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Pans and Perspective

You provide the food and I will provide the perspective." – Anton Ego, 2007

Month

March 2014

At least the consomme’ was clear…

Today was the worst day I have had at the school.  My team and I earned a 50% for our daily grade meaning that we failed the day.  Now I want to preface this by saying that we are a team of three.  Now I am don’t want to seem like I am making excuses but it seems difficult to work with such a small team.   Chef said that during extern we would be working one station making double the prep.  So I guess I just have to get used to it.

The day started of alright.  We got into class and I had the consomme on around 8.00 am.  After completing that I jumped on some of the various prep work we had to complete for that day.  About 30 minutes before final inspection, this is where chef comes around and checks our prep work to make sure we are all set for service, shit hit the fan.  Sorry for the foul language, but that is the best way to describe this next series of events.

I had to finish cleaning the stock kettle because our team was assigned to make stock for the day.  As I was wrapping up my team had someone else jump on the kettle so that I could finish our prep. We had decided on vegetarian chili with cornbread for the day.  I began to make cornbread but shortly after measuring out the cornmeal chef came by and told me that it was to coarse and that it wouldn’t properly cook.  This was only a minor setback, so instead of cornbread I decided on making polenta.  Within minutes of me informing my team of the change I discovered that our chili, the body of our dish, had been scorched because someone had turned up our burner.  Chances are it was a mistake and we should have been watching it, but it still was frustrating.  So as it stands, no cornbread and now no veg entree.  In the midst of this confusion Laura remembered that we had not made our consomme garnish.  We were already 5 minutes late and had little to no prep work done.  The last few hours of work had been for nothing.

It gets better.  We knew we had lost all of our prep points for the day so we decided to be creative and use the polenta as our vegetarian option.  We spiced it up with cheese to give it a creamier and richer flavor and then we decided, after what seemed like and eternity that we would top it with tomato ragu and fried shallots.  “We played chopped in the kitchen…” This was Laura’s evaluation of our days performance and she couldn’t have been more spot on.  We made our entire dish from miscellaneous items we found in the kitchen.

We were nearing family meal and we still weren’t ready.  Service was going to be starting in 45 minutes.  Chef came by our station and told us that we needed a side for the poleta as well.  At this point we really had no more ideas, we used carrots that we cut and blanched.  As we presented our demo plate chef made a comment about how we needed something else.  He told us to make small garlic crostinis.  We were about 10 minutes out from service before we started these.  We cut french bread, made a garlic butter compound and then spread it and toasted them.  If only to make matters worse the first batch burned.  We had no more bread in teh kitchen so I had to run up to Bakeshop 1.  The chef was kind enough to give me a baguette to use for service.  About 5 minutes before service we were just getting the second batch in only to find out that they burned within seconds of being placed under the salamander.  Poor procedure but it was the best we could do with our time constraints.  Service itself went smoothly but our prep left about 2,000,000 things to be desired.

In the end what did we do.  We had a decent consomme and a “F” for the day.  The real reason why I think I am writing about this is not to vent and beat myself up.  But rather show that our team had commitment and perseverance.  After failing the day, we could of just left.  Leaving the kitchen short on hands and one less menu option.  I know that my group had the same though as we were stumbling to get ready for service.  In our chaos, I ran to Chef Riley’s room to see if he had extra baguettes.  As soon as he saw me he knew.  “What do you need Nathan?”  I explained that we were in the weeds and he said just a few words, “Keep going.”

I think that we resolved our issues and tomorrow we plan to have a much better day.  The first and second day of A La Carte actually went well.  Our timing was a little off but it wasn’t nearly as bad as today.  I will keep everyone posted.

 

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Day off.

At the begining of each block we are given the Monday off.  I do not have class today.  But tomorrow I will be starting A La Carte Cookery.  I will let you know how it goes, I can tell you already its going to go much better than modern banquets.

A champion can win on anyone’s grass. (Chef Reilly Analysis)

This is a quote I frequently heard from Chef Reilly.  He made sure to push everyone in class everyday.  From the start of day one until now, my second to last day of Modern Banquets, I have enjoyed every second of class.

Day one I was greeted by a drill sergeant.   A baritone voiced chef who shouted simple commands and watched us scurry around the kitchen.

-Nathan Buckley

He led with very few words and refused to answer any of our simple questions.  “Chef, where is the cilantro?” , a student would ask, “I don’t know.” , chef would respond.

Chef Reilly started as tough chef but as our class began to work, it seemed that he started to loosen up.  It started with a joke here and there, and after the first week, I think chef knew what our class was really about.  Nearly 3 days into class chef called my team over.  “Alright folks, you are going to be having a potato peeling contest.  There can only be one winner.”  We went through the motions and after a few rounds he said, “Alright, Liz, step forward.  Everyone walk to the left one station and setup. ”  This was were I first heard those words. “I have seen you work with your tools, but a true champion can win on anyone’s grass.”  What chef had done was have us jump over one station and he had us using our neighbors peeler.  The contest went on and Liz was crowned as champion.  I had only acquired one win and I was placed in the final round where I had a DQ.  Chef really showed us who we was and how much he liked teaching.

About half way into the block chef dropped a huge class compliment.  We were sitting down for lecture and he said “You guys really know your stuff, you make me happy to teach again.”  The fact that chef had bestowed this compliment meant so much more then the words.  He had said that our class was one of the best he’s taught in some time.

Chef treated us like young chefs.  We were not afforded the convenience of pity nor help.  We were trained to work on our own and Chef made sure that we stayed on that course.  He made nothing easy and would bluntly let you know if you had failed.  He did not mask how he felt about the work we did.  He watched us cook with great pride.

I was pleasantly surprised in class today when chef took about 5 minutes to speak to me privately.  It wasn’t like my class couldn’t hear us but as I emptied a 2.5 gallon jug of oil into the fry-o-later we had a brief chat.  “So why do you want to be a cook?”  Chef asked me.  My reply was simple “I want to be a food critic, but I want to get as much experience as possible.”  Chef looked at me for only a second.  “You know whats good?”  He paused waiting for any response, but before I could get anything out he said “Many people who like food and think they can write become food critics.  It nice to see that someone who knows how to cook and wants to learn how to become better actually want to write. You seem to know what you’re doing.”  I was very pleased but I knew that I wanted to get any information I could.  “Do you have any tips,”  I asked.  His repose will forever be helpful, “Well you have to think of how to springboard, you know, where will this job help me get to in 10 years, 5 years.” He paused and then continued “You have to think about how to get their yourself.”  He went on to tell me how I needed to make an initiative to develop a network.  I had to be the one that went and met other food writers and learn how they got to where they were.  He even made the suggestion that while in Ireland, which I will discuss in a later post, that I try to find someone there who I can talk to.

Chef gave me a wealth of information because he knew that I could use it.  I really enjoyed modern banquets, even though I was often told to smile.  Chef taught me how to think on my own and really pointed me towards the first point in my career.

Thanks Chef,

Nathan J. Buckley

Overhearing students.

Kid’s eating a lollipop.

You look like a little kid sucking on a lollipop.  Its better than smoking cigarettes.

The great knife skills race.

Now that we have moved into the banquet portion of modern banquets the format of the class has changed somewhat.  The old itinerary was prep, service and then family meal and lecture.   Now with the new changes the class switches and we have our lecture around 7.00am and then family meal at 10.00am.  What this does is give us more time to break down and clean up after we do buffet service at lunch.  We also do not need as much time because we are not cooking items to order but rather for an entire buffet.

Now that we have all this extra time after we complete service, Chef has us practice our knife skills with the use of some friendly competition.  Each student is given one onion and then is asked to mince it.  Now mincing is something we do each day at this school so you would assume everyone would be pretty proficient at it.  When we first began this race I did just as poorly as everyone else.

Chef’s definition for mince is small inconsistent shaped cuts that are snowflake sized.  Now the procedure for mincing and onion is the same procedure we use for mincing shallots.  The only difference is that the food item we are cutting is larger.

The first day myself and a classmate of mine, Josh, were picked as finalist.  The preliminary round consists of the whole class and then chef picks the best two people to face off in a final round.  The only downside is that chef has the students switch knives.  Neither Josh nor I did well with this change.  Chef made only one comment, “A champion can win on anyone’s grass.”   I will be writing a post about this sometime in the near future.  It was considered a loss for both of us.

The next two days of this competition were taken by two other classmates of mine, Austin and Jason.  Both Austin and Jason have one win under their belt.  Friday Chef chose Jason as the winner based more on a technicality and today Austin won based on performance.

I spoke to chef briefly today and asked him what his grading criteria were.  The only two things he is checking for is good size and speed.  This is something that anyone in our class can win.  I feel that these competitions is one of the finest ways to have students practice their skills.  As chef says “There can only be one!” (winner)

 

My drive and passion.

I have enjoyed cooking for as long as I can remember.  I know that sounds cliche but it really is true.  One of my first experiences in the kitchen was helping my father make scrambled eggs.  It was a simple task, crack the eggs in a bowl, add a splash of milk and then whisk them.  Nothing fancy, no white table cloths and no waiters in tuxedos.  It was just classic home cooking.  And for some reason I always reveled in the fact that I could take an ingredient, something as simple as an egg, and then change it into something completely different.

My ideal career path would be to end up working as a food critic.  Someone in a paid position who gets to visit restaurants and test recipes while giving insightful criticism, not to belittle chefs, but rather enhance both their palette and my own.  I feel that the precursor to this is going to be working in the industry for 20+ years, maybe longer.  I really want to get a good understanding of different cuisines and how different dishes are properly prepared.  I would be just as enthusiastic to work as a line look in French Laundry as I would be to become an executive chef on a cruise ship and I feel that my dedication and pride towards the work that I create has the potential to be on par with those chefs.  Working with food has always been something I enjoy.

Now that I have passed through nearly 2 terms at the CIA I have begun to refine and hone the styles I like to cook with.  I personally enjoy creating classical french dishes, using both the techniques and flavors.  I really would like to make Classical French Cooking my specialty or area of focus.  From that I want to begin to develop an even more in depth approach.  As much as I enjoy the classics, reworking them so that they have my own personal twang is quite interesting.  Keeping the subtle undertones of smooth fish volute and then crafting it into an elegant clam chowder is something that I feel can be challenging and rewarding.

Why?  The question that I always ask about everything.  My style, my career path and the choices I make each day.  I think what It all boils down to, no pun intended, is being able to work with my hands and make people happy.  It is difficult to take a bite of a rich slice of chocolate cake and not shudder in delight.  Teaching and working with others to improve, enhance and change the way that things are done is also something I take great joy in.

Striving for excellence.

Today I completed my second week of modern banquets cookery.  We have really jumped into the buffet portion of the class.  The amount of food that we make each day is still the same but the techniques for cooking it are somewhat different.  For example, when we cooked vegetables for plated service we usually cooked them to order whereas now we just cook all the vegetables off ahead of time and bring them out to service as needed.

My personal performance in class has been improving each day.  Timeliness has never been an issue.  What is really getting my each day is stupid mistakes.  I had one day in class where I did not have my ice bath to shock my cooked vegetables.  Chef saw my mistake and made sure to comment on it.  That is one of the reasons I enjoy this class so much.  I don’t get to cut corners and I have to practice the right procedures on a daily basis.

I had quite a gratifying evaluation from Chef today.  Myself and a friend both had done excellent in our daily grade.  This means our food was cooked and seasoned well, we were on time, our station was clean and several other aspects that make up our daily grade.  Excellence is earned by students who show superior quality products and procedures.  It usually equates to getting and A.

I had been doing well in class but I really didn’t have that many “excellent’s” under my belt.  I really enjoyed hearing that I had done so well today.  My group and I were not the only ones who received praise.

During our class debriefing, where we discuss our overall performance for the the and the menu for the day to come, the chef commented about how our performance as a class has been superior to many of the classes he has recently taught.  We are dedicated quick thinkers that get the job done well.  Chef said that “It actually feels like [I] am teaching again, rather than just being a drill sergeant.”

 

Making new friends!

I had the pleasure of working in the tutoring center with new students today. They had just begun their journey through the CIA and were in the Learning Center to practice knife cuts.  The most fascinating thing was that these students were from the most recent start date.  They hadn’t even had class yet.  They were just trying to get ahead.  I look forward to being able to be called an alumni of the CIA.

I worked with three students and found out a few things.  One of them was from Canada and had primarily worked front of the house service.  For those of you who don’t know front of the house service is things like waiting tables and clearing plates.  Not only was he not expiernced with wielding a knife.  He also was more familiar with the metric system.  All precision knife cuts are measured in the American system.  Nonetheless he was a pleasure to work with and he picked up on different skills quite quickly.

Once they were all finished they each went off to go to either class or back to the dorms to study.  The thing that struck me most was how they said, before leaving, “take care Nathan!”. Its the little things that make this job worth while.  I have gotten to work with so many people and each one of them is dedicated  and has their own unique personalities.  It is a welcome change after literally eating, learning and living with the some 19 individuals.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is having students return to continue practice.  Usually when they return they tell me about how they were given an A on their knife tray or how their chef noticed improvement.  While their grade and performance is based sole on their work, hearing about actual improvement lets me know I am doing my job right.

I have only worked at the Learning Center for 2 weeks now but each day I find the job more and more awesome!

It’s Day 11 and you still can’t cook damn vegetables…

I want to preface this review by saying I have a lot of respect for the chefs at the CIA.  I understand that most of them strive to do their best and that they make a valiant effort to pay attention to detail in the kitchen.  The students also deserve credit.  They (AM Classes), wake up at ungodly hours to work for nearly full work days on food that hundreds of kids will taste.  They are also at school to learn.  I am sure that one thing will be missed from time to time.  That being said, I had the most “delightful” pleasure of eating at Modern Banquet’s yesterday and wanted to give you some insight on what I crunched on.

First course was a basic garden salad.  The salad greens were clean, which shockingly is something that students neglect to take care of.  The portion size and presentation were above average and the dressing taste quite good.  Upon finer examination of my rabbit food I noticed that the precision knife cuts that were placed on top were atrocious.  These cuts looked like a first term fundies student had been given an old rusty butter knife and then asked to cut brunoise ( what is normally 1/8 x 1/8 x 1/8 inch cubes) to whatever dimensions they deemed fit.  It was also garnished with julienne that, while appropriate in width and height, looked like uneven strands of grain that might be used to draw straws.

Soup course was quite a disappointment as well.  I do not enjoy anything more than eating tepid soup.  Of course I am not being serious.  My chowder was lukewarm at best.  And while it had quite a decent flavor and consistency the fish, cod I presume, was chewy and tough.  I wasn’t the only person who thought this either.  Two other diners at my table made a comment at how poor the soup was.

Entree course was decent.  It was buffet style so of course I did not expect the food to be screaming hot.  It was a nice temperature and I applaud the students for that.  We were given the choice of two different proteins.  Either beef pot roast or roasted turkey.  The flavor on both of these items was superb.  The turkey had a crunchy briny exterior that left me longing for more.  The bird itself was cooked to perfection, white, juicy and tender.  In fact I was quite impressed by the doneness of the bird because this is more often than not the low point of most CIA dishes.  The pot roast also had a fabulous flavor.  A combination of subtle red wine undertones paired with a strong meaty blast from the demi glace, that I imagine was used to make the braising liquid, gave the meat an excellent flavor.  The only real complaint I had, aside from the lack of sauce, was the tenderness of the meat.  After braising a pot roast for at least 3 hours I would have liked it to be more tender.  As I said, it tasted phenomenal but it was slightly tough.  Now the vegetables, the damn vegetables.  I actually, while writing, just spoke to a student who was looking over my shoulder at this review.  She agreed with my statement that vegetable cookery is by far one of the easiest competencies to learn at this school.  Simple, blanch the item, put it in your mouth and if it is crunchy, throw it back in the water.  We learn this early on and I would think that it would become embedded in each future chef’s mind.  I guess being in the weeds causes short term memory loss.  Along with the protein, we were given three vegetable options.  The first was brussel sprouts.  My sprouts were similar to eating lukewarm stones.  Enough crunch to put good dill pickles to shame.  The best part was, the procedure for cooking them looked right. The bottom was scored and the outside leaves were removed.  They were even consistently sized.  For some reason, whoever was on vegetable station either neglected to taste the item or just didn’t care. My next item was a root vegetable mix.  We did this vegetable side with our braised beef lesson in fundamentals and I liked it so much that I suffered through nearly 2 hours of precision knife cuts during Thanksgiving and Christmas to make it again.  When we made it in class it was roasted the vegetables so the sugars caramelized and it gave it a better overall flavor and color.  The monstrosity that was placed on my plate was far from that.  Wet, bland root vegetables cut in various sizes.  It was obvious that someone got overly ambitious and wanted to cut small dice for this medley.  They must have run out of time because thrown into this dish were battonettes of miscellaneous lengths.  On top getting served what looked like a grab bag to lego pieces, upon taking my first bite I was greeted by that all to familiar crunch.  This time even more so, I might as well have been eating the legos themselves.  Lastly the butternut squash, the saving grace for veg station.  I thought it was perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked and hot.  My dining partner thought otherwise but I figured he had gotten a rough patch.

Last course, which for me was only tea, was also quite a disappointment.  I have had this happen to me before so I wasn’t to surprised, especially with the outcome of the meal.  I let me tea steep for about 2 minutes and after what seemed like an eternity decided to pour some.  I noticed that the water stayed the same color as when I first got it and that there was no real noticeable aroma.   My first sip was similar to drinking the water out of the pot sink.  Same temperature and same flavor. Now the flavor of the tea is usually good, I think the fact that I was only drinking bath temperature water could have altered the flavor.  I kid you not when I say I take showers in water hotter than the swill I was served.

Now some perspective:  I obviously wrote this with as much flair as I could muster.  While the facts are accurate my opinions may be somewhat off base.  I mean this is how I really felt about the meal but the students don’t deserve this harsh a review.  We all make mistakes and as I said we are all here to learn.  Time is all was needed to make that meal better.

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