Do you remember when you received your acceptance letter to school, and you ran around the house all excited about the upcoming opportunities that awaited you? Then you get to school, get the syllabi, the first 300 pages of reading assigned, and realize that you can’t go out that weekend because you’ll be in the library. Yep, reality sets in quickly. Well, that didn’t happen – not really – with my first quarter of culinary school. I was fearful that it might be the case – what with a textbook that feels like it weighs 35 lbs.
I think the hardest part about culinary school is buying the knives, which isn’t much of a hardship. Our chef gave us a few tips about knives, we watched a (very old) video about knife safety, and then Chef Gregg showed us all of his knives. I wish I’d had my camera. He had one of those three-compartment red tool kits filled to the brim
with knives, carving tools, peelers, trimmers, knives, and more knives. He had scimitar for carving large cuts of meat, he had pairing knives for making fancy garnishes, and he had more slicing knives than I could think of uses for. Inspired, we students set off to City Kitchens, Seattle Cutlery, Bargreen Ellingson, and the Seattle Restaurant Store and came back laden with knives.
As soon as we had knives in hand, chef coats on our backs, and nonslip safety shoes (took me two tries to find some that are comfortable and still haven’t found ones I like) on our feet, we set about to cooking. Well, cutting and chopping anyway. The first quarter students do the peeling, precooking, chopping, dicing, and mincing of the ingredients used by the second-quarter students to cook the culinary school lunch. We were responsible for providing a salad, fruit salad, pasta salad, and a rice pilaf or steamed rice every day. Our groups were split up somewhat randomly so that each of us had a chance to prepare each of those items at least once.
We started cooking at 10:00, and our rice, fruit salad, and garden salad were due at 11. Sometimes, depending on how many other things we had to prepare – such as baked potatoes, diced, chopped, minced, or blanched other vegetables – our food was ready by 11. Sometimes we struggled a little bit. It is surprising how long it takes to slice so much fruit and cook so much rice.
In addition to preparing tomorrow’s ingredients and today’s salads and rice dish, we also practiced specific knife skills. I learned how to supreme an orange, make tomato concassee, and mince onion correctly. I was fortunate to keep my finger tips intact too. I actually didn’t have a knife blooper all quarter.
Our final exam in the kitchen class was a timed knife competency where we were tested on performing 10 different cuts on specific vegetables. We had to batonnet potatoes, cut potatoes into a medium dice (to specific measurements), brunoise carrots, supreme the orange, mince garlic and shallot, dice an onion, finely chop parsley, and we had to do all that in 30 minutes. Yep, it was a heck of a timed test, but really, it was a lot of fun, too. I certainly didn’t chop as quickly as Martin Yan or as accurately as… uhm… anyone else, but what a rush. Then it was over with.
Remember the story told about Julia Child who worked so hard to get her cuts correct that she chopped onions for hours and hours until she got them right? Well, that’s sort of what I ended up doing. I bought 10-pound bags of onions, potatoes, and carrots. I also bought lots of tomatoes, garlic, onions, shallots, and oranges. It took me a while to figure out what to do with the oranges, but I also made lots of mashed potatoes, potato casseroles, tomato sauce, and even a roasted, pureed carrot bisque. Pretty tasty, all around.
When we weren’t chopping vegetables. boiling potatoes, or getting ready for the next day’s menu, we were sitting in culinary lecture, the Theory of Cooking. That class was probably the most academically challenging, and it wasn’t actually too bad. The reading assignments were essentially full chapters, but they were on topics like Chicken, Fish, or Potatoes. I mean, how bad is it if you have to read about the best ways to braise chicken, mash potatoes, or select fish for chowder? Okay, I still did the college procrastination, but I did eventually read the chapters before the exam. And again, how bad is it when you’re really into the material?
One of the most interesting lessons we had was about the effects of time, temperature, and pH on certain foods. Some foods’ colors become enhanced when they are cooked in acid, and some foods’ colors turn “off,” such as becoming duller or completely different. Chef Vicky McCaffree was substitute teaching for Chef Gregg because he was in Italy for the Slow Food Conference. She is teaching the 3rd quarter class now, because Chef Greg Atkinson has left to pursue some other work. Chef Vicky prepared four different types of vegetables – orange, white, green, and cabbage green – four different ways – correctly, for too long of time, with vinegar (acid), and with baking soda (alkaline). The results were amazing. Our whole class got up and watched while she cooked the ingredients, and a few students even helped out.
The lectures we had were so interesting. The chef instructors gave us the facts about cooking – the correct temperatures to cook foods or the things we look for when selecting fresh food – and they also told us stories about their experiences, both good and bad. Chef Gregg showed off the induction burner, which heats the metallic molecules of pans and cooks the food, and he demonstrated how to cook eggs, meat, and other foods. We had some interesting quotables in the course of the lecture as well, and maybe someday I’ll actually write them all down.
Because we’re in culinary school, we get to participate in various catering events. Two classmates of mine, Rob and Kevin, and I were invited to help out at the Museum of Flight, which was hosting a special event for Boeing. Chef Takeyuki Suetsugu, the owner and chef of Bistro Satsuma in Gig Harbor, was hired to cater the traditional Japanese dinner, and he brought one chef, two assistance, a team of servers, one culinary chef instructor (Chef KG) and three culinary arts first quarter students. Crazy? Maybe. Fortunately, he already had most of the food cooked, and “all” we got to do was slice and plate. The catered event lasted about 4 hours, but it really felt like 15 minutes. That was so fun, and he was so organized that it was easy.
I hadn’t catered Japanese food before, and it was incredible. The attention to detail was amazing. The plated dishes were incredible. More on that on a different post. Whole fish, prawns (pictured here with Kevin), radish flowers, cucumber bowls, and a melon vase filled with carved fruit flowers.
We had a chance to dabble in chicken fabrication, too, and that was soooo much fun. There are a few specific ways to fabricate chickens, and we were practicing the 8-way. I usually cut a chicken like you carve a turkey, but that didn’t turn out to be the right way. We practiced cutting the chicken by removing the backbone first and then cutting it apart. Our exam for second quarter involves cutting apart a chicken and producing specific cuts, so this hen is my next nemesis. I found her at Viet Wah, an Asian market in the International District. I have to say, looking at an animal’s head and feet definitely roots you in what you’re eating. I removed the head, feet, and the leftover pin feathers. Then it looked like any Tyson (sorry Chef Karen and Chef Sarah) chicken. I didn’t do too well cutting out the backbone the first time, because I didn’t crack it evenly in half (fellow culinary experts, you’d know what I was supposed to do), but there’s plenty of time before I take that test. I hope I won’t have to buy hundreds of chickens, but I know that frozen chicken breasts are off the menu.