reflections

Love Notes to Culinary School by Anne

I've had almost a year post-graduation to reflect on my experience of culinary school, and it's almost been enough time to clear the weird post-school haze out of my brain. There was so much focus, angst, passion, apathy, tomfoolery, testosterone, and Sriracha sauce behind the scenes.   Soon I hope to share useful or interesting info and ideas from school that I learned along the way but was too harried to sit down and jot out, let alone photograph.

But meanwhile, for today, here are a few pictures.  I've had the joy of being "allowed" around campus with my camera.  I hoped to give a sense of what life is like at Seattle Culinary Academy when people are in the zone.  It's a great school--in my opinion, the best one around here.   I love the fact that we didn't just learn traditional French cookery, although that was one component.  Where else in the world would I have an intense, high speed opportunity to learn about and cook different cuisines around the world, from Japanese to Oaxacan to Middle Eastern?

Then, of course, there was the sustainability component.  At school they had classes on sustainability in the world of food.  This focus ranged from farm to restaurant to policy-building.  The classes--and the instructors' passion--were key to the quality of the program, in my opinion.  They were inspiring and motivating.  There were farm visits, growing our own greens in the campus greenhouse, and practicing nose-to-tail butchery (using the whole animal).

We learned fundamentals, such as making a good stock, sauces, and how to season properly.

bakeshop.spreading
bakeshop.spreading

I know less of the pastry side of things because the program is separated so that you select culinary or pastry for your focus.  I did have several rotations in the bakeshop (or as the culinary students called, it, Bakation. It really does have a balmy, dreamy vibe in there).  However, my friends in the program liked it as well.  It's just a completely different experience, the two programs-within-a-program.

One thing that impressed me about the chef instructors is their desire to see us succeed beyond the program.  In other words, if people needed a job they would definitely look to the instructors, who would help them find leads using their own connections in the industry.  They weren't just great teachers, they were mentors.  People sort of gravitated towards their favorites.  One of mine is pictured below, preparing for a modernist cuisine lesson.

It wasn't my favorite part of the program, but we also did "Front of House" training (i.e., serving the guests/customers in the two restaurants the school runs).  I used to wait tables, and how in the heck did I do it?  I must have changed.  Some people really do an amazing job of it, making it look effortless--they appear gracious, friendly, and thoughtful.  I only hope that I appeared that way, but inside I felt awkward, physically uncomfortable, and grumpy.  There is a real psychic toll that it takes, and I don't even know why.  Guests would be perfectly nice, and yet by the end of the shift I would be gasping to get out of my uniform like it was made out of lead.  Anyway, I have a true respect for waiters that I only thought I had before.  In my opinion, being in the kitchen was better, but front of house workers can make or break a restaurant.

One of my favorite parts of school, that I wish I could keep doing forever, was experimenting and recipe developing.  What a fun job it would be to create new, delicious dishes out of a given palate of flavors.   It would be a bonus if I could do this with healthy, sustainably grown, beautiful food.  I've had a little bit of a chance to do that out of school for my various jobs, so that feeds me, so to speak. 

Making Sole Meunière by Anne

sole.meuniere

sole.meuniere

Filet of Sole Meunière

Fat, buttery snowflakes are plopping on the front yard, and I'm not even glad.  Why?  Because I want to go to school tomorrow--to have the opportunity to make braised sweetbreads.  As in, cow's thymus gland.  I didn't think I'd be excited about it, but today I put them into water to soak overnight, and once I had my hands on them, I was very intrigued by their complete oddity.  My classmate told me today that getting the membranes off is a pain in the neck.  The curiosity has taken over.  What will it be like?  Also, how will it taste after braising a couple hours in a sauce?

Today I cooked up some Filet of Sole Meunière at school (24 times).  You can look up the recipe for this just about anywhere, but I'd like to share with you some of the techniques, guidelines, and tricks taught to me by Chef KG and also by Steve, a 5th Quarter who was helping in the kitchen today.

Sole Meunière is a simple and intensely tasty way to eat your butter.  It's fried in butter, then served with a lemony butter sauce.

Heat your pan over medium-high to high heat, without adding fat yet.  Sprinkle your fish with salt and pepper.

After the pan is hot (no need to use a non-stick if you do this right), add clarified butter.  As you let the butter heat up, dredge the fish in flour.  Only do this at the last minute or the flour will get gummy.

The fish is then fried in the hot clarified butter, on both sides. Using clarified butter for this is great because it has a higher smoke point.  Your fish is so thin that you'll want to use high heat to get a nice, crusty finish on each side before that sucker is all cooked through.  It only takes a couple of minutes.

It's a delicate fish.  Flip once.  Start with presentation side down (flesh side, not skin side--even if the skin is off) on the pan.

After removing the sole and arranging it on your serving plate, you add some (not-clarified) butter to the pan and brown it, making "beurre noisette."  Noisette means hazelnut.  The milk solids in butter become brown and nutty in appearance and aroma.

After you finish browning your butter--hence adding more complex flavors to the sauce you're building in the pan, you add some lemon juice.

Here's a trick Steve taught me today with that lemon juice.  Tilt the pan over your heat so that all the butter is at the bottom.  Add the lemon juice from the top, so it runs down the super-hot pan to finally reach the butter at the bottom.  By doing this, you reduce the lemon juice briefly, in its trip down.  I have no idea how much reduction you get by doing that, but it sure is fun.

After the lemon juice, add chopped parsley to your sauce.  Quickly swirl, then pour over the fish on the plate(s).  Garnish with lemon slices and more parsley (if desired).

Lots of Hustle by Anne

2.1.11.phad thai
2.1.11.phad thai

 I was doing so well with a weekly update of school.   Then the last four weeks happened.   It's been hard to reflect this quarter.  My days at school have gone something like: "Then we made this thing.  Then we made this other thing. Then we did that.  Then we did another thing." Go, go, go, a go-go. No wonder I'm so dang tired right now.  There's been a big heaping of hustle-your-bustle this quarter.  I really get what people meant about 2nd Quarter showing you what you're really made of.  Yep.  I definitely am seeing the stuff I'm made of.   Just not a lot of time to think about it.

One of my classmates has been cooking in commercial kitchens for 15 years, since he was 16.  Another was the head of a kitchen for many many years.   They are not as challenged as the rest of us.  But as for the rest of us... whew.

In order, the four last weeks' stations were:

1. Sous Chef (My partner and I did the leading thing for the rest of the class that week)

2. Breakfast/Asian Station (Two days of making breakfast-for-lunch, then two days for making the assigned Asian dishes)

3. Butchery (We fabricated meats needed by our classmates for their dishes, plus we make our own entrée for Student Lunch)

4. Sushi/Stocks, Sauces & Soups (Two days of sushi, one day of stocks & sauces, then one day in the Bistro kitchen making soup for the actual Public At Large)

These were intense weeks.  Sous Chef was alright, actually.  I activated my inner Sixth Grade Teacher and got organized.  It felt like a successful week, and I received good feedback from people about how the kitchen was "run."

Even so, it was exhausting.  At times I had some misanthropic feelings, especially towards folks who acted ungracious when we served them lunch.  There were not many of them, but they sucked.  As they say, the only people complaining about student lunch are the people who are not making student lunch.

I didn't complain last quarter, and I sure as hell will not complain in quarters to come.  On principle.  Even if they serve me crap-on-a-plate.  I'll just eat salad.  I've seen it from the front lines: people are doing their best.

Breakfast and Asian Station were fun but took longer than I would have expected.  My favorite parts of that week were making phad thai with an industrial wok (the dish pictured above was my practice run of that dish), and the shirred eggs and "overnight" waffles with yeast.  A pastry student from the program asked me for the recipe for the waffles.  Waffle awesomeness!

Butchery was a station that I expected to love but then didn't.  I left school every day feeling frustrated and raw.  I liked the actual butchery part, but I think there were some ways that the station was set up that weren't conducive to our learning.  Here's some meat!  Go! 

Even so, I had some good experiences that week. My partner and I deboned chickens while still intact (remember when Chef showed us earlier in the quarter? Now we can do it, too!!)  and made a "ballotine" by rolling it with a stuffing, cinnamon-roll-style, then serving it with a Madeira sauce.  I also got to make a smoked pork roast that I deboned myself.  In the near future I need to continue to work on chicken fabrication, because our end-of-quarter knife competency will be cutting up chickens in different ways, in a certain number of minutes.

This week my sushi rotation went well, although slow.  Anyone in the sushi station has to decide: perfect and beautiful sushi, or get 'er out there?  I, and the helpers that were assigned to me, tried to make mostly beautiful sushi.   So I wouldn't call us early.  Anyway, I'm glad we got it out without Chef KG saying, "Where's the sushi?"  (Which he will do, if you're too, too late).  One thing I felt proud of in this station was my mis en place (how all my ingredients were set up before I got started).  Things were organized and neat.  This felt good, especially with a project that has so many ingredients.  Also especially because my mis en place outside of school is more like "Holy crap, where's the baking soda?!?"

Soup station yesterday was a wonderful moment in time.  I was in the 3rd Quarter kitchen, and it was one of the most relaxed days I've had in the kitchen so far.   There wasn't much to do, and everyone was relatively chilled out.  After making some salmon chowder and cleaning & steaming some mussels, I had a chance to taste eight or nine dishes from the 5th quarter "COD (Chef of the Day)" project.  This was inspiring and fascinating.  3 students' menus were being presented that day, so plate after beautiful plate was being sent back to the kitchen for Chef Vicky to grade.

After she finished tasting and rating a plate, she would put it on the counter, which happened to be at my station, for the students to try.  People would come over with spoons to taste, reflect, and react.  I was ladling up stock into containers to freeze, so I just went through a soothing process of taste, ladle, reflect, taste, ladle,  reflect.  Having the time to ponder on  different flavor combinations was so different from the rest of this action-packed quarter.  It felt collegial, magical.  Everyone passing by was interested and had a different, personal reaction to what they tried.

It was also cool to listen to the chefs' reactions.  The beets gratin from an Eastern Bloc menu, which I particularly loved, were also exciting to Chef Vicky.  She pointed out that the crisp part at the bottom was particularly delicious.  A few minutes later I passed through Chef KG's (our) kitchen and saw the same dish sitting there at a table.  I commented to Chef KG that I loved that gratin, and he said, "Yeah.  A little overcooked,though."  Really?  I went to taste it again, from the dish in his kitchen, and sure enough, that plate's gratin had a little tougher consistency than the one in 3rd quarter kitchen.  I wonder what happened to make the two gratins turn out so differently.  I also wonder what it will be like in just a few quarters when I'm making my own COD project.

There have been some other glimmers of excitement and culinary inspiration:  Yesterday morning Chef KG showed us some fun cuts and garnishes, including making cherry blossoms (and plum blossoms) from carrots, and carving a ball inside a cage with a potato.  Who cares if you never cook with that potato? It is so dang cool.  I will definitely carve another one and take a pic for your amusement.

Also, there's a tapas competition coming up at school.  The two winners will then go to Spain to compete with people around the world with their tapas.  I'm going to submit some ideas to Chef Karen (which is what we're supposed to do to see if we qualify for the next round).  So my mind is constantly mumbling to itself about flavor ideas right now.  It's a good feeling.

Anyway, I'm tired.  I feel compelled, for posterity's sake, to record what I "produced" in these last 16 school days:

Breakfast:

  • Shirred eggs with gruyere and cayenne
  • Eggs Benedict with shaved ham
  • Omelets with shallots, mushrooms, and fresh thyme
  • Eggs over easy
  • Light & fluffy pancakes
  • Overnight waffles (with yeast)
  • Hash browns
  • Sausage

Asian Station

  • Tenshin Don (Rice bowl with crab omelet, peas, and sauce)
  • Phad Thai

Butchery

  • Chicken Ballotine with Madeira Sauce
  • Smoked Pork Shoulder
  • Roasted Chicken au Jus Lié

Sushi

  • Nigiri:
    • Ebi (shrimp)
    • Atsuyaki Tamago (omelet)
    • Unagi (freshwater eel)
    • Hosomaki (small rolls with nori on outside of roll):
      • Kampyo (dried, rehydrated gourd) roll
      • Tekuwan (pickled daikon radish) roll
      • Kappa Maki (cucumber roll)
      • California roll
      • Futomaki ("Fat" roll with tamago, kampyo, spinach, mushroom, and denbu--pink fish flakes)

Stocks and Sauces:

  • Espagnole sauce
  • Brown roux
  • Halibut fumet

Soups

  • Salmon chowder

Gifts by Anne

IMG_9761
IMG_9761

The picture above--of my daughter and me enjoying a creation that took patience and several days to create, has nothing to do with the cooking I've been doing this week.  That picture would be a blur. Second Quarter's Practicum--our main class--is called "Quantity Cooking."  As I've said before, we're cooking for all the culinary students at our school.  Before knowing anything about the school, I assumed it would be more like banquet-style--creating enormous vats of food and spooning portions from chafing dishes over sterno flames.  This is not the case.

Instead, if you're making entrées, you need to time it so that you churn out several at a time, because the students come at anytime between 11 and 12:30.  Is there a regularity to their arrival?  Not really.  It's all based on what's going on in that class's reality that day.  Sometimes they come in for lunch in waves, and other times they trickle in like a leaky faucet.  Sometimes we have too many plates available to be picked up, sometimes not enough.

This makes it more of a challenge to feed them fresh, hot food.  You should see how quickly a plate of perfect pasta can dry out under the lamp.

Swedish Meatballs were a perfect first-day item to serve.  Now there's some banquet food.  If I had to, I could have cooked them all at the same time and served them in a hotel pan over the course of an  hour and a half, no problem.  The Mediterranean-Style Quinoa Wraps were also a great make-ahead, and they seemed to go fast, too.

The Fusilli with Italian Sausage, Roasted Tomatos and Braising Greens? Not as easy, because there was last-minute sautéeing involved.  The Salmon en Papillote was another toughie.  Sharing ovens with other people can get tricky, especially with fish.  Especially if people change the oven temp for their own dish--while your fish is cooking in there--and you don't know it.  Especially if your papillote (parchment envelope) is the size of the Goodyear Blimp and your portion of salmon is just shy of 4 ounces.  Note: if you make that recipe, make sure you make an envelope that is proportioned to the fillings, otherwise it will dry out (or leak)!

Anyway, not a single dish I made ended up tasting as good as when I make it at home.  Big surprise!  Actually, it was a big surprise.  But the other big surprise is the positive feedback I got for dishes anyway.   People liked each of those menu items, and took the time to tell me so.   I had to battle with myself to keep from blurting, "Really?!" or "It's usually waaaay better."   A few times, with some of my friends, I did admit that it's usually better when I make it at home.

BUT!

Julia Child's wisdom, to never apologize for your cooking, is great advice.   At bare minimum, you diminish their enjoyment of the food by criticizing it.   So most of the time, when someone said they liked my (dry, but on-other-occasions tender and juicy) salmon, I would try to just smile and say, "Thank you."  Because just as my food was a (hastily wrapped) gift to them, their kind words were a gift to me.  So I should just take the valentine and smile.

Today's the last day I'm on the "student entree" rotation, which means the food I'll cook for the rest of the quarter will usually be recipes assigned to me, rather than ones I bring myself.  Today I'll have another chance to be gracious and grateful.  My goal today? No apologies or explanations.  Only thanks.