entering a world, the culinary world, not as a reality-TV spectator, but FOR REAL.

It was over 80 degrees and humid outside but indoors was not much better. Add to this the weight of my crisp new chef's jacket embroidered with my name and the FCI logo, my high-waisted checkered chef's pants, my heavy black work socks and shoes, a shin-length apron tied around my waist adding another layer and a monk-like, head hugging chef's cap plastering down my hair. My earlobes and lips squeaked out the only gasp of femininity in the whole outfit: diamond studs, tiny hoops and a bit of gloss. If not entirely sexy in the outfit, I most definitely felt hot. Sweaty hot, and this was just as I was leaving the locker room.

We wait in a holding area that leads to the many kitchens along the 4th floor. We are being issued ID cards and the last bit of "orienting" before class starts. There are 24 of us in this Tues/Thurs/Sat evening, 9-month Culinary Arts session. Five women and 19 men. I'm wondering if one of the women, an ivory-skinned red-head who is attending as an homage to her late foodie father and hopes to one day leave her disappointing fashion industry job, is over thirty. If she is, it's just barely. Otherwise everyone else is most definitely in their 20's. Except me.

I don't know everyone yet, despite the icebreaker at the orientation where we all got to say our names, where we were from and our last best meal. We hailed from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, The Bronx, Brooklyn, one or two from the South or vaguely "out west." Names...fuggedaboutit for now. But it will be interesting to watch the personalities unfold, including my own. When I watch culinary reality shows I always wonder how I would handle it when the oil hits the pan? In the heat of the kitchen, at the height of the competition, which of the stock characters would I show myself to be? Debbie Downer? Drama Queen? Sadie Sabotage? Lacey Lazy? The Whiner, The Bullie? The Screw-Up? The Winner? Would I be the one Gordon Ramsey is secretly rooting for or can't wait to rip the coat off of? Would the public love me or hate me? Though we are not on TV here, I suspect that this kitchen we enter and inhabit for the next six weeks of Level One will cook up some dramatic dynamics and we will learn a lot about ourselves and who we are under the pressure to succeed.

Real Knives

The kitchen in divided in to six commercial grade work stations, each station has two ovens and four work areas which consist of a small stainless steel working surface and shelves, four commercial gas burners, a flat top "grill" area, and a ventilator hood. At the head of the "classroom" is a marble topped demonstration area where the Lead Chef and the Chef Instructor conduct the class. A white board is crowded with the terms we will have to learn as part of Session 1. Our Lead Chef tells us to just call him Chef X in his precise French-accented English. I read online at the FCI site that he is originally from Corsica, and has 30 years cooking experience in France and the US earning accolades along the way. He is still a working Chef by day and a molder of culinary souls by night.

I am delighted with his French accent. The lyrical lilt of it makes me feel nostalgic, for what, I don't know, since my French father was hardly the charming Maurice Chevalier type. He was more like Napoleon on steroids. But still, my childhood soundtrack was populated with the accents of my parents and relatives from France, Germany, and Belgium; Edith Piaf records played while we cleaned the house Saturday mornings, the scenes were set with jugs of wine and cloudy Pernod- and-water filled glasses. Chef X's voice, despite his warning that he was the toughest, that he would not tolerate our lateness, incomplete or unkempt uniforms, our absences, or our incompetence, made me feel like I'd come home. He calls me "Rahchelle" like my parents did and I tell him I don't mind. I try to show off and speak in French to him. I use up my limited vocabulary in a few sentences and vow to spend more time with the Rosetta Stone lessons my husband gave me for Mother's Day.

We launch into our knife kits, a multi-zippered and Velcro'd affair that could easily pass as a the kind of satchel you see movie assassins toting on their way to roof tops to pick off their targets. And indeed this one is stuffed with German engineered, high-carbon stainless steel weapons: the big chef's knife, the boning, filleting, paring, slicing and serrated knives with a sharpening "steel". Another unzipped compartment reveals a parisienne scoop (melon baller), canneleur (channel knife), kitchen scissors, trussing needle, a vegetable peeler, a rubber spatula, a wooden spatula, an offset pastry spatula, two sizes of whisks, five pastry tips, a stem thermometer, a chef's fork, a pepper mill and tongs. One more zip and there are boning tweezers, a 2-oz. ladle, another vegetable peeler, a "female" slotted spoon, a "male" whole spoon and a pastry brush. I slip out the little white card from behind the plastic window on the kit's front panel, fill in my name and phone number and slide the card back in place. I take ownership of my shiny and sharp tools of the trade.

Next there are the pans and the pots and various vessels we must be able to recognize and retrieve from the four corners of the kitchen. I'm familiar with all of them but not by the French names we have to memorize. Marmite, poele, sauteuse, rondeau, russe, sautoir, rotissoire, chinois, chinois etamine. Chef X holds up a pan and randomly calls on people to shout out the names. I go blank or get it wrong. Memorization will be a challenge. They might as well re-name menopause as MEMO-PAUSE because it's about the time you start losing all short term memory. I can remember what I ate on my third date with my fifth boyfriend but I can remember what I did with my car keys....until I open the refrigerator and see them in the butter compartment.

By now it's around 7:30 pm. I'm starting to get really hungry. The salad I had at three o'clock before I left the house is not going to get me through the night. I left my organic protein bars in the locker. I vaguely remember something from the orientation about a meal we may or may not get around 8:30. Chef X tells us we only stop to eat if the class is performing well, and on time. I make a mental note to make sure I always hide a snack in my knife kit, just in case. My lower back is aching but it's nothing compared to the pinched nerve between my shoulder blades and the ache along the bottom of my feet from standing in one spot for over two hours. There are no chairs in the kitchen. I bend over to try and stretch my back and right away Chef asks "Are you OK?" The last thing I want to project is the image of the old lady in the group who can't handle it. I straighten out, assure him I'm fine and proceed do a lot of leaning and shifting my weight from side to side to "rest."

The next hour is spent watching the chef produce a series of vegetable "taillage" or cuts into various shapes and sizes. He demonstrates with onion, leeks, carrots, cabbage, turnip and tomato. Emincer leaves an onion thinly sliced and Ciseler is a fine dice done without removing the onions core. A neat trick. Julienne, thin elegant strips that break down into smaller strips called Cheveaux or into tiny dices called Brunois; Jardinere, a thicker long stick that could also be a shorter stick called an Alumette or a cube called a Macedoine. A still thicker long stick called a Mignonette that could be broken down into a hair-thin tile Paysanne. He concasses a tomato leaving it seedless and chiffonades a cabbage leaf into ribbons. He tells us we will have to duplicate his efforts tonight, but blissfully he announces we will take a 15-minute break to eat.

During the demo our food had arrived from some other kitchen in the building...other students doing Level 3 or 4 production for our benefit and sustenance. We line up with our plates and utensils to get our portion of aromatic baked chicken breasts on the bone, roasted vegetables, potatoes with bacon and melted cheese and a salad with vinaigrette. We eat, standing at our stations. I get a chance to talk to my station partner, even if I get no relief for my back and feet.

A tall young man, of Asian descent, soft spoken, with a kind, handsome face. He asks me why I'm doing the program and I ask him the same. He's been an accountant for several years right out of college and is not happy with the work. "Since I was in high school, I pictured myself owning a restaurant. I don't think my parents are happy about my choice, but I'm 25 years old and they don't exactly have a say in it at this point. But I know they are not happy. All they think of is the money. Make a lot of money and you are a success." He looks at me directly. He's sure of what he wants to say. "I don't measure success the way they do." We chat a little more about passion and vocation...that a life lived doing work that is meaningful to you is as much a measure of success as any bank statement, if not more. The food and the conversation is satisfying. I'm refreshed in body and spirit.

We tackle our taillage, at first confused about the directions or how we are supposed work as a team. I adopt a kind of "mother hen" protectiveness over my partner giving him directions here and there, checking up on him, but soon realize he knows what he's doing better than I do and I'm lagging behind. The cuts go excruciatingly slow—no flashing knife work here. My shoulders are up around my ears and tense. I'm grazing my fingernails and coming dangerously close to trimming my fingertips. My carrots are too thick, I'm wasting too much. The Chef instructor, Mark, stops at my station and answers a question, congenially showing me how to smooth out my "steam engine" movement of the knife and use the back of the blade to achieve my cut. I do better but am still struggling. I hear Chef X shout "five minutes" and get the first taste of trying to complete a culinary task against the clock. I look at my sheet pan and samples and realize I've completely forgotten the two cuts of onion. I race to the far side of the kitchen and get an onion and attack it. I am sweating. My partner is peeling a carrot and I realize that without thinking, I stole his already peeled carrot for my cuts. "Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking." He tells me not to worry about it, but I'm sure he'll avoid being on my station next time around.

Real Tired

I finish my demo piles just in time as Chef X passes our station to inspect. I present. "Good, a little thick but good, this is good," he points to carrots and turnips and leeks. The onions are good too but mentions some nuances, some improvements. "Well done for the first time. You will get better."

"I hope!" I say.

"Not hope. You will, I'm telling you." With him in charge I would progress, of that he seemed to have all the confidence in the world.

We clean and pack our knives, clear and clean our stations. In the locker room I slowly change into my street clothes. When I hit the cooling night air with my bulging bag and heavy knife kit and waddle the four blocks to the parking garage, I am both overwhelmed and elated. I ask myself the question "What Have I Gotten Myself Into?" feeling both overwhelm at the enormity of what I've committed to, and awe at the fact that I'm actually here and doing it. I am bone-achingly tired and bone-deep happy. My buzz takes me through the Holland Tunnel and the hour ride home without so much as a yawn.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fear on High Boil

I did not count on the fear.

I thought when I'd finally made the commitment, finally found the funding and signed the FCI enrollment agreement and sent it in, I'd feel more along the lines of: Relief. Anticipation. Excitement. Satisfaction. All these capitalized emotions would be buoying me up, bouncing me along the gentle wave of the weeks before I enter the Culinary Arts Program at French Culinary Institute. After all, I'd be following through on a long-simmering passion. I'd be starting a new "course" of my life. I'd be turning a new page. ( And I'd be mixing metaphors with wild abandon!)

Instead I'm feeling kind of nauseous. And scared. Very scared. What if I can't handle it?

Parts of this undertaking—like rearranging my stay-at-home mom, homemaker and writing routine to include 3 weekly evening forays into the city (an hour drive each way) for classes; like whether I'll be fit enough for the 5-hours-on-my-feet classes; like being in a class full of people likely to be at least 25+ years younger than me if not more; and worrying about having enough energy and mental acuity to pull off not only school, but my vision for the Mrs. Fabulous Feasts business I want to start after I graduate—are gnawing away at me, eroding my tenuous mid-life confidence.

As I said to my glazed-over husband during the 12th (or so) round of laments on this subject while accepting yet another a wad of tissues from him, "What if I can't become Mrs. Fabulous? What if I'm no good?" Doug wisely adapts an aspect of civil law for our relationship and exercises his Miranda rights at times like these...."the right to remain silent, for anything you say may be used against you...." He pats my hand and looks at me in a meaningful way and nods his head. Most likely he is thinking about the basketball championship games and hoping I won't want to "talk" while they are on. And it doesn't matter what he says, because even when he does tell me You'll Be Fine, and You'll Do Great and This Is Your Passion it doesn't really put out the wildfire of fear that is consuming any rational thoughts I might be trying to have on this subject.

Over the course of my life I've thrown myself off of many a cliff, dove into the unknown, taken an inordinate share of physical, emotional, spiritual risks. So...I'm asking myself..."what's up with the fear and doubt now?" I was vaguely aware that when I made the commitment to go to school that the "growth process" would begin right away, (remember est?), and not on the first day of classes. I'm beginning to understand that there is something I'll need to face to make this new phase of my life a success...some realization I may need to have in order to allow myself to be happy, satisfied, engaged...to be of service. Whatever that realization is my whole being wants to vomit just knowing it's coming. I let you know as soon as I hear the angels chorus that signals my epiphany has arrived.

Over the weekend I got a "push" along this path from the "universe" via an old college friend— a boyfriend I hadn't seen or talked to in nearly 30 years until he contacted me through Facebook. He posted a bunch of old photos from 1975 or so..our "FDU Daze." The photos brought back a rush of memories but also an odd sense of memory lapse when I saw one he posted of me when I was just 18. This younger version of me was staring straight into the camera giving, what he captioned the photo as "the look." When I looked at her, this girl in the photo, I couldn't remember her. I couldn't feel what she was feeling. I wanted badly to know her and to talk to her and hear her. She was the me that was irrepressible, unstoppable, fearless. I wanted to borrow her bravado.

One could easily say that she had the recklessness and naivete of youth, that at 18 she could still afford to be wide-eyed and optimistic. After all, risk is no risk when you have nothing to lose. But was it true? Was it merely youth that made her so confident? Was it only youthful enthusiasm that took her to New York City after college to chase her dream of becoming an actress? Was it only boundless energy and health that had her waiting tables and bartending at night then taking the dance classes, acting classes, voice lessons and endlessly making the rounds to agents offices and cattle call auditions during the day?

Or was it something else? I looked at that picture again and again over the next few days. Who were you? The 52 year-old me wanted to know. This was no Pollyanna. She was not the pampered child of doting parents who could rightfully judge the world to be a safe and generous place to pursue a dream. Her father, an Algerian immigrant, had been raging, violent and sexually abusive to her. Her mother, a German Jew, was a Nazi concentration camp survivor, whose life was populated with grievous loss, poverty, abuse, neglect and pain.

One of the first things this young "optimist" did when she graduated college at 19 was to hire a lawyer and extricate her mother (and 15-year-old sister) from her 24-year-long abusive marriage. She found her mother a job, an apartment and a new life before this young girl went on to start her own. Not much about her upbringing would lead her to believe that life would deliver her happiness on a platter, but her actions—her strong, determined, fearless actions— meant she believed she had a right to that happiness and that was willing to do what it took to make it so .

She had courage.

When my own son faced irrational night-time fears as a child I remember trying to explain to him that his fears would teach him how to be brave. They were a gift! Since he spent much of his days at the time imagining himself to be a Power Ranger or a Ninja Turtle, bravery was a commodity he was interested in. "If you aren't afraid of something, then it takes no courage to do it. It's as easy as pooping!" I could always get a laugh on toilet humor with my kids. "But if you are afraid, and you go ahead and do it anyway, then that's brave."

Somewhere in time I had courage in spite of, or maybe because of the hardships and dark secrets of my childhood. I knew what courage was and how to talk about it with my kids. So what happened? Why is fear of taking this new step, of taking on this new challenge about to derail me?

Thirty-four years after that college picture was taken that girl has discovered that sometimes, many times, her best efforts don't always take her where she wants to go.

Life doesn't always say "yes."

But I can... keep saying yes, that is. That 18-year-old me would want me to just stare this new challenge in the eye and give it "the look." And that's how I'll turn myself into Mrs. Fabulous.