Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why we do what we do

Sometimes we need little reminders in life for why we're doing what we're doing. My reminder tonight came in the form of a call from my friend Tonya, insisting that after my 11-hour, slightly hellish day at school, she was treating me to a dinner of my choice: Le Pigeon, Sel Gris, Ten-01 or Carlyle. Though I know we would have been happy at any of them, I've been dying to try Le Pigeon for months.

I don't know how I lived for this long without having goat cheese-cake in Oreo crust with strawberry-mint compote. Not well, that's for sure. We cozied up to the bar surrounding the open kitchen, where the much-touted Gabriel Rucker and his two co-chefs worked their magic. I watched the saute pans fly, filled with fatty duck, crispy, moist halibut, beef cheek bourguignon and pans of unending creativity and expertise. Mr. Rucker, though swamped, seemed more than happy to talk about the food, and when I asked him what his inspiration is (though I know he gets asked this 80 times a day), he asked me something that I liked to eat when I was little. I answered with my mom's scrambled eggs and tomato with sesame oil, and without a second's hesitation, he suggested a modern, relevant, servable-at-a-25-dollar-a-plate-restaurant version of the dish. This is a genius at work, my friends.

I just had the best meal I've had in months, and I'll detail it more soon, I promise. For now, it's dreams of passion and creation that will send me merrily to slumber for the first night in weeks.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

In the Term 1 home stretch

Large dice (3/4-in square) for knife skills proficiency:
Large dice

(It took me two whole large Russet potatoes and a whole lot of agony to get eight perfectly square large dice pieces. The larger ones are always harder than you think.)

So Friday was the fourth to last day of my first term of school. It's a vitally important four days, as it's definitely the most daunting of the projects to date: Four days of a restaurant-ready presentation of both pork and chicken with different starch and two to three vegetables for each. That's less than two hours for two full plates *per student*. Up to this point we've only been responsible for one plated meat-starch-veg presentation per day, so essentially the workload doubled on Friday. Friday, Monday and Tuesday are essentially practice for our graded kitchen practical on Wednesday. Plus, every day is peppered with a variety of tests, from knife skills to kitchen proficiency to written exams covering eight intense weeks of material.

Before Friday, we were squeaking by for time as it was, so I couldn't help but be a tad concerned about doubling the workload. It got to the point where I had a mini anxiety attack in the middle of a friend's birthday party Thursday evening, and had to gulp down a glass of the worst wine I've ever had in a restaurant (thanks, Old Town Pizza!) to calm the nerves. It's slightly hilarious now that I'm recalling the situation, but a little scary while it was happening. Thanks to some good company with friends, I managed to not go over the edge.

Friday morning rolled around, and I was up with a start half an hour before my 6:30AM alarm. I slept fitfully, but after a good shower, I buttoned up the chef's whites, remembering to tuck a t-shirt into my bag for the 90°F+ temps later in the day, and got to school at 7:30 to gather the mise en place for our menu.

And boy am I ever glad I did. Things went so smoothly that I surprised even myself, and I attribute that extra half hour to our sense of readiness. We were the only team to come in on time that day, but more importantly, everything was well-seasoned and well-finished. None of the meat or veg were overdone, and our plates looked clean and presentable, for the most part. I was really proud of our team for getting the job done well, and I'm crossing my fingers that the next three days will be just as efficient. Cross your fingers for me, people!

We had our knife skills test on Friday as well, and though I didn't do as well as I hoped, I didn't do badly either. On the positive side, though I had twinges of regret over the course of this term for missing certain shows or parties because I needed to do homework, in retrospect I'm extremely happy that I've kept up with the homework schedule up to this point. I've managed to have a relaxing weekend instead of toiling away at work I put off to the last minute. Last minute work and overdue papers were a far-too-common occurrence while I was getting my B.A., and I'm determined this time not to let it happen again.

In fact, the difference between the process of getting my B.A. and culinary school is so striking, I really feel like I'm an entirely different person this time around. It certainly helps that I have a passion for my school studies, and I feel like I'm really, truly ready this time.

It's a good feeling.

Friday, May 09, 2008

My lucky day

It's Friday! Bread pudding for everyone!

Bread pudding at Wildwood
Sinful and disgustingly delectable bread pudding at Wildwood

How is it Friday already? Seriously, kids. This week has flown by the fastest of any week at school so far, and one of the most productive and efficient yet. If someone told me on the first day of school that we'd be doing fully plated, sellable meat-veg-starch plates in six weeks time, I'd have said "You're nuts." We've evolved from mashed potatoes and French fries to Duxelle-stuffed chicken with Gnocchi Piedmontese and Ratatouille, using the same amount of kitchen time, but incorporating all the skills we've learned up to this point. I'm simply amazed, and I'll remember to get a camera in the kitchen during school soon, I promise.

Speaking of Duxelle-stuffed chicken and the rest, my class partner had to tend to an emergency and was thus out of school for a couple of days. This meant it was up to little me, myself and I to complete the full menu by myself. I admit to being slightly freaked out, but with a little guidance from my fabulous (and fabulously patient) chef instructors and a few deep yoga breaths, on Wednesday (the first day of my partner's absence) I turned out a nice plate of stuffed chicken leg (that I deboned myself), handmade gnocchi and stewed vegetables that surprised even myself. One of the best complements came from one of my chef instructors, who declared that though he's rarely hungry that early in the morning, my plate whetted his appetite for lunch.

Halfway through production on Wednesday, Chef Wilke came into the kitchen as he often does to check in, and saw that my shallots for the duxelle stuffing were just starting to brown to the point of near-burn. I was running about elsewhere, trying not to freak out, and he stopped me for a minute and said to me, "This is something you'll learn in time, but when you're multi-tasking, eventually you'll have a little voice or a feeling that just comes to you like 'Oh yeah!' to remind you of all the things you have going on." I explained to him, slightly embarrassed, but mostly grateful that he'd caught the shallots from burning, that I was by myself in the kitchen because my partner wasn't there.

He smiled and said, "Well then, today's your lucky day!"

At first I didn't get it. Well, it's more like I was thinking, 'Are you joking? How is it "lucky" that I got left to do all this by myself?' But as I got into the groove of the day, things began to come together, and when time was up, I found myself standing at my work table with a well-flavored, presentable plate in front of me. Exhausted but elated, I realized suddenly that I was happy to be challenged to complete this task, and really proud of myself for doing a good job.

Something else to think about: This kind of stuff happens all the time in the real world. People call in sick or have emergencies at the last minute, and it's not the first time I've been left with double the workload. It's a part of the industry, and I didn't break any barriers by doing this by myself (one of my classmates did the same menu by himself earlier this week).

Nonetheless, I'm learning to take pride in the small steps and accomplishments. It was my lucky day, as I know now that I can do a good job on my own if need be.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Tears in my beer, so to speak.

I haven't been keeping up with the writing as much as I'd like, but I have to say, last week was the roughest yet. Taste of the Nation totally wiped me out for the rest of the week, and this switch from 9am to 8am hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. Not only are we starting an hour earlier; we go straight into the kitchen, whereas before we had two hours to gather our thoughts in lecture before kitchen work. It culminated on Friday in a rather unfortunate incident where I cried for the first time at school. Hey, I'm always an advocate for a good cry, but my timing (in the middle of kitchen production, leaving a lot of work to be done by my work partner) wasn't the best. Sorry, partner!

To be clear, by the way, the crying was no fault of the instructors or really anything with school, for that matter, besides maybe a lack of sleep. The cause for tears was totally un-school-related; it just so happened that the waterworks got set off at the wrong place/ wrong time.

But this week has gotten off to a great start, in comparison, and I'm getting better sleep. More details to come, I promise.