Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Taste of the Nation 2008

Doing the lazy blogger thing and reposting a message I wrote on a Portland Food thread regarding my experience at Taste of the Nation. I hope I don't come off as too gripe-y, as I did manage to have a good time, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting, that's for sure. It's also informing and shaping my ideas about catering in Portland (TBD in the future). Let's just say I'm starting to dream about other areas of the industry, mainly food writing, a lot more.

Also, I got my grade back today for Culinary 110, and I'm very, very happy. That and dinner with a good friend made today a good one.

So here's the repost:

Just thought I'd throw in my 2 cents as a volunteer and OCI student. There were about 20 of us students there. We spent the first 2-3 hours helping load in restaurants and wineries, and then during the event we shared duties bussing tables, dumping trash, sorting trash, refilling waters, getting extra plates/forks/etc., and doing whatever else needed to be done. A couple of lucky students got to do some actual plating with a few restaurants, though I was not one of those lucky ones this time.

I have to say that though there weren't any major incidents, for an event that's been going for as long as TOTN has been (21 years!), it seems kind of disorganized. The people we worked under were really great and super nice, but I felt off-kilter all night. It felt way understaffed for one, and they said they've done with as few as 10 volunteers in the past, which just seems nightmarish. All the 1000+ attendee events I've ever worked in the past had at least one server per 10 people. They definitely could have used more hands with the addition of the champagne reception tables in the middle of the room. And like Pyrofemme said, the "sustainability stations", though a great idea in theory, got to be a total mess at some points. They need way more than 2 or 3 people working each station with the amount of trash to go through.

Meanwhile, though I enjoyed myself for the most part and got to chat with some Portland Food folks, as well as meet a few prospective externship opportunity chefs, I was so busy busting my ass with bussing tables that I feel it was almost not worth it. I've got some blisters on my unhappy toes! Granted I could have been a little lazier about bussing and done more with the networking, and other students who took that path were more successful in their networking, but I felt awkward bothering some of the chefs whose tables were totally slammed about externing at their places. There seemed to be a lot of confusion about what exactly everyone was doing, and it would have been helpful to post up a schedule for set up and breakdown points and the specific tasks to be done. Also, I agree about the lighting being too dim, and that back pathway where Pho Van, Russell's, etc were was a cluster****.

By the time I got my break, Toro Bravo was totally cleaned out, so I missed out on their pig. But I did have Simpatica's sliders, so I got my pork for the night. My favorite has to go to Meriwether's - not for the shrimp and grits, which were good, but for their focaccia with foie gras butter crostinis. I'm surprised no one else has mentioned it. Absolutely delectable--I went back for thirds. Also loved the St. Cupcake toasted coconut cupcake. Mmmm.

All in all, unless they have more volunteers to share the workload, I might consider paying for the ticket rather than volunteering in the future. Or maybe I need better shoes!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Midterms: kicking ass and taking names

Last Friday marked the end of one of the most hectic weeks yet of school. We had midterm exams this week, which consisted of a written exam and "black box" kitchen practical on Tuesday, and knife skills and ingredient identification on Wednesday. We also had a mountain of homework due on Wednesday, including an essay on corn, study guides, math worksheets, recipe analysis sheets, vocabulary lists, tasting notes and a presentation on foodborne illness. And I somehow managed to make it out of my house to meet friends more than once this week! I think I'm getting a hang of this schoolwork/social life balance thing. Definitely sacrificing social life more than I would were I not in school, but it gets lonely in the apartment with just me and my culinary math, baby.

Thursday was the beginning of Culinary 120, and a switch from 9am to 8am. Whew. The hour earlier isn't so bad, but the fact that we go straight into the kitchen instead of a couple of hours of lecture first is what's the hardest. Having the focus to multitask at 8am is certainly a challenge, but I'm giving myself a few days to adjust.

More details soon, as I'm off to take care of a busy Sunday...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Minestrone madness

Pictured above: minestrone soup and New England clam chowder, two of the three soups my partner and I made in class today, the one not pictured being Wisconsin beer cheddar soup (tastes better than it sounds, I promise). I must say, today was a fantastic contrast to how terribly I felt last Monday in the kitchen. Though we weren't doing anything we hadn't done before, as our first project ever was soup, I feel like I'm finally starting to pull away from the recipes and listen to instinct. How something looks or feels is becoming more important and apparent to me than ever before, even in contrast to mere weeks ago.

A perfect example: We did cream of tomato soup three weeks ago, and the original recipe calls for far too much chicken broth and makes a very thin and unappetizing soup. Because I wasn't paying attention, I just did what the recipe said and our soup, of course, turned out to be much too watery. Thankfully we had extra roux leftover and were able to save the soup from total tomato disaster. The roux thickened up nicely, but we could have avoided having to add the extra roux had I just been watching when I added the stock. Anybody would have seen it was way too thin.

Today, I was determined to make our soups shine. In the past three days, we've tasted the same three soups every day, but each day tastes totally different as made by different teams. Two out of three times the minestrone soup was bland, flavorless, and basically tasted like vegetable water. The original recipe for minestrone, like the cream of tomato, also calls for far too much stock, which was the main problem with the previous versions of the soup. My partner also smartly suggested using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, as minestrone is essentially a vegetable soup and the veg stock really highlights the sweet, garden-y qualities of the veggies in use.

After sweating the small-diced vegetables, I deglazed the minestrone vegetables in white wine, which the original recipe did not call for but I thought would be a great kick in sweetness and acidity. We added the veg stock and let it simmer, meanwhile working on seasoning the other soups. We used a nice, extra-sharp white cheddar and Red Stripe beer for the beer cheese soup, and my clam-chowder-disliking partner and I reached a happy medium for size of clams and consistency of chowder. My partner ended up liking the clam chowder so much, she took some home. I call that a victory for all clam-chowder lovers out there.

I think today was the best overall of the last four days of production in the kitchen. I felt the most prepared, having written out a prep list last night and read and re-read the recipes. Our mise en place was well-prepped, we paced ourselves well and we cleaned as we worked, so by the time the soups were done, we only had to wash our soup pots and serving utensils (as opposed to a pile of bowls, pie pans, cutting boards and whatever else we may have dirtied up in the process).

Tomorrow is day one of what is basically our two-day midterm exams, though my chef instructor hesitates to use the word "exam" or anything test-related, for fear of giving us the willies. I admit to having a few butterflies in the tummy, but I think it's just a matter of having the confidence to kick some butt. Wish me luck!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Helpful reminders

Our culinary class is divided into four groups, each of which is assigned a set of recipes to complete by a given time each day (usually we get about two hours from start to plate, sometimes less, which can get hairy but somehow we manage). The recipes get rotated through the groups so every group gets to make all the recipes at some point.

Yesterday was the first day of our third project, the first project being soups and the second, vegetable cooking methods. We were also shuffled around into new groups, and my new partner and I tackled braised cabbage, braised fennel, corn fritters, beer-battered pan-fried zucchini and roasted red pepper coulis for the fried zukes. I was happiest with the coulis, which my chef instructor gave the thumbs up, as did Chef Wilke, who constantly walks around the kitchens, surveying and tasting. The fennel was surprisingly delicious, as was the cabbage (though a bit overdone, Southern-style, but still good in flavor).

I was in charge of the corn fritters, and though I thought the flavor was excellent with the addition of some fresh basil chiffonade, the oil was too hot when the batter went in. Instead of a lovely golden brown, they were clearly burnt in a couple spots and in a general an unsightly dark brown all over. Surprisingly, burning them did not compromise the flavor much, but my instructor deemed them unfit for general restaurant service. I sadly and disappointingly relented in agreement. My classmates still tasted them, and though it was overall a better day than Monday, still a bit of a let-down.

We began lecture today by discussing what happened yesterday in production. My chef instructor asked me directly about the corn fritters, and I relayed in my best "positive attitude" tone what went wrong, what could have been done better, but that generally speaking I didn't think they were ruined. The chef instructor, who is not one to mince words, cut me off and said, "Well, actually, they were ruined. Yeah, the taste was alright, but you wouldn't serve that to the general public, would you? And that's who we're going to be cooking for, right?"

I felt a rush of blood go to my face and was thankful at that very moment that I don't blush much when embarrassed, or my face would have been a bright, hot pink. I was slightly irritated and felt foolish for saying anything at all. I nodded silently in agreement and was determined to keep my mouth shut for the rest of class.

My chef instructor, however, quickly followed with, "But listen, just because the food was ruined doesn't mean you're a failure. You're not. I'm glad you're making the mistakes now, in a safe environment where it doesn't cost you a thing to make mistakes. It won't cost you your job, or your money, maybe a little time but that's ok. That's what we're here for, right?"

I felt the blood leave my head and my muscles relaxed. My instructor was right, and I remembered suddenly, 'I'm in school. I'm paying to have this freedom to make mistakes and to learn from my mistakes.' I smiled a little at how irritated I was just seconds before, and thought to myself about how glad I am that I'm in such good hands. My tendency to take things personally was shaken off a bit, and I was ultimately reminded to be less hard on myself.

So yes, today was a good day.

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!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reflections on Day Eleven at Oregon Culinary Institute

It's officially been two weeks since school started, and though my intention was to write every day, clearly it's been a bit of a hectic adjustment. But it's started to feel like a pattern, finally; every day, we have two hours of lecture starting at 9AM followed by three hours of "lab" work in the kitchen. Most days just fly by, especially once we get into the kitchen, and oftentimes we're under the gun to finish our projects at a certain time. We've been going into major detail in tasting, trying to flesh out every aspect of every food we touch and manipulate. I've found this to be the most helpful - taking the time to write and talk about tastes, aromas, textures, colors, presentation, etc.... I mean, how often do you sit down to a meal and just scarf it down because you're hungry? I notice now that even outside of class, when I'm out dinner with friends or something, I'm mentally taking notes about presentation, flavors, mouthfeel, seasoning, etc... it's kind of startling.

I feel like I've been storing a bunch of thoughts up, and since they are scattered all over the place, I think observations via bulletin points will be helpful here. Apologies in advanced if this seems incoherent; I had a very late night last night and am running on four hours of sleep and buzzing off a mug of incredible chai made by one of my chef instructors.

Things I'm very happy about:

-Even though a lot of the information in the first two weeks of class has been stuff I've gleaned in the past from reading tons books and articles on food, food history, farming, and cookbooks, as well as working in restaurants, it's been refreshing and enlightening to see everything in the light of "real world industry" terms. Everything has value, monetarily (and I might even say emotionally) speaking, and we're learning to put all this information in context to running our own businesses. One of the reasons I chose to go to culinary school was to learn how to successfully run a business in the food industry in a nurturing environment (without feeling thrown to the wolves, that is), and I feel that even though it's early, we've already getting into all the aspects of cost to profit ratio, customer satisfaction, contemporary menu trends, local vs. non-local product, and all the other things that may affect running one's own business.

-Speaking of nurturing, our chef instructors are brilliant. They're collectively a wealth of knowledge, and they've made class lighthearted and fun, but at the same time don't coddle or hand-hold either. They know when to push and when to let us be, and I'm definitely building confidence because of it. Even hearing, "Nice work today, Ingrid!" from people I respect makes such a difference.

-Speaking of confidence, the change in my (and the whole class') comfort in the kitchen from day one to day eleven is pretty remarkable. I admit I was really nervous to be put on the spot to create something under the gun for people who know a hell of a lot more about cuisine than me, but with some positive encouragement and small successes daily, I find myself thinking, 'Holy crap, I could actually do this!'

-Here's where I may sound full of shit, but I really mean the following: You can truly feel the love around Oregon Culinary Institute. The instructors respect each other so much, speak very highly of each other, and even when they differ in opinion (which happens all the time, understandably, as food is ultimately subjective), it's always in a positive light. It's clear that they're learning as much from each other as we are from them, and what's better, the mutual respect between students and teachers is palpable. Not to sound like one big love-fest or anything, but it's pretty much my dream school environment.

-My classmates and I are working better and better together. Even though we're all at different levels (experience, age, schooling, whatever), we're all in the same boat at the end of the day. Don't get me wrong, it's not perfect; I've had my bitchy moments, as has everyone else, so we're not all happy-go-lucky all the time. But more often then not, when I find myself grumpy or tired, my classmates are there to lighten the mood and give a helping hand, and I'm trying my best to be better about that with my classmates as well.

Things I'm not happy about:

-I've gained a small tire around my belly from eating so much and so well in class. Just today we got two plates of the most decadent turtle fudge brownies from the Baking and Patisserie students. Those brownies basically saved my life, because I had a cup of coffee on a mostly-empty stomach mid-morning to wake up and by the time I got into the kitchen, my hands were shaking from the caffeine as I was attempting to julienne carrots. One bite of brownie and I was calmed down again. Of course I didn't stop at one bite. I had two whole brownies, for the record. Ok? OK?? I'm staring at my belly now and I just want to yank it off my body. Either I need to take up jogging, or I'll just wait for the spring rain to let up so I can ride my bike more. Ugh. Ah well, there are definitely worse things in life. One can't really be that unhappy about turtle fudge brownies, is all I'm sayin'...

Things I'm doing differently after just two weeks:

-I feel like I'm getting faster, I'm cleaner, more efficient, definitely more observant, asking more questions, watching my peers, and I now know the difference between a rutabega and a turnip. Heh.

It may seem a little early to say so, but here goes nothin': After two weeks of school I've determined that going to culinary school was one the best decisions I've made in my 27 years, second probably only to having my surgery.

Much more to come, and I hope to be better about writing on a daily or at least tri-weekly basis.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On knives

Mercer knife kit
My school-issued Mercer knife kit (blades aren't normally nekked in the case like this... they have hard plastic protective sheaths which I took off for the photo)

I received a comment from a reader named Norm (who has a lovely wine blog) regarding the Mercer brand knife kit we've been using in the kitchen. He was wondering if I would recommend them, and while I am certainly no expert, I figured my reply to his question would make a decent blog post on its own, so I did the lazy blogger thing and copied-and-pasted here:

I really like the Mercer kit we have (10-inch chef's knife, 8-inch chef's, 10-inch slicer, serrated/bread, paring, boning, fillet, diamond honing steel, zester and peeler), and from what I understand it's a pretty great bang for your buck. I've been using mostly the 10-inch chef's knife, and I find it does everything I need it to. Plus it's been banged around a bit and seems quite sturdy, yet not industrially heavy. I haven't had to hone it once in six days of use (the steel that comes with the kit is actually a bit of a stone as well and takes off a tiny bit of metal when you use it), but I also take care to wash my knives carefully of the starch and acids that can eat away at the blade and dry it immediately after washing. Though you probably already know that ;).

However, if you're looking for something more lightweight, you might want to look at Japanese knives. My brother recently got a MAC 6.5-inch chef's knife that he *loves* and was only 50 bucks, and which he bought online. It's a sharp sumabitch (cut myself twice on it, though not badly), but it's truly impressive. I'd say the MAC is up there in cutting quality with Global, but without the steel handle.

"MAC Superior" 6.5-inch Santoku knife, aka Sharp Sumabitch(link)

Alternately, if you're looking for even heavier, I love my 8-inch Wusthof Classic, which was a Christmas gift to myself several years ago. You might even like the Wusthofs better than I do because I'm a total weakling when it comes to upper body strength, and those babies are solid.

Wusthof Classic 8-inch Chef's Knife... so purdy (link)

The short answer is I would recommend the Mercer kit. The guys in my class seem to work well with them too. I could write a novel about knives, so I'll stop here. Hope this helps!

*Addendum: The Microplane in the kit photo is actually my own; a gift from a few years ago from my brother. My chef instructor mentioned that the zester that comes with the kit isn't the best for a lot of production, and recommended adding a Microplane (I do so love my Microplane!). Also, the kit comes with nested stainless-steel measuring cups, but they're slightly bulky to lug around in the kit, not to mention we measure nearly everything by weight at school.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Schnitzel, school and BiWa

The craziness continues. This past weekend was spent in Seattle, playing yet another show with The Lisps and spending some more quality time with my siblings. My brother had some terrible wiener schnitzel in Ballard on Friday and was beyond determined to make up for the awful experience by making his own on Saturday. This resulted in a truly delicious pork which he brined, flattened and breaded with his own special mix. With it we had potato galettes (from one of my textbooks) served with creme fraiche, sliced beets, beet greens with almonds, perfectly vinegary cabbage and a glass or two of Sun Garden Riesling. Our dinnertime on Saturday perfectly coincided with Earth Hour, so we ate our fabulous schnitzel in candlelight in the living room. Add to that Jose Gonzalez at The Triple Door, and it was overall a great weekend.

I have to admit that my body has had a little difficulty adjusting to these early bird school hours, but I shan't complain too much as a) I best get used to it now, and b) I think most of the normal working world wakes up around the same time I do. Suffice it to say that even though I've only had three days of school, I'm learning tons, taking copious notes, and the lessons are getting more practical and intense every day. At the same time, we're going into greater depths about philosophies, and one of my favorite things my instructor has said thus far is "People can taste your intentions." Which, if I learned anything from working for several years with a variety of bitchy servers and grumpy chefs, is all too true.

Something of note: By far the strangest thing about school is the fact that my homework is basically all reading and research that I did in my off time for fun. I had this conversation with a friend of mine who attended art school, and he said that art school students go through essentially the same process of slight confusion, which eventually leads to acceptance. For the past few years, I spent time I was supposed to be working reading cookbooks, food magazines and food blogs, and now I'm expected to know the information I looked up for my own pleasure... for class. It may not gel as a strange idea to you, but after my tumultuous undergraduate experience... well, let's just say I didn't read a book for several years after I got my bachelor's degree. Cookbooks were my way back in to the world of the literary. And now it's my assigned reading! (What?!?) I'll adjust eventually.

It hasn't all be smooth sailing... In all this drastic change, I had a brief breakdown last night around 11:30PM; buried in a mountain of reading and book work, feeling completely exhausted from my great but fast trip to Seattle, I did what anyone might do in that situation and called my mom, who presently happens to be traveling in Taiwan. Always count on Mom for the best advice, ya'll. Just hearing her voice calmed me down. She set me straight with some words of wisdom and I managed to make some mighty handsome recipe cards for the soups we're working on this week. Tomorrow is the first real, non-demo day where we're responsible for everything. Wish me luck!


I did manage to treat myself to happy hour/dinner with a new friend from the PortlandFood.org event at Vindalho. Tonya, one of the sweetest and most fascinating people I've met in a while (see what I mean by fascinating here (slightly NSFW)), and I met up at Biwa, an izakaya-style restaurant in an industrial section of close-in East Burnside area (SE 9th and Ash, to be exact). The place is really adorable and comfortable, and we sat at the bar surrounding the open kitchen where we were able to chat up the owner/proprietor, Gabe Rosen. Besides being super-friendly and good conversation, it turns out that Gabe attended Western Culinary Institute 10 years ago, and his favorite instructor, Brian Wilke, is the co-founder of my school now. Gabe's co-chef also attended Western, and praised my kitchen instructor, whom he had while he was in school. Seems like OCI managed to lure away a lot of great instructors from Western, and in all honesty it makes me all the more happy to have chosen OCI.

While we talked, Gabe grilled up some ridiculously delicious skewers of chicken thigh and breast meat as well as beef skewers and pork belly (droooool...). The onigiri was the perfect little sandwichy bite after all that meat: filled with pickled plum and really one of the cutest things I've eaten in months.

Onigiri: So cute I had to take a photo while everyone chuckled

The only thing that didn't strike me as outstanding was the ramen. BiWa gets major points for handmaking the noodles, and while it was good, something seemed a little off about the consistency of the noodles. I also found the broth to be overly salty. But to be fair, by the time the ramen with egg and chashu came, I was already full from the endless skewers and had at that point devoured my entire onigiri. The ramen in the end seemed more like an afterthought. Maybe next time I'll just get a bowl of ramen for myself and see if it hits the spot better.

Overall, I had a fantastic meal and am definitely headed back there again soon. Gabe, his co-chef and the servers were all genuinely friendly and helpful, and it was nice to be seated and eating in normal clothes for once, instead of standing up hunched over paper plates in chef's whites and our aprons scarfing down lunch as fast as we can. Speaking of school, homework's a-callin'...