Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine: UNE/ONE


Dear Foodie Groupie,

We were issued our uniforms, with our names stitched onto the right breast pocket area, and told to go change. They had to tell us how to tie the kerchief, how to wash and stain-treat, etc. Waiting for us in the professional steel-surfaced kitchen at each staition was a bright orange large tackle box filled with tools we'd need for the class, and a piece of luggage which unrolled to contain the knives for the class. It was like Christmas! The $5K+ fee includes these things for us to keep, as well as text materials, chef's jacket (personalized), pants, and all the food, etc. for the course. When you think about it this way, it's not really that expensive at all.

There are 14 students and two instructors. "Chef" is the (Jedi) Master, assisted by (we'll call him) Chef CorSec (because he's a former cop -- wonder if he's a Corellian Jedi?). Everyone introduced themselves, and the students included restaurant workers who needed to know the right techniques, college kids who felt they needed to learn to cook, writers who wanted to do cookbooks, poets looking for a way to make money doing what they dearly love, people looking for changes of career, those preparing to open a food and service based business ... we were all serious, and we all wanted to learn. No kaffe-klatchers here! (Gossipers and networkers, but at least nothing idle.)

Essentials of hygiene and equipment were covered in this first session, as well as vegetable preparation techniques. The basics first: lavage, épluchage, taillage, and cooking à l'anglaise and à l'étuvé -- washing, peeling, cutting, blanching/shocking, sweating/glazing. It all seems pretty simple, but I was surprised at how many people could not peel a carrot properly, and who cut themselves just looking at the (very sharp) knives!

Essentially, cleanliness is the holiest, most important thing in food preparation, so a bain marie had to be half filled with warm water and a capful of chlorine bleach to be kept by your cutting board for wipedowns and sanitizing. Knives, clothes, etc. had to be dipped in the solution and wiped dry between every task to minimize any cross-contamination. I ended the evening smelling like I'd done a dozen loads of "whites" laundry.

All vegetables are washed BEFORE peeling, and proper ways to peel were shown. A note about wastes -- you need to keep two bowls at your staition -- one for peelings and top-and-tail trimming, to go into the garbage (Rachael Ray refers to this as the "garbage bowl" -- saves trips to the waste basket). The second is for what is ickily termed "recyclable trimmings" -- the cleaned but uneven bits that are good for cooking, but are trimmed off the main preparation. Potatoes are made into mashed; carrots, celery, onions make mirepoix, everything into stock or demiglace for sauces and soups. Students and staff often eat these "scraps" in recipes as part of the "family meal" -- this is the meal a kitchen serves to the restaurant or hotel staff. It's a shame to waste these viable parts, as they represent food, money, time. If you're opening or managing a business, how to utilize "edible garbage" is important, even if you simply sell it to livestock farmers. Some schools will recycle the peel and tops too, as compost or animal feed, depending where they are located.

The first cuts to master are essentially rectangular blocks. You know how Michelangelo claimed not to be an artist, that he merely chipped away the extra bits to release the sculpture within the marble? This is like that -- you cut away anything that isn't a block. You spend a lot of time trimming to avoid flaring sides -- "bellbottoms" as the Jedi Master Chef called it. There is a lot of edible waste -- by the end of the class, the 40 gallon bucket just for carrot scraps was overflowing!

>From this block, you cut varying widths of tranche or "tiles," and from those, you crosscut to get julienne (fine sticks) or jardiner (bigger sticks) or batonne (more like crudités sticks). From these you crosscut again to get different sized dice that are progressively larger: brunoise or macédoine. A variation is paysanne which is sliced thinner, like little tiles (when a restaurant menu refers to a "confetti of vegetables," they are referring to vegetables cut paysanne). The chefs come around, correct, demonstrate, make you repeat. They check your knife form, your hands, how you stand ... it reminded me of a workout with a physical trainer!

Onions and shallots have a different problem from other vegetables, in that they are layered in concentric wrappings. They don't "cube" like carrots, potatoes or turnips do, and the technique used to deal with the vegetable's properties is called ciselé -- you've seen TV chefs do this. The onions is peeled, then split in half. Horizontal cuts are made part-way through, parallel to the cutting board. Then vertical cuts, parallel to your standing position. Then you slice across that to make cubes of onion. If you've done it right, there is a bit of waste, but you end up with a bowl of evenly-sized pieces. It's like cutting a three-dimensional lattice.

Likewise, leeks are also concentrically-structured, but are long and thin rather than bulbous. The green tops are normally not used in final dishes, but they are delicious in stock, sauces, or as part of a mirepoix, replacing the onion in that classic mixture. Leeks are sandy, so the tops have to be cleaned before being put into the edible wastes bin. To cut the dark green tops from the white bottoms, you need to "whittle" the tops off, like sharpening a pencil. The white part of the leek is taller in the center, you see. Then you split the white part, wash thoroughtly without separating the leaves (be sure to cut the roots off on the root side of the veg, so that the leaves will be held together by the core), then finely cross-sliced to make wispy half-moons, the émincer cut.

As for cooking, we got to play with parchment paper to do à l'étuvé -- a "sweat" -- instead of a lid on the pot, a round of parchment is placed directly on a mixture of evenly cut vegetables, water, salt, pepper, and butter. The vegetables need to be in the pan in a single layer and the water comes up halfway up the height of the vegetable. The parchment lid holds in some liquid, but since it's sitting right on the veggies, condensation is minimized, evaporation is allowed at a controlled rate, and the vegetables don't bounce around as they might if not otherwise restrained. At the end of cooking, when the water is all but evaporated, the butter and remaining hot water will form an emulsion, which will glaze the vegetables. Yum!

Cooking à l'anglaise means to blanch the vegetable in boiling water salted to seawater concentration (about 3%). When done, the vegetables are removed and dumped into a bowl of ice and water (together, they make an ice bath -- ice on it's own doesn't work as well) to "refresh" or "shock," then removed again once cold. Leaving them in will waterlog them and leach flavor and nutrient components. (Funny that boiling in seawater is considered "English style"!)

My partner -- a woman intending to open a B&B style inn in South America -- is a good home cook, but was having some trouble with the formal methods. She folded the parchment paper wrong and we got a snowflake of sorts instead of a lid. Live and learn, and try again! Of course, part of the 10 hours a week is practice, practice, and more practice. And eventually, you don't screw up anymore. (Now there's a philosophy for life!)

With Love,
The Culinary Padawan

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