Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cashing in on culinary arts: the business side

The chefs-instructors at the California Culinary Academy are focused on showing us the realities of restaurant kitchens. Their curriculum covers the basics and more, with an atmosphere of timed cooking competency exams and fine-point critiques and grading vividly demonstrating what it will take in the real world.

And, mostly in subtle ways, they are showing us pieces of the business side of restaurants, of how important adherence to efficiency is and to making every meal correctly and using food wisely.

It showed up on several fronts in the last couple of weeks. Chef Dan Fluharty (left) our instructor for Culinary Foundations III, taught us not only good technical butchery skills for beef, fish, veal, lamb, pork and poultry. He taught us that good skills include preserving as much of the useful flesh of the animals for cooking and selling. He walked us through the economics of a piece of beef tenderloin and of a whole salmon that he and class members fileted.

"Cut toward the bone," Chef said in demonstrating breakdown of a pork loin. "If you cut toward the meat, what's that called? Money. You don't want to ruin the meat."

This week, we had occasion to observe Chef Marco Ilaria taking month-end inventory in the kitchen classroom he shares with Chef Dan. Everything is accounted for, he said, so that the business types can determine not only what it all cost, but how much money was made.

"When I applied to work here, they told me they thought I knew how to cook, that I was a nice guy and seemed like I would make a good teacher. But they emphasized that I had to make my P&L," Chef Marco said.

Chef Dan linked kitchen performance to the bottom line in a frank manner on Friday, critiquing our day-before performances on béchamel sauce. With one possible exception among the 10 students, Chef said, our sauces were too thick and unfit to serve.

"You lost a point over it (in the grading)," Chef said. "You would lose a customer over it (in a restaurant)."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Successful meat cookery is all in the squeeze

Chef Dan Fluharty took his time critiquing my entrée plating (right)  on Friday.

First, he looked a the texture of the hollandaise sauce, then tasted it and commented that it had good flavor.

Then came the asparagus, which he judged to be just the slightest undercooked.

He inspected the potatoes for browning and tasted one. "Well done," he said.

With a spoon, he dipped into the demi-glace and mint sauce beneath the lamb chops. "Good flavor, good seasoning," he said.

Finally, Chef picked up a knife to cut into a lamb chop to check for doneness to medium rare. I told him with confidence that the squeeze, pinching a chop between my finger and thumb, told me it was cooked correctly.

"That works," he said. "It's the only way to check on a small piece of lamb like this. You're not going to stick a meat thermometer into it."

He cut in and exposed the meat, cooked just right. "That's perfectly medium rare," Chef said. "It's turning to medium here on the edge, but it's medium rare in the center. Good job, mate."

The squeeze worked. It had a resilient firmness, showing some resistance and then springing back. That means medium rare.

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 16

Self-answering question
"If you burn it, is it food?"
-- Chef Dan Fluharty to the class warning that it wouldn't take long to cook lamb chops.

Can't touch this
"It makes a difference whose are whose, because mine are perfect."
-- Culinary student Richard Johnson (left) to fellow student Rob Park when Park asked if his just-cooked potatoes could share an ice-water bath with Johnson's.

Selective breeding
"How do you decide who's a kip? Do you just look at 'em and say, 'You're a kip'?"
-- Culinary student John Briggs asking, during the veal presentation, about calves raised only for their hides and not meat. They are called "kips."

Not coddled as a child?
"That's better treatment than I got when I was a baby."
-- Culinary student Molly Lester after hearing a description of how calves are raised for veal. 

Controlling the heat
"What rose its ugly head again yesterday on the stovetops? The fryers."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty admonishing us once again to watch the oil temperature in deep fryers so food can cook properly and we can prevent fire.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Today's menu: lamb, asparagus and hollandaise, soup

Another challenging three-course meal is on the board for today's Culinary Foundations III class. This will be our fourth three-course plating this week. Not complaining; the cooking practice and learning are why I'm in school.

First course: Salad of unspecified ingredients and dressing.

Second course: Cream of mushroom soup.

Main course: Roasted rack of lamb, accompanied by a sauce from the pan drippings; poached asparagus with hollandaise sauce; Potatoes Anna (sliced, arranged in an iron skillet in circular pattern with butter for sauté, then baked into place before being sliced like pie for service).

My biggest challenges will be: cooking the lamb to medium rare; extending my streak of five straight successful hollandaise sauces without breaking one.

As always, the key to success will be timing.

Learning from cooking mistakes

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," inventor Thomas Alva Edison (right) once said.

His viewpoint could well be the watchword of the culinary school kitchen, where mistakes are plentiful, but failures few.

Take for example a butchery lesson in which too much useful meat is left on the bone.

Or the making of a complex pate a choux in which the mixture turns bread-like.

How about a deep fryer that got so hot it burned anything dropped into it within seconds.

And those were just some of Chef/Instructor Dan Fluharty's mistakes. Chef Dan (left) is fond of saying, during a demo, some version of: "See how I did that? Don't do it that way."

Don't misread this: What Chef shows us and cooks as part of his teaching and demonstration process turns out most flavorful and favorable. That's because his skills are superb, his experience deep and broad. Probably his greatest skill is making adjustments to get the process back on track.

Food is the big variable, because all chickens are not the same, nor all veal cutlets, nor all green beans. The adjustments as we proceed are what we must learn and what Chef is best at teaching us.

It's good to see his human side and to learn from it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And the star of the culinary show is ... a simple soup

Today's three-course menu in Culinary Foundations III included two of the most complex dishes we have had to learn, both from deep within classic French cuisine.

Yet, the two tastiest parts of the meal were the simplest: chunky tomato soup and sauté of Brussels sprouts chiffonade with julienne of red peppers.

The tomato soup was hearty and most flavorful. It was simple -- tomatoes, chicken stock, a little onion, seasonings and fresh mint -- but hit the spot perfectly. The difficulty in cooking tomatoes for a soup or a sauce is their acidity. Deal with it by using salt or a little sugar or honey as neutralizing agents. In the case of my soup today, salt did the trick.

The main course provided some complex flavors, too, following the challenge of its assembly. First was veal cordon bleu, which is like the classic schnitzel -- two pieces of veal pounded flat, then wrapped around cheese and prosciutto before being breaded and sautéed.

The accompanying starch was pate a choux, which is an assembly of mashed potato, egg, flour, milk, more egg and butter, combined in a series of folds, whiskings and heatings. The resultant thick batter is piped in small cylinders or droplets into a deep fry until golden brown.

What's cooking today? You guessed it: veal

Veal cordon bleu, to be exact. That's two veal cutlets stuffed with gruyere cheese and ham, rolled together, then dredged in flour, egg and bread crumbs before browning in a sauté. It will be served with a Béchamel sauce.

Even more challenging will be the starch side dish of potatoe dauphine and paté a choux. That's a mashed potato whipped with flour and eggs to a shiny mass that is then piped in small pieces into a deep fry.

The vegetable will be shredded and sautéed Brussels sprouts.

First course will be a spinach salad with egg, bacon and tomato, topped with a warm mustard vinaigrette.

Second course will be chunky tomato soup, spiced with mint and topped with a small dollop of sour cream.

Tune in later to find out how well I do on this challenge.

(Photo, courtesy of, shows how my veal cordon bleu should look.)

The culinary side of the veal story

You've heard the arguments from PETA and other animal-rights groups, and you've seen the pictures. Now comes the culinary side of the story about how calves are raised for veal.

Humane or cruel?

Chef Dan Fluharty presented the case on Wednesday, saying that calves being raised for veal are, indeed, restricted in movement. But it's not cruel, he implied.

Calves are kept in clean environments that are well lit and heated, and they are fed a formula of fats, carbohydrates, proteins and minerals for 3 to 4 months before they are ready for human consumption. Those facts were part of Chef's presentation for the veal part of our curriculum in Culinary Foundations III.

My view: While I don't eat veal often, I know that like other meat, it's here to stay in the human diet. I am OK with how it is raised. Decent treatment of the animals being raised for food makes good business sense as well as good moral sense.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The heat is on: cooking at a torrid pace

Anyone who has seen the frenzy of a restaurant kitchen in the middle of service can appreciate the steadily accelerating pace we face in Culinary Foundations III.

Chef Dan Fluharty reminds us repeatedly that he is pushing us so we are prepared for the hectic routine of most restaurants.

The past week is a prime example. We have gone from making two plated meals in 90 minutes to making a three-course meal in two hours. The difference might seem minimal. But the three-course meal always involves four or more of the seven basic cooking techniques and three-dozen or more ingredients for eight or nine plated items.

Take Tuesday's entrée: We made osso buco for the first time, braising it as we have done with other meats. On the same plate, we prepared a side dish of risotto Milanese, which we have made a couple of times before, along with braised leeks and carrots. First course was a Salade Nicoise with hand-made vinaigrette, and second course was a soup, borscht.

Chef's requirements for the repeat dishes are getting tighter, as are his overall standards. He wants proteins cooked to his specifications, sauces that are seasoned, flavorful and consistent in texture and starches and vegetables that are neither crunchy nor mushy.

Tall orders, yes. We are running fast but managing to keep up.

(Photo: My cooking station mates Richard Johnson (left) and Rob Park (center) and Chef/Instructor Dan Fluharty.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I say, 'OSSO!' You say, 'BUCO!'

Veal is generally known for its tenderness, but the veal shank needs some extra cooking to get it falling-off-the-bone good.

That was the case today in Culinary Foundations III as we continued our ongoing series of three-course meal platings for Chef Dan Fluharty.

Osso Buco was the entrée, along with risotto Milanese and braised leeks. We tossed in a few oblique-cut carrots for color and flavor. Osso Buco is braised, meaning low, slow heat, and the result, as seen in my pot of Osso Buco on the right, is wonderful umami, the fifth and most complex of the food flavors.

Before the main course, we prepped, plated and presented Salade Nicoise, including green beans, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, anchovies, red potatoes and other goodies, with a mustard-lemon zest vinaigrette drizzle.

The soup course was borscht, a bowl full of scarlet beauty, taking on the rich earthy color and flavor of beets, which are its main ingredient.

For a cold winter evening, this was the perfect meal.

Culinary challenges continue; confidence climbs

Monday's Culinary Foundations III class ended in a rush of finished entrées and kitchen cleanup, with barely enough time to scribble down today's menu. Here's what I scribbled:

Salad Nicoise, sans tuna. Beet borscht. Osso buco with risotto Milanese and roasted root vegetables.

Daunting on the face of it, because the only components I have made are the risotto and root vegetables. Yet this is what culinary school -- and eventual work in a restaurant -- is about: taking the unfamiliar and applying familiar techniques.

Osso buco is braised. I can do that.

Salad Nicoise is an artfully arranged collection of raw vegetables and a few other items. I can do that.

Beet borscht is a soup, made similarly to many soups -- slow cooking to gain flavor and tenderness. I can do that.

I can do this. I can cook.

Monday, January 25, 2010

¡Finalmente! My cooking sweet spot: Cocina Mejicana

Ma, no te preocupes por mi. Yo puedo cocinar.

A three-course Mexican meal was on the board for today's culinary class, and I completed it comfortably, on time and with high praise from the chef for my flavors.

First up was a salad of roasted corn and chiles atop a bed of mixed greens and an orange-mustard vinaigrette. I've had a time with vinaigrettes in class, often not putting enough on the greens to satisfy the chef. My fear has been that I will drown the salad, something I have experienced all too often in restaurants. This time, Chef was pleased with both the flavor and the amount of vinaigrette.

Next came tortilla soup with shredded chicken. Slow, long cooking with herbs, spices and seasonings is the key to delivering this dish. My soup had a deeply flavorful caldo to accompany the chicken. I garnished with fried tortilla strips, a teaspoon of diced tomato and queso fresco. Another perfect score from Chef.

The entrée had some complexity to it. At the center was carnitas, marinated, diced, slow-cooked pork that turned into a flavorful stew. Accompanying it were black bean cakes, quenelles of guacamole and a pico de gallo garnish. That's chunky tmato and jalapeño salsa. Chef commented most positively on the flavors of everything on the plate. My one shortcoming was in the black bean cakes; they lost shape a bit on the plate, but still had good flavor.

A most satsfying and confidence-building day at the stovetop.

All the senses at play in culinary school

Taste and smell are the most obvious of the senses needed for cooking, and certainly both have become more developed in me the last four months in culinary school. Or, perhaps, I have simply become more keenly aware of those senses.

"Did you taste it?" often is Chef Dan Fluharty's first question when he critiques a plate and finds something amiss in the seasoning. The only right answer is "yes."

Smell is a close second to taste in culinary sensory need. "What's burning?" Chef will shout above the kitchen din, his nose thrust into the air. Invariably, someone has left a pan too long on the fire, and whatever is in it is now inedible.

Sight and feel also play important roles, sight for many obvious reasons -- for color in meat, vegetables and overall plating design and appearance -- but also as a partner with feel to check for doneness.

As we prepared to grill skirt steak a while back, Chef Dan advised: "If you see moisture rising (in the form of blood) on the steak's surface, it's an indicator that it will be medium. This is mostly visual based on what you see on the grill; you're not going to be looking at the clock."

Combine that with the sense of feel:

"Is it practical to push a little thermometer into (the grilling steak)?" he asked. "No. So what do you do to detect doneness? Touch, touch and push, push." Fingertips on a piece of meat can tell a lot -- softness generally means it's not done, firmness may mean it's overdone; springy resiliency is the best outcome for red meat.

In what may seem a curiosity, the sense of hearing also plays a role, more so than what one might think. Here's an exchange between Chef Dan and classmates during a cooking demo last week:
Chef: "I'm putting the julienned leeks into the oil now. They'll cook fast, so keep a close watch."
Leeks hit the oil and begin to sizzle.
Chef: "What do you hear?"
Student John Briggs: "It's talking to you, Chef."
Chef: "Yes, it's talking. And it's a good thing for us to listen to."
The sizzling sound, as we are learning, can help judge when something is nearing doneness.

There's a sixth sense at play, too, I am learning. It's both the accumulation of the other five and an inner knowledge, based mostly on experience, that something is ready to serve.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 15

Up in flames?
 "Pay attention to the fat so we don't catch the place on fire and burn it down."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty, noting that the last time we used deep fryers in the classroom kitchen, oil temperatures rose to a dangerous 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's Mr. Knucklehead to you, buddy
"Look at this pot. What knucklehead cooked the couscous?"
-- Culinary student Rob Park seeing the grain burned black in a pot. The prescribed way to make couscous is to add hot liquid, not put it over a flame. The pot was mine.

Season with care
"Do you want to put so much seasoning on it that it burns the chef's mouth? No!"
-- Chef Dan Fluharty's reference to one student's liberal use of white pepper.

Culinary grammar
"Do we still lemon it? It's a verb now."
-- Culinary student Aline Brown altering language usage as part of her kitchen experience.

Goldilocks spinach: just right
"This is not spinach soup, and it's not a brick. If you do it right, there's little better than creamed spinach."
-- Executive Chef Michael Weller upon learning that our class had a bit less than success with the dish on our first outing with it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Three-course meal fit for ... a chef

Thursday's classroom cooking exercise was as close to reality as we have gotten in 15 weeks at the California Culinary Academy. Trial by fire, literally.

Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty pushes hard, yet consistently encourages us by saying, "You can do this," whenever we face a difficult cooking assignment. On Thursday, he acknowledged as we raggedly wrapped up the day's three-course, 30-ingredient assignment that it was more difficult than most.

We had two hours to do it all: mise en place -- setting up our stations with the ingredients and equipment needed -- preparing the ingredients, cooking, plating and presenting. Chef set up a schedule for service similar to what it would be in a restaurant.

The first course, a mixed-green salad topped with shredded duck confit and a mustard vinaigrette, was due at 4 o'clock.

The second course, a white-bean soup with Spanish chorizo and topped with fried julienne of leek, was due at 4:15 p.m.

The main course was a grilled New York steak, bearnaise sauce, roasted red potatoes, artichoke and cauliflower gratin in a mornay sauce and sun-dried tomato garnish. It was due at 4:30 p.m.

Everyone hit the mark on the first two courses. The main course was another matter, a heavy lift of a total of 21 ingredients and two complex sauces. Add in cooking the steak on a crowded grill top where it seemed all 10 of us gathered at once. Most plates were late to Chef, including mine, which I delivered at 4:45 p.m.

That wouldn't be acceptable in a restaurant. But then, as Chef pointed out when I fretted and shook my head: "You're still learning. Mistakes are a part of it. This was a difficult day."

Among other successes, my sauces were done well. My bearnaise even held up until I got home, and we enjoyed it for dinner with good portions left from the New York steak.

Sheer exhaustion overwhelmed me at day's end, yet there was a glimmer of accomplishment behind the veil of grill smoke.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

We need magic -- read that sauce -- in our lives

Culinary school has taught me -- nay, convinced me! -- that no dinner is complete without a sauce. That includes home-cooked dinners.

If that sounds like too much trouble for time-starved home cooks, consider: Many sauces are easy to make; several practically make themselves. All that's needed is a smidgen of this and a pinch of that and one has a sauce. As Chef Tony Marano taught us in our first culinary class: "It's magic."

The partnership of a protein and a sauce is as natural as the partnership of Laurel and Hardy, Penn and Teller, Pedro Aldomovar and Penelope Cruz.

What would they would be without one another? The missing element would be obvious, for certain.

Forget fancy and complicated; think natural and easy. For example, the other night I cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a sauté pan wit a small amount of oil.

When the chicken was cooked, I removed it, degreased the pan and added four ounces of chicken stock. Over low heat, the stock warmed, and I used a spoon to loosen the brown bits from the chicken. When done, I added a slurry -- 1 ounce of corn starch and 1 ounce of water -- to thicken, then seasoned with salt and pepper.

One to two minutes of stirring and it thickened. There was the natural pan sauce for chicken. I spooned it onto the chicken breast for a magical partnership.

(Photo: Penelope Cruz. Now that's saucy!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Old-fashioned steak perfection: the Delmonico

Several culinary school classmates agreed with my statement as we began the red meat part of the curriculum: "If we can't cook a steak to Chef's specifications, we ought to give it up."

So far, no need for that. Last week, we did filet mignon and skirt steak, and I cooked both medium rare, just the way Chef ordered.

Today, a major challenge: the Delmonico, a bigger version of the rib-eye. More accurately, the rib-eye, the New York and the club steak are newer versions of the Delmonico. It was first cut and served at Delmonico's restaurant in New York City in the 1850s, according to the Steak Perfection Web site.

Once again, a winner for me, as my 12-ounce Delmonico was judged by Chef to have been cooked to perfection based on his standard for doneness -- medium rare.

One more version hits the grill in class on Thursday, a New York steak, as the centerpiece to a three-course meal. First course will be a mixed greens salad topped with shredded duck confit. Second course will be a  white bean soup garnished with crispy fried julienne of leek. Third course will be the New York steak, medium rare, with a sun-dried tomato bearnaise sauce, roasted red potatoes and an artichoke and cauliflower gratin.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why so much fat on a duck?

We fabricated duck today in culinary school, in preparation for sauté of duck breast in class on Wednesday.

We knew going in, and Chef confirmed for us, that duck is pretty fatty. It adds flavor, certainly, but also must be dealt with in the prep work and the cooking so as not to be overwhelming when serving and eating.

Cutting into the duck gave us a literal first-hand look and feel for the mount of fat there, contained largely in the thick, luxurious skin. A good bit of it had to be trimmed away, yet we kept the piece attached to the breast meat. On Wednesday, we will score it ith a knife before searing to allow a good bit of the fat to render.

We will serve the duck with what Chef calls "poor man's port balsamic sauce." It will include the deglazed bits from the duck breast sauté pan, shallot, sugar, flamed red wine and brandy and balsamic vinegar.

Also on the menu: couscous laced with toasted pistachios and red bell pepper; curried green beans and carrots.

For our second plate, we will make a grilled rib-eye steak, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, onion rings and compound butter made from roasted red pepper.

So why do ducks have so much fat? For insulation and bouyancy in the water.

(Photo shows what the dish should look like.)

'Fat is a good word'

Steadily increasing American obesity notwithstanding, consumption of food with fat in it is a necessity. That means use of fat in the culinary arts is a necessity. Fat does many things in cooking, most of them good.

"Fat is a good word," Chef Dan Fluharty said in one recent lecture at the California Culinary Academy. "Fat transfers heat, makes flavor, adds moisture, adds texture and feel in the mouth, provides a semi-permeable barrier and serves as a lubricant."

No question arises about the need for fat in good cooking, all good cooking, not just gourmet cooking or French cuisine. At-home cooking needs fat, too.

We use fat in culinary school, but the quantities are limited and utilitarian, not only for flavor.

Limiting fat intake is of course a necessity. It's not as difficult as it seems. Mostly, if Americans avoid or severely limit the amount of fast food, "junk" food and other food with processed sugar in it, they can remain healthy.

Here's a quick primer on use of fats in cooking:

* Let animal fats speak for themselves. If there's more than a quarter-inch strip of fat on a steak or a pork chop, trim it off. The skinless chicken breast is healthier and can be kept flavorful if cooked properly. Ground beef is now sold with the fat percentage on the label; simply buy one with a lower percentage.

* Butter is necessary in sauces and other cooking, but its intake can be limited, too. In cooking, use unsalted butter. Something else to note: Chef Instructor Tony Marano told us in class one day that U.S. commercial butter is 20% fat, while European butter is 10% fat. Good to know.

* Be selective in using vegetable oils in cooking. The best oils for cooking are canola and grape-seed. Both have high smoke points and are relatively healthy. Extra virgin olive oil should never be used for cooking; the heat changes its chemical composition. Read labels to avoid oils that include hydrogenation and say they have trans-fats in them. The trend is away from these ingredients, but some products, especially mass-produced breads and pastries and some other fat-inclusive food products, still contain them.

* Some fats are actually good for us, relatively speaking. Unsaturated fatty acids, like the omega-3 nutrients, aren't produced by the human body so must be consumed. Oily fish, such as salmon, have omega-3, and some milk and eggs can be found that include omega-3, depending on what the animals that produced those products were fed. Again, read labels.

* Be careful about claims that some foods burn fats in the body. While it's true that some foods do this, the effects are very limited. For example, cayenne pepper is known to burn fat, as are ginger, garlic and cinnamon. All should be part of a healthy diet, but the amount of those we can consume is pretty limited.

None of this is meant to justify unlimited or random consumption of fatty foods. Yet, unless one is on a medically restricted diet because of a certain heart condition or other ailment, fat remains a naturally occurring and necessary part of nutrition.

And that includes its use in the culinary arts and all cooking.

(This posting is also available at my daughter Ann Chihak Poff's blog,

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting to the meat of it: 'The Jungle' revisited?

'The Jungle,' Upton Sinclair's game-changing look at the meat-packing industry in early 20th century America, paved the way for creation of sanitation safeguards and other improvements in the field.

We've been getting our own version of it in culinary school, where the syllabus for the Culinary Foundations III cooking class includes lectures, demonstrations and discussions covering a wide range of proteins used in restaurant service, and in the home, to, for that matter.

Not that conditions now -- at school, in restaurants or in the industry at large -- are anything like they were 100 years ago. But the basics are the same: Raise animals, fatten them, take them to market and, eventually, turn them into edible bits.

We are learning just enough butchery to understand the primal and subprimal cuts of beef and pork and how they are broken down. We also have begun learning how to cut meat, or as it's known in restaurant kitchens, fabricate proteins for the range of cooking techniques we have undertaken.

For example, we have twice practiced in class the fabrication of a whole chicken. That is, cutting it into 10 pieces for cooking. Doing so in 15 minutes and in a specified manner, keeping intact the most meat possible, is required to gain American Culinary Federation certification, something we will be tested on the last week of class. More about this in a future blog.

For now, suffice it to say that beef comes from cows, pork from pigs and chicken from, well, chickens. And hot dogs? Don't ask.

A menu fit for a foodie

Imagine a restaurant with a menu featuring these entrées:

BEEF STEW: Hearty chunks of beef in a richly flavored thick veal sauce; potaoes, peas, carrots and pearl onions.

FILET MIGNON: Wrapped in bacon and seared to medium rare, with a mushroom Madeira wine sauce; accompanied by blue cheese soufflé, haricot verts (green beans) sautéed with julienne of carrots.

SKIRT STEAK: Marinated in olive oil, tarragon and thyme, then grilled to medium rare; accompanied by prosciutto and parmesan potato croquettes, warm artichoke heart salad with julienne of red bell pepper, parsley and mustard/sherry vinaigrette.

PORK SHOULDER: Rolled in minced fresh sage, seared and roasted, with a sweet apple pan sauce; accompanied by sautéed asparagus spears and bulgar wheat pilaf.


TURKEY SCALOPPINE: Sautéed in brown butter, with a roasted shallot and shiitake mushroom pan sauce; accompanied by potatoes croquettes and a mixed greens salad drizzled with mustard vinaigrette.

DUCK CONFIT: Marinated, pan-roasted whole duck leg, with a sweet-and-sour bigarade sauce; accompanied by rice pilaf and sauté of root vegetables.

CHICKEN BALLOTINE: Boneless rolled chicken breast stuffed with a mousse of dark chicken meat, rehydrated cherries, prosciutto and pistachios, then braised, with a Madeira wine sauce; accompanied by sauté of Brussels sprouts and potato pancakes.

CHICKEN BREAST: Grilled, with sauce supreme; accompanied by turmeric and ginger flavored lentils, spicy fruit salsa.


ROCK COD AND SALMON MOUSSELINE: Cod fillet rolled and stuffed with salmon mousseline of cream and egg white, with sauce vin blanc; accompanied by quinoa pilaf and sauté of broccoli florets.

Add in a few starters and a dessert or two, and one has the makings for a decent little restaurant menu.

All of the above main dishes, sauces and side dishes we have made from scratch in the first two weeks of Culinary Foundations III. Not a bad beginning.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Soufflé or not soufflé; that is the question

The soufflé became a most appropriate symbol this week amid the fracas of the culinary school classroom kitchen. It represented one fundamental fact that has been taking shape for a while, almost unnoticed by the 10 of us working our way through Culinary Foundations III.

We made soufflés on Friday, each of us doing so successfully to varying degrees. Among the more difficult-to-make offerings of French cuisine, the dish is part art, part science and all kismet in the hands of the culinary gods and goddesses.

Chef/Instructor Dan Fluharty pointed out the emergent truth on Wednesday in the end-of-class go-round at which he seeks comment on what the day's work taught us. Several of us mentioned making adjustments and adaptations to often-changing conditions. From that, Chef concluded:

"You are starting to think like cooks."

It was a statement that is profound for its simplicity and despite its obviousness. What he described is in fact occurring as we get a tighter grip on the basics and routines of the kitchen and as we face cooking challenges with increasing complexity.

The soufflé, for example. Chef did an aborted demo on it at the end of class on Thursday and promised to show it again at the beginning of class on Friday, less than an hour before we had to make them ourselves as part of a plate for a grade.

We all watched intently, some taking notes but most committing the timing, texture, touch of the hand and temperature of the oven to instant memory for recall as needed. Then we did it ourselves, not as a stand-alone exercise but as part of the complications of plating two distinct meals of five parts each.

Hence, just one-tenth of what we were cooking was the soufflé, but the degree of difficulty made it seem a much larger fraction. Yet, we all fit it into the production work, made needed adjustments and kept the work flowing.

That each of us was able to complete it in the hectic schedule, handle it with some perception of the grander scheme of things and emerge at day's end with success manifest our ability to think as cooks.

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 14

Kitchen crime scene
"I looked at their plates. It looked like a drive-by shooting on every other table."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty (right) on viewing the rock cod and salmon mousseline work of another class.

Some like it hot
"I know what a hot plate feels like."
-- Culinary student Aline Brown's retort to Chef Dan when he told her to feel another student's hot plate after admonishing her for bringing him her cooking effort on a plate that had not been heated.

Meat: the new money
"Cut toward the bone. If you cut toward the meat, what's that called? Money. You don't want to ruin the meat."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty demonstrating how to bone a pork loin so that the meat, which makes the money in a restaurant, is left intact. 

He can dish
"Which plate do the lentils go on?"
-- Culinary student John Briggs' facetious question about Wednesday's menu after he served lentils on the wrong chicken dish on Monday. 

Just a pinch of Curcuma longa
"What did we learn about turmeric? It's really, really strong. It's mostly for color, not flavor."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty on overuse in our lentil dishes of the yellow-orange spice, which comes from the Curcuma longa plant grown in South Asia.

Friday, January 15, 2010

No mis-steak about it: good day in the kitchen

Friday was filled with optimistic signs: The sun was shining, birds were chirping, the buses ran on time.

Oh, and we cooked red meat at culinary school. Specifically, filet mignon and grilled skirt steak.

Accompanying them were a wide range of side dishes, from the very daunting -- blue cheese soufflé-- to the routine -- sautéd green beans with julienned carrots. All went well.

The filet mignon was cooked to Chef's desired doneness, medium rare. The mushroom and Madeira wine sauce I made for the filet was the proper consistency, that is napér or thick enough to coat a spoon, and was seasoned right. The soufflé came out of the oven golden brown and the right height. Chef dinged me a bit for the green beans as a bit overcooked, and that's because I left them in the sauté just a bit too long.

The skirt steak had marinated overnight in olive oil, garlic, tarragon and thyme. After patting it dry, it went on the grill. Its thinness made it a challenge to keep at Chef's order of medium rare. Yet, I delivered it that way, sliced cross-grain on the bias and lined up neatl down the middle of the plate. It was accompanied by potato croquettes laced with prosciutto and parmesan cheese and a warm salad of artichoke hearts with red bell peppers and parsley and sherry/mustard vinaigrette. I lost only a half-point on the plate, for underseasoning my steak. I had neglected to salt it before going to the grill, and Chef noticed right away.

Not quite mistake free, but certainly mis-steak free, ending the week on a high note.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The rise and fall of the soufflé

That most pretentious and, by reputation, most difficult to make dish of classic French cuisine is on the menu for Friday in Culinary Foundations III class.

The soufflé.

It's from the French verb souffler, "to blow up." A premonition about Friday's cooking exercise, perhaps?

We will make a blue cheese soufflé to accompany bacon-wrapped filet mignon, mushroom Madeira sauce and haricot verts or green beans.

Not to worry, Chef Dan Fluharty said. First, he said, he would demo a soufflé for us the day ahead. Second, he said, this is not a difficult soufflé to make.

Chef had to rush his soufflé demo as we ran out of time in class. He promised to show us again Friday before we are obliged to make one for his scrutiny and grading.

"This is a safe soufflé, an easy one," Chef said, attempting to assure us. "You know how to make a béchamel (sauce), right? Just add blue cheese to it, like a mornay except double the amount. Then put in onions, have your egg whites and butter. You have to do it perfectly so it comes out. Put it into a 400-degree oven. ... It's very particular."

Oh, and the easy part is what, Chef?

Friday's exercise looms. Will we rise to the occasion? Or will we fall from grace?

'You're only as good as your last plate'

Short attention spans and impatience seem to be driving forces in a good bit of society, and they are the driver in restaurants, where one mediocre or bad meal or a bad experience with service will send someone away permanently. Thus, they also drive the assessment agenda in culinary school.

"You're only as good as your last plate," Chef Dan Fluharty said Wednesday, just after applauding my classmates and me for what we prepped, cooked and plated. Then he moved on to discuss what's next.

That will be two plates, actually, on Friday. Preliminary menu calls for plate No. 1 to be a beef fillet with Madeira sauce and an artichoke and plate No. 2 to be a grilled skirt steak with green beans, a bearnaise sauce and - yum! -- French fries.

My "last plate" was turkey scaloppine, accompanied by a shiitake mushroom pan sauce, potato croquettes and a mixed greens salad with hand-made mustard vinaigrette. It was good, Chef Dan Fluharty said, giving it a high grade. He specifically mentioned the sauce and its seasoning. The assessment was confirmed later at home where I rewarmed and served the leftovers.

(I got away with one on that "last plate." My shiitake mushroom sauce lacked shiitakes; it had what was available, white button mushrooms, which I used after my shiitakes burned in the pan when I left them too long while talking to Chef about my previous "last plate." If he noticed the sauce had other than shiitakes, he didn't comment. That's a shiitake above, a less flavorful white button mushrooms below.)

Bringing order to chaos -- in the mind, in the kitchen

Orderly chaos or chaotic order: Which contradictory statement better describes the atmosphere in the kitchen at culinary school?

Both, is the answer. Initially, and still on some days, orderly chaos has ruled, although we are slowly moving to chaotic order. That is coming with increased skill and confidence and as we work in assigned stations. That allows us to get accustomed to one another's movements and style.

The station at which I work has classmates Rob Park (at right in photo) and Richard Johnson (not pictured) assigned to it, too. We share a 4-foot by 10-foot stainless steel work table, or "deck" as the chef calls it. We also have access to a dozen stovetop burners and two commercial ovens. The entire class of 10 students shares a grilltop, and when needed, we assemble a couple of makeshift deep fryers using big pots.

As the photo depicts, the stovetop is usually crowded with pots and pans and us hovering over them, hands gripping whips, spoons, spatulas and panhandles. Yet we all tend to move with some sense of order, calling out to one another letting others know where we are, especially when carrying a hot pot or bending down at an open oven. Collisions have been few, catastrophic spills nonexistent.

Will the chaos ever disappear as order prevails? No, not in culinary school and not in restaurant kitchens where meal service time is always going to have an element of rush to it.

(Photo courtesy of Kejoo Park Hong.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making the old switcheroo work

Minutes before the start of our cooking competency exercise today, Chef Dan Fluharty did a rundown with us of the production timeline, to make sure everyone was on the right track after Monday's near disaster.

He mentioned the need to get the duck leg in the oven first thing. Gulp! That's not what my carefully-put-together timeline called for. I tuned in to listen for his reasoning. It was, he said, that the duck leg could take much longer to cook than any of us might anticipate.

So, I started by searing the duck and putting it in the oven, and that automatically moved the plating of the duck dish to first on my timeline. The turkey scaloppine, with a much quicker turnaround time, would come second.

Nervous about switching at the last minute, I nevertheless hit the mark on both plates, getting everything done on time and with good flavors and the right amount of cooking. Just a couple of shortcomings: less taste than desired in my vinaigrette, because the oil and mustard separated; a bit of sticky sweetness in my gastrique, a sweet-sour orange-juice-based sauce for the duck.

Elsewise, it was a good cooking day and a good confidence builder via shuffling things around and doing so with success.

(Photo shows turkey cutlets with mushroom sauce at upper left, duck leg at right, potatoes croquettes at bottom.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Redemption comes on the wings of a ... turkey

Another cooking skills challenge is in the offing on Wednesday at culinary school, and I will seek redemption for my mediocre performance of Monday.

Two plated meals are on the menu, and we prepared the mise en place for them today.

First will be turkey scaloppine, dredged in egg and coated with bread crumbs before a quick sauté. Accompanying it will be a basic pan sauce of oil and butter, white wine, shallot, shitake mushroom caps and, as needed, chicken stock. The starch is potato croquettes, which essentially are balls of breaded mashed potatoes which then are deep fried. A mixed green salad will be garnished with a hand-made mustard vinaigrette. i already made the vinairette, and it is pretty tasty.

Second plate will be duck confit, with a sweet bigarade sauce. That is a sauce of caramelized sugar, lemon and orange juices and a little demi-glace, which is reduced veal stock. The starch will be rice pilaf confetti, with the confetti for color being celery. Root vegetables -- rutabaga, carrots, turnip -- will be blanched and then put in a sauté of butter. I plan to garnish with a parsley and thyme compound butter, made by classmate Richard Johnson.

I will spend the morning putting together my production plan and timeline and the afternoon cooking to fulfill this ambitious assignment.

The lingua franca of the kitchen

From deglacer to the dish pit, from crowning a tomato to court bouillon, from fariner to forcemeat, the world of culinary arts has its own language. It's a language one must learn quickly, a mix of French terms and long-used English terms that standardize the discussion in the kitchen.

The lingua franca of the kitchen is no more or less arcane than that in many other professions, trades and crafts: It is mostly functional though sometimes awkward, mostly logical though sometimes archaic and mostly takes time to catch onto though not in culinary school.

At the California Culinary Academy, the catching-onto is aided by frequent quizzes in which we students must write definitions of the mostly French terminology and by daily use of the language in class and our cooking exercises.

For example, one does not simply cut a carrot. Rather, one can julienne a carrot; battonet a carrot; large, medium or small dice a carrot; brunoise a carrot; oblique cut a carrot; bias cut a carrot.

As the Chef might put it: "Battonet carrots for sauté to go with the pommes duchesse and the chicken ballotine grandmere and a pan sauce."

That is: Cook carrot sticks by simmering in water and completing in melted butter in a frying pan to go with potato purée piped into elegant shapes and baked golden brown and a roll of boneless chicken stuffed with a mousse of chicken and flavorful additions, seared and roasted, served with a sauce made from the pan drippings and other flavor enhancers.

Getting a handle on the lingua franca of the culinary arts brings an energy and an inviting peek at the broad and deep base of knowledge it takes to work in a restaurant kitchen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Disappointing day all around at culinary school

Chicken ballotine grandmere and the fixings were first on the menu today, followed by grilled chicken breast, lentils and fruit salsa.

In short, the day was an ordeal for me.

Chef Dan Fluharty and I were in agreement. In Chef Dan's words: "It was a pretty disappointing day."

My proteins -- the chicken ballotine and the grilled chicken -- turned out well, cooked right and flavorful.

The rest of both meals fell short. The pan sauce, which has been a strong point for me of late, simply didn't work to accompany the chicken ballotine. I tried to rush it, and that made it thin and lacking in deep flavors. The Brussels sprouts were undercooked. I thought my potato pancakes were done right, but Chef thought they were slightly underdone.

On the second dish, my fruit salsa to accompany the grilled chicken, was flavorful, but I left the juices from it off the plate, which was a mistake. My lentils were cooked right, but Chef said they lacked seasoning.

All in all, an off day in the kitchen. Tomorrow is another day, and it will be better.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

$45 salmon and the cost of doing business

A 2-foot-long eviscerated salmon of about 20 pounds appeared on the demo table in Culinary Foundations III last week. Chef Dan Fluharty used it to demonstrate knife work, cooking and restaurant economics.

The knife work took precision and accuracy. The cooking demanded a delicate balance of flavoring agents and good timing. But the economics involved the sharpest learning curve.

The California Culinary Academy curriculum is designed to teach the business of food service as well as restaurant-capable cooking skills. That means gaining knowledge from the point of the knife forward about how to prepare and serve good food and do it profitably.

There's the rub. Statistics on restaurant business success are daunting, so attention to costs and bottom line are critical. (One often hears that 90% of restaurants fail in the first year of operation, a figure that is without finding in fact. Studies done over the years at Cornell University and Michigan State University show the first-year failure rate to be around 27%, not nearly as bad but still noteworthy.)

The 20-pound salmon we used in class cost about $45 wholesale, Chef Dan said. After skin, bones and parts of the fish unusable for cooking and serving as fillet portions, about 14 to 16 portions of 6 ounces each remained. One must add in labor, overhead, myriad other costs and a profit to come up with a price per plate. Chef Dan put it at $18, meaning the cost of the fish itself would be covered in three servings.

How many more would have to be served to cover the remaining costs would be determined on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis. One can imagine a small profit from the 20-pound fish, but only after exacting P&L work and precise knife and cooking skills.

Those skills even drive the bottom line, Chef showed us during the demonstration. For example, one must pull the fish to the near edge of the cutting board so the hand holding the knife drops below the table. That allows a flattening of the knife blade and a precisely horizontal cut that removes the skin but little or none of the flesh that makes up the fillet.

Or, as Chef Dan put it: "If you don't keep your knife blade flat, you end up cutting money."

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 13

Life imitating art?
"I like 'Worst Chefs in America,' because it reminds me of cooking school."
-- Culinary student Bary Gose's response when asked by the chef which TV cooking programs he liked.
Give warning
"Don't wait to pass out."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty to student Molly Lester when she said the heat and gas smell in the kitchen, with the hood fans off so we could hear the lecture, were making her feel woozy.

We want to earn our letter
"If you want us to move up to varsity, make us do seven sides."
-- Culinary student Fontaine McFadden reacting when Chef Dan said we could do a simple six-sided tourné of potato instead of the more difficult seven-sided cut required in classic French cuisine.

Silence is golden
"Say nothing when you're up there."
-- Culinary student Alfie Regadio's advice to fellow students when presenting their plated cooking efforts to the Chef. Alfie mentioned to the Chef a mistake on his plate that had gone unnoticed; he lost one-half point as a result. 

Mystery meat
"Schnitzel in America is called chicken fried steak. Chicken fried steak: It's not steak; it's not even chicken. What is it? I have no idea."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty previewing one recipe we will be undertaking in this term.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Culinary school: from grammar lessons to life lessons

Who knew that going to culinary school would include a lesson in grammar?

More important, who knew it would include lessons in sorcery, spirituality and life’s transformational moments?

Today ended the first week of my third term and the 13th week overall of my studies at the California Culinary Academy, and it seemed appropriate to reflect back a little.

The grammar lesson came early, in Chef Tony Marano’s class in October, the beginning-level Culinary Foundations I.

“Sauté is a noun,” Chef Tony informed us as he taught sauté as one of the seven techniques of classic French cooking. A chef and grammarian, I thought. Perhaps this is the place for me.

Three months later and working toward earning a certificate in culinary arts in June, I know it’s the right place, grammar lesson or not.

Similarities between my journalistic and culinary passions have already been revealed to me. The adrenaline rush, for example, and the deadlines. The creativity, accuracy and precision in preparation and presentation, for another. How many elements must come together all at once for the finished product, whether a newspaper or a gourmet meal.

Yet, there are differences, and they are revealing new life lessons to me and driving a new kind of passion. Foremost is the magic in the culinary arts; the magic is enigmatic yet natural. Call me a wide-eyed novice, but I’m not alone in the belief. Experienced chefs and gourmands acknowledge its presence in tasting a new dish or a familiar one that’s made so well it tastes new.

Take Chef Tony’s marchand du vin. He taught sauté using a New York cut – “This could be too good for you guys,” he said assessing it – which he cooked quickly on high heat. He rested the meat and put a little red wine in the pan, deglazed and reduced, added veal stock and finished it with butter. Spooning it onto the sliced meat, chef announced: “Marchand du vin – merchant wine sauce – the simplest sauce there is.”

It was superb, worth the price even without the steak. “It’s magic,” Chef Tony explained with a shrug. That was evident: a few liquids, some heat, butter – presto! – a savory, deeply flavorful sauce.

Before culinary school, I was a fair cook, with abilities beyond the basics. I could braise a short rib and turn the pan juices into a flavorful sauce, make tomato sauce and pasta from scratch, even assemble a decent molé with its complex layering of seemingly disparate flavors. But I didn’t know I was working with magic.

Now, culinary school has helped me get a small glimpse of it. Understanding how it works? Maybe never. But the pursuit is now my passion.

My mind, my hands, my palate and most of all my spirit have entered a transformation, moving toward an inexact and still mystical end. I’m eager to continue the journey.

'Hot pan!' 'Hot behind you!' 'Hot! Hot! Hot!'

No, it's not Buster Poindexter, although his song seems to ring in the ears on cooking competency days in our culinary school classroom kitchen.

The protocol there -- and in restaurant kitchens everywhere -- calls for signaling to others that you are moving behind them with something hot. It's a crucial warning for obvious reasons and it often prevents mishaps.

In the classroom and in restaurant kitchens, the cooks are constantly moving from stove top and ovens to their work stations, usually turning around each time to do so. Others walking past must make the call in a specific, audible way. The basic rule is that the person with the hot object has the right of way.

We all heard it -- and called it out -- quite a bit during Thursday's competency as the 10 of us moved to and fro with hot sauté pans and steaming pots of water.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sauciér in the making? Or magician?

Ever see on Top Chef or Iron Chef when something goes awry? The key ingredient burns, a sauce breaks or something simply doesn't work the way it was planned. Yet the chef manages to put together a decent-looking plate and often gets good marks for it. A different kind of magic in the culinary world -- the equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Twice today in culinary school, I successfully rescued sauces that went awry, to put it mildly. This is another sign to me that my skills are on a steady improving track.

(But, you might rightfully say, if I'm getting better, why did I have to redo two sauces? That's a question for another day's blog. For now, please let me revel in my meager success.)

In the first case, my pork roast pan scorched badly on the bottom -- I'm talking burned black to carbon -- including burning the mirepoix and the roast drippings for use in making the pan sauce called for in the exercise. Why the roast itself didn't suffer that fate, I don't know. I started a new sauté, tossed in some diced pieces of pork to render the remaining fat and some brown -- or glaze -- into the pan, then deglazed with veal stock, added flour for thickening and butter to finish. Apple slices as called for in the original pan sauce recipe went in for a minute to soften. I strained out the pork bits. Presto! -- a nicely flavored brown sauce for which the chef gave me full credit.

In the second case, making a sauce vin blanc for poached bass and salmon mousseline, I did the opposite of what I should have, introducing egg yolk to the hot poaching liquid rather than the other way around. Result: cooked egg yolk in the sauce, not a good thing. I strained out the cooked egg and went the way I should with a second yolk, introducing a little of the liquid to it. It caught, I added cream and stirred the sauce to such a successful finish that the chef took two or three spoons of it and commented on its full flavor.

Before that, at home on Wednesday evening, I used a sauté to heat some leftover beef short rib meat with sliced onion, letting the pan brown a bit and then deglazing with a little chicken stock (I keep some home-made in the fridge now) and adding in flour and butter to make a quick pan sauce that was, if I may say so, delicious.

Combine those three sauce rescues, and -- presto -- we have the culinary equivalent of pulling a hat out of a rabbit!

Today's fallback menu: gourmet peanut butter

Today's culinary school challenge is to produce two fully plated meals, meaning five elements on each plate. We will have two hours.

Timing, as always, will be the key. In this instance, it will be of even greater import, because no one element of either plate will take more than 20 minutes to cook. Bringing it all together at once will be a scramble.

First plate: roast pork with sage, served sliced; sauce made from the pork drippings and a chicken stock deglaze; asparagus blanched in salt water and served in warm butter; bulgar wheat pilaf; garnish will be apple slices cooked with the pork and in the pan sauce.

Second plate: poached rockfish (also known as striped bass) rolled and stuffed with salmon mousseline; sauce vin blanc made from leftover poaching liquid, a liaison (cream and egg yolk) and finished with butter and lemon zest; broccoli florets blanched and finished in a butter sauté; quinoa pilaf; garnish will be chopped green ends of scallions and red and green bell peppers in the quinoa.

What's left after Chef tastes, appraises and scores can be brought home. Success means we will eat well tonight; less than could mean peanut butter sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Of fore shanks, trim loins and jowls

Butchery is as big a part of professional cooking as pots and pans.

We dove into it today, beginning to learn what comes from where for beef and pork. Chef Dan Fluharty got us off to a good start, and then we took knives in hand to trim, bone and cut our own pieces of pork shoulder for roasting on Thursday.

A good bit of what Chef showed us was vaguely familiar to me, going back many years to my gofer work in my uncles' meat market in Tucson. The closest I got to breaking down any large pieces of meat was breaking down and cleaning the band saws and scraping the butcher blocks.

So we're practically at square one. Learning the psrts and the cuts from them will come in time. Meanwhile, we're getting ready for roast pork.

Oh, and fish, specificaly rock cod. Chef demonstrated the fillet, and then each of us was issued
got a whole rock cod to scale, skin and fillet, also for cooking on Thursday.

Tune in then for more details on the two plates we will have to prep, cook and assemble for grading.

Chef as artist; plate as canvas

Well cooked is the key concept. Well presented follows closely behind.

"Pay attention to the plate. The plate is your gift to the customer," Chef Dan Fluharty said in introducing the topic of plating and presentation on Tuesday in Culinary Foundations III.

"That plate is your universe; nothing else matters," Chef Tony Marano told us in Culinary Foundations I in October.

How the food looks on the plate could be a career in and of itself. In fact, people known as "food stylists" have done just that.

We were already pulled in to plating and presentation last term, out of necessity as we presented our cooking to Chef Dan for his assessment and grading. Chef paid minimal attention to how our food looked on the plate, other than pointing out if it was sloppy, the plate was not clean in the sense of sauce spills and if it was jammed with too much food.

Now, as we get closer to that moment when we will work in restaurants and be responsible for appearance along with good cooking, we are looking at the principles and elements of art, composition and how food plating has evolved over the last half-century.

The basic principles of composition include keeping it simple; the rule of odds, in which an odd number of items (potatoes, for example) is better than an even number; create a focal point or center of interest; purposefully seek an off-center presentation to create interest.

Chef Dan reviewed three generations of food plating:

* Old School: Three distinct servings of food on a plate, separated from one another. Think TV dinner.

* Retro: Starch and protein together, with veggie as decoration and sauce drizzled along the edge.

* Contemporary: Smaller portions overall (6 ounces of protein, for starters) with one aspect placed in relation to another, including on top. Sauces often used as pointer arrows to draw attention to the centerpiece, the protein.

Chef told us that for our purposes, a basic clean plate will suffice, with some height, emphasis on the protein and balance.

Good cooking and plating are works of art, and we are learning to be the artists for our families, friends and customers in restaurants.

Or, as Chef has suggested, be your own artist by going to Hometown Buffet.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Got the salt right; now pepper needs work

Not enough pepper was the key criticism -- and disappointment -- over my "best ever" beef stew in culinary school today.

The stew was one-inch dice of beef chuck in a sauce flavored with veal stock, salt, pepper, tomato purée and a bit of stewed tomatoes, garlic and yellow onion. Covered slow cooking, like a braise, deepened the flavors and reduced the sauce to a nice hearty thickness. At the end of the hour-long cooking time, blanched carrots, pearl onions, potatoes tourné and peas went into the pot for final texture and flavor.

It was a good, non-heart-stopping exercise to get us back into the swing of culinary school after two weeks off. The crucial last five minutes did, of course, bring the stress level up a bit. But it appeared that everyone managed to complete the cooking, plating and presentation in the allotted time.

I was last to present, and Chef tasted nearly every component of my plate. He was happy with the meat, potatoes, vegetable and garnish. Only the sauce fell short, and then only for a slight lack of pepper, Chef said.

Monday's "salt band" lesson must have taken; Chef said the salt was just right.

How's it taste? Needs salt

Salting one's food may be one of the more pressing issues of the day. It certainly is in culinary school, where seasoning to taste -- that means salt and pepper -- is the rule of thumb.

But to who's taste? For culinary students, it's the chef/instructor. Chef Dan Fluharty grades our plates, including seasoning. In most cases with my offerings so far, undersalting has been the issue. It seems the same with other students, so on Monday, Chef took us through a "salt band" exercise.

He set five numbered paper cups on a table, each containing milk. All but one had been salted to a different level. We tasted No. 2 first, followed by 3, then a sip of acidic water to clear the palate. Cup 4, followed by the water, then cup 5. Each tasted increasingly salty, with No. 5 registering with all of us as too salty. At Chef's instruction, we all cleansed our palates again, then went to cup No. 1. The taste was very bland; no salt had been added.

The exercise helped us gain perspective on salt flavor. A little aggressiveness with salting may be in order for me, and perhaps my fellow students.

Some complicating factors: As we grow older, our taste buds become less sensitive; a cold or other illness or a scorched tongue from spicy food or hot food can dull the taste buds; tasting ability differs from person to person.

Health specialists tell us that too much salt is not good for our hearts or blood pressure. Use of salt in general has decreased in restaurant cooking over the years, according to Chef.

Nevertheless, it is an irreplaceable component of good cooking and flavor. Salting to the right taste is an ongoing learning process and an ever-present need.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Turning up the heat in culinary school

"I want you to make some kick-ass food today, and the next day, and the next day."

Chef Dan Fluharty (right) presented that challenge today in introducing the agenda for Culinary Foundations III as the new six-week term began at the California Culinary Academy. It's the third and final class in the basic French-techniques curriculum taught at the Academy.

It promises to be a doozy, up several levels from where we left off last month in completing the second class in the triumvirate.

Chef Dan set the tone in an inspiring yet daunting rundown of what we will face for the next six weeks. Here are excerpts of what he said:

"Every day's cooking in here will be a competency exam on which you will get graded. ... I'd like to think when you leave this school that you have a good idea of what makes you a good cook, of what makes you marketable as a cook. ... We want you to achieve the highest level of performance here and in your careers. ... "

"Tomorrow we'll make beef stew. Will it be just any beef stew? We might tend to think, 'Well, it's just beef stew.' But we want it to be the best beef stew you ever tasted. ... So it's time we kind of draw the line a little bit. Do you agree? That means if it's good, I'll say so; if it's outstanding, I'll say so; if it sucks, I'm going to say so. ... Don't take it personally."

Chef said he wants the 10 of us in his class to be a part of the continuing tradition that the Academy "puts out better high-end chefs than the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, the granddaddy of U.S. cooking schools) or anywhere else."

Quite a charge, quite a challenge. Let's get cooking.

Back to the kitchen, foot on the accelerator

Culinary Foundations III, the final basic cooking skills class in the curriculum at the California Culinary Academy, starts today, promptly at 1 p.m.

Chef Dan Fluharty will be the chef/instructor, and our familiarity with him from Culinary Foundations II should make the transition seamless. It also will mean that he knows us and our abilities, so he is bound to want us to step right up and resume, at an accelerated pace, where we were when we left off on Dec. 18.

Here's an excert from the course description for Culinary Foundations III:
... butchery skills are added as well as cooking techniques for proteins. Students will prepare secondary sauces and classic starches while applying different cooking techniques. Students have an opportunity to expand on the foundations of classic culinary repertoire including an introduction to the theories of plated presentation.
 Further, the class syllabus outlines what we will be expected to know and do by the end of six weeks, or Feb. 12:
* Fabrication of a variety of proteins and cooking techniques specific to each protein. Properly use a variety of cooking techniques to make a single plate.
* Duplicate a picture or diagram in presenting a plate.
* Prepare and properly store stocks and primary sauces.
*An introduction to concepts inherent in the industry: Meeting deadlines and timelines for plate presentations, effciencies, space and equipment limitations, and personal, memorized recipes.
 Most exciting and most daunting is that last phrase -- "personal, memorized recipes." Exciting because it should show that we have mastered the basics to the point that we can introduce a little improvisation to our cooking. Daunting because, having read it, my mind went totally blank, unable to provide me with even a single recipe of anything I had ever made.

My recovery from that is in the works. Stay tuned for what should prove to be another fun-filled, adventurous six weeks.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Adaptation brings about success

Things don't always go as planned or practiced, and that was the case in my kitchen today in preparing dinner.

The braised beef ribs worked, as did the braised fennel and apples. The potatoes and pan sauce didn't go so well. Nevertheless, it came together.

Instead of pommes duchesse, the fancy piped potatoes, I made mashed because I couldn't get the piping to work. Putting too much roux into the pan liquid made the sauce thicker than needed, but it was flavorful. It ended up being more of a gravy, so perhaps needless to say, that worked well with the mashed potatoes.

All in all, a satisfying meal and good step tward getting back into the groove of school on Monday.

Getting in shape for culinary school ... by cooking

Back to culinary school on Monday for my third term, and what better way to prepare than making Sunday dinner? Here's what's cooking:

Braised beef ribs (with the bone left long, 6-8 inches, for flavor and presentation. After browning and then "sweating" the mirepoix in rendered bacon fat, I am braising them in chicken stock and red wine at 225º F. for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is ready to fall off the bone.

Braised fennel and apples. Slicing the fennel lengthwise and the apples in eighths. I will sweat a diced shallot in 1 TB unsalted whole butter before adding water, bringing it up to a simmer and then adding in the fennel and apples. Should take 20-30 minutes covered on low heat.

Pommes duchesse, the fancy mashed, then piped, then baked potatoes.

Brown sauce thickened with roux and strained from the remains of the rib braising.

I will blanch and then fry a bit of the fern-like green tops from the fennel for garnish.

Check back later today to read how it turns out and for a full rundown on expectations in the first week of classes in Culinary Foundations III.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

More quotes from culinary school

(Note: These comments were heard or overheard during my first 12 weeks of culinary school.)

Unabridged version
"What's the world's shortest book? British cooking."
-- Chef Tony Marano (left), commenting on various national cuisines.

I ate his homework
"Michael, where's that pork chop?"
-- Student Rob Park (right) asking me what happened to a plated grilled pork chop that was left on the cooking station we shared. It was his, and he was planning to take it home to his wife. I ate it.

Follow your nose
"I said, 'It smells like something's burning.' The student said, 'Oh, there's nothing burning.' Three minutes later, he opened the oven and ... there was a horrified silence."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty, telling how the sense of smell is important in the kitchen.

Blue bin, green bin, black bin
"In the Bay Area, we tend to take our garbage seriously."
-- Chef Tony Marano, instructing us to separate throwaway trash from recyclables from compostables.

Unabridged version
"Half a bay leaf or a whole bay leaf? Make the right choice, because otherwise the dish will be ruined, and then the whole thing unravels."
-- Student John Briggs, facetiously weighing the consequences of how much bay leaf to put in a marsala mushroom sauce.