Culinary School Week 5: More knife cuts, and we cook more stuff!

Wow, where does the time go. When I last posted (more than a week ago) I promised a post or 2 over the weekend.  That was 4 days ago!

But better late than never. We’ll pick up where we left off with our intrepid hero of the culinary student world.

The last couple of days of the week 5 there was on vegetables, beans, pasta, and grains. Most of it was things I sort of knew, having worked with and eaten this stuff most of my life. One thing we studied is what happens to bean and veggies when you cook them with acids and alkali. In the case of fiber, the alkali will break it down, making the food softer. This is why many recipes say to add bicarbonate of soda to cook beans. Who knew!?  Likewise, acids will make fiber firmer.

But acids and alkali can also affect nutrients and color. If you cook red cabbage with alkali, it turns them blue or blue-green. Not very appetizing.

The basic takeaway is that with vegetables, cooking is a balancing act between maintaining color, texture, and nutrients while making them palatable. The less cooking the better. The text emphasizes what I’ve found out in the past decade or so, that steaming is the best way to cook many vegetables. When we have broccoli at home, I wouldn’t cook it any other way.

In Thursday after lecture, we went into the kitchen to practice the knife cuts we’d seen before, specifically fluting mushrooms and doing Tomato concassé (pronounced “kon-kah-SAY”). You cut the bottom of the tomato with an X, boil it briefly to loosen the skin, then shock it in an ice bath to stop it from cooking. After that, you insert the knife and cut around the core to separate it from the skin. You then cut planks off, and then do a medium dice. The idea is to have small neat cuts of tomato without seeds and gunk. The pics below show the steps:

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This doesn’t actually accomplish anything, other than to raise the bar as to the quality of the presentation. You give your customer nice pieces of tomato without the goo.

Next we did some more mushroom fluting. I covered that in my last post here.

WP_20141030_012[1]Then we actually cooked a bit. One group made sautéed Brussel Sprouts with walnuts, while the other group peeled some potatoes and boiled them to make Duchesse Potatoes. The Brussel Sprouts were pretty good. I never liked them growing up, but they were usually just boiled, which makes any sort of cabbage taste bad. (Brussel Sprouts are tiny cabbages, BTW). In recent years, I’ve roasted them with a bit of olive oil and S&P. Basically, drying them out and caramelizing them a bit really make them tasty. In this case, we added walnuts and they were very good. This is what passes for lunch in our 11-2pm class, M-F.

WP_20141030_015[1]Oh, and all those mushrooms we fluted? We sauteed them and let them sit and brown a bit before moving them around in the pan. Amazing what a bit of caramelization will do for the flavor. As one of my favorite TV chefs, Anne Burrell says, “Brown food tastes GOOD!”. We ate most of those too.

The Duchesse Potatoes were the tastiest. We tried out a food mill, and ultimately ran them through a ricer. You are basically making mashed potatoes with only butter and no extra liquid, except for some egg yolks. The combination egg yolks and no milk or cream makes these a very firm. This mixture is put in a piping bag, and you pipe out little designs, then bake them and it gives them a brown top. This is a great alternative to a spoon of mashed potatoes on a plate, and is yet another French way of “kicking it up a notch”. You can see the sequence here:

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This about does it for week 5. Week six was a busy one, and I’ll tell you about this in the next day or two. I PROMISE!

 

Culinary School Week 5: More knife cuts and we make soup

We took and got back our 2nd quiz this week, and yesterday (Tuesday) we went back into the kitchen to learn a few more knife cuts, and how to cut up vegetables.

First step to supreme a lemon

First step to supreme a lemon

Cutting the pith off a red bell pepper

Cutting the pith off a red bell pepper

Chef Sakai first showed us how to supreme a lemon (pronounced “su-prim” or “su-preem”).  This is where you cut the flesh out of the citrus fruit without taking any of the pith, including the barriers between sections.  If you’ve ever had a salad at a nice restaurant with sections of lemon or orange on it, they were probably supreme’d.I realized I didn’t take any pictures of the fully supreme fruit, either when I was done or when Chef Sakai demoed. I’ve included a pic of the lemon with the peel off. You can see the divisions in the sections of fruit. You just cut those out.

He demoed how to cut up a red bell pepper. I knew basically how to do this, but the Scotch in me doesn’t like cutting the ends off and throwing them away so you have a really nice rectangular piece of pepper to julienne. A smart Chef will try and come up with another dish to use those bits.

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Chef Stockman fluting a mushroom

My three tourne'd shrooms

My three tourne’d shrooms

The final knife work we did was tourne, or flute, a mushroom. I had seen this in a Youtube video, and I actually did it really well, amazingly enough.  There are several techniques to do it. The mushrooms we had were old and the top layers didn’t cut cleanly, so the result wasn’t that good, but the cuts themselves were pretty regular, if I do say so myself.

We then made a couple of cream soups. My team did Cream of Mushroom soup (had to put all those pieces to good use, right?) and the other team did Cream of Carrot soup. The process is pretty easy. Saute the mushrooms and some onion in butter (of course, this is all French, after all), then add stock and milk. The book said to run through a food mill, but we just wizzed it with an immersion blender, then add cream to finish. Season to taste.

Blending the mushroom soup

Blending the mushroom soup

It turned out OK. Not all that creamy. I would have put in a lot more mushrooms, but we did the recipe in the text book. The carrot soup I thought was better.  It had fine lumps in it, but it was good. I’m sure if we’d gone to the trouble of putting it in the VitaMix (which I would have done at home) it would have been silken, but we were running short of time and the point was to learn the process.

Today we had a bunch of lecture on potatoes and vegetables. We’re a bit behind and we’re trying to get caught up. We’ll probably be in the kitchen the rest of the week so I’ll do an update this weekend sometime

Culinary School Week 4: We cooked a dish, and I’m sure glad it wasn’t graded

On Friday we were let loose in the kitchen to “cook something”. We drew random lots to see what group we were in, and amazingly, I got paired up with 2 of the 3 other guys in the class. Since both of them actually have cooked something (one of them works at one of the top restaurants near San Michele winery) I thought we’d ace this.

We had various left over proteins from the culinary school’s restaurant, Chef City Grill.  The assortment was some slider patties of beef, some marinated Salmon, some chicken, and I’m not sure what else. The three of us gravitated toward the sliders, as that is a pretty decent blank canvas. The restaurant serves sliders with various toppings, and we thought we’d essentially add a topping.

Mise En Place for our slider plate

We threw some ideas out and quickly came up with our dish: 2 sliders, garlic aioli, hand cut “country” French Fries, and a wedge salad with vinaigrette of some sort and a few other things. This would nicely utilize the skills we’d been studying the past week or two: making emulsions (aioli and vinaigrette), sautéing and knife cuts (fries), and using new equipment we hadn’t had to use.

We all got our assignments and away we went. I worked on the vinaigrette (we had done emulsions earlier in the week, but I had made Hollandaise not salad dressing) while Raven cut the fries and got a sauté pan ready, and Patrick got out the Robot Coupe (a commercial food processor, pronounced “robo-coop”) to make the garlic aioli.

WP_20141024_002[1]Someone next to me on another team asked if we needed half an onion, which would have been composted if I said no. Hmm, caramelized onions on the sliders. SOLD!

I quickly sliced the onion and got it sautéing. I could hear Patrick struggling with the aioli, apparently things weren’t going well. It wasn’t coming together.

I started the vinaigrette, using red wine vinegar and some EVOO that we have by the gallon. I spent quite a bit of time on this, as I knew if there was any little droplets of oil Chef Eric would notice. Little did I know this was the least of my worries.

I knew the ratio of oil to vinegar was 3:1 and I wanted to add some mustard as it’s a stabilizer for the emulsion, but wasn’t sure about the amount, so I just threw in a teaspoon or so.  When it was done and I tasted it, hoo boy could you taste the mustard. I knew I’d have to call this “Dijon Vinaigrette”.

We were given an hour to get all this done, so I didn’t fire up the commercial grill we have until about 20 minutes before we had to be done. At about 15 minutes I threw the patties on, while Patrick struggled with the aioli, and Raven worked on the fries.

I went about getting the salad together.  I was cooking 4 burgers, so I got out two plates, took the 1/4 head of lettuce I found and split it, and started plating 2 plates.

I looked at the grill and the burger was curled up pretty good.  I flipped them over and they were pretty much burned. CRAP! I could maybe have done some new ones, but the leftovers were either back in the walk in or in the compost heap. I’d have to go with these.

I was also having issues toasting the buns. The grill was so hot they would toast in a matter of seconds. I threw several away. Fortunately, there was almost a full sheet pan full of them, and they were probably going to be dumped anyway.

At one point I dropped one on the floor, and invoking the time honored “5 second rule”, picked it up and put it back on the grill.  Chef Stockman, the head of the department, came up to me and asked “how much would you pay in a restaurant for a bun they’d dropped on the floor”….BUSTED. I threw it away and got another one. In thinking about it later, I realized there is a mental difference in the way you treat food you pay for out of your own pocket vs when someone else is paying the bill. And of course, all the joking comebacks came to mind much later. Probably best I didn’t say any of them, as I don’t know her that well and am not sure how much of a sense of humor she has.

We plated everything.  The caramelized onions came out well, although I realized later I didn’t season them.  I had planned on spreading the aioli in the buns, but it never came together (it “broke”, as we say) so Patrick just put some in a ramekin. I dressed the salad, and quartered a couple of cherry tomatoes on each one, along with some Bleu Cheese crumbles I found in the walk in.

WP_20141024_003[1]As you can see from the accompanying picture, it LOOKS great. But nothing was hidden from Chef Eric. It was actually pretty bad.

To summarize the misadventures:

  1. The burgers were WAY overcooked. Sort of edible (I did eat one of the burgers) but very dry.
  2. The aioli tasted good, but was pretty oily.
  3. The salad looked great, and the dressing wasn’t bad, but I didn’t put enough on.
  4. The fries were very mushy and undercooked.  Raven had only just pan fried them in a bit of oil, and hadn’t crisped them. (Good fries are actually cooked twice, once at 300 or so to cook the inside, and then after a rest at 375 to crisp the exterior).

In the end, the only thing we did well was the onions.

The fries I can put down to Raven’s inexperience cooking, and the main issues with the aioli and the burned burgers and buns were our lack of experience with the commercial equipment we have in the kitchen. In retrospect I could have just turned down the flames in the grill, but didn’t.  I always have my grill at home on full blast (and it’s a decent heavy duty Costco model) but it is probably half as hot as the commercial one I used.

Chef Eric gave some summary comments today in class. He liked our communication, and that everyone was involved, no one was just sitting around not doing anything. He didn’t expect us to be Iron Chefs at this point.

Speaking of Iron Chef, I do have a lot of respect for what they do on that show in an hour.  We had about an hour and 10 minutes to do what we did, and man the time went fast. How they do 5 fancy dishes and plate them in that time is beyond me.

We are doing vegetables this week, and I have my written and practical midterms next week. I need to get busy practicing my even and uniform knife cuts! It is the one thing I’m sweating!

Until next time…

Culinary School Week 4: I finally get to cook something!

We had Monday off this week, and Tuesday we went into the kitchen and made some of the sauces that we have watched Chef Sakai make for us. So finally, I get to try this stuff out!

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Finished Hollandaise

I made a Hollandaise, which is an example of an emulsion. You beat egg yolks while warming them over a water bath and add a bit of lemon juice. After they are foamy, you drizzle in some clarified butter, all the while whisking vigorously. You move it on and off the heat to keep the eggs from cooking. the butter is put in slowly at first, then as it is incorporated, you can add it faster.

This is the same basic process as making mayonnaise. Most store-bought mayo is made with whole eggs, but the good stuff is made with yolks only. If you do it with yolks, it is basically the same thing as Hollandaise, except you use a different oil for mayo, not butter. Again, commercial mayo is made with canola or safflower oil, good homemade stuff is made with something better, like EVOO.

Incidentally, if you add garlic to it and serve it in a restaurant, this mayo is called Aoli, and you can charge a few bucks for it. It’s garlic mayo. 🙂

One of the little tricks we do is to wet a towel, twist it, and form it into a ring on the prep table. This keeps the bowl from moving. That is what is underneath the bowl in the picture.

Once everything is incorporated and it’s nice a creamy, you add salt, a little cayenne (or hot sauce) to taste.

Incidentally, this is a cinch in a blender or food processor, but we are learning to do this the traditional way, in a bowl with a whisk. Using a machine is a cheat for doing it at home, or after you are working for the Hilton and have to do Eggs Benedict for 400.

The problem with Hollandaise is can’t be kept warm above 135 degrees (the minimum “holding temperature” for food safety), or it will curdle. So it can only be kept below that, and it has to be thrown out and a new batch made every 2 hours or so. Other sauces can be kept above the “danger zone”, but this can’t.

Sweating mirepoix for veloute

The second thing I did was make a veloute. This is just thickened chicken stock (actually any white stock). You sweat some mirepoix with clarified butter, add some flour, cook it down a bit (this is a roux, btw) and then add the stock.  Cook that down to thicken, strain and season.

We are usually pretty busy in the kitchen and I haven’t had a chance to have anyone take a picture of me doing anything, but I will soon.

Thanks for reading.

A shout out to Erin Coopey, The Glorified Home Chef

I wanted to take a minute to mention my friend, Erin Coopey and her website, TheGlorifiedHomeChef.com.

Erin is a Chef Instructor at PCC Cooks, among other places, and a cookbook author. (Check out her book at Amazon). I have taken several classes from her. She features recipes on her blog from other Glorified Home Chefs, and occasionally will film them making their signature dish and feature them on her site.

My wife, Teresa, also took a class from her a while back without me, and volunteered me to do a video. Normally when Teresa “volunteers” me for something, I roll my eyes and go with it, or complain, depending upon my mood. In this case, I did neither, instead looking forward to having a new experience.

We went back and forth for a while, trying to come up with things I could do, recipes and dishes that I like to do and have perfected.

Two things came up quickly, sausage and pot stickers. I have been making the former for about 25 years, and the latter for 30 years or so.

So one Saturday I went to her house and with Vince, her husband, as videographer, we filmed these three segments.

Erin just released the last of the three, Pot Stickers, yesterday.  I wanted to wait until I could put up all three links at the same time in a blog post.

So here they are.

The first, basic breakfast sausage in bulk, is here.

The second, Italian sausage stuffed into casings, is here.

And the last, Pot Stickers with homemade wrappers, is here.

Her website is http://glorifiedhomechef.com/ and the direct link to her blog is here.

Good eating!

Culinary School Week 3: Veal Stock

We discussed our first foray into something resembling food here. This and the next post will deal with the conclusion of what we started there.

WP_20141016_002[1]We had started making stock.  The next day the stock was still simmering on the stovetop. This was a pretty long simmer, 24 hours. When I make stock at home I do about 12 hours. The bones and veg looked pretty cooked when it was done, as you can see in the accompanying photo.

Working with this much stock is pretty interesting. I have a really nice 12 qt Vollrath stockpot that I originally bought to make beer, and now only really use it to make stock. Typically, I’ll use a spider to take out the large chunks, then use progressively finer home sieves to get out most of the solids separated from the liquid. My beef stock is never clear, and I actually like that. My French Onion Soup is a bit more rustic, at least that’s what I tell myself.

WP_20141016_003[1]WP_20141016_006[1]To make this whole process much easier, we have a stock pot in the kitchen that has a little spigot on it, You can see how we filter the stock here. We have a chinois inside of a china cap, and drain the stock into a 22qt Cambro. (We ended up with about 19 quarts of stock from 20 quarts of water).

Food safety regulations say you should chill this much stock so that it goes from 125 to 70 degrees in 2 hours, and then to 41 degrees in no more than 4 more hours, which is actually not that easy. Just putting it in the walk in won’t do it, and putting it in a smaller fridge with other food is not a good idea either, since it will warm up the fridge and all the other food in it will be potentially warmed up above 41 degrees, into the “danger zone”. So the way we do it is to put it in an ice bath, with a chill stick in it. The chill stick is this big plastic thing that you fill with water and freeze. We put it in a sink, fill it with ice (having a commercial icemaker is a nice thing) and then put the stick in it.  Eventually, when it gets to 70 degrees or so, you can cover it and put it in the walk in.

WP_20141017_008[1]Jumping ahead, the next day the stock was INCREDIBLY gelatinous. This is what you want to see in a stock. The reason we go to all this trouble is to get the flavor, but just as important, the gelatin from the bones. This creates a rich mouth feel to anything we put this in, without a lot of fat.

From this point, we can use this to make a soup, a sauce, or just about anything you would use water for, but the stock will give it a punch of flavor. I use chicken stock to make rice at home, just to give it a bit more taste. This is why you don’t salt stock, as you don’t know what it will be used for. It’s pretty common to make a stock reduction to concentrate the flavor and gelatin, but if you salted the stock, the reduction would be twice as salty, since salt doesn’t evaporate.

Sauce making is next, in my next post here.

 

 

 

 

Culinary School Week 3: Sauces

I documented making and finishing stock here. The most common thing you do with stocks is to make sauces.

Sauces are the foundation of French cooking, which is basically what we are learning and what all culinary schools teach. The number and complexity of sauces can be daunting, as we are learning going through this, but the basis of all those sauces boil down to five Mother or Leading sauces: Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Tomato, and Hollandaise. A good description of each of these sauces can be found here.

All of these have a liquid, a thickener, and other flavorings. Bechamel uses milk, Espagnole uses brown stock, Veloute uses white stock. (White stock is not necessarily white, but is made from unroasted bones). The first 3 are thickened with a Roux, which is a mixture of equal parts fat and flour. In French cooking, the fat is butter, of course, but any oil can be used. I make rouxs at home from olive oil all the time.

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Making a roux

From those mother sauces you can create dozens of “small sauces”. A common small sauce would be a cheese sauce. Thicken milk with a roux, then melt a bunch of cheese in it, and you have a cheese sauce. Add some cooked macaroni, and you have mac and cheese, more on this in a second. If the cheeses are Parmesian and Gruyere, you have a Mornay sauce.

So that’s the basics, but of course people take a lifetime to master making these sauces. Some of them are very labor intensive. In a classic French restaurant, there is a saucier that makes the sauces, and that is their life’s work.

Whipping clarified butter into egg yolks

Whipping clarified butter into egg yolks

We went into the kitchen and Chef Eric made a few sauces.  We did the mise en place for all 3, my group was assigned to collect the ingredients for Hollandaise sauce. In this case, the liquid is clarified butter, and the thickener is whipped egg yolks.

Chef Eric made a Veloute with chicken stock, the Hollandaise, and a Bechamel. A Veloute is basically chicken gravy. Actually, this brings up an interesting question: What is the difference between a sauce and gravy? The short answer is that a sauce is thinner than gravy. You judge this by putting a spoon into the sauce and looking at the back. Run your finger in a stripe down the back of the spoon. The speed at which the gap your finger leaves is fills is a measure of the thickness. The second difference is that no French chef would put “gravy” on his or her menu, too bourgeois. (Implied smiley here.)

WP_20141017_007[1]A discussion ensued about cheese sauce and the American staple mac and cheese. Quite a few of the students who are coming straight out of high school (ie, they are 18 or so) had never had mac n’ cheese except out of a box. So Chef Eric had us grate a bunch of cheddar cheese, he procured some macaroni from somewhere (dry storage no doubt) and we proceeded to make some basic mac n’ cheese.

This is the only way to make mac n’cheese, IMHO, but it was entertaining to see the wonder in the eyes of the people who’d never had this before. A reminder that I’ve had more life experience than most(all?) of my fellow students.

Reflecting on this experience, I am pretty sure that I had probably not had anything other than Kraft when I was 18 either, and I am sure I didn’t know what a Bechamel was then.

In any event, I am enjoying seeing the learning and light bulbs going off around me.

We are off Monday, but the learning continues next week.

Culinary School Week 3 – More Knife Skills and Finally – Something Resembling Food

WP_20141014_001[1]It’s midweek the 3rd week, and we’ve passed two milestones. First, I took and got back my first written test. I missed a couple, pretty bonehead mistakes, but admittedly I wasn’t 100% sure the answers were correct. The good news is he had “extra credit” questions, and I got all three of those right, so I got 51/50 possible points.

The 2nd milestone is that we are finally actually doing something that resembles cooking. Well, we aren’t cooking yet, but we are seeing demonstrations of some of the basics. More in a second.

We did do some more knife skills practice. We still haven’t cut up WP_20141014_002[1]something to cook, like I do at home, but have gone for the aesthetics, dicing potatoes to various sizes and trying and get them exactly the same, as I mentioned last week. This makes some sense to me, as cutting to the same size does allow them to cook evenly, and they do look nice.

We did some more tournes, as you can see from the accompanying photos. Sophie Brickman talks about the absurdity of turned vegetables here.

But today, we finally are discussing the basics: stocks, sauces, thickeners, etc. We went in to the kitchen and watched Chef Sakai make 5 gallons of stock from veal bones. I have made beef stock from recipes before, but now I actually know the proportions for “classic” stocks – 10 parts water, 8 parts bones, and 1 part mirepoix. The composition of the mirepoix varies with the type of stock (white, brown, fish, etc), but the classic proportions are 2 parts onion, 1 part each carrots and celery. You can see the mirepoix ingredients on the cutting board in the photo below. We also discussed making a sachet, a small cheesecloth bag of herbs that you dip into the stock to infuse their flavor, traditionally tied to the handle of the stockpot. The sachet isn’t really used very much nowadays, but it is a classic French technique that is in our text. The reality is that we strain the stock through a china cap and then a chinois (cone shaped filters that have progressively smaller holes), and cheesecloth costs money, so no point in going to the trouble.

WP_20141015_002[1]Chef Sakai did two things that I have never done in making stock, but you can bet I will from now on. First, he browned the mirepoix in the drippings from the bones, which caramelized them. (As Anne Burrell, Mario Batalli’s sous chef on Iron Chef says, “brown food tastes GOOD”).  He dumped the veg into the stock pot, then deglazed the roasting pan with red wine. I didn’t get a picture, but it was a box of Franzia, good ol’ “Box ‘O Wine”. I look forward to tasting the stock tomorrow when it comes out of the pot, after simmering nearly 24 hours.

WP_20141015_001[1]Sadly, most restaurant kitchens these days don’t make their own stocks, unless it is a high end restaurant that can afford the time, effort and ingredients to make their own stock. Additionally, since many restaurants buy their meat pre-portioned, bones are not seen that much anymore. Commercial stock bases are used, and some of them aren’t too bad. At home I use a brand from Costco called Better Than Bouillon (http://www.betterthanbouillon.com/). America’s Test Kitchen/Cooks Illustrated rated this Best Buy when they did a tasting of Chicken Stocks this season. By volume of stock made, it is the best value they tested. I have used the Chicken, Beef and Vegetable stock (although Costco only carries the first two regularly, I think). They are excellent.

But for my famous French Onion Soup, only made-from-bones beef stock will do. I make up a batch and then put it in quart ziplock bags and freeze them.  6 onions caramalized, a quart of that stock, plus some Thyme, sherry and the requisite Gruyere and crouton, and it is as good or better than any FOS that I’ve had in a restaurant…except for the stuff I had a Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain. That was a bowl of soup I’ll remember forever, and maybe worth it’s own blog post.

But I digress.

BTW, you can go to http://www.americastestkitchen.com and sign up for free. As of this writing, the stock ratings are still there under “Tastings”.

I will be interested to see what the sodium level is in the bases the school uses. One thing I’ve always wondered about is if you can get a base with no salt. Stocks are never salted, the one time you cook something without seasoning. The reason is simple: you don’t know how the stock will be used later on. If you are going to make a sauce that is reduced by, say, half, and you’ve salted the base stock, it will be really salty. Likewise, if you want to make a low sodium soup, the salt you add at the time the stock is made might be too much. You can always add, but can never take away. I have looked for a no-salt base, and I think I only found it at a local organic market once. It certainly isn’t common, and probably not on the shelf at Safeway.

WP_20141015_004[1]The last thing he did was make a roux, and allowed it to cook quite a while until it was basically burned. A roux is a thickener, composed of equal parts, by weight, flour and fat, traditionally butter, but any oil or pan drippings can also be used. Recipes specify white, blonde, or brown roux, depending upon the application. As you cook it, the thickening power reduces, so the browner the roux the more you have to use. I know that gumbo, for example, uses a very brown roux, and in fact it is a real art is to make the roux brown enough without burning it. In the Good Eats episode Bowl O’ Bayou, Alton Brown comes up with a foolproof method to make this roux without burning. You mix it in a dutch oven, then bake it for an hour and a half. You can find the episode listing here.

That’s about it for today. Tomorrow we talk about sauces, ie, what you do with that stock, and we will strain and finish the stock. I’ll probably do another post this week before Monday.

Culinary School Week 2: We finally get into the kitchen!

I realized today that I hadn’t blogged all week. Shame on me!

It was week 2 of culinary school and the big news is we got into the kitchen at last. Before that, though, we started to talk about what makes professional cooking different than home cooking, staring with the Menu.

The menu of an institution is where the “business” of that institution starts. There are different types of menus, we have all seen them. Some have a fixed menu (like say, Denny’s) where you walk in and the menu is the same every day. It might be updated periodically, but tomorrow is the same as today. Some have a rotating menu, like a corporate food service. The “hot stations” will have different dishes each day, for example. There are lots of different types.

Once that is established, you have recipes for those dishes. As I noted here, the volume of food cooked is what separates a home cook and a pro. A recipe for roast chicken, for example, will make 1 chicken in a home, but might make a dozen or 50 in an institution. The recipe and menu make up the basis of the management of the food. The recipe specifies what is needed, and that is backtracked to the raw products to figure out what needs to be purchased, given the yield after the food is prepped. For example, you might buy carrots and get a 91% yield after you cut off the ends and peel them, but if you buy whole broccoli and just want the florets, you might only get 80% yield, or less.

We spent quite a bit of time doing recipe conversions, were we stepped up or down the number of portions, or perhaps changing the portion size and the number of portions. If you’ve ever doubled a recipe, you know what I’m talking about. But of course, if you are making tenderloin for 300, the numbers can get big fast, not to mention the $$$$$’s.

We also discussed Mise en Place, which is French for “Everything in it’s place”. Basically, this is the prepwork that must be done before a service, balancing work that can be done ahead with quality of the food after it has been sitting for hours or a day. The prep has to be done well, because once the orders come in, you don’t really have a lot of time to dice an onion or julienne carrots. That all has to be ready to go to throw into the sauté pan when the customer is tapping their foot.

I liken this to the “pre-flight” that I would do before firing up the airplane to go somewhere, especially a long trip. You plan the flight, check the weather, file the flight plan, drive to the airport, pre-flight the plane (gotta have enough gas), get all the charts out and folded, etc. Once you fire up the plane and the wheels leave the ground, unless you have a co-pilot you can turn the plane over to or an autopilot, it is hard to fly the plane and also dig around in your flight bag for a chart you forgot. Likewise, prepping your station in a restaurant must be done, as much as possible, before the doors open.

We went into the kitchen everyday but Monday this week. We finally got to use our knives, and started by cutting potatoes. We focused not on basic knife skills so much like other knife skill classes I’d taken, but on cutting things precisely, but not fast (at this point). We cut sticks out of the potatoes (batonnets) then cut them into little cubes. The cubes are “dice” and the sizes have names: 3/4″ is large dice, 1/2″ is medium, and 1/4 is fine. Below that you have French names like Brunoise (1/8″) and Fine Brunoise (1/16″). (As Steve Martin used to say “Those French…They have a different word for everything“). While I have a lot of time in the kitchen using a knife, I have never worked hard at trying to get the cuts uniform, and this is a discipline I was looking forward having imposed on me. I know from watching Worst Cooks in America on Food Network that this is a big deal. The same sized pieces cook evenly, and they look good for presentation.

This is definitely something we’ll have to practice. Chef Eric didn’t expect perfection (in theory, there are people in this class who’ve never used a knife) but we did pretty good overall. The next day we did more potatoes, a 3/4″, 1/2″, and 1/4″ slice taken from the same potato. Some of my cuts were good, others not as much. We also diced an onion. Again, I have diced hundreds of onions, but have never really tried hard to make the pieces even. One thing I had wondered was how to do that, as the shape of the onion doesn’t lend itself to perfectly uniform pieces like you can get by squaring off a potato and cutting regular pieces. Turns out that is not possible, but the aim is to get as many pieces as close to the same size as possible.

The final thing we did was make Tournes. Only the French could come up with something this diabolical. It is a little football shaped hunk of potato or carrot, 2″ long and 3/4” wide at the widest part. And here is the kicker. It has seven sides. I had heard of these before, but had never tried to make one. Chef Eric told us we’d probably never make them except in culinary school. They are really hard. But overall, we did better than he thought we would. He told us we all did better at our first attempts than he did at his.

Along the way, we were a “test audience” for the restaurant the school runs called Chef City Grill. Every culinary school has one, as it is the only way to get real experience cooking and serving in that setting. I will eventually have to be on the line cooking as well as in the front of the house serving. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so this is going to be interesting. We filed in, were seated by a hostess, and while we were given menus (they wanted our critique of it) we were given an index card with a dish to order, so not everyone would order the same thing. I had the beef sliders, and the guy next to me, Raven, was given the chicken breast sandwich on Ciabatta roll, with an iceberg wedge salad. Everything was really good. There were some minor problems with the service (they tried to serve us Calamari, which we didn’t order) but otherwise everything was great. We swapped 1 of the 2 sliders for a half of the sandwich, and they were really good. The prices are great too. I think the most expensive thing on the menu is $8.50.

I wrote on my card “Overall very good. I’ve paid more for worse food and service”.

Chef City Grill is in the East building at LWIT, open 11-1:30 T-Th while school is in session. It’s open to the public. If you are in the Seattle/Eastside area, drop by for a good, inexpensive lunch.

The last day we reviewed for our first test (which I will study for when I finish this post) and then went into the kitchen and spent a couple of hours smelling and tasting spices, herbs, peppers, and in general things that some of the students might not have smelled or tasted. It was actually good for me. While I’ve cooked for years, I’ve never actually tasted a Juniper berry, for instance.

That’s about it. I’ll try and be a bit more disciplined and not wait a week to do these. Leave a comment or contact me at Jason@thetechychef.com.

Musings: On the name of this blog

After completing the first week of culinary school, something started to nag me, and I thought I’d say a few words about this before my fellow culinary students or my teachers said something to me.

In reading about the history of the professional cook, particularly the brigade system of Escoffier, I came to realize that there is a real pecking order in the professional kitchen. While less formal now than a hundred years ago when Escoffier invented it, there is still a hierarchy to any operation, even if there are only a handful of people in the kitchen.

At the top of that order is someone called a “chef”, which is derived from the French word for “chief”, or head guy. This is a title, and an honorific.

The first day of class I asked my instructor Chef Eric Sakai how we should address him. His answer was basically “either Chef, Chef Eric, or Chef Sakai is fine”.  He then went on to say that he is still getting used to the idea that he is a “chef”. To him, “chef” is the guy who taught him years ago in culinary school and in the various kitchens he worked.

Two popular TV cooks that I’ve followed are/were quick to say they are not chefs. Rachael Ray is one that has the utmost respect for her friends Bobby, Giada Mario and others, who are all trained chefs. Rachael poo poo’s her success by saying she’s just “a waitress at HoJo’s in upstate New York, but I’m not a chef”. The other was Jeff Smith, otherwise known as The Frugal Gourmet. He was from the Seattle area, and I remember him being on a local Sunday evening show when his PBS series was very popular in the 80’s. The host referred to him as a “chef” and he was quick to interrupt and correct him.  “I am a pretty decent cook, but I’m not a chef.  Chefs are people who have gone to school and worked for years to perfect their craft” he said.

I picked the name of this blog, The Techy Chef, a while ago, when I thought going into school and this world for real was still a few years out, not a few months. In the course of coming up with a name, I wanted something catchy. It didn’t occur to me that calling myself a Chef might not be appropriate. “The Techy Chef” was catchier sounding than “The Techy Foodie”, “The Techy Cook”, or “The Techy GuyWhoLikesToPlayWithGadgets”.

So the bottom line is that The Techy Chef is the name of my blog/website, but I would never refer to myself as a chef until at least after I’ve graduated with a culinary degree, and probably much later than that.

It’s similar to what I was told when I got my private pilot’s license. The common phrase in the flying biz is it’s a “license to learn”.  And I did learn more about flying as I got my Commercial and my Instrument rating.  I expect to go on after this program to learn more about food, and will be learning about it the rest of my life.