Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wednesday, 7/28/10 – Level 5 Day 3 (Poissonnier)

We were all gathering around at the beginning of class to take attendance and discuss the evening when I noticed that my partner, the fourth member of our group, wasn't yet in the kitchen. By the end of roll call, he still wasn't there so, before I freaked out, mentioned his absence to chef. "Jacques-leen, shall will close ze restaurant? No…we will be just fine." Ok, speak for yourself chef, because you're not the one who's going to have to handle the cod dish by yourself. The three of us started our prep for the night, which was doubled because a new group is taking over on Friday and we were asked to make sure they were well prepared on their first night, but I soon realized that it was going to be a rough couple of hours.

We had started the evening with the plan that I'd be cooking the cod, someone would be cooking the shrimp and the third person would be the runner and the plater, handling everything else that needs to be done. Once service started, though, it didn't quite seem to work out that way. For some reason, they were having a hard time with the shrimp, so the two of them focused solely on filling those orders. I was simply trucking away, searing, baking and basting in my own little world while listening to orders that were coming in, heating the Sauce Tomate and plating the dish like a little fleshy robot. It wasn't until one of my group members said, "Sorry I haven't been helping, we're kind of drowning over here," did I realize that half the night had passed and I was handling everything on my own just fine. In fact, I was keeping an extra cod piece (ha ha ha) on the warmer at all times, just in case an urgent order came in. Not too shabby, eh??

Luckily, the end of my evening went fantastically; the beginning, however, didn't start out too well. I was in charge of making a huge batch of the smoked potato cream for Friday, so I chopped a bunch of shallots, sweated them in butter until they were nice and pearly and then added white wine. I turned the heat up to quickly reduce to wine, and turned my back to start multi-tasking. A few minutes later (quicker than I had expected), I smelled something slightly bitter and realized that my pot was smoking. Nothing can prepare you for the anxious feeling you get while approaching a pot that's smoking on the stove, not knowing what you'll find when you peek your eyes above the edge. Well, funny story, what I found was a smoking heap of burnt shallots! Ok…no big deal. I dumped the pot, sent it to the dishwashers (their judging looks didn't help…like you've never burnt something mon ami) and started on a new batch of shallots. Everything went well this time, so I added the potatoes, boiled them in the stock until they were soft and strained everything out. In a large blender, I added the potatoes, the shallots and some crème fraiche and hit 'start.' Nothing. I tried a new outlet, and hit 'start' again. Again, nothing. Hmm…I walked that big blender around that whole kitchen and tried almost every outlet I could find, and still nothing. One with a keen common sense might think, "Silly Jackie, the problem is obviously with the blender itself. Just get a new blender!" Thanks guys, that's exactly what I did; I got a new blender base, took everything back over to my original outlet and hit 'start.' Nothing. It was already 7:45, and service was starting in fifteen minutes so I put everything aside, including my mounting frustration, and focused on the night's tasks. I still don't know what the problem was, but at the end of the night when my group member asked me if she could help with any of the prep for Friday, I directed her towards the abandoned blender in the corner.

In the middle of the evening, I received an order for four cod. I took the four fillets out of the refrigerator, placed them on a sheet pan to come to room temperature and seasoned each. A few minutes later, as I was preparing to cook the fish, chef got my attention and called me over to the pan. "Jacques-leen, you must be careful of ze worms." Hmm, that's weird, I'm pretty used to translating accents, but I'm not aware of a French word that sounds like 'worms.' I followed his gaze…and found a worm on the platter. A worm. A freaking worm. On the platter. Near the cod. A worm. He explained to me that cod is a wormy fish…so when I'm asked in the future: yes, Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 was the last time I ever ate cod.

By the end of the night, I had literally consumed nothing other than warm water for the past eight hours, so I was understandably starving. I had about three minutes to spare, so I made myself a small plate and shoved the food into my mouth, inhaling the solids down my esophagus faster than air. I glanced over, and a classmate, who I happen to be very good friends with, was slack-jawed, staring right at me. "What's the deal, creep?" I asked him. "I'm sorry, I've just never really seen anyone eat that fast before." Awesome. Since when did I become a frat boy? I should probably renew my feminine manners and etiquette…but maybe I'll wait until graduation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Monday, 7/26/10 – Level 5 Day 2 (Poissonnier)

I honestly think I've taken more showers in the past month than I've taken in the entirety of the year 2010. Not that I was ever a dirty person or anything; I mean, I showered regularly and kept myself up to the accepted standards of a functioning adult. With the combination of pumping iron at the gym (that's right, I said it), NYC's million days of 100% humidity and spending endless hours in a stressful inferno while wearing a head-to-toe white canvas sac, I seem to be spending most of my waking hours planning my schedule around showers. I've also noticed that, since starting school, I've been sweating much more in my personal life than usual. For example, at school it's so hot and frantic that you just kind of have to accept the fact that your back is dripping and your neckerchief is stuck to your moist skin (kind of like hot yoga, an activity I once enjoyed). My body is so used to expelling water as fast as I can drink it, I have found that simply stepping outside on a warm morning will send my pores on high alert and my brow gearing up to perspire at a rate worthy of the Hoover Dam. It's mildly embarrassing, considering that I never used to be a huge sweater (not the cardigan type). Steve insists that, contrary to popular belief, fit people actually sweat more during physical activity than unfit people, but I counter that notion with the evidence that I am neither fit nor often engaged in physical activity when the water works begin. Any who…

We had a lot of prep to do on Monday night, because we depleted most of our resources with the busy dinner service on Friday and didn't want to make too much food for Monday, lest it spoil over the weekend. We had to make smoked potato cream, brew up some more Sauce Tomate, clean lots of greens for the salads and make another pan of potato brandade to cut into cakes. I choose to work on the latter and boiled potatoes, poached the cured cod and sauté a few heads of garlic to prepare. Chef trucked one of the huge industrial Kitchen Aid mixers from pastry into the main kitchen for me, and we began by combining everything, with a little salt and pepper, and mixing it on high. Once it was all mixed, we each took a taste. "Chef, I believe it needs a little more garlic." Good job, Jackie, way to be proactive. Prove that you understand the complexity of tastes yet aren't afraid of offering your humble suggestion. Keep it up. "No," he quickly replied. Hmm…better luck next time. I decided to quit while I was ahead, so I took the mixture, spread it out into a sheet pan and started cutting out little round molds. They were breaded, pan fried and kept warm for service.

My partner and I switched to the cod dish, after two days of handling the shrimp. I was a little nervous to be on the cod station, considering the hole my teammates had dug themselves into last week. The fillet is cooked in three stages, as opposed to the shrimp's single pan sauté, and can quickly become overwhelming if you don't stay on top of your orders and keep yourself a step ahead of The Expediter. As the orders started pouring in, we got into a good rhythm of me on the fire and my partner tossing the salad and plating the sauce. We were searing, baking, basting, re-heating, pouring and tossing like a well-oiled machine, and at times were so prepared we even had a few minutes to relax and stare off into space (or maybe that was just me). Before I knew it, The Expediter called out, "Last table," meaning that we were done for the night. I couldn't believe my ears – it was already 10pm! We sent out the last plate and started to clean our station. As I digested how the night had gone, I suddenly felt really bad that I had monopolized the majority of the cooking, while my partner was left with the plating. He didn't mind, and was actually happy with our teamwork but vowed that the tables would be turned on Wednesday.

We've really started to find our success in Poissonnier, but unfortunately will be trading up to Saucier very soon. I've never been that great on a grill, so I best learn me some steak ASAP because one of Saucier's main, and most popular, dishes is a thin grilled steak. While some consider Poissonnier to be the hardest, I think blindly grilling a steak to a customer's particular request is way harder than searing a cod fillet. Then again, I used to think I could never cook in a restaurant and I seem to be doing just fine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Friday, 7/23/10 – Level 5 Day 1 (Poissonnier)

I am really, REALLY glad we had one night of restaurant cooking under our belts before Friday night dinner service, or else I would have covered my head with my apron, found a quiet corner and hugged my knees until 10pm. If Wednesday night was frantic, Friday night was Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King Uprising. It seemed like everyone and their moms were eating out in the restaurant, and they were all ordering the shrimp. We flew through a night's allotment of raw shrimp in the first 30 minutes, and had to ask our less-busy classmates in Entremetier to de-shell and de-vein another pan (because the production team in Level 4, who would normally handle all of our protein prep, was on dinner break…how nice ha ha ha). The night definitely didn't slow down, and we were cranking out shrimp plates like crazy.

We finally met the chef that will be in charge for the remainder of our time at school. He's Russian, I think, yet speaks French and talks too fast for me to catch every one of his heavily accented words. He also has very limited patience, and I learned quickly that he doesn't appreciate questions or having to explain things more than once. We spent the beginning of class finishing some prep, vegetable cutting and getting everything in place for service (which starts at 8pm). About twenty minutes before service, he told us that he was going to do a new demo for each of our dishes because he wants them done his way. He also yelled at us for doing things that our previous chef had told us to do, so we were a little weary of how different "his way" would be. Sure enough, after spending all Wednesday night becoming comfortable with our dishes and memorizing the steps, we were shown two completely different ways to cook the shrimp and cod, sending our brains into a tailspin a mere five minutes before service. The plating was the same, but the method by which we got to the plate was nothing alike. It didn't help that his demos were interrupted a million times by questions from across the kitchen, and the combination of his accent and our nervousness wasn't helping. My teammates, who were handling the cod again for the second night in a row, were left with terribly confused and anxious looks on their faces, which did not seem to improve throughout the night. For some reason, they were having a really hard time with their orders. I think they were stuck in a world of confusion between the two chef's methods, and the fish was being overcooked and improperly handled. This was NOT making our new chef, or The Expediter, very happy. "What are you doing, there, you with the cod?? (He doesn't yet know our names.) Zis es all wrong! Non, did you even see ze demo??" Meanwhile, The Expediter was yelling, "I said I needed three cod! Let's go let's go! Cod, you're holding everyone up! Why are you only plating one cod, I said THREE!!" I was just cringing and trying to stay out of the way, but inevitably the focus shifted to us, the shrimpers. Chef, who had been running around to each of the Level 5 stations to make sure we were doing things correctly, wasn't paying as close attention to the order board as we were. He kept getting angry that I was only cooking two orders, or plating one, when there appeared to be more on the board. "No chef, those have already gone up. I already passed those to The Expediter." "Non, you have tree orders to make!" "No chef, I'm sorry, those have already been made, I only have one left." "Oh…I see. Continue on then." Phew…he scared me there for a minute. He also showed us a new way to interpret the order board that our other chef didn't teach us. Apparently The Expediter will place a small star next to the table number once they've gotten their appetizers. In a traditional five course meal, fish is right after the appetizers, so chef taught us that once that star is (silently) placed on the board, we should start cooking the fish, predicting that we will be coming up shortly thereafter. That way, when The Expediter says, "Fire!" we can just start to plate the dish, and will always be on time! This seems simple enough, but it takes a lot of getting used to. Early in the night, I got a little excited and started to plate two orders of shrimp once the star went on the board, and got yelled at, rightly so, because I was way too early to be plating. The orders hadn't even been fired yet! I felt like an idiot, especially when the plates were unusable.

I think we'll finally get into the groove of the restaurant and how everything works, but the learning curve has been painful. I'll be assigned to the cod dish on Monday, and I'm not looking forward to it. Then again, Mondays are always slower than Fridays, so maybe it won't be too bad. I've definitely been reassured lately that I'm not cut out to work in a restaurant (unless, I guess, it's the Tuesday morning breakfast shift). Restaurant service isn't for everyone, but I'm grateful I've started in Poissonnier; I've been thrown into the deep end before, and I always seem to float.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wednesday, 7/21/10 – Level 4 Day 20

In order to appropriately transition into the restaurant (and to get us out of the big kitchen so that other levels could do their exams), we moved over into the restaurant kitchen to prepare for our first night of service under the close watch of our Level 4 chef. I was stationed in Poissonnier with four other classmates, although one of my group members has dropped out, effective immediately, to work full-time in a restaurant. Since it was his last night, and he's obviously experienced in the workings of a restaurant during a busy dinner service, he practically held my hand to help me navigate this new, stressful environment.

In the restaurant, we're split up into five groups: Entremetier (specials), Garde Manger (appetizers), Poissonnier (fish), Saucier (meat) and Patissier (pastry), which each have their own stations in the kitchen. Since we share the kitchen with the Level 6 students, who are also split into five groups, each station has two main dishes that they focus on per night – meaning that there are four appetizers, four fish dishes, four meat dishes, etc. on the menu. The two Level 5 fish dishes for the summer are: 1. Seared Shrimp with Smoked Potato Cream, Pickled Grapes and Sautéed Radishes and 2. Sautéed Fillet of Cod with Brandade Cake, Sauce Tomate and a Salad of Frisee, Mache and Cherry Tomatoes. We're lucky in Poissonnier, because most fish dishes are cooked very quickly, and there's not a ton of prep (unlike if you were making a beef stew, for example, where you have to have it all cooked and ready before orders start coming in). On our final day in the Level 4 kitchen, my classmates had completed some necessary prep work for us (that we would have normally done for ourselves), making the smoked potato cream, sauce tomate and pickling the grapes. All we had to do was warm everything up, make sure our fish were appropriately portioned and keep everything hot for service.

We got a quick demo from chef of each plate, which was basically five minutes of "Season everything, sear this, pour this here and plate it like this." Sure, it sounds pretty easy, but when the clock struck 8:00pm and the first orders came in, I was panicking. "Did he say put the grapes on the right or the left? Do we serve five shrimp with each order? What about the romaine??" The Expediter, who I've mentioned before for her steel eyes and killer gaze, makes sure the kitchen runs smoothly and approves all dishes before they go out to the public, so I knew that if it wasn't perfect she would personally walk it back to me to shove it in my face, then make me re-do the whole thing. I chose to do the shrimp with a partner, and the others handled the cod.

The menu is set up as a five-course prix fixe, so when you first sit down you make all of your choices for each course. When that order comes in, The Expediter will call each dish out to the cooks, saying, for example, "Order in, one shrimp!" and then you are expected to repeat what she says in an attempt to acknowledge the fact that you must have one shrimp dish ready for service. You get everything together, make sure everything is hot and that you've got a hot pan ready to go, and only when she says, "Fire, one shrimp" do you start to cook the protein. It gets a little more complicated, though: if one person at the table in question has ordered shrimp, yet another has ordered the salmon and another the tuna, all Poissonniers must communicate and plan so that each dish is ready at the same time. If the salmon takes five minutes, but the shrimp takes only three, I have to pay attention to how far into cooking the salmon group is in order to ensure that my shrimp are served hot and fresh off the fire. If it happened exactly as I've described, life would be easy. However, during the height of the night, I could get an "Order in, three shrimp" and then immediately a "Fire, two shrimp" and then an "Order in, two shrimp" all at the same time. I'm learning that it's essential to stay quiet and just listen, and to make sure you're incredibly organized and clean. It got a little hairy at times, but I had my group member to help me through this first night. He said that at his restaurant, sometimes he'll be the only one on the grill, for example, and will have to juggle up to ten orders at once. Yikes!

Since we have so much that we need to keep warm, yet must keep as many burners free as possible, we had to create a warm bain marie, or water bath, over the grill top at our station. We were luckily able to stick a bunch of things in there, including the smoked potato cream and the sauce tomate, yet keep all of our burners free for the shrimp, the cod and frying the brandade cake (a salted fish/potato patty that is breaded and deep fried). Each container had its own spoon, so when the time came for me to spread a little potato cream over the warm plate, with The Expediter yelling "Come on shrimp, what's taking so long?? Move it!" I failed to remember that the bain marie rests on top of an open fire grill. I grabbed the top of the spoon, sitting directly above the fire, and was suddenly transported to the ACME kitchen in a Roadrunner cartoon. My eyes bulged and my skin seared and smoked on the hot handle. A distant horn blared, "AOOOOOGA!!" I pulled myself away from the spoon, cursing my ignorance, and grabbed it again with a side towel. I spent the rest of the night with a swollen thumb, but luckily the pads of your fingers are used to some abuse and bounce back pretty quickly.

As the last order came in and I seared the final five shrimp, I couldn't believe how frantic the night had been. I've heard people make fun of the L'Ecole kitchens because it's so full of students and chefs that there's just not enough work to go around. The cockier ones, who work at NYC's most famous and busiest kitchens, like to act like it's a vacation to come to school and cook at L'Ecole, but for my first experience in a real restaurant kitchen it was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I definitely had no idea what to expect, and no show on The Food Network can convey the heat, creativity and stress to deliver swelling at every stove and burner. I'm honestly kind of nervous to go back, but I know I can handle it. It'll be a challenge, but I can make it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monday, 7/19/10 - Level 4 Day 19 (Family Meal)

I'm not really happy about saying this, but I've had the personal policy since writing my blog that I will be open and honest about my entire culinary experience, including the good, the bad and the ugly. So I cannot, with any sense of editorial authenticity, refrain from telling my first story of the day. So here goes...

I had to cut my elastic hounds tooth pants in order to get them on. Read that carefully - they didn't need to be cut to get them OFF at the end of a sweaty, swollen night of running around the kitchen. The elastic had to be cut to get them ON as I stood in the air conditioned women's locker room, elastic stretched to capacity around the widest part of my feminine curves as I attempted to get dressed for class. Granted, they were the size that I originally ordered last fall when I signed up for school, and soon realized they were just a little too tight for comfort so I exchanged the remaining two pairs for one size larger. I still had this smaller size sitting in the back of my locker, and when I frantically realized that my other two pairs were at the laundromat, they were my only option. Hence how I found myself, on a sunny Monday afternoon after a long day at work, using my kitchen shears to cut the elastic band down to the single-fabric layer, and then wiggling, nay, jumping to get them on. Sure, they were tight when I got them, but they were definitely still wearable. Seven months later, they wouldn't even budge. I spent the whole night with a painful wedgie and the fear that every twist or bend would send the fabric ripping at the seam (that I had cut!), leaving me bare and mortified. That evening when I got home I sheepishly told Steve about what had happened:

"So, I freaked out when I realized both pairs of pants were in the wash. I mean, you know that feeling when you're like, 'oh crap, something bad is happening' so I pulled them over my legs, going as fast as possible to attempt to get a little momentum as they stretched to the maximum but it just didn't work. I had to cut them, Steve, I had to cut them. It was a low point."

Steve: "Well, geez, how'd you let that happen??"

Me: "Um, well, you know, I've just been tasting a lot of the pastry stuff. And you know I love bread and butter. And with my school and work schedule it's harder and harder to get to the gym, but you're right I totally should start making time to work out. But I'm in culinary school for goodness's sake..."

Steve: " Oh my God...I meant how'd you let yourself get down to your last pair of pants?"

Me: "Oh."

So maybe I am a little self conscious about it. Nobody likes to be THAT girl though, the one in the corner with the skin tight elastic unisex pants.

It was a pretty standard night at class, although for some reason the person who planned our Family Meal menu thought we should do a Thanksgiving theme, so we had roasted turkey, sweet potato casserole, biscuits and roasted broccoli. It was a little heavy, but delicious as always. However, no Thanksgiving I've ever attended has had 10 (!) perfectly, beautifully roasted full turkeys all lined up on the table (no offense mom). I guess that's what happens when you have a room full of 200 chefs and chefs-in-training.

Next class, while it's still considered Level 4, we'll be training in the main kitchen to prepare for the transition into the restaurant. The Level 6 students will be taking their final exam upstairs (they graduate on Thursday!), and the Level 1 students will be taking their exam (breaking down a chicken...remember that??) in our main kitchen. A whole new class of students start on Wednesday, and we move on to the final rotation of culinary school - cooking for the restaurant. I remember back when I decided to go to FCI, everyone was asking me about the program and curriculum. I would always finish by saying, "We finish school by applying everything we learned by cooking for the school's famous restaurant!" It always seemed so far it was something that would never really happen. We finished up our responsibilities in Family Meal by preparing 15 large lasagnas (some vegetable pesto, some creamy sausage) to serve for Family Meal on Wednesday, since there will be no one available to cook it. I found myself today writing out recipes again on small note cards, something I haven't done since the beginning of Level 3, preparing to learn the restaurant's summer menu. I'll be starting as poisonnier, the fish station, with two other group members. We'll have a new chef, a new group and a new menu...I guess all good things must come to an end.

I've had a security badge at work since my first assignment back in January. They are required for everything, and the armed guards will not let you enter the building without one. The other day, I walked in and scanned my card as usual. I got on the elevator, pushed my floor button and the doors started closing. All of a sudden, a large, meaty arm comes through to stop the elevator from closing, and the guard points to me and says, "Ma'am, I'm going to need to speak to you." Crap...I can explain the apple corer in my bag, I'm a culinary student! It turns out my supervisor hadn't renewed my clearance, so they took my card away and gave me a temporary (and limited) pass for the day. It's amazing how instantly I felt rejected from their club, the exclusive united government workers 'we're all on the same team' club. I felt their eyes judging me as I walked through the cafeteria; "Oh, she's wearing a day pass. She's probably an ex-con that couldn't get clearance. Or she isn't smart enough to actually work for the government full time...she's probably a TEMP!" Without my I.D., which helped me blend into the masses, I suddenly felt like an outcast. It's amazing how a piece of colored plastic can help you feel like you belong, or vice versa. That afternoon, I stopped by the security desk on my way home to pick up my new, renewed card. There were two cards sitting out on the desk: mine and another employee's, let's call him Tony Stark (for the story's purposes). I approached the officer and said, "Hi, good afternoon, I'm here to pick up my I.D. Oh, that's actually mine right there...[pointing at cards]...Tony Stark." He slowly looked me in the eyes, keeping his face stoic, and looked back down. I think he even reached for his weapon. Yikes, note to self: never joke with the NYPD. I don't blame him though, with their high-stress jobs I wouldn't appreciate anyone making an ass of themselves either. Thank goodness the pants-cutting happened that evening, or else I probably would have accidentally disclosed that story. No wonder they took away my security clearance...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Friday, 7/16/10 - Level 4 Day 18 (Family Meal)

I repeat (from an earlier post): I love Fridays. Everyone's just workin' for the weekend, getting their stuff done and dreaming of their Saturday plans. We powered through Family Meal preparation, cutting vegetables and cooking meat like crazy people. We were planning on making a significantly less amount of food because the final third of my classmates were putting on their buffet, themed European Summer Bistro (?). You might be wondering why we even bothered to make Family Meal if there would be a huge buffet being presented in the same room. Well, in addition to setting out the Family Meal each night in the main kitchen, we also bring five full meals upstairs for the lower culinary levels and the pastry students who can't make it downstairs (really, they're kind of not invited. We were always told to stay upstairs for dinner in Levels 1 and 2.) They are also not exactly invited to the buffets either (even though every once in a while someone gets wind of the buffet and they all pile downstairs, as we did once or twice, to revel in the culinary glory that is Level 4). Alas, they still need to be fed, so we have to send some food up for them to eat in their cool, air conditioned and quiet kitchens. We also set out the meal in the main kitchen, as we do every night, to give everyone several options. A lot of times, buffets don't include a lot of vegetables or salads, so most people will still file through the family meal to get some non-protein nourishment.
I have to say, diplomatically and unbiased, that after sampling all three buffets put on by my class that the Street Food theme was most definitely, without a doubt the best buffet ever. Oh wait, was that mine?? Gee, I'm so honored. Seriously though, it was the best...and we were told so by students and chefs alike. One team one dream.

I had a little surprise waiting for me when I exited the school on Friday night, hair slicked back with sweat and grey t-shirt already forming with wet stains (who chooses grey on a hot day??) - my AWESOME husband was there to meet me WITH MY NEW IPHONE!! That's right folks, I've finally embraced modern technology, and the time was right for me to update my cellular device. Let me just tell you, without bragging too much, how ridiculously amazing he is: everything was taken care of and set up...everything. The last step, needing me to complete, was him literally taking my old SIM card, popping it in the iPhone and that was it, I was 100% ready to go. Update: I've had the thing for 45 hours (including sleep time), and am absolutely obsessed with it. I've already downloaded the necessary apps: mobile banking, sudoku, weather and scrabble. Tomorrow's going to be a fun day at the Fed, if there isn't any filing for me to do that is...

We will rarely pay full price for a movie. Considering the price for two hours of entertainment in an air-conditioned room is reaching $12 per person, we try to find other ways to see the newest releases, one of them being the half-price matinees at Loews theaters on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We decided to get up early to see "Inception," the new thriller with Leonardo DiCaprio. First of all: AMAZING movie, I highly recommend it. Second of all: you can always trust a movie with Leo...he only choses the best scripts. I won't say anything about the actual plot, but it is well worth the 2.5 hours.

That evening, we had a bittersweet dinner with two very good friends who are moving out of NYC. We've only been friends for little over a year, but will miss them very much. They bought a beautiful home in South Carolina, and will be moving there to raise their baby boy, due in early November. Don't worry, we made sure they had a free guest room so I'm sure we'll see them again soon enough.

I have a small confession to make, one that I never thought I'd actually declare publicly for fear of ridicule and unwanted isolation. We went to the public pool today - please don't judge me. There's actually a really nice and clean public pool about twenty blocks south of our apartment, right on the river. The NYC public pools all run on the same schedule: they open at 11am, everyone must leave at 3pm and then they re-open at 4pm, only to close again for the night at 7pm. This ensures that different groups are being given the opportunity to use the pool, get a prime tanning spot or claim one of the few beach chairs. We had every intention of getting there at 11am, but once our lazy Sunday morning started to take over, we didn't actually arrive until 1pm. We walked up to the building...and were met with a line of about 75 people all waiting to get in. Apparently, the pool was at capacity, so they were waiting for people to leave before letting others in. We were already all slicked up with sunscreen with visions of rippling, clear blue water running through our heads, so we decided to just wait it out. Forty-five minutes later, we finally made it into the main pool and found a prime spot of concrete to lay our beach towels. Since we only had an hour left to enjoy the sun and water (sad face), we spent a few minutes reading our books (Me: Laura Bush memoir, Steve: "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell") and took a quick dip in the cool main pool. The couple right next to us, who managed to grab two of the twenty-or-so beach chairs, told us they were leaving and asked us if we'd like to take their chairs. We were only able to enjoy them for about fifteen minutes before the lifeguards started asking first and then telling everyone to leave. Many lessons were learned, primarily that we need to get there a little earlier next time if we don't want to wait in line. Having some brief relief from the steaming concrete jungle was a beautiful thing, and the public pool will have to tide us over until we move somewhere with private pools.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wednesday, 7/14/10 – Level 4 Day 17 (Family Meal)

Chef always picks a themed cuisine for Family Meal: Italian, Indian, American (?)…but tonight it was my favorite - Mexican. We had plans to make chicken, steak and bean enchiladas, so we started early grilling the steak and softening the tortillas. I was given a box of 75 dozen small corn tortillas and told to dip them in the warm deep fryer so that they'd be easy to roll. I took my tongs, dipped one tortilla, waited a few seconds then lay it out on a sheet pan with parchment paper. I took a second tortilla, dipped it, waited a few seconds then shingled it on top of the first one. I had now eaten up 30 seconds and gotten through two tortillas. Great, only 75 dozen minus two left! Chef noticed the quizzical and frustrated look on my face, and suggested I do a stack all at once…genius! When all was said and done, it took about an hour to warm all of the tortillas, even since we decided to do only ¾ of the box.

We gathered the warmed tortillas and stuffed 40% of them with sliced hanger steak and cheese, 40% with cheese roasted chicken, onions and peppers and the remaining tortillas with refried beans and cheese. The rolled enchiladas were placed on their respective pans and doused with sauce: chicken enchiladas got a green tomatillo avocado sauce and the steak and bean enchiladas were paired with a red andouille chili pepper sauce. Everything got sprinkled with one last bit of cheese and baked until bubbling. Of course I ate an entire plate (soaking it up with homemade cornbread and the remaining corn tortillas) while the other students and staff were filing by to tell us how delicious our family meal had been. A few hours later, I was regretting my spontaneous decision to consume a heaping plate of cheese, greasy meat and oily tortillas…but I state here and now in writing on this lackluster internet forum: it was worth every minute of pain.

I'm back at my favorite government agency for a few days, filling in for someone who's on vacation. This time I'm in their medical services division, which keeps a small medical staff to handle the ailments of the agency's thousands of employees. First of all, entering the building always makes me incredibly nervous, regardless of the fact that I have a security cleared I.D. and I happen to know most of the guards fairly well. My limited security clearance mandates that I still be processed through the metal detectors every day, and every single morning I bite my tongue to narrowly miss making some detrimentally smart@$$ comment. I've held back gun jokes, fictitious felony charges and multiple distasteful things from coming out of my mouth. It's not that I'm a disrespectful, authority hating gun-slinger; I just don't think before I open my mouth, and I tend to think outrageous sarcasm is really hilarious. For example: I'm lifting my bag from the conveyor belt this morning, and the really nice (handsome) officer says, "You passed!" while giving me a little wink. I opened my mouth to say, "Too bad you didn't catch the AK47 tucked in my belt loop," but I didn't. Why on Earth would anyone think that's funny??? I ask myself that daily.

I realized today that I apparently don't have quite the grasp on the English language that I thought I did; filing things alphabetically is really, really hard! I recited the alphabet, or parts of it, at least five times per hour today…and for some reason I still couldn't remember if P comes before R, or if V is before W. I was also remarkably thrown off by last names starting with Met and Mest…..what does it mean??? It got to be pretty embarrassing, but thank goodness I kept my "ABC"s silent. Now that I think of it, I am constantly counting to the number 9 while working on a simple Sudoku. Is this part of a wider issue? Should I sue my kindergarten teacher? I won't go that far yet, but I do have a hard time keeping my crayons in the lines…

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Monday, 7/12/10 - Level 4 Day 16 (Family Meal)

Our Family Meal chef, a woman who appears to be my age yet seems to have the knowledge of 20 years of chef-ery, assigns us tasks according to when we arrive and what we've worked on in the past. There's always so much to do each night, so we get started immediately whether we walk in the door at 5pm or 5:44pm. I've cut massive amounts of fruit for the fruit salad, churned a vat of sesame glaze for the chicken bits, breaded hundreds of catfish filets for the deep fryer and grated pounds of cheddar cheese, so when chef asked me if I've made the salad yet, I was excited to get started on something new. Let me tell you - making food for hundreds of people isn't easy, but cutting, cleaning and drying head upon head of lettuce is no walk in the park either.

The process is done right next to the huge industrial sink in our area, which is first sanitized and filled with cold water. A head of lettuce is selected and the rotten/yucky parts are torn off. The the whole thing is cut through several times (almost like cutting an onion) and then chopped vertically. The pieces are thrown into the sink, and a new head is selected! It seems super easy, I mean, how hard can it be to cut through lettuce?? But by the end of the box my wrist was failing me and I was forming a red, hurty callus on the side of my right index finger. Damn thee, physical trials and emotions tribulations of culinary school. Damn thee.

Once all the lettuce was cut and rinsed, it was loaded into the massive salad spinner (appropriately a bright green) and spun to my heart's desire. Then it was packed into the individual pans that would later be sent up to each of the classrooms. To finish off my "salad" theme of the night, chef asked me to make the dressing and package it into individual squirt bottles to accompany the lettuce. We choose a buttermilk maple dressing, so I got started compiling the ingredients. Someone in the morning class had been kind enough to make four whole quarts of mayonnaise, so I naturally was a jerk and swiped three of them. I combined the mayonnaise with buttermilk and maple syrup, churning with the immersion blender until it was a creamy, thin mixture. I finished it off with a generous heap of salt and pepper, and it was ready to go.

So that was it! Salad - check. Dressing - check. For some reason, chef had picked an enourmous menu for dinner (which would come in handy later in the evening...), deciding to serve brisket sandwiches with barbecue sauce, grilled chicken, pork sausages, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw. There was so much food, in fact, that we had to trek two carts to deliver food to the students upstairs. Needless to say, it was all delicious, and I savored my second brisket sandwich in a week. I also took home the entire pan of leftover brisket, and plan on having a third sandwich for dinner on Thursday. Brisket is the key ingredient to a happy life (in addition to love, honesty and no particular order).

We were thrown a curveball about 45 minutes before we were supposed to serve dinner: there was a specialty interest class using the Italian kitchen, and they were expecting to receive dinner (even though they hadn't put in an order for the 25 students). We quickly gathered empty pans and siphoned off a little bit of food from each dish to send to their classroom. We gave them plenty of food, the exact same amount the other classrooms had received, but received a phone call about 15 minutes into dinner saying that they had run out of food and would need us to send up some more. Who the heck was up there, the entire University of Texas football team?? We were lucky enough to have made so much food, with lots of leftovers for the downstairs dinner, so we sent up several more pans of macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, creamed corn and a few remaining sausages. I guess they haven't been initiated into the "Eat Less Cook More" attitude necessary of any culinary student, but it's no big deal. They paid a lot of money for that one night of knife skills...I'd take advantage of a free dinner too!

It's a busy week of work and school for a certain inappropriate and pale culinary school blogger. Yay for paychecks!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Friday, 7/9/10 – Level 4 Day 15 (Family Meal)

The weather was feeling a little bit better on Friday, but that definitely doesn't mean it wasn't hotter than sin inside the kitchen. I guess this is how it's going to be for the entire summer, and probably until we graduate in October…which, by the way, is approaching. Two girls whose lockers are near mine in the locker room and with whom I've become acquainted are graduating next week…and they only started 3 months before I did. Weird! One would think, though, by the look of my uniforms and aprons that I've been a chef for years. Untrue.

We always offer a cold salad bar every night for Family Meal, which usually includes leftover lunch from the day before (potato salad, coleslaw, etc.), a large fruit salad and lettuce with vegetables and dressing. The items are all placed in a huge ice bath, and it is someone's responsibility about a half hour before the meal to grab two humongous bins from the dishwashers and fill them with ice from the machine in the main kitchen. We were serving sesame chicken, and I was done making the sauce so I volunteered to fill the bins with ice (which is usually done by one of the guys…and I soon realized why). One of the bins was sitting up on the top shelf of a cart, and I tipped it quickly to make sure it was empty. All of a sudden, like a scene from a surfing movie when the novice finds himself out in the middle of the ocean with a swelling wave coming straight for him, I was blindsided by a tidal wave of ice water that hit my face, then my neck, stopping at my (previously) dry neckerchief. Wow. WOW! What a refresher! Free air conditioning. I dragged the bins to the main kitchen, set them down in front of the massive ice machine and began digging. Five minutes later, my back and right shoulder were aching yet I had only filled the first bin about a fourth of the way. The only thing keeping me happy was the fact that my head, right arm and half of my torso were literally inside an ice machine. That's like sticking your head in a freezer – it's delightful.

Once a month Steve and I take turns planning a "Date Night," choosing something that we'd want to do together (i.e. live sports events are frowned upon) and have never tried before. It was my turn to plan the night, so I took my guy on a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery! It was really cool to be inside a real-life, functioning beer brewery, and we hung out around the bottling machines and bags of hops sipping our local brew, listening to the tour guide tell stories of the old-school Brooklyn mafia and the meek beginnings of the city's favorite ale. We then ventured a few blocks through Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not Virginia) to Fette Sau ("Fat Pig"), deemed one of the best barbecue joints in the city. We found a cramped spot on a wooden picnic bench inside the side-street-garage setting. The concrete walls were covered with drawings of butcher cuts and sharp knives, and the food was served in piles on metal trays. We got a 1/3 of a pound each of brisket and pulled pork, sides of country coleslaw, broccoli salad and a "Half-Pickle" (a pickle that's only been pickled halfway through) and finished it all off with a key lime tart. While I wouldn't call it my BEST barbecue experience, it was highly delicious. We were crammed on the picnic bench, flanked by strangers and trying to have a conversation across a 4' table when I caught someone near me saying, "fried chicken and pie." I fine tuned my listening muscles and heard "walk there for dessert." I've never been one to shy away from interrupting strangers, so I tapped him on the arm and said, "Excuse me sir, did I just hear you say there's a place nearby that serves fried chicken and pie?" "Yes I did. It's called 'Pies 'n' Thighs', and that's all they serve: slices of pie and fried chicken." I stared at him for a good ten seconds; I think he thought I was hard of hearing, because I was still caught in a blank state of utter amazement (Ponies? Rainbows? Kittens??) when he took out his iPhone and showed me the name and address. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to fill our bellies with a second dessert, so we took a leisurely stroll through Brooklyn until we reached the fabled "Pies 'n' Thighs." From the front, it looked like a teensie neighborhood restaurant that was filled to the brim, but we were soon taken to a small table out on one of their spacious outdoor concrete patios, where we were able to enjoy the setting sun and the end of our Brooklyn date night al fresco. My chocolate pudding pie was delicious, but no match for Steve's banana cream pie. We were already too full to sample the fried chicken, but rest assured - we'll be back for some thighs. That's my favorite thing about New York City in the summer: it's full of seemingly tiny and crowded establishments that open up in the back rooms to reveal garden patios and porches that thrive in the warm weather and sunshine. July in the city may be hot, but there's always a patio, garden, park or roof on which to cool off.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wednesday, 7/7/10 – Level 4 Day 14 (Family Meal)

Oh Lord was it hot. I had been dreading going to school (for the first time in seven months) because we're currently smack dab in the middle of a terrible heat wave. The kitchens are usually pretty hot on a normal day, and I could only imagine what the inside of the school would feel like, considering the concrete jungle was reaching 100˚F (ED. NOTE: Remind me why I live in a city with limited public swimming pools??). I dragged myself through the dank ovens of the subway system all the way downtown, and practically crawled the three blocks to school. I grudgingly threw on my uniform and made it to class just in time for roll call. The minute I entered the massive Level 4 kitchen, normally temperature regulated (READ: Neither hot nor cold), I knew it was going to be a long night.

I got started on a big fruit salad for Family Meal by breaking down a cantaloupe, honeydew melon and a very large watermelon. Before I knew it I was elbow deep in a light pink sugary serum, which was mixing well with the salty sweat forming on my arms. As I was slicing and dicing, placing the fruit cubes in a large hotel pan on the table next to me, the pile didn't seem to be growing. I soon figured out why: for every handful of cubes I placed in the pan, there was a line of students, staff and chefs rushing behind me taking one for themselves. Bullcrap! I started handing out dirty looks, but I don't think that helped much. Boy…in a school where cleanliness and hygiene are drilled into our brains I sure found a lot of people willing to stick their grimy hands into the community fruit bowl.

Forty five minutes into class, the heat was unbearable. I know I like to exaggerate about my glasses falling down my nose, but seriously…they were literally falling down my nose. I was also soaking through my undergarments and felt the unmistakable horror of realizing for the first time that something unidentified is running down your leg. Not cool (get it?). I resorted to my only remaining option…

Before I go on, I need to explain that I can be a little…particular?...about certain things. For example, when I lay my head down at night, all of my hair must flow out behind me so that no strand exists between skin and pillowcase. I am also particular (yes, I've determined that's the appropriate word) about getting strands of my hair wet when the rest of my head is dry. Example #2: When my dear husband puts sunblock on my back and neck, he is immediately warned, "May God have mercy on you if you get that in my hair." He knows the rules.

So, back to live action. I was desperate for some sort of relief, and I knew it wouldn't come in the form of a high-powered fan blowing air imported from the Tundra onto my face and neck. I decided I had to do the one thing I thought I would never do: I went to the bathroom, removed my neckerchief, soaked it in cold water, placed the dripping cotton back on my neck and tucked it back in my uniform. It worked like a charm. It was like going to a new restaurant that is half the price of your favorite joint yet ten times better; "Why didn't I do this before???" Noted.

After I got over the initial skin-crawling that naturally comes with stepping outside of my OCD box I felt much, much better. I even splashed my face with cold water and my glasses seemed to stay on slightly better. I guess that's the trick, so I'll remember it from now on as we fight through a record-breaking summer in the heat of FCI.

We were serving chicken fajitas for dinner, so I was tasked with grating a massive block of cheddar cheese that was a little larger than my head. As I've done before, I grabbed the box grater, broke the block down into several manageable pieces and started working. I had one corner of cheese left, a mere eight ounces, when chef walked by: "Why didn't you just use the grating attachment on the food processor? It would have done all that work for you…" I paused what I was doing, took a deep breath and continued on my way.

This evening I stopped by the Kmart in the East Village to pick up a few essentials. Like the other young professionals around me, I passed a homeless man sitting up against the wall talking to himself. I got a few steps away before I heard him screaming something about "Hey lady!" or something to that effect. I gave the girl next to me one of those, "Gotta love New York" looks, and then suddenly realized, with much surprise, that he actually wasn't yelling at me! I looked back, and he was verbally assaulting the girl walking a few feet behind me. Wait a minute…why wasn't he threatening to kill me? Is there something wrong with me? Why don't I deserve to be verbally assaulted by a stranger at 5:30pm on a Thursday? What makes her better to be threatened by a homeless crazy man on the street than me? Do I not look like I can handle it? I knew this dress made me look fat. I was genuinely offended, until the man moved on to a 30-year old guy in pink Chuck Taylors, to whom I think he yelled a phrase containing "Sweetheart." Maybe next time, amigo, maybe next time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wednesday, 6/30/10 – Level 4 Day 12 (Buffet)

That was it! We all survived, although I'm sure you can tell by the picture that there were a lot of messes and sweaty faces. The bottom line is that it was a huge success, and we were so incredibly proud of ourselves for pulling off such a massive, yet still delicious, buffet for so many people. The best part was that we were ridiculously prepared; it turns out all of the OCD lists and obsessive menu checking paid off and we had plenty of time to grill, cook, thaw, mix and present everything by 8:30pm (even though we all arrived several hours early). However, we had created so many dishes we barely had a single inch of space on the table; we had hot dogs, corn dogs, sausage and peppers, grilled lamb gyros, salted beef, knishes, hot pretzels, mashed potato salad, chicken taquitos, carne asada tacos, mahi mahi tacos, two kinds of empanadas, cucumber and tomato salad, grilled corn, spiced almonds and sugared walnuts, French fries with jalapeno aioli, chilled horchata, cucumber aqua fresco, boiled octopus, guacamole, salsa, ketchup, mustard, blah blah blah. While that's all I can remember right now, there was much more, and we had the whole school lined up to taste our "Street Food." The feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming, but the tastes of our creations were outstanding.

After the students, staff and chefs had filed through the buffet to their hearts' desire, we each were allowed to fill our plates and take a much needed break. Sure enough though, as that clock struck 9:30pm we were back in and cleaning up the massive mess that had been made. Luckily, we were each able to take home about three days' worth of food, so I made sure I loaded down on sausage, tzatziki sauce, Italian ices, salted beef and grilled lamb (only the good stuff!). I also remembered I had a soft pretzel hidden in my pocket (hey, I've gotta look out for numero uno), so that was a nice little late-night surprise.

We got out a few minutes early so I hopped in a cab and bee-lined it home ASAP. I had a reason to rush: my parents had just arrived in New York City for a nice, long visit, and my husband was entertaining them at the local watering hole with cheap burgers and pints of beer. I arrived home just in time, and countered their sleepy, travel-weary eyes with my wired, frantic and adrenaline-filled stories of sausage-making, corn grilling and octopus boiling. We had an activity-filled weekend, with lots of opportunity to catch up with family members all over the boroughs of NYC. We had an 80th birthday party for my Grandma, gathering all of her family and friends in one place to toast her, and visited my ancestors' graves, where we were able to place a single rose on Judy Garland's grave (who happens to be buried in the same area as my Great-Great Aunt 'Auntie'). We also visited the country club where my parents had their wedding reception and spoke to the new owners of the house in the Bronx that my Great-Grandfather built when he arrived from Italy and also where my mother and her siblings grew up. Side story: the new owner, a younger Latino gentleman who was very kind to us, said, "I have a weird question: did someone die in this house?" "Well, yeah sure, my father died here, Auntie died in the front room and my Grandmother and Grandfather died in the back room," my mom responded. His face went blank for a minute, and he said, "Well, that's funny because I keep hearing an older man and woman whispering in the back room." So it seems that, regardless of being sold a few years ago, the house is still in the family. We also took a walking tour of the Fordham University campus, my parents' alma mater, ate dinner at my school's restaurant L'Ecole (delicious…) and spent a stifling hot day inside the Museum of Natural History. The highlight of the trip was the night of July 4th, ye ole Day of Independence. As we were escaping the heat and cooking some picnic side dishes, my aunt, uncle and cousin decided to come into the city from Long Island to hang out. We had plans to watch the Macy's fireworks in the Hudson River from the pier in midtown, but knew we needed to get there super early to get a good spot. By the time we got all the way out there, though, all we could see for blocks and blocks was people…just solid people. We could barely work our way onto the front of the pier…nevertheless out onto the end where the best views would be. Now is the time to mention that my uncle is not only NYPD…he's also FDNY, so he can pull a lot of strings in the city of New York. He spoke to a few of the officers guarding the gates to ask them where the best alternative place to view would be, and they mentioned that they had reserved a spot for servicemen and their families (perfect – my dad is a retired serviceman, so we definitely qualified!). He pointed to a small pathway around the crowds that had been sectioned off with barriers, so we hopped in and followed the path all the way down to the end of the pier. Surely this can't be where it's taking us…for sure they wouldn't have done this…oh yes they did. They had the entire tip of the pier sectioned off for the servicemen's families…meaning that we easily had the best view in the entire city. Not only were we spread out on our blankets in the empty section, where the crowds were packed in like sardines behind metal barriers no more than 20 feet behind us, but about two hours before show time five large barges pulled up in front of us. Yes, we had seats right in front of the barges shooting off the fireworks. UNBELIEVABLE. To top it all off, the pier next to us, which was throwing a party that people paid hundreds of dollars to attend, was playing music on loud speakers the entire night. We had enough space to spread out and lay down, a full delicious picnic, entertainment and front-row views. It truly cannot get any better than that. One thing's for sure – New York City takes care of their heroes (and their families!). In fact, our view was so close that the ashes from the fireworks were raining down on us…now that's cool.

Overall, it was an awesome visit, and it's always great to see my parents (even though they love my husband more than they love me…but that's ok, it's understandable). Now it's back to work, back to school and back to the grind. Let's hope this heat wave lets up soon…or else someone's going to have to volunteer to flip me off the sidewalk like a sizzling fried egg.