I made it through the first week of classes, commutes included.  It’s going to be a challenging, but fun 10 weeks.

We were thrown for a loop in catering class when we learned that the first 5 weeks are lecture (which also means that I’m done by 8:30 p.m. – yay!), and the last 5 weeks are in the kitchen.

The owner of the successful Chicag0-based Finesse Cuisine, Jon Wool, is our instructor during these first weeks.  Interesting guy, and a successful businessman, so I’m looking forward to learning a lot.

Our big assignment for the first half is to conceptualize our own catering business and plan an event for 50 or more guests.  It’s a bit daunting.

My assignment this week includes naming my catering company and developing a mission statement.

While I’m not certain I’m interested in off-premise catering as a career, I still want to take this project seriously.  I need a good name, and I welcome suggestions  (hint, hint).

Oaxaca, here I come!

Chef Carlos, of Mexique, putting the final touches on his Chicken in Escabeche

Of the 3 classes I’m taking this quarter, I’m most excited about my Cuisines of Mexico class.  My instructor, Chef Juan Carlos (no kidding!) is the owner and executive chef at the very popular Mexique restaurant.  Chef Carlos is a newbie instructor, so a little rusty around the edges when it comes to teaching in a classroom setting.

But if he’s going to be rusty anywhere, I would prefer it to be in the classroom rather than the kitchen.  Even so, it was fun to hear his stories about growing up in Guerrero, watching his grandmother make tortillas, going to the fields with his grandfather.

He came to the U.S. from Mexico at around the age of 20, after he decided a career in computer technology wasn’t his cup of horchata. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up with help from chefs and mentors along the way.  Now, in Chicago, he is named in the same breath as chefs like Rick Bayless, who is one of my favs.

Needless to say, I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to learn from him.

He has a lot of passion for what he does, and he said to us, “I expect you to bring passion to your cooking here.” I will, Chef!  And I think you’re going to make it easy for me to do so.

Our first night, we made:

  • escabeche – basically pickled vegetables, specifically onion, jalapeno, and carrot (the recipe link is close to what we made in class),
  • dry pepper puree, using ancho, guajillo and pasilla chiles. This puree is a base for many other traditional Mexican dishes. You really just toast the chiles, rehydrate in water, and puree with fresh water to make a thin paste (it should be like a really thick sauce).
  • salsa verde (using a molcajete) – my husband Randy’s favorite. There are a lot of variations on salsa verde, but we boiled the jalapeno, tomatillo and garlic until fairly soft, and ground them up in a molcajete. It was lovely, but man, grinding that stuff is hard work.  I’m going to have killer arms by the end of this class!
  • homemade chorizo – ground pork, spices, pepper puree, etc.

Chicken in Escabeche, courtesy of Chef Carlos

At the end of the night, Chef Carlos cooked up a classic Mexican dish called Chicken in Escabeche.

My dry pepper puree was a bit of disappointment. I’ve worked with dry peppers many times, usually quite successfully, but I learned at class how easy it can be to get it wrong.

Before you rehydrate dry peppers, you must “toast” or fry them.  If you don’t toast them enough, the puree will have a raw and watery flavor.  If you toast them too much, it will have a bitter or burnt taste.  I didn’t get it quite right during class.

There’s something about the pace of restaurant cooking that can get you off of your cooking groove, and being in school is in part learning how to work quickly on many different items while maintaining the excellence you strive for and often achieve cooking at home.

At the end of the evening, Chef Carlos talked to each team separately about our dishes, answered our questions and graded us – a nice touch.

As we were talking about the dry pepper puree that my teammate Rick and I made, we discussed what went wrong.  I responded, “we’ll get it right next time.”

“I know you will,” said Chef Carlos. Thanks for your confidence!

A Bistro is What?!

French Bistro Cooking was a bit more frenetic.

Our very experienced instructor (French, of course), Chef Coutrieux, is a bit brusque, but not unhelpful.

One of the first things I learned in this class is the term “bistro” has been  bastardized in America (so typical).

In France, a bistro is a small establishment that focuses on serving booze. In order to keep customers drinking, they serve a few simple  dishes, usually from a tiny kitchen (the bar is the main attraction) for a short period of time – usually from about 12 noon to 2 or 2:30 p.m.

Steak frites, salad, and creme brulee

In France, bistro cuisine is kind of like pub food… really good pub food.

Our first night, we made:

  • steak frites, made with the traditional hanger steak, and covered with carmelized shallots (sauteed in oh, about a TON of butter!)
  • creme brulee
  • a bunch of different salads

The pace was quick and the whole experience was a bit unnerving, since we were in a new kitchen, and at this point, we’re not receiving a whole lot of direction.  It’s OK, because we shouldn’t be needing it too much – and we don’t. But after having been gone for 3 weeks, it was intense that first night, and I was a tad frazzled by the end of class.

As I finish this post, I’m in the middle of my 2nd week and feeling like I’m getting back into the groove.

More soon.

Bon Appetit!