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Archive for the ‘Culinary School’ Category

It’s funny how so many foods you hated as a kid, you end up loving as an adult. My list is endless: broccoli, pizza (if you can believe it!), olives, onions, brussels sprouts, peas, grapes, and grapefruit.

Grapefruit is actually a very recent addition to my favorite foods list. Bitter, sour and sweet all at the same time, the grapefruit’s versatility makes it a great addition to dishes with savory and sweet ingredients.

One of the first salads I plated as an extern at Cashion’s Eat Place was a grapefruit and avocado salad. I had to segment grapefruits ahead of time to make assembling the salad more efficient during service. At first, I was absolutely terrible at this technique, also known as peler a vif. We’d touched on it a few times at L’Academie de Cuisine, but I was never able to master it. I remember eating a lot of botched grapefruit segments (maybe that’s where I learned to love grapefruit!). After segmenting a ridiculous amount of grapefruits, I finally learned how to do it correctly.

It’s a simple technique, but as I said, does require practice. Here’s how I do it.

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You will need:

  • Grapefruit (duh)
  • Cutting board
  • Serrated knife
  • Small bowl
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Slice off both ends of the grapefruit. The cross section should look like this.

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Angle your knife so that a small part of the fruit is exposed.

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Slice off the grapefruit’s skin, so that no white pith is left on the outside. Work your way around the grapefruit until all of the skin is gone. Be careful not to cut out too much of the inner fruit – it helps to make cuts that follow the rounded shape of the grapefruit.

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Now, use your knife to detach the segments from the grapefruit’s core. Position your knife on the left side of the white line that runs down the grapefruit. Make a cut inwards (not too far) and then angle your knife slightly to the right. You should be able to easily peel the segment off the grapefruit with your knife.

I like to have a small bowl to catch the segments. I also save the grapefruit juice and use it to make vinaigrette – add a little Dijon mustard and whisk in extra virgin olive oil.

You can use this technique for other citrus fruits such as oranges. The grapefruit is a good fruit to practice on because of its larger size. Try it out! I love to pair it with tomatoes, sliced avocados and greens like spinach or mesclun.

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Just a week ago, I graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine. The past year has brought me closer to food than I ever previously imagined. Read on for my reflections of this experience:

At graduation with my mom and boyfriend Paul!

At graduation with my mom and boyfriend Paul.

At first, I was scared – scared that I wouldn’t meet the mental and physical demands of culinary school. Waking up early to attend 7 a.m. class, learning knife skills, cooking techniques and how to survive long, stressful hours on my feet was nothing that four years at Johns Hopkins could have ever taught me.

Yes, I said 7 a.m. class. We were expected to arrive at least thirty minutes early to change into our uniforms and assist the chef with prep before his demonstration. Of course, there were the students who arrived an hour early. What time did they wake up? 4 a.m.? I am without a doubt passionate about my career choice, but I also can’t function on too little sleep.

Adjusting to my new schedule was very difficult for me. During the first few weeks, I barely slept because I was so afraid I would oversleep my alarm. There were times I was so exhausted, I took the Metro instead of driving because I probably would have fallen asleep at the wheel. Somehow, I made it on time every day. I never missed a single class, either. I may have had to drink five cups of coffee to stay awake, but I was there.

Despite my dedication, I felt that many of my classmates were better cooks than I was. I struggled to slice an onion, brown a chicken and separate an egg, while to others these tasks appeared effortless. Finally I came to a realization – none of us were born pitting olives or rolling beautiful puff pastry. We all had to learn somewhere. I was one of the few students who had come to culinary school without any previous cooking experience. Now, it was my turn to learn.

We covered every technique and dish imaginable in the six months of classes I took. Because we covered so many topics fairly quickly, it was nearly impossible to achieve perfection on every single dish. This was often frustrating.

During my externship, I realized that perfection eventually comes through repetition. I worked garde manger for nearly six months straight. Over this time, I’ve probably separated over 400 eggs to make tempura batter. And I’ve probably sliced even more onions. And yes, I can now do these tasks easily. Excuse the cliché, but practice makes perfect, no?

L’Academie also taught me the four essential flavors – salty, acidic, bitter and sweet. Ideally, a successful dish balances these flavors. I am now much better at recognizing what flavor a dish is lacking, and what I can add to improve it.

Shaking L'Academie's president's hand and receiving my certificate of completion.

Shaking L’Academie’s president’s hand and receiving my certificate of completion.

So here I am now, with the cuts and burns on my hands and arms to prove that I’ve survived a year of culinary school (scars give character, right?). I’m enjoying work at my externship site, a fine dining D.C. restaurant, but I am excited to see where my developing food writing career takes me next!

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Life on the line is neither easy nor glamorous, but if you stick to a few guidelines, it can be incredibly rewarding. Since working in a restaurant over the past eight months, I can say I’ve learned a few things.

Mind-blowing to me is just how different culinary school is from a restaurant. Working on a line requires you to know and understand every dish you are preparing, whereas in culinary school, there is room for error.

At Cashion’s, I’ve made just about every mistake that there is to make. I’ve been criticized and I’ve felt bad about myself many times. Despite everything, I have to thank Chef for inspiring me to try my best every day and night. So, here we go – below, I’ve listed five key lessons I’ve learned from working in a restaurant kitchen.

 1. Keep a sharp knife at all times.

I can’t even begin to say how important this is. If you have a long list of ingredients to prepare before the restaurant opens, a sharp knife is key. When your knife can slice through red peppers or onions with little effort, this will increase your prep speed significantly. And when it’s going to be a busy night, speed and efficiency is everything. Even during service, when you have to chop or chiffonade herbs to order, you need to be fast and precise. I sharpen my knife with a stone at least every other day.

2. Don’t leave the line on a Friday or Saturday night (unless you absolutely have to!).

In culinary school, the instructor told us exactly how much of each ingredient to prep for the day’s meal. In a restaurant, you are more or less on your own. The chef is far too busy to give you specifics – It is up to you to decide how much you will need for the night, based on how busy the restaurant will be. Your goal should be to prep enough so that you will never run out of anything. Leaving the line during service to grab more of an ingredient can let down the rest of the kitchen, especially the chef. Think of it like a basketball game. Say that your point guard just decided to leave the court during the middle of the game. Can your team play as well with one less man?

 3. The chef is always right.

The chef tells you to plate a salad one way, but you think that your way is better. While he may appreciate your feedback, ultimately, it is his opinion that matters the most. If you’re working in the chef’s kitchen, you should show respect to him. If you do disagree with the chef, try to understand his philosophy behind how he wants the food prepared and presented. I will often ask the chef why he prefers ingredients to be cut or cooked a certain way. He is always excited to share his thoughts and reasons behind the dish.

4. Smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling.

If you’re having a bad day, leave it outside the kitchen and focus on your work. Secondly, even when you are given the grittiest, most mundane tasks, smile and agree to do them (even if you’re cursing everyone in your head). If you’re starting at the bottom like I did, no task is below you. I have spent hours peeling garlic and shucking beans. I have scrubbed grime off of walls, floors and ceiling. You do what’s asked of you and you don’t complain. I believe that it will pay off in the future.

5. Be flexible.

Restaurant schedules are notorious for operating the opposite of the way the rest of the world does. When everyone is finishing work for the day, you’re just beginning. On the bright side, you don’t have to be up early, unless you’re working breakfast. You will probably work Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, too. Seeing your family and friends can be difficult, but if you are truly dedicated to working in this industry, then you’ll accept it.

I have one final point – Try, try, try not to make the same mistake twice. I think I avoided putting this one on the list. Whenever I run out of a key ingredient during service or burn the skin on my salmon for the third time, I feel pretty awful.

Honestly, though, it’s just cooking. It’s not life or death. And at eleven o’clock, when the last order comes in, you’re done. You clean up, have a drink, go home and relax. Unless you’ve done something horribly offensive, like insult the chef or poison a customer, you’re not going to be fired. There’s always tomorrow night to improve.

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Above is photo of the women I’m working with during my externship at Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan. Last Sunday night, it was just the four of us on the line. From left to right – Me (working the salad and cold apps station), Sous Chef Sarah (working saute), Lauren (pastry chef on the grill) and Tamar (working the sweat station, in charge of fish, hot apps and soups). I can’t imagine there are many kitchens in D.C. where the women outnumber the men for a night!

I am also cooking with Executive Chef John Manolatos, Sam and Alex. It’s a small kitchen, but we produce a lot of food quickly and efficiently. I usually don’t have to go too far to find anything either, such as plates, utensils or extra ingredients.

Right now, I’m assigned to the salad and cold appetizer station, as well as the deep fryer. I also plate desserts on certain nights of the week.

Working in a kitchen isn’t easy, but I’m really enjoying the challenge so far. In just a few weeks, I have improved many of my skills in the kitchen just by practicing everyday. I’m working on knife skills especially, an essential aspect of the salad station. I’ve learned how to work with various fruits and vegetables, as well. I can now segment a grapefruit and slice an avocado without making a mushy green mess. Each day, I must also prepare a salad for family meal, the staff’s dinner before service begins.

One of my favorite dishes I have prepared is an asparagus salad with fava beans, Lukaniko (a Greek sausage) and Burrata cheese (similar to mozzarella). The dressing on top is an emulsion of lemon juice and olive oil. It’s simple, but  incredibly flavorful. As I’m learning at Cashion’s, great food doesn’t always have to be complicated.

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There is so much promise in buying a $5.00 cookie made with Jacques Torres chocolate in New York City. This kind of cookie has the potential to be great, specifically because it is backed by a name known for high quality chocolate.

I remember this cookie well. I bought it in New York City’s Chelsea Market. I was even asked if I wanted my cookie warm or room temperature. For $5.00, I felt that my purchase was going to be well-worth it.

Unfortunately, this cookie did not deliver. I asked for my cookie warm, but it felt more like a sad attempt to mask a cookie that was already stale. The “cookie” part was bland and hard as a rock, while the chocolate had a bitter, burned flavor, like it had been left in the microwave for too long.

I was disappointed, but I finished the cookie anyway. My hands and face were also covered in this ridiculously expensive chocolate. I’m pretty sure Jacques Torres was just having a bad day, so it’s hard for me to pass judgement based on this incident. Still, it was not worth my $5.00.

When I look for a good cookie, I look for several things – quality of chocolate, distribution of chocolate (does it use chocolate chips, chopped chocolate or both?), flavor of the dough, and crispness versus chewiness.

Potbelly, a popular sandwich chain with numerous locations across the country, has a store a few blocks away from my apartment. In addition to my usual sandwich, I always buy an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. (Thanks to dfw.com for the image.)

The cookie is crisp on the outside and soft in the center, just the way I like it. The melted chocolate chips are small enough not to make a mess. The cookie is somewhere in between thick and paper thin. This cookie is much better than the one I previously mentioned, and it’s $1.25.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn the hard way that you don’t always have to visit an expensive, fancy-schmancy bakery with an internationally renowned name to find an excellent chocolate chip cookie. I didn’t have to try to find Potbelly’s cookie, either. They are so abundant I might as well build a house out of them. Wait, a cookie house? Hmm…

Corner Bakery, another sandwich/coffee/desserts chain in D.C., is another winner on my list. The “Monster Cookie” (Pictured, left – thanks to runnersworld.com for the photo.) combines chocolate chips and M&Ms, making it much more chocolatey than Potbelly’s. The cookie is also crisper than Potbelly’s, but it is just as soft in the center. As a result, the contrast of the outside and the center of the cookie is more intense.

This cookie is incredible, and it’s $1.50. There’s a location in Union Station I frequent, but they are all over the city (as well as across the country!).

Grocery stores can also be a good bet for delicious cookies. I have been a fan of Whole Foods’ chocolate chip cookies for years. These cookies tend to be softer and less crisp than the last two I highlighted, but the chocolate chips are rich and flavorful. I also like BJ’s chocolate chip cookies, as well as Harris Teeter’s (My mom used to pack these in my lunches when I was in middle school).

Despite the winning cookies I mentioned above, there really is nothing better than a homemade, freshly baked cookie. If you have a good recipe, take the time to bake your own. I think it makes a difference.

Here is a great recipe I received at culinary school from one of my instructors, Chef Somchet. I like to use Ghirardelli chocolate, which packs the most flavor out of any other chip I’ve ever used.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Ingredients

• 4 ½ oz. Crisco
• 4 ½ oz. soft butter
• 8 oz. sugar
• 8 oz. brown sugar (dark)
• 2 eggs
• 1 egg yolk
• ½ tsp. vanilla
• 14 oz. AP flour
• 1 tsp. baking soda
• 1 tsp. salt
• Sea salt (optional)
• Chocolate chips
• Chopped chocolate bar

Instructions

1. Combine Crisco and softened butter in mixer (can use a hand mixer or a KitchenAid mixer).
2. Add brown sugar and sugar, and then cream with butter and Crisco.
3. Add the yolks and eggs slowly, one at a time.
4. Sift flour, baking soda and salt together, and then add to the other ingredients. Mix well.
5. Add vanilla and continue to mix.
6. Stir in chocolate chip and chopped chocolate with spatula.
7. Use ice cream scoop to place dough onto a sheet tray lined with Crisco.
8. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
9. Sprinkle the top of each cookie dough cluster with sea salt (optional).
10. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

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I have always found making desserts to be rather intimidating. There are so many exact measurements and precise baking temperatures, but there is so little room for error. I am more drawn to the flexibility of savory cooking, where recipes often say, “season to taste” or “simmer over low heat until ready.” Perhaps this philosophy of cooking fits my often spontaneous and open-minded personality better.

The recipe below I am listing is from the “restaurant challenge” we had a few weeks ago at culinary school (read about it here: The Restaurant Challenge). Although I didn’t write about it in my post, I worked the dessert station for the second day of the challenge. At first, I was worried – my experience with souffles, making crepes and flambéing bananas was quite limited. When I tried to make cinnamon ice cream for the team and screwed up my base, the Creme Anglaise, I panicked. However, one of my instructors, Chef Michel Pradier, calmed my nerves by helping me to come up with a brilliant flavor of ice cream.

I say brilliant because the way Chef took my botched cinnamon creme anglaise, the typical base for ice cream, and effortlessly fixed it was quite incredible. A key part of making Creme Anglaise is making sure the mixture is sufficiently cooked over low heat. I took this principle a bit too far, to the point where lumps of cooked egg stuck to the bottom of my pot. Chef Michel, with his French accent said, “No, no my dear. Let me add a little this, a little that…” and poured in seemingly random amounts of melted butter and cream. Doing so would mask the overcooked egg flavor while giving the ice cream an added element of creaminess and smoothness. He then added lime zest to help offset the sweetness. How did he know how to do that? Perhaps over 30 years of experience could be part of the explanation, but still!

Finally, with a smile, he poured in a generous amount of Grand Marnier. I watched in amazement, as Chef made my failure into something delicious. He explained to me that knowing how to react to any situation in cooking is one essential part of being a great chef.

Chef Michel’s Cinnamon Citrus Ice Cream
(Note: to make this recipe, you must have an ice cream maker!)

Ingredients

  • Crème anglaise
    • 2 cups milk
    • 3 egg yolks
    • 5 oz. sugar
    • Vanilla
  • Butter (soft)
  • Heavy cream
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • Zest of 1 lime
  • Grand Marnier (1-2 tablespoons)

Instructions

  1. Prepare crème anglaise by first warming up milk (do not let it burn or boil) in a pot over low heat.
  2. In bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar until the sugar is dissolved.
  3. Slowly add the warm milk and whisk. Pour the mixture back into the pot and place over low heat.
  4. Stir over low heat with a wooden spoon until mixture thickens. The crème anglaise should coat the back of the spoon.
  5. While still warm, add soft butter and cream to crème anglaise and whisk to combine.
  6. Add cinnamon, lime zest and Grand Marnier. Whisk well and adjust to taste.
  7. Chill crème anglaise in freezer over ice.
  8. Place in ice cream maker and let machine run for 20-30 minutes.
  9. Keep in freezer, but move to the refrigerator a little before serving so it is not too hard.

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After four months of culinary school, I thought I had learned how to work fast in the kitchen, especially under pressure. Last week’s restaurant challenge proved to me otherwise. Over the course of two days last week, we transformed our kitchen at school into a mock-restaurant, planning to serve nearly 200 guests. Our menu was enormous. We prepared dishes from an a la carte menu, off of which Chef Patrice (our instructor) had pre-selected a three-course meal for each customer.

For the first day, I was assigned to the saute station, specifically working with chicken, pork, veal, beef and duck. This station also included preparing accompanying side items such as mashed potatoes, haricots verts, rice pilaf and snow peas. Here are all of the dishes for which we were responsible:

Chicken Roulade with Spinach and Sun Dried Tomatoes, Madeira Sauce, Pommes Darphin and Snow Peas

Chicken Leg Chasseur, Riz Pilaf, Haricot Verts

Grilled Flank Steak, Sauce Choron, Pommes Darphin, Haricots Verts

Veal Scallopini with Mushrooms, Madeira Sauce and Squash Risotto

Braised Duck Leg over Sauteed Cabbage

Pork Tenderloin, Sauce Charcutiere, Broccoli a l’Anglaise, Mashed Potatoes

Steak au Poivre, French Fries, Haricots Verts

Seared Duck Breast a l’Orange, Pommes Sautees a Cru and Ratatouille

We had two hours to prep our station. Two hours went by a lot faster than you might think. In fact, it was not nearly enough time. In general, one of the most important part of prep time is figuring out what you can do ahead of time and what you have to do a la minute (at the moment of service). Fortunately, most of our dishes could be cooked in advance and warmed up in the oven right before serving them.

We divided the work up among our group, deciding who would be in charge of what dish. I was to do most of the prep for the Chicken Chasseur, and then help out whenever I could after that. The first thing I did was create a prep list for myself, which looked something like this:

  • Whole chicken
    • Breast, thighs, legs
    • Bones to fortify stock
  • Braising liquid
    • Chicken stock
    • Mirepoix (Onions, carrots, celery, chopped small)
    • Bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf)
  • Sauce chasseur
    • Braising liquid
    • Tomato concasse
      • Tomato, rough chop
      • Tomato paste
      • Onion, very finely chopped
      • Thyme, bay leaf
    • Mushrooms, sliced thin
    • Shallots, chopped fine
    • Tarragon, finely chopped

As long as I could sear my chicken and let it cook slowly in its braising liquid well ahead of time, I would be safe. While my chicken cooked in the oven, I could prep for the sauce. This included slicing and sautéing my mushrooms, simmering tomatoes with onions in olive oil over low heat for my concasse and chopping my tarragon and shallots finely.

Because we had no break between prep and service, we had no time to clean and organize our station. After two hours of frantic prep, everything and everyone was an absolute mess. Chicken and duck blood had splattered on my chef whites while spilled sauces, stocks, vegetable scraps and whatever else were strewn about the table. We wiped down everything as best as we could.

Two members of our group moved to the expo station. Here, they would receive the orders from the chef and yell them back to everyone else in the group. Expo was also responsible for the finishing touches on all dishes, whether this meant making sure the plate was clean or spooning sauce over the meat.

The rest of us were back at the stove and oven, preparing all of the components of each ordered dish. For the Chicken Chasseur, I made sure that each plate received a hot thigh and a drumstick. The haricots verts were already blanched, so all I had to do was heat them up in warm water for about five seconds. The plates for each dish had to also be warm, a tedious but essential detail.

The first hour was frantic, chaotic insanity.

The communication between expo and the rest of us was horrible. When a dish is “ordered,” it does not mean that it is needed immediately, but when a dish is “fired,” this means that it is. At first, I was confused, not understanding the difference between the two commands. I’d have a pork tenderloin plated and ready, when a Chicken Chasseur was needed right away, while a braised duck leg was getting cold because I had sent it out too early.

Meanwhile, Chef Patrice is screaming – Where is my Chasseur and medium rare Steak au Poivre? It’s been way too long! Get it out NOW!

I don’t remember hearing expo tell us we needed a Steak au Poivre, but that doesn’t matter. It just needs to get done!

Later, as I was sending out a chicken and duck, I accidentally dropped my wooden spoon into the deep fryer. I stared at the spoon with a weird fascination for a few seconds – the hot oil crackled around the spoon as it bobbed up and down. I snapped out of my trance and fished it out with a pair of tongs. Later on, another member of our group dropped another wooden spoon on the flaming stove. It took two of us to blow out the flames.

Gradually, we figured out a system to send out our food more efficiently. After all was said and done six hours later, I realized I hadn’t had a single drop of water. As dehydration and exhaustion hit me, as I plopped down in a chair. It felt incredible.

I can’t imagine it is this crazy in a real restaurant. The cooks know the menu well, and prepare the same dishes night after night. Being exposed to the demands of a real kitchen, however, was a useful experience. I survived by telling myself to keep calm and stay in control no matter what – even if I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I had to look like I did. I am beginning to see that working on the line in a kitchen is serious business that is not as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of concentration and a lot of multi-tasking. Although I’m improving everyday, I’m still not quite there yet.

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