Monday, April 14, 2008

Disappointment via Duchesse

Bag o' Duchesse Potatoes

This is what I felt like today after school: A bag of sweating, deflated Duchesse potatoes.

I made these in class today, and though I think they turned out alright, I'll admit that the lab part of class was my first truly frustrating day in the kitchen. I don't know if it was the fact that I had just bade farewell to my mom, who was in town for a total of 20 hours between yesterday and today, or that my school work team of three was missing a member, or that this morning's weather was unbelievably miserable especially after such a lovely weekend (Saturday at Pike Place Market in Seattle was incredible. And packed like canned tuna). The mood in class was one of general droopiness, much more so for me after my mom's departure, and it carried into the kitchen until we were dismissed.

The morning started out fine enough. I gave my mom a tour of the classrooms, kitchens and restaurant, where we ran into OCI's awesome co-founder Brian Wilke, who told my mom I was a "model student" (thanks, Chef Wilke!). I introduced her to all my instructors and classmates, and she even sat in on the first hour of lecture. She was enlightened on conversions in culinary math (ounces vs. fluid ounces, teaspoons in tablespoons and the like) and then during break I walked her back to my apartment and I called her a cab to the airport.

After I returned to school, the rest of lecture was fine, and then we had a fairly mellow (and very informative) demo on spices for the first hour of kitchen time. Once we got started on our projects in the kitchen, however, I felt like my brain and body were on slo-mo. I was a mess with my mise en place, and even though our tasks for today were relatively easy (roasting, charring and seasoning red peppers; and a potato of our choice), I couldn't get the "giddyup in my step" (as my chef instructor would say) for the life of me.

I was really eager to try Duchesse potatoes, as they've long been something of a mystery to me. I remember seeing a photo of those delicate, piped potatoes in one of my very first cookbooks at the age of 11 or 12 and thinking, 'Wow, I bet rich, fancy people who wear gloves to dinner eat these all the time'. For something that has held a place of "Fancy Foods on a Pedestal" in my head for far too long, they're surprisingly easy. They're basically mashed potatoes mixed with raw egg, piped and baked, and I got a hang of the piping bag much faster than I thought.

However, it took us a good hour and a half from start to finish. Our batter turned out much too runny after the addition of the egg and egg yolks, but fortunately we had some extra potatoes on the stove for mashed potatoes to donate to Potluck in the Park. With the additional time it took to dry out the potatoes, press them through a chinois sieve and add them to the batter along with more salt and pepper, we ended up plating our potatoes about 15 minutes past the goal plating time of 1:15PM. Being 15 minutes behind just made me feel like I was playing catch up with everything else, and I really begun to understand the meaning of the industry term "in the weeds", kitchen-wise at least. I've been in the weeds my fair share as a restaurant server and host, and it's never a pretty sight to behold.

In addition to the potato trouble, I had much more difficulty than I imagined with skinning the dry oven-roasted pepper, and even after a return to the oven and period of sweating in a plastic bag, about 40% of the skin refused to come off. Short of cutting off the whole top layer of pepper which has a lot of flavor and color that one does not want to lose, there’s not much else I could do, which left me frustrated and at a loss. Fortunately, enough of the pepper was salvaged that I could successfully julienne and season it with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, which turned out quite nicely.

Not to say it was a total trainwreck or anything of the sort. Far from it. In fact, at day's end, we turned out some good Duchesse potatoes which my chef instructors complemented and the peppers ended up fine. Maybe it was my overly-self-critical, perfectionist side coming out, but I felt like I lacked efficiency as well as quick-thinking on the whole, and it was an altogether frustrating day in the kitchen. And my first! Hey, there's a first for everything.

Although I'm an idealist, I'm fully aware that this is only the first of many frustrating days to come, with my externship still to occur, as well as many days of a hopefully food-related career ahead. Just goes to show you that things aren't perfect all of the time, even at my dream school. On board for tomorrow: kicking ass on our project. Watch out, Eggplant Parmesan!


Tonya Jone Miller said...

I'm really loving your blog, Ing. And I have to say, based on your passion for food and how you write about it, I already know you will be successful in whatever type of culinary endeavor you undertake. :)


Ruth said...

The potatoes looked great from here... wish I could scarf up the leftovers. We've never tried the Duchesse, in all these years of potato variations. Smiling at your great descriptions of the process, R