July 2010


I know it sounds like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, but no joke, this was the exchange at the end of the night in our kitchen classroom last week Tuesday evening.

It was a fun moment, but it was illustrative of an important lesson that my fellow cooks-in-training and I learned on Day 4 of the course, Introduction to Professional Cookery.

Basically, the lesson can be summed up thusly:

  1. Listen very carefully and do everything your chef tells you to do. Do it quickly, and with enthusiasm.
  2. Your chef is always right.

Here’s the back story.

We turned on the stove for the first time on Tuesday, so we were all excited about that, considering we had already spent several hours in class without cooking a thing.

Knife skills, kitchen safety and sanitation are all extremely important. We get that.  But it was time to light the fire!

We were making a simple tomato sauce called Tomato Portuguese.  First, Chef DeWan showed us how to blanch, shock, peel, and chop tomatoes to make our concasse.  Next, Chef handed out a recipe, we looked it over together, and he answered our questions. Finally, he sent us on our way with a few verbal instructions.

We were to break up into teams of 3 students for the 8 cooking stations in the kitchen.  Divide the tomatoes equally among the 8 stations, and proceed with your recipe in your team.

We scattered, and everyone was running.  We were loading up our bowls willy nilly with tomatoes, shallots, garlic, parsley, herbs, etc.  We were gathering pots, pans, cheesecloth and scrap bowls.  It was a bit chaotic, but within a few minutes, we got busy mincing our shallots and pasting our garlic.  We were movin’ along. And we fired the stoves!

A few minutes later, the Chef asked loudly, “Why are there tomatoes left in this box?”

Immediately, my gut lurched just a little bit. Uh oh.

“Gather around!” said Chef DeWan.

“You would all be fired right now if this were a professional kitchen!”

Silence.

“What did I say? I said divide the tomatoes equally among the 8 stations.  Start over!”

Chaos ensued all over again. The tomatoes eventually got portioned somewhat evenly, and we all proceeded with the recipe.

The rest of the evening was largely uneventful, even successful.  At the end of the night, after the dishes are clean, floors are mopped and work services wiped down, we gather around the chef for a few more words of wisdom.  On this evening, he was understanding, but firm in reminding us of the lesson we learned.

Basically, the message I heard from him was: yeah, I get you’re excited that we fired the stoves. It’s good this happened tonight rather than further down the road when we’re cooking multiple things. Don’t let it happen again. Always listen to your chef, because it’s his/her word above all else, and he/she is always right.

Then, by way of demonstration, Chef DeWan turned to one of my classmates and said, “You’re an asshole.”

“Yes, Chef,” replied my classmate without batting an eye.

<laughter>

“Very good,” said Chef DeWan. “Have a good night!”

Now, here’s the story behind the back story.  In other words, why did this happen?

The recipe that Chef DeWan handed out said we needed 2 pounds of tomato concasse.  Everyone was focused on that number, so most of us grabbed what looked like 2 pounds of tomatoes, and went on our merry way.  We almost immediately forgot what our chef told us about dividing the tomatoes equally, because we were so intent on the recipe.

Further, in addition to cooking in these new digs, we had to practice our conversions.  So instead of starting with 2 pounds of concasse, we had to go with whatever the portion was, and then covert the rest of the ingredients to the proper proportion.  Math – ARGH!  I know I was stressing about that, and it made me forget about what the Chef had said.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the deadliest sin in a professional kitchen.

Recipe:  Tomato Portuguese

2 lbs tomato concasse
1 Tablespoon shallots, minced (OR 4% of the weight of your concasse)
2 Tablespoons olive oil (OR 1% of the weight of your concasse)
3 cloves garlic, pasted (OR 2% of the weight of your concasse)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste (optional – we didn’t use it)
1 bouquet garni

salt, pepper and sugar to taste

Heat olive oil in a pan at medium high heat. Add minced shallots and sweat to soften. Turn down the heat if the shallots start to brown. Add the garlic paste, then the chopped tomatoes and bouquet garni. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat.  Cover with a round piece of parchment paper and cook until the water has completely evaporated. Remove bouquet garni and set aside. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Personally, I thought this sauce was a pretty good base, but definitely needed some livening up.  Add some cumin and jalapenos to make it latin, or stick with the european preparation, but add more garlic to your liking, maybe some smoked paprika, or red pepper flakes.  You could also start it out with stronger aromatics like onions and celery to give a more robust flavor.

Bon Appetit!

Cooking school has begun.

Turns out there wasn’t enough interest to run the weekend “I have no life” program, so I’m in the weeknight “I get no sleep” program.  During the 1st quarter, I commute to Chicago Monday and Tuesday nights for classes, 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.  I also have an online class (2.5 hours of homework last night!), and will take my sanitation class July 31 and August 1. Starting in October, I will commute 3 nights per week.

I’m already exhausted after the first week, so this is definitely going to be interesting.

Professionalism is a big deal at Kendall. Culinary students are expected to be wearing their complete uniform at all times, which includes:

  • Black and white checkered pants that look like pajamas bottoms, only more sturdy, and not nearly as cute.
  • A white chef’s coat that must be completely buttoned up, with a white t-shirt underneath. The coat is nifty, because my name is embroidered on it.
  • A turquoise neckerchief that is tied like a man’s tie around the neck.
  • Ugly, clunky, black shoes.

Instructors will stop you in the hall or cafeteria if you’re not dressed appropriately.  Hard core!  (Yes, the cafeteria food is awesome).

Overall, I’m not wild about the uniform, but it is comfortable, and really that’s the point. I know you’re all dying to see me in it, so I’ll post a picture sometime soon.

Turns out there are a lot of folk like me in cooking school.  What I mean by “like me” is they’re career changers who are following their passion, and in many cases, taking an enormous pay cut.  It’s refreshing to know that there are other people as crazy as me out there.

Introductions were the order of the day for the first class. Chef DeWan is our instructor.  He’s a big (as in tall, not fat) guy with a great sense of humor. He has made us all laugh a lot already.  He was a musician for many years before he decided to take up the culinary arts. He also got a Masters of Divinity degree.  He cusses a lot for a guy with an M.Div. It’s funny.

He said to the class, “I was one of those freaks who used to read cookbooks in bed.  My wife asked me what was wrong with me, and I was like ‘shut up, you want to eat don’t you?”  Too funny. I can relate, as I’ve spent many a night in bed reading Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, and various cooking magazines.

Now he teaches, writes a column for the Tribune and a professional trade magazine that I’m failing to recall right now, and a few other things in the industry.

After the Chef explained who he was, my classmates took their turns introducing themselves, and then we get to Michael.  Michael was a jeweler for many years, until his business closed.  He tried working for someone else, but that didn’t suit him to well, so he decided he would try culinary school . . . even though he has never really cooked anything! After a bit of probing from Chef DeWan, he admitted to having made toast and hard boiled eggs. He explained to Chef  that his brother was a chef, so he was always the one who cooked.

“Where?” asks Chef DeWan.

Michael hesitates, then answers, “San Francisco.”

Chef DeWan pauses and stares at Michael for a moment, then says, “Is your brother Harold McGee?”

Michael admitted that they were indeed brothers, and Chef DeWan went wild.  “Wait ’til I tell the Dean that Harold McGee’s brother is in my class.”

He went on to explain that Harold McGee is the author of a compendium on Photo of "On Food and Cooking"the science of cooking, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and told us all that we need to buy his book, because it will be an invaluable reference.

So of course, I bought it.  As you might be able to see from the cover, it’s an IACP and James Beard Foundation award winner.  All the big name chefs – Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin and Rose Levy Beranbaum – wrote glowing blurbs about the book.

Thomas Keller wrote, “His books are the most worn and dog-eared of my entire collection.”

This guy is big in the industry, and his brother Michael is in my Intro to Professional Cookery class!  That’s wild.  I’m looking forward to getting to know Michael who seems like a really nice man, and super courageous for enrolling in culinary school!

So, what have I learned in my first week of culinary school?

  • That cooking involves a lot of cleaning.
  • That I’ve been holding my knife wrong for years. Who knew the correct grip could give you so much more control?
  • That precision cutting with a knife is extremely difficult, and I actually kinda suck at it.
  • That it’s a miracle I haven’t sliced my fingers off after all the cutting I’ve done the wrong way.

That reminds me of another thing I like about Chef DeWan.  He can tell you that you suck, and make you feel good about it.

Anyway, the first two classes have been all about keeping the kitchen and your work area clean and orderly, and of course, knife skills.  We have already spent hours practicing our rondelles, batons, juliennes and other cuts.  and it’s more of the same next week. In fact, it’s more of the same this weekend, because Chef recommended that we buy a big bag of potatoes and practice. I’m mixing it up with some carrots and the daikon I got from my CSA share.

“Practicing is the only way that it’s going to be less hard,” said Chef.

So, next time I see my friends and family, I’ll toast to things getting a little less hard every day.

Bon appetit!