Monday, September 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Apple Charlotte with Red Currant Sauce and an Apple Chip

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Friday, 9/10/10 – Level 6 Day 1 (Saucier)

First official day of Level 6! It's finally fall here in the great City of New York, and I find it hard to believe that I started at FCI back at the very beginning of January, as the Christmas high was wearing off and the few dreary months of blizzards and bitter cold still lay ahead. I've now been through a beautiful spring, where the flowers bloomed pink and yellow up and down Park Avenue, and a miserably hot summer, when I went through so much iced coffee it was sinful and spent spare weekends lounging by the city pool. The year is coming full-circle, and it's hard to believe that next month I will be leaving what has become my home-away-from-home to forge off into the culinary world with a fresh degree in my hands. In fact, just a year ago I was unmarried, professionally miserable and hadn't even considered the possibilities of culinary school. How beautiful life is sometimes.

We're already feeling comfortable in our new level, searing off lamb loins and duck breasts like crazy. One thing I know for sure, though, is that the Level 5 students are going to have a loooong five weeks. It's not my place to assume or discuss what happens over there at their station, right next to ours, but all I know is that as their chef was screaming at them at the top of his lungs, the kitchen was so quiet I could hear the seam splitting open on the back of the three shrimp searing on the burner over in Poissonnier. I could also hear the liquid boiling inside the veins popping out of his forehead and simultaneously exploding out both ears like a teapot. It was bad. Then again, some of them aren't the brightest bulbs in the box. For example, we share one long counter top with the Level 5 Entremetier and Saucier, and the boundaries of each are clearly distinguishable. One particularly dim light went through his station (Entremetier), through his class's Saucier station and over to ours to plug in his blender and prepare a sauce on our countertop.

"Hey dude, could you please take your blender back to your station? We need our counter space."


"Hey, how's it going? Cool. Um, yea, I'm going to have to ask you to move your blender back to your station. This is our counter space."

"I'm ignoring you because your sh*t is filling up the entire counter, and I had nowhere to place my blender."

Oh no he didn't. "Do you realize that I'm in Level 6, and you are now encroaching on our space? Therefore, take your blender back to Level 5 and resolve that issue with your own classmates."

"Oh…….ok." (Right foot is slowly raised then inserted into mouth.)

For realsies, buddy, open your eyes. I mean, no one deserves to be screamed at by a hot-tempered older gentleman (or a hot-tempered, pale, 20-something hellcat), but sometimes you have to learn a little respect, humility and responsibility, and if it takes having your mistakes pointed out to you over and over again then maybe that's the solution. Then again, it's easy for me to say because now we're BFF with our chef (usually), but I've been yelled at in the kitchen and told I don't know what I'm doing and hey – I turned out just fine! (*your opinions on this subject are not welcome)

We had our first lecture about the upcoming final exam, and of course chef made it seem like it's going to be the hardest, worst day of our lives. It's formatted similarly to the midterm, where we must cook either an appetizer and a meat dish or a fish dish and a dessert…by memory. We will present them to a panel of real judges, usually famous chefs and restaurateurs, and be judged not only on our kitchen presence but final dish taste, accuracy and presentation. We were cautioned to think of the final constantly, with every step we take over the next five weeks, so of course I've turned that into all-around obsession. Unlike Level 3, where we cooked each dish at least ten times before being responsible for it on the midterm, we will only have a crack at each recipe TWICE this time around, and must be constantly vigilant and aware of what the other groups are doing as well. Now might be a good time for me to just take my knife kit and run…far, far away.

The good news is that I found a new mecca this weekend – Eataly by Mario Batali, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Joe Bastianich. It's not only an Italian marketplace but a collection of restaurants and all-around teleportation to Italy, in the center of Manhattan! I was in absolute heaven walking around the 50,000-square feet of salami, espresso, gelato, fresh pastas and produce unlike anything I've ever seen. In fact, there were several items I've never actually seen in person (such as the topic of one of my favorite Louis Prima songs – the cucuzza), yet also some veggies I'd never even heard of! Cranberry beans, lobster mushrooms, pous-pide sea beans…where does it end? They also had mini corn IN THE HUSK…how freaking cool is that!! I took the opportunity to buy a little of everything – some sea beans, cranberry beans, zucchini flowers and heirloom tomatoes and used the weekend to conduct a series of tasting experiments. I did a lot of Googling – how is this cooked, what is its origin, etc. – yet made a few misjudgments and mistakes. In a past life I was a biologist and have always loved the creative freedom a laboratory can inspire, so my kitchen has become my own little experiment. The nice lady at the checkout counter sarcastically pointed out that our $8.00 bill made us a few spontaneous big spenders livin' large, but we were happy to just take in the experience and enjoy all Eataly had to offer. I'll have to wait a few months to visit the real Italy, so I think I'll be frequenting this new spot to get my googootz fix.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wednesday, 9/8/10 – Level 5 Day 20 (Saucier)

And so it begins…the final stretch of my time at the French Culinary Institute. On our last day of Level 5, we moved up a level so that the graduating students could take their final upstairs. It's known as the "cross-over" day, when we learn our new recipes and meet-and-greet the new kids. Well, I seem to be the only one meeting and greeting, but I'm always about 35% cornier than the average person so it doesn't really surprise me all that much. "Hey dudes…ya ready? Getting' excited??" I asked the Level 5 Saucier students working right next to us. Had it been a movie, there would have been crickets. Lots of them. Along with someone yelling, "You suck!" out of the silence.

Our usual chef is on vacation, so we had the pleasure of being led by a kind and skilled chef who often bounces around to different classes. He also happens to be the one who taught us the sous vide lesson in Level 3, and if you'll remember, he's incredibly hard to understand. I wanted so hard to follow his orders and impress him, but it took my non-French brain approximately 10 seconds to decipher every word he said. "Coo zee lah teel meed rah." Ok, I can do this. He's heating up a pan and grabbing a lamb loin; lamb is usually served at medium rare, so…he wants us to cook the lamb until its medium rare! "Yes chef." I couldn't tell if his confused look was because I answered him wrong or because I stared at him, eyes glossy and brain elsewhere, for a few seconds longer than is socially acceptable. "Don, blah-nch zee kay." Blanche the kale. "Saw-tee ze cham-piy-no." Saute the mushrooms. We made some good headway, but there was a ton of prep to do. Our recipes are pretty complicated, and they require days of preparation to pull off one night of service, so we must not only plan for the night, but we must also plan for the next night and the night after that. I know it will get easier, but the first night in Saucier was borderline overwhelming, with two brand new recipes and a whole slew of new techniques and things to keep in mind.

One of our dishes, Duck Breast with Duck Leg Confit and Kale and a Sweet and Sour Sauce with Shiitake Mushrooms, requires a duck stock to be made in advance. We were preparing for next week's service and decided to make our duck stock, roasting the bones in the oven first. It was my job to pry the sticky, steaming brown carcasses off the pan to cool, so I started carefully jiggling them loose with my tongs and placing them nicely and neatly, all lined up like a macabre fairy tale, in another pan. They weren't fitting properly, perhaps because I was treating the little duckies too tenderly. Chef came by and, seeing my obvious hesitation, took a side towel, laid it on top of the skeletons and leaned his entire weight down onto them. The crushing, crumbling and (imaginary?) screeching was almost too hard to stand.

We had about three different things on the stove, along with one water bath that was on a quick track to boiling over. I was manning a sauté pan and reached down to adjust the temperature…and there was no knob. The problem was that we only had one knob to control six burners, so I had to play an arcade game all night jumping from burner to burner with our one knob. When you're rushing, you're not always careful with minute details, and since the knob has a flat side that must be lined up in order to be fit there were a few close calls. I did get compliments for a perfect medium rare lamb that I cooked as a demo for chef…so maybe that sweaty time at the grill paid off. Or the sweaty time at the oven. Then again, it could have been the sweaty time at the sink.

It's exciting to be on the last leg of school. I'm definitely ready to get my life back to normal…if there is such a thing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Friday, 9/3/10 – Level 5 Day 19 (Garde Manger)

As the city of New York braced for Hurricane Earl (and then watched it pass by…), I was busy completing my last class in Level 5. It was strange, sharing the kitchen with the Level 6 students who are mere days away from graduation, juggling their cameras as I took pictures of them posing with various chefs, teammates and kitchen equipment. We had about 70 covers, which is a good night that will keep you moving enough to prevent your leg from falling asleep but definitely not enough to cause you to do any significant sweating (unless you're me). We have our dishes down by now and can almost do them on autopilot, so it was smooth sailing.

We're finally coming together as a group and letting our individual personalities show, which is unfortunate because after five weeks of high stress and anxiety we're just now really getting to know each other. We got our group assignments for Level 6, and I couldn't be happier; I'll be with a good friend with whom I haven't yet had a chance to work, an old friend with whom I haven't worked since Level 1 and someone from my current group. I'm hoping we will work together better than my current group, but judging from the names on the list we won't have a problem with organization. I'm starting off in Saucier, which means I'll end in Poissonnier…great practice for our final (which is fast approaching…eeps!).

I decided to live large and grab a beer with a few classmates after school on Friday night. I know…calm down Jackie! We went to the neighborhood joint, and I got to spend some quality time with classmates with whom I don't normally get to socialize. For example, one of my classmates is actually a very accomplished professional cook. I knew he'd recently appeared on two very highly watched food programs: "Grill it! With Bobby Flay" and "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay," but had no idea he had established himself as such an authority. Check out his website, The Food Experiments, where he organizes and runs amateur cooking competitions. Fascinating, right?? Maybe someday I'll gather up enough cajones to enter one of his competitions. Or I could just pretend I'm competing in my own kitchen…that's fun too. Sometimes.

I don't know about your neck of the woods, but here on the East Coast hurricane Earl sure brought in some gorgeous weather! It was about 75˚F and sunny all weekend, and we took every opportunity possible to take advantage of the fresh, cool air. We took a long walk up the East River and over to Ward's Island, home to a huge mental institution. I was afraid Steve was going to leave me there, but we quickly took in the sights and headed back to Manhattan. On Labor Day, we rented a car and drove out to the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap, a gorgeous and serene retreat just an hour and a half away from the city. We hiked to the ragged top of the great Mount Tammany, approximately 4 miles up and 1,300 feet in the sky. Even though my brother just hiked Mount Rainier, which is about 14x the size of the trail we did this weekend, it still felt like a great accomplishment. We found our reward at the top of the mountain – a huge natural lake called Sunfish Pond, where we unpacked our lunch sack and enjoyed a few idle minutes of mountain breeze in the peaceful shade. I had read the warnings on the website before going: "WARNING: BEARS! Don't leave food, cross their paths or mention forest fires" blah blah blah, but I never thought much of it. A few fellow hikers told us they saw FIVE bears on their hike, yet we didn't see a single one! I did almost step on a tree snake, though…so that was pretty dangerous I guess. I kept searching for these supposed bears, yet kept tripping on the jagged path so decided to just keep my head down and my mouth shut. It was such a wonderful day, and we'll definitely find ourselves on the Appalachian Trail again. Maybe I'll finally see some bears this time. Then again…nevermind.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wednesday, 9/1/10 – Level 5 Day 18 (Garde Manger)

So, it was our second-to-last day in Level 5, and it went almost as smoothly as the others in Garde Manger. I got excited at the beginning of class and declared, "Happy Last Day of Level 6!" to our kitchen mates. "…it's not our last day." Oh, gee, sorry. My bad. Friday is the last day of the current menu in the restaurant, so we were advised not to prepare too much food – only enough to get us through service on Friday evening. We were pretty conservative with our prep, and of course on a night when we made 20 tomato tarts, 25 were ordered. It's not too hard of a fix, but since I was on the dish it just added extra stress to my job. It's a fantastic dish – the word must be getting around!

I've been working pretty steadily for the past few weeks, and was extended on my current project until the end of September. That means great things for our bank account, yet bad things for my sanity and personal awareness (see Example). I had just finished a long day at work, the third in succession, and was facing a long night of school ahead. I may or may not have mentioned this before, but I'm a big reader (you can give me a wedgie later) and can almost always be found with a book in hand. I just started a new novel, got a seat on the subway and settled in for the long ride. Hmm…this book is great. Deep story lines, creative character development and intriguing plot twists…I'm greatly enjoying this. Then all of a sudden…"Next stop – 86th Street." That's weird, since when does the downtown train go uptown to stop at 86th Street, then back down to SoHo for school? "Please stand clear of the closing doors." Oh crap…wait a minute…CRAP! I'm on the wrong train!! Eeps! "GETTING OFF!" I grabbed my stuff and powered through the crowd, barely making it out as the closing door clipped my heels. I now had to walk through to the downtown platform, wait for the train and backtrack 30 blocks, only to find myself where I first started twenty minutes later. The sad part is that this is not the first time I've done this…I once ended up in New Jersey. That's a whole different transit line. Granted, I was a Freshman New Yorker, but for some reason I have way too much faith in my subconscious to lead me towards the right train. I was a few minutes late for school, but hey, it could have been worse…like New Jersey worse.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Steve usually cooks dinner to allow me some time to relax and update my blog. I kept having the nagging need to fill my stomach with risotto NOW, so I decided to take action and create. Enjoy!


Serves 4

You Will Need:

½ cup White onion, diced

3 T butter, room temperature

2 cups Arborio Rice

¾ cup White wine

6 cups Chicken stock (not broth)

3 T Mascarpone cheese

Salt and Pepper to taste

9 T Oil (Canola or Vegetable work well here)

5 medium-sized Cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 large Portobello mushroom, stems removed, thinly sliced and halved, if necessary

4 large Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, thinly sliced

4 Pork tenderloin medallions (or, accidentally, Canadian bacon in my case…hey, everything looks the same when it's unmarked and frozen)

2 Garlic cloves, minced

1 large bunch Spinach, rinsed, stems removed, dried


Heat oven to 350˚F.

Bring the chicken stock to a boil and keep it warm. Sweat the onions in a large saucepan until they are translucent and aromatic. Add the butter and the rice to the pan, and mix well until all of the rice is well-covered with fat and beginning to cook. Do not get any color on the rice! Pour in the white wine and let it reduce until the pan is almost dry. Add the chicken stock two ladles at a time – allowing the rice to soak up the liquid completely before adding more. Let it cook slowly, and remember to stir often so that the bottom doesn't brown.

The mushrooms must be cooked separately. Heat 3 T oil in a sauté pan until very hot. Add one kind of mushrooms and sauté until the edges start to crisp, moving constantly. Continue with the other types of mushrooms, setting each aside.

In an oven-safe pan, heat 2 T oil until very hot. Season both sides of the pork with a generous amount of salt and pepper, and add to the pan. Once one side develops a nice brown, flip. Place the whole pan, uncovered, in the oven and cook until the center of the pork reaches 140˚F.

Once the risotto is cooked (make sure you taste it! If crunchy…keep adding stock), stir in the mascarpone and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Risotto by itself is pretty bland, so seasoning is incredibly important. Stir in the mushrooms, as well as any juices that have dripped out of them.

Using the same pan you used for the mushrooms, heat oil and get it very hot. Throw in half the garlic and cook very briefly until aromatic (about 30 seconds). Throw in half of the spinach (don't overcrowd the pan) and cook just until half of the leaves are wilting. Place in a colander. Cook the other half of the garlic/spinach.

Serve a scoop of risotto in a bowl, covered with the spinach and pork. Yum!