Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Monday, 6/28/10 – Level 4 Day 11 (Buffet)

As I walked into our small side kitchen yesterday evening, I knew it would be a busy day; our last full day of prep before we have to present the massive buffet at 8:30pm on Wednesday. Basically, if we didn't start it last night it's not getting served. The scope of the amount of work didn't hit me until we started reviewing our menu and breaking down our To-Dos, writing them out on a dry erase board at the front of the room. The list took about 15 minutes to complete...if that gives you a small idea of what we were facing. It's not that we have been slacking; it's similar to that feeling at the end of a busy work day when you say to yourself, "Oh snap, it's already 5:30pm...what the heck have I been doing all day??" I had my direction, though: there was another leg of lamb in the refrigerator with my name on it (well, not really...unless my name is 'USDA Grade A Approved'). I made the rub again, chopping endless piles of herbs and zesting and juicing stacks of lemons. I removed the hip bone, then worked out the femur and knee joint and butterflied the whole thing until it lay open nicely. Then I rubbed both sides with my marinade and stuffed the whole thing in a Cryovac bag. Phew. Next?

I decided to get started on the Lime Raspberry Slushy, so I gathered a mental list of the ingredients and made my way to the store room to place my request. Due to the amount by which I had multiplied my recipe I needed two 2-liter bottles of Ginger Ale, which the store room guy told me I had to get from the restaurant. First, I had to ask the head chef permission to speak to one of the many waiters bustling in and out of the kitchen. He didn't seem to care, so I ambushed an older gentleman waiter, who apparently doesn't speak the best English, and tried to explain to him what I needed. He looked at me for a few seconds, blinked no less than 50 times and walked away. Did he seriously just ignore me and walk away? Alright, there's a bunch of them, I'll just grab the next one I see. I posted myself next to the main swinging doors, and sure enough a younger guy came in a few seconds later. As I opened my mouth to lure him in my direction, the chef serving as The Expediter (the one who makes sure the orders come in, are assigned and served hot and on time), who was standing just a few feet away from me, yelled, "Hey you! Get over here and get this food out NOW!" He shrugged his shoulders at me and ran away to do his job. At this point, The Expediter (a particularly scary chef who I try by any means necessary not to make eye contact with) noticed me creepily standing in the shadows luring her waiters away from their main responsibility. She gave me a couple of dirty looks, to which I responded by acting like I was looking for something and staring at the ceiling while twiddling my thumbs. Another young waiter came in, and I saw chef turn away to handle some mini crisis. Ok, third time's a charm – "Psst…hey…over here!" He approached me with suspicion; I explained to him what I needed, assuring him that a quart roughly equaled a liter and that I would need 4 of them. Perhaps he saw the look of desperation on my face, or was willing to assist because my grip on his forearm was silently communicating, "Please God, help me"; regardless of his reasons, he came back a few minutes later with a tray of 4 quarts of Ginger Ale. Success. I gave The Expediter a quick look and ran away before she had a chance to yell at me.

I mixed up the icy and threw the huge pan into the blast freezer. It was a particularly hot night, as New York City is teetering in the mid-nineties this entire week, and we had been lectured about keeping all of our meats on ice and placing items in the freezer as necessary. The restaurant's dessert team had filled the blast freezer (which registers at about -20˚) so my icy was taking a long time to solidify. In fact, it hadn't yet frozen by the end of class, so let's hope the regular freezers didn't mess it up too much.

We surprisingly powered right through our To-Do list and completed everything that could be made in advance. It was not without complications though: the tortilla dough, which someone had accidentally frozen, wasn't quite the same after defrosting. In our haste, we decided we'd simply be purchasing the tortillas…..but that's our little secret. The Colombian empanada dough (don't ask me why we needed two types of empanadas) didn't make it either, and my Dominican classmate happened to have specialty flour in her bag (conspiracy??)…so she remade the dough using her own personal recipe.

I spent all last night meticulously cutting out subway maps, gluing them to note cards and labeling them with the 40-ish dishes we'll be presenting on Wednesday night (Get it? Subways…Street food?). I hope my classmates are pleased, but hey – you don't like them, you should have volunteered your entire night off to arts 'n crafts. (Pictures included below – thoughts??)

My classmates are hilarious, and we regularly spend a significant amount of time making fun of each other and telling inappropriate jokes. I was minding my business on Monday butchering the leg of lamb when all of a sudden:

"You know Jackie, you sure don't look like someone who dishes out as much sh*$ as you do."

"Yea seriously! When we first started working together, I thought 'Oh great, this will be boring'…until you opened your mouth!"

"What the frick guys, are you freaking serious? What do I look like, freaking Nancy Drew or something?? You don't know me!" (That seems to be my response to everything. Well, that and "Your mom." Yes, I have an accredited college degree.)

It turns out pearls, glasses and a make-up-less face don't automatically make people label me as "hardcore." I guess growing up watching The Simpsons and attending public school in Indianapolis helps one develop one's bad-assery. I won't tell them that I'm married to an engineer, sometimes enjoy Brooks & Dunn and that I watch "Greek" on ABC Family…

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Friday, 6/25/10 – Level 4 Day 10 (Buffet)

I was in the bathroom doing some maintenance scrubbing on my day off when all of a sudden I heard a crack, then a pop, and then the whole building started shaking. I attributed it to the ongoing subway construction they're completing outside of our front door and didn't think twice. Before I could get up off the floor to go yell obscenities at the construction men, the tiles in the shower started to shimmy loose and fall to the bathtub. I grabbed the shower curtain to steady myself yet only broke the pole and pulled it down. The continued shaking caused the fan in the bedroom to fall, and the drywall was peeling and cracking, forming one large crevice down the side of the exterior brick wall…

Well, at least that's what I imagine an earthquake in New York City would be like. In reality, I didn't even know it happened until I read about it in the newspaper the next day – apparently New York City had experienced a 5.0 earthquake, centered in Ontario, in the middle of the day. I do remember feeling a little unsteady yet attributed it to the heat + coffee + lack of sleep. Apparently the island of Manhattan is on the criss-cross of two huge fault lines, and we're 30 years overdue for a huge earthquake. So now I not only have the joy of lying awake at night worried about terrorist attacks on the subway, I can also grow grey hairs worrying about a quake shaking down my 50-story office building.

Speaking of which, I took on a single-day receptionist position at an insurance company downtown which happened to be across the street from that one government agency for which I worked at the beginning of the year. That also means it's located in the heart of Temptation Valley: if you remember from a previous post, I absolutely 100% cannot resist fast food. (I'm not kidding – I know the exact locations of all NYC Burger Kings.) Is it the fond memories of plastic chicken fries and greasy engineered Idaho potatoes? Or maybe it's the fact that I can fill my belly for under $5. It could also be my addiction to carbs and 32 oz Diet Cokes. I erred on the side of caution, bypassing the BK, McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts and stopped in to see my old friends at Chipotle. The answer to your question is no, I don't feel bad about it. I patronize their many fine establishments several times a month, and will always enjoy a burrito twice the size of my fist.

Since I had to work all day Friday, I decided to pop my contacts in at school (as previously mentioned, my glasses do not stay on my face in environments above 75˚F). I have bad astigmatism, so they usually take a few minutes to adjust and settle before I can see clearly. I knew I had encountered a problem when, 45 minutes into class, I still couldn't read the recipe in front of me. I was waving at people I didn't know, looking 1' to the left of anyone talking to me and I did a terrible job of measuring out flour. Sure enough – I had switched my contacts and was wearing the left one in my right eye, and vice versa. It's amazing how much that affects your eyesight, especially for someone with my prescription. Once I was all cleared up (ha ha…get it?) I got to work making the dough for our pita bread, which we'll serve with the marinated grilled legs of lamb and tzatziki sauce gyros (my mouth is watering…). The dough has to rise and double for about 2 hours, so I spent my time finalizing the white wine Italian ice. I had already made the syrup, so I threw it in the blast freezer to get nice and icy, then broke it up with a fork and folded in a bunch of egg whites that were beat to a stiff peak (by hand, baby). It all got blast frozen again, then broken up and put into the regular freezer where it will live until our buffet. Pretty soon the pita dough was ready to go, but there was one more step before it could be rolled into circles and baked: it had to be broken into little individual mounds and left to rise again. Apparently I didn't take the "rise" part into consideration, and packed the little balls all out onto a cookie sheet. In about 15 minutes, the entire cookie sheet was one big pan of fluffy, yeasty dough. Crap…what now? It actually still peeled away pretty nicely, so I was able to slowly distinguish the carefully measured balls. I rolled them out into 6" circles, and then they were put onto a screaming hot pan and baked for four minutes, then flipped and baked for another two. They were removed from the hot pan, and a whole new batch was added. The end result was a crispy, doughy hollow pita that was ready to be packed with some sliced lamb, lettuce, cucumber and doused with sauce. Yowza…not so fast though. These puppies got sealed and frozen, awaiting their debut on Wednesday.

The buffet is just around the corner! Pretty soon we'll be defrosting chickens, whipping up cream cheese sauce, grilling lamb and frying bacon. After that, we'll move on to Family Meal for two weeks…and then we're done with level 4; unbelievably almost done with level 4…can you believe it?? I'm glad I extended my time at Purdue, because this "college" experience is flying by way too fast.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, 6/23/10 – Level 4 Day 9 (Buffet)

We are penalized pretty severely if we miss class. Not only do we have to make up the class, but we lose the $300-or-so that we paid in advance for the privilege to show up…and then didn't show up. We also get major points off of our evaluation for each absence, which highly affects your grade for each level, which affects your overall grade. Needless to say, I've never missed a class (although I was thisclose that one fateful Friday night a few months ago when I suddenly found myself sobbing on a Midtown East street corner begging for a taxi, any taxi, to pick me up. That was a low point…) and the only class I plan on missing is in October when one of my best friends from college gets married back in Indiana. For some freakish reason, the stars aligned on Wednesday and 1/3 of my class was M.I.A.! What was the deal with that…was there a sale at Sur La Table of which I somehow failed to be informed? I sure as heck hope not, God help them if they had a sale and didn't tell me. Was there a memo about school being cancelled due to the hot weather that got lost in my inbox? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…that was hilarious. Cancelled for hot weather?? When piglets fly. So then I came to the only reasonable and practical solution – they were having a secret party to which 2/3 of us were not invited. They are probably grilling cheeseburgers and drinking Blue Moon on someone's rooftop as we speak…this is BULLCRAP! However, I refuse to believe that if my classmates threw a party I wouldn't be invited…I'm the best party guest ever!! Just wait till you hear my karaoke rendition of Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam"…you'll be sorry you didn't invite me to your mid-afternoon cookout. I can also do anything by Kenny Loggins. Perfectly.

We all tried to recover and fill in the gaps that were missing amongst our classmates, which was unfortunate because we had a particularly busy night in buffet. I got started preparing the marinade for the leg of lamb that will be grilled and sliced for gyros. The leg was massive, so I doubled the recipe – meaning that I had to chop endless bunches of parsley, rosemary, mint and basil and peel and crush tons of garlic cloves. I forgot to sharpen my knife before class, and there is nothing worse than a dull knife when you're chopping fresh herbs. It leaves little bruises on the small chops, and bleeds a deep green into the crevices of your cutting board. I saw chef eyeing my disastrous cutting board out of the corner of his eye, so I picked up the pace and moved on as quickly as possible. After about 45 minutes of measuring, chopping, smashing and bruising I was finally done. I zested and juiced a few lemons, added olive oil and other dried items and before I knew it my beautiful marinade was done. The leg had to be deboned and butterflied, so I started working out the bones and peeling away the tendons and flesh. This puppy was huge, but I didn't think it would yield enough meat to fill 50 gyros so I asked chef to order another leg of lamb. "Sure thing, it'll be in on Friday so you can repeat the process." Wait, that's not part of the deal…you mean I'm going to have to chop all those darn herbs again?? At least I'll be faster at breaking down the leg and hopefully will get the whole thing done as soon as possible. The leg I had (of the lamb variety, not my personal limbs) got rubbed with the marinade and split in two; the pieces were put into two bags and sealed in the Cryovac machine to cook at another time.

With the lamb done, I moved on to preparing the syrup for the White Wine Italian Ice (yummm….). Since the process requires several hours of freezing and refreezing, I'll have to complete everything on Friday. P.S. there is nothing more delicious than the smell of white wine, sugar and water boiling on the stove.

Finally, I toasted a 3-pound can of pecans to start the spiced nuts. During cold New York City winters, Nuts 4 Nuts vendors can be found on any corner in the city. The most delicious and intoxicating aromas come from their small, dirty carts, seducing tourists and natives alike. We decided that we absolutely had to serve some sort of roasted nut, so we decided on a savory spiced pecan and a sweet walnut. I toasted the pecans in the oven for a few minutes, and then threw them into a big bowl to begin the seasoning. I initially followed the recipe's amounts of salt and Spanish paprika, but this yielded almost no flavor. Chef sensed my predicament, told me to hold on a second and ran to the storeroom. He returned with a handful of bright red powders: smoked paprika, chipotle powder and cayenne. He started shaking and pouring each onto the pile of nuts, and soon the small room was filled with a sneezy red cloud. We shook the whole thing up again, but it still needed something. Hmm…something sweet and sticky…honey! We poured copious amounts of honey on the pile of nuts, and sure enough they were delicious. We spread them out on a large sheet pan, covered them and will let them rest at room temperature until the buffet.

We're definitely making progress on our buffet, but my OCDness is really starting to engage when I think about how unorganized we seem to be. I know that chef has everything under control, but it seems like we're just making random stuff and putting it in random refrigerators around the school…freaking out here. I just need to sit back and execute on the orders I'm given, but it's getting a little hard. My anxiety (or was it the chai tea latte and large iced coffee I had between 5 and 8pm?) kept me up pretty late reading my latest book obsession after I got home. I don't think Steve appreciates the book light shining on his closed eye lids, but maybe he'd prefer that I rattle off a full minute-by-minute breakdown of my school activities at midnight three nights a week. Remind me to wake him up and ask him on Friday night…

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Monday, 6/21/10 – Level 4 Day 8 (Buffet)

In my advanced stages through school levels and, therefore, naturally advanced maturity I've been able to siphon off a few key learnings from the many long and hot hours spent in the kitchen. It's been a hard path of self-realization, but I've finally come to the following conclusions.

  1. No one supports me in my attempt to bring back "Raise da roof!" (Or "Sike!", "Crazy Sexy Cool" or "Whoomp there it is" for that matter…apparently no one appreciates the gem that was '90s hip hop as much as I do.)
  2. The process of making sausages is still hilarious, regardless of how much time is spent at the sausage stuffing machine and how many times a phallic joke is told. It's the small things in life that rain joy upon the masses.
  3. Getting closer and closer to graduation, it's becoming very clear that I will undoubtedly miss this time at school, and my fellow classmates, so very much. I will not, however, miss giving up my Friday nights and getting home at midnight three nights a week. Those will be welcome changes; but right now we're having way too much fun.
  4. My classmates have judged me from day one after finding out that I was in a sorority in college. The notions of deep sisterly love, academic study groups, solidarity through tradition and endless fraternity parties with a bunch of young hotties don't translate into the culinary world. I'll refrain from wearing any item of clothing with my letters, telling stories about when we got so out of hand the national advisors had to send a security guard to sit in our foyer and gushing about the day I saw my future husband heckling freshman from the lawn of Phi Gamma Delta. "See that young, untamed mustang with the severe farmer's tan? I'm going to marry him some day." And so it was written.

Learnings aside, we've just started to finalize our menu for our buffet, which is exactly a week from Wednesday, and are getting really excited at the originality and deliciousness of our theme. Keep in mind that we must make everything we present: if we serve homemade hot dogs, we must make the buns and the relish and the ketchup. Chef sorted through the recipes we submitted and has decided on a timeline, so each class he will give the orders for who is making what, which recipes we must complete by the end of the night and how they will be stored/cooked. I submitted a recipe for Jamaican jerk chicken skewers, and chef decided to turn it into a marinade for whole chickens which we'll roast and serve on the carving board. I multiplied the recipe by six, as instructed, and got started on measuring out cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and dicing green onions, jalapenos and white onions. Along with many other ingredients, everything was chopped further in the food processor into a spicy brown paste. We prepared the chickens (removing their wish bones and manchonnering the wing tips and drumsticks) and each chicken was placed in a sous vide plastic bag. Each bag got a proportion of the marinade and sealed in the big Cryovac machine. The benefit of this is that as all of the air is sucked out of the bag, the marinade runs in to fill in those spaces creating an instant flavor boost. The bags were frozen, but soon they'll be slow-cooked and then crisped in the oven in time for the buffet. A lot of people have wondered how it was possible for us to start our buffet two full weeks in advance, but thanks to the wonders of food technology we can take advantage of methods like sous vide and the slow cooker to preserve and prepare the food in time, regardless of when it was originally made. This ensures that we won't be frying, searing and baking 20 dishes minutes before the buffet starts.

My classmates got started on many of the condiments we'll be serving, including a spicy onion sauce for the sausages, barbecue sauce for a pork butt and ketchup and relish for sausages/hot dogs. Another classmate made Jacques Torres famous chocolate chip cookies, but I'm not sure how many it will yield considering the cookie dough was almost entirely consumed on-the-spot. (I haven't gotten salmonella yet, but I have been feeling a little irritable….hmm.)

We then stuffed a bunch of different sausages and andouille, some staples on the New York streets. We used hog casings this time, which are much bigger and thicker than the delicate veal casings and will make for a delicious dish, especially with the myriad condiments. It's a little macabre to be using someone's intestines to hold a puree of meat, vegetables and spices, but I imagine that's what was in them to begin with, though, so I'm sure they don't mind. Chef warned us that next class would be super busy and a little frantic, so I'll be sure to put in my contacts. I'm kind of tired of pushing up my glasses with meaty, slimy hands…but you probably didn't need to know that…

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Friday, 6/18/10 – Level 4 Day 7 (Buffet)

In our first real day of preparation for our buffet, we piled into the small side room to receive direction. Our chef instructor was my BFF Chef Marc, so we knew we'd be working hard regardless of what we had to make (not that we always don't work hard, but with him we just work…harder? More afraid?). With the buffet rotation, we're given a few requirements: pick a theme and make canapés, hors d'oeuvres, meat dishes, vegetables and dessert for about 75 people, sticking to your theme. We're also required to do a carving station and advanced charcuterie, which is basically the making of sausages, pâtés, terrines, prosciutto, etc., regardless of the theme.

Since it's a little early to start making the actual dishes for our buffet, we started planning the charcuterie. Chef decided we would serve a duck terrine, andouille sausage and a roasted pork butt, so I started by helping to remove the meat from the three ducks we had resting over ice. Of course chef wanted every single little last piece of meat, or anything that looked like meat, removed from those carcasses, so we spent a crap ton of time peeling, cutting, removing, slicing and picking. Ducks are very fatty animals, so near the end our fingers had a ½" layer of slime on them, making it even harder to peel off their thin skin. We made a pile of meat, and then used the big grinders to grind it into a thin paste (ew). It was tossed with pistachios, dried cherries and little cubes of fatback and piled into little loaf molds lined with deli ham (seriously, I'm not making this up). Our terrines will get cooked in the slow cooker and be ready for our buffet! The French eat some strange things…

We then ground up some pork and pork fat and mixed it with a ton of herbs for our andouille. We'll be using pork casings for the sausages, but decided not to stuff them this class due to time constraints. We had a lot of discussin' to do to plan for our buffet, so we took our stack of recipes (we had each contributed 10 – 7 savory and 3 desserts) and gathered on the tables upstairs to go through them one-by-one. Our theme was street food, but some people decided just to print off the entire recipe database on despite the overall theme on which we had clearly decided. This did not please our chef…not one bit. "Non, next. Non, next. What ees zis? Non, next. Non, how do you eat zis on ze street?? Non…NON!" Seriously people, meatloaf is not mobile. I contributed a few that required explanations; apparently the French have never been exposed to knishes, and you cannot mention New York Street Food without bringing up a knish. We also have the famous Wafels & Dinges cart in Astor Place – Belgian waffles that they serve with myriad "dinges", or toppings, so I brought in a great cinnamon waffle recipe with a list of potential dinges. He thought that was worthy of considering, so I made the "maybe" pile. The cart has won a few NYC Vendy awards (given to the best street vendors) but I've never personally tried them. I do fondly remember an afternoon of chicken and waffles in Harlem, though…but that's a different story. Despite all the crap we did find some suitable recipes and will be whittling away at them next class with Chef Jason to determine our final menu and get started. Things are coming together nicely and I predict we'll put on quite the memorable buffet on the 30th! I'll be sure to take great pictures…I'll break the rules for you any day.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wednesday, 6/16/10 – Level 4 Day 6 (Production)

The French Culinary Institute offers students and alumni incredible opportunities to get involved in the community and learn from the leaders in our trade that reside in New York City. Along with many other famous and notable chefs, Jacques Pepin, THE Jacques Pepin, is a dean at the school and does monthly demonstrations in the school's theater. I've attended other demonstrations but have never seen him cook in person, so I decided to use a day off to see the master at work.

First of all, he's very cute, in that older-French-famous-television-personality sort of way. And when I say cute, I mean I want to squeeze him and show him how to program his VCR and listen to his WWII stories. He's also very funny and charming, even though I caught about 82% of what he was saying. Surprisingly, he didn't actually cook anything (aside from a 20-second omelet); he simply talked about his career and offered advice to young chefs while zipping through various vegetables and herbs. I learned an immense amount from him, though; valuable stuff that was never really explained to us from the beginning in terms of proper knife holding and technique. While it seems silly that he took two full hours to review such basic skills, it was amazing to even be in the same room as such a distinguished man. The best part? He deboned an entire chicken (cutting it down the backside) in approximately three minutes…I almost laughed out loud. He stuffed it and had the whole thing tied up and ready to go in about six minutes. And that's why he's Jacques Pepin.

As we entered the kitchen for our last day of production, cutting up the veal portions, ripping apart the squid and quartering the chickens, we tried to hide our tear-stained uniforms and baggy eyes from chef (ok, nobody cried but it was sad). The buffet room, set off from the big kitchen, was quickly becoming frantic, and I started hearing screamed curse words about 45 minutes prior to the start of the buffet. Chef Pepin had brought one of his friends and colleagues, another squeezable older gentleman, on a tour of our kitchens. I mustered up some cajones and approached the two of them as they were bent over something talking animatedly. "Excuse me chef, I just wanted to let you know that I greatly enjoyed your demonstration this afternoon." Good job Jackie: showed some respect, stroked the ego, subtly let them know you were smart enough to attend the demo. They both looked up, and I could all of a sudden see on their faces a trace of anger and disappointment. OMG did I say something wrong? I reviewed the scene in my head, and was sure I hadn't let any curse words slip or said "Yo Jack! What up G! Kick@$$ demo my brotha!" Surely those words were only in my head…but I soon saw the source of their frustration. Some knucklehead in Family Meal had thrown about five pounds of mustard green stems into the compost bin. If there's one thing you need to know about French chefs, it's that they use EVERYTHING. There are rarely any scraps left in a French kitchen that aren't used for stocks, side dishes or marinades. "Non, non, non, zis ees terrible!!" he said, assuming that I was the one who had wasted this valuable product. His friend started going off about how if this was his restaurant, he'd be incredibly upset. They acted like there were litters of discarded puppies in there…but I was already too far into this situation to then convince them that this was not my fault, so I just let them go on and responded every few seconds with "Yes, chef." He picked up one of the stems and peeled back the outer layer, revealing a light green, crunchy inside. "Here, taste." I took a bite, and it was surprisingly refreshing yet incredibly spicy! He murmured something else about what a tragedy this was and walked away. I sputtered a few more "Thank you, chefs," but it was useless. My only interaction with Jacques Pepin and I get yelled at for someone else's idiocy. Awesome.

We had finished up our projects for the night, so I went in to the buffet room try to see if there was some way, any way, that I could be of some assistance. What I saw upon entering the room was upsetting, to say the least: dirty pans flying through the air narrowly missing my head, burnt food being tossed across the room into the compost bin, remnants of crushed dreams and weeks of hard work being scraped off cutting boards and someone crouched in the corner, apparently unconscious. What the hell happened in here?? They were supposed to have the buffet, which is attended by the whole school and all of the chef instructors, set up by 8:30pm, yet we were approaching that deadline and things were not looking good. I got to work putting out tablecloths and setting up menu cards, but there wasn't much I could do in terms of cooking and preparation. There came a point where we all had to just kind of stand around while our classmates ran back and forth (note: never run in a kitchen), setting out endless trays, bowls and platters of delicious food. Several of the items I had seen them plan and prepare apparently didn't make the final cut – I wondered if this was by choice or by accident.

In the end, they had an incredibly impressive menu for their "Summer" theme: cold strawberry gazpacho and mint green pea shooters, foie gras and pork terrines, crostini with fig, apple and parmesano reggiano, shrimp ceviche cups, asparagus rolled with prosciutto and tomato compote, baked halibut with citrus chutney, chicken skewers with peanut sauce, whole lamb with grape/cherry glaze, lamb burgers with tzatziki, fish sausages on homemade rolls, grilled steak with bleu cheese sauce, many gourmet ice creams, a frozen Arnold palmer, cheesecake bites, fruit pizzas and caramel mousse cups with pistachios. We ate and ate and ate until we exploded, making sure to commend our harried and worn classmates on an impressive job well done.

After a brief break, it was time to make the official transition from production to buffet. It was now our turn to plan and create a similarly impressive menu with our "New York Street Food" theme. The recipes I contributed are definitely not as gourmet as the last group's (hot pretzels with cheese [!!!], lamb gyros, jerk chicken skewers, fish tacos, etc.) but I think that's part of the whole process – transforming these common street items into food worthy of the French Culinary Institute. Chef Jason came back from the break looking like he'd just gone to war and dreading the fact that he had to start this whole process over again with a new group. We'll be hosting the buffet in two weeks (June 30th), and I can't wait to see the transformation. This is one of the coolest parts of Level 4, where we're learning for the first time how to cook for the masses.

On a very VERY awesome note, Dave Arnold (who did a few demonstrations for us in Level 3) was on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" a few nights ago with his fellow FCI food technology associate Nils Noren. It is absolutely fascinating, and gives a really cool glimpse into the world of food technology and the kookiness that is Dave Arnold. It's also pretty neat that two of our instructors were on Jimmy Fallon! They're so nutty, it was cracking me up. Definitely check out the clip here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Monday, 6/14/10 – Level 4 Day 5 (Production)

Since we're getting faster at completing our To Do list for the restaurant at the beginning of class, we have more time to mess around and do some very cool specialty projects.

I finally got to butcher the halibut, a monster flat fish that yields four huge fillets. Simply manipulating his large body was difficult, but the fillets themselves were pretty standard and easy to remove. It took a while, but I eventually shimmied out the meat, de-skinned each and ran them next door to the restaurant kitchens. While each of my teammates was completing their respective task, chef handed me a pile of fatty pork scraps that had been marinating in soy sauce, curry powder, garlic and sesame oil. We fired up the grill and threw each piece on to get that nice "backyard taste" (as she put it). Fifteen minutes later, after I had sliced the pieces into little bites of juicy goodness, we had a platter of pork scraps that would have been normally thrown out but now tasted incredibly delicious. One of my teammates had taken some arctic char and salmon scraps, chopped them very finely and mixed them with mayonnaise, sriracha hot sauce and ginger and placed little piles on cucumber slices – our own little spicy salmon rolls! Another teammate was busy rinsing and slicing our Gravlax for each of us to taste (and portioning out the huge fillets so that we could each take some home), so we had quite the gourmet buffet going. Soon, word spread to the Level 5 and 6 kids, and they slowly started to filter through to taste our offerings. "Hey guys, for the low price of $14.95 you can have unlimited tastes of the table!" I announced to the line; I got a few chuckles…apparently they don't appreciate sarcasm. It did, however, help me get over my fear of the "older" kids, and it felt nice that they were so impressed with our skills. As the Gravlax was being distributed in little take-home packages, I noticed that my tropical drink themed salmon was missing. I suddenly got really nervous, imagining a pile of rotten salmon fillet with fat, greedy flies circling the mold patches. I worried that a memo had gone out to the weekend students, warning them not to come within five blocks of the school until the fire department had cleared the classrooms from the infestation caused by a poorly cured Gravlax. Crap, I've really messed it up now haven't I?? I timidly asked chef what had happened to the Mojito Gravlax – I had seen the Dill, Chipotle and Asian ones but not my own. "Oh, good news and bad news. The Garde Manger chef took it to make canapés for the restaurant. At the end of the night, however, you're welcome to go over there and ask him if there are any leftovers." Wow, how cool! I'm not even mad! Update: I forgot to ask the chef if there were leftovers, so alas, I never got to taste my delicious Mojito Gravlax. I did get to take home a crap ton of the other flavors, though.

A couple of people throughout the night had been working on reducing the citrus glaze for our piglet. It needed a lot of time to reduce, so we put it in a huge pot, turned the heat up and let it sit, taking turns stirring it and adjusting the heat. We broke for Family Meal, which happened to be awesome on Monday – pasta sauce with sausage, bowties with a delicious cheese cream sauce, fruit salad and a nice tossed salad. They also made an unreal fromage blanc mousse, which is sort of like a subtly sweet fluffy delicacy; I'm not ashamed to say that I took two full scoops. We were sitting around chatting, enjoying our dinner, when chef walked past. "What was in this pot?" she asked, and pointed directly at our citrus glaze, which was now a stock pot with a charred, smoldering crust at the bottom. "Don't tell me that was the glaze…please don't tell me that was the glaze!" Um, chef that was the glaze. We scrambled to clear our dinner plates, got to work scraping the char off the bottom of the pan (we didn't want to be jerks and hand that mess to the pot washers…) and quickly tried to assemble the ingredients for a newer, quicker glaze. The problem was that we had started the glaze with a reinforced pork stock, which we had made with some pork bones and scraps last week. Someone had taken a ton of time juicing a bunch of oranges and endlessly zesting; it was all lost, reduced to a pile of dry ash. At least this was just a special project and not for the restaurant…

The piggy had been cooking sous vide in the low temperature cooker for a few days, and was now done. He/she was greased up with some oil (baby oil?), and the skin was browned in the oven. Before we knew it, it was time to cut into our baby. The slices were incredibly thick, but the pattern inside was beautiful – a pinwheel of red dried fruits and pale pork, surrounded by the pink meat of the pig's torso. No, I didn't try it on the spot, but I did take home a slice and it's currently sitting in my refrigerator. To eat or not to eat…

In the last part of class, we prepared our meat sticks (or was it beer sticks…I can't remember), which are basically like little sausages that are dried and cured into a jerky consistency. We ground the meat (equal parts lean pork and lean beef), added some seasonings and bactofirm, which will ensure that the bad bacteria are kept out and the meat dries and cures appropriately. We used lamb casings (intestines), which are freakishly long and slimy. I'm not even kidding, they are so long it is shocking. Each one is fed onto the stuffing machine (Side note: there are several incredibly inappropriate and immature young gentlemen in my class [including me]…who found this incredibly hilarious), and the meat mix is slowly pumped into the casing. We tied the ends, and twisted the filled tube into 3"-long segments and set them aside. They'll sit in room temperature air until Wednesday, then will be hung in the drying cabinet.

I enjoy working out at the gym, and Lord knows I need to with this diet, but I've always found it incredibly boring – perhaps that's why getting up to go to the gym is like driving myself to the dentist for a voluntary root canal. I have a very active imagination, and often find myself fantasizing and creating stories in my head as I'm working away at the stationary bike or treadmill. I always seem to be at the gym at the same time as the Mount Sinai Cardiac Care rehabilitation group, which consists of about three physical therapists and a gaggle of octogenarians who get some low-intensity exercise and a chance to socialize three times a week. Now, this normally wouldn't be a big deal; they're very nice, and only reserve a few of the machines for their activities. I have found, however, a great source of amusement in these older men and women, although they'll never know how much joy they bring me. You see, my choice of workout music is a mix of really ghetto rap and Broadway musical soundtracks (I never said I wasn't weird). It is incredibly hilarious to watch Ethel walk on the treadmill while "Shawty getting' low, down to the floor" plays in my ear, or "There is nothing like a dame! Nothing in the world…." while Walter pumps the 10-pounders. It makes one wonder what they were like then they were younger, or perhaps before they had the cardiac trouble that has brought them to this group at this gym on this morning. Did they go out to clubs on Saturday nights? Are they married? Children? Do they listen to rap? My life would be fulfilled if one day Marian said "For realz" or Lawrence shouted "Damn girl! Those shorts is hawt!" I'm just happy to see them getting some physical exercise after an apparent traumatic episode. Life is short…sometimes you've gotta crank the Lil Wayne.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Friday, 6/11/10 – Level 4 Day 4 (Production)

I've realized that I'm going to miss production a lot, especially the company of our fearless and understanding leader. Only two more classes left, then we move on to the buffet station. We've been asked to come up with a theme as a group and bring in ten recipes per person by Wednesday: seven dinner ideas and three desserts. We've toyed around with a few ideas, such as New York Street Food or Cuisine of South America, so we'll see how things work out.

For now, we're enjoying our last few days in production. Our suckling pig had been brining since Wednesday, so we took our baby out and dried him/her off to remove the extra liquid. I butterflied the huge pork loin twice, opening it like a pamphlet into four panels, and we stuffed it with rosemary, oregano, sage, dried apricots, cranberries and cherries and lemon and orange zest. It was then rolled up like a Little Debbie Swiss Cake and placed nicely and politely inside our piglet friend. The piggy's torso was then sewn up, and the whole thing was placed in the low-temperature cooker, where it will sit at 62˚C until Monday. I still haven't decided whether or not I'll be eating it…only time will tell. I've had a pretty good no-gag week, so I think if I keep my stomach under wraps I'll taste the pig.

I was tasked with portioning the veal again, only this time I had it completed and over to the chef in just 10 minutes – I was quite proud of myself! When I approached her and said, "Chef, where would you like me to place your veal?" she looked surprised and waved her hand in the general direction of one of the back tables. Could I have exceeded her expectations? Probably not, but I had a smile on my face on my way back to the production kitchen. I jumped in to finish up some hanger steaks, which are an OCD girl's worst nightmare. The slab, which is full of sinewy tendons and fluffy fat, must be broken down into two pieces and all of that fat and sinew must be removed. I had to decide pretty quickly not to let my perfectionism take over, and was surprised at how OK I was with leaving a little fat pocket here and there. We were allowed to put a few aside to take home to experiment, and I made a nice mushroom/red wine sauce for Sunday dinner. The hanger steak is not the best cut of meat, but I always love the feeling of consuming something that I have seen from practically its original form to its final puddle on my dinner plate. Its blood may still be staining my fingernails, but that sucker tasted delicious with a mushroom and wine reduction.

Our smoked bacon and Canadian bacon were ready to cut and distribute, so a classmate and I volunteered to take them up to the Level 3 kitchens to use the industrial meat slicer. (Why it's up there, I don't know.) The minute we entered the bustling, frantic kitchen we were hit with the familiar wall of self-satisfied and exhausted heat, taking us back to our lives a few weeks ago. I couldn't help but spend a few minutes looking around at the students, wrapping up their fourth day of Level 3. I wanted to pull them to my bosom, smooth back their hair and whisper reassuring words in their ears. You'll make it, don't worry. Don't over-think these recipes, just follow your instinct. Yes, it's going to get harder and faster so stop mouthing off and get rid of that attitude. When I was done gawking, I had to follow protocol and ask the chef's permission to use the slicer. I made my way through the students and approached the chef's table…and who did I see? None other than my dear friend Chef Marc. "Excuse me chef, would you mind if we quickly used your slicing machine?" He looked up from the dish he was tasting, where he had been no doubt breaking a student's self esteem mere moments earlier, and said, "Yes." Yes, he minds, or yes it's ok?? Crap; what do I do?? He looked back down, clearly dismissing me, so I ran to the back and gave my classmate the go to get started. I figured that if I had misinterpreted him I'd rather face his wrath than cut a side of bacon by hand…this is what I've come to.

We finished the bacon and Canadian bacon, slicing each into thick yummy breakfasty slices, and cleaned that machine like it had never been cleaned before. We quickly gathered our things and ran from the kitchen to escape the sense of helplessness and self deprecation that was coursing through the air. Boy am I glad to be done with Level 3.

As we made it back down to our kitchen (our cool, happy and relaxing kitchen), we noticed that chef had pulled out four huge salmon fillets, each about 2 feet long. We were told to break into groups of two and come up with a unique cure for Gravlax! (Just to clarify, Gravlax is a horribly deadly disease that is ravaging the west coast of Africa. We're humanitarians and cooks. J/K its cured salmon.) We hadn't done anything like this since Level 1, and we didn't even get to really do anything ourselves, we just witnessed it and tasted the final product. My partner and I decided on a tropical drink theme, using vodka, lemon, lime and grapefruit peels, mint, brown sugar and salt. We crusted our entire filet, both skin-side and top side, and wrapped it in parchment paper and foil, in which it will rest in the refrigerator for a few days. Other students made a tequila chipotle cure, a sake ginger cure and the final fillet, which no one claimed, was done in a classic aquavit liquor and dill cure.

You might be wondering how we have easy access to all kinds of ingredients, spices, vegetables and fruits. Our kitchen happens to be next door to the huge school storeroom, which is run by two very nice guys who are probably really tired of me running up to their window asking for a single lime. I've gotten a few peeks inside their lair, and can only imagine the secret delicacies that are hidden within their walls. I once caught a glimpse of a jar of black truffles, which apparently can only be signed out by a chef instructor. I wonder what else one might find behind the industrial caged window of this world of wonders. Maybe I should attempt to make friends with the storeroom guys; then again they probably get a lot of unwanted solicitors.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Wednesday, 6/9/10 – Level 4 Day 3 (Production)

We're still trucking away in production, butchering the halibut, cod, hanger steaks, veal, squid, arctic char salmon and chickens for the restaurant's current menu. We're also handling the veal stocks, marmites, chicken stocks and fumets (fish stock) for the school/restaurant, which leads to a TON of carrot peeling and leek cleaning. Once this To-Do list is completed, usually by about 8:00pm, we're left to complete special projects and experimentations, all aided by our fearless leader Chef Janet. It was her idea to brine two pork bellies last week: we reserved one for bacon, then rolled one up and secured it in the drying cabinet to make pancetta. We also brined two large pork loins, keeping one as Canadian bacon. (I find that, in my new role as an FCI student, the frequency of "bacon" in my vocabulary has increased about 10-fold.)

We rigged one of the unused ovens to set up a cold-smoke system: a cold oven gets a pan of steaming coals and wood chips below a pan of ice, which sits right below the protein you're smoking. We stuffed everything in that oven: two whole chickens, two pork loins and the side of bacon (pancetta doesn't get smoked). Once everything had been smoked to our liking, it was all removed except for the two chickens. We turned the oven up to 400˚F and cooked them until they were safely done. Yum yum yum… It filled the entire kitchen with a campfire ambience, and left my jacket smelling like the woods (my poor chef's jackets!! They definitely get the brunt of the abuse. My neckerchiefs are second in line…)

The best special project, though, was one we began last night. Chef ordered an entire suckling pig! I have to admit, though…it was a bit sad. His little tongue was still sticking out, and it was so soft. Also, his little feet had been barely used, so they were still tender and pink. For those of you who don't know, a suckling pig is a piggy that is, well, still suckling milk from its mommy! I don't know their exact age, but they're still very small; and since they're young and solely milk fed, they don't have a lot of meat on their bones and have an interesting smell to them.

We've decided that we're going to de-bone the guy, then stuff it with one of the smoked pork loins, which will be stuffed with an herb medley. The whole thing makes for great presentation, but if you're squeamish it might not be very appetizing. I'm unfortunately one of those people that if I decide something grosses me out, it REALLY grosses me out. I can name a million instances when I've been mid-bite, thought of/smelled something gross and immediately gagged. I am then unable to finish my meal…how will this work when I become a chef??

While it was fascinating to see this animal, fresh from the factory at which it was killed, laying on the table in front of us like some surgery patient in for a heart transplant, it was just a little disturbing. Instead of healing it, we cracked it open and proceeded to scrape out every single bone in its body, including hips, legs and neck. We're normally not allowed to bring electronics into the kitchen, but I decided that this was too cool to follow the rules – I washed my hands, got my phone out and starting taking pictures.

As I walked to the subway after class, I found an unidentified piece of pig wedged in between the diamonds on my wedding ring. Sure, that's creepy; but the worst part? It didn't surprise me one bit. One bloody, sinewy bit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monday, 6/7/10 – Level 4 Day 2 (Production)

I stink. From my hands, my arms and somewhere on my torso that I have not yet targeted is seeping an oceany, ammonia-laced smell. Don't worry – I definitely showered…I showered the heck out of my skin, yet I still get the feeling people are moving away from me on the subway and I can't seem to outrun the sensation that I'm being shadowed by a 500-lb. tuna. Oh yea, that's right! I forgot to wear gloves while butchering the 50-lb. cod last night. That must be it.

It took me a solid 45 minutes, perhaps longer, to break that sucker down. First of all, it was as fat as my thigh and as long as my arm, and its anatomy was unlike anything I've ever butchered before. The angle of the ribcage posed a huge problem as I tried to shimmy the filet off of his/her body, and it didn't help that I weigh a buck twenty and that puppy was manhandling ME. (Thank goodness we didn't have the halibut…) I finally released the two massive filets and carefully removed the skin. Cod is extremely delicate, so I approached the pin bones with much trepidation; using my school-issued fish tweezers, I located the first pin bone and pulled…and pulled…and pulled. It didn't budge. I put some elbow into it, lodging my leather shoes under the table to give me some more muscle and pulled again. Nothing. After several tries I finally pried out a long, sharp, curved needle-like bone – much, much longer than I was expecting. I hid the horror on my face and tackled the rest, moving methodically down the filet. When I was done – both sides filleted, de-skinned and pin bones removed – I hauled the two pieces next door, dropped them off, and ran back. I don't like to be caught too long amongst the Level 5 and 6 kids…they scare me and I'm afraid someone's going to stuff me into a trash can or something.

After the fish was out of my hair (literally), I drained the chicken stock and prepared for Family Meal. Production was asked to bread and fry some leftover catfish, so I made an accompanying remoulade, which is basically an herby and salty tartar sauce – perfect for fried fish. The fish was a huge hit, and I was told my remoulade was tasty. You can't lose with a mayonnaise-based condiment.

To make myself useful, I attempted to help two male classmates haul 100 pounds of roasted veal bones, plus caramelized carrots, onions and celery, up to the 4th floor. Not wanting to intimidate them with my mean muscle definition and mad lifting skills, I chose to simply provide the journey's entertainment with a little metal tong/whistle serenade. We made it up to the 4th floor and found an empty cauldron in the Level 2 kitchen, so the two men lifted and tilted the large box of ingredients up to the edge then motioned for me to move around to the other side to help ensure that the bones fell neatly into the pot. I got right in, and was soon elbow-deep in a box of warm, slimy bones that are twice the size of my radius and ulna combined. I'm starting to realize that size does matter in the chef world, and my small frame is becoming a handicap I must overcome. Perhaps that's why it's mostly seen as a male-dominated field. Luckily I have male classmate friends that are willing to reach a high pan for me, lift a heavy pot of water or cold-heartedly murder a cute animal on my behalf, for which I am very grateful. That's not saying I don't have the dedication and the autonomy to complete tasks on my own; it's just nice to have a helping hand.

I consistently have very vivid dreams; since as far back as I can remember my dreams have taken on such a life-like movie quality, sometimes involving even taste and smell. It's usually fascinating, and allows me to experience things I would not normally have the opportunity to, or in some instances would not want to, experience in my real life. On rare occasions, a dream will be so intense and so involved that it will stay with me for hours, even days, invading my thoughts and actions at every turn. I'm always amazed, though, at how calm my sleeping face and body seem while my mind is hard at work creating an alternate universe. I obviously don't know this personally, but my dear husband has confirmed, after a night of bungee jumping over the Colorado River and riding tigers through the African safari (don't ask), that my body was as still as a statue. I can't help but wonder, though, if this whole experience is just a dream. Have these past few months at The French Culinary Institute really happened, or will I wake up one morning, reach over to my alarm clock only to find that I'm late for my miserable job in my miserable office with my miserable co-workers. Have I woken up from that nightmare, or is this the real dream? One thing's for sure: I have yet to encounter any tigers that are willing to be ridden.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Friday, 6/4/10 – Level 4 Day 1 (Production)

This was by far the kookiest day of culinary school thus far. First of all, level 4 is VERY different than level 3:

  1. We're finally down in the restaurant kitchens, which are surprisingly not any cooler temperature-wise.
  2. I actually had some down-time to relax and catch my breath.
  3. For the first time in several weeks we got to eat Family Meal dinner prepared by 1/3 of my classmates.

I was assigned to the production group, which handles all of the stock-making and protein butchering for the entire school (the other two groups were Family Meal and Buffet – a special project group that puts on a massive buffet for the entire school every two weeks). I was a little nervous about this new level, considering that actual humans, other than chef and myself, will be paying a lot of money to consume the product I produce. I got to school a little early to change and get my bearings and ended up being one of the first students in the big kitchen. An intimidating and busy looking chef, who runs the Level 6 kitchens in the restaurant, called me over to where she was standing in front of a huge wad of veal. "Hi, are you in this level?" I considering lying and just running the 90 blocks home. "I need you to portion this veal…and I needed it like 5 minutes ago." She turned and exited the room, and I was left trying to decipher what I had just been tasked to do. Luckily, she had already done one, so I had a good idea of the size she was looking for and got started immediately, placing the little cutlets in a pan over ice. Slowly, my classmates started filtering in. "What the heck are you working on?" "Can't talk…must slice."

Due to the restaurant's current menu, production was tasked with filleting two huge halibut (along with several other smaller fish), butchering hanger steaks, quartering hundreds of chickens, portioning the veal (done) and breaking down hundreds of squid. I had my eye on the latter, as it looked like the gooiest and most interesting of the stations, so once the veal had been delivered next door I grabbed two pairs of gloves (or, according to chef, the neighborhood cats would be following me) and got started on the squid. Their bodies range from 3"-6" long, and you must gently pull on the tentacles to remove them from the "tube," or the body. The tubes are emptied and set aside to be washed out, and the heads are cut just below the eyes to remove the long, spindly tentacles yet leave the "brain." If you've ever ordered fried calamari, you're familiar with these two parts of the body. I was happily pulling, separating, digging and slicing when Chef Marc approached. He still makes me terribly nervous, and I'm convinced he doesn't like me because I have a hard time understanding his accent. "Non, non, non! You are wasting ze best part!" he started yelling. I dropped what I was doing and anxiously waited for him to correct me. He took one of the discarded brain/eye parts and tugged on a small, fleshy knob which pulled off to be a delicate and long piece of muscle. "Zis ees ze most del-ee-cious part. Pull all of zem off and I will show you." I immediately dug through my bowl of guts to locate more of these "best parts" and gathered them for chef. He came back with a pan of hot butter, garlic and a chili pepper and threw in the pieces, swirling them in the butter in one last brief sizzle. He grabbed a plate, poured the beautiful, delicious pile on and motioned for me to take some. I peeled back my gloves and picked at one little piece of cooked squid and popped it in my mouth. Sweet, buttery and tender; it practically melted on my tongue. I smiled at him; he smiled back. "You see…ze best part." Feeling good about this positive interaction, I got back to work on my assembly line of tearing apart squid bodies and explained to chef that my next step would be to wash out the tubes. "Non, Jacques-leen. Don't ever wash ze tubes." Now, this was going to be a problem: Chef Janet, for whom I was preparing these squid, had specifically asked that they be washed. I explained this to him, and he leaned in close to my face. "Who do you teenk ees bett-a? Me? Or Chef Janet?" Sh*@, this was the man who competed and won the show "Chopped," but Chef Janet is amazing too. I decided to diffuse the situation best as I know how – avoidance. "Oh…ha ha ha…yes Chef. Capisco." Then, the craziest thing happened – I grabbed a new squid and began tugging out the guts…yet they wouldn't budge. I used a towel to get more grip on the slime and pulled even harder; nothing. I stuck my finger inside the tube, and immediately recoiled. "Ugh!! What the heck is that!!" One of my classmates was curious and decided to stick his finger in the tube as well…his reaction was even worse. Something disgusting was down in there, and I'll be damned if I wasn't going to figure this out. I mustered all of my strength and tugged, hard. The mysterious item started to shift, and began to make its way down the body and closer to being revealed. All of a sudden - as I was concentrating and pulling my hardest - a small, half-digested fish popped out. No joke…almost perfectly intact except for the fins and part of the top of its body. An entire small fish. Apparently my little squid friend had being eating dinner during captivity…a last meal of sorts.

I was still excited and giddy from my discovery when I got blindsided by an unexpected occupational hazard. It all happened in slow motion: the puncture, the explosion and the resulting black ink spraying like shrapnel towards my stark white uniform and pale-skinned face. I dodged left, then right. A male classmate tried to sacrifice himself for my dignity by jumping across the room and in front of my torso…none of it helped. All was silent as the battle came to a close. As the haze cleared, we opened our eyes to survey the damage and collect the survivors; Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" was quietly playing in the background. I had been hit…bad. With all of the adrenaline coursing through my body I couldn't yet feel the injuries, but the black spray across my uniform was all I needed to see. "Man down!" I yelled, frantically wiping my face to prevent the black ink from searing tattoos onto my cheek and forehead. My uniform, however, could not be saved.

A few minutes later, after Chef Janet reminded me to wash out the squid tubes (crap), I rushed over to the sink to get it done as quickly as possible after I saw Chef Marc leave the room. Suddenly, I heard a "tisk tisk" behind me, along with the unmistakable voice saying, "What a shame." I turned to explain, and he just made eye contact and walked away; we both knew he had specifically told me not to wash the tubes, yet he had caught me. "I still respect you!" I frantically yelled as I watched the back of his head get farther and farther away. So much for that positive interaction.

I finished the squid and moved on to assisting with quartering the chickens. Making his rounds, chef stopped by our station and looked at me in amazement. "Your friends have failed to tell you that you have ink on your face." OhmyGod no they didn't. As I was yelling and rubbing at my face while scolding my friends for not telling me, I suddenly remembered the "beauty mark" on my chin that looks a heck of a lot like a black, round ink splot…he was teasing me. Awesome. I fired him a death look, and he sauntered away, laughing at my ignorance. I refused to let this man get the best of me, and planned my attack. I remembered that he has a small tattoo behind his ears, and decided that would be my coup de grace. Later in the night, he approached me with a devilish smile on his face. He mimicked me frantically rubbing my chin trying to remove the "ink." I took a breath, and responded by frantically rubbing behind my ear…exactly where he has the tattoo. He narrowed his eyes at me for a brief second, and then they softened. He laughed, turned and walked away. Victory. Later in the night I caught his eyes from across the room and we exchanged a mental white flag of surrender. I do respect you, chef, but I'm hoping to earn some respect of my own.

We ended the night with a little experiment: Chef Janet taught us how to de-bone a chicken while keeping it fully intact. Seriously – we didn't cut the chicken, we simply worked out all of the bones so that what was left was a shell in the shape of a chicken! It was really difficult, and took about 45 minutes, but the result was incredibly bizarre and fascinating. We were told that we could take them home to stuff with ground chicken, herbs or sausage, but I chose not to drag this carcass with me on the subway. That's not something you want discovered when the NYPD does a random bag search…no explanations for that creepiness.

I had a hard time explaining to my nice, foreign laundry lady this morning what the heck happened to my uniform. "Squid ink," I said, which was met with some confused looks. "The animal…the squid…his ink!" She realized what I was saying, laughed, and said, "ok, we try…we try…" At least my chef's jacket will have some sweet battle wounds and a crazy story to tell.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wednesday, 6/2/10 – Level 3 Day 20 (MIDTERM)

I definitely wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be. Ever since learning of the dreaded midterm, the hardest test in the curriculum and the determining factor of whether or not we'd be passing Level 3, I had visions of slipping in a pool of my own sweat, having a breakdown in front of a stoic Frenchman and/or stabbing someone with my knife (on purpose?). As I approached the kitchen in which I'd spent the past six grueling weeks, I was going over the 16 recipes in my head – 255g cake flour sifted with 17g cocoa powder, done when internal temperature reaches 135˚F, cook button, oyster and shitake mushrooms separately then roast together, 150mL double cream, sauté shallots in butter then add 125mL white wine, bake in a 425˚F oven until brown…AHHHHH!!! So many ingredients, so many processes, so many different temperatures, and they were all running together. A sense of Zen had descended over me, though: I knew I'd be alright; I knew these recipes like the back of my hand. If anything went wrong, I was certain my subconscious would take over and guide me in the right direction. And hey, if it all went to sh*# I'd at least have one more try…solo with my little Italian chef "friend" (I fantasize that we're friends but I don't think she even knows my name).

As I buttoned my crisp, freshly dry-cleaned chef's jacket, tied my pressed white neckerchief and adjusted the elastic waistband on my unisex hounds tooth pants I couldn't believe that my beautiful holiday weekend in Dallas was over so soon. We had such a blast; I think the most mentally intense thing I did all weekend was the Dallas Morning News crossword puzzle. I rarely moved from my position near/in the pool, whether it was the backyard beauty shaded by a gorgeous magnolia tree and smelling of freshly cut grass and sunshine, or the brand new country club monstrosity full of laughing kids sitting in the fountains, automatic buckets dumping water on unsuspecting swimmers and the quiet solace of a good book. Our vacation was full of family, friends and neighbors who all gathered to greet these two young newlyweds with food, wine and laughter…could it get any better? My favorite part was when we had barbecued ribs two nights in a row – now that's a vacation. Dallas was close to reaching a temperature record for May – it neared 99˚F on Monday – but we didn't let that thwart our plans for greatness and spent as much time outside as possible. But as Wednesday came, it was back to business for these two kids; I had a midterm to take and Steve had a job to perform. To ease my anxious mind during take-off, I dove into an inappropriate book, both by name and subject, from one of my favorite female comedians. After snorting loudly several times and outburst-laughing, the nice, older, soft-spoken woman sitting next to me reading a religious-themed tome quietly asked, "What is it that you're reading there, dear?" I panicked…."Oh, you know, just a historical fiction about…history…" I threw the naughty book into my carry-on and took out my stack of recipes to review. I'll never make that mistake again.

We landed at LaGuardia with plenty of time to spare, allowing me to get to school and congregate with my fellow Level Three-ers. Walking into the classroom it was clear what the four recipe possibilities would be: Salad Nicoise, Salmon with White Wine Sauce, Pork Chop with Green Peppercorn Sauce and Lemon Tart. We pulled our numbers out of a bowl and…B3 – SALAD NICOISE AND PORK. The exact two recipes I got for my mock midterm…are they kidding with this ridiculousness?? Considering I did really well on my mock midterm, my confidence soared as I gathered my mise en place and began the test.

Before I knew it, I was feverishly plating my salad components, all dressed in my delicious Chez Jacqueline vinaigrette and lain out on the plate like a little clock of vegetables. The plates were put on a tray and, as my number was called, tore off my gloves, picked up my tray and walked it across the hall, where a table of judges was waiting to taste my dish. They motioned for me to set the tray on the table, so I left them with my plie from kindergarten ballet and got the heck out of that place, lest they see the sweat pouring down my cheeks and pooling on the shins of my socks. I was back to the grind, pulling together my Pommes Darphin and finishing my green peppercorn sauce. I washed my watercress and seared my pork chops to a beautiful crusty brown. When the time was right, I took the plates out of the oven, gave each a bunch of watercress, two wedges of potato patty and a monster pork chop, making sure the bone was on the left (standard protocol in our world). At the last minute, each plate got a drape of velvety peppercorn sauce and it was back across the hall. I cancelled the plie this time, opting for a wide grin that exclaimed, "I'm done!" I ran across the hall and practically collapsed on my station. I was done. DONE! The midterm was already over, and I had been accurate, well-seasoned and on-time for both dishes. I had powered through 4 pans, 3 pots, 2 tomatoes, 2 potatoes, a mandolin, 4 pork chops, a box of Boston lettuce, 2 garlic cloves and 4 bottles of water, among many, many other things. Something that seemed so impossible and daunting merely six weeks ago was now my victory. The carnage surrounded me, so after a few seconds of mini-celebration I got to work cleaning up the kitchen, which was actually part of our grade, along with organization, cleanliness, hygiene (…), seasoning, proper technique, using the right tools, attitude, butchering, ingredients, knowledge, timeliness, taste, aesthetics, etc, etc, etc.

At the end of the night, we each entered the judges' rooms one-by-one to receive a lashing, er, their comments on our dishes. I was greeted with their big, welcoming smiles as they beckoned me to have a seat. Were they just being nice? Was I in trouble? Does one of them have food poisoning? It turns out they were pretty impressed – apparently I had the best salad of the night (!!!!). A few things needed a little more salt, and my potatoes were too buttery, which I happen to think is blasphemous. Overall, I did really well. (I don't usually post my actual grades for the world to see, but let's just say I got a shminety shmee.) In a school where we're judged on every minutia, I'll take that as a compliment. A pretty darn good one.

So I'm halfway through culinary school. The hardest part is over, I've suffered through the most notorious level with the most notorious test with some of the most notorious chefs in the school, and I survived. I'd like to take this moment to express my feelings through song:

Empire State of Mind