The second week of culinary school is essentially over, and it’s been quite busy.
I had a chance to go to Bargreen Ellingson and bought mysef some toys…er… tools. I picked up a santoku knife (my mom had gotten me one when I lived in Texas, but I lost it in the move), a 10″ Chef’s knife (that dude is huge), and a few other tools. I also bought a knife bag. I really wanted a camoflage bag, but there weren’t any at this store. Fortunatley, there is both a student discount and an industry discount, but it’s costly to get started.
We started production this week, and Student Lunch opened on Tuesday- more on that in a minute. On Wednesday and Thursday, we opened the Square One Bistro and the One World, the fine dining restaurant. The 1st Quarter (newbies) do the prep work for the other kitchens, which prepare food for the other food service areas. I guess that’s the hazing that the “freshmen” were all wondering about. Instead of trying to keep track of a paddle or buy another all-white dress for some ceremony, we get to dice, mince, chiffonade, and peel vegetables. Let me say that I definitely prefer this type of “hazing.”
Tuesday was our first day as a class preparing food, and we quickly saw that some people have extensive cooking experience, whether at home or professionally. Thomas was my group’s leader, and he’s a line cook at Urbane, a fancy eatery at the Olive 8 hotel. He knew what he was doing, and the Chef definitely tasked him quite a bit. He wrote a pretty good, yet sparse, plan of action for his team, and we accomplished our tasks with plenty of time left.
Wednesday was my first day as a group leader, and it was my first day of being a production leader. As a 2LT, I jumped into production lines when my NCOs were MIA (no seriously, one planned a doctor’s appointment at 3:30 pm one time), but I mostly followed my Airmen dutifully, weilding an offset spatula with way too much zeal. Anyway, I’ve had plenty of experience making task lists and bossing people around, so I wasn’t too nervous.
I made a 2-page task list (compared to Tom’s 1-pager), and set my team to work. They were a great bunch, and we were close to begin with (well as close as you can be with knowing someone for almost a week). One of our tasks was to dice carrots into a small dice, which is 1/4 inch cubes. Have you ever realized how small and square that is?? Well, I had calculated about a 50% loss of carrots (so if you want 2 pounds of small-diced carrots, you need 4 lbs raw carrots)… uhm… 5 lbs later, we had a rectangular aluminum bin (a “ninth pan”) filled halfway with an assortment of lopsided cubes. The lopsidedness was my doing, because I only actually cut 3 carrots. I kept running back and forth between tasks. The team members who spent 90 minutes on the dicing had much better looking carrot dices than I did.
In retrospect, I should have studied my cuts more closely. I should also have gotten a cutting board with a measuing tape on it. I accidentally cut into my plastic ruler a few times, because I was trying to measure out a 1/4 inch. I now also know how long it takes to dice carrots, when you’re trying to be precise. Oh, and that you lose so much carrot flesh when you cut a round food into a square. I wonder if the chef would allow carrot scrapings to be cut into a really odd looking mirepoix (the mix of onion, carrot, and celery to be put into stock to add color and flavor).
Well, in response to the rather awkward week of trying to keep up with equipment identification (is this a steamer or a combi-oven?), tool usage (do I need a slotted spoon or a skimmer?), and knife competency (which knife does a better chiffonade – chef’s or santoku?), I realized that I needed to do a cheat sheet and some reviewing. I’m really glad this material isn’t confusing, but it does take repetition to remember things (What are the dimensions of a julienne?). I spent some time reviewing today, and I think I feel less intimidated by the terms. But now, I still have to master the knife skills. So…who wants to buy me a 50-lb bag of vegetables and let me reduce them to tiny squares? I think Josh will be eating a lot of “Random Vegetable Soup” for a while.
Today was my first time washing in the dish pit, and we had the chance to interact with some upper classmen (er… 2nd and 3rd quarter students). Dishwashing is a rather brainless but fast-moving process, and my face nearly met the dishpit floor a few times, as I cornered the speed racks too quickly in an effort to get back to empty the next tray before the machine jammed up.
One of the 2nd quarter students decided to quiz me on the equipment we were pulling off the racks. “What’s this?”
“2-inch half pan.”
Some students might dislike dishwashing, but it’s an essential part of the success of a kitchen. I definitely loved the dish-pit guys at Seastar — they were nice, and their buddies were line cooks who usually hooked me up with leftover vegetables and starches at the end of my shift. So, lesson learned: be nice to your dishpit crew. It’s hard work, and somebody has to do it.
The other days are filled with cooking theory. This week we heard about the legacy and evolution of cooking. We also learned about some of the emerging styles of cooking, like sous vide. We also discussed the ethics involved in cooking, like sustainability. We actually have a full class dedicated to the subject. My classmates also take math and sanitation, but I am not required to take it, as I’ve already taken these classes. I do sort of miss the idea of writing a HACCP plan, but I am sure I’ll have the opportunity at some point. (Thank you Air Force)
Back to Student Lunch. This is probably the coolest thing ever, but I’m definitely going to have to start walking up Capitol Hill instead of riding the bus. The other quarters kitchens cook the meals, and they produce a crazy assortment of dishes. Sandwiches, breakfast items (ya, really!), and entrees of every assortment get lined up on a hot line, and we can just grab a plate and eat it. (Ok, we already paid for it with student fees). On Tuesday, I ate a lamb stew that was tender and smoky. On Wednesday, a lamb burger wrapped in bacon and dotted with pine nuts. Thursday, I split an oxtail mushroom dish and a breaded mushroom tomato pasta dish with a classmate. I can’t wait to make these dishes myself!
I am definitely learning a lot about technique and deliberation in the kitchen. Our textbook says that a skilled cook or chef knows what she wants to achieve from her food and knows which tools and techniques to apply to obtain it. I have some learning to do, but this journey, while busy, is so interesting.
So next week: factoids from culinary school.