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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Restaurant: Di Fara Pizza

A little over a week ago, I at last visited Di Fara Pizza, hidden away in an off-the-beaten-track neighborhood in Brooklyn. Di Fara is a place you often hear about if you spend any time looking around for "best of" sorts of food experiences in New York. While high-class restaurants come into and go out of fashion all the time, and people debate the merits of various wood or coal oven New York pizza icons like Grimaldi's or Totonno's whose popularity is continuously maintained by a platoon of people in the kitchen cranking out pizzas for hundreds of groups of customers every day, Domenico DeMarco keeps turning out one pizza at a time from his tiny kitchen at Di Fara Pizza, and whether you agree or not that it's one of the best pizzas you've ever had, if you try it you at least have to acknowledge that there isn't another pizza experience like it. I was finally persuaded that I needed to make the trek out to Avenue J when I heard someone ask the sweet, gentle, quiet, and opinionated Becky Wasserman, who lives in Burgundy, France, where she made it a point to eat when she had a couple of days in New York, and she answered that of course she loved to go to Daniel Boulud's restaurants with every visit to the city, but also had to get to Di Fara for a pizza. To say that I was surprised to hear that from a quiet old English lady known as an expert on some of the best wines in France would be an understatement.

Dom's workspace, where he makes one pizza at a time.

For over forty years, Dom has been making pizzas his way. This is the only place I've ever been where pizza is truly "artisanal" -- it is made by an artisan, slowly, one pie at a time, and at Di Fara the pizza is never made by anyone else. Until it is delivered to the customer, no one handles a pizza at Di Fara other than Dom. He takes five to ten minutes to make a pizza, and between pizzas he spends a few minutes shuffling the one or two pizzas he has in the oven at any given moment, or finishing (detail on what this means follows below) and cutting a pizza that has just come out, which means that he produces something like 8 pizzas in an hour. Between a third and half of those get sold by the slice, so if you want a whole pizza unto yourself, and you're fourth in a line of people waiting on whole pizzas, you'll wait about 45 minutes to an hour once you place your order.

The start of a pizza.

When I visited, Dom had one assistant working with him. The assistant never touched a pizza in any way, whether as it was being made or after it came out of the oven for a customer. He had two missions: first, he kept a list of names and pizza orders in a stenographer's notebook. Dom makes one pizza at a time, and he always concentrates exclusively on the one or two pizzas in the oven and the next one he is making; he has no awareness of how many or what kinds of pizzas are coming up next on the assistant's list. When he gets a pizza into the oven, he simply asks the assistant what to make next, and then begins working on it. The second job the assistant has is to keep Dom supplied with things from a small storage area behind the little pizza assembly workspace. He'll carry out buckets of sauce, or portions of dough, or various toppings, and put them on the counter where Dom works. But the assistant never has a hand in making a pizza. Conversely, Dom has no interaction with the line of waiting customers or the money, other than to indicate that a pizza is ready by looking up and saying, "OK," or, "There you go," and immediately turning his back to move on to the next pizza.

I wanted to get some pictures of Dom making pizzas, but it's hard to do so unobtrusively since you're only about 10 feet away from Dom. I asked a friend, "Do you think they care if you take their picture?" and he said, "I don't think he cares about anything except making a pizza." Along with not being concerned about having his picture taken, at Di Fara they also don't seem to be too worried about collecting your money. We didn't pay when we ordered; we didn't pay when we got the pizza; no one asked about money when we carried the empty pan back up to the counter. At last we got the assistant's attention and told him what we ordered and that we needed to pay for it. Having to stop to handle the commercial part of the transaction almost seemed to be the only thing they considered a distraction from their work. I don't think they care about anything except making a pizza.

Our raw pizza on the counter ready for baking
as Dom works in the oven.

Watching Dom methodically construct a pie before it goes into the oven can be very relaxing. There is something about watching him slowly stretch out his dough and spread out his base of sauce, cut solid little thin squares of cheese onto it using the flat slicing side of a box grater, and then drizzle it with olive oil, all without any concern for the crowd of people all watching and waiting for him just a few feet away, that makes you wonder why you ever let yourself feel the pressure of all of the chores you haven't gotten to. He slides raw pizzas from his long wooden pizza peel onto the floor of the oven, but once they are in he simply uses his hands to move them around. You are struck dumb the first time you see him reach into the oven and remove a hot pizza by dragging it to the front of the oven by hooking his fingertips over the edge of the crust, and then lift it out by sliding it onto his bare hands and carrying it over in no hurry to a pizza pan waiting on the counter a few feet away.

Applying the final touch of olive oil.

While watching him prepare and bake a pizza is soothing, watching what he does with a pizza after it comes out of the oven is inspiring. Usually the customer that ordered a pizza can tell when his pizza is the one being worked on, and when it is finished baking, the customer is standing at the counter where Dom places the hot pizza on a pan right in front of him. But the pizza isn't quite done: there are still at least three steps left in its preparation before it is ready to be cut and eaten. First, Dom grates more cheese onto the top of it, probably parmesan but the ceremony seems so much more important than the ingredient that I neglected to pay attention -- it might have been mozzarella or even cheddar. Then he drizzles it with more of the nice fruity olive oil from his brass oil can. Finally he'll add some herbs, by cutting or tearing off leaves from a bunch of basil, or holding a big bouquet of oregano over the pizza as he snips away at it like he's giving it a haircut with a pair of scissors. At last he takes his small pizza cutting wheel and makes four slices across the pie to cut it into eight pieces, and only then does he look up at the customer for only a second or two, and with just a hint of a smile, which seemed to me not to be as much an interaction with the customer as simply an indication that he was pleased with his creation, he turns the pizza over to its new owner and then heads back to his counter to start stretching out his next ball of dough.

Our finished pizza, plain cheese on the right half,
with pepperoni on the left.

When you get the pizza, both its appearance and its flavor confirm what you already knew from watching it being made: there are a lot of carefully crafted layers of taste and texture. Many of the ingredients on the pizza have been applied more than once, so that you get two different effects from everything on the pie: cheese forms the base but is also used as soon as it comes out of the oven; likewise olive oil went onto the pizza both before and after baking; half of our pizza had pepperoni, and some of it was nestled below the cheese while a lot had been placed on top of the pizza when it was already in the oven and about halfway done. And perhaps this is what separates Dom's pizza from every other version I've ever had: Dom is cooking pizza, not just making pizza. His process isn't simply assemble and then bake -- he's handling each of the elements of the pizza like a chef handles his raw materials, adding each one to the dish when the time remaining in the process is just enough to bring it to perfection just as it arrives in front of the diner.

Here are a few other blog entries I found on Di Fara Pizza:
This Little Piglet
Off The Broiler

The Slice entry about Di Fara:
Slice on Di Fara