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.