Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Culinary School Diary: Week Five

Posted By on Tue, Sep 30, 2008 at 10:30 AM

By OWEN MORRIS

culinaryschool.jpg

If I had one word to describe the class attitude last night, it would be "pissy." Everyone was in a sour mood the entire time. Despite the culture of the celebrity chef, there are no stars in a kitchen, just a team. When half the members of that team are in a bad mood then the other half feels it and pretty soon everyone is in a bad mood.

When I signed up for the class Professional Cooking II, I imagined searing a sea bass or learning to carve game fowl, not plating mixed green salads. Yet that's exactly what I did last night. It was probably a good thing, too, because not many of the advanced students in our class are that good at making salads -- nor are they very good at the other basic stuff we did, such as making mayonnaise. For once, I didn't embarrass myself and actually turned in some pretty good plates of Waldorf salad, potato salad and a winter vegetables falafel.

Much of the beginning of the class was spent on a lecture based on the hypothetical question: What is a salad? Turns out it's whatever you want it to be. My teacher described it as a appetizer, entree, side dish or dessert that is accompanied by a dressing and even that is a limiting definition. Take for example a classic fruit salad with watermelon, honey-dew, grapes, strawberries and a couple of other fruits. There’s no dressing and yet no one would argue it’s not a salad. Most salads at good restaurants follow four criteria: base, body, garnish and dressing. So if a high-end restaurant were to serve a simple dish like fruit salad, they’d plate it artistically, within another fruit like a hollowed-out half pineapple. The body is the fruit itself, the garnish could be anything from whole blueberries to hand-whipped cream and the dressing would be on the side, most likely a light vinaigrette to balance out the sweetness of the fruit.

The instructor brought up some of his favorite salads in the city including the Caesar at the now-defunct Fedora’s on the Plaza. Although I never had it, hearing my teacher talk nostalgically about how Fedora’s would split the romaine head in two and lay it straight on the grill to get it blackened and crispy and delicious made my mouth water and I was excited to start cooking.

The rest of the class didn't seem to share my enthusiasm. The instructor is normally a mild-mannered guy but he got angry with some students to emphasize his point, which was that we should take this prep as seriously as we would one using expensive meats. Each week the instructor gets a little harsher and more demanding with what we're making and how our stations look as he slowly leads the class up to the level of a real kitchen. He was clearly mad about some students' mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise involves a permanent emulsifying process (as opposed to a temporary emulsification like oil and vinegar) taking egg yolks and oil and beating the sin out of them until they finally mix. Adding too much oil too quickly will cause the emulsification to break. It's not a tough process but it is time-consuming. The same can be said for cutting vegetables uniformly. The class had a lot of time-consuming projects but not a lot of time. Therefore we tried to rush things where we thought we could. My mayo turned out good but my carrots dice was all over the place and I was gently scolded for that. The team next to mine had a six-yolk mess of oil but our teacher was able to get the emulsification process going with one egg yolk and then added the six yolks that had messed up. It turned into a beautiful mayo at the end.

As for the sandwich part of the lab ... my teacher told us that "a panini is really just a fancy grilled-cheese," and putting it together is really no different. You just have to make sure and butter the bread, else it won't brown. It was the tastiest thing I made but also the easiest.

No one's dishes really stood out or popped, and no one went through the extra time of really making good garnishes. The lesson here is spend more time emulsifying and less time emoting.

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