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.