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!

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