Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Therapy…of the Physical Kind

I've had a lot of "free time" lately, but of course I use that term lightly. "Free time," to me, conjures up feelings and scenes from second grade, when we would be granted fifteen minutes of spare time after lunch to do whatever our little hearts desired: transferring our vocab words to flash cards, touching and smelling the new shipment of dictionaries in the library, thinking about ponies, having fake conversations with fake friends…you know, the normal things that normal second graders do. Now that I'm an adult who currently works part time and finds herself with a few unscheduled hours, I'm still trying to replicate that feeling of productivity that drove my days back when I was a miserable office drone. When I'm not working (or preparing for work), I have the wonderful ability to do whatever my little heart desires: organizing my recipes, writing lists about things I need to write lists about, touching and smelling the new shipment of books at the library, thinking about ponies and having fake conversations with my fake TV friends. I also take an inappropriate number of pictures of my cat, but let's leave that for another day.

I realized recently that I've been taking extreme advantage of my physical therapist. I've known her for a little over a year now, back when I saw her for an undiagnosed painful wrist, and I now consider her a friend. Now that my problem has been surgically fixed, she's helping me recover and gain back my mobility. The thing that I struggle with, though, is not the excruciating and blinding pain this "friend" puts me through several times a week; it's a word in her professional title: Therapist.

"Hey Jackie! Come on in, have a seat. How's everything going?"

"Yea, I'm doing alright, I guess."

"How are you feeling?"

"Well…honestly, you know, hmm…I'm feeling a little insufficient. I mean…really…what am I going to do with my life??"

"…Because of your wrist…?"

"I mean, no, not really. Am I living up to my own expectations??"

"You must have misunderstood me…how does your wrist feel."

"Oh, my wrist is fine. I mean, seriously, what is my main purpose for being on this earth? What is the goal…"

"Jackie…the wrist…physically, you're here about your wrist, right?"

"Should…should I lie down?"

I think it's something about medical authorities that automatically makes me want to over-disclose, made worse by the fact that I already have a predisposition to over-disclose information about myself to those not in the medical profession. I consider myself to be an honest person, an open book of sorts, but I tend to relax too much in beige midtown medical offices. Then again, I also tend to relax too much when I'm in awkward situations (quiet elevators, locker rooms, interviews, etc.) or when I'm wearing my Magic Velvet Sweat Pants. It's a slippery slope. One minute you're engaging in idle chatter about a recent trip to Target, the next minute you're explaining how you forgot to put the lid on the container for the prescription pads that you use to wipe your cat's vulva (because she's too obese to clean herself) and they're starting to dry out. Those things were expensive! And you can rest assured that I'm going to tell at least five people about it.

I think the solution is to start having random conversations with random people. That would take up some of my free time and also allow me to tell awkward stories without ever having to see these people ever again. No one wants to tell a good vomit story and then have to face that person again…not cool. Or maybe I could start calling 1-800s routed through India so that I can ask them insensitive questions like, "Have you had Chipotle?" and "Do you speak Hindi in your dreams?" Then again, I should probably just get a hobby. One that doesn't involve cats.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds…

If I could undo one day in my life, the entirety of my twenty five years, one day (nay, one HOUR) stands out in my memory like a large, sore thumb. It was that one day (one hour) that changed my life as I know it and is still causing a shockwave of consequences to this day in the form of medical and physical therapy bills.

In college, during a fun and joyful trip to the roller skating rink to welcome a new class of Freshmen into our sorority, I was tooling around on my skates when I fell…hard. So hard in fact that witnesses said the impact on my wrists made me pop several feet in the air, only to come back down on those same abused wrists and spine. To make a long story short, I broke my right radius, tilted my tailbone and dislocated my jaw (seriously). The trauma also caused both wrists to choose to develop nasty little cysts deep down in the joint, which, once the rest of my problems were under control, started to give me serious pain. I had my right wrist surgically fixed in college, but my left wrist has been the bane of my existence ever since, flaming up during the most inopportune moments.

So, after my wonderful and happy graduation from culinary school, I decided that there was no better time than the present to finally fix my left wrist, just in time to ruin my Halloween. I'm just now getting back on my feet/hands, and am able to type sentences with full punctuation, thoughtful candor and insightful wisdom. I've been dying to get back to the keyboard, so here I am. Is this the end of the backlash from that one night? We'll never know…if only I could go back to that dinky skating rink in West Lafayette, Indiana. The worst part of all is that I was 100% dead sober, something the emergency room nurse was quick to confirm. Had I been drunk, this might be a great life lesson. Alas, I'm just clumsy.

Having surgery on one of your necessary ambulatory joints is not easy…especially when it's the livelihood of my new career. There is an upside, though, in the form of a serving-size chalky combination of Oxycodone and Tylenol – the coveted Percocet. Don't get me wrong, I'm not pulling a Lindsay Lohan here…it was entirely necessary. When a doctor deconstructs your wrist joint to dig out a cyst and the local numbing wears off 24 hours later, you're in a bad place. I felt like a newborn calf, struggling to navigate this cruel world with unsteady and unbalanced limbs, helpless to the elements and losing the ability to wash myself. Every three and a half hours, though, I was rescued from the throbbing pain and delivered to a world where black, silky ponies combed my hair with sunshine and unicorns adorned with crowns of jewels microwaved my Bagel Bites (both of whom might have actually been Steve…I still haven't determined dream vs. reality). I was happy and pain-free without a care in the world, thanks to the joys of modern pharmacology. I saw strange things while pill-popping, things that I wouldn't dare speak of aloud. Things that would make a heroin addict uncomfortable and a psychologist nervous. It was an interesting few days, and I'd like to think I'm a better person after going through it all.

I stayed in that narcotic-induced purgatory for several days, during which I developed an unhealthy addiction to daytime television. Those first few uncertain days post-surgery, where I was not only unable to complete basic life tasks but was often either fighting a migraine or hazy from the drugs, I struggled to develop a routine that would make me feel like a slightly less waste of flesh.

9:00am – First alarm goes off. Take pain pill and continue to snooze until iPhone no longer allows it.

10:05am – 10:15am – attempt to pull on elastic-waistband pajama pants and wide-sleeved t-shirt. This takes longer than I'm willing to admit.

10:15am – 11:00am – watch "Rachael Ray", all the while thinking of how much I don't like Rachael Ray.

11:00am – 12:00pm – my favorite time of the day – "The View"! Watch listlessly with mouth agape while they have the exact same argument they had the day before and Joy Behar gets fined by the FCC for calling someone a "bitch" during daytime television.

12:00pm – 3:00pm – kill time by either spacing out on the couch, watching "Bridezillas" or "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" and counting down the minutes until I can take my next pain pill.

3:00pm – 4:00pm – "Dr. Oz," my man. Learn about five new medical conditions that I didn't know were possible. Begin to become paranoid that I have five new medical conditions that I didn't know were possible.

4:00pm – 5:00pm – Take another pain pill, which helps me get through an hour of Oprah Winfrey talking about how generous she is and laughing uncontrollably (Percocet) at her antics whilst camping with her best friend, Gayle. She cooked sea bass on a campfire!! Oh Oprah…money has changed you.

5:00pm – 5:30pm – Think about how much I want Steve to come home from work. Call him five times to ask him what time he's coming home from work. Watch the local news and become paranoid because I live in a city with at least five murders and three apartment fires a day. News is a bummer…luckily I'm feeling good!

5:30pm – 6:00pm – After receiving the much-anticipated phone call that Steve is on his way home from work, attempt to struggle into a clean t-shirt, change socks and brush hair with one hand. When this doesn't work, wipe drool off face, gargle with Listerine and resume spot on couch.

6:00pm – 10:00pm – Spend the evening regaling Steve with stories of my daytime television friends. "Oh my God, then Elizabeth told Whoopi to shut up, and we were all cracking up!!" or "When Oprah told me that, I just had to believe it." Try to ignore the deep pity in his eyes, and knowingly accept the final pain pill of the day, which makes me stop dead in my tracks and fall into a restful, kooky dream-filled sleep.

This went on for a few days, until I was finally confident and strong enough to venture outside into the real world. A trip to the library, for example, became the highlight of my day, and I would plan my eating/sleeping/watching schedule around that one errand. I was soon able to visit with friends again, when the unexpected and dreaded happened. I was happy as a clam, hanging out at a friend's house eating pizza on a Friday night, when I looked down and…I had dripped pizza grease all over my cast. Needless to say, I felt like an irresponsible 10-year old boy and couldn't make eye contact with the nurse as she carefully cut off the padding a few days later. I might as well have spread dirt on it and tucked a few worms in there while I was at it. Pizza grease…on a 25-year-old woman's cast…unbelievable.

So here I am, recovering nicely and on-track for a fully healed and functional wrist, for the first time in five years. I resumed my normal work schedule, yet am still struggling to break free from the grips of daytime television. Every time I see a commercial for "The View" my heart hurts and the "good times" of those few days come pouring back in a nostalgic and bittersweet wave. The pain of surgery is already forgotten, but the joy of delusional one-sided friendship still exists. Thank you, Barbara, Whoopi, Joy, Elizabeth and Sherry for helping me through a hard time. Thank you. Then again…it was probably all just a Percocet dream…

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monday, 10/25/10 – Level 6 Day 20 (FINAL EXAM)

I looked to the wall on the right, seeking out the analog clock hanging from the wall. My glasses were so full of grease splatters and sticky fingerprints that I couldn't make out the black hands encased in the clear plastic face that ticked a mere fifteen feet from my station. I wiped my hands on my apron and pulled the frames from my face, right to left, releasing a small drip of sweat waiting to run down the crease of my nose. A quick swipe on a stained towel did the trick well enough for me to make out the time: 8:16 pm.

Monday, October 25th at 8:16 in the evening. I never truly thought I would make it this far, this mythically obsessed-about evening in time when my fate would be permanently sealed. Sure, I spent hours upon hours fantasizing about it: what recipes I would get, how I would feel, what would go wrong. Yet I was never realistic with myself about the brevity of the exam, and what it meant to the past ten months and my future career. And here I was, a full two hours and sixteen minutes into one of the most important nights of my life and I was feeling…calm. Relaxed. Confident.

I was scheduled to serve the bass at 9:09 pm, so I took a deep breath, letting the hot air reach the deep corners of my lungs, while I surveyed my station. Student #A6: Bass with Sea Urchin Sauce and Green Apple Charlotte. Potatoes: roasted. Baby fennel: cooked. Pickled tomatoes: drained. My next dish, the Charlotte, was supposed to be served at 9:57 pm, so I surveyed my mental checklist again. Ladyfingers: Piped and baked. Charlotte: formed. Green apple Bavarian cream: cooked and molded. Red currant sauce: cooled and bottled. I felt my blood pressure drop, causing my head to feel light while my heart skipped a beat as I came to the best realization of the night…I was practically done. 8:16 pm and I was already on the home stretch.

Before I knew it, we were being swept down the concrete hallway in numerical order, past portraits of the school's distinguished faculty and towards the deafening sound that only a standing ovation can produce – a creak as the back of your legs push the chair behind you and scrape a dent in the wooden floor, a swish as the paper you were holding sways through the air and hits the tablecloth and the unmistakable clap as one fleshy palm of skin meets another in a calculated impact. I was met at the threshold of the room with a glass of chilled champagne and wide grins from no less than twenty of the city's most famous chefs and food professionals, congratulating us all on a most successful night. It was like the end of a mid-90s romantic comedy, played in slow motion as Prince Charming finally kisses the Princess, and you just know in your heart that they will live happily ever after.

According to the judges, my fish was cooked immaculately, my sauce was delicious and my Charlotte was picture-perfect. I let my eyes gloss over as they critiqued the other students, taking my exhausted brain to an open-eyed dream where I felt myself reaching, struggling then finally grasping an unnamed prize; a present; a want; an accomplishment. And then it was over, six hours had passed like six minutes, and we all headed to the local watering hole to celebrate and say our goodbyes.

The next afternoon, amongst our peers, friends and loved ones we each ceremoniously had the toque, the tall creased French chef's hat, placed on our heads and our Grand Diplomes handed to us in shining leather booklets. I was also given a silver French Culinary Institute lapel pin to adhere with pride on my chef's jacket as an indication that I was one of the students who graduated with distinction, with a cumulative GPA of above 95%.

While a large chapter of my life closes heavy and obvious like the cover of a dusty dictionary, I happily place it back on the shelf, cataloging the good with the bad on the back of my soul. I smooth my hair down, adjust my apron and reach for the next book to start a new story.

The prince got his girl. The cat got her mouse. And the chef got her toque. Happily ever after.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Friday, 10/22/10 – Level 6 Day 19 (Poissonnier)

My last day came and went quicker than I could say "fail," and before I knew it my class time at the French Culinary Institute was over. Done. Finito. Fin.

It's bittersweet; a strange mix of nostalgia for the excitement and thrill of the beginning, a fear of leaving my comfort zone and the sad realization that I might never see some of these people ever again. I am overjoyed at finally being able to reclaim my weeknights and to gain some sort of normalcy in my schedule. But then again, the definition of "normal" is always subjective.

Since we had some down time, we did basic prep for the final: pickling cherry tomatoes, layering a potato terrine and pureeing the mustard crust for the lamb loins. It's wonderful that so much of the annoying stuff will be done for us on the final, cutting down our list of To Dos drastically. Being the smarta$$ that I am, I approached chef and said, "Chef, what are the odds you'll cook our fish and meat for the final too?" Ha ha ha. Classic. "Jacques-leen, don't be stoopid. Five points off for asking dumb questions." Fair enough, I deserved that.

Speaking of nostalgia, below are a few of my favorite moments of culinary school, in no particular order and preferably set to Green Day's "Time of Your Life" (acceptable substitute would be "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion:

-The time I turned into a blood-thirsty, cackling vampire of a fishmonger when tasked with separating a fish carcass.

-The time I cried for a week when the Taco Bell around the corner closed.

-The time I got really nervous for the Level 1 final…which involved cutting vegetables! Seriously, Jackie? Seriously?

-The time I ate organs. Pat on the back.

-The lobster funeral.

-The time I returned to NYC after a beautiful weekend in Texas a mere two hours before starting the Midterm exam…and killing it!

-The time we broke down and smoked an entire suckling pig.

-The time I got permanent squid ink stains on my uniform, which still remain to this day.

-The time we put on the hugely successful "Street Food" buffet.

-The day I started my first real job in the culinary world.

-The day I became a real, bona fide New Yorker.


My wonderful husband, in a gesture of support and love, came to pick me up from school to walk me home. We had toyed around with plans of getting a drink, going for a slice of pizza or just walking around to celebrate my last class EVER, but we ended up just hanging around outside talking to my classmates. After several minutes of chatting, we decided to head home for the night, so we bundled our coats tighter, picked up our bags and headed down the small alley that leads to the subway. We were walking along, me babbling like Chatty Cathy and Steve quietly listening, when I glanced at two people huddling near the edge of the sidewalk and…IT WAS MY PARENTS!! They had just landed in NYC, flying in to surprise me for my graduation. Of course Steve knew about it, it's been planned for a month now, but I had absolutely no idea. I was blown away, and even asked for a few minutes to process what was happening. I couldn't believe that it was all planned for me, in support of me and just to see me graduate. Our plans for a low-key weekend were not disturbed, and we've spent as much time possible eating pizza, hanging out and venturing to Target for "essentials." I'm trying to do as much as possible to keep my mind off the task I face tomorrow night, but it's hard not to dread the unknown. I know my recipes, I know my procedures and I know proper kitchen protocol. I just don't know what's going to happen, and that terrifies the crap out of me.

At this time nine months ago I was encountering fois gras for the first time and making salads. Five months ago I was meticulously shearing off the burnt edges of all 50 apple slices on the top of an over-cooked apple tart in Level 3. A month ago I was taking the mock pastry final. Tomorrow night I'll be running around, plating dishes and sending out food to the judges. And this time Tuesday night I'll be Chef Jackie (which is what I'll request to be called at all times, naturally. Hey, I didn't struggle through these past ten months for nothing…) They say time flies when you're having fun. But in addition to that, time flies when you're finally doing what you were born to do.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wednesday, 10/20/10 – Level 6 Day 18 (Poissonnier)

On our second-to-last night, we were feeling very confident and in control. It's amazing how far I've come in just the restaurant alone. I remember my first tour through Poissonnier, which happened to be my first four days in a restaurant EVER. It was scary, frantic and uncoordinated, and I was horridly unsure of myself and my skill. Now, as we near the end of Level 6, the last and final level of culinary school, cooking fish and plating the delicate sides seems like second nature to me, and I find myself mentally coaxing the diners to order my dishes so that I can enjoy practicing. I'm trying my hardest to memorize the recipes and components, but only having the opportunity to do each piece once has really been a hindrance. I'm preparing now to attend my last and final class, which luckily falls on a Friday night service, yet I can't help but let my fear for the final overshadow my joy at potentially (hopefully) graduating. It helps that I pass the wall of endless class pictures, taken years past at graduations where the toque is fresh on their heads and the joy of the day is visible on their faces. The hairstyles have changed, but I can look at those new chefs and say, "Hey, if they could do it, then I surely can!"

During a recent episode of one of my favorite shows, "How I Met Your Mother," the friends tell Robin that there are certain experiences every resident must endure to be considered a true New Yorker: stealing a taxi from someone who needs it more and killing a cockroach with your bare hands, to name a few. Sure, every New Yorker has his/her specific qualifications for what it takes to join their exclusive club, usually involving where your baseball loyalty lies, how many years you've lived in the boroughs and how obnoxious you are on a scale of 1-10. I've considered myself a New Yorker since the moment I crossed the George Washington Bridge in my parent's van right after college graduation, my entire life packed into unmarked boxes and suitcases. I feel like I've finally jumped through the last hoop and gathered the final trophy, though, now that I've experienced the last thing on my list of qualifications. I'm proud to announce that on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 a drug addict drooled on me on the subway. I almost felt honored, like I should shake his track-marked hand and look into his meth-riddled face and thank him. Thank you, kind sir, for helping me feel welcomed. I didn't have time to get grossed out or angry – visions of Mayor Bloomberg presenting me with a key to the city were running through my head. As I walked to work my head was taller, my shoulders were straighter and I felt enriched. It's not every day I'm defiled by a stranger in a public place, yet on those rare occasions I am eager to file it away in my brain under "Days I Felt Like a True New Yorker."

A very good friend of ours is branching out into the world of photography, and she's already done some amazing work. To commemorate our one year wedding anniversary, Laura offered to photograph us being cooky and awkward in Central Park last weekend, and she successfully captured the essence that is The Lindseys. Read more about Laura and see her beautiful work (as well as our photo shoot) at her blog:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Monday, 10/18/10 – Level 6 Day 17 (Poissonnier)

In preparation for our final exam (I'm not even going to go there right now….), chef offered to host some last-minute study sessions for each of the stations, going over how much of each recipe we should prepare and what would likely already be done for us. He said it would start a half-hour before class, so all day at work I was speeding with the goal of leaving early to get to this essential study session. As always, I was running a little behind, so once I walked out the front door of work I bee-lined it to the nearest avenue, convincing myself that if I saw a taxi, I would take it, but if there wasn't a taxi readily available I would just take the subway and potentially be a few minutes late. Sure enough, there was no taxi (a sign from God that I need to save money), so I power-walked to the subway and hopped on a train. Sure, it's only one stop, but on the arriving end I have to walk a good three avenues and two blocks, so I was still concerned with my timing. I practically jumped off the train while it was still moving, ran up the stairs and continued my Olympic power walk through the tourist-infected streets of Chinatown, dodging strollers, ducking under gawkers and long-jumping over panhandlers. I got to school at 5:10pm, and ran up the stairs, throwing on my uniform faster than Superman. By the time I reached the main kitchen, though, something didn't look right. It was empty….one minute after the demo was supposed to start. I set my things down and frantically asked another chef where my chef was. "I think he's in the walk-in refrigerator…" Great…I'm the only one who showed up for the study session…extra points for me!! I tore open the door of the walk-in, and there stood chef, stunned into silence. "Chef, are we still having the demo? I can't seem to find anyone!" (Nice job passively pointing out that you're the only one on time, yet acting like you cared enough to look for others) "Jacques-leen, ze demo starts in feef-teen minutes. Relax." So it seems I pushed that street artist into oncoming traffic for no reason – I was early!

The study session turned out to be incredibly helpful, and I'm starting to feel a smidgen better about the impending final exam. I just can't believe I'm almost done with culinary school, and soon I'll be sitting at home with my husband watching "Gossip Girl" and "16 and Pregnant" on Monday and Wednesday nights, and might resume some form of a social life on Friday nights. It's unbelievable how adapted I've become over the last ten months to a schedule of working five days plus three nights a week. It was tough at first, but now it seems almost regular and expected. I'll be celebrating my freedom, that's for sure, by going to bed at 10pm every night and actually waking up on time the next morning. It's the small things in life, but no one ever said I can't still wear my chef's jacket at home.

Salmon with Port Wine Sauce, Fennel and Mascarpone Salad and Sweet Potato Puree

John Dory with a Sea Urchin/Cuttlefish Caviar Sauce, Spicy Pickled Cherry Tomatoes, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Baby Fennel

Monday, October 18, 2010

Friday, 10/15/10 – Level 6 Day 16 (Poissonnier)

I've now finished the first day of the last station in L'Ecole – the fish station, or Poissonnier. If you'll remember, I was actually in Poissonnier for one night back when I was stationed in Canapé, filling in for a fellow classmate. I'd hate to say this, knock on wood, but our recipes are actually kind of easy (gasp!). We have a salmon with a fennel/mascarpone salad, sweet potato puree and a port wine sauce, and also a bass with roasted fingerling potatoes, sea urchin sauce with cuttlefish caviar and pickled cherry tomatoes. They're both delicious, and I'm grateful to be finishing out culinary school in what might very well be my favorite station.

Poissonnier appeals to me because there is a lot of skill and care required to cook the delicate and fickle fish fillets, and there's a thrilling feeling that the ship could sink at any moment during service. For pick-up, we have all of the sides and sauces ready, so we take the fish, season it, and then throw it in a searing pan skin-side down. The skin crisps, then the whole thing is thrown in the oven to continue to cook the flesh almost entirely. After a few short minutes, we flip the fillet so it's skin-up and baste it with butter and thyme. Incredibly decadent, and it yields a buttery, flakey, crispy fillet, which is then placed delicately on the plate with the various other components. We had a pretty uneventful night, even though it was almost a full house. My partner and I work very well together, and she handled the fish while I handled the heating and plating of the other components. I hesitate saying this, but I might want a fish dish on the final, even if it means having a pastry as my second dish….then again, maybe not. Crap.

I had my first "Final Exam Fear Countdown" dream last night, in which I was tasked with making a dish from memory and I completely failed with flying colors. In my dream, the dish included chicken breasts and mixed vegetables (most likely the easiest thing my subconscious could come up with), yet I couldn't remember if I had to bake or pan-fry the chicken so I ended up baking them, which was apparently completely wrong. I was frantically trying to bribe my classmates to help me while the proctor took off points for everything, and somehow I ended up with a 55% - meaning that I had failed miserably. I'm (obviously) terrified for the final, and I think the reason is that I haven't had nearly enough time to practice these recipes than I'd like. Theoretically, I could practice at home, but I can't exactly afford to spend hundreds of dollars on duck breasts, kefir leaves, Port wine, bass fillets and veal stock, among MANY other things. I'm just counting on my memory and the five minutes I have before the test to write down as many notes as possible. I'll get through it, but I foresee many more sleepless nights in the coming week…

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wednesday, 10/13/10 – Level 6 Day 15 (Garde Manger)

So it was our last day in Garde Manger, and I can't stop feeling like I'm walking the proverbial plank, approaching a choppy ocean full of circling sharks and deadly waves. Every FCI alum I've met has told me we'll be absolutely fine – just focus, get it done and you'll be graduating before you know it. I just wish I had a remote control for my life like Adam Sandler in the 2006 classic "Click." I would fast forward through the final exam, my impending wrist surgery and recovery and any time in the future where I have to write a rent check, run for the bus or start to get that spitty phlegmy feeling that says, "You'll be puking in the next three minutes." I would rewind and replay our rehearsal dinner, wedding day and honeymoon over and over, but would always pause on that moment when I burst through the doors at the back of the church and saw Steve's beaming face waiting for me at the end of the aisle. Finally, I would probably record the times he admits, "You're right," keeping them on the DVR for when it needs to be said, again. Anyway, I digress…

Wednesday's class was…interesting. I was handling the arctic char tartar, which has never been a really popular dish (would YOU order raw fish with blue cheese??) but we had almost a full house, so we weren't taking any chances. We cut up enough fish and made enough Yorkshire puddings for 30 orders. On a night with 75 total covers/diners, that was an extremely conservative estimate. Well, we got slammed, at times getting orders for 5 char, 6 char, 4 char one right after the other, and by 9:20pm we were all out…finite…fin. When chef announced that we'd be "86-ing" the char, the Level 5 students laughed, assuming it was a joke that it was the hottest dish of the night. It was ridiculously busy, and we were constantly requesting "all days," where chef will tally the total number of orders we had to make at each time; it can sometimes be confusing when you receive several orders at once and are putting plates out, so they help you keep track of how many you're supposed to make. It's a daunting task when you request your "all day," and the response is "twelve" or "ten." Yikes.

I've always wondered what an entire table of diners is talking about when they order the exact same thing. Personally, if there are four options you would think that you'd at least want one of each to sample, pass around and discuss. For some reason, we often get whole tables that order the exact same thing, and I find it to be incredibly boring. A few weeks ago, when I was working the Canapé station, an order came in to Level 5 Saucier for five medium rare steaks for one table. Chef heard this and commented, "Zey moost shoop at IKEA." True dat, chef, true dat.

Since we had no more orders to make for the night, we cleaned up and assisted chef with some random prep for the next class. I was tasked with making a creamy goat cheese sorbet that the Level 5 students use for their digestif, so I got the ingredients together and began the task. The gelatin needed to be "bloomed," or softened in ice water, so my teammate put it in a bowl with ice then placed it in the refrigerator. I continued melting down the goat cheese and ricotta with milk, sugar and lemon zest, then blended it all, a quart at a time, until it was thin and smooth. Each quart was placed in a special container, then cooled on an ice bath. It took forever, but by the end of class each one was blended, cooled and sealed in its perfect little packages and on their way to the deep freezer. We were packing our bags and getting ready to head out, when my teammate said, "Oh, did you need this gelatin?" as she pulled the bowl out of the refrigerator. No, I just put that gelatin in there for fun. My heart sank, and my other teammates looked at me with daggers. I took a minute to silently chastise myself, then got started on the task of unwrapping the packages, pouring them all into a large sauce pan to reheat them before stirring in the gelatin that was supposed to be there from the beginning. Two of my teammates stuck around to help me out, of which I was massively appreciative. Six hands are better than two, so we ran around heating, cooling, wrapping and freezing, and the whole process took about fifteen minutes. I felt like a huge jerk, but I guess it's not the end of the world. I could have left the bowl of gelatin in the refrigerator for chef to find the next morning, and the sorbet would not have solidified like it should and some poor soul would have to remake it. But I didn't; I kept calm, admitted my mistake and tried to make it right. I hope my teammates aren't too annoyed with me…but then again, I kind of don't care. I have four classes left. FOUR CLASSES LEFT. T-minus four classes. Oh Lord…I'm getting that spitty phlegmy feeling again…

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Monday, 10/11/10 – Level 6 Day 14 (Garde Manger)

It's been a long time, my friends, since I wrote you last. I do indeed have a good excuse, and it doesn't involve illness, laziness or apathy. We've actually been on vacation, cruisin' the Midwest to celebrate weddings, anniversaries, brother-sister reunions and the simple pleasure of driving on the highway with the windows down and the music on. It was an awesome trip, although all four days combined felt like a maximum of 12 hours, and it was over before we knew it. We came home with homemade pumpkin-scented candles in our bags, a belly full of horseradish and beef from our anniversary dinner at St. Elmo Steakhouse and bags under our eyes the size of Texas, but I can honestly say that we spent every single second of the trip enjoying life.

On a beautiful day in October

Two lovers united before God

He asked her to wed to show her

He was attracted to more than her bod

Indiana is gorgeous this time of year, and on Sunday, October 10th the sun shone, the birds chirped and the trees revealed orange, red and yellow leaves, just as they did exactly one year ago when two crazy kittens got married and became one large, immature, silly and obnoxious love monster that can barely take care of one feline and 600 square feet of rented property. But hey, we made it a whole year, and we can't wait for the next 70-ish more.

So there they stood, together

In front of family, friends and the priest

Outside, the beautiful fall weather

Inside, a happy and celebratory feast

On a much different note, we had packed sparingly hoping to keep our belongings to a small roller suitcase and a carry-on oversized man duffel. It wasn't until our last day there that we realized the unmarked travel bottle we had been using as face wash was actually face lotion…which explains why both of us were breaking out like 13-year olds. It could also be attributed to the 365-day old stale butter cream cake we all enthusiastically consumed, but it was worth it.

They danced from beginning to end

Didn't even get a piece of the cake

Rejoicing, careful not to overextend

For next morning a flight they had to make

Back at school, I'm flying through Garde Manger, and an unfortunate by-product of this is that I'm also nearing the final. Our dishes for this station are questionable: Beef Consommé with Fois Gras Dumplings and Poached Chicken (ew), and Arctic Char Tartar with Blue Cheese, Walnuts and a Pan-Fried Yorkshire Pudding. Very random. I learned that it's been several months since I last butchered a fish, and back then I was semi-good and fast. The Arctic Char is a small round fish, and when chef asked me if I needed a quick demo before digging in I politely declined. It took three cuts: releasing the bony collar, separating the head and beginning a slice down the spine, before chef asked me to pause so that he could provide the previously offered demo. Apparently I was hesitating too much and gripping the flesh too tightly. He took my knife in his hands, started on a new fish and had it completely done, fillets separated and bones removed, in under a minute. Damn. I returned to my first fish, but in the end it was painfully obvious which fillets were done by a professional and which fillets were done by the meek student. Service went very smoothly, considering no one wants to order raw fish with moldy cheese or boiling broth with bland chicken when it's 70˚F and sunny outside.

We are evaluated by three chefs during each level: our main chef, our pastry chef and our Garde Manger chef. The form is the same for each, with the standard fields: Organization, Preparedness, Attitude, Skill, etc, and all three evaluations are combined to form our grade for each level. The pastry chef handed out her evaluations of each of us, and I was shocked to find my grade lower than I had hoped. Was I not always prepared? Did I not act with the utmost respect? Was I not the only one to ever bring the requested special recipe? Am I not a team player? I browsed the scoring, hoping that my missteps would be obvious, yet it seemed like there had been a few points skimmed off in a few different categories. For example, I got a 7/10 for "Serves food at proper temperature and with proper seasoning." The weird thing is that all of the desserts are kept in the refrigerator until served, and nothing in pastry requires any seasoning. I was also curious why I received an 8/10 for "Sets up work station properly." When did I not grab my yellow cutting board, place a wet paper towel underneath it and keep my tools under the counter? I also distinctly remember often being the one to grab cutting boards for my whole group, exactly how a team player would work. Apparently the pastry chef is known for being unfair and biased, so I guess I'm just another unsuspecting victim who had her exceptional grade point average ruined because of one miserable person. C'est la vie.

The rest is the history of a beautiful love

In which two perfect souls are entwined

Yet only one year old, a marriage made of

The greatest story of all mankind


Heading out for our anniversary dinner!

Bidding the beautiful bride farewell

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monday, 10/4/10 – Level 6 Day 11 (Canapé)

Chef finally took a vacation. He's been known to spend all day and night, 7 days a week, at school, so when he announced that he'd be out for a few days, we were all very, very, horridly and inexplicably sad…yes, very upset…indeed…sad…

Our fill-in chef was a great guy we had on-and-off in Levels 1 and 2, but he was always kind of hard to read. Things were a little different having him in Level 6, and he thought we were doing great. "I've seen some amazing improvement since Level 2 guys." "Really??" I said. "Um, yeah. But I would hope you've all improved, so…" Oh, I get it. It was our last night in the Canapé station, and we weren't expecting a busy night so we were all kind of looking forward to "taking a break." It's amazing how valuable a few minutes of monotony can become when you're used to going full-speed at all times, those rare seconds of being able to stare off into space or daydream or check Words with Friends on your iPhone.

Our canapé was my idea, and I was really excited to taste the final product. I picked some ingredients that I thought would be nice together, which isn't saying much because no one had tested it and therefore we didn't really know how it'd work until we were completely done. I decided we would be making roasted butternut squash wrapped in prosciutto and dipped in an herb coulis. I started by breaking down the squash, removing the thick rind and cutting it into bite-size cubes. I tossed them with salt, pepper, olive oil, sage and thyme and baked them until they were just tender. We then wrapped them with thin strips of prosciutto and baked them again until the prosciutto bonded and the squash was fully tender. We played around with the presentation, deciding on trimming the prosciutto scraps so that the squash was a perfect little present, then serving it with a dollop of the herb mix. It was yummy…but was missing something. The squash flavor was being overpowered by the salty prosciutto, and we needed something to balance it all out. Chef had an idea, and ran off to disappear into the store room for a few minutes, emerging with a small black bottle. He had found a rare and extremely expensive balsamic vinegar, so we finished off our cute little squash packages with a small black dot. Perfecto! It still boggles my mind that we'd spend so much time and effort making a little bite-size piece for people to absentmindedly swallow down while they're waiting for their food. It is good practice, though, and I'm glad we resisted the urge to just slap something easy on a plate. It was painful, though, to spend two hours on these miniature delicacies while I could have been relaxing on the couch watching "Teen Mom" for goodness's sake.

Canapé has been pretty boring, so I'm looking forward to moving on to Garde Manger, our second to last station in culinary school…EVER. Weird…

Monday, October 4, 2010

Friday, 10/1/10 – Level 6 Day 10 (Canapé)

We're officially halfway through the last level of culinary school, and I am getting increasingly more terrified as the minutes pass. I miss the days in Level 5 when I could just put my head down, blindly execute the recipes and mentally block out chef as he yelled at each of us, moving from person to person to slowly chip away at our happiness. I miss Level 4 even more, though, where our biggest worry was planning and cooking the big buffet for the entire school, and we got to experiment with suckling pigs and squid ink. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so here I am barreling towards Final Judgment Day: October 25th, 2010.

Friday was a chilly, fall day in New York City, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and watch a movie (let's be real: I would do that any day regardless of the weather). Alas, I picked myself up and headed to school for another night in the canapé station, where we were planning to make a puff pastry piece with creamed goat cheese and roasted tomatoes. First of all, I HATE goat cheese. I could barely get it down my throat when we had our cheese training class in Level 2. However, every single time I've eaten goat cheese since it's been a surprisingly pleasant experience. Maybe I just needed to get over the first time willies, and can now move on and enjoy the repertoire of cheeses from the goat. I'm not making any promises, but I'll keep on trying goat until this good luck streak is broken.

Apparently most of my class had the same movie-in-bed idea I had, only they actually acted on it and stayed home. We were averaging about 60% attendance, and I could tell Poissonnier was going to be struggling on this busy Friday night. I was quietly cutting up potatoes, looking forward to a leisurely night in canapé when chef came up to me. "Jacques-leen, you will be in Poissonnier, yes?" Crap. "Um, sure chef, is that where you'd like me for the night?" "Yes, that's what I just said." Fantastic. Normally, I'd be happy for another day in a hard station to prepare for the final. The problem was that I hadn't even glanced at the recipes yet. Ok, it's worse: I didn't even know what fish are involved. I quickly borrowed the recipes and did a cram session in the hallway, trying my hardest to memorize the components and ingredients. I carried my tools to my new station and tried to be the biggest help possible, plating the dishes, grabbing pans and heating up vegetables where needed.

At one point in the night, right after I had removed my sweaty gloves, aired out my hands and then started to season a few new salmon filets for my teammate to cook, I got a quick, intense itch in my right eye. I subconsciously rubbed it, blinked a few times then went back to my business. Seconds later, once I realized what I had done, I started to freak out. Oh my God, my eye itches. I can feel the bacteria multiplying…I am going to have a horrid infection. Oh crap…oh crap…oh crap, here it goes. I absolutely cannot have pink eye for Jess's wedding next weekend!! I started to hyperventilate and obsess about the fact that I was feeling a slight twinge in my eye every thirty seconds.


Before I go any further, I must explain that my eyes and I have a long, tortuous history, one that I would love to soon forget. In high school, I had one goal in life: to be a veterinary surgeon. I was obsessed with big cats (lions, tigers…) yet spent my free time volunteering at the local animal shelter changing litter pans and picking up excrement. One day, when I was "restraining" a "patient" I absent mindedly rubbed my left eye. Minutes later, I was getting sharp pains in my eye and it was getting harder to blink. I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror…and almost passed out. My eye had swollen to double the size (my actual EYE, not my eye lid), and it was turning an eerie greenish-yellow color. I was dead center in the middle of my advanced awkward years, so I locked the bathroom door and had a mini breakdown about how I could possibly escape from the worried looks and concerned expressions of my coworkers and bee-line it home. I made a frantic phone call to my mom (a nurse), who, although she was trying to mask the urgency in her voice, offered to pick me up from work immediately and take me to the nearest emergency care facility. I was given an allergy shot and some eye drops that stung like heck, but the lasting creepiness didn't wear off once the swelling went down. Until….

A few years later, my mom and I had planned a trip to a large feline rescue center in southern Indiana, and we were so excited to see the family's tigers, lions and bobcats that roamed their expansive property. I packed my camera, a pair of comfortable shoes and we were on our way. When we arrived, we were greeted by a 400-pound male lion, and I stuck my hand through the fence (with permission) to let him smell my fingers and give me a nudge. We started our tour of the property, but I immediately sensed something was wrong – that sharp pain shooting through my eye had returned. One glance in my mom's direction indicated that we needed to scoot – ASAP – so we said our Thank Yous, hopped into the car and headed to the nearest town to search for something…anything. By the time we found a CVS, my eye had swelled so large my eyelid would no longer fit around it, and I was using lubricating contact drops to keep it from drying out. I put on a pair of the largest sunglasses I could find in my mom's car, and we ran to the back of the store to see the pharmacist. "Hi, may I please speak to the pharmacist?" I quietly asked the cashier. She called him over, he introduced himself and asked me how he could help. Not one to pass over a dramatic opportunity, I looked at him through my black sunglasses and slowly lowered them down my nose, keeping my lopsided gaze level with his. "Sweet Jesus" he muttered under his breath, then, "Guys, come over here and check this out." As the pharmacy attendants ogled my Big Green Eye and said things like, "Never seen this before" and "Submit to medical studies," I was getting anxious. He suggested I use some high-powered allergy eye drops, so we bought a few bottles and ran…quickly…back to the car before someone could call the local news. We fishtailed out of the parking lot, hit the highway and didn't look back. I still wonder if that poor small-town pharmacist went home that night and hugged his children.

So as you can see, my relationship with my eyes, and the allergens that infect them, has been a matter of worry throughout my entire life. Which is why, when I started getting itchy and blinky after unknowingly rubbing my eyes with fish hands, I started to freak out. Luckily, BGE didn't rear his/her ugly head, but I won't push my luck. Lord knows I need another reason to make my classmates think I'm a weirdo.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wednesday, 9/29/10 – Level 6 Day 9 (Canapé)

I've finally moved on to what is definitely the easiest station of the kitchen – canapé. When one sits down for a five-course meal at the French Culinary's restaurant, L'Ecole, you are immediately presented with a small bite meant to excite your palate and make you hungry – the canapé. If you'll remember from Level 3, we got our first introduction to the canapé when we were given a box of ingredients, "Chopped"-style, and told to make a one-bite delicacy from the available items. A canapé can be absolutely anything – a miniature tart, a soup shooter, a piece of crispy bread topped with vegetables…anything. It's fun to let your creativity run wild, and this time we have the entire expansive store room from which to choose our ingredients.

One of my teammates works at the swanky Park Avenue Autumn restaurant, where she spends mornings cooking hundreds of cranberry waffles for hungry socialites. She had the idea that, since she's already an expert, we could use the cranberry waffle as our base. We "borrowed" the duck loins from Saucier, and sautéed them, then tossed them with a juniper berry/sage/duck syrup (that I made…what what). We painstakingly cut the individual squares out of the waffle (which was actually not sweet, just slightly savory), curled in a sliver of duck loin, then topped it all off with another dribble of syrup and a pinch of bitter micro greens. It was lovely, and everyone was coming by to sample our little delicacy. The flavors mixed perfectly – tart cranberry with sweet duck and bitter greens. It was like a quick explosion of yumminess in your mouth, like a gourmet version of chicken n' waffles (yes…I live close to Harlem). I don't know if any of the patrons actually liked our canapé, but let's face it…I'm not really concerned with that.

There's a lot of free time in my new station, considering we're only making miniature bites of food that's already done by the time the orders start coming in. All you have to do is put the little babies on a plate and send it up to the waiters. Unfortunately, chef knows we're a group of hard workers, so he asked us to complete some basic tasks for Saucier and Poissonier, who were struggling to keep their heads above water through the night. "Sure," we agreed ignorantly. We spent the whole night meticulously making their potato terrine, breaking down bunches of kale and cabbage, slicing/dicing shallots and peeling pearl onions. The worst part was when both stations finished, cleaned then packed up…yet we were still working on their prep for Friday. I guess not everyone has a strong work ethic. Then again, I come from a career where I was chastised for taking any longer than was needed to run to the elevator, zoom downstairs, push my way through the nearest corner deli to order a sandwich, eat it on the way back up in the elevator and be back at my desk, working harder than ever to make up for the awful five minute break that my irresponsible and hungry (how dare I) self was cocky enough to take.

It's amazing the changes I've endured over the past year, both professionally and personally. My life in my old career was miserable, as described above, and I constantly felt bad for wanting to go home at night and took on more projects than I could handle simply because I couldn't say no. After quitting, though, I was thrown into the deep pit of unemployment. I wore the same sweatpants every day, rarely washed my hair and developed a shameful addiction to "The View" that I'm still trying to shake. I was then hired into a temporary position with the government, where I was looked down upon for completing projects too quickly and learned that, in order to receive a good review from your superior you had to take the work that was doled out to you and stretch it out as long as possible, all the while making yourself look busy and valuable. I've loosened up the ropes that held me in my "I have no right to ask for vacation time" limbo, yet unfortunately replaced them with "eh, I'll take my hour lunch today because I deserve it" outlook. With my new job, I'm hoping to form myself into something of a happy middle, working actively and efficiently yet still making time to take care of myself. As I told myself the day I quit my old job, when I was wishing I had never set foot inside that bland, stale, sinkhole midtown office or met those supervisors who used sucking the very soul out of my body to further their own self importance, every experience is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Without that experience, I wouldn't have been miserable at my job, researching creative recipes all day and dreaming about the beautiful ingredients at Trader Joe's, only to realize that all I wanted to do was cook. I also wouldn't have met a former colleague who used to work at The French Culinary Institute, unknowingly fueling my desire to someday make it through the halls of that culinary Mecca. Had I gotten the job that, just a few weeks ago, I was obsessing over and practically having business cards printed, I wouldn't find myself in a happy place with my current opportunity. We might not always understand the daily struggles, but I guess it's the journey that counts. At least someone up there has a plan…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friday, 9/24/10 – Level 6 Day 7 (Pastry)

Since it was our last day (ever) in the pastry kitchen, we were given the opportunity to take a "mock final" to practice the various components and compilations of our two Level 6 desserts. Our chef had a list on the dry-erase board with each of the many parts for both, along with the indication that we must make one full recipe of each (as opposed to multiplying the recipe by two or three to get us through dinner service). She warned us that we must not all start on the same thing at once, so two of us chose the green apple charlotte and the other two chose the German chocolate cake.

It's amazing how fearless I've become in the kitchen, which may or may not be a good thing. I used to pile up the oven mitts to grab a hot pan, and would never have dreamed of turning vegetables in a sizzling pan with my fingers or reaching into a searing hot oven to test the temperature of a piece of meat with my forefinger. I don't know that I've become less afraid, I think I've just accepted that the fate of a chef is to have scarred and gnarled hands and arms, and that the more times I do it the less it hurts. Which is exactly what I was thinking as I took a pan of cream over to our pastry stove to heat it up and continue on my way. The pilot lights were out…again…and as I cursed the fact that I pay five-figures to go to a school without a single working burner I searched for a match to get everything going. I found a used match with no more than three inches of exposed wood to light, so I got the end burning and started running the gas, waiting for the flame to kick in. The handles are unmarked, so I was tinkering with the gas handle on the left, turning it on and off, to try to get a light. My match stick was burning low, so I quickly switched over to the other gas handle to try that out and – WHOOOOSH…it lit. It also took off all of the hair on my left hand and five fingers, leaving little black nubs in their place. It was a little scary, but I've seen people's eyelashes taken clear off so I was happy to sacrifice a few knuckle hairs in place of my femininity. But it did fill the kitchen with that horrible burning hair smell…yuck.

Although my teammate and I chose to start the apple charlotte first, I decided to make the lady fingers and then the chocolate cake base, so that both could cool and be made and ready for when I needed it. I finished the charlotte, lining the lady fingers up in little ring molds and filling them with the Bavarian cream, and by this time we were pushing 7:45pm. We were working right next to each other, completing the same tasks, when all of a sudden chef got really angry. "How much of the coconut filling are you making??" "Just a full reci….oh." Apparently it was the only recipe on her dry-erase board that was supposed to be halved - in all the hustle and bustle we had failed to remember that small factoid. Which is obviously not the end of the world, although it opened us up for some additional fierce criticism. She continued on to yell at us for waiting so late to start the coconut fillings. I simply queried that, if we were told to finish the charlotte first how could we have known that we should have defied her to get the chocolate cake done first, when her specific instructions were to not work on the same thing all at once, but she didn't seem to understand the inconsistencies in her instructions. She claimed that the coconut reduction was going to take us an hour, and that there was no time to finish the cake and we'd have to use a different pre-made filling. She also reminded us that we had technically failed our mock final, and that if we made this mistake on the real final we'd be scr#w*d. This made me upset, because I was working my hardest all night, keeping myself organized and showing my skill and understanding for the dishes, yet hadn't heard a single positive comment from her. It also wasn't addressed that we would not be making both desserts on the real final, so really the timing for this wasn't accurate. I ignored her charge to use the pre-made filling, and put my coconut reduction on the stove to begin while I handled some other tasks. Sure enough, it took fifteen minutes, maximum, so I quickly cooled it down and slathered it on my chocolate cake, forming the layers and catching up with my teammate, who had used the pre-made filling.

It's always disappointing to me when we get yelled at for simply following directions, and I don't think the chefs understand that we aren't mind readers. We've been taught from day one to follow directions and do exactly as our chef says, so after nine months we're pretty used to following orders as directed.

It was a beautiful weekend on the Eastern Seaboard, and although it is technically fall the temperatures were pushing the mid-80's. A good friend had been planning an apple-picking trip for several weeks, so we all rented a car and drove up through Westchester to North Salem, New York, home of Outhouse Orchards. Unlike many orchards throughout the country, we were given a mesh bag, an apple-picking pole and let loose into the hundreds of acres of various apple trees to pick to our heart's desire. It was a gorgeous day, and we ate too many apple cider doughnuts for our own good but balanced them out with golden delicious apples picked fresh and eaten under the mid-day shade of an aging tree. It always surprises me how remote and "country" you can get with just an hour drive outside of the franticness that is New York City. It was wonderful to kick off the new season with friends, and we have an entire bushel of apples to show for it. I guess I'll be making a lot of apple tarts this week…

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wednesday, 9/22/10 – Level 6 Day 6 (Pastry)

Let's start this Wednesday ditty out with a little riddle. True or False: It is incredibly hard to navigate around midtown Manhattan when every single member of the UN General Assembly is staying at the hotel across from your office building. Answer is to be expected – True. I have seen more detectives, cops, secret service and hired drivers in the past 48 hours than exist on an entire season of NBC primetime programming. They're usually very nice and polite, and will not bother you unless you're being an idiot, but it's important to remember that I can sometimes be an idiot. I was walking down the marble steps in front of my office building the other day, on my way to another long night at school, when I popped in my headphones and absentmindedly slipped past the obvious bright blue NYPD barricades, making my way to the nearest intersection to cross the avenue. Needless to say I was intercepted by an excited and anxious junior agent, likely assigned to his first big gig, telling me that the entire area was blocked off and I'd have to remove myself from the restricted area, walk up three blocks, cross over two then go back down two blocks just to get to the subway entrance that I could almost reach with a long arm. I was of course cooperative, but it made me think a lot about this unstable city I call home. Hundreds of the world's greatest leaders, all gathered in one crowded, dank and often hostile place to attempt to solve the world's problems. One wonders why they didn't pick a remote Caribbean island, with free-flowing margaritas, white sand and All-You-Can-Eat crab leg night. It's an amazing thing, that I could have literally picked up the penny dropped by Ban Ki-moon and breathed in the air expelled by Guido Westerwelle and had no idea who was existing in the same space that I was at that moment. But I guess that's the case on the other 360 days of the year. I doubt anyone would let someone super important within a mile radius of someone like me, but in a city like New York you never really know what's going on around you.

Despite the heightened security, I got to school just in time to consume more sugar than my body could process in one night. This obviously led to some internal dissonance, but I powered through the night long enough to make two batches of caramel that immediately solidified so hard around my metal spoon that the handle bent 30 degrees. The caramel was meant to be used to dip grapes, which are then pulled quickly up and taped to the cabinet, leaving a delicate line of curled sugar that, when the grape is inverted on the plate, stands inches above the plate and sways. It's beautiful, but for some reason we were having a really hard time getting the caramel to stay solidified. It kept dripping down the length of the wispy tail we had just created, and was sliding down off the grapes and onto the table. Before we knew it we had a little grape graveyard, and the caramel wasn't looking any better. As we were having troubles apparently we were experiencing a terrible thunderstorm outside, the second in a week, causing the kitchen to be one large, damp heckhole, the worst conditions for dipping grapes into hot caramel that is meant to harden.

Our pastry chef, one of the proctors of the final exam, claimed that she was tired of students complaining that they never had the chance to make the dessert they had been asked to make for the final, so she now holds a mock final on the last day of the pastry rotation for each group. My last day in pastry will be Friday, so I'll have to make four full plates of each dish in the allotted time, something I'm nervous about having enough time to do. Sure, we have three hours before service starts, but making lady fingers, a green apple Bavarian cream, a layered chocolate cake with coconut filling, chocolate ganache, caramel-dipped grapes and a sour cherry reduction in three hours is going to be a challenge. Pair half of that with a fish dish and that makes for one stressful final exam.

Some of my classmates were asking me about my new job as we killed time before class. "Jackie, you're the only one of us that will graduate from the French Culinary Institute and actually be called a chef at work." Interesting…interesting indeed.

German Chocolate Cake with Coconut Filling, Garnished with Caramel-Dipped Grapes and Sour Cherry Compote

Green Apple Charlotte with Red Currant Sauce and an Apple Chip

Another variation on the charlotte dish: Green Apple Charlotte with Red Cherry sauce and Red Cherry Sorbet

Wednesday's Dessert Special: Pumpkin Cake with Candied Walnuts, Tuilles and Salted Caramel Sauce

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monday, 9/20/10 – Level 6 Day 5 (Pastry)

The sun is shining, the air is crisp and it's a beautiful Tuesday in the life of Jackie…regardless of the fact that I am currently struggling to keep my eyes from slamming shut and my brain from going into involuntary hibernation. We spent the weekend in Chicago celebrating a friend's wedding and spending some much needed QT with old friends. My best friend from college just moved into the posh new Aqua building in downtown Chicago (who is this girl??), and we obviously imposed on her barely-slept-in bed and took over for a few days. We had to drive up to the suburbs for the wedding, and realized, upon taking our seat in a snazzy fold-out chair on the manicured lawn and watching the gorgeous bride walk down the aisle and up to a blooming pergola, that is was the exact location where "My Best Friend's Wedding" was filmed! We spent the night toasting, dancing and dining, and it was the perfect place to catch up with some of Steve's fraternity brothers to whom we haven't spoken since our own wedding. Saturday brought necessary girl-time at one of Chicago's staple brunch joints, as well as a pit stop for deep-dish pizza and a rainy evening at the movie theater.

The whole spiel really confirmed something to me that apparently my own wedding couldn't: while it may not seem like it, we are 100% bona fide functioning adults. Sitting at the table with a handful of Steve's pledge brothers, who, just four short years ago were partying frat boys with a penchant for popped collars and Keystone Light beer, it was pleasing to see them in pressed suits, a glass of wine and sitting next to their own wives and fiancées. Words like "beer bong" and "bar crawl" have been replaced by "corporate synergy," "balance sheets" and "TPS Reports" (still boring), but everyone came together to reminisce and celebrate another beautiful union, while inadvertently celebrating their lasting friendship and brotherhood.

Unfortunately, that wedding/QT didn't allow for much pillow time, but we're back in the city now and resuming our semi-normal lives.

BIG NEWS, guys: I got a job. Like, a permanent-big-girl-using-my-culinary-education-yet-having-tons-of-fun job. I am the proud new private chef for a very sweet family here in the city, and although I'm terrified to get started, I'm confident I can keep them on their toes with creative, healthy and tasty dishes. I'll be working part-time, starting next week, so I was looking for a worthwhile and interesting way to keep myself occupied. I had heard of Wellness in the Schools at the beginning of culinary school, yet never found the time/opportunity to start volunteering at the beginning of the spring semester. As the New York City public schools start the fall semester, I decided it was high time I devote my skills to a program in which I believe, and quickly signed up to be a volunteer in one of NYC's many public schools. I re-connected with a former FCI student, who was in Level 6 when I was in Level 4, and she's now the manager at one of the downtown schools. I'd love to be her volunteer, but am weighing the pros and cons to having a job, school career and volunteer position that are all no less than 45 minutes away from home via subway. Maybe we should move to Brooklyn sooner than anticipated…

I've rotated back to pastry again, so I've been happy as a clam riding my gingerbread pony down the peppermint crumble mountainside. I'm over exaggerating – it's not the easiest thing in the world. But we have about three hours to prepare, and often have extra time to make at least one special dessert before the first order comes in around 9:15pm. Unfortunately, we're usually stuck in the kitchen, waiting around, until the last diner is ready for dessert, which could last until 11:30pm if they so desired, but it's a lot of fun to be working with desserts again. As is standard, I was the only one who brought a dessert special idea, so I spent the night making it and coming up with a creative way to plate. The one thing I love most about desserts is that usually, without fail, you can almost always spontaneously come up with creative and gorgeous decorations or pairings. For example, I thought it'd be nice to candy some lime zest for the garnish, and since the by-product was a beautiful, light green and delicious reduced simple syrup I used it to garnish the white plate. Below is the final dish: Honey-Toasted Pound Cake with Mascarpone Ice Cream, Orange Supremes and Lime Zest. (Note: the ice cream was recycled from something else…)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, 9/15/10 – Level 6 Day 3 (Saucier)

Before I started class at FCI, when the idea of becoming a chef had just made an imprint on my life but had not yet consumed me, I attended a lecture by FCI founder Dorothy Cann Hamilton. She had invited potential students to a discussion of her new book Love What You Do, which details the culinary world from an insider's perspective and challenges those considering entering the industry to make the right decision. She spends 80% of the book detailing the myriad things one can do with a culinary degree that don't involve working in a restaurant, which struck a chord in my own heart. So riddle me this: Why do I feel judged and looked-down up on by my peers simply because I have made a conscious decision that I don't want to spend the next five years of my life as a line cook making $10 an hour, working until 3am every day and answering to the name "Vermin?" Sure, most of them have been slaving away in New York City's finest restaurants for months now (but some of them have been doing nothing at all…), which has made them efficient, skilled and knowledgeable in a way that I might never achieve. But I hardly think that just because I don't want to work in a restaurant makes me any less competent or able, and I'm tired of getting those, "Oh, she doesn't understand that…" looks or walking into a conversation about professional-grade knives and being completely ignored. I believe I have totally proven myself in the kitchen, yet I will never get the complete respect from some of my classmates/teammates/friends until I get a job flipping omelets at Babbo. It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of inflated egos taking up my counter space and I'm having a hard time working around them. I know I'm not the best, but I never claimed to be.

Anyways…so that's what's been on my mind lately, exacerbated by one frustrating and disappointing conversation at the end of service last night. I guess I need to take my own advice, given to my mother-in-law who just entered culinary school (!): This is no one's journey but your own. All I can do is keep my head down, my ears open and focus on nothing but improving my skill and soaking up the lessons. And my journey is coming to an end, so I really just have to get through the next few weeks and then I'm home free. Although I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with all that extra counter space…

Here's our lamb dish: Mustard-Crusted Lamb Loin on a bed of Cabbage Ragout, Chanterelles and Shiitakes and served with a Garlic Potato Puree.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, 9/13/10 – Level 6 Day 2 (Saucier)

Sometimes it seems like I'm always rushing somewhere – to the dentist, to get ready for bed, to blow dry my hair, to get to school. Regardless of the end result, it always involves me saying to myself, Oh, you have time, just stay till the next commercial, and then inevitably, Crap! How did it get so late?! Then there's that moment of, It's alright, the train will surely come immediately, it always does……ok, so the train didn't come immediately, it never does, followed by, No big deal – you're only five minutes late. Well, I'm tired of the stress and hectic nature my life has slowly taken on over the past few years of living in New York City, so I've made a mental decision to be slightly better about leaving myself enough time to do what I need to do. It's unexplainably hard, though, to not hit the snooze button five times in the morning after a sweaty, frustrating night in a crowded kitchen after which you didn't get home until past 11:30pm, then must shower, pack for the next day and find time to bring your mind down to a level that welcomes some sort of restfulness. Such has been my life since January, but the light is definitely at the end of the tunnel. It has affected me more, recently, because I've been working Monday-Friday during the day, leaving work at 5pm to rush to the subway, hopefully catch a train quickly to take me all the way downtown, run to school and change into my uniform in time for roll call at 5:45pm. Sure, I always make it, but my teammates are usually at school, working and setting up, about 15-20 minutes before I even enter the building. Part of me doesn't feel bad, because I'm almost never late (regardless of what I've previously revealed about myself) and I have to pay off these student loans some time this century, but then again I feel like a total a&$ because they are essentially working harder than me. And with our hair tied up underneath our hats and our identical uniforms, there's really no way to tell that I just spent 8 hours pushing papers in a midtown skyscraper.

We had an incredibly slow night in the restaurant last night, partly due to the fact that it was a rainy Monday. Nevertheless, we still had to prepare the night's dishes and power through the nine million things on our To Do lists. We had our last table order their meat dish at 9:45pm, so we started to clean up and cool down our sauces and were done by 10:15pm. We all worked our fastest, scrubbing and cleaning like crazy thinking that we were going to be out (and home) incredibly early. I overheard the Level 5 chef demand that they all be done and ready to go by 10-after, and started to get jealous that they were getting preferential treatment…until he announced a pop quiz to fill the time. Our chef, on the other hand, didn't want to let us out early, lest we go home and spend some joyous time with our families, so he made us stand there…and stand there…and wait until 10:40pm. I understand that he might get in trouble if he lets us out too early…but it's not our fault there were 30 customers total all night!

Speaking of those 30 customers, for some reason they all decided to sit down and order at the exact same time, so while I was having a blast eating dinner, chatting with my friends and leisurely doing some pre-prep for Wednesday, I got slammed with order after order, all at the same time. Luckily, we cook the duck breasts at the beginning of service, but they still need to be heated up in the oven for pick-up, and it's really hard to stay organized and aware when you have 6 different dishes all on "fire" that are at different stages of the process: one heating, two being sliced, two being plated and one being finished. I was proud of myself, though, when I stepped back and realized all that I had accomplished in a mere fifteen minutes, something that would have made me crawl through the cobwebs under the oven, stuff my sweaty neckerchief in my mouth and cry into the lamb blood stains on my uniform's sleeve just a few months ago. I accomplished the task at hand, but in the scheme of things fifteen minutes of franticness is a cake walk compared so some NYC restaurant kitchens. I learned the other day that my friend, who works at the famous Momofuku Noodle Bar, does about 500 covers on the average Saturday night…that makes my armpits sweat.

Good news! I found a great new deodorant to make my armpits stop sweating. But seriously…I was browsing the personal care aisle at our local Duane Reade the other day and saw a great new anti-perspirant that I wanted to try. The fun scents were either already opened (ew) or gone, so my choices were: Unscented and Fresh Powder. Seeing as how I don't want to smell like nothingness, I chose powder. Now, I feel like a Johnson & Johnson employee and everywhere I go I hear people whispering "Who's changing a baby?" I wave to a friend - diaper rash. I curl up with my husband - newborn. Note to my female readers: Please learn from my mistake; unscented is always the best choice.

I managed to sneak my iPhone into the kitchen to finally take a picture of one of our beautiful L'Ecole dishes. Below is a Seared Duck Breast with Sweet and Sour Mushroom Sauce on a bed of Kale, Duck Confit and Kefir Lime Cream, served with a Potato Terrine cooked in duck fat. Pure glutton. (Since it was the demo plate we made for chef, the meat didn't rest long enough so the juices leaked…hence the red liquid pooling near the potato. Please disregard.)