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Archive for January, 2012

In a few months, I will start a six-month externship at a fine-dining restaurant in D.C., the last part of my culinary program. So far, I am considering two restaurants in the area, Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan and Founding Farmers near Farragut North. The purpose of the externship is to learn to work with speed and efficiency, the way a restaurant kitchen operates. Before we start our externships, we must stage or visit the restaurants we are considering to see how we would fit into the kitchen environment.

Since opening in 1995, Cashion’s has become an Adams Morgan mainstay. Ann Cashion, the original owner and executive chef of Cashion’s, sold the restaurant to John Manolatos, who had worked as her sous chef. Chef Manolatos, whose family originates from Greece, adds a Mediterranean touch to his Modern American menu. His menu changes often, showing his strong emphasis on seasonal ingredients..

Cashion’s immediately appealed to me because not only is it a highly regarded restaurant  but it is also about four minutes away from my apartment. After six months of reverse commuting 40 minutes to school in the morning well before anyone in their right mind should be awake, I can’t think of anything more appealing.

After an ass-whooping practical exam at culinary school yesterday, I staged at Cashion’s from 6 p.m. to closing, around 11 p.m. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone – Chef John arranged for me to shadow and assist Sam, the cook assigned to the salads, cold and hot appetizers, and fry station (essentially garde  manger) that night.

The kitchen at Cashion’s is small and narrow but very well organized. There are usually four cooks on the line, each one working their own station. Chef John oversaw all of the plated appetizers, soups and entrees, making sure each dish was clean and cooked to order properly.

At first, I observed, watching the cooks prepare and plate each order. Cashion’s features an array of appetizers from salads to tuna tartare. The appetizers change frequently, but a few of them are consistently on the menu, such as the Cannellini Bean Salad, with beets, roasted parsnips, cauliflower, toasted pecans, artichokes, haricots verts, naval oranges, goat cheese and frisee. The salad has a long list of ingredients, but looks beautiful on the plate and tastes even better (I got to sample some!).

As the restaurant became busier, Chef John put me on the fry station to lighten the load on Sam. I would be responsible for French fries, the chicken croquettes appetizer, the tempura fried scallops and haricots verts, and the fried oyster garnish to one of the soups. I was psyched – a real, living and breathing customer would soon be eating food that I prepared. How cool was that?

After I got the hang of the fry station, I tried my hand with a few of the appetizers. I artfully arranged accompaniments to the the charcuterie plate – cornichon, red pepper battonet, cauliflower, toasted baguette crostini and a hard-boiled deviled egg. If I screwed anything up, Sam was patient and always willing to help me out, even amidst the numerous orders he was preparing.

Around 10 p.m., things started to slow down. I helped Sam clean up his station by labeling, wrapping and storing leftover food in the walk-in refrigerator. I thanked Chef John and called it a night around 11:45 p.m. What a day, and what a night, I thought.

What I liked the most about my experience at Cashion’s was the kitchen environment. While definitely a high-energy place, there was always a sense of control within every cook. Although the kitchen was small, I think it promoted a closer-knit culture among the chef and his cooks. Because there isn’t a whole of room, it’s important to work well with everyone. I hope to return to Cashion’s soon, whether it is as a diner or a member of the kitchen.

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The Banquet Challenge

Last Wednesday, my fellow chefs-in-training and I were tasked with preparing a fancy four-course meal with canape (1-bite appetizer), intermezzo (a palate cleanser) and dessert for 90 guests at L’Academie de Cuisine. Here was “le menu” for the day:

Canape

Duck Pate en Crouton

1st Course

Smoked Salmon on Potato Cake with Goat Cheese (pictured, right)

2nd Course

Seafood Ragu with Petite Vegetables in Bouchee, Fennel Fondue and Lobster Cream Sauce

Intermezzo

Champagne Lemon Verbana Granite (flavored shaved ice)

3rd Course

Braised Lamb Shoulder, Ratatouille, Au Gratin Potatoes, Haricots Verts

Dessert

Apple Brioche Pudding, Spun Sugar Decor & Bourbon Cream Sauce (pictured, below – the spun sugar is actually just hardened caramel pieces) 

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing – how were we going to prepare all of this within our 3 1/2 hour time limit? Without a carefully thought-out plan, it would have been impossible. We planned each component of the meal carefully, to make sure everything would be ready on time. Part of the trick was knowing what we could do ahead of time, and what we would have to save for later or even the last minute. Here’s an example – because the duck pate en crouton was not a time-sensitive dish, it could easily be prepared and set aside until service. The pate could be served at room temperature, and the crouton (toasted baguette) would hold just fine for a few hours. On the other hand, the haricots verts were a little trickier. We could cook them partially ahead of time in boiling water (called par-cook) and set them aside. Right before service, we could throw them back into the boiling water for a few seconds to finish them off. This way, the green beans would be hot and ready for service in a quick, efficient manner.

Preparing the meal is just the first part. In order to get our food to our guests as efficiently as possible, we needed to have another system. We formed a kind of assembly line around our prep tables –  as each plate moved down the line, another component and finishing touch was added. After that, a runner took the plate to the room where our guests were dining. It all sounds a bit hectic, and it really is – imagine a kitchen, crowded with cooks simultaneously slicing, dicing, sautéing, braising, flambéing, whatever. Call it organized chaos, but in the end, it works out. Our guests loved the food, especially the apple brioche pudding (thankfully, we had plenty of leftovers for us to attack!).

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