Thursday, February 25, 2010

REMINDER: Daily culinary blog has moved

If you aren't looking at's City Bright's blog, then you are missing the continuation of my culinary blog. Go there to read:

* 'Nothing happens unless first a dream' -- Carl Sandburg

* Dieting? You might want to skip this (including this photo!)

* The croissant: decadent, delicate, delicious, 'defiled'

* It's magic: from dough to done in 20 minutes

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Am I cheating on my first love?

My new relationship, with Baking and Pastry class, is not leading to early relationship euphoria. Quite the opposite. Read why, at my blog's new location:


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

15 days, 27 breads and pastries; can we do it?

Ambitious to say the least is Chef Richard's production plan for us in the first three weeks of Baking and Pastry class.

Read about it at the new location of my blog, at the San Francisco Chronicle's Website,

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Specter of weight gain rears its head again

Now that we're into Baking and Pastry at culinary school, the issue of weight gain is again before us.

Read about it in my blog's new locale, SFGate.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blog on the move

   My daily blog entries are moving. Effective today, Feb. 15, read them at SFGate's City Brights.

   Today's blog post -- LEADING WITH MY THUMB -- introduces me and my blog to what I hope will be a wider audience.

   There's room for you there, too. If you have been following me here, please link to SFGate.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cook goes into hibernation; flour child emerges

Eighteen weeks of cooking classes ended on Thursday, giving us a pretty complete going-over of the basics of classic French cuisine.

Now comes the hard part for me, starting on Monday.

"How long do you cook a cake?" Chef Instructor Richard Sanchez asks rhetorically. "You don't 'cook' a cake, of course. You 'bake' a cake."

That's new territory for me, and I enter with trepidation. I am not a baker. The good news is that Chef Richard seems more than willing to start with the basics.

For example: "The first thing you will learn is to say 'baking,' not 'cooking'."

Starting with that change in terminology, it means a whole new mentality about the kitchen and a new set of mechanics. It means exact measurements, by weight. It likely means less knife work, more whipping and rolling. It means working more with eggs and flour and sugar and ...


Say, maybe this won't be so bad after all!

We will learn to make a chocolate butter cake, Chef Richard promises.

We also will learn to bake bread and make croissants and a host of other delectables.

Frankly, baking and pastry making have never been part of my attraction to the kitchen; my preference has always been for the savory side. But the territory we covered in cooking classes was far beyond anything I expected, opening my mind to all possibilities.

The newest frontier beckons. I stand ready, whisk in hand.

How does he keep his slender figure?

   Chef Dan Fluharty scores final platings from five students in Culinary Foundations III. This plating was worth 50 points. Chef tasted each component to score doneness, seasoning, temperature, appearance and portion size. He also scored each plate overall on food color -- minimum of three colors required for full credit -- cleanliness, design and height. The rectangular plate in the center and the round plate on the far right are grilled pork chops; the plate nearest Chef's left hand is sauté of duck breast; the plate near his right hand is fillet of sole and salmon mousseline; the plate in the lower left is mine, grilled New York steak.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Last supper: Culinary school final exam platings

My final competency exam platings in Culinary Foundations III class:

Sauté of boneless chicken breast over a mushroom sauce suprême, broccoli florets in a butter sauté with julienne of tomato, potatoes tourné.

Grilled New York steak with roasted garlic compound butter, creamed spinach, pommes duchesse, grilled tomato slices.

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 18

Nothing dull about it
"Those were some scary sharp knives."
-- Culinary student John Briggs after the class viewed a video in which an experienced butcher broke down a side of beef in quick time.

You've been warned
"He always has such off-the-wall questions."
"And, I've got lots more."
-- Exchange between Chef Dan Fluharty and culinary student Alfie Regadio (left) during a review session for final exams.

Quiz on synonyms
"It's shred vs. grate. With hash browns, you want to grate. Grate, like grate on my nerves. You know:
-- Chef Dan Fluharty critiquing our less-than-stellar performance in making breakfast potatoes. 

Just so it's edible
"Parsley and lemon sauce; it's from a cook book." 
-- Culinary student Jorge Olmos to Chef Dan Fluharty when Chef asked him about the sauce he was planning for his final exam chicken dish.

Thanks for the memories
"Remember the day we made chicken ballotine?"
"That was a bad day."
"That was my worst day yet."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty reviewing our cooking, with culinary students Molly Lester and John Briggs reacting.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Class picture: Culinary Arts, 2010

   Our class; in front: Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty. Left to right: Barry Gose, Aline Brown, Molly Lester, Fontaine McFadden, Jorge Olmos, yours truly, John Briggs, Alfie Regadio, Rob Park, Richard Johnson.

NEWS FLASH: ¡Que Aprovecho! goes downtown!

The gracious folks at SFGate, the Website of the San Francisco Chronicle, have agreed to include ¡Que Aprovecho! as part of the City Brights community blog feature.

Look for it there starting Monday morning, Feb. 15.

It won't be called ¡Que Aprovecho! on SFGate. To begin with, there is a dispute among bilingual family members and friends over the grammatical accuracy of that phrase.

¡Que Aprovecho! will remain accessible as a blog site, serving mostly as an archive for my last six months of postings, to preview my posts at SFGate's City Brights and to link you to it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The wit and wisdom of Chef Dan

A good teacher does more than impart knowledge; a good teacher imparts inspiration.

Chef Dan Fluharty inspired us from the first day of class in early November, and he did so every day for 12 weeks after, in Culinary Foundations II right through today's final class in Culinary Foundations III.

Chef told us as we prepared to depart his classroom kitchen at day's end today: "In a few years, I'll come into a restaurant and see one of your names on the menu as chef. ... "

That's an inspirational thought in and of itself.

In his honor, here are select inspirational, motivational and just plain funny moments from Chef Dan Fluharty in the last 12 weeks.

"The fish always stinks from the head down."
-- Explaining that if there's a problem with food in a restaurant, it starts at the top.
"It's about learning the basics. Today: more basics."
-- Responding to students asking if they could alter, add to or otherwise make more complex the techniques and recipes he was teaching to us.

"Your daily challenge will be: timing, correct mise en place, plate presentation."
-- Spelling out the keys to success in class.

"Chuck got shanked in the ribs over a plate of loins. But he was flanked by his friends, sirloin and round."
-- Chef's way of helping us remember the subprimal cuts on a half of beef.

"For the fryer, where's the magic spot? There's a magic place on the flame. Find it."
-- Admonishing us to pay attention to the deep fryer's oil temperature. We often had it too high or too low, resulting in inadequate cooking.

"Remember, eight weeks ago, you couldn't rub two sticks together."
-- After seeing our collective reaction to his spelling out the elements of a rather daunting final competency exam.

The most important ingredient in cooking

Fail to salt a vegetable or a piece of meat, and its flavor will be lessened.

Don't put sugar in lemonade, and it will be too sour to drink.

Remove all fat -- butter, oil, other rendering -- from cooking, and it becomes much more difficult, in fact nigh impossible.

So which of those is the most important ingredient in the kitchen?

None of the above.

"We only have so much time," Chef Dan Fluharty told us in a recent lecture in Culinary Foundations III class. "You must make it your friend."

And your most important ingredient. More than anything else, time can make or break a meal. Day after day in the last 18 weeks of classes, we have faced one time crunch heaped upon another. In some cases, we spent too much time on something, in others not enough, and in still others time simply ran out.

Take Wednesday's time crunch in the competency final exam. We had 15 minutes to fabricate -- cut into specified pieces -- a whole chicken. We had 45 minutes to cook a five-part meal with one piece of that chicken. We had one hour to cook another five-part meal right after that.

Time-line organization and planning were keys to success, along with execution of the time line. In each instance, time was tight, and there was some, but not much, margin for error.

Most of us completed the chicken fabrication with plenty of time to spare. Mine was done in 9 minutes.

My chicken dish, too, came together according to my timeline and plan. I was the first in class to present the dish to Chef, with about five minutes to spare.

The grilled New York steak went to the last tick of the clock. The steak itself was the final ingredient to go on the plate, and I placed it there literally as Chef walked by to declare time was up. I could have used another 3 or 4 minutes, time I had lost on two do-overs -- my potato mixture for which I had forgotten the egg yolks and my spinach, which I had over-blanched, leaving it as a small glob of green.

We've seen it on "Iron Chef", "Top Chef" and "Chopped". The tming matters, more than just about anything else.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Today, all 10 of us were 'Top Chefs'

Ten of us plated 20 flavorful, attractive and culinarily correct meals today to complete our competency final exam in Culinary Foundations III.

We had an under-seasoned vegetable here and a sauce that was too thick there, but we did ourselves proud. We also did Chef Dan Fluharty proud. He prodded, poked, pushed and most of all taught us for the last 12 weeks.

Chef Dan honored us with a standing ovation as class ended.

Everyone turned in good meals well made. All waited patiently for Chef to individually critique and grade every plate, giving each recipient his or her due upon completion of the scoring.

For the record, I scored 18 of 20 on the chicken dish, which included fabrication of a whole chicken, followed by cooking of one breast with accompanying starch, vegetable, sauce and garnish. I missed one "oyster" in a thigh, and Chef judged my sauce suprême slightly thick.

My grilled New York steak scored 44 of 50. It was a smidgen on the rare side, and I had not thoroughly cooked the roux (butter and flour combination) on the creamed spinach.

High marks and high praise came for my flavors and seasoning on almost every component of both plates, and Chef singled out my vegetables as having been cooked just right.

One day remains in the six-week term, and it will include a written final exam. Afterward, we will cook -- for fun!

It's a shellfish party: lobster, shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels. We will apply our best creative techniques to them, plus make side dishes to complement.

We will celebrate the completion of our 18 weeks of immersion in classical French cuisine.

Technical difficulties mean I can't post photos from today at this time, but I will post them soon.

Meantime, a toast to my classmates:

¡Saludos, Amor y Dinero!

Top to bottom on the left: Aline Brown, Barry Gose, Richard Johnson, Molly Lester, Alfie Regadio.

Top to bottom on the right: John Briggs, Fontaine McFadden, Jorge Olmos, Rob Park

On the last lap of 'cooking marathon'

Early on in Culinary Foundations III class, Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty (right) promised students a "cooking marathon that gives you a real world feel."

He has fulfilled that promise.

Today, we finish the marathon with two meals of five parts each. The first, with a chicken breast at its center, must be completed and presented in 45 minutes. The second, for which I drew New York steak, must be completed and presented in one hour.

All 10 of us should be ready. The chefs have been working us out for 18 weeks. In the last six weeks, we have had intensive, timed cooking exercises almost daily. In that six weeks, we have prepped, cooked and plated two dozen full meals, including three-course offerings and all rooted in the classic French techniques and flavors we have been learning.

We can see the finish line ahead, and we must run hard through it.

The real world lies just beyond.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The problem with garnish, or, relevance in dining

You know the scene: Order dinner at a restaurant and on the plate is a sprig of parsley or a slice of citrus or some other nondescript piece of something presumably edible.

That's garnish, meant to enhance the meal and serve as something attractive. Often, though, the diner shoves it aside. That's after the thought behind it got shoved aside by the chef or whoever plated the meal.

Garnish in French means "to adorn" or "to furnish." As the French have done with most other aspects of cuisine and eating -- e.g., 100 or more ways to cook an egg -- they have attempted to standardize garnish preparation and presentation. A 1914 handbook to assist chefs and cooks lists 209 items in the garnish section, according to Wayne Gisslen in "Professional Cooking," the key textbook we use in culinary school.

In our current class, Culinary Foundations III, we get a point on a plated meal for a thought-out and appropriate garnish, and we lose a point if the garnish is inappropriate or nonexistent. Chef has taught us that the garnish can be an offshoot of some aspect of the dish and overall should complement the dish, including adding color where needed.

For Wednesday's all-important final competency exam, garnish will be a factor.

For my chicken dish, I will use a couple of small mushroom caps as garnish, and if I have time, I will carve a small design into them. If not, I likely will go with a sliced and fanned mushroom cap on the plate. The mushroom will be appropriate because it will be part of the sauce I plan to make.

For the grilled New York steak, I plan to thick slice a roma tomato and grill it for a few moments to provide some texture and color on what otherwise will be a pretty neutrally colored plate.

Seems like lots of attention, but every point counts. More important, the plate must look good and be appetizing. My garnishes are intended to achieve those ends.

It's like CSI: Spinach gets creamed, steak gets grilled

Grill a steak? Should be no problem. Cream some spinach? That's a bit more complex. Compounding the matter is butter -- compound butter, that is, with roasted garlic. Then there are the potatoes duchesse.

That's menu No. 2 in the mystery basket for Wednesday's final competency exam. It is what I will plan, prep, cook and plate for Chef, all in one hour.

Grilled New York steak sounds simple, but it must be done to Chef's exacting specifications -- medium rare with good grill marks.

But first things first: The potatoes must be boiled and the garlic roasted as starting steps. Compound butter takes a while to set, so my plan will be to handle it and get it in the reach-in refrigerator as quickly as possible.

Spinach needs thorough washing, at least three complete dunkings and rinsings in cold water. And the cream for it must be light. As Chef said the previous time we cooked it, this is creamed spinach, not spinached cream.

Piped potatoes into the oven, spinach on the stovetop with light cream, the steak cooks and then rests. Plating starts now.

It will be an intense hour.

(Photo shows what the steak ought to look like, with compound butter, when presented. Photo credit:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Final exam plating: Can I make it 'suprême'?

The first of two platings for our final competency exam on Wednesday will be chicken. For the first time in the 18 weeks we have been cooking in school, we must plan, prep, cook and plate the dish without specific direction from the chef.

What he said is that it must be chicken -- use the breast from your chicken fabrication competency test was his pointed suggestion -- and the plate must include a sauce, a vegetable, a starch and a garnish.

My plan is to sauté a skinless, boneless chicken breast, slice it and make it the centerpiece of a plate that includes broccoli blanched and finished in a sauté of butter, potatoes turned in small ovals and browned, sauce suprême and a garnish of mushrooms.

If all goes well, it should look something like the photo above, taken from our textbook, Wayne Gisslen's "Professional Cooking."

BULLETIN: Egg demand falls as market bottoms out

Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but I wasn't necessarily looking at it as a good way to start final exam week in culinary school today.

Cooking eggs -- omelets, over easy, scrambled and elsewise -- by classic French standards hasn't been my forte. Suffice it to say that in learning to make a proper omelet, I've had to break many an egg, several dozen in my first practice round a few weeks back.

Today, however, the demand for eggs declined significantly as I rolled out three egg dishes in decent fashion.

Key was the omelet, which like the other egg dishes in classic French cookery, must be done without browning, cooked through and not runny. On my first try, for a grade, I left it a bit runny, but scored well because all other components on my plate, roasted red potatoes with a paprika dusting and country gravy, were done well.

Chef suggested I make a second try on the omelet, albeit not for a grade. I completed it without runniness and little browning. The mechanics are key: moving, moving, shaking, shaking, rimming the egg in the pan, flipping, folding once in the pan, a second time onto the plate. Done. Order up!

The egg market had a crack in it today.

Jazz bassist Charles Mingus and the culinary arts

Making food and making music have much in common. Both coalesce the cognitive and the creative. Both require focus and discipline while finding a way to keep innovation unfettered. Both require mastery of the basics and attention to simplicity, rather than a striving for complexity.

What? you say. What is classical music if not complex? What about the complex counter beats of jazz, the riffs of some popular music, the harmonies of gospel? All have their complexities, as do many of the world's cuisines. Agreed. But bear with me on this thought for a few minutes.

Culinary-musical commonalities bring to my mind the late, great bass player and composer Charles Mingus (left), who is among my favorites in jazz.

His innovation, his discipline in getting the music just the way he wanted it and his musical attention to the region of his roots -- the U.S.-Mexican border -- all capture my attention. Mingus was born in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., the same town in which my mom was born.

My favorite Mingus music is his Tijuana Moods set, in which he played a few essential pieces of music several times over, adjusting in each to gain a slightly different outcome. Each is distinct, yet familiar and connected.

About music, Mingus said: "Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."

The thought clearly applies to cooking, and it is especially in my mind this week as we approach the stress of final cooking competency exams in Culinary Foundations III.

In short, keeping it simple will serve us well.

Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty reminds us to keep it simple. He does so every time one of us asks about making a twist or turn in the proposed menu, every time one asks about adding an ingredient or using a cooking method other than what is prescribed, every time one says what if ...

Chef's response: Keep it simple.

He knows and is teaching us that the only way to get to complex is to start at simple. That's the key to success in our class.

Just as Charles Mingus found it to be in music.

Mystery basket menus for final exam

What one knows about cooking is only as good as how well one can apply the knowledge when those 60,000-BTU burners are fired up. That's the left brain-right brain dance that occurs in the kitchen.

Then there's what I call the "third brain," a mystical element that catalyzes the cognitive and the creative in the culinary arts, bringing about magical results that a scientist could explain but whose properties are better left to the imagination.

All the knowledge we have acquired in the last 18 weeks, and all the skill we have built in applying it must come together for magical results on Wednesday in final competency cooking exams in Culinary Foundations III.

First test will be that after fabricating a whole chicken, we will take one breast and make a meal of it, in 45 minutes. More about my plan for that in a blog posting later today.

Second test will be prepping, cooking and plating another meal from a specified menu in one hour, what Chef Dan Fluharty has called "the mystery basket." He revealed mystery basket contents on Friday:
1. Seared and oven-finished breast of duck with sauce bigarade, herbed couscous, seasonal vegetable, garnish.
2. Grilled New York steak with roasted garlic compound butter, pommes duchesse, creamed spinach and garnish.
3. Poached snapper with salmon mousseline, caper beurre blanc, rice pilaf, seasonal vegetable and garnish.
4. Seared and oven-finished rack of lamb with hazelnut crust, mint demi-glace sauce, potatoes croquettes, Brussels sprouts and garnish.
5. Grilled pork chop with sauce chasseur, potatoes anna, sauté of green beans and red bell peppers and garnish.
Before we drew numbers on Friday from Chef's toque blanche to determine who makes which plate, the buzz among the 10 of us was that the highest degree of difficulty is with the poached snapper because of the mousseline. That's a stuffing that must be prepped and piped into the rolled fish fillet.

Perhaps. But every one of the five has its challenges, not only in getting the protein cooked properly, but in the balance between crispness and overdoneness in vegetables, the delicacies of the sauces and the seasoning needed to bring the starches to full flavor.

On Tuesday, I will reveal which of the five I drew and my game plan for it.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sharpening my knife and my mind for final exams

Fabricating a chicken -- that is, cutting it up for cooking -- to meet American Culinary Federation standards is required to pass Culinary Foundations III. The test will be on Wednesday, and we will have a maximum of 15 minutes to complete it.

(My latest practice effort took 7 minutes, but there was no pressure.)

The ACF certification requires cutting the bird into 10 parts:
* The wishbone. This is the collarbone, and it is removed first, to make it easier to cut the breasts from the bone. Not all chefs or butchers remove it first, but it is required for ACF certification.
* 2 legs and thighs, with "oyster" intact. The oyster is a small lump of dark meat on the back of the thigh, prized by many as the most tender and flavorful part of the bird.
* 2 breasts, both boneless, one skinless.
* 2 tenderloins. The tenderloin is an oblong piece of white meat attached to the breast by a thin piece of membrane. It can be pulled off or is easily cut off.
* 2 wings, including one with the meat pulled down off the bone "lollipop" style.
* The remaining carcass. This is inspected to ensure that as much usable meat as possible has been cut from it.
Martin Yan of "Yan Can Cook" fame fabricates a chicken with a cleaver in under 20 seconds, as seen on this YouTube video. Included is Yan's heartfelt lesson to the students about the need to entertain restaurant guests.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Makin' bacon and other culinary delights

Making one's own bacon, from the raw, just-cut pork belly, seemed as foreign to me a week ago as growing one's own wheat in pots on the back porch for making bread.

Once the process began unfolding, the peculiarity went away, largely because the formula is fairly simple: Cut the pork belly slab (left) into appropriate sizes and thicknesses, coat thoroughly in a salt cure formula, consisting of Kosher salt and brown sugar, wrap tightly in plastic for a wo-day cure, turning the package over after one day. Then one towel dries the meat, hangs it to dry for a day or two and then puts it in a smoker for a couple of hours.

On Monday, we will cook the bacon as part of a breakfast comptency test in which we also must prep, cook and plate a French omelet, eggs over easy and a poached egg.

Any bread that comes with the breakfast won't be from wheat I have grown on my back porch. I won't be doing that.

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 17

Social Security for sheep
"Here we have a geriatric piece of lamb. It's been in the freezer a long time."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty with a leg of lamb (right) that he was preparing to butcher in a demo for the class.

Case for Agatha Christie
"How mysterious is the basket?"
-- Culinary student John Briggs asking about what will be in a five-ingredient "mystery basket" from which we must cook a meal for our final exam.

What's this yummy filling?
"What could you do with that pork chop if you don't brine it? Could you cut a pocket in it and put a little schmutz in it?"
-- Chef Dan Fluharty on how to bring flavor. "Schmutz" is a Yiddish/German word meaning "soil" or "filth."

Cleanup on Hwy. 101
"The Brussels sprouts road kill ... came from an attempt at flavor profiling. The vinegar caused a pickling, and it really didn't work."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty describing how one student's effort to build flavor and cancel bitterness in cooking veggies fell short.

Pasta meltdown
"I had a pappardella disaster. ... It was almost like dumplings."
-- Culinary student Molly Lester (left) describing how her ribbon pasta went awry.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Cooking -- and eating -- like Julia Child

Julia Child, the mother of American gourmancy, experienced what she called her culinary awakening with her very first meal in France more than 60 years ago -- sole meunière.

The almost-too-delicate-to-handle sole, filleted from the dover sole or other flat fish such as the flounder, is cooked in a butter sautè and served with butter sauce, or beurre blanc.

Sole meunière was on the menu today in Culinary Foundations III as the entrèe in a three-course offering for Chef Dan Fluharty. It was one of our last efforts before next week's final exams.

We cut the fillets from whole flounder, no mean feat. The trick is avoiding the nasties inside the fish, getting as much of the flesh as possible while avoiding bones and cutting the skin off without massacre of the delicate flesh. I nearly managed, getting one almost perfect fillet and a second that was -- well, suffice it to say that I served its two or three broken pieces hidden beneath almost perfect.

The cooking is lightning quick, two minutes or less on each side, and is the very last task in a rush of heat on the stovetop. The beurre blanc is a finicky sauce and must have one's full attention to avoid breaking the emulsion with too much or not enough heat. I managed mine well and turned out what Chef called a winning sauce, including mushrooms and capers.

The sole and sauce were plated with couscous, which I cooked right but slightly under-seasoned, and sautè of broccoli that was cooked and seasoned well. I garnished with tomato provençal, a crowned roma tomato with the seeds removed, stuffed with bread crumbs, herbs and parmesan cheese and baked for three minutes.

First course was clam chowder, which turned out as I like it, if a tad thick for Chef. Second course was a fennel and red pepper salad, marinated in a lemon zest vinaigrette. Chef said mine was seasoned as it should be.

Experiencing the delicate flavor of the sole meunière, accompanied by the mushroom and caper beurre blanc, made clear to me why Julia Child's inner gourmand was stirred when she partook of this most French and most gourmet of meals.

(Photo credits: Sole meunière,; Julia Child,

Why do chefs wear the tall hats?

¡Que Aprovecho! reader Maria asked:
Why do some chefs where these toques? Is there a reason they're so tall? Do they need to store eggs in them, ala I Love Lucy? I've always wondered about this. Maybe you can shed some light?
Good question, and thanks for submitting it. Your reference to hiding eggs as in I Love Lucy actually has a connection to the history of the toque blanche. Here's an excerpt from the Website
Chefs as far back as the 16th century are said to have worn toques. During that period artisans of all types (including chefs) were often imprisoned, or even executed, because of their freethinking. To alleviate persecution, some chefs sought refuge in the Orthodox Church and hid amongst the priests of the monasteries. There they wore the same clothes as the priests-including their tall hats and long robes-with the exception of one deviating trait: the chef's clothes were gray and the priest's were black.

It wasn't until the middle 1800's that chef Marie-Antoine Carême redesigned the uniforms. Carême thought the color white more appropriate, that it denoted cleanliness in the kitchen; it was also at this time that he and his staff began to wear double-breasted jackets. Carême also thought that the hats should be different sizes, to distinguish the cooks from the chefs. The chefs wore the tall hats and the younger cooks wore shorter hats, more like a cap. Carême himself supposedly wore a hat that was 18 inches tall! The folded pleats of a toque, which later became an established characteristic of the chef's hat, were first said to have been added to indicate the more than 100 ways in which a chef can cook an egg.
 Every chef at the California Culinary Academy wears a toque in class and around school. Every student is required to wear the small cap, call a commis, along with the full uniform when in class and on campus.

Today's menu: Could be flounder, could be omelet

A dose of reality for the culinary classroom today: Depending on what is delivered, and what is not, we will cook either a flounder dinner or an egg breakfast.

Chef said Thursday that he put in an order for fresh flounder, and if the flat fish with the bulging eyes arrive, each of us likely will get a whole one to clean, fillet and cook to chef's specifications. First course will be a salad that hasn't yet been defined and second course a soup, possibly based on cauliflower.

If the fish don't arrive, we will cook breakfast -- French omelet, eggs over easy, scrambled eggs in a vol au vent tube of pastry or poached egg. And, maybe, bacon. Our bacon slabs are at the end of their curing, hanging in the walk-in cooler to await today's smoking in cherry-wood chips.

That's the reality. In a restaurant, one must make do with what is available.

Chef and we students are banking on the fish coming in. Then we can cook breakfast on Monday, our final daily cooking lesson before the midweek final exam.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Lifting the veil on the "mystery" final exam

Six days before our final exam in Culinary Foundations III, Chef told us a bit of what to expect in his "mystery basket" challenge. We will prep, cook, plate and present one of five entrées, plus a starch, vegetable, sauce and garnish.

The five are New York steak; salmon fillet; duck; rack of lamb; a white fish with mousseline, which is a stuffing made from salmon. We have cooked them all, and we know that each has its own particular challenges, mostly involving the right temperature and timing to cook it to Chef's specifications.

Classmates walked away hoping aloud that they wouldn't draw the white fish and salmon mousseline, which probably is the most complex of the five.

My preference is rack of lamb, which I did best with when we cooked it earlier. But I will be prepared for and take on whatever the culinary gods direct my way.

Chef said we will draw slips of paper from a box on Monday to determine who cooks what. That will give us two days to plan a production timeline.

(Photo shows my rack of lamb plating from earlier in the term.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Now I know how congressmen feel: making sausage

Pasta poured forth in the Culinary Foundations III classroom kitchen today, along with a half-dozen versions of link sausage.

At our station, we encased two kinds of the cured meat -- Swedish potato sausage and andouille. Both were delicious, and there was enough to take home. (Photo shows the Swedish potato sausage in the lower left, the andouille in the upper right.)

We also jammed through the making of three pasta dishes in 90 minutes, using freshly made pasta and other ingredients.

First was butternut squash and ricotta ravioli, fried and served with a marinara sauce. I had made that very sauce the night before at home, so I knew that getting it on the stovetop early to intensify the flavors was the key.

Second was fettucini served with a parsley pesto and one link of the andouilli that had been blanched and sautéed with onions and red bell pepper.

Third was pappardella -- 3/4-inch wide pasta noodles -- served with a mushroom cream sauce and sauté of chicken.

The action was hectic, almost frantic, in getting the dishes plated on schedule. Each had its special elements and flavors, and each was completed with satisfaction.

March madness? No: February frenzy

My classmates enjoy a calm moment in the kitchen, but a storm is brewing.

Seven days remain in Culinary Foundations III, the final class in the basics of classic French cuisine at the California Culinary Academy. That means with each day the pace quickens.

All is leading to a monstrous final exam at the stovetops in one week: two hours of cooking to plate two full meals, to specific, prescribed menus that we have covered in one form or another.

First will be somewhat of a free-form session. We will have up to 15 minutes to cut a whole chicken into 10 specified parts. Then after putting away nine parts, we will have 45 minutes to prepare a five-component meal around a chicken breast from the bird we just cut up. We choose a sauce, starch, vegetable and garnish from what is available in our classroom kitchen.

Second part, immediately after, will be similar to the Food Network program "Chopped." Each of us will get what Chef called a "mystery basket" of five ingredients from which we must make a five-course meal in one hour. Each basket will have a different protein in it.

Timing as well as food preparation and cooking quality will be emphasized.

Are we nervous? Right down to the bottoms of our black-and-white checkered chef's trousers.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Culinary school: What a grind

Charcuterie, the aspect of culinary arts devoted to prepared meats, was on the agenda today in Culinary Foundations III.

We made sausage and began curing bacon. The processes are fairly simple and straightforward -- and there's quite a bit of room for creativity in each with flavors from added aromatics, spices and herbs -- yet the machinery for grinding the sausage and the smoking of bacon are not home kitchen items, normally.

Chef allowed each station in the kitchen to prepare one or two sausage recipes. At my station, we went with fellow student Rob Parks' old family recipe of Swedish potato sausage and with an andouille recipe that Chef handed out. There's quite a contrast between the two, the Swedish being light in color and mildly savory, while the andouille has a darker hue and a sneaky little bit of heat that comes in the back of the mouth.

Both sausages will be stuffed in casings for links on Wednesday, and the bacon cure will be completed on Thursday, when we will smoke it.

(Photos: classmate Richard Johnson having a go at grinding our Swedish potato sausage; the potato mixture before grinding and after grinding.)

Back to being an ink-stained wretch

Monday's lesson in Culinary Foundations III left my fingers temporarily stained with black ink, a reminder of my days in the newspaper business.

Squid ink, to be precise.

It came from cleaning and prepping a half-dozen of the slippery little sea creatures for fried calamari, accompanied by a hand-made aioli dipping sauce. 

The squid came to us whole and fresh, ink included, and it took me awhile to work my way through them (a pair of them is pictured on my cutting board). We kept tentacles and the tubular bodies sliced into small disks.

After breading lightly in flour and deep-frying for a couple of minutes, the calamari were delicious, along with the aioli, which is a mayonnaise infused with roasted garlic.

My previous report that on Monday we also would make lamb stew with puff pastry -- vol au vent -- was incorrect. We made the lamb stew but no pastry. We made polenta to accompany it.

What's the rush? Someone's hungry

Controlled chaos in the kitchen is the norm, not the exception, I am learning as culinary school progresses.

Take Monday: Chef had a full agenda for us, including review of previous cooking challenge, preview of the week ahead, lecture on charcuterie and -- lo and behold -- cooking!

We got around to the cooking part with slightly more than one hour left available before the scheduled end of class. Yet, most of us prepped, cooked and plated in that time.

Chef had predicted it would be an easy day for us. That's debatable, but it was pretty near the routine to which we have become accustomed. That meant we were all in a hurry, especially at plating time.

It was quite a rush and more chaotic than has been our custom. He didn't say so this time out, but methinks Chef is prepping us for whatever organization or lack thereof we may encounter in the real world of restaurant cooking.

Photo shows several of my classmates in action on Monday, under the watchful eye of Chef Dan Fluharty, in the tall hat, which is known as a toque.

Monday, February 01, 2010

What's cooking today? Lamb stew in vol au vent

Turning into the home stretch in Culinary Foundations III this week means puff pastry, known in French as vol au vent. It will provide the platform for a lamb stew today. The way the pastry is supposed to look is at left.

We will also make fried calamari, accompanied by garlic aioli (a mayonnaise infused with garlic).

On another track, prep work will begin for making sausage later in the week.

We have nine days left in the term -- nine days more of learning all we can about classic French cooking before moving to other classes.

Understanding how to control and adjust flavors

The key ingredient to successful cooking isn't a secret sauce or a rare spice or even a tender piece of meat. It is getting the flavors right -- flavor profiling is what chefs call it.

Anyone who cooks knows how to do it, at least in the most basic ways: To make something sweet, add sugar; to make something sour, add lemon juice; to make something salty, add salt.

Flavor profiling as we are learning in culinary school is instilling the five flavors -- salt, sweet, bitter, sour and the one that borrows from all the others, umami -- in combinations or sometimes in contrasts.

In reviewing a cooking assignment in class last week, Chef Dan Fluharty talked about the flavors and how we played with them in one way or another to the betterment of the dish. It was a simple dish -- chunky tomato soup, a good one with which to play the flavors off one another.

The key was the tomatoes' acidity and how to minimize it. A little sugar could do it easily. So could salt, because salt stifles bitterness and sourness, allowing a little sweetness to come through. That's what I did -- it's also what I do most often to tame the acidity in hand-made vinaigrettes -- and it worked well.

That's flavor profiling, in the simplest manner.

It can be complex, as with multi-ingredient sauces and broths. Take tortilla soup, for example. We made it in class last week, and I made a pot of it at home this weekend. I built the broth with several strong agents, including tomato, cayenne, cumin, thyme, oregano, salt and white pepper. Any of them can be a take-charge flavor; the secret for this soup and for many other dishes is to not let any one flavor take charge, but rather to get them to work cooperatively.

That's flavor profiling, in a more complex manner.

Home cooks do it all the time: a pinch of this, a spoonful of that and soon enough, deliciousness!

Making it happen on purpose and getting a consistent result one day to the next is the trick.

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