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!

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