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.

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.