Saturday, November 29, 2008

Frenching a Rib Rack

After several months away, I have quite a backlog of things that I wish I'd had the time and inclination to put up here. For anyone still keeping score at home, culinary school is over: I passed, though not easily, and, especially on the final exam, without clearing the bar by all that much.

I've been hesitant to resume writing here because I've felt like I owe it to anyone who still bothers to check in to see if I'm still here to do some reportage of what the last half of culinary school was like. But I just haven't been in a frame of mind to do that yet. So, without regard for or further acknowledgement or explanation of the lengthy pause in the appearance of entries here, I'm just going to jump right in and start with whatever I want to throw out there.

At the moment, what I want to throw out there is a little instructional piece that I suspect interests me a lot more than it interests you: a "how to" showing the process of frenching a rack of rib meat and cutting it into chops. For most readers, this process will fall into the category of trivial knowledge, in that it's not something they are ever likely to do. But this is what cooking is all about to me: it is about knowing as much as you can about your ingredients and how to handle them, how to make the most you can from them, how to take charge of all of the details of a piece of food that you want to put on someone's plate and make it as good as you can make it.

The example used here is a pork rib roast, but you can go through the same process to prepare a beef rib roast or steaks (beef cut into steaks this way is sometimes called a "tomahawk chop"), or a frenched rack of lamb or cut lamb chops. I always trim my own pork racks now because I enjoy it: once you become comfortable with the process, it's a relaxing thing to do while you think about what you're going to do with the meat or what you will serve with it. You will also usually get a better result than if you just buy finished chops, even from a good butcher, and in addition you can use most of what you trim off to make a sauce.

So let's get started. I'm working with 8 ribs of a pork rib roast. Unless you know your butcher really well and know how he'll cut your meat, you should probably ask for at least one more rib than you need, because when the rack is cut using a butcher's bandsaw, at least one and maybe both of the ribs at the ends will be unusable as chops. (This is because the ribs don't run through the meat squarely, but are on a diagonal, so when the butcher cuts through them on a bandsaw, although he starts out neatly between two ribs, he'll often end up cutting through one of them, leaving an unusable end.) Three ribs is probably the smallest chunk of meat it would be reasonable to work with -- anything less will be unstable enough on your board that at some point in the process you'll either cut yourself or knock the whole thing onto the floor.

The line of the first cut to remove the meat above the rib bones. The cut is made by marking the back end of the eye of the meat at each end of the roast, then cutting a line between those marks.

The first and easiest step is to cut away the meat on top of the ribs with a slicing or boning knife. There are a couple of things to watch for as you do this. First, the size of the "eye" of the meat, the big round neat chunk you can see on each end of the roat, can be much different from one end to the other. Before you make the cut, use your knife to make a small cut on each end to mark the meat above the ribs just behind where the eye ends. In the picture below, you can see from where I've made the first cut that the eye on the near end is smaller than the eye on the far end, and the meat to be removed is larger on the near end.

First cut completed. In a restaurant, the removed meat would be further trimmed of visible fat to make a sauce for the finished dish.

Once you've marked the ends of the line you're going to cut, the other thing to pay attention to is the angle of your cut down through the meat. It's a very natural motion to cut straight downward, and it seems to make sense because it would leave equal portions of meat on the top and bottom of that side of the eye of the roast. But if you look at how much of the meat you want to serve would be left in contact with the rib bone, you'll see that at one end of the roast you'll very nearly end up cutting the rib bones all the way off. So make your cut at a slight angle away from the main chunk of the roast all the way down the line. This will look a bit incongruous when you first make the cut, but the chops will take on a nice shape when we tie them at the end of the process.

Scoring across the ribs on the underside to cut through the membrane.

The next step is to score the membrane on the underside of the ribs. Using the knife tip, cut a line across all of the ribs, so that you cut completely through the membrane all the way to the bone -- you want to cut the membrane, not just mark it. Make this cut right below the line of the first cut where you removed the meat on top of the ribs. Then cut through the membrane right in the middle of the bottom of each rib, from the line you scored across all the ribs to the end of each one. Poke a sharp paring knife through the meat between the ribs right on the line scored across them. I do this a couple of times, once with the knife each direction (once with the blade against each of the two ribs surrounding the cut), and work the knife around a bit with the blade against the rib to cut the meat all the way down to the bone.

Scoring along the length of the ribs.

Cutting between the ribs.

Now, instead of cutting, we want to clean the bones on three sides (the bottom side, where we cut through the membrane, and the two sides of the ribs) by scraping away the meat with a paring knife. Be careful throughout this process not to tear or cut through the membrane between the meat and bones -- you want to separate the membrane from the bones by scraping sideways with the paring knife, never moving the knife forward or backward in a slicing motion, but only scraping sideways. By doing this, you can get the bones completely clean almost all the way down to the top of the bones resting on your board. You don't want to cut all the way through the meat to the board though -- remember that you never want to cut through the membrane anywhere. The intact membrane is what will make it possible to cleanly remove all of the meat from the ribs.

Scraping the membrane and meat from the ribs. Be careful not to tear or cut the membrane, including not cutting through it as you work your way down and get near the cutting board. Scrape only sideways; never move the knife forward or backward in a slicing motion.

The membrane completely scraped free from the bones.

To finish frenching the rack, stand the rack up so that the rib bones are pointed up in the air. Carefully and firmly pry and pull the meat away from the top of each rib. The meat will be slippery, so it helps to use a kitchen towel or paper towel to get a firm grasp on it. If the membrane is in good shape, not torn or cut too much in the prior step, you'll be able to get the meat off nearly in once piece. It won't come off without a bit of force, you won't be able to just tear the whole thing away in a couple seconds with one hand, but if you work one or two bones at a time the meat should be free with just a minute or so of work. After the meat comes off, finish cleaning the ribs by scraping your paring knife lengthwise along each of the bones. Any tiny bits of meat, fat, or membrane can become charred and blackened when you cook the meat, and will spoil all of the work you just did to get nice clean-looking bones and chops.

The frenched rack. The removed meat can be used to make a sauce.

This next bit can be tedious, and you might skip it if it drives you nuts. Next to the meaty ends of each of the ribs, you will often find the tip of another bone left in the meat. These are parts of the chine bone, which the pig's backbone, most of which the butcher cut away with a bandsaw when preparing the rib rack for you. I dig them out with the tip of a sharp paring knife or boning knife, using the fingers of my opposite hand to work them free as I cut. (I also sometimes find little splinters of the chine bone by running my fingers over the surface of the meat near these bone tips, in the same way that I would check a fish fillet for pin bones.) Leaving these chine bone tips in will not affect how the meat cooks, but it will make the finished chop a little more difficult and confusing for the diner to cut on the plate, since these little bones buried in the meat and lying off the line of the rib will come as a surprise. Most people will be perplexed enough by this to leave a fair amount of the meat behind on the plate, still attached to the bones, so I prefer to remove them before cooking.

The chine bone tips left in the meat -- there is a bone tip right at the end of each of my fingers here.

The chine bone tips removed. You can see the holes left in the meat by their removal. The removed meat and bones can be used in a sauce for the finished dish.

At this point, you could cook the whole trimmed rack as a roast in the oven, but instead we'll keep going and cut it into chops. Many chefs trim away excess fat from the top surface of the meat at this point, but I find that often results in tearing up the edge more than I would like, so I prefer to trim the fat after cutting the chops. Place the rack on your cutting board, and pretend for a moment that the rib bones don't exist. Look at how you would cut the meat into chops if the bones weren't there, by cutting squarely across the large cylinder of meat. Now consider the rib bones, and notice that those bones do not run squarely through the meat, but are on an angle so that they run a little diagonally through the roast. We want to cut the chops between the ribs but using cuts that run squarely across the meat rather than parallel to the bones -- those cuts will yield nice chops of uniform thickness. To finish the preparation of the chops, trim away any excess fat or loose bits of meat around the edge of each chop. Then use a piece of cotton string to tie up each chop to give it a nice even and round shape.

The first chop about to be cut. Notice that the rib bones run diagonally through the meat: the end of the bone that points upward to the right of the knife blade is the near end of the rib whose far end is right behind the tip of the knife.

Two tied finished chops, and one ready for tying. You can see from the color of the meat how the tied chops had the same little "tail" of meat hanging awkwardly off the rib, but tying the chops pulls the main part of the meat back toward the rib.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Logistics on the Line

I am way behind on posting things here for the last few weeks. There's been a lot that I would like to write about, but I've just been too buried in work. My class has moved on to Level 5 now, where we are half of the staff for a pretty nice restaurant operated by the school, L'Ecole. I highly recommend it as a great bargain in New York: you get a five course meal (well, four "real" courses, plus a salad) for just $42 in a city where the going rate for a good three course meal is $90. The menu often has a lot of great choices. Usually the food is excellent, but the risk you run is that often if the food is not good, it is very much not good. You see, among the students, there is a small percentage that doesn't really care about the quality of the work they do, and they aren't interested in any of the details. The rest of us often wonder why they are there at all, but for whatever reason, they are there and they cook in the restaurant when they reach Level 5. The customer reviews I see of the restaurant online seem to me to reflect this reality. About 80%-90% of them say that it is an outstanding restaurant with terrific food at an unheard of price in Manhattan. The other 10%-20% say that the food is awful.

Most people are a bit nervous when they first begin cooking in the restaurant kitchen. (And just like my other line of work, software development, a lot of the people who aren't nervous are the ones taht you don't really want cooking your food.) You feel like you don't know what you are doing and you are in everyone's way. One of the nice things about the way the school has arranged our transition to the restaurant is that our first day cooking there is technically the last day of Level 4 rather than the first day of Level 5. That means that we get to work under the chef we are very familiar with from the last 3 months, in our case Chef Phil. It's much easier to handle your first day in restaurant service with a chef that knows you and isn't going to form his first impression of you from a question you ask about something you're not certain of in the new environment.

That said, the day before we began cooking for customers, Chef Phil gave us a bit of a stern lecture or maybe pep talk about bringing our best game into the restaurant service. In most restaurant kichens, there is a chef called the "expediter" who shouts out orders to the line cooks who are preparing the plates to go out. The idea is that when the expediter shouts out to "fire" the order, you want to have the plate "in the window" (under the heat lamps just behind the doors to the dining room and next to the expediter) in a couple of minutes. Chef Phil in his pep talk told us that when an order first comes in, we should take whatever the main ingredient is (usually a piece of fish or meat) out of wherever it is being stored (for example, in a refrigerated drawer under the stove for fish) and put it on a sheet pan on the counter. That way, you always know that all of the food still stored is available for orders that have not yet come in, and when things start moving very fast, you know whether you are about to run out or not. For example, when it gets busy, you might have 15 uncooked fish fillets on your station, but maybe 8 of those have already been ordered so you really only have 7. If you've removed the 8 from the pile waiting in storage, you'll know that you don't have that many left.

Chef Phil really wanted to emphasize this point to us. He said: "If you do only one thing right during your shift in the restaurant, make sure you get this right. I mean, do NOT fuck this up. If you ever have to tell your chef that you don't have the product to cook an order that has been taken, the first thing you feel is gonna be his foot up your ass. And if you do that to me the first night we're in the restaurant, I will beat you in the head with a stick, and when you come to the first thing you feel will be my foot up your ass."

So far we have done fine with this. The restaurant service is very short because it is scheduled around the fact that dinner is being cooked by students who are only required to be in class from about 6pm until 10:45pm. So reservations for that service are only available between 8pm and 9pm. That makes the dinner hour in the kitchen so short that it kind of rolls through the kitchen like a wave: first the canape station is busy, then the garde manger (appetizers), then the fish station, then meats, and finally desserts. The chef instructors can sort of babysit one station at a time. Later in the service, everyone will at least have some orders being worked on, but because the dinner hour is only an hour, only one station at a time is at risk of getting overwhelmed and being "in the weeds."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

New York Pizza

In reading about the New Haven pizza places in the days before I went there to see what they were all about, I came across an old New York Times article that gave a history, or really more of a genealogy, of the pizzerias in New York that make the style of pizza that is my favorite in the city. The story can be a little confusing, especially regarding the pizza places called "Patsy's" -- Patsy's was some of the best and most famous pizza in New York for several generations, and there is more than one Patsy's pizza restaurant in the city today, but it is often unclear what relationship the current Patsy's has to the original, if any. At one extreme, you sometimes hear that it is still family owned, and at the other extreme you often hear that the name was bought out by a corporation that now keeps the restaurants going. The truth is a little of both.

The article had this nice "family tree" of New York pizzas, available online courtesy of the folks at Slice, the pizza blog. My favorite New York pizza, Angelo's, appears at the top of the tree, second from the left. Angelo Angelis opened a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn in the 1960s called Pizza Chef, and the current Angelo's in Manhattan was started by Angelo's nephews who had been trained by Angelo's son Nick of Nick's Pizza, which was run by Nick and another son of Angelo, John.

At the bottom of the tree you'll find the original New York pizza place (thought by many to be the first pizzeria in the United States), Lombardi's. I had heard of Lombardi's, but I didn't realize until looking into it over this past week that it is only a couple of blocks from school, and it is open until midnight on Saturdays, late enough to get there after we leave class. So on Saturday, I headed right there after we got out of the kitchen and back into our street clothes. Based on that one pizza, it looks like Lombardi's might have eclipsed Angelo's as my favorite pizza in the city.

The two places make a similar style of pizza, as do most of the places in the family tree from that New York Times article. They use a very light tomato sauce, usually made with crushed San Marzano canned tomatoes from Italy, and little or no herbs or spices in the sauce. The cheese is fresh mozzarella, which is too soft and wet to be grated, and is instead cut into round slices and placed on top of the pizza. Unlike most pizzas found across the United States, these pizzas do not have a solid covering of cheese; instead, the sliced rounds of cheese, about two or three inches in diameter, are placed on top of the sauce so that they cover about two-thirds of the surface area, leaving the sauce exposed on the rest. Many of the first pizza joints to open didn't call their product "pizza" in their name, but instead used the term "tomato pie," so instead of "Jack's Pizzeria," in the 1920s the place would be named "Jack's Tomato Pies." And tomato pie is exactly what I'm looking for -- I'm not in the majority when it comes to how I evaluate a pizza, but the most important thing to me is that it taste in some way like good tomatoes. (In fact, the thing I dislike about most Chicago pizza is not that it's thick or greasy or cheesey or bready, but that it arrives covered in a tomato sauce on top and yet somehow they've managed to cook all of the taste out of the sauce -- it is truly a red sauce, in the sense that all it gives the pizza is a red finish, and very little or no flavor of tomatoes. It is, to me, a bad joke.)

Lombardi's pizza. You can see here how the melted rounds
of fresh mozzarella don't completely cover the pizza.
Most New York pizza uses slightly less cheese than this,
leaving even more exposed areas of just tomato sauce.

In addition to the light tomato sauce and splotches of fresh mozzarella, another characteristic of that style of New York pizza is that it is baked in an impossibly hot oven, usually at 900F or more. The classic pizzas are made in coal-burning ovens, which are hotter than wood ovens, which in turn are hotter than gas ovens. The floor of the oven is made of smooth brick, and the pizza is placed directly on the brick floor, which has been thoroughly heated by the coal burning in the oven all day. The result is that the pizza goes from completely raw to completely cooked in just a few minutes. Often less than ten minutes elapses from the time you order a full pizza until the time it arrives at your table, because they can make it in two or three minutes and then bake it in only four minutes or so. The result of the hot oven and the superheated brick floor is that the thin crust gets slightly charred on the bottom, with a bit of grilled flavor to it, but is still soft on the top, and overall it is not at all brittle like a cracker even though it is crunchy underneath. The cheese just barely melts all the way in the short time it takes to cook the pizza, so that even though it arrives steaming hot, you can eat it immediately without getting burned because the heat has not really built up throughout the thickness of the pizza.

This is the pizza that Gennaro Lombardi made when he opened in the very early 1900s, and he passed his tradition on to some new pizza places opened by people who had worked for him, and those places are still around today: Totonno's, opened near Coney Island in 1924 and in recent years at another location in Manhattan; John's of Bleecker Street, opened in 1929, also with additional locations in the last few years (their web site now promotes the Times Square location, which probably generates the most money); and possibly Patsy's, opened in East Harlem by Patsy Lancieri in 1933 (it is uncertain whether he ever worked for Lombardi's), ultimately becoming the most ambiguous brand name on the New York pizza scene.

The name "Patsy's" first gets muddled with the opening of Patsy Grimaldi's pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge. Patsy Grimaldi is a newphew of the original Patsy Lancieri. I've read various accounts of the opening of Grimaldi's restaurant, and so far can't really find one that looks authoritative. Some say he called the place "Patsy's," and others say "Patsy Grimaldi's." Some say the name later changed because of a legal dispute about the right to use the name "Patsy's," and others say that he either sold the name or simply changed it. In any event, the restaurant was renamed "Grimaldi's," and remains under the bridge in Brooklyn today. A couple of additional locations have opened in New Jersey and on Long Island, owned and operated by relatives of Patsy Grimaldi.

Meanwhile, a couple of the original Patsy's employees bought the Patsy's pizzeria in East Harlem, presumably from Patsy or his heirs. Not long after that, they licensed the Patsy's name to the daugher and son-in-law of Angelo Angelis, the namesake (though never owner or operator) of my favorite pizza place for the past couple of years, Angelo's. The licensees opened several additional Patsy's, but although the bought the right to use the name, they apparently did not buy the original restaurant, which remains a separate business from the newer ones opened under the license. (You might notice that the original restaurant is not listed on the Patsy's website, which is run by the licensees.) So none of the Patsy's pizzerias today is owned or run by the Patsy Lancieri family, but the original location in East Harlem can still claim a pretty direct descent from the business as it originally existed in 1933.

One obstacle to opening a new pizza restaurant in New York making the original Lombardi's style of pizza is that it is now illegal to build a new coal-burning oven in Manhattan. That is probably why Patsy Grimaldi chose to open in Brooklyn, just across the bridge. More recently, Angelo's was opened in the 1990s by newphews of Angelo Angelis, who happened to find a vacant location near Carnegie Hall on 57th Street that already had a coal furnace installed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hollandaise: A Simple Procedure, A Complicated Process

Like many skills in cooking, making a classic Hollandaise is simple after you do it a few times or have good luck, but frustratingly difficult if it goes wrong and you don't know why. One of the dishes we made many times in the last week or so of our Level 3 class at school was topped with Hollandaise, and for some reason our class had a much higher than normal rate of failed Hollandaise sauces. We made Hollandaise a few times in our Level 1 and Level 2 classes, and it was something that at first I got lucky with, and then later I began to struggle with it. Then our assistant chef was watching me make it one night, and walked over and said, "You're just whisking. You don't ever just whisk a Hollandaise." Once I figured out what he meant, I understood the process of Hollandaise, and I've not had much difficulty with it since. But before I get to that, let's look at what a Hollandaise sauce is.

Hollandaise is an "emulsion," which is a smooth and homogeneous mixture of two liquids that normally cannot be mixed, like oil and water, or in the case of a salad dressing, oil and vinegar. If you whisk oil and vinegar together into a smooth, creamy, cloudy emulsion, and then leave the mixture on the counter, it will usually separate pretty quickly, often in just a minute or two, and nearly always within twenty or thirty minutes. Some substances will help stabilize an emulsion when they are added to the mix, and they are called "emulsifiers." Generally they are long molecules that have a fat-soluble structure on one end, and a water-soluble structure at the other end. (Soap is an example of such a substance, and that's why water can remove grease when you add some soap to it.) Mustard and honey are moderately effective emulsifiers -- adding them to your salad dressing mix will make it hold together longer. But the strongest emulsifier we commonly use in food preparation is egg yolks.

When we make emulsions from egg yolks, we usually begin by whisking the egg yolks with a little bit of liquid for a few minutes before beginning to add any oil. Whisking the yolks causes the protein molecules to "unwind" from the curled-up ball shape they often have in a liquid into long straight strands which both exposes their fat- and water-soluble components and allows them to better coat the droplets of oil when we begin introducing it. In the case of Hollandaise, the sauce is cooked because it is a warm sauce, but also because heating helps to more permanently unwind the proteins and keep them from winding back up like little round springs. But we don't want to get it too hot, or the eggs will scramble (the fancy way to say this is that the proteins "coagulate").

Classic Hollandaise
The classic way to make Hollandaise is this: In a bowl over a hot water bath, whisk egg yolks and a couple tablespoons of water until they have a consistency like a cake batter. Then begin adding clarified butter, at first just a few drops at a time, whisking each addition until it is completely smooth and emulsified, with no sign (such as a thread-like dark streak where you whisk) of unemulsified oil. You can add just over a half cup of clarified butter per egg yolk. When finished, the sauce is seasoned with lemon juice, salt, and maybe a bit of cayenne pepper.

The challenge to Hollandaise is that you must keep it in a fairly narrow temperature range as you make it: below about 100F, the sauce will separate because the butter will start to solidify; a little above 150F, the egg yolks will begin to coagulate and can no longer coat the oil droplets. Fifty degrees sounds like a fair amount of leeway, but if you think about how your home stove probably keeps water simmering at about 200F even on its lowest setting, you'll realize that warming something to such a low temperature on the stove and holding it there while you work with it for ten minutes or so is not always easy. (Mayonnaise is basically the same sauce, made at room temperature using oil instead of butter, which gives it a less rich flavor, but makes it much easier to make.)

Chef Matthew and Just Whisking
One night a few months ago, as we were making Hollandaise, our assistant Chef Matthew walked up to me, and in his typically inscrutable manner demanded of me, "What are you doing?" I knew that in some sense I was busted, but I really didn't know what for, so I stood there looking at him for a moment, still whisking, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, waiting for him to throw me a hint about what kitchen crime I had committed this time. Then he said, "You're just whisking." I stood there even more unsure what he meant, still whisking but now a little more slowly since my chef seemed to be indicating that wasn't such a grand idea, and thinking to myself, "It's Hollandaise, of course I'm whisking!"

Eventually, after a bit of discussion, I finally understood what he was trying to tell me. During most of the time you spend making Hollandaise (after the initial heating of the eggs, and before the final flavoring with lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper), you should be always be doing at least one of these three things to the sauce: adding more butter, heating it because it has gotten too cold (most easily done by stirring in a spoonful of hot water from the water bath), or cooling it because it has gotten too hot (again most easily by adding a spoon of cold water). If you aren't doing any of those, then you can stop whisking (but don't leave your sauce over the heat if you stop), and take a moment to figure out which of those you ought to be doing. Most of us are so uncertain about whether the sauce is about to "break" that we keep whisking and whisking as though if we stop the whole thing will fall apart. But the point of using the egg as an emulsifier is that as long as the sauce is not too cold or too hot, and does not have more fat in it than the egg yolks can handle, it is really quite stable, at least enough that you can leave it sitting still in a warm place for ten minutes at a time.

When many people in our class were fighting with their Hollandaise in Level 3, someone asked our assistant chef, Chef Ryan, whether he noticed why our sauces breaking (whether we were usually getting them too hot or too cold or adding fat too fast). He said that he really hadn't seen what led to the sauces falling apart, and then added, "By the time I come over, usually you're just standing there whisking and hoping that whisking hard enough will magically fix it." No amount of whisking will bring a broken sauce back together. But his remark underscored for me the lesson that Chef Matthew taught me several months ago: Hollandaise is not about whisking, it's about controlling temperature while you incorporate more fat into the emulsion. Whisking happens to be the way you do both of those things.

Chef Hervé's Simple Hollandaise
One night when our Level 3 chef, Chef Phil, was absent, we had a substitute, Chef Hervé. He saw how many people were having problems with the Hollandaise, and at the end of the night he demonstrated a very simple way to make a Hollandaise in just three or four minutes. He whisked some eggs briefly directly on a burner with a very low flame, then added all of the butter at once, but very cold, directly out of the refrigerator. Then he raised the heat just a bit, and whisked madly for about three minutes, at the end of which he had a beautifully smooth and stable sauce. People were so impressed with the simplicity of his method that at the beginning of our next class, they asked our Chef Phil if they could make the sauce that way. He said that as far as he was concerned, any method that gave us a good Hollandaise was fine with him, but that we should know how to make it in the classic way because if we were ever asked by a chef considering us for a position in a restaurant to make a Hollandaise we would most likely be expected to make it the "right" way. He also warned us that just because Chef Hervé made his way look easy, we shouldn't expect that it would magically work for us any better than the classic method. Several people subsequently learned how true that is.

Ultimately, no matter how you make the sauce, the process will be the same: you must form an emulsion by mixing a very small amount of melted butter into egg yolks, and then slowly incorporate the rest of the butter into the sauce. Chef Hervé's method does not change this fundamental process: even though it looks like you're whisking all of the butter in at once, in reality you are only whisking in a little bit at a time, in the form of the part of the butter that has melted at any given moment while you whisk. In a way, Chef Hervé's way of making the sauce requires more skill, because where the classic way allows you to work on adding butter or control temperature separately from each other, Chef Hervé's simpler approach forces you to constantly add butter as it melts, it constantly cools your sauce as the cold butter melts into it, and it forces you to constantly heat the sauce to counteract that cooling. On the other hand, once you master the technique, his quick Hollandaise technique gives you an easy way to monitor and control the variable that most often derails you, which is the temperature of the sauce. The temperature is easily observed by simply watching how fast your butter is melting.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

In Some Hot Water

A large working kitchen, like many workplaces devoted to the fabrication of a physical product, is often a dangerous place. At school earlier this week, about an hour before the end of class on Tuesday night, one of my friends was seriously burned in an accident and went to the hospital, and will have to stay in the burn center for awhile, probably two to four weeks. Many of the things we work with inspire a healthy fear of injury that makes us careful when we are around them: large knives (especially cleavers), large pots with several gallons of screaming hot oil for deep frying that we sometimes move around the kitchen, meat grinders, stand mixers that you could fit an adult person inside if you wanted to, four-hundred-degree commercial convection ovens. But my friend was hurt by something we so commonly work with in the kitchen that I think we forget how dangerous it can be. A ten gallon container of chicken stock that was sitting near the floor fell over a couple of feet or so behind him, and the hot stock, which had just been strained from where it had been cooking all evening, poured down the back of both of his legs and soaked into his socks and shoes.

At first, no one realized how serious the injury was. We knew he was burned and hurting, and a lot of people ran to get ice and water. He ended up in a storeroom because it is cool and out of the way of traffic constantly moving through the kitchens we work in just behind the restaurant kitchens, and a chef there called 911. My friend who was hurt said, "We don't need to call 911, I'll just get a cab to the hospital." Fortunately, everyone ignored him and got an ambulance anyway, and by the time he reached the hospital, he was pounding the walls of the ambulance in reaction to the pain and he'd been given a lot of morphine. Both of his feet and legs are now bandaged from about halfway below the knee to somewhere in the middle or toward the front of his foot, and he and the doctors will determine this week whether he needs skin grafts around his ankles and feet.

I've seen him a couple of times in the hospital in the last few days, and he is always glad to see visitors and carries on normal conversation, and doesn't seem either worn out or beaten down. But if you know how he usually looks, you can see now that his facial muscles are always slightly tense in what looks like an involuntary response to the constant pain he is in from the burns. I can also tell that he loses track of a conversation easily as the topic changes, which I assume is because of the pain medication he is on at all times now. He says that when his feet are washed or the bandages are changed, the feeling is almost unbearable, the kind of pain that can make someone become unconscious in response. From the little half-inch blister burns I've gotten on my hands at school, I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to have that all around both ankles and under my heels, let alone having someone come in a scrub it once or twice a day. He is handling himself amazingly well.

We talk often about when he might be ready to come back to school to finish the program. Unfortunately for us, we are losing him as part of our team -- there is no way he'll heal fast enough to rejoin our class, or even the next class behind us (a new one starts about every 7 weeks), so he's hoping to get into the group that will start Level 4 (the one we are in now) on Tuesday September 9. It would be nice if he could make it into that group, because our class will be in Level 6 (the last one) cooking in the restaurant kitchen on the same floor where he will be in Level 4, and we would get to work together again a bit before we all leave the school.

I wonder how he'll feel about large pots of boiling water when he steps into the kitchen again. The pots we use to make stock are enormous -- they are about three feet tall (about as tall as most kitchen counters) and around two feet in diameter, and probably hold something like 40 gallons. They have spigots near the bottom, because it would be very difficult if not impossible to either lower them from the stove when they're full or get anything out of them from the top when they're hot. The recipe for the veal stock we make in them starts with a hundred pounds of veal bones and 15 gallons of water. Since the accident last Tuesday, I don't feel any fear working around them, but I have more of an awareness of when they're hot and full and what's going on with them, especially the ones right behind where I work since I've taken up my friend's spot next to them since he left. The first morning when he was in the hospital, the people bringing food to the rooms asked him if he would like some chicken broth, and he responded dryly but with his usual good humor that the ten gallons he'd just had was enough for awhile. I hope I and the rest of our group can be there to welcome him back into the kitchen when he's ready to return.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Haven Pizza: Pepe's and Sally's

Over this past weekend, I visited New Haven, Connecticut, about a two hour train ride from New York, on a mission to eat two pizzas. Among afficionados, "New Haven-style pizza" is an accepted part of the lexicon that describes the pizza universe, and there are two old and widely-known purveyors of New Haven-style pizza separated by a little more than one block on Wooster Street, tucked away in a small neighborhood between the railroad tracks and interstate highways just southeast of the Yale University campus. Frank Pepe's, at 157 Wooster Street, is the original New Haven pizza place, opened in 1925, and still owned and operated by Frank's family. About the same time that Pepe's expanded its operation by buying the building next door to its original location, Sally's Apizza was opened by Sal Consiglio at 237 Wooster Street in 1938, and it too is still owned and operated by Sal's family.

The pizza oven at Pepe's. Below you can see the top of
the coal-burning chamber that fires the oven.

Around 1pm, I met a couple of friends who live in Connecticut, and we headed for Pepe's, which is open all afternoon (Sally's doesn't open until 5pm). Although it was about 2:30pm before we got there, and we were visiting on a Sunday afternoon at a time of year when most of the Yale students are gone, there was quite a line formed outside on the sidewalk waiting to get in. While we were waiting, a pleasantly rotund man came out of the restaurant wearing a Frank Pepe's white T-shirt and introduced himself to everyone in line as Steve, the manager of the restaurant. He thanked everyone for coming and said he hoped that upon trying one of his pizzas we would feel like it was worth standing in line for. One of the things both Pepe's and New Haven are famous for is clam pizzas, and Steve told us that although some clam beds had been closed because of bacteria found in the water, he had practically cornered the market in fresh local clams for this weekend and the clam pizzas were very good that day.

Pepe's kitchen. Note the very long handled
pizza peels, for moving pizzas around the oven which goes
about five or six pizzas deep behind the opening.

When we got inside, we ordered two pizzas: one with just sauce and cheese, and one with clams on half and sausage on the other. One of the peculiarities of New Haven pizza is that the sauce and cheese pizza is not considered a "plain" pizza -- a plain pizza in these parts does not have any cheese, but only a crust, sauce, and a few herbs on top. If you want mozzarella cheese, you order a "mozz" pizza, with "mozz" is pronounced like "mootz" where the "oo" is like "book" or "football." So the waiter repeated our order: "One medium mootz, one small mootz half clam half sausage." The pizza arrived, and it was everything I wanted it to be: a thin crust, maybe only an eighth of an inch thick, that was slightly charred and crispy on the bottom, but still soft enough to have some chewiness and taste; a fresh-tasting tomato sauce that was only lightly flavored with herbs; and a solid covering of cheese cooked until it was just beginning to brown and reaching to within a quarter inch of the edge all around. My friend who ordered the clam pizza remarked on how good it was and that the clams were very fresh. Pepe's pizzas didn't strike me as unusual in any particular way, except for maybe tasting a bit salty (but not unpleasantly so) from what I think was a little salt applied to the bottom of the crust. They were simply very good pizzas that had good flavor in the crust, sauce, and cheese, and I would eat them all the time if I had them nearby.

The line ahead of us at Sally's before opening.

Later that day, we got in the pre-opening line at Sally's just after 5pm, the scheduled opening time, although they didn't open until almost twenty minutes after the hour. If you're in line before a place opens, and you don't make it into the first seating, you're probably facing a pretty long wait until the next round of tables starts to open up. That's exactly what happened to us, and I am grateful to my friends for sticking it out and staying there to try yet more pizza with me, even though they'd already gotten enough mootz for one day. We finally made it into the restaurant around 6:30pm, and ordered just one plain (well, not plain, but mootz) pizza.

Our pizza at Sally's, before we finished it off.

As expected, a Sally's pizza is in the same general style as a Pepe's pizza: a thin crust charred on the bottom and soft on top, a flavorful tomato sauce, and a solid covering of mozzarella cheese. But the two pizzas have a different character, and having both within a few hours of each other really brought out the differences in them for me. A Sally's pizza is like a Pepe's pizza that has been pushed a bit further to some of its limits. First and most obviously, the Sally's pizza is cooked more than a Pepe's pizza. The top edge of the crust at Sally's was so charred in most places that we didn't eat it, and the cheese was more browned, with dark spots peppering the entire top of the pie every half inch or so. As it happens, I'm a big fan of browned pizza cheese, so I like this a lot. The sauce was flavored with a heavier hand, so that where the Pepe's sauce tasted mostly of fresh tomatoes, the Sally's sauce felt more substantial with more of an herb flavor or maybe just a cooked and concentrated flavor. Although I would regularly go to either place if it were convenient, I clearly preferred the Sally's pizza, which is a bit surprising since the thing I most highly value in a pizza is the tomato flavor of the sauce and Sally's seasoned their sauce a little more. I guess the browned cheese and the overall interesting toasty flavor of the whole thing was enough to carry the day.

In addition to the pizzas having slightly different flavor profiles, the restaurants themselves feel different from each other. Pepe's feels a little touristy. They understand that people who study pizza and pizza history (and with the internet nowadays, we can all study the history of just about anything that strikes our fancy) come from all over the country to try their pizza, and they have a "get 'em in and get 'em out" approach to the business in some ways. It is the only restaurant I've ever been in where when you finally get to the front of the line for a table, the host simply says to you something like, "Table 25," and you go into the restaurant and the tables are all clearly numbered and you seat yourself at your assigned table. The service was efficient but unremarkable, and we left only about an hour after we had first gotten in the line outside.

The scene inside Sally's Apizza.

Sally's, on the other hand, felt a lot more like a neighborhood hang out for New Haven locals. There were very few servers, and they were not in any hurry to turn the tables over and get people in and out of the place. Where Pepe's had Steve the manager, hired to run the restaurant, many of the guests at Sally's were seated by Flo, Sal's widow who still owns the business. Most tables we saw were getting an outrageous amount of pizza, as though the regular customers come there to spend an evening together drinking, talking, laughing, and eating whatever new pizza arrived at the table every half hour or so. A larger table of about 7 people that sat down after we had ordered our one little plain mootz pizza must have gotten 5 or so large pizzas delivered to it while we still waiting for ours. One of my friends commented that the thing to do at Sally's was order three pizzas, eat two of them, and take one home, because that's what most of the tables of two people around us seemed to be doing. While both Pepe's and Sally's had what amounted to cheap diner booths with old fake wood paneling all around, Pepe's felt more open and Sally's more dark and confined, again making Sally's feel like more of a neighborhood pizza joint compared to Pepe's slightly touristy appeal.

Now that I've had genuine New Haven pizza, I can comment on the similarity and difference between that pizza and the old style of New York pizza that traces its roots back to the turn of the twentieth century. The main difference between the two is in the cheese: an old school classic New York Pizza Margherita uses only fresh mozzarella cheese, which is almost pure white unlike the slightly yellowed or beige color of what most of us think of as mozzarella cheese, and is so soft that it cannot be grated and is instead used in quarter-inch-thick rounds that are sliced from the ball of cheese that is usually about three or four inches in diameter. (If you live in the Midwest, you might never have seen fresh mozzarella cheese on a pizza or anywhere else, unless you've had a caprese salad at a good Italian restaurant.) On a New York pizza, the fresh mozzarella round slices are applied over the top of the pizza a bit like a topping in the sense that there is not a solid covering of cheese but instead there are just splotches of cheese every so often on top of the sauce. A New Haven mootz pizza has the more usual American solid coating of grated beige mozzarella cheese. The other difference is in the sauce. New York pizzas have a very light and very fresh-tasting tomato sauce, with almost no flavoring (sometimes literally no flavoring) to it other than the tomatoes. New York pizzas require very good tomatoes -- you can't just break open a can of Hunt's or Heinz tomatoes for your pizza, or the result will be almost inedible. Generally New York pizzas are made using canned San Marzano tomatoes brought over from Italy. In New Haven, they also make their pizza with high-quality tomatoes, but they flavor the sauce a bit more with a few herbs and spices in a traditional American way.

Pepe's website
Sally's website

Slice entry: New Haven Pizza, Part One: Frank Pepe's
Slice entry: New Haven Pizza, Part Two: Sally's Apizza

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Midterm

A little over a week ago, I passed the midterm exam that marks the halfway point of the culinary program I'm in at the FCI. My score wasn't great, but it was good enough, probably about average in our class. Everyone says that the midterm is the most difficult exam that we'll take in the school. The final exam, at the end of the program (in late October for my class), is very similar to the midterm, but when you take it you have a lot more experience with precise cooking and formal plating, and I've heard that the two dishes that you have to cook for the final are drawn from only four possible choices whereas for the midterm your two dishes are drawn from sixteen possibilities that you need to be ready to make.

The Level 3 curriculum consists of sixteen dishes that the class makes over and over again. There are four appetizers (soups or vegetable salads), four fish dishes, for main course meats, and four desserts. For the first half of Level 3, as a class we make eight of those sixteen dishes each night, and in the last half we make four of them each night along with a canapé (a single-bite appetizer assembled so that it can be picked up with hands not using utensils) of our own devising prepared from ingredients that the chef would bring into class each day. For the exam, the chef picks one dish from each of the categories -- one appetizer, one fish, one meat, and one dessert. Then you draw out of a hat to see which two of those four dishes you will make for your exam. You either get an appetizer and a meat, or a fish and a dessert. Whatever dishes you draw, you prepare four plates of those dishes to present to the judging panel. When your plates go to the judges, one of the first things they look at is whether your four plates look identical, because one of the purposes of Level 3 is to develop consistency in cooking, portioning, and presenting food, and no one likes to have two examples of the same dish go out to two different diners in a restaurant with noticeable differences that will make one of the diners think he got the short end of the stick in some way. While you cook for the exam, other chefs from the school who have not been instructors for your class serve as proctors, and walk around the room making notes on how you go about your work, looking at things like whether you are efficient with time and the product and equipment you take, and whether you are organized and your station is kept clean while you are working.

Going into the exam, many people have certain dishes that they hope not to draw as their exam assignment. My own preference was to make an appetizer and a main course meat, as opposed to the fish course and a dessert. I don't like to make the dessert dishes, and in particular there was one dish on our list that I knew I couldn't make one part of correctly at all: the Crème Renversée, which is a baked and chilled vanilla custard with caramel on top, and includes rolled tuille cookies, which are very thin sugar cookies rolled up while they are still hot into cigarette shapes, and I had never been able to make decent tuilles in all of my attempts. I spent several hours making about 30 of them at home one night before the exam, and not a single one would have been acceptable for real restaurant service. So of course when we got to the exam and I drew out of the hat the little paper that gave me my dishes and serving times, wouldn't you know that I got the Filet de Limande Marguery (an elegant white flounder dish) and the Crème Renversée. To make up for it, at least I got lucky with late serving times, drawing the fifth time out of six possibilities.

The flounder is one of my favorite dishes in the Level 3 curriculum. Our chef prescribes an especially formal plating for the dish, and really it is the only dish of all of our meats and fish for Level 3 that is more elegant than rustic. Since all of the parts of it cook so quickly, and I had made it a couple of times very successfully earlier in class, I let myself think that it was easier for me to make than it really is. In a nutshell, here's what you do: filet the flounder and make a stock from the bones with some aromatics; cut and turn potatoes into little football shapes called cocotte and cook them in simmering salted water; steam mussels using some white wine in a pan in which you first sweat some shallots and shrimp shells; fold or roll the fish fillets so they are an inch or so thick and cook them along with some shrimp that you had peeled earlier in a skillet with shallots, fish stock and white wine; make a white sauce by reducing the cooking liquid after removing the fish and then reducing cream into it. Really that should be easy, but like everything we do, it always takes me longer than I think it will. To plate it, we reheat everything, and plate the rolled fish fillet in the middle of the plate, surrounded by mussels on the half shell alternated with the cocotte potatoes pointing away from the fish at six even points on the plate, so that the mussels are oriented as though they lie along clock hands pointing to twelve, four, and eight o'clock, and the potatoes similarly pointing at two, six, and ten o'clock. The fish is then completely covered in the white sauce made by reducing cream into the stock and wine from cooking the fish, and then it is topped with one or two (depending on their size) shrimp.

Before I began working on the flounder, though, I made my Crème Renversée, which is a custard that must be baked and then chilled for serving, so I wanted to make sure that I got it out of the oven in time to get it chilled all the way through before its 9:55pm serving time. To begin, I melted sugar with a bit of water in a pan and heated it until it began to darken and turn into caramel. This is always a dicey operation for me, because I can't really tell dark red from brown or black, so there's no visible difference to me between good caramel and sugar that has been cooked so bitter as to be inedible. I used gentler heat than most people do in caramelizing sugar so I could watch it darken slowly, and taking my best guess about when it was done I threw a bit of ice in the pan to stop it from overheating and poured it into the ramekins I had ready for the custards. In making the custard, for which you basically whisk sugar into eggs, boil milk with vanilla, and then mix the two together, when I tempered the egg mixture, for the first time ever in making a custard, some of my eggs scrambled. I cooled the mix a bit by stirring it and then got everything combined together and strained it, and I ended up with about one or two teaspoons of scrambled egg in the strainer. At that point, I had to decide whether to start over or press on hoping there was still enough egg in the mix to set the custards. I decided to keep going, but then I was worried for the rest of the night about whether my custards had really set in the middle. (They had.)

After serving my flounder (due at 9:13pm), I still hadn't made tuilles for the dessert. They don't take long to make, and I was otherwise all set with my custards, but I had never made them successfully. In the end, I got lucky again, because for the exam I made the only decent tuilles I've ever made (but I think I learned that previously I had never spread the batter thin enough), and my dish went out the door to the judges on time and they were happy with it.

Now we are on to Level 4, a much different environment in which for the first time we are cooking food meant to be eaten by people not in our class. Up to now, everything we've made has really been an exercise, to be evaluated by our instructors and then either eaten by us or thrown away. (By the end of Level 3, everyone is so tired of having those dishes that nearly everything gets thrown away.) Now we are preparing food for the rest of the school to eat on their meal breaks, and some of us also do "production" for the restaurant and the rest of the school, which means cleaning, trimming, and breaking down large cuts of meat or fish into the portions to be cooked in the restaurant or in classes, and also making the stocks used throughout the school. Perhaps I'll share more on this and other things later; for now I'm glad to have gotten through what everyone says is the hardest part of the program.

Friday, May 16, 2008

It's Not Fun

This entry is still a draft, because it's 2am and time to go to sleep. I might revise it later, and fix typographical errors or instances of the same word in ten sentences in a row. But I wanted to put it out there, so those of you that I don't ever have time to talk to anymore know what this cooking school is like when there's work to do. The times I give below are all approximate, and there's even more going on than I bother to describe, so don't get too analytical and figure out that somewhere as I describe it there were fifteen minutes in which all I did was peel one potato or something.

Tonight was our "mock midterm," where we go through the process that we will experience for our exam coming up in three weeks. A lot of people that I've described this to have said, "That sounds like fun." And I guess it would be, if you were any good at it. At least two people I know of in our class had fun tonight, because they work really fast, which is, as you will soon see, the key. Most of the rest of us got tortured, as usual.

The way our exam works is that you randomly draw a number from a hat, and your number corresponds to two dishes (either a soup or warm vegetable salad along with a main course meat, or a fish dish along with a dessert) and assigned serving times for your dishes. I drew the third serving time, which meant that I had an extra 14 minutes to work with, and for where I am at the moment as far as speed and skill (mainly speed), it was a good thing. Had it been the real exam and I'd drawn the first time, I'd probably have ample free time for myself in the next few weeks because I don't think I'd still be in the school.

The two dishes that I made were a simple rustic vegetable soup (probably the easiest dish in the whole Level 3 program) and a whole roasted chicken with very brown (caramelized) garnishes. We began cooking at 6pm, and my serving times were 8:59pm for the soup and 9:48pm for the chicken. You're probably already thinking, "You had 3 hours just to make a vegetable soup! How can that be hard?" I wonder the same thing every night as I drag my sore and tired self to the train to go home. The truth of the matter is just that I work too slowly, and let simple things bring me to a halt. Some of my difficulty is that there is a contingent within our class that behaves like little kids, turning their back on every mess they make, so tonight as an example there was one sink that I unclogged 3 times in the first 90 minutes of the exam. But that's more of an annoyance and a distraction than a drain on time. Mostly I struggle with getting things (ingredients, containers, pots and pans) quickly and efficiently enough.

For example, one of the tasks for making the soup is that you need to cook some green beans in boiling salted water, then cool them in an ice batch when they are done, and finally drain them and hold them until a few minutes before you serve the soup. That takes a pot for the cooking, a bowl for the ice bath, and a small hotel pan or sizzle platter to keep them on after they've been cooled off. I'm not very good at getting all of those things in one trip, so I end up wasting a lot of time moving around the kitchen. And by the way, in addition to wasting my time, that's also bad citizenship on my part, because the more people you have moving around, the harder it is for everyone to do their work. So why do I end up doing it this way? As the three year old who just hit his sister says when asked why he did it: "I don't know." A lot of it is simply not knowing the recipes or the process well enough, so instead of being in control of it, I'm just reacting to it. In the example of the beans that need the pot, bowl, and platter, I'm not setting out at the start of that process to cook green beans from beginning to end, because you can't devote all of your attention to that one task. So there's no moment where I think to myself, "Self, let's cook some green beans. OK, we need something to cook them in and then someplace to put them later." Instead, the mental process is more like this: "OK, I've got my base vegetables sweating to make stock for the soup, and now I should truss up my chicken. But wait, what could I have going while I'm working on the chicken? I know, I'll put some water on so it'll be ready to cook something when I'm done prepping the chicken." So off I go and get a pan and some water and salt, and put that on the flattop (because the stock is on the only burner I have) and forget about it (because it's going to take about 20 minutes to boil on that dumbass flattop) and start on my chicken.

It is certainly possible to do all of this in a lot less time than I spend. One guy in our class is usually by far the fastest cook in the room, and often likes to do extra stuff. Early tonight, when I crossed paths with him in the kitchen at one point, I said to him, teasing, "So what are you going to make us for family meal in the middle of your exam tonight?" About a half hour later, when I bumped into him again as I was on my way to get something, he said, "I left something on your board for you." It turned out that in his spare time during the exam he had made a separate dish for me to eat that is in our Level 3 book but was not part of the exam tonight: a macedoine (small 5mm dice) of cooked vegetables, plated in a ring mold, with a poached egg on top of them and a warm egg yolk emulsion sauce over the top, with a decorating garnish of a few strips of peeled and julienned plum tomato placed on top of the whole thing. He was making the same dishes for the exam that I was making, with earlier serving times, and while I struggled to come within 5 minutes of my assigned time, he cranked out an extra dish because I teased him and because he could. I never had time to eat it.

Here is roughly the process I went through this evening:

For the first 10-15 minutes, I was simply rounding things up: carrots, turnips, celery, leeks, onion, potatoes, cabbage, bacon, mushrooms, pearl onions, fresh green beans, frozen peas, veal stock, white wine, oil, butter, salt. All of this needs to be put in bowls or other containers, washed where necessary, and carried back to the station. The vegetables then need to be peeled, and the potatoes once peeled need to be kept on your station in water.

Next, after peeling them, I squared off my carrots (so that I could later cut them into "paysanne," or confetti-like squares about 6-7mm on a side, and 2mm thick) and then roughly cut up those trimmings, along with the leek greens and a bay leaf and other trimmings as I made them, and put them into a small pan with a bit of fat and put them over low heat to "sweat" for ten minutes or so (that is, to soften them and bring out their flavor without browning them at all, because this should be a light and bright-colored soup). At this point, it was already about 6:45.

Then, because I hadn't sorted myself out enough yet to know what it was important to do, and having at least learned in the past few weeks not to just stand there and think about it, I peeled potatoes and started cutting a couple of them into "cocotte," or little football-like shapes, because I would need 12 of those later to go with the chicken. In the middle of that, I poured the water over my sweating vegetables to start the vegetable stock.

I finished my footballs a little after 7:00. (I had a good night at tournage -- sometimes that can take a half hour if I screw up a bunch of them.) My water was boiling for beans by now, so I threw those in. At that point, I started to get worried about not having started the chicken yet, and I fetched my chicken from the refrigerator. I cut away the excess fat around the back end, removed the wishbone at the front, trimmed off the ends of the wings, and cleaned up the ends of the wing and leg bones so they'd look nice on the finished plate later (sort of like frenching rib bones, but on poultry they call this manchonner instead of frenching). I had about a five minute delay in this process because Chef Phil stopped by and was chatting about nothing in particular while I was working on my chicken, and as I was taking the wishbone out and glancing up at him in conversation now and then, I cut the index finger on my left hand and had to run off and wash it up, stop the bleeding, and bandage it. (It was a very small cut, not to worry.) Finally I seasoned the chicken inside, trussed it up, seasoned it outside, stuck it in a bowl, covered it with plastic, wrote my name on it with the Sharpie I always carry in my pocket now, and put it in the fridge for later.

It's now getting near 7:30.

My green beans are done now, so I take them out, realize I've never gotten ice in a bowl yet and run off to do that to cool them, and throw the peas into the hot salty water to thaw out for a few minutes. Then I remember that I ought to get some water on because the first step in cooking the footballed potatoes is to blanch them in (unsalted) water. So I fetch another pan (which I should have gotten at the same time as the ice for the beans, along with a sizzle platter that I probably didn't get but I don't recall for sure), put the footballs in it with just enough water to cover them, pull the vegetable stock off my one burner and put the potatoes over the high flame. I strain the vegetable stock into another pan.

Now it's about 7:45, and I realize that I haven't really started cutting my vegetables into paysanne (confetti squares), and we're getting to where the soup is up in not much more than an hour. So I cut my carrots and turnips into confetti squares, and thinly slice the celery and leeks. In the meantime, the potatoes have come to a boil, and as soon as they do, I pull them out and set them on a towel to air dry. (More on the potatoes later.) I get my vegetables into a pot with a bit of fat, and put them over low heat to sweat.

Eight o'clock, and I begin worrying that I haven't really started the chicken yet at all, other than getting it trussed. But my one burner is busy making the soup that is due up any minute. So I start doing the only things I feel like I can do on the chicken, which are throw some bacon lardons (that I had cut earlier from a whole slab bacon) in a small pan on the flattop, and start peeling pearl onions, which is about the worst thing in the world to have to do if the clock is not your friend. Eventually, the vegetables have sweated enough that they are soft, and I throw the vegetable stock on them (which I had degreased in a spare moment), add potatoes that I've cut into paysanne (their starch will thicken the soup a bit), and heat it up to a simmer and move it from the burner to the flattop so that I can cook my pearl onions in a small pan on the main burner. The bacon cooks up while this is going on, and I set it aside and toss some quartered mushrooms into the bacon grease to cook. The onions and mushrooms finish about the same time, and I toss the pearl onions, bacon, and mushrooms, all nicely browned, into a small hotel pan and set them aside for later.

It's about 8:20, and finally I get the chicken on, just in time. The chicken has to be browned in hot oil for about 4 minutes on each of 4-6 surfaces, which takes about 15-20 minutes. While that's going on, I finish off my soup by throwing a bit of cabbage in it that I had earlier cut in chiffonade (thin ribbons, which I trimmed short in this case to match the texture of the paysanne vegetables) along with the beans that I had cooked earlier (and subsequently diced in a spare minute) and the peas.

8:45, and at last the chicken is browned on all sides and can go in the oven, which frees up the burner to heat the soup up to boiling just before serving. There's a chance now I might even get the soup out on time! But wait, I forgot to make croutons with cheese! Fortunately I had grated the cheese earlier, so I slice up some bread, hit it with cheese, throw it in the oven on a sizzle platter, and run for a plate to get warm to serve it on alongside the soup in bowls (which have been warming on a shelf made from rods above the stove and flattop).

8:55, I begin plating the soup in my warm bowls. Just as I get one ladle into the second bowl, I realize I haven't seasoned the soup. Doh! So I salt it, taste it and see that it's not enough, and then in my haste I basically have a salt spill and the soup is now pretty much inedible except that I've got two bowls partly plated that might be salvageable. (We must present four plates of each dish, all identically prepared.) At this point, it is what it is, I finish plating it, get my cheesey bread out of the oven and arrange it in a pinwheel on a separate warm plate, and carry it all up to the front, about one minute late. Chef tastes the soup and says it is excellent. The assistant chef tastes a different bowl, and it is so salty that it cannot be eaten at all. They look at each other puzzled for a moment, and I explain, which I'd rather not do because I've got work to do yet on the chicken.

It's 9:10, and I've dumped my bowls of soup (because there is no surface anywhere on which to keep them, and they're so salty they can't be eaten anyhow) through a strainer and put the vegetables from them into the compost. Now I start the next step of my football potatoes, which is to saute them in oil until they are nicely browned all around. 9:20. Then I take the chicken out of the oven, set the chicken aside on a sizzle platter, pour off the excess fat from the pan, deglaze it with white wine, and add veal stock to the mirepoix (chopped onions and carrots) left in it to make a sauce for the chicken. 9:25. While that cooks for a bit, I cut the cooked chicken into quarters, and set it aside again on its sizzle platter. 9:30. Then I strain the sauce into another pan, skim it to get the grease and crud off the surface, and heat it up to reduce it some. 9:35. While it reduces, I go back to the chicken and cut each quarter in half, removing the thigh bone from the leg quarters (so now there are eight pieces, four with a bone -- two breast parts with one trimmed wing bone, and two leg parts with a leg bone -- and four boneless pieces. I pop those into the oven, along with a container holding the pearl onions, mushrooms, and bacon cooked earlier, and the potatoes in their skillet where I sauteed them earlier.

All of this has taken quite a bit of time, and it's after 9:40 now, the dish due up in under 10 minutes. I clean up my board because otherwise I'll have no clean surface on which to set up my four plates. I set my warm plates out on the board, spoon a bunch of the sauce (which is still too runny -- it hasn't reduced enough) onto each plate, get the chicken out of the oven and arrange two pieces on each plate so that each plate has one white and one dark piece, and one with a bone and one without. I spoon the browned pearl onion, mushroom, and bacon garnish around one side of the plated chicken, and nestle three browned and roasted football potatoes to one side of the garnish up against the chicken pieces. I take it up at 9:51, three minutes late.

Chef says, "OK, tell me what's wrong with this plate." I say, "The sauce is too loose. The skin on some of the chicken pieces is torn." Chef says, "The sauce is a little bitter -- you burned your mirepoix again. The mushrooms are too brown. The chicken is really pretty good."

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Immersing yourself for months in a new activity eventually changes the way you think about a lot of things. The other day, I was talking to a friend at school after we had been trimming up and frenching the bones on a rack of pork chops. While washing my hands, I was still thinking about butchering and preparing meats for cooking, and for no particular reason I thought of and said, "Man, can you imagine having to bone out a hand? That would be really hard." "Oh my gosh, that would be an awful job."

About a minute later, it struck me how strange it was for two people to share that thought just as a simple observation, an objective statement of fact. It's the kind of thing that anyone might think of and say, but before having gone to chef school for awhile, I would certainly have said it as a wisecrack or joke, or maybe a far-fetched exaggeration or satire. But now, it is only an observation about the relative difficulty of preparing and presenting different ingredients. It really would be quite a chore to bone out a human hand and keep it in any kind of shape for cooking and presentation on a plate. Probably a lot harder than, say, a quail, which I've also never yet prepared. You'd have to practice it a lot to become any good at it. If you drew that as your assignment for an exam, you'd be screwed.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

School: Level 3 Begins

Earlier this week at school, my classmates and I began Level 3 of the culinary arts program. Level 3 is all about consistency and timing in both preparation and presentation. It concludes the first half of the program, during which we only cook for ourselves and our instructors. In Levels 4-6, we begin cooking for the public, at first in Level 4 for the other students, faculty and staff at the school, and then in Levels 5 and 6 when we go work in the school's restaurant.

In Level 3, each of us has one or two dishes to make every night, and an assigned time to present them to the chef. You make four servings of your dish, plate them all identically, and carry them up to the chef for evaluation at your assigned presentation time. For the first couple of classes, chef was fairly lenient and allowed people to show their dishes up to ten minutes or so late, but last night (our third class) he finally enforced at least one hard deadline, yelling over the room, "If you don't have those eggs up here in two minutes, you can just throw them in the compost." ("Those eggs" in this case were an appetizer or warm salad consisting of several vegetables cut in a small dice, cooked separately, then combined and plated with a ring mold, and topped with a poached egg which was covered in hollandaise sauce.)

As a group, we make the same dishes over and over again. There are four stations in the kitchen, and there are four recipes used throughout Level 3 at each of the stations, for a total of 16 different dishes. The stations in the kitchen are: garde manger (soups and salads), poissonier (fish), saucier (meats), and patissier (desserts). The recipes emphasize very basic classical preparation and cooking techniques, rather than interesting or fresh or modern tastes, and the idea behind them is that these are the things you need to be able to do properly even if you're having a bad day. You want to get to where everything is perfectly cooked, seasoned, and plated, and then served before it begins to suffer in quality from waiting around if you finish before the assigned service time.

Level 3 has a much more regular routine to each class, and although we work at a station with one partner, we prepare all of the dishes on our own. When it makes sense, partners can share some of the prep work, such as cutting up vegetables, but usually it's easier just to do your own thing and not try to coordinate with someone else. If you get in a jam, especially as you approach your plating and presentation time, if your partner has a moment to spare, you might be able to ask for help for a minute. Otherwise, everything about your dish is up to you.

The routine for the class begins with the usual gathering of ingredients that precedes the official start time of 5:45pm. From 5:45 until about 6:15, the chef instructor will lecture or demonstrate something new or something that he's noticed people having trouble with. Then for the next two or three hours, we're off on our own to prepare our dishes. Right now, everything is served between 8:30pm and 9:30pm, though chef might plan to move this schedule up in the coming weeks:

8:30: First garde manger dish
8:37: First fish
8:42: First meat
8:49: First dessert
8:56: Second garde manger
9:03: Second fish
9:10: Second meat
9:17: Second dessert

Once presentations are done, we clean the kitchen until about 9:35, and then have a half-hour break. After the break, chef will talk or do more demonstrations, and then we usually finish early around 10:35 or so. While it would seem to make sense to skip the break and leave for the night a half hour early, I think the school has a rule for the instructors that they need to keep everyone in class until at least 10:30, and given that it is nice to have a few minutes to wind down from cooking before we have a bit of post-game lecture and discussion.

For the first couple of classes, each of us had only a single dish to make, which allowed a lot of time to learn our way around the new kitchen we are in for this level. For last night's class, the third one, the garde manger and dessert stations were told that each person should make both of their dishes for the night. You'll soon realize this adds up to an awful lot of food we are making and can't possibly eat, even if we weren't sick of eating the same things class after class. There are four people working each station, and if they both make both dishes, each person is producing eight finished plates, for a total of 32 servings from that one station, with only 20 people in the room to consume it (18 students and two chef instructors). So altogether we can end up with about 32 full four-course meals every night.

The exam at the end of Level 3, which is the midterm exam for the program, is said to be the most difficult exam we will take. For the exam, the chef selects some of the dishes from the collection of Level 3 recipes, and then each of us will randomly draw an assignment to determine what we will make. Our assignment will either consist of a garde manger and a meat dish, or a fish dish and a dessert, along with our assigned serving times. The dishes are served to a panel of judges made up of recent graduates from the school. As our previous chef said, "They can be very tough. Since they finished at the school, they've been working in the trade for two or three months, and they think they know everything now." In addition to the finished product and meeting your assigned serving time, you are also graded by proctors who watch as you work in the kitchen, looking at everything from how clean and organized you are and whether your knives are sharp to whether you are preparing the recipes in a logical order and using proper techniques.

For the exam, you cook the recipes without any notes, which means you need to have them memorized. Before we got to Level 3, I had heard from several people that we make the same things over and over again, so I was surprised to learn that some of these dishes we will only be scheduled to make a single time during the Level 3 classes. I've found that one of the most important reasons to be on time with your presentation is that you can be there to hear chef evaluate the other people who made the same dish, and learn from his observations on their plates. Even though you might make some of the dishes only once or twice, you can learn something about each of them every day by seeing the things that go well and go badly for others around you. In addition, our chef wants us to push ourselves to make as much as we can in every class, to get practice at organizing the production of multiple dishes as we will have to do for our midterm, so if ingredients are available and you organize your night well, you can give yourself another chance to make something you are having trouble getting right.

Cheese: Sprout Creek Farm

In late winter, I got to visit Sprout Creek Farm, a cheesemaking and educational dairy farm just over an hour's drive north of New York City. Sprout Creek raises cows, goats, and sheep, and makes cheese from all three types of milk. They practice sustainable farming and offer educational camps and other opportunities to learn about farming and food. We talked mainly with two people on the farm: one spoke with us about how they farm and raise their animals, and then we went into the cheesemaking facility and listened to their cheesemaker and tasted a variety of their cheeses.

Goats born the morning we visited Sprout Creek Farm.

Baby goats, one day old.

As it happened, we were visiting just before the start of goat cheese season. To make goat cheese, you need goat's milk, and a by-product, as it were, of goat's milk is an awful lot of baby goats. The day before we visited, they'd had about forty baby goats born during the day, and when we arrived around 1pm on a Sunday they'd had twenty-six more so far that day. Goats, I learned, are very playful -- watching small groups of baby goats jump around and occasionally poke at each other is a lot like watching little puppies, except that the goats are surprisingly well-coordinated and able to control their movements and walk normally even at an age of just a day or two old.

The cheeseboard we sampled at the end of our visit.

Sprout Creek names all of their animals, and the people working on the farm have an emotional attachment to the animals that shows. Nevertheless, they also slaughter the animals for food at the end of their lives. One of the farmers talked about this as we were standing in a barn full of both adult and baby goats. She said that it is always difficult to slaughter an animal whose personality you have come to know over several years, but that on their farm they felt like they handle the ends of the animals lives better than many of the more common ways that they might otherwise end, either in the wild or in a commercial feedlot and slaughterhouse. They care for and love the animals, they appreciate what the animals contribute to the farm and to our lives, and they take on the responsibility of making sure that the animals lives end peacefully on the farm among people that are grateful for everything they give us.

Colin, the cheesemaker, holding forth next to
some new cheeses being salted by brining.

The cheesemaker, Colin McGrath, produces something like thirty thousand pounds of cheese a year from the milk of this one farm in just two small rooms, each about the size of an average residential bedroom. He came to cheesemaking after making beer in his earlier years and then going to culinary school. Colin says that he has always been destined to end up fermenting something, whether it's beer or cheese or soybeans or something else. When he took over the cheesemaking operation a few years ago, Sprout Creek was making only 3 or 4 cheeses; today he makes more than a dozen, and is always working on something new. We got to try one of his newer efforts, a blue cheese that he was not yet satisfied with, though it was very good -- his main criticism of it was that its texture was a bit dry and it crumbled apart into very small bits easily.

The same cheese at a couple of stages: fresh curds resting to form
rounds on the left, and then drying to the right.

Forming larger wheels of cheese.

Listening to the people at Sprout Creek talk about the farm and the food it produces, you get a great sense of the direct connection between what we eat and the land around us. One of the farmers talked a bit about the "eat local" trend, and that you can take that too far and affect your health negatively. As an example, she said that the soils for miles around the farm did not have any selenium in the soil, and consequently the grasses and plants grown there did not have any, and the animals that ate those plants also do not have any in their meats. Selenium is an essential nutrient for us ("essential nutrient" means that we require it for good health, but our bodies do not manufacture it, so we must get it directly in our diet). If you were to eat only the meats and plants produced on a farm from that area, your health would eventually suffer. (While we didn't go on to talk about this, I assume that this problem was avoided before the days of large-scale transportation by hunting and fishing for food that ranged over a wider area.)

Cheeses on drying racks.

They also talked about the effects of the farming operation on their most widely-consumed end product, cheese. The farmers keep detailed notes on what was going on with each of their groups of animals throughout the seasons. When Colin tastes something interesting in his cheese, he'll go ask the farmers what they were doing with the animals around the time that the milk for the cheese was produced. Recently, he'd had a bunch of cheeses "blow up" because they produced so much gas as they began to age that they blew their rinds off. When he checked with the farmers, he learned that they had just brought the herds in for winter and begun to feed them from the large bales of hay you often see in fields in the late summer and fall. Those hay bales begin to ferment in the middle, and the fermented hay in the cows' diet was what caused the cheeses to explode.

Fresh rounds of Barat cheese, one of which
was cut for us to taste the mild and milky cheese before aging begins.

The cheesemaking environment also introduces some variation in the flavor of the cheese. Colin remarked that the cheesemaker's job is mostly that of a janitor, constantly hosing down and washing everything in the room. While he keeps the room clean, he doesn't completely sanitize the workspace or equipment. Cheese is the result of naturally-occurring bacteria acting on milk, and if everything is sanitized then bacteria will need to be re-introduced to make cheese. Allowing whatever bacteria happen to be present to act on the cheese can give it distinctive local character, and sometimes yields surprising results. Since Sprout Creek is an educational farm that conducts tours, the constant parade of foreign living organisms (which is to say, people, and all of the living micro-organisms that accompany them) through the facility can alter the resulting cheeses. Colin mentioned that recently some maintenance people had been in the room to work on some of the equipment, and about a week afterward he saw a lot of different and unusual surface molds showing up on his cheeses.

The ripening rooms. Each wheel of cheese in these rooms is turned every day.