Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monday, 8/30/10 – Level 5 Day 17 (Garde Manger)

Good news: I didn't insult my new chef's intelligence by spurting some pseudo-English sentence like, "Me fine, do good" when greeted with his heavy Southern French accent. He's actually incredibly nice, and I spent the rest of the night peppering him (get it?) with questions about procedures, ingredients and dishes. I finally feel like I have a chef who's willing to teach and encourage, and it definitely helps that we have a lot of down time in Garde Manger. We were done with prep by 7:15pm again on Monday…and with only 40 customers total in the restaurant all night there were a lot of random yet engaging conversations amongst us – the Level 5 students who are preparing to become the Big (Wo)Men On Campus – and the Level 6 students – counting down the hours until they graduate. It was a great night, and things went incredibly smooth. We even bartered with the Level 6 students to trade a plate of Fluke Carpaccio with their Chicken and Beef Consommé…mmm.

We house the large walk-in refrigerator for the entire restaurant in our Garde Manger kitchen. Each group within each level stores their proteins and leftovers, clearly labeled and organized, in the walk-in refrigerator, which is usually kept at a degree in the low-40s. With the current heat wave, combined with the fact that the door is opened (and often not properly latched shut) hundreds of times per night, the temperature slowly rises and rises, bringing the food closer to the danger zone and threatening one large ticket from the Health Department and thousands of dollars in spoiled food. The temperature got so bad on Monday that the chefs had to do an emergency "evacuation" of the most important things – stocks, fresh fish and meat – into a nearby refrigerator for overnight storage. It was my job, naturally, to make sure the large metal door was closed and latched shut after each visitor, so I spent the night throwing my weight against the door and pushing hard…only to have it opened five minutes later. My backside is a little tender today, but public safety and proper food storage techniques are my number one priority (hi Health Department, thanks for reading my blog).

I've always known I have a rare social problem, I've just never been willing to admit it. Through countless awkward interactions, blank stares and watch-glances, I just continue on, oblivious and ignorant. My problem, that I now acknowledge, is only exacerbated by anxiousness, stress and heat. Here it is: I am an over-talker. I hate awkward silences, so I will find any reason, or any subject, to fill the gap. Junk mail, trees, pencils, nail polish – no subject is off limits. I often don't take my audience into consideration (strange, considering I was in public relations…) and will simply just chat into open air. I distinctly remember a peaceful elevator ride on the first night of school with two new classmates that was ruined by my nervous laughing and obsession over that fact that the other girl was named Jackie. "Ha…ha…hee…hee…Jackie and Jackie! What are the odds! Hee…Ha…wow…I mean, it's Jackie…and Jackie!" Let's put it this way – it took me a while to break down the barriers that I built that night with my own words and obnoxiousness.

There's one more thing I didn't mention. For whatever reason – whether it's because of the Powers Above or just my own lack of self awareness, I also do a lot of air quotes. I can't help it. I see myself doing it – raising one arm slowly, the other following just a second behind while the thumbs, ring fingers and pinkies curl toward my palms; the remaining pointer finger and middle finger join together to bob once…twice into a simulated double apostrophe. It happens, I know it happens yet I can't stop it from happening. I once counted, in a recent interview, four instances of air quotes. Four. That's probably four clear reasons why I didn't get the job…

I guess that's the beauty of having your own personal blog. I can ramble on and on in the form of the typed word, and no one can say a single darn thing. I can also edit myself after-the-fact…a pill I'm still hoping scientists will develop for the spoken word.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Friday, 8/27/10 – Level 5 Day 16 (Garde Manger)

It's amazing that a small room, situated just off the main restaurant kitchen, can be a completely different world from the Poissonnier, Saucier and Entremetier stations just feet away. I'm finally in Garde Manger, traditionally the "cold" appetizers even though we serve some warm, and am finishing up the last few classes of Level 5. It's unbelievable that the level has passed so quickly, yet I'm starting to feel antsy and anxious to graduate. (P.S. we were told the program is nine months. I'm still trying to figure out how January 6th – October 26th equals nine months…)

We have a new chef in Garde Manger: a tall, shy Frenchman (shock!) who barely says a word the entire time. We arrived for class, and he already had a dry-erase board on the wall with the night's tasks listed out in order of importance – hey, this is my kind of guy!! He explained to each of us our tasks for the night in the shortest and least-worded way possible, then went right back to work completing the To Do list along with us. Wait, hold the phone – this guy actually works?? Yes. Not only did he have a bunch of stuff done before we even arrived, he continued to help us complete our tasks throughout the night. He seemed content at his cutting board, silently rolling out puff pastry and slicing plums, but I kept wanting to interrupt him and say in truncated English, "We take care! Thank you for help!" On second thought, I'm sure he understands English perfectly, so I'll make a mental note to not be a total ass.

Surprise surprise – we were completely done and cleaned up around 7:15pm – a full forty-five minutes before service started. It was a great feeling, and we were able to relax and fully prepare for dinner even though we knew it would be a slow-ish Friday night. Our dishes are absolutely beautiful (and incredibly delicious) – Fluke Carpaccio with a Yuzu Vinaigrette, Fluke Roe, Julienned Radishes, Crispy Croutons, Kalamata Olives and Mint, and the second dish is a Warm Puff Pastry Tart with Herby Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomatoes, topped with Arugula Balsamic Salad. I normally do not like goat cheese, but it's so subtle with the warm tart and tomatoes…yum! The fluke is also amazingly well-rounded with the salty roe, the citrus yuzu, crispy croutons and sweet mint. It was a huge seller, with every table ordering at least one plate of fluke. I hope they didn't recoil when it reached their table and they realized that carpaccio is a pile of raw fish sprinkled with fish eggs. Personally, that's my thing…but I recognize the fact that not everyone enjoys raw protein.

In Garde Manger, we also handle the digestif, a small palate-cleansing course between the meat and dessert meant to help you better digest your meal. It consists of a small plate with miniature piles of different-tasting items and is usually served with some sort of alcohol, but we just provide the food. Right now, we're serving two slices of marinated plums, a bite of goat cheese sorbet, a rosemary cracker and a small pile of bitter arugula. Each diner gets the same thing, so it's not hard to execute, but considering it's served right before dessert means that we cannot leave until the last diner has finished his/her dinner. On Friday, that was 11:15pm, because there was a table in private dining that was enjoying their bottle of wine and no-doubt stimulating conversation. In New York City, Friday night dinner past 11pm is not unordinary, so we simply sat back in our clean and empty kitchen and waited…and waited…and waited for the waiters to tell us that the table was ready for their digestif. I felt bad for the pastry students, who still hadn't gotten the pastry orders when we were packing up and leaving for the night. It's the nature of the business, though, and I was just happy that they were enjoying their meal enough to take their time with each course. Although one of my friends in Saucier told me that a guy at that table had sent back his steak because it wasn't "medium enough." Fair - if you pay for a meal you should get it exactly how you want it. I'm curious, though, if his second steak was "too medium;" that wouldn't surprise me.

Today, I celebrate the fact that a quarter of a century ago a wonderful woman named Ginger gave birth to a little boy that God had already determined would someday be my world. Happy Birthday Steve!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wednesday, 8/25/10 – Level 5 Day 15 (Entremetier)

Do you remember when you were a kid and you thought it was HILARIOUS to say something bizarre, and then go, "Just kidding, it's opposite day!" I love a good switcheroo, but it seems that we've entered an entirely different dimension at school. Remember the chef that was demeaning, rude and anti-encouraging? Gone. I don't know what happened (perhaps it was the comment made by my classmate) but something has changed and we're practically his golden group now. The funny thing is that the nicer he gets, the better we perform! What a novel idea…when someone's not stalking behind me looking for something wrong, I'm able to better relax and concentrate on my tasks, therefore fulfilling his expectations. Needless to say, it was a remarkably better night than some of our past classes; chef actually called us "born again Christians." (Translation issues??)

As previously mentioned I often find myself in the leadership position, regardless of whether or not I was "elected" to be the "leader." It bugs me endlessly when my group members aren't prepared for class with recipes, notes and ideas (aren't we paying a lot of money for this education??), so every single time we've been asked to make a creative dish, both a dessert and a vegetarian plate, we've used my ideas. Don't get me wrong – this isn't because mine are better or more delicious; I'm just the only one to ever bring any ideas. Due to my charmingly authoritative (bossy) and confident (obnoxious) nature, I always take charge and am the one to plan, cook and complete the specials of the night. I finally had my breaking point prior to our last day in Entremetier, and as we were asked to place an order and plan for Wednesday's vegetarian special I made it very clear that I would not be the one to come up with a recipe this time. I told them (perhaps too enthusiastically) that I would not be the only one bringing ideas to the table, and that they were on their own this time. They placed orders for fresh corn, avocados, heirloom tomatoes and other various goodies while I sat back and listened.

As Wednesday came and the ingredients arrived, there were still a lot of details up in the air. Chef swung by to help us finalize the dish, and we ended up with: Crispy Corn Fritters with Marinated Heirloom Tomato Slices and an Avocado Cream Sauce. It sounded good on paper, so I got started roasting the corn and preparing the dough for the fritters. One of my classmates, who has worked a lot with heirloom tomatoes in the past, sliced and marinated them and got started on the avocado cream. We had everything ready in time for service, and made chef a sample plate of our beautiful concoction. And beautiful it was – both in taste and sight; we decided to start the plate with a pool of the avocado cream sauce, then alternate layers of colored tomatoes (the heirlooms come in purple, yellow, green, orange and red) with corn fritters. The top got a pile of micro-basil (tiny little basil leaves…very cute) and garnished with a few heirloom cherry tomatoes and some spots of reduced balsamic vinegar. Very colorful, very seasonal and very creative. Chef took one bite…and to our surprise declared it the best vegetarian plate of the level. Success! In two days, we had gone from "disasters who weren't going to pass the final" to having one of the best tasting and most creative dishes. With all of the specials we've created in the past (gnocchi, grilled tofu steaks, plum crumble, caramelized nectarines, etc.) my classmates knew it was my idea and, considering I was the one cooking it, most of the chefs knew as well. As this wasn't the case with the corn fritter dish, I wasn't expecting any personal recognition and was prepared to give credit where credit was due. One of my group members started off by saying, "Great idea, Jackie, this is an amazing dish." "Dude…were you not here? It was everyone's idea." "Oh…I know, but good job." Um, ok? Then, the pastry chef (who is a vegetarian and to whom we always feed dinner) stopped by, thanking me for the amazing dish and congratulating me. "Thank you chef, but it was a group effort," I responded but she just smiled and walked away. As more people swung by to congratulate me, it became harder and harder to explain that it wasn't a solo effort – we all collaborated and came up with the night's idea…so I just ran with it and accepted the gratitude. I guess I should have been offended, considering none of my creations have been crowned "best ever," but hey, this one was good. It took us five weeks, but we finally pulled together as a group and made chef proud.
I have to apologize profusely for not updating you sooner, my dear and faithful readers, and for missing a vital mid-week post. There's a certain birthday boy in my life who had one wish: he wanted to go to Six Flags. So we took the day off of work, rented a car and drove to Nowhere, New Jersey on the only cold, rainy day in August (EVER) to run around the park with the other six visitors. Upside: No lines! Downside: Wet socks. We had a blast, and I even rode some big, scary rides…with some emotional support of course. The best part of the day was when I begged Steve to ride the kiddie coaster, and he barely fit in the seat and had to practically duck the whole time. Regardless, we laughed out of joy, screamed out of terror and celebrated 25 like we were celebrating 11. It was a Tuesday to remember, yet we might want to forget that time we waited for a ride to re-open, only to see it close five minutes later due to the weather. Amongst the stuffed animals, Looney Tunes and metal tracks, we found ourselves on the perfect "stay-cation" to kick off a new season. Until that heat wave rolls back in…

My Superman getting ready to ride Superman

For ages 12 and under...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friday, 8/20/10 – Level 5 Day 13 (Entremetier)

I knew it was going to be a "trying" (also substitute with sh*%ty, crappy or worst ever) night when I walked into the kitchen, encountered chef and he said, "Tonight will be another disaster, yes Jacques-leen?" Fantastic. Way to set us up for success.

It was another disaster, partly because we had him breathing down our necks the whole night telling us how much of a disaster we were. No matter how skilled or thick-skinned someone is, you cannot possibly operate to your full potential when you have a person dwelling on, yet not helping you correct, the mistakes you are making. I'm by no means all-knowing, but I just want to point out a few facts of which I keep reminding myself:

-All 23 of us are students.

-Students attend school to learn.

-A student makes a point to learn because he/she is not an expert on the subject.

I mean, I could always be wrong about these things. Apparently I "can't do anything right," so…

We had decided to make a potato gnocchi with a ricotta tomato sauce for our vegetarian special, so we got started on the gnocchi, boiling the potatoes, mixing in the flour and eggs and rolling them out into their shapes. Chef asked that we have everything ready for a demo at 7:45pm, so we laid everything out in anticipation of his arrival, even though we knew he'd find something insufficient. He mused that we might not have enough tomato sauce, and I simply commented that I saw four quarts of sauce in the walk-in refrigerator at the beginning of the night, should we find ourselves in a situation without enough sauce.

"Jacques-leen, that sauce is made with bacon fat. It's used for the cod dish, you should know that already. Five points off for not knowing your recipes."

"Oh, Chef, I know that but they weren't label…."

"Ten points off for talking back."

I thought he was kidding at first, but no smile cracked his face and the hostility radiating from his posture was enough to stop me in my path. I couldn't quite imagine what I had done wrong, or have done wrong at all for that matter, to deserve such a response. I consider myself to be incredibly respectful, and have even taken the blame for something I didn't do in a previous job because I'd rather that than to talk back to someone in a place of authority. The unfairness of it all is becoming almost too hard to bear. Good news: two more classes in Entremetier, then I move on to Garde Manger with a different chef in a different kitchen.

At the end of the night, chef was doing his final review of the kitchen before he released us. He called to one of my teammates, "Since you screwed up so much tonight, you can scrub the refrigerators." I felt a mix of emotions: embarrassment for my friend, anger for the way we are treated and relief that he wasn't talking to me. I found out later that my teammate approached chef after class, confronting him for his unfair and embarrassing comment and asking him if he has a personal problem with our group. Chef apologized (half-heartedly), but it was a small victory and gave us hope that perhaps we're not as bad as he thinks we are.

Sometimes it's easy to hold a grudge against someone (or a group of people) and automatically continue to use them to take out your aggression and anger; it's also easy to not strive to have any patience, especially when you're in a position of authority. But it's much harder to self-reflect, give the benefit of the doubt and exercise a little understanding, and it often takes continued attention and caring, effort most people are not willing to make. It's unfortunate, because there are so many people out in the world who'd rather tear someone down than help build them up. I can't imagine how one would prefer to act like that than simply show a little positive encouragement.

I spent the weekend catching up on sleep, hanging out with friends and enjoying my favorite beer, homemade macaroni and cheese and the joys of a rainy Sunday. It takes a lot to rebound from such a demeaning environment, but I'm lucky to have the best support system in the world.

Three songs that always cheer me up after a bad day; I hope they have the same effect for you:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wednesday, 8/18/10 – Level 5 Day 12 (Entremetier)

Back in the hot, sweaty, frantic kitchen, things are not all ponies and rainbows like they were during my brief stint in Patissier. We're on to Entremetier, the station that handles the night's chef specials (predetermined dishes highlighting one FCI chef's favorite dish for each night of the week) and also the vegetarian options for the prix fixe dinner. While the recipes for the chef's specials are given to us, we must create a unique vegetarian option every night. Some consider Entremetier to be the hardest station, because we're responsible for two new recipes per night, but we only receive about 10% of the number of orders that the other groups receive, so it's definitely not as frantic. Correction: it definitely should not be as frantic. Somehow, my group found a way to make it our worst night yet.

We had decided to make a ratatouille tart: phyllo dough stuffed with country ratatouille (peppers, onions, squash, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and garlic) with a nice design of sliced squash and zucchini fanned out on top and served with baby arugula, balsamic vinegar and large shavings of parmesan cheese. We had about 50 covers for the night (meaning that a total of 50 people had made a reservation for dinner), yet chef insisted that we make at least 25 tarts. The vegetarian option gets ordered probably once out of every 10 or so orders, so we immediately knew that there'd be no freaking way we were going to use all of this product. Alas, we followed orders and made a huge batch of ratatouille.

The dish turned out to be incredibly labor intensive. The molds had to be oiled, the phyllo dough kept moist when not being carefully laid in the molds, the filling poured in and the slices meticulously shingled and arranged around the top. They took about 15 minutes to cook, then the molds were taken off and they were put back in the oven to dry out a little. They were very delicate, so everything had to be done very carefully.

The chef's special for the night was Chicken Paillard with a Viennoise Salad, or basically chicken hammered very thin, breaded and pan fried and served with hard-boiled egg flakes, capers, green olives, anchovies and parsley. It's a great dish, especially with the chicken stock/veal stock jus that gets poured around the parameter. When it was time for service, we were still scrambling to get everything done and our station looked like it got hit by a hurricane. This did not make chef happy - he started yelling, and things automatically declined. We were all trying to simultaneously clean with one hand yet continue to prep with the other while he was stalking around our table like a lion, finding things we were doing wrong and not hesitating to pounce. Yes, it was our fault that we weren't ready for service. Yes, we were disorganized (shocking, I know). Coming from pastry, where mermaids braid your hair and teddy bears float on powdered sugar highways, I had let my guard down and was no longer practicing the Jackie's To Do List of Doom policy.

An order got fired for the vegetarian plate, which was my cue to start assembling. It was going up with a lamb served medium rare, so timing was of the utmost importance. Chef was standing over my shoulder, watching me as I wiped down the table and scrambled to put things away. "Did you hear me fire that veg plate??" screamed The Expediter. "Jacques-leen, you must clean this station now!" screamed my chef. I hadn't even heated up the tart, and I was getting really really nervous, yet continued to clean per my chef's instructions. "I need that veg plate NOW! No exceptions!" The Expediter was getting angry…really angry. I threw a tart in the oven, grabbed a plate and slinked on a pair of gloves faster than you can say 'disaster.' This did not please my chef…he went absolutely berserk, screaming in my face about our messy station, how we were behind and basically just general observations on incompetency. I have an amazing ability to stay calm through such situations (thank God, because there's no crying in the kitchen), so I finished cleaning, ignoring The Expediter, and when I was finished I plated my dish, brought it up, and ran back to my station before she had a chance to say anything to me. It was bad, and I definitely felt like I took the brunt of his frustration for my group, which is ironic because I often feel like I'm the only one holding that group together. I always laugh when people ask me if working in a kitchen is like it is on TV. "No, that's so ridiculous, it's totally hyped for television." Well…let's just say that I would not have walked away with the $10,000 prize last night.

One of my group members, who doesn't hesitate to miss class (even though lots of points are taken away for every absence) said to me at the end of the night, "Man, I'm not sure I'm going to pass this level." "Oh, because of your absences?" I asked. "No…because we suck." Whoa buddy…let he without sin throw the first stone (that makes sense, right?).

The unfortunate part is that we are entirely judged as a group. I mentioned in the beginning that chef has limited patience; well, he also tends to generalize a lot of things. For example, a group member was doing something wrong at the stove. He called us all over and said, "See, this is what you guys don't understand." I wanted to interject and say, "No chef, you're wrong. I do understand," but it's really not appropriate to be so brazenly cocky. It's quite frustrating, though, when you get scolded for something you didn't do, and it is assumed that you don't know how to do something just because of your surroundings. Like my group member, I'm afraid my grade for this level will be disappointing. I've maintained straight 'A's, averaging above a 95% up until now, but this bout with a mismatched group might be my demise. It's a valuable life lesson, though, because you obviously cannot choose everyone with whom you will ever work, and part of being an "adult" is learning how to effectively work together. I'd like to think, though, that some individual credit could be given in group situations, but it can't always be so fair. Just one more station, then we're on to Level 6 and different groups.

I was lying in bed last night, using the cool, dark room to soothe my anxiousness about the evening and reviewing key lessons learned when I finally drifted off into a light sleep. All of a sudden, I had that "uh oh" feeling that shook me into a wide state of aware and cranked my eyes open to the size of saucers: I had forgotten to put the parmesan shavings on the last plate. Not the end of the world, but somebody out there in New York City is wondering what happened to their cheese…


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Monday, 8/16/10 – Level 5 Day 11 (Patissier)

Tonight's offering will be a short one, seeing as how I am scheduled to work all week, have about 3.52 million things on my To Do list and am behind on sleep an average of two hours a night…for the past 8 months. But you know me, I can't complain…

The night started out pretty crappily. Do you ever get the feeling that every single person you come in contact with, whether you know them or not, is mad at you? Sometimes I feel like that…which probably means that I should re-evaluate whether or not these people could legitimately be mad at me. But other times I just feel like I am caught in a vortex of everyone's bad day all at once, which will inevitably rub off on everyone who comes within a mile of them. Nothing particularly horrible happened on Monday in class, there just seemed to be an endless string of snotty comments, angry looks and frustrated gestures.

Apparently we were supposed to bring more recipe ideas for the dessert special; our Friday pastry chef didn't tell us that our Monday chef would be expecting ideas. So when we were asked to hand in our recipes, we all went blank. It was pretty obvious that we had nothing, so I decided that it would be best to be proactive instead of continuing to assert that we didn't know we had to bring a recipe (like my teammates were doing).

"Chef, I'd love to make a tiramisu."

"Do you have a recipe for tiramisu?"


"Then how are we going to make it?"

Chef: 1. Jackie: 0.


I ended up volunteering to go upstairs to the school library to find a suitable dessert, print off the recipe and bring it downstairs for chef's approval. I picked a plum crumble (to pair with the honey ice cream we already had) and chef immediately approved. I got started on the little individual crumbles, meticulously placing the sliced plums in the ramekins with the juicy sauce and covering everything with a thick layer of raw crumble. Chef scolded me for not filling them enough (apparently they'll shrink once cooked) so I packed an even thicker layer on top and threw everything in the oven.

Forty five minutes later, they were barely browned and bubbling, so chef told me to transfer them to the higher-temperature convection oven. Five minutes later, the crumble had exploded over the sides of the ramekins and the whole tray was a bubbling mess. So much so, in fact, that the Level 6 students were laughing (maliciously) and making that "ooo…eee" sound that says, "Sucks to be you." The worst part was that apparently it was my fault this happened: chef was annoyed that the once-beautiful crumbles were now incoherent piles of purple. "They're rustic!" I said. Chef: 1. Jackie: -1.

I spent the next 30 minutes scraping the pan for remaining crumble matter and attempting to pile it back into the now half-full ramekins. They looked slightly acceptable when I was done, and paired with a lacey doily, a pile of honey ice cream, some sliced almonds and a mint sprig were quite Martha Stewart-esque.

I guess I need to learn how to let things roll off my back more easily. I try so hard to do everything right that it sometimes makes me self-conscious to the point of assuming everything is my fault – especially bad attitudes, dirty looks and rude gestures. Everyone in that classroom is just as tired as I am, ready to go home to their loved ones and counting the days until graduation. The difference is that when handed over-ripe plums…I make plum crumble.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Friday, 8/13/10 – Level 5 Day 10 (Patissier)

We'd been planning this weekend for a while…one of my best friends from college is getting married in October, and The Girls were all gathering in the city for a weekend of fun (knitting, reading, etc.). After a day of hanging out, I was putting the final touches on my Level 5 project on Friday before the class in which it was due, and the day's Oprah episode was particularly enjoyable…which of course are two perfect reasons/excuses to be late for class. The subway system was surprisingly cooperative, so I caught the first express train downtown and arrived in perfect time. I changed in the locker room, grabbed my tote bag, shut my locker and bounded downstairs to turn in my project. At the bottom of the stairs I realized I was missing my huge tool kit, so I ran back up three flights of stairs to retrieve it. I knew exactly where I had left it – under the bench near my locker – and I threw open the locker room door and rounded the corner to quickly grab it and run back downstairs. But it wasn't there. In its place was an empty floor…and the locker room had already cleared out for class. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrap….this is probably that worst case scenario thing that people try to prepare you for, I thought to myself. That bag contains approximately $500 worth of useful spoons, knives, whisks, shears, apple corers and Microplanes, many of which I purchased myself with my own (read: Steve's own) hard earned money. Remembering that my bag is labeled with my name, address and phone number, I hoped I would get a phone call in a few minutes from some frantic schoolmate who realized the switch, so I sulked back downstairs (quickly) to make it in time for roll call.

I turned in my project, which was surprisingly anti-climactic, and told chef about my little predicament. My plan was to ask the Levels 1 and 2 chefs to make an announcement about the missing bag to see if anything turned up. My next stop would be the Level 3 kitchen and the pastry kitchens (I had already accosted the Level 4 girls…). I was minorly freaking out, considering that if I couldn't find this bag not only would I not be able to cook but I would have to replace every single thing in the bag. As I sulked up the three flights of stairs (for the third time that night) I prepared a script for how I was going to tell Steve: something about a large, hairy girl in the locker room pushing me down, smearing butter in my eyes and ripping my bag from my arms as I screamed for my mommy. I opted for Plan B (TBD) considering my wallet was still full of cash, but I was getting desperate. I made the executive decision to just check in the locker room again one last time and sure enough a subtle ray of sunshine, coursing through the upper two levels of the school and a few layers of concrete wall, carried my eyes to a black case propped up on the bench in front of my locker, the zippers reflecting the glorious light and igniting joy in my heart. It was returned!!! I still don't know who the good Samaritan was, or whether I should call her a good Samaritan considering she took my bag in the first place even though it was clearly labeled and clearly mine, but I'm so very happy and relieved that I have my own tools back.

We were asked to bring an idea for a special dessert offering to class, so I presented chef with a recipe I found of Caramelized Nectarines on a Spiced Ginger Biscuit with Sweet Sour Cream Sauce. The picture looked tantalizing, and I figured it was a beautiful way to use the juicy and lovely nectarines that are abundant this time of year. She loved my idea, so I got started on the biscuits while a classmate helped peel and slice the many pounds of nectarines. Chef helped me find a beautiful and nice way to plate the dish that was "up to the standards" of the school, and I prepared my items, got a stack of plates and a pile of gloves to get everything ready for my special dessert.

As dinner service started and orders started coming in, I kept waiting to hear "One Nectarine!" The tickets were being printed, and as usual the chocolates and the rice puddings were blowing up. But I kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting for my delicious nectarine dish to be ordered. I was trying to find creative ways to pass the time: stirring the nectarines AGAIN, wiping the plates with a damp paper towel, drying the plates with a dry paper towel and shaking the sauce one last time. Chef noticed that I had absolutely nothing to do, so she suggested that I start making the dish to send out to the larger tables as a complimentary dessert. I spent the rest of the night fairly busy making complimentary dishes, but I was still offended that no one actually wanted to pay for my delicious nectarines. The upside was that I got to bring home a whole quart container of caramelized nectarines in brown sugar sauce, so thanks French Culinary for the free food.

I had an absolutely amazing time with my girlfriends this weekend doing classic and standard girl things. I'm pretty obsessed with Steve (more love obsessed than "Fatal Attraction" obsessed), but everyone needs some girl time every once in a while. We got pedicures, took the "Sex and the City" NYC sites bus tour, wined and dined and danced the night away. We've all been friends for close to eight years now, and it was interesting to see how our lives and friendships have changed since our college days at the Kappa house. We have jobs, mortgages, husbands/fiancées and Masters degrees, yet for two days were able to shamelessly resurrect the inner sorority girl that lay dormant inside each of us. New York City was the perfect playground to celebrate not only our friendship but the impending nuptials of a close friend. I'm still nursing sore feet from wearing heels all night and letting the alcohol slowly leave my system, but the memories of our weekend will last forever. It was a bittersweet goodbye on Sunday evening, but as I curled up to Steve Sunday night I felt renewed and rich. The love of a husband is unmatched, but it's the love of a friend (or a group of them) that makes life bearable.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wednesday, 8/11/10 - Level 5 Day 9 (Patissier)


Although we've known about it for several months now, I naturally waited until recently to hammer out the details of my Level 5 menu project – a massive portion of our grade and an opportunity to demonstrate all that we've learned since January.

We had to pick a theme, formulate a menu, cook everything and take pictures, do a research project on the theme and one main ingredient and figure out the exact costing for one of the recipes. It was way more work than I was anticipating…but it's printed, bound and sealed in my school bag, and I can guarantee I won't be looking at it for quite some time. That doesn't stop me from sharing it with you, though. Enjoy:


Cold Cucumber and Tomato Soup with Chorizo Croutons and Asparagus Chorizo Spears

Jicama and Crab Leg Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing


Homemade Smoked Chicken Tostada with an Avocado Corn Salad, Caramelized Red Onions and Peppers and a Lime Cream Sauce

Marinated Carne Asada Sirloin with Ancho-Chili-Roasted Corn, Black Bean Soufflé and Baby Broccoli

Green Herb Granité with Fromage Blanc Mousse on a Summer Berry Sauce

(Yes, that's a chocolate Texas)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monday, 8/9/10 – Level 5 Day 8 (Patissier)

I got ready like I would for any normal school day: brush the teeth, pull back the hair and check the bag for spare socks and neckerchief. I made sure the cat was ok, fought the uphill walk in the extreme humidity and descended the two flights of stairs into the 96th Street subway station. It hit me that something was wrong when my foot touched the platform from the stairs, and I noticed that there were so many people crammed onto the platform that there was barely any room to move. Normally, at that time of the afternoon when the system is preparing for the evening rush hour the trains run about every three minutes, clearing the platform to make room for a new surge of riders. By the look of the crowds, a train had not passed in about 15 minutes...and considering I was already running a little late (naturally) I started to get really nervous.

As I ascended the steps after making the executive decision to bail on the subway system and catch a cab, I heard an announcement that the downtown trains were not running, setting off a near riot of hundreds of people all clamoring up the stairs following in my footsteps. I jumped in the first taxi I saw, and we screeched away from the station as the hordes piled out behind us. Even though we got stuck on a side street behind a bus full of camp-goers, we were cruising right on schedule…until a few blocks away from school when the driver suddenly pulled over and said, "You'll have to get out here. The cops are up there." Great…seriously?? I paid him as quickly as possible and grabbed my stuff, lest I get smart-alecky and ask him to explain himself. Drugs? Illegal immigrant? Expired plates? Who knows…it's New York City.

I ran into class just as chef was gathering everyone to take attendance. Monday night was the start of my pastry rotation, so I knew I'd have a quiet-ish night in an air conditioned kitchen making beautiful desserts. The pastry kitchen is run by one of the school's world-class pastry chefs, who are surely tired of dealing with culinary students who would rather peel pounds of potatoes than measure out flour and sugar (me), but they are amazing artists and have created some delicious delicacies for the summer menu. My level is responsible for a Rice Pudding on a Blueberry Compote topped with Blackberry Sorbet and a Cheese Custard with a Dehydrated Orange Slice, Carrot Ice Cream and a Brandy Snap. YUM!

We were all standing around after completing our tasks for the night when chef looked my way and said, "Who's going to be the runner tonight?" I looked right back at her…and she stared back at me. "Anyone?" she said while still staring at me. I slowly raised my hand and said, "I'll do it." Gee, that was a no-brainer. I soon learned that being the runner means making sure the orders are put together appropriately, placed on a tray and carried to the front of the main kitchen for The Expediter. I'm not quite sure how I was strong-armed into this (no pun intended) because it also involves carrying really heavy trays while yelling, "Behind!" through crowds of cooks all moving sporadically about the kitchen.

We had a "VIP" order – one of the school's pastry chefs had brought her family in to dine for the night. They had ordered a ton of desserts, and we had also thrown in a beautiful cookie platter. We were extremely careful about keeping the sorbet and ice cream cold and plating the food perfectly, because if anyone knew how it should look and taste…it was this woman. I got all the orders together on the tray and carried is carefully up to the front. As I laid the tray on the table, ready to turn it all over to the waiters, the carrot ice cream slowly shimmied its way off the cheese custard, making an audible "Splat!" as it landed on the chocolate design below, smearing it across the plate. I had watched it happen in slow-motion, but was now faced in real-time with the dilemma that I hope to never be faced with again: do I grab it with my hands and put it back on…or run back to the pastry kitchen to request another? I'm not going to say which decision I was leaning towards when one of the head chefs approached me and said, "Your ice cream fell." No sh*t, you think I didn't realize that…CHEF? I grabbed the plate, ran back to my kitchen and had my teammates remake a plate as quickly as possible. No one made any comments are gave me any crap, but I sure felt pretty terrible.

My night took a turn for the best when we were all relaxing (ha!) in the air conditioning (ha!) when chef said, "Ok, why don't you guys take a dinner break?" "Um…excuse me chef, I know we're just starting to get to know each other but it's really not nice to joke like that when we're all used to gnawing on our forearms for sustenance through the dinner service." Turns out she was serious…we took a nice dinner break and resumed our pastry plating full and sated. A girl could get used to this lifestyle.

Overall, it was a great first night of pastry, although I did overhear our new chef saying, "I love to send people home." Hmm…I wonder what I would have to do to get sent home. Not that I would actually want that to happen, I'm just always looking for ways to increase my street cred.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Friday, 8/6/10 – Level 5 Day 7 (Saucier)

Ok, so I don't go to the French Culinary Institute to learn how to fry French fries all night. Just kidding, I'm not that big of a brat, but seriously…I made French fries all night. I also cooked about 40 steaks to order during the Friday night dinner service…and survived! It was a ridiculously busy night, and it didn't help that I was still not feeling fantastic, but getting a pat on the back from chef at the end of the night made it all worthwhile.

Before class, I had some time to kill so I stopped off at the Starbucks on the corner to grab a cold drink. A friend from class happened to be in line in front of me, and her first words were, 'Oh my God you're back." "Dude, it was a sore throat. Of course I'm back." "Well…let's just say things weren't incredibly smooth without you." Uh oh, what the heck happened on Wednesday night? It turns out my group completely fell apart at the seams and spent all night trying to get themselves out of the massive hole they had dug. They weren't communicating, they weren't organized, and there was apparently a lot of yelling and screaming, both from chef and my group members. I could hardly believe the story she was telling me until another classmate, who we saw on the street, confirmed the disastrous night my poor group had had.

I'm not going to say things went to sh*t because I wasn't there, but I can't imagine they would have had the problems they did with my OCD organization and frequent bossiness making sure things were running smoothly. As I entered class, I didn't let on to them that I was aware of the complete pandemonium that was Wednesday night, but I could definitely tell that they were a little wearier and slightly bruised. I made the conscious decision that Friday night wasn't going to get out of control, not on my watch, so my first stop was the metal prep table where I pulled out my dry erase marker and made a detailed list of everything we needed to get done before service started at 8pm. Disclaimer: I am well aware that my authoritative attitude can sometimes be perceived negatively, but we are only as strong as our weakest link (!) and I'd rather make sure the overall process is ok than worry about what a handful of people think. I assigned names to each task, and we all got to work. After taking attendance, chef came to our station to no doubt find reasons to be angry and, upon seeing all four of us quietly working to complete items on our To Do list, turned away to yell at another group.

While I don't consider myself to be outgoing, I'm not necessarily shy either. It's often assumed that I'm quiet, meek and a pushover (until I open my mouth), yet I couldn't be more opposite. In life, I have been placed in countless situations where people are milling about, not quite sure what to do with themselves and getting absolutely nothing accomplished. Stuff like that drives me crazy, so I am inevitably the one to stand up, organize and lead. I've been told it's a good quality to have, but you can't be in charge without drawing some criticism and scrutiny. I almost always find myself in the leadership position of groups, because I'm usually the only one to step up and pledge to organize the chaos. So that is exactly what happened at school on Friday night, and I was grateful we were successful.

It's my theory that if more people stepped up and vowed to organize and lead, we'd all probably get a lot more done and be a heck of a lot happier. Unfortunately, there's a lot of fear of being the outspoken and decided one…but life's too short to not take charge.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wednesday, 8/4/10

I've been putting in a lot of hours as the fill-in receptionist at the medical office of that certain government "agency" for whom I've worked off and on since January. I love being part of it all, and I swear if they had an open position for a culinary writer I would take it, no questions asked. Alas, I think they're only looking for economists and analysts…maybe some day.

There is enough staff in the building to justify an entire medical office, complete with a doctor, two nurse practitioners, an office manager and a receptionist (me). It's important to mention that a large percentage of the people in that building have been with the government for over fifteen years (some of them pushing 40 years…) and they all know each other. For example, one of my tasks is to answer the phone….

"Good Morning, Medical Services."

"Who is this?"

"….um, it's Jackie."

"Jackie who? Where's Christina?"

"She's on vacation. Can I help you?"

"……….[contemplative breathing]"


"I'll call back next week." [Click]

We obviously serve as sort of a last-minute on-the-site resource, and see a lot of headaches, blisters and stomach flus. Within the past week, however, we've seen a huge increase in the number of sore throats with chest congestion and fatigue. They've been coming in at least five times a day and I think I'm even experienced enough to now treat the ailment and write a prescription for a Z Pack.

So imagine my annoyance when I woke up Tuesday morning with glass shards in my throat, a killer headache and an elephant sitting on my chest. I managed to drag myself out of bed, throw my hair in a loose pony tail and find something comfortable in my closet that resembled business casual. But by Wednesday I was finding it hard to function, and things were only getting worse. I made the executive decision that it would be best for my health to simply go home and rest instead of slave over a hot grill all night serving food to the public…and so I missed my first class. I was very disappointed, and even had an incredibly hard time falling asleep because of relentless visions of a pop quiz or an essential lesson that I could possibly be missing. We have a very low attendance rate in our class for some reason, even lower as we get close to graduation, yet I've always maintained perfect attendance. Chef made a comment once about how our class is not afraid to skip, and it killed me to think that he thought I was "one of them."

The night off did wonders for my body, though, and I was ready to tackle the day today, albeit with a small bit of mending left to do. SoreThroatGate 2010 seems to be winding down, even though unfortunately I was collateral damage in the end-of-summer epidemic. Hey, it could have been worse – I hear explosive diarrhea is making a comeback.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Friday, 7/30/10 – Level 5 Day 4 (Saucier)

Regardless of the fact that we are down one group member, we're probably the luckiest group in our class because we had the benefit of working in Poissonnier before moving on to Saucier, easily the hardest station in the kitchen. While Poissonnier involved a lot of last-minute cooking of delicate flesh, Saucier serves the main dish of the night, which for the season is a Pork Osso Buco on a bed of Risotto Milanese and a Grilled Skirt Steak with Pommes Frites and a choice of sauces: Green Peppercorn, Choron/Béarnaise or simply served dripping with Maître d'hôtel butter.

The mere idea of grilling steaks to order for paying customers on a Friday night made my armpits moist, so I chose to be at the Osso Buco station with a fellow teammate. Just as we had prepared the incoming Poissonniers, the outgoing Sauciers had left us very well stocked so we only had to get situated, do a small amount of preparation and heat up the leftover pork shanks. We work on a two-day delay, because braised meats are always better the next day, so the meat that was cooked on Wednesday was served on Friday. We had two and a half large pans of pork shanks to get us through the Friday night service, and we were praying it would be enough.

Chef asked us to be ready for his demonstration and direction by 7:30pm, so we gathered the items for the risotto, heated up the sauces and fried a batch of French fries. The risotto, I quickly learned, is the creamiest indulgence I've ever tasted/made, with mascarpone, butter and parmesan all melted in with the saffron-flavored rice. The dish is plated with a pile of risotto topped with a bundle of pork shank and drizzled with a rich pan sauce made from the braising liquid. The finale is a sprinkle of gremolata, or lemon zest, bread crumbs and parsley. We made our demo dish for chef, and I literally took the plate in the corner and spent two minutes closing my eyes while chewing – it's that good.

The pork shanks consist of a small bone surrounded by clumps of juicy meat. To prepare for service, they're lined up in a pan and submerged in the braising liquid (to ensure that they don't dry out). For service, you simply fish one out using a slotted spoon, attempting to keep all of the meat together with its respective bone…which is much harder than it seems. I soon found that most of the shanks had separated from their meat, which was no doubt hovering nearby in the liquid, so I spent much of the night leaning over an open-fire grill to fish out small chunks of meat and arranging them on the plate on top of the risotto in an attempt to make it all look like it belonged together.

Many of you may not know this, but back when I was a Miss, had braces and wore Mudd jeans in a size zero I was actually quite an accomplished concert violinist. I played for several years, studying with various private teachers and practicing with my schools' large orchestras and considered myself to be pretty skilled. If I learned one lesson, one lesson at all, from my years moonlighting as a musician it is this: the public has no idea when you've made a small mistake. I used to stress out about a note that I didn't hit or a break that I messed up, yet the audience members (my parents) inevitably thought everything was perfect.

I am trying to apply that same theory to my cooking in the restaurant. Will the diner really know if I forget the parsley? No. Do they know what that pig's shank looked like intact? Hopefully not. So what if each plate consists of the parts of about four different pigs. Some call that carelessness; I call it a diversified benefit.

We did face one small glitch at the end of the night though, something that could have blown up into a huge problem had chef not saved the day. We were so consumed with keeping track of our orders while trying to interpret the new order board that we accidentally forgot one final request for the Osso Buco. We were both keeping track in our heads, thinking we had four left, and when the time came plated all four, scraping the risotto pan dry to finish the last plate. A few minutes later, we hear, "Fire Osso Buco!" "OhmyGod did chef just say what I think she did?" I asked my partner. "I don't know, I thought we were done!" "I thought so too!" I sheepishly approached The Expediter, and confirmed that she had in fact just fired an Osso Buco. Small problem: we were fresh out of risotto - not a single grain of rice in the entire kitchen. I alerted our chef to the problem (after freaking the freak out), and he happily said, "No problem, Jacques-leen" and disappeared into the other room. How could he possibly be so nonchalant about the situation? Was he seriously just prancing? I was freaking out, considering it had been about three minutes since the issue was discovered and we were expected to take our plate up any minute now. He quickly returned…with a container of rice from the Thursday students. Thank goodness! At that moment he was our Russian Superman. It all worked out in the end, but we'll definitely pay closer attention to the order board next time.