Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Tonight was the first class in which I learned how to do something that I doubt I would ever have gotten right from reading and trial and error on my own: make a consommé. A consommé is a crystal-clear intensely-flavored stock, usually a meat stock. It is used to make simple but very elegant soups that have the appearance of, say, a pristinely clear ocean reef where you can see everything for many feet below the surface. A classic consommé is often served by presenting the garnishes (often chopped cooked vegetables) in a warmed bowl and then pouring the clarified broth over them at the table.

From my reading about making consommé, I knew that you cook some vegetables, ground meats, and egg whites into your stock, and the proteins in the meats and eggs bind to the very small particles in your stock that cause it to be a tiny bit cloudy (if it was well-made, or incredibly cloudy if it's a typical homemade stock where you've simply tossed everything in a pot and boiled the hell out of it). The meats, eggs and vegetables used to flavor and clarify the consommé are then allowed to rise to the surface as the stock gently simmers, and they quickly form a "raft" (that is the official term) at the top of the pot. It was difficult for me to imagine exactly how this worked from reading about it, and I had never tried it at home.

The procedure that Chef Matthew, the assistant to our head instructor Chef Marc, showed us was to mix very lean ground beef (as lean as possible) with julienned carrots, leeks, and celery, and some egg white. Then you pour your warmed stock (a bit warmer than room temperature, but not so warm that the egg whites cook) over that, and thoroughly mix it with a whisk. Put the whole mess back in the stock pot, and bring it almost to a boil, stirring very frequently to prevent any of the proteins from burning on the bottom of the pot. Just before it boils, all of the meat, eggs, and vegetables will have risen to the top and become foamy-looking but almost solid. You must never let the liquid fully boil, or it will break the raft and destroy your clear consommé. As it begins to cook very slowly, you gently work a small hole into the center of the raft, and carefully ladle stock out of that hole and pour it around the surface of the raft, basically using the raft as a filter to remove particles from the liquid you put on top and let soak through it back into the pot. You simmer and ladle it in this way for most of an hour, and then strain it through cheesecloth by ladling it out through the small hole in the center of the raft, and season it with some salt before serving.

My partner and I made one of the more successful consommés tonight. Chef Marc complimented us on its flavor and clarity, but said that we had over-salted it. It did look quite beautiful, made from a beef and burnt onion stock, very dark reddish brown, and crystal clear.

The raft, when you are finished, is a semi-solid mass of an ugly gray color, looking a little like pureed and cooked chicken liver with some overcooked slivers of julienned vegetables in it. Chef Matthew mentioned that he'd heard that one junior chef in a restaurant had been given the leftover raft from making consommé and told to prepare the family meal, or staff meal, out of it. He breaded and fried it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Carrots in Julienne

Over the past week, every once in awhile at home, I get out a carrot and try cutting it into julienne. Julienne is the most challenging vegetable cut commonly used in classic cooking, and carrots are the most challenging thing we commonly cut in julienne.

First, let us precisely define what we mean by a julienne: it is a matchstick cut, bewteen 6 and 7 centimeters long, with a square cross section about a millimeter and a half on a side. The words "between" and "about" in my definition of a julienne might lead the reader to think that some variability is permissible in a julienne cut, and indeed this definition does allow for some variance. But the key is that any variance occurs only from one dish to the next; within a given dish, the cut should be identical. (Really there should not be variability within the same kitchen, because you'd like to be able to use your julienned carrots in any dish with the expectation that they will always have the same cooking characteristics.) With this in mind, we'll revisit the definition. A julienne is between 6 and 7 centimeters, but when you julienne, say, four carrots to make a dish, the resulting couple of cups of matchsticks should all be the same length, without that 1 centimeter difference. Even more importantly, the cross section should be square. If your cut comes out so that it is 1.3mm x 1.6mm, then that is not square, and Chef Marc or Chef Matthew (if you happen to be doing this in a room on the fourth floor of the FCI) will quietly tell you that you do not have a julienne and perhaps you might try again. Further, the square cross-sections of all of your matchsticks must be the same size: you cannot have some that are perfect 1.3mm squares and others that are perfect 1.6mm squares. This is perhaps most important, because cuts of different sizes will require different cooking times to be perfectly done, and so cannot be used efficiently in the same pan or dish.

I describe julienne in such excruciating detail so that you might be sympathetic with me when I tell you that, for the most part, I cannot cut any large quantity of julienned carrots to save my life. But I hope with time I'll get better at it.

I've noticed, in the course of cutting a lot of carrots, that the carrots I get at one of the very nice groceries I go to in New York, Garden of Eden, really do not compare in either appearance or flavor to the ones that FCI buys. At school, the carrots are a solid and deep orange, both after cutting and after cooking. As I cut my store-bought carrots, I notice that a lot of my little matchsticks are so lacking in color that they are almost translucent even when raw.

This brought to mind something I remember reading in a book by one of the best authors of cooking instruction books around, James Peterson, who included this in his book Glorious French Food:

In French cooking, the carrot is nearly as important as the onion. ...[W]hen I mention to assembled guests that we're having carrots as a vegetable, there are no oohs and ahs as there might be for, say, asparagus. This isn't the carrot's fault -- the blame rests with the innumerable restaurants and cooks who have served up carrots boiled and drained, and, if the diner is lucky, dolloped with a pat of butter.

He goes on to describe one of the first methods of cooking we learned for vegetables on our first day of class, cooking à l’étuvée, which is in a shallow pan with butter, covered with a round of parchment paper gently pressed onto the vegetables with a hole cut in the middle to let steam slowly escape, and just enough water that it will be completely evaporated right when the vegetables are done cooking, leaving them in a glaze of butter sweetened by their natural sugars.

Chef Marc emphasized that vegetables are considered properly cooked when the point of a knife meets no resistance at all as you push it all the way to the middle of a piece of the cooked vegetable. Commenting on the current fashion of serving very crisp vegetables, in his French accent that makes things sound both serious and entertaining at the same time, he said, "Maybe someday, when you become famous for your duck à l'orange, you will serve your vegetables however you like, but while you are here, first you will learn to cook your vegetables properly."

So much you can learn from a carrot. When we have our first exam, if part of it entails cutting a julienne, I hope the target vegetable will be turnips. But I know it will be with carrots.

Food Safety

Our second class at FCI, which was almost a week ago now, consisted mainly of a lecture and some short videos about food safety. I became interested in exploring the details of food safety issues almost immediately after I began thinking about cooking more seriously years ago. Knowing the hazards, their sources, and exactly what it takes to eliminate them goes hand in hand with being able to cook things so that they are safe but still have nice texture, tenderness, and moisture. I've long maintained, for example, that when properly cooked, the breast meat of a chicken or turkey has a softer texture and retains more moisture than the thigh meat. Most people do not believe this, mainly because nearly all of the chicken we consume has been overcooked, due to practices handed down across generations and various authorities that prescribe cooking it to somewhere between 165F and 180F. Once we know some of the details about the dangers we're trying to eliminate when we cook chicken, we can cook the white meat to a very nice, moist, soft texture.

There were a number of interesting tidbits in our lecture on food safety. For me, one of them was just how little bleach it takes to sanitize things. We had been told on the first day to put about a capful of bleach into roughly a half gallon of water. The guest chef who talked about food safety brought along some test strips that measured chlorine concentration. The FDA prescribes specific concentrations, temperatures, and contact times to ensure sanitization and to ensure that no significant amount of bleach remains on surfaces (like cutting boards) that will contact food. It turns out that our capful of bleach per half gallon is way off the high end of the scale; the right amount was about a quarter teaspoon. The contact time required to sanitize a surface if the solution is about room temperature is about 7-10 seconds, so as long as you get your towel wet enough that the surface doesn't completely dry in under 10 seconds, you'll successfully eliminate bacteria with that surprisingly low concentration of bleach.

Another thing that surprised me was the idea that, even when stored properly and cooked to a high temperature, some foods develop chemicals that can trigger allergies. The example here is eggs, which many young children are allergic to. As you store eggs, they slowly develop higher levels of a protein that can trigger a permanent allergy to eggs if it is eaten enough by children. This is true even if the eggs have been handled properly, are well within their expiration date, and have been cooked to temperature.

The dangers of fish I hadn't really understood before this lecture. I think I've heard bits of this information, but I'd never put it together enough to get to this salient fact: the safety of many fish depends entirely upon the waters in which it was caught. This is not due to pollution, but rather to the types of algae growing in the waters of different parts of the world. Many algae produce substances toxic to humans, which are eaten by small fish, which are in turn eaten by the snapper and grouper that we eat. These toxins are not mitigated by cooking (which is why sushi, properly handled, is about as safe as cooked fish). I've always known that the black market for fish is enormous, and now I know why that is so dangerous not only to the environment and the fisheries, but also to us. These toxins are not detectable by any superficial means: they have no odor and do not change the appearance of the fish in any way. For many fish, the only way to know that they are safe to eat is to trust the source from which you bought your fish to be conscientious about considering health and safety more than profit and convenience when acquiring seafood.

Many midwesterners still have an instinctive fear of raw fish, and will say something like, "I don't know how anyone eats raw fish -- wouldn't that make you sick?" My question back to them is, "Why would you eat cooked fish?" The point is that most people have no reason to think that cooked fish is any more or less safe than raw fish: it is something they have simply made up. You are better off to base your fear on knowledge than you are to limit yourself to your own immediate experience. We eat unsafe food all the time (my favorite example being stuffed poultry), but our statistical experience of it is that we typically do not suffer for it. I will eat a stuffed turkey, because I know that statistically I'm not likely to be made sick by it; but I would prefer not to eat it, because I know that statistically I have a better chance of spending a very bad twenty-four hours as a consquence of a stuffed turkey than I do if I eat raw salmon every day. In fact, when I feel a bit queasy and have an upset stomach but find myself hungry, I often go eat a big meal of simple sushi, because I find the proteins that have not been cooked in any fat are easy to digest, and the accompanying rice and soy sauce give me a lot of flavor without weighing me down.

It wasn't part of our lecture, but another tidbit I overheard recently is that in the coming year it will become illegal to use non-stick pans in restaurants in New York (it was unclear to me whether this meant the city or the state). Non-stick pans give off some toxic gases when heated close to 500F, and they give off several carcinogenic chemicals if heated to about 700F. Those temperatures are easily attained on a commercial stovetop if the cook is not attentive; at home there is a bit less danger.

Circling back to my favorite food safety issue, the danger we want to eliminate by cooking chicken is salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is killed if it is heated to 140F for 5 minutes, or 160F for 1 minute. (And this is why stuffing poultry doesn't work: the bacteria migrate from the surface of the cavity into the stuffing, and you need to get the stuffing heated all the way through if you want to know that it is safe, by which time the white meat of the bird is inedible.) One of the points made repeatedly by the French chef giving our lecture was that "the rules" are written so that if most of them are followed, the food produced by cooks who know nothing about the dangers but simply follow the guidelines will be completely safe, even under less than ideal conditions, but that when we prepare food for fine dining we can use our more precise knowledge of the dangers to avoid unnecessarily overcooking things. He said, "For me, a turkey should be cooked to 141 in the breast; anything more, then you cut it thin, hide it under a heavy sauce, and you can serve it in a hospital."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Day One: A Small Space In A Large Kitchen

Tonight I went to my first class meeting at FCI. We all got there very early to make sure we could get into our chef whites and get all of our street clothes and coats and whatnot put away in the locker room, and when everyone was ready we marched Snoopy-and-Woodstock-style up a couple flights of stairs to the kitchen that will be our classroom for the first six weeks or so of the program. The Culinary Arts course, which is the one I am in, is organized into six levels, each more advanced than the previous one. You cook all of the basic types of foods in all of the levels, so in Level 1 where we all begin, we'll cook stocks, sauces and soups, and all of the basic fish, birds (even duck!) and meats, but the emphasis in Level 1 is on basic skills and techniques and simple preparations to exercise the techniques we are learning. In Levels 1-3, we cook only for ourselves and our instructors. The Level 4 class covers large-scale cooking for buffets and a la carte service, and the Level 4 students cook the "family meal" for the entire school (all of the students, the administrative staff, and the faculty), with the day students preparing lunch and the evening students serving dinner. Levels 5 and 6 cook for the restaurant operated by the school, called L'Ecole.

We met the chefs that will be our instructors for Levels 1 and 2, for whom we'll be working during the next three months. The experience is just like any school: you go in wondering if you'll get some hard-ass chef or a more easygoing mentor type. Chef Marc, our main instructor, and Chef Matthew his assistant instructor, both seem to take a pretty relaxed approach. As expected, we got the "Yes Chef, No Chef" direction. The instructor walks around the room while we work and observes what everyone is doing, and when we sees a lot of people going astray in the same way, he'll call out a clarification or correction loud enough so everyone can hear it, and about three-quarters of us immediately say in a clear, loud voice, "Yes, Chef." Chef Marc began cooking in Europe, then spent many years in Australia, and finally came to New York awhile ago. He speaks with a pretty heavy French accent that is fun and very relaxing to listen to, so much so that even if I can't tell exactly what he said at first I enjoyed hearing it enough that I don't care as much as I should what the words were. Usually the word I was uncertain of becomes clear in context by the end of the next sentence.

Tonight's lesson consisted of two parts. First, we had to cut up a lot of vegetables, though in truth not as many as I expected. Mainly he wanted to see samples of each of a bunch of different cuts, of which the most difficult is julienne because a proper julienne of something (carrots being the most challenging thing we were using) is very thin, at about 1 millimeter square. Nearly all of my julienne carrots were slightly too large, and they were also a bit more uneven than was really acceptable, but the instructors didn't seem too bothered by it (and I'd read horror stories about how strict they could be about this). The only cut that I'd never really done was called "paysanne," and it consists of squares about 5mm on a side that are about 1mm thick -- it's easily made by just taking slices from jardiniére (thin French fry shapes, though a bit shorter than fries at about 5cm). I'm not sure what paysanne cut vegetables are used for, though our book says there is a particular style of soup they go into. We learned the (French) names of about ten different cuts of vegetables, and at the end of the class Chef Marc went around the room using his Socratic method picking on people and asking each one to describe a cut he named. Most people he called on didn't know the answer to the question asked, which was a little surprising to me.

For the second and shorter part of the class, we made two extremely simple vegetable preparations. In one, you just boil the vegetables in salted water and then shock them in ice water to stop cooking and fix their color, and then hold them until you're ready to serve them and reheat them in a bit of fat if you want them hot. For the other, you slowly steam them in a sauté pan covered with parchment paper. The two things that Chef was interested in when he tasted our vegetables were proper seasoning and proper cooking. For proper cooking, he emphasized that while it might be fashionable these days to serve crisp vegetables, the proper classical way to cook them is until they are completely tender and the point of your knife meets no resistance. My jardiniére turnips were "seasoned well, but too crunchy," which is what I expected would be Chef's judgment when I tried one after I shocked them to stop the cooking. My julienne carrots were excellent (as were everyone's), and when cleanup time came I ate the whole bunch of them right out of the pan. A lot of us accidentally sautéed our leeks, which is to say we got them a bit browned when they weren't supposed to be, and although they were delicious as a 10pm snack they were nevertheless a complete failure because Chef had instructed us in a cooking method that should not have browned them at all.

The main thing I learned from cutting up vegetables tonight is that if you want to julienne something, you should cut it to length (about 7 cm) at the start, and square up the round sides before you begin. That seems so obvious, but I never really did it that way, and as a result I've always considered cutting up carrots that fine to be a big pain when it really isn't all that difficult.

But the big lesson of the night was about organization: none of us in the class can keep our stations organized very well in the way that Chef would like. We all leave too many things sitting on the precious counter space after we do not need them there. Professional cooking, or at least the prep work for it, involves a ridiculous number of metal workbowls: you need a bowl for unwashed items, a bowl for washed items, a bowl for trimmings to go into compost (unpeeled trimmings, root ends, onion skins, rotting bits), a separate bowl for the clean (peeled and ready to eat but just the wrong shape) excess bits of each different vegetable (these will be sent to other kitchens for sauce-making). The thing about all of these bowls is that you aren't allowed to set a bowl on your cutting board (because the board is sanitized, the outside of the bowl is not), and the cutting boards take up pretty much the entire counter when both you and your partner have large boards out.

So why all of these bowls? Well, because unlike your home kitchen, there are 20 people all moving around the room and you can't just set things down loose next to the sinks, and the vegetables are not near the sinks where you wash them, and the sinks are in turn not near the space you are working in. So you transport everything around the kitchen in metal workbowls. It all looks so easy when Chef demonstrates a technique, but that's because he has his own sink right next to his own counter where he has a bunch of space in addition to what his board takes up.

That leads us to the other big lesson of the night: we don't know where anything is. And again, unlike when you go over to your friend's house and help with the cooking, it's not just you who's not sure where the trash is, or where to get salt, or what you recycle and what you throw away, or where to put various things that need to be washed; there are 20 people all moving around trying to sort all of that stuff out. And no one is certain of anything without asking Chef. For example, there are four large sinks around the kitchen (which I should mention is something like 30' x 50' in size), and one of them happened to be right next to where raw unwashed vegetables were stacked, and at first everyone assumed that was the one vegetable washing sink in the room until someone asked and learned that you can go wash your vegetables anywhere you want. It sounds like a dumb thing, but almost everything in the room has rules governing its acceptable uses, and no one wants to accidentally use what turns out to be the wrong bit of equipment. It was also unclear exactly what things we need to clean ourselves and what can be left for the dishwashing staff -- basically we have to clean all tools but not pots and pans, plates, or silverware. A collander or a strainer is a tool and you have to clean that yourself; a large spoon is also a tool and you clean that yourself, but we didn't really learn that distinction until the end of the night and then a bit of a goat rodeo ensued during clean-up time. Chef is very patient with us, and I noticed toward the end of the night that when I asked him where something was, he would no longer tell me where it was in the room, but instead referred to its location in some other way so that I would start to learn the general layout better. At 7pm towels had been "over in that corner," but by 10pm things were "next to the pantry."

All in all, I enjoyed the class, and I'm glad it started out with such a simple lesson, because moving around a shared kitchen space so large with so many people in it and with almost no counter space to call your own is very disorienting. Tomorrow I'll have to go buy some carrots and julienne and cook them à l'étuvée, because I could use the practice to get used to my new school-issued knife, and because damn they were good!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

In The Beginning

Sometimes you are the last person to see the path everyone around you is sure you ought to take. So it is for me as I have at last enrolled in a culinary program for professional chefs at The French Culinary Institute in New York. I am beginning a course that meets in the evenings, from about 5:30pm until 11:00pm three nights a week, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night from now until the end of October. I don't have any specific plans for a career change at this point; I am not frustrated by my current work or dissatisfied with my employer. But the chance to take this first step to more seriously explore something I am clearly passionate about and dedicated to is an opportunity that I should not pass up during these first few months and years that I am lucky enough to live in New York with no larger responsibilities in life.

This blog will be dedicated to food and cooking, and will last for as long as I last in the school and maybe ultimately in the profession in some capacity. Graduates of the program I am beginning wind up in a variety of roles in the food business. While many work in restaurant kitchens and become chefs, every year the school also places graduates as writers and editors, food stylists and marketers, personal chefs for corporate executives, and television show producers. For now, I don't have any of those things as goals, and I don't rule any of them out. I just want to take the first step and see if it leads anywhere. It is possible that in the first few weeks, I'll learn that food preparation at a professional level in a disciplined environment is not my thing, and if so I'll leave the program and reclaim as much of my tuition as I can. But I don't expect that: the more I have been around the school and talked to people in it, the more my uncertainty about the costs being justified by the benefits melts away.

Yesterday I had orientation at the school, mostly covering some basic procedures and rules and getting an overview of the services and facilities available. Like every school, they have a student affairs office, an advising office, a library, and a lot of extracurricular things you can get into. As you walk around the school during the admissions process, you notice that in the same way that hospital staff always use the title "doctor" when speaking of a physician, everyone in the school uses the title "chef" when they speak to or about an instructor or visiting chef. As we passed them in the hallways or classrooms, the guides who accompanied me throughout the admissions process never said "Hi" to them -- they always said "Hi Chef" instead. I have heard that you are told on your first day of class that you should always address the chefs with their title, and that "Yes, Chef," and "No, Chef," are the appropriate responses to straightforward questions addressed to you by an instructor. I have stolen this instruction for the title of this blog. I mean it to convey a sense of respect for the school, the instructors and the profession, and a sense of discipline in both the learning environment and the kitchen environment, but anyone that knows me will recognize that I also mean it to convey a bit of a "Yeah, riiiight" element of skepticism.

I begin class on Saturday night, with several hours of cutting vegetables into a variety of mostly small shapes with precisely specified dimensions. If I manage not to cut off the fingers I use to type these entries, perhaps this blog will continue sometime next week.