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.