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Posts Tagged ‘french culinary institute’

Sooooo much to catch up on! Feeling a little overwhelmed here and have been putting this off for longer than is acceptable.

First off some updates with school, after my practical exam on Monday, I’ll officially be done with level 2. After kicking level 1’s ass, each week has gotten increasingly difficult, although I haven’t had as many depressing, frustrating, flustered days as I had at the start of school.

I know I haven’t written much, if anything, about level 2 so here’s a quick recap:

This past month the focus has been on pastry and nutrition with a few other random lessons thrown in (offal, cheese, pasta, etc.). Pastry threw me for a loop in the beginning since I never bake and hate the idea of having to measure every little thing out. The other thing that bugs me about pastry is the fact that unless you are an experienced baker, most of the time you won’t know if you did anything wrong until the very end. With cooking, you can almost always adjust the flavor and consistency along the way. With pastry? No such luck. Game over. Start again. Do not pass, “go.”

Cheese day was a trip. We began by making ricotta, but out of whole milk instead of whey. Ricotta means, “recooked,” as in the whey was cooked once to separate it from the curds (presumably to make some other cheese) and then cooked once more to turn it into ricotta. To the milk we added a half tsp. of ascorbic acid and a tsp. of salt. A little cooking, a lot of stirring, a bit of straining, and an hour or more of hanging/draining. After that was some mozzarella pulling, which consisted of cutting up mozzarella curds, sprinkling them liberally with salt, and pouring simmering water on them. Once they’ve melted a bit from the water, you dunk your gloved, iced hands in and start mashing the curd chunks together. Once they’ve homogenized, the pulling begins, similar to…taffy, I imagine. The pulling develops that stringy texture that’s so lovely in mozzarella. It becomes shiny and smooth and then you form it into the familiar ball shape (you can also braid it if you so choose).

In the afternoon we did an extensive cheese tasting of cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk cheeses that included Boerenkaas Gouda, Stilton, Ossau Raty, Pierre Robert, and Casinca. They ranged from LOVED IT (Stilton and Gouda) to meh (Idiazabel) to a polite no, thanks (Hoja Santa, Pierre Robert). We began with tasting whole milk from each animal. Then moved on to yogurts for each. After that the cheeses were tasted from freshest (fresh goat and feta) to most pungent (Persille and Stilton). It was an incredible afternoon (not counting hearing one of my bone headed classmates tell the instructors he really preferred Kraft Singles to most of these).

So about that practical tomorrow. A lot of people have been asking me about the grading system of school so I’ll lay it all out now.

For each level (each month is a level with 6 levels in all), you receive a grade. This grade is based on the written quizzes, performance evaluations, practical exam, and written final exam within that level. They’re all weighted differently. The written quizzes are exactly what they sound like, written two page tests every week or so with simple questions such as “Bechamel + (blank) = Sauce Mornay” (answer: gruyere cheese) and “Define gluten” (answer: an elasticity formed when the protein in flour comes in contact with liquid and is worked) mixed with slightly more complicated questions asking for procedures and recipes, like how to make a pate a choux, the dough used to make cream puffs and eclairs, or how to make hollandaise.

There are two performance evaluations per level (so far, anyway) and this is where the chef instructors grade you on 20 different criteria in the kitchen like “respecful towards instructors,” “works in a clean and hygienic manner,” “multitasks well,” and “presents well seasoned food.”

The practical for level 1 was astonishingly simple, involving a lot of chopping and dicing and boiling some carrots. This time around things get a bit…dicier (HA!). I have to say the rise in difficulty is a little abrupt and disconcerting. We go from slicing onions to filleting a trout, quartering a chicken, making mayonnaise, and carving some more potatoes (remember those footballs I mentioned awhile back?). Quite a leap away from boiling carrots.

The written final exam is just a cumulative test of everything we’ve learned this level.

Okay, off to practice quartering some chickens. Wish me BON CHANCE!

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An update is long overdue, I know. I’ve been so exhausted and sometimes the thought of catching everyone up on my comings and goings at school overwhelms me and I take a nap instead. (Shrug) Don’t judge me.

My friend, Joy, who is visiting, laid on the guilt today (“I’M TELLING ALL MY FRIENDS ABOUT YOUR BLOG SO YOU BETTER UPDATE IT IT!”) so I guess I better post to shut her up.

Here are some highlights:

The first of two fish days was rough for me. Nothing actually went terribly wrong. Our bass en papillote (cooked in a sealed paper package) puffed up perfectly and was cooked properly and the caper, lemon, butter sauce over our fried trout was well seasoned, but there was always something. The plates we served the bass on weren’t hot enough. (HOT FOOD, HOT PLATE!) The croutons on our trout were just a shade too brown. Coupled with what felt like Chef M. picking on me all day, I had one of those days that I had to will myself not to burst into tears out of frustration.

It sounds a little melodramatic, I know, but when you’ve been sweating and running around and slicing your fingers open over a boiling hot stove, a dark crouton feels like a big deal. So before I go completely mental, I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that most of the time, especially at this stage of schooling, there will be something. The point is to minimize the somethings to the best of my ability. FINE…moving on.

The second fish day I learned how to clean a fish from top to bottom, snipping off the fins, scaling it, removing guts, and filleting. I got an eye full of scales (painful) and kept commenting on how smelly other people were in line at the bank before I realized that it was me…

Another noteworthy day was shellfish day, very dramatic and easily one of the most luxurious days I’ve had at school. I KILLED A LOBSTER! WITH MY BARE HANDS! Well, my hands and a giant chef’s knife. Chef M. kindly gave us the option of killing our lunch one of two ways: dumping it in a broth and covering it with a lid (nice and clean, like an assassin’s work) or plunging a knife into the back of the moving, live lobster’s head and then bring the edge of the knife through its head (messy and intimate, like a crime of passion). The head wasn’t difficult, but the body was a little tougher as the lobster was still feistily moving and curling its tail and I was attempting to chop it in half. Then when I finally did succeed in dividing the corpse in half, it, um, kept moving. Like, a lot. Like, even with the two halves were on opposite ends of my chopping board. Weird.

Last Friday was my most successful day yet. The first day that all my dishes passed with no criticism and no real criticism while I was working either. I learned how to quarter a chicken and remove the breasts and legs from a duck. With no time to eat, I ended up bringing the lot home and serving it with rice pilaf for dinner. Economical AND easy!

Okay, I’m sleepy now and have to get up early in the morning. I’ll write more tomorrow. I promise.

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Bouncing back from my demoralizing experience with sauces on Friday began with making a dish Sunday night with which I’m exceedingly familiar, spaghetti alla carbonara. It was one of the best batches I’ve made yet and I awoke this morning bleary eyed, but ready to face today’s challenge: soups.

Alright, I’m exaggerating how badly my sauces went, but I did need a big shot of confidence in the culinary arm and I got it. My new station partner, Andrew, and I (we change partners and stations every day) cranked out four soups today: split pea with croutons, beef consommé with vegetables, a classic French onion soup, and a leek and potato soup. All of them came out beautifully. Perhaps not all perfect, but damn close.

I don’t even like split pea soup normally, but this was blended to velvety lusciousness with smoky overtones of bacon and green pea-iness. The tiny, buttery croutons were a perfect complement. We were to present two plates, aiming for identical presentations to teach us the consistency necessary in the food business.

I can’t begin to describe to you the thrill of actually plating my first complete dish, not just some sauce puddled on a plate or a big messy pot of stock to be dumped in a bucket. I made sure to pile my croutons just so and top it all off with the liveliest sprig of chervil I could find from the wilting bunch.

Finally my obsession with seasoning and flavor paid off. Andrew and I stood there adding salt at least ten times to the pot after I had blended it and stirred in cream and a little water to get the right thickness. We refused to present it until it pleased our picky palates.

Chef M. checked for the consistency and taste and declared it very good. SUCCESS! I floated back to my station on a cloud of deep satisfaction and some excitement since we were allowed to eat the soup. I ate the entire bowl before moving on to the consommé.

Making the consommé was a trip. A nasty, but interesting trip. Adding a gooey mixture of egg whites, ground beef, and julienned vegetables to stock, you wait for a “raft” of the mixture to form at the top, which traps impurities and various particulates in said raft. This will, in theory, leave nothing but a crystal clear, amber broth underneath the raft.

Since I did most of the work on finishing up the split pea soup, Andrew took the lead with the consommé and vegetable garnish. We served it to Chef M. after lunch. His initial reaction right away was that the seasoning was great, but then quickly retreated by saying that maybe it could use a little salt. You figure he does want us to get too cocky too early on. Unfortunately the vegetables were too largely diced and the carrots weren’t cooked enough. Not a home run, but at least a solid single.

As Andrew was finishing up with the consommé, I got started on the French onion soup. This was the biggest treat for me, not just because I’m obsessed with onions and not just because everyone is familiar with French onion soup, but because…um, it has cheese in it. We could’ve let the onions brown a bit more, but we were a little impatient. After the soup was cooked, we ladled it into a couple of crocks, topped them with two slices toasted baguette each and a huge mound of Gruyere cheese. Then straight under a hot salamander they went for a nice bubbling and browning. Chef M. complimented the presentation, by which I think he meant the good amount of cheese we put on it and how brown we let it get. He then said the taste was very good. I went back to my station and ate the entire cheesy bowl with a big smile on my face.

The last soup was a light leek and potato soup. You cook the soup to the point where the potatoes break down almost completely, thereby thickening the soup. It’s a simple procedure, but requires quite a bit of time in order to cook the potatoes to that point. We got it to Chef M. just in the nick of time, before class ended. Chef M. said we had good color (from sweating the vegetables just right with no color or browning) and good seasoning. YESSSSS!

I also walked away with a pint container of the rest of the French onion soup. With a baguette picked up on my way home, there’s tonight’s dinner. All in all, I call that a pretty good day.

Here’s the recipe for the French onion soup with a little tweaking by me:

Classic French Onion Soup

Serves 2

About 1 – 1 ½ lb. onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch thyme, tied with kitchen twine
1 tbs. all-purpose flour
½ cup red or white wine
1 quart chicken, beef, or veal stock
1 ½ cup Emmenthaler or Gruyere cheese, grated
3 tbs. vegetable oil
1 tbs. butter
4 ¼-inch thick slices French baguette

  • Heat up oil in a large pot or straight sided pan over medium high heat. When oil is almost or just barely smoking, add onions and bundle of thyme. Cook onions until soft and browned (about 8-10 minutes). Add garlic. Cook garlic for about 2-3 minutes.
  • Lower flame to medium and sprinkle flour in pan. Stirring quickly, scrape up brown bits at the bottom of the pan and any flour that begins sticking. Don’t let the flour burn! You’ll prevent this by constantly stirring and not giving anything a chance to stick on the bottom.
  • Season lightly with salt to help release moisture. Lower the flame to low. Let onions caramelize for at least 30 minutes or until a deep, dark, rich brown. It’s extremely important to patiently let the onions get super brown. That’s where all the flavor will come from. Stir occasionally.
  • Heat up stock in another pot or you could’ve brought the stock out earlier in the process to let it warm up to room temperature if you don’t want to use up another burner or dirty another pot.
  • Add wine and deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Let the wine reduce by 1/2 or until the onion mixture is a little wetter than a glaze.
  • Add stock and stir. Increase heat to medium high and bring the soup to a simmer. Once it gets to a simmer, lower the flame slightly and let simmer for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Meanwhile, either butter and toast your baguette slices in an oven or toast the slices in a small pan with the butter until lightly brown.
  • Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Turn on your broiler.
  • Ladle the soup into oven safe crocks or individual bowls. Place two slices of baguette on the top of each bowl. Pile half of cheese on top of each portion.
  • Broil the soup bowls until cheese is melted, bubbly, and nicely browned. Serve immediately with a side of black beret, fabulous scarf, and joie de vivre.

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Friday was sauce day. After going over the “mother sauces” (among them are tomato, allemande, and velouté) we proceeded to make some of them, then used those to make other sauces; hence the term, “mother” sauce, a sauce from which other sauces derive.

Um, so I kind of missed the point of the class. The point of the class was to develop techniques and method…you know, like the point of going to culinary school. I kind of missed that. I was too focused purely on flavor. The most important thing to understand about sauces at this stage (day four) is the use of binding agents or liaison like using a roux (melted butter and flour), slurry (cold liquid and flour), or egg yolks to thicken and bind sauces. Binding is essential to consistency and my consistencies were almost all a little off.

So by the end of the day, we had made six sauces: a bound veal stock, a sauce espagnole (one of the mothers), a béchamel sauce, a white wine sauce with a fish stock base, a wine and mushroom sauce, and a port wine. I thought they all tasted anywhere from fine to good, in my opinion, but then again what do I know? I’m just a lowly student. I had to present the sauces to the assistant chef instructor, Chef L, to taste and check for consistency.

The most important were the last three which were the most complex and seasoned. Apparently my port wine sauce tasted of some mystery ingredient that Chef L. couldn’t pinpoint. She said it didn’t taste bad, but there was something strange in it that she hadn’t tasted in anyone else’s…um, great. Now is not exactly when I’m aiming to stand out. I’m not sure if this mystery flavor was because I used flour instead of corn starch in the slurry for the bound veal stock I made earlier and then used as the base for the port sauce. What a wonderful start.

I thought my white wine sauce tasted good, but realized too late that I hadn’t reduced it long enough. As I was straining it through the fine chinois (conical strainer) Chef M. walked by and said in his thick French accent, “It is too thin. You did not check the nappant, ah?” “I did!” I exclaimed. “It must have just…gone…away…?” I trailed off and sighed. Chef M. smiled enigmatically, turned to my station partner and said, “Do I look like I am convinced?” He then turned to me and repeated, “Do I look convinced?” I sheepishly answered, no and went back to straining the rest of my LOSER sauce. I brought it to Chef L. anyway and preemptively stated that I knew it wasn’t thick enough. She acknowledged that was true, asked me if I understood why, and I said yes. At least she said the seasoning was good.

For the record, nappant is when a sauce’s consistency’s is the correct thickness. You dip the back of a spoon in the sauce and run your finger through it. Your finger should create a clear streak through the sauce and the sauce should be so thick the path stays clear. If any sauce drips or dribbles down into the path, it’s too thin.

In reaction to that I then over reduced my wine and mushroom sauce. Despite that, Chef. L. said it had good seasoning. It was so damn frustrating! I’m just glad my sauce wasn’t the one held up in front of the class as a perfect example of burnt sauce. Chef M. encouraged us all to taste it with our fingers (which we’re normally NEVER allowed to do) since it wasn’t going to be put in the communal bucket of sauce to be used downstairs in the restaurant.

I’m trying to shake off my failures and focus on sharpening my knives this weekend (bought me a whetstone) and some more taillage practice. Sigh, I’ll tackle sauces again another day.

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Another day spent on my feet from 7:30am to 5pm. Oy.

As I mentioned yesterday, today was stock day! Five stocks to be exact: chicken stock, fish stock, vegetable stock, beef stock with burnt onions, and brown veal stock. It was the first day we actually had to copy down our recipes the night before to bring to class. Of course, we strayed pretty far from the recipes. We cooked the way it feels right for me. No whipping out papers and cards and fussing with measuring cups, at least not for the delicate, yet unfussy art of stock making. A few onions here, a couple chunks of carrots there, a hunk of bone over here, cover with water, boil, simmer the hell out of it, e voila!

Chef M. made a great point in class today, I just hope it doesn’t come back to bite me in the arse. He said he isn’t teaching us/concerned with precise measurements and exact recipes, but rather with basic concepts, techniques, and theory as a foundation. We’ll have to worry about exactly how many grams of butter or oil is needed at some point in the near future, but for now we’re still just feeling our way around a stove and a chopping block.

We have our first written test next week. I’m not too nervous about that so much as the practical test in a few weeks. I’ll be practicing lots and lots of taillage this weekend for sure, maybe even try to crank out that Alsatian potato pie Chef Soltner showed us yesterday. Now what can I make with 20 lbs of cocotte potatoes and carrots…

To sum, I smell like onions and have become intimate friends with my trusty ladle. I’m extremely tired. I still look like a gnome in my cap. Veal bones are kind of gross. That’s all for now.

Tomorrow, on to SAUCES made from the stocks we created today. YES! Now we’re cooking with fire!

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Okay, folks. Summer’s more than officially over and although I’ve refused to hang up my battered silver Havaianas, I have broken out my new olive green anorak. Too bad I hardly get to wear it since I’m (ah!) wearing nothing but my chef’s uniform these days!

YES. THAT’S RIGHT! I’ve started CULINARY SCHOOL!

Yesterday was my first day and what a doozy. I was literally on my feet from 8:30am until I crawled onto a wooden bench on the 6 train platform at 3:45pm (stood while eating lunch too). My body was pretty banged up from that, but I think I’ll get used to it soon enough. The hideous Merrells on my feet really helped out, but even those started to hurt me after Hour Four. Speaking of hideous, I look like a mutant, crazed, large headed gnome in my stupid cap, but I suppose I’ll get over it.

Alright, I have to tackle this post in an organized fashion because there’s a lot to report, but I don’t have all night. I’ve got some recipes to write down for class tomorrow (it’s stock day!). So here are the answers to most of the questions I’ve been asked:

What’d you do your first day?

Well, yesterday was full of a lot of introductions, to students, chef instructors, our tool kit, and various areas of the kitchen. The tool kit is pretty much every tool you need to stock a kitchen. It’s amazing! A few of the supplies in the kit include a full knife set, pepper mill, TWO different balloon whisks, TWO different peelers, pastry tips, dough scraper, tongs, kitchen shears, various spoons and spatulas, trussing needle, thermometer, melon baller, and much, much more. So much in fact that the damn thing weighs about 15 lbs.

The main focus of the day was taillage, a lovely French word meaning cutting/cuts. That’s knife skills to you. We learned various cuts, many of which measure 1/16th of an inch and God help you if you don’t get it justttt right…well, actually nothing happens, not yet anyway. You just get a vaguely disdainful snort from a very tall French man. The little batons (called jardiniere) gave me the most trouble as the cross section has to be a perfect square, which is a lot harder to achieve than you’d think. I thought knife skills were my strength until I started on the cocotte, a 2 inch long almost perfectly smooth football carved out of a potato/carrot/turnip/what have you. FOOTBALL out of a POTATO. Difficult. Sliced thumbs. Oy.

We also covered a couple of methods of cooking vegetables. Nothing crazy so I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say I’ve never been so scared of accidentally browning vegetables in my life.

What’d you do your second day?

Today included practicing the things we did yesterday and then a lengthy lecture on food handling safety and food-borne illnesses, which would have been a little boring if not for the hilarious(ly adorable) anecdotes by Chef T. (different from our regular chef instructor, Chef M., who is neither hilarious nor adorable, but rather intimidating and handsome and intimidatingly handsome; there’s also the assistant chef instructor, Chef L. who is also rather intimidating). Basically the lecture made me want to freeze or boil every food item I come into contact with and to never eat chicken again. I’m sure I’ll get over it. Lots of talk of “danger zones” (cue Top Gun montage) in terms of temperatures for bacteria growth and human excrement making its way into your edibles. Mmmmm, delicious.

At the end of the day I attended a fabulous demo (the first of many) by the world famous chef, André Soltner, the executive chef of the four star (now closed) Lutèce for over 30 years. He made an incredible potato pie, aka “Heart Attack Pie” according to Chef Lee Anne Wong (yes, THAT Lee Anne Wong, of Top Chef fame, she is an alum of and works at FCI, love her). Imagine flaky pastry layered with potatoes, bacon, hard boiled egg, creme fraiche, and herbs and then more potatoes, bacon, hard boiled egg, creme fraiche, and herbs. Unbelievable. That was followed by fried carp beignets with a sauce gribiche (like a fancy tartar sauce) and a shredded apple tart for dessert with a caramel cream sauce. An Alsatian feast by a beloved, delightful chef. AH! I LOVE MY LIFE.

How are your fellow students?

So far they’ve been great. Everyone seems super enthusiastic, hard working, polite, and kind. Ages seem to range from 18 to mid-30s so there’s an amusing mix of those who are still desperately trying to find themselves, those who found themselves and are looking to make some revisions, and everything in between.

There are, of course, a few harmlessly annoying types, but they haven’t detracted from the experience yet. The professional backgrounds vary widely from people who have never worked in the food industry (comme moi) to those who have worked in it for years. Past professions left in the dust include jobs in law (comme moi, yes, I finally let the cat outta the BAG), accounting, sales, and jewelry.

Anything else you wanna mention?

I’m having an amazing time, although it’s really tough work, much tougher than I can describe. I’ll try my best to report what I do each day. It should be a treat for both you and me so STAY TUNED!
PS – On a slightly serious note, I’d like to give a big grateful shout out to all the friends and family that have been so supportive of my…everything the past year as I struggled to find my way. I love you all very, very much, even if I don’t say it…ever.

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So I finally enrolled in culinary school. As part of my application, I had to write an essay to explain why I wanted to go, so I started typing. After about 10 minutes this is what I came up with. It turns out it was only supposed to be 200 words and the essay below is about 600 words so I had to edit it down, but I’ve left it in tact for this post.

Forgive the rather flowery language and tone. I was in a sentimental mood.

“My story is not a unique one I am sure. I came to love food the way many have come to love it: in my home, growing up. My mother was an unabashedly talented cook who had a particular knack, which I never quite comprehended, for tasting a dish or watching someone make a dish and then marching into our tiny NYC kitchen to duplicate, if not improve upon, it. I spent my childhood tugging at her metaphorical apron (she typically chose a brightly colored cotton muumuu instead), yearning to participate in this alchemy. I wanted desperately to help, but for awhile, she would swat at me as if I were a buzzing nuisance. I would take to sneaking over to the range while her back was turned and surreptitiously stirring whatever she was cooking on the stove top. She would turn and shoot me a look that said, “what are you doing?” I would drop the spatula immediately and scurry back onto my designated stool at the counter.

This dance between my mother and me did not last very long. Eventually she gave in to the undeniable fact that I was growing up to be just like her. I loved food: eating it, making it, watching it be made. She knew she could not keep me at bay for much longer. The swatting gave way to lessons right around the age of 8. It began with assigning me simple tasks supplemented by a few explanations when necessary. First it was snapping the end off string beans. That led to mashing up curry pastes in our granite mortar and pestle. Finally, it was time for dicing and chopping around the age of 12. “You’re gonna cut your fingers off!” She would bark. “Curl your fingers under, like this,” she would tell me, demonstrating.

I now see so much more of my mother’s cooking style in me. The contradiction of my woeful moans when I am left to cook large meals entirely by myself and my quick flare of impatience when anyone tries to help or, God forbid, does something the wrong way. “Just…get out. Get out, get out, get out. I’ll do it. It’s fine.” That was a classic of my mother’s.

I also now realize that I’ve grown beyond what my mother could teach me before she passed away. I’m hungry, pardon the pun, for more knowledge, more growth, and more experience in the kitchen. In a way, I feel the need and desire to be an extension of everything my mother was as a cook. I like to think of going to culinary school as taking her with me to the next level.

I live and breath food and feel that my passion would be wasted if I do not attend culinary school and begin my head first dive into the professional food world. The dynamic, creative atmosphere of a kitchen (home or commercial) appeals to every part of me that longs to feed people and make them happy, to create and perhaps even dazzle. The French Culinary Institute is undoubtedly the vehicle that will take me to where I dream of being. The resources, reputation, and rigorous curriculum of the school is second to none in New York City and I hope to soon join the ranks of their talented alumnae. The French Culinary Institute will take me to the doorstep and then it will be up to me to cross the threshold.

Plus, I just really want to cook.”

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