My Creations, Places I like

Thursday, April 11, 2013

78 Things I've Learned From Culinary School

    I've been extremely busy lately as things come down to the wire, so here is a comedic list of things I have learned during my two years at the CIA (in no particular order), hope you enjoy. 

  1. Your kitchen shoes will smell no matter what you do. Under no circumstances should you leave your shoes in your car (especially if the windows are closed), or in your closet with your weekend attire. Place them in a well circulated environment or you will regret it. 
  2. Which brings me to my next point, if you step in a puddle by the dish pit at the beginning of class and you can feel it in your socks for the entire day, its time for new kitchen shoes...
  3. Side towels, aprons, and toques (chef hats), are the currency that will one day run this school. People will always steal them from your laundry, and they are fairly expensive to buy new ones at the bookstore.
  4. Always do laundry late at night, or early in the morning otherwise #3 will occur. Side Note: I had my bed sheets stolen during the busiest three weeks before externship leaving me no choice but to turn my blanket into a cocoon to avoid sticking to the plastic mattress the school provides. 
  5. It doesn't matter how shitty your dorm bed is. After a long day in the kitchen, every bed is the best bed you've ever slept in.
  6. If your school I.D. is not in your pocket when you get to class, be prepared to wait outside your lodge at midnight in the rain for twenty minutes until someone walks by to let you in. 
  7. HBO GO and illegal TV downloading sites are essential to your survival. Never in my life have I watched so many shows I've heard nothing about while making timelines and  writing down recipes in my room. 
  8. Buy note cards in packs of five hundred.
  9. Solo cups and disposable plates are your fine china.
  10. The basketball court is full of the most nonathletic kids who all know how to make a decent hollandaise.
  11. Never eat in a kitchen that is on its day one, especially pre-externship kitchens. We switch classes every three weeks and every day one is a shit-show. 
  12. If your suite mates are on opposite schedules as you, chances are you will never know them. There used to be four of us in Juniper Lodge room 200, now its down to two of us. We have spoken to each other for a month now about classes and everything else under the sun, and I still don't know his name. I'd be willing to bet he doesn't know mine either. "Man" and "bro" always works. 
  13. Save your culinary will need it when your real currency fails you
  14. When your kitchen class needs a "volunteer" to take out the gigantic bag of dirty linen at the end of the night, don't be the guy to volunteer. Just don't. 
  15. Every chef you ever have (except for one or two) completely forgets who you are once you are done with their class
  16. AM schedule is the worst thing imaginable. 
  17. You can never have TOO much fabreeze.
  18. The scariest chefs are not that scary after three days.
  19. If you do not fall asleep during the first hour of climbing into bed, your f*@ked.
  20. When you wear your front of the house uniform (FOH), it does not matter how short your tie is because you wear a vest. Go for the fat double-winsor, or GO HOME. 
  21. Only buy bars of soap if you really really trust your roommates.
  22. NEVER buy disposable razors...
  23. If you fold your laundry fresh out of the dryer, the iron in your closet will become the most useless thing you have ever bought.
  24. To outside visitors you are just "part of their experience".
  25. Chef Eglinski is the MAN. How a master baker puts up with class after class of culinary students fresh from externship blows my mind.
  26. When you first get here, befriend a baking student.
  27. The students who constantly name drop their externship site most likely got treated like dog shit and must constantly validate themselves in front of their peers. 
  28. When your chef is on a rampage, tearing the entire class a new one....look not important. 
  29. Never throw rubber gloves in the compost bin. Especially if your name is Clayton Nelson.
  30. Have your school email forwarded to your real email account.
  31. Always have a minimum of three sharpie markers at all times.
  32. If you move your leg just the slightest during the night and your calf cramps from dehydration, DO. NOT. MOVE.
  33. If your window doesn't have a screen, prepare for bugs...
  34. Students complaining about the crappy knives in the knife kit we are GIVEN deserves a "first world problems" MEME.
  35. Pay attention in wines class. The spit cup is mandatory, but its really optional. 
  36. Zero absences on your transcript means nothing. 
  37. Most of the people you meet will come and go in front of your very eyes. In fact, 98% of the people you meet at school you will never see ever again.
  38. Noravirus is NO JOKE.
  39. Parking is impossible unless its the weekend. If you're lucky enough to bag a spot in the front row, never drive your car again. 
  40. You will get tired of the world's greatest college meal plan within a few months. 
  41. If you spend more than a dollar on shower flip-flops you're not even looking. 
  42. Dried pasta ain't that bad.
  43. Your RA does not care what you do.
  44. If your kitchen has a dishwasher, befriend him. He will save you more than your classmates most of the time. 
  45. Neckerchiefs feel like you are slowly being strangled by a small baby.
  46. Everybody looks better in a FOH uniform.
  47. You have two towels for the shower, you only need one.
  48. Buy shampoo, toothpaste, soap, shaving cream, and toilet paper BEFORE you run out....or get creative.
  49. If you grab an oven door or pot handle without a side towel chances are you're going to have a bad time. 
  50. Steam and blisters do not get along.
  51. There is ALWAYS a secret staircase that gets you there faster. 
  52. If you leave a ballpoint pen in your chef jacket when you do laundry, buy new chef jackets...
  53. Stuffed pretzels from Apple Pie Bakery will blow your mind. 
  54. The basketball court is closed every three weeks for graduation. 
  55. Never use metal chopsticks.
  56. Your mechanical pencil is always out of led. 
  57. When serving customers, always serve from the RIGHT with the RIGHT. 
  58. Aprons are reversible. 
  59. The bread in the dining hall is almost always stale bake shop bread.
  60. Your chef sees EVERYTHING. 
  61. When walking in the halls, never walk in the middle. 
  62. Tap water is drinkable. 
  63. Printing requires culinary cash. 
  64. Never walk near a flock of geese in the Spring. 
  65. Special Project Days means no class. 
  66. When you move in, pray for a floor close to the ground level. 
  67. If there is a spider in your room...good luck sleeping. 
  68. Customers are everywhere.
  69. White V-neck Tees are your only clothing. 
  70. Chef pants can also be pajama pants. 
  71. Your knife better be able to cut through a sheet of paper. 
  72. After extern, the group leader pin means nothing. 
  73. Scrape out your pots before dropping them in the sink or everyone hates you. 
  74. Always bring a water bottle to class. 
  75. If you do not drink coffee, START. 
  76. Label all your knives and utensils with unique colored tape. 
  77. The smallest cuts bleed the most.
  78. If you have a food blog, it will never get updated. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Prelude, Part I

This post is dedicated to the close friend 
who listened to my story
and told me to chase
my dreams

(Play me if you want music to go along)

    I read a book some time ago that would later become an underlying reason why I choose to do the things that I do. One dreary afternoon I stumbled upon a cardboard box of books that was tucked away in the back corner of my brother's closet. Intermingled with an extensive collection of philosophy books written by Nietzsche, and Stephen King's The Stand, I found a book with dark blue and violet water colors on it. The words The Alchemist appeared at the top as I brushed away the dust that had collected on the book's cover. There was something alluring about it. I couldn't help but feel drawn towards the mysterious item I had found. Why I was even in my brother's closet to begin with is something that to this day I still don't have an answer for. Maybe it was one of those bad weathered days where you were looking for something to do because all of your friends seem to be occupied with other things and nothing was on the tube except bad midday Judge Judy

    Sitting Indian-style in my brother Chris' small attic closet I examined the back of the book for clues on what in the hell this book was actually about. I can recall a few paragraphs discussing a character by the name of Santiago and his journey through the unknown to discover the hidden treasures of life. Each night thereafter I laid in bed with a flashlight at a time of the night where most of the world had gone to sleep, reading The Alchemist chapter by chapter. My initial fascination quickly blossomed into full fledged obsession. Soon the old pages were covered in sticky notes and neon yellow highlighter. There were days I would sit in class slouched down in my unforgiving steel chair and daydream about what could possibly happen next in the book. What was Santiago looking for? The text was as mystifying as its dark, unassuming cover, and I craved for more...

    I found Paulo Coelho's book at a time in my life when I too was searching for answers. Adolescence was walking out the door and the next chapter in the epic saga that is life needed to be written. Seemingly overnight I had to decide on a college and major to pursuit that would ultimately determine the outcome of the rest of my life (that's not quite how it works, but no one ever really tells you that). That's a tough pill to swallow for an seventeen year old kid who's biggest decision in life up to that point was which sport to play in the Fall. Sitting at my desk reflecting back on my teenage years while drinking vitamin water I can tell you I eventually chose a general business degree at the University at Buffalo because at the time I thought it was the safe bet, but I would be lying to you. What ultimately swayed my decision to attend a state school to study accounting, consumer behavior, and micro economics was the two men I shared a roof with.

    My dad went to UB some years ago to go on and spend six years in Rome studying to become an ER doctor for which he has been mastering ever since. My older brother had just graduated from one of the best colleges in America and was transitioning into a business field that would have him employed by the New York State Assembly with notions of big city living under the bright lights of New York City and company names you would find in the Wall Street Journal. On one hand I had a father who worked his ass off everyday so that his family could live comfortably in a safe neighborhood with a swimming pool; and on the other hand I had an older brother who was successful with everything he set his eyes upon: music, school, sports, and girls. I made my decision in hopes I could emulate the paths they had chosen, because in my eyes they represented the very essence of what success was.

    What I would discover, however, is that the more accounting classes I took and all the career fairs I would attend talking to suited business professionals about things I had known next to nothing about, the more I realized that being a desk jockey in an office somewhere was not the life I wanted to pursuit. I had traveled so far down the rabbit hole looking for answers only to ask myself: "why in the hell didn't I take the blue pill..."

"What I'm not going to tell you is that either way, you're f@%ked"
    Once again I found myself on the outside with no door to get back in. Over the next several weeks I thought more and more about The Alchemist and how Santiago was able to see the signs camouflaged by the world in order to find happiness. The book had religious undertones about finding the "omens" God leaves each of us to find the path we are destined to take, but for me it was less about destiny and more about finding the courage within yourself to navigate a sea of uncertainty in order to do what makes you happy. Through fear and necessity my passion for food and cooking was born like a phoenix rising from the ashes. An obsession with the Iron Chef, the Food Network, and taking summer jobs that always seemed to relate in some way to food were the hidden signs I was looking for.

    Akin to the way Dave Kujan discovers that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze in the classic film, The Usual Suspects, I was starting to put the pieces together and see the whole picture. Sgt Kujan was searching for answers about a crime only to find out that the clues were all around him the entire time, but by the time he discovered it, it was too late.

(SPOILER ALERT if you haven't seen this movie)

    Unlike Sgt Kujan, for me it wasn't too late. I was fortunate enough to see the signs early on and make a change to something that has brought me a mountain of happiness the likes I cannot begin to describe. With the support from those who are closest to me and the guidance of an old book found in a box on a rainy day, I am able to embark on a new journey, and continually be surprised every step of the way. If there is one thing I learned on my quest for answers it is this: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail". 

  Do what you love. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Importance of Rabbits

    Let me start by saying I wholeheartedly expect this to me a somewhat shorter post, but you all know how I get. I sit down to share a few tidbits from class with everyone, and before I know it the post turns into a full fledged novel. The truth is, I am working on a much lengthier post for you all so this will be a little amuse bouche to get your palates excited.
    Last week the my class and I (what's left of us anyway) embarked on our journey through the homeland and beyond in Cuisines of the Americas, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all what exactly we have been doing for the past week and a half.
   Everyone has watched that one movie where the protagonist eats a meal in a foreign country and is taken back when something unusual such as monkey brains are brought to the table; i.e. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (picture below). The character looks on with troubling eyes as the natives gorge themselves on the "delicacy" of the land. The audience gasps, wondering if people eat that sort of thing in real life. Well I am here to tell you that they do, because yesterday I had the pleasure of willfully eating the heart, brain, and eyeballs of a goat. Yes, you read that right....

"Leftovers again..."
    There we were, setting up demo plates for the class (we only have service every other day so we can work the kinks out before we feed the masses) when I stumbled upon the head of a goat sitting on a cutting board. One of the teams in the kitchen were braising sections of the goats body for a curried goat dish, but what was the head doing there? Naturally I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and took my phone out to snag a quick photo. Chef Phillips gathered the class around the serving tables and explained what everyone had made. My eyes were fixated on the goat head chilling ominously in the corner; which looked oddly similar to the pig's head from Lord of the Flies

    Actually, after looking at it they look nothing alike. I guess its because I've never seen an animal's head detached from its body before. Anyway, Chef Phillips finally made his way to the end of the large silver prep table where the goat's head was resting. "So this is the head of the goat we braised earlier in class", he said as some of my classmates gasped in horror. Without hesitation Chef Phillips cut into the head with a large cleaver while simultaneously describing the benefits of eating the head. "Here in gringo land we usually toss this out, but south of the boarder they utilize EVERYTHING", he continued. Going to town on the noggin, he shaved off chucks of the cheeks to distribute to the class for tasting. "Funny, I've never tasted a goat's cheek before...", I thought while plunging the tiny morsel into my mouth. For some of the students in the class this was already too much to bare, but it did not stop there. I glanced over at my friend Kaitlin to see how she was doing right at the point where the goat's eyeballs were being plucked out. Her face was pale as Caspar the friendly ghost, and I could feel her soul die with every hack and chop of the head. When the jaw was removed, I thought she was going to faint, but she soldiered on. Now that the eyes were on the table, Chef Phillips cut them into tiny pieces for everybody to try. All eyes (including the goat's...) were on the always cheery Kaitlin Hill. I was curious myself to see if she would muster up the courage to eat a piece. She did not. For someone who just started eating pork again only a few months ago, seeing an eyeball chopped to smithereens can be a traumatic experience, so you really can't blame her. I on the other hand was far to curious to not eat some goat eye. It felt like the fatty grizzle on the end of a steak in my mouth, but was surprisingly delicious. 
    Our wild trip through the inner workings of Gary the goat's head was coming to a close but there still was one more part to try; the brain, or as the zombies would say: braaiiiiiiiinsss
    As with the eyes, the brain was chopped into bite-sized pieces for the class and we were again encouraged to try it. I did not hesitate (there goes that curiosity again...), but the question still remained, would Kaitlin give it a try. For the record she was not alone in her refusal to eat goat head parts. Alex, our group leader also was defiant in his stance against it. One of these two would step up and eat some brain. Now Kaitlin is a small blonde haired girl who on most days fancies eating bananas for dinner, and quivers at the thought of killing cute or small animals. Alex on the other hand is a 6"1' 230 pound (rough estimate) ex-lineman from New Jersey. Who do you think ate the brain? The Vegas odds were going off with Kaitlin at 50-1 and Alex at 3-1. Well if you're a lover of money I would not take this bet...Everyone in the class including Chef Phillips were cheering them on when finally Kaitlin grabbed a small chunk of the brain and ate it like a champ. Holding back vomit no doubt she swallowed it and forever will be able to say she knows what brain tastes like.
"GARSON! Be a doll and fetch me some brain"



    We as a society are conditioned to enjoy "beef" and "pork" as delicately fabricated pieces of meat cooked in a pan. We never see the happy cows lining up to be belted over the head with a mallet (its more humane these days I assure you, but still), or the chickens that are put into special machines designed to rip off all the feathers in one motion. Even fish served with the head on can freak some people out. There lies a disconnect between us as consumers and the animals we kill for food. Just ask my Sous Chef at Sperry's back home. He was asked by one of his purveyors one day to assist in the rabbit slaughtering process and its something that probably haunts him to this day. "I was fine when I got there", he said to me one day while chopping vegetables for stock. "but when you get into the pens were they keep them I started to loose it. You have to grab them by their hind legs, and these things really scream because they know what you're trying to do. It kind of messed me up for a while." This is coming from a guy I've seen fillet an eighty pound Halibut no problem...
    The point I am trying to make here is not to depict the modern day David & Goliath scenario of Kaitlin vs Alex in brain eating, but rather to explain how people feel about food when it suddenly has a face to go along with it. Its one thing to eat "venison", but its an entirely different thing to shoot Bambi in the neck and physically feel its heartbeat slow down before digging into its still warm body to remove the guts. Unless you're like my boy Clayton who has killed more ducks in real life than I have in Duck Hunt, than you probably will never see that part of the process. I've never been a part of the killing process but I hope one day I am. We all should. Not just as chefs, but as people. We all should be there to kill an animal before it is broken down for consumption. Taking the life of an animal creates a closer bond, an intimacy if you will, that Thomas Keller describes in a chapter of one of his books titled, The Importance of Rabbits (from which this post is named). Below is an excerpt from that chapter that I think you all should read if you want to understand the deeper bond I am talking about.

“From 1980 to 1983, I worked in the kitchen of a small restaurant near Catskill, New York, on a patch of the Hudson River Valley so remote it didn’t have an address.  The sixty-seat restaurant was owned by René and Paulette Macary (she remains its proprietor today).  La Rive, named thus because it sat on a wide running creek, was a fruitful training ground, and New York State had extraordinary livestock.  Beautiful veal came down from Utica.  I found a man who raised spectacular pigeons.  I began to ask these farmers for unusual items to experiment with, things like pigs’ ears, cockscombs, duck testicles.
One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit.  I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking.  The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.  He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it - the whole bit.  Then he left.
I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan.  I clutched at the first rabbit.  I had a hard time killing it.  It screamed.  Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly.  Then it broke its leg trying to get away.  It was terrible.
The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste.  Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them.  I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.  It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away.  A cook sautéing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself?  No.  Should a cook squander anything ever?
It was a simple lesson.”