Arrival: Soggy Welcome to NY
I have arrived! The flight was uneventful. I was able to watch the two games of Group B in the Euro 2008 on DirectTV (thank you, JetBlue) so that killed most of the trip. The pilot routed our flight a bit north to avoid the wild storms cutting through the middle of the country. But I got a little taste of real ‘weather’ today.
Let me just say that this California girl is not used to the wacky thunderstorms of the Northeast! I arrived in NYC and headed out to rent a car so I could drive up the the Hudson Valley for my week-long bootcamp at Culinary Institute of America. When I arrived it was 104 degrees and sticky. Granted, you hardly spend any time outside so going from the over-air-conditioned shuttle bus to the over-air-conditioned rental offices kept me from really experiencing the weather. Not that I wanted to dwell too long outside. That’s pretty uncomfortable even for ME. But now, at 9:30 p.m., it’s a lovely 80 degrees outside. Perfect for driving a convertible.
As soon as I pulled out of the rental care parking lot it started to dump rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning of the like we don’t see much back home. Luckily, the traffic congestion kept me at a crawl so at least the windshield wipers had a chance to keep up with the downpour.
Here are my observations during the two-hour drive from JFK Airport and Poughkeepsie:
1. When you have to choose among Google Maps, Mapquest or your GPS, go for the GPS. Each had a different set of directions on how to get here. But the GPS route was beautiful through upstate NY. So green! So different than the charred-Earth look of California freeways–which I try convince myself is really ‘golden.’
2. What’s with the steam on the OUTSIDE of the windshield?! I’m sure there is some trick between the air conditioning and rolling down your windows but I didn’t figure it all out until I was almost pulling up to the hotel.
3. Slow drivers seems to prefer the slow lane. Fast drivers pass them on either the right or the left.
4. There really is a Pleasantville. I thought it was just a movie!
5. There really is a Sleepy Hollow. I thought it was just a legend!
I am now checked in to the charm-free Holiday Inn Express, chosen primarily for its proximity to the CIA, its reasonable rates and free Wi-Fi. Who needs a fancy B&B when I’m leaving at 5:30 am (that’s EASTERN time!) and not returning after 9 p.m?
Stay tuned for my experiences tomorrow!
Not since I lived in Sacramento have I felt so much sweat stream down my back. Today’s word of the day was “hot.” Hyde Park sweltered in 100 degree weather while we stood in front of hot stoves, ovens and grills in a non-air conditioned kitchen.
Regardless, we had a great first day at CIA today.
The 5 a.m. alarm came quickly and I rushed out the hotel around 5:30 a.m. to make the 6 a.m. orientation. The hotel is about 15 minutes away, but I wanted to make sure I could find the campus and then find the right building.
The campus is beautiful. The main building was formerly a Jesuit monastery built in 1906 and the school has retained as much of its historical features as possible. The gardens are well-maintained and their herb/vegetable garden is enviable. We had breakfast in the former chapel (more on that later).
First, the booty.
As participants in advanced boot camp, we each received a thick binder with the curriculum, presentations from each day, recipes and lots of great information. We also received a black duffle bag with the following goodies enclosed:
* Two chef’s jackets (lots of rigamorole in swapping out for the right size)
* Two pairs of chef’s pants (needless to say I have to roll up my pant legs)
* John McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking”
* A neck ‘kerchief (despite feeling like I was choking on the windsor knot with the heat, it actually did manage to keep even more sweat from making its way down my body)
* A six-inch boning knife
* A flexible chopping sheet
Our day starts with breakfast, which is quite an experience. The options, all prepared by students, are scribbled on a chalkboard in a room across from the former chapel, which is now a dining room (see photos of the original and refurbished stained glass). On the former altar is a self-serve waffle iron and other stations.
We were instructed to eat/sample whatever we want and not to worry about throwing food out—something that goes completely against my upbringing, which instilled in me that wasting food is no less than a SIN. But just sampling food is part of the education process. While the food scraps are composted, I still think they could probably minimize some of the waste by serving samples rather than full portions. Nonetheless, as I want to sample a little of everything, I have tried to set aside the guilt and embrace the educational process.
Breakfast was eggs Benedict—two poached eggs on toasted English muffin topped with hollandaise. The hollandaise was a little thin. But the poached eggs were quite good. I ate one. Plus iced coffee because it was already too damn hot at 6 a.m.
Then off to lecture. Our professor is Chef D, a portly character with a dry sense of humor and quick smile. He went through the various cuts and qualities of beef and the best ways to prepare them—dry heat, moist or wet heat, etc. Later in the day he showed us how to break down huge chunks of meat into portions.
In the kitchen we break up into teams of three, each assigned a variety of dishes that demonstrates the lessons of the morning. Our dish, which turned out really well, was a roasted beef tenderloin stuffed with a mushroom duxelle and served with a pan sauce and Dauphinois potatoes. It was a damn good first effort, particularly since we had only two hours to pull it together since our morning activities went long and lunch (when we eat all we made) is at 1pm.
Immediately after lunch we had a tour of the campus, learned how the school functions (most of which I already knew from reading Michael Ruhlman’s “Making of a Chef”). Then we took a little seminar called “The Physiology of Taste.” Very interesting. Try this experiment: plug your nose and pop a Jelly Belly in your mouth. Chew and chew and chew, with your nose plugged. Then unplug your nose. Cool.
Today’s lessons learned:
* Never wash meat (poultry is the exception)
* When you cook with dry heat, put the sauce on the plate first then place the meat on top. When it’s cooked with wet heat, place the sauce on top.
* When plating, compose your dish by starting with the starch, then the vegetable, then the protein.
* Chinois is better than china cap for filtering a sauce.
We were finally done at 5 p.m., just enough time to come back to the hotel and relax a little…shower and get back for 7 p.m. dinner reservations at Catherine di Medici, one of the four campus restaurants. All the restaurants–front and back of the house–are run by students are part of their curriculum. I had tonno crudo with capers, lemon juice, olive oil. Delicious and light. Then a braised rabbit leg. Others had spinach gnocchi, risotto with asparagus and mint, and grilled swordfish. For dessert I had semifreddo con nocciole. Not exactly Piemonte-quality but quite refreshing since it’s still 85 degrees at 10 p.m.
Tomorrow morning we report to class at 7 a.m. (woohoo! sleepin’ in!). We are welcome to stop for breakfast first, which I’ll likely do.
Overall first impression: it’s intense and a race to get a meal pulled together. There are a lot of people running around the kitchen, but we have culinary students help us find stuff and the chef is great and advising us along the way. Tomorrow I’ll give a quick review of the people I’ve met.
CIA, Day 2: Don’t be afraid to be happy!
See Emily in the herb garden, 6:30 a.m.
Today’s headline comes to us courtesy of this afternoon’s professor “Gabby” who taught a champagne appreciation lecture, completed with a tasting of seven sparkling wines. Gabby was an animated, hysterically funny Brazilian who obviously is passionate about wine. It’s something that has been striking here–people are so genuinely passionate about that they do. You can see their eyes light up when they get on a topic they care about–whether it’s happiness or anger. People are really have a great time here, even if it’s tons of work.
This morning’s lecture was about “less common meats.” It’s not as scary as it sounds. The final cooking assignments only ventured as far as sweetbreads (delicious) and veal cheeks (TRULY delicious). Our team made boneless pork chops with carmelized apples, potato pancakes and braised red cabbage. It was good, except for the slightly overcooked chops. I made a brine, which I think helps retain some moisture. I had told my team members that my biggest fear was overcooked pork…but alas…
It was another blistering day in the kitchen. Yesterday I focused on prep cooking but today I manned two skillets–one with the apples and the other with the cabbage. And it was *$&%ing HOT! Easily upwards of 115 degrees in there. Plus the floor gets wet and it’s treacherous walking around in there. There are two large side-by-side kitchens and multiple things going on–our advanced class on one side, a continuing education class with “real” chefs on the other side, and students in the middle prepping something or other. Even though we’re rushing around to get lunch prepared and plated, when the chef calls out that he has a demo we have to drop everything to go watch. It’s instructive, but a little tricky with timing.
I have three team members: David from New York, Ken from Florida and Carlo from the Phillipines. Our first task is to review, inventory and gather all our ingredients. Instead two of my team members charge ahead on the prep right away, and they end up running around the kitchen when they most need specific ingredients. Sometimes the cooking experience feels chaotic and unorganized–an environment in which I don’t do well. But overall everyone is very nice and it’s still fun and we manage to get everything plated in the nick of time.
Carlo and I spend a lot of time keeping our team’s work stations cleared. Ken is sweet with a loud boisterous laught, but a bit of a train wreck in terms of his management of the space. I’d hate to see his kitchen after making a dinner. And he is always reaching for ingredients in the fridge that are on a baking sheet with someone’s homework assignment paper on top–that is, the ingredients are prepped for someone else! Sheez!
The food from all the teams has been really good–impressive, actually. We all have varying skills but I do feel like we’re all experienced cooks who understand a lot about food. It’s fun to be around other people who are as passionate about cooking, preparing and serving food as much as I am. I love walking around the campus with so many young people in chef whites and check pants, their knife kits slung over their shoulders, racing from one kitchen to another. We also have great students who help us out in the kitchen. Some of them–most of them–are quite advanced and they taste things for us or prep things for us. One of our student assistants made our applesauce for the potato pancakes.
After lunch and critique, Chef D demonstrated the beginning of roux and sauce espagnole, one of the mother–or grand–sauces. It was interesting to see the various transitions of roux as the fat (in this case vegetable oil) intermingled with the starch and protein in the flour.
And then…the dynamic Gabby, who kept telling us to not be afraid to have fun…who exudes such passion and love for wine that is was palpable. We tasted seven sparking wines. He taught us how to open champagne–the traditional method and the “saber method” where you use a knife to lop off the top of the bottle, using the pressure of the bottle to launch the glass top, cork and all, into the air. Anyone who wanted to try it could do it. I chose to open a bottle the traditional way–the first time I’ve opened a bottle of champagne in my life.
After a two hour break to come back to the hotel, shower and change clothes (and send it to the cleaners! yuck!) then back to the next on-campus restaurant called “American Bounty.” Dinner was quite nice, but the student staff were still trying to figure it out…getting orders not quite right, etc. Oh well. It’s a little like getting medical care at an academic medical center…you have to have a little extra patience so the teaching can occur.
Tonight we’re having severe thunderstorms–I had to drive back from dinner with constant lightning to the point where I almost didn’t need headlights. Now and then there’s a TV “emergency alert warning.” Now and then there’s a flash outside followed by a low, loud rumble of thunder. This signals a change in weather and we anticipate tomorrow will be significantly cooler.
Today’s lessons learned:
* Saran or plastic wrap won’t melt if you keep it under 350F. That means you can wrap something in it and put it in simmering water. Or you can wrap a lasagna in it, then wrapping aluminum foil around it and put it in the oven to reheat. Who knew??
* Never utilize a useless garnish on a plate. If you can’t eat it, it doesn’t belong there. Key transgressors: rosemary, parsley leaves, etc.
* Don’t flour meat too far in advance of frying. Otherwise, the flour absorbs the liquid in the food and creates a paste. Not good.
Time for bed. Five a.m. comes very quickly.
CIA, Day 3
Today’s word: decadence.
Once again, the 5 a.m. alarm came quickly and I had to decide if breakfast was worth it. Fewer and fewer people are coming in for breakfast. I’m tempted to skip it, but I know I’ll be starving if I don’t eat in the morning. Today I had a half bagel and cup of coffee.
Our topic today was poultry, with the usual discussion about production, fabrication, etc. Our team’s menu was a grilled duck breast with sherry and macadamia compote. Side dish was barley pilaf. The chef encourages us to mix it up, to try some variations. I reviewed the menu and thought to make a vegetable side dish: glazed baby carrots.
One of our exercises today was to break down a chicken. It’s something I’d done many times before, but I learned how to do it more efficiently. And finally I know how to truss a chicken! You just have to see someone do it to understand. The cooking students were very helpful. One of them supervised my chicken production and it was great to have him critique my technique. Another student helped me with the carrots. You’d think that glazed carrots are simple but there was a lot going on and he really helped me figure out how to create a really good glaze. I find that 1:1 teaching incredibly helpful. At the end of lunch the chef had just a few comments to make, but overall said we’d done really well.
After lunch and critique, we went to our afternoon lecture: foie gras. Fat liver. One of my favorite delicacies. And today was completely decadent. We were able to sear and taste French Grade A foie gras, Hudson Valley Grade A and Grade B foie gras. I’ve always been intimidated about preparing foie gras but after today I feel I can prepare that at home. The amazing thing was how much foie gras we had–we each got to practice with a little bit and we had some wines to accompany the tasting. An amazing way to spend the afternoon.
Click to see our foie gras extravanganza: img_1292.jpg
Afterwards, I went to the student recreation center and worked out, which I haven’t done since Saturday. Believe me, it felt great to exercise after this insanely food-drive week!!
Tonight we went to the fanciest restaurant, Escoffier. The food was quite good. I think veal cheeks is my new favorite meat. So tender. So meltingly delicious. Our group is bonding well and some people are talking about all gathering for another boot camp. I honestly don’t see that happening. We’ve all exchanged emails, but I also don’t see that going anywhere. I’m guessing that some people may stay in touch–you can see some interesting connections happening before your eyes. I’ve mentioned that I’d love to take a boot camp just on egg cookery. No one else seemed remotely interested–likely due to a limited view of the egg as a breakfast item. But you can take it from the proper fried egg to the proper omelet to custards and souffles. I think you can talk about eggs for a long time and still not exhaust the amazing chemistry and flavors. And Americans are just way too limited in their view of this amazing food. One thing I’ve learned is how hard core I actually am. I mentioned casually to the Chef that I buy ten pounds of duck fat and skin and render it myself, filtering and freezing it for confit. He raised his eyebrows when I said this…
I’m getting really tired, though. The days are long and there’s a lot going on. But I definitely feel I’ll return. While it seems expensive, it really isn’t that bad when you consider it covers food and wine for the entire week–breakfast, lunch and dinner are all included. Plus today’s foie gras is well worth the price!!
CIA, Day 4
I finally hit a wall this morning. Three days of eating and drinking caught up to me today and I wasn’t feeling well at the 5 a.m alarm. I decided to skip breakfast and sleep a few extra minutes. We usually take a break around 8:30 a.m., which I thought would be a good time to go to the Apple Bie Bakery on campus (also run by students) for a pastry. And indeed, that’s what I did.
Today’s topic was fish–mostly flatfish like dover sole and round fish like cod. It was a hectic period in preparing today’s menu, but it was fun. For some reason my team seemed intimidated by the fish and deferred a lot to me. So they prepped it and I put a lot of it together, which was fun. I also learned how to filet a flat fish. I fileted a dover sole, which was cool.
After lunch we tasted different caviars and drank Grey Goose vodka.
Our last on-campus meal was a Anthony’s Cafe. It was good, but not great.
Tomorrow is graduation and there are a lot of families and visitors on campus, which is exciting.
A few observations
* The recent tomato recall has created a bit of havoc here on campus. All departments had to return all their tomatoes. The ‘pantry’ was able to secure about 300 pounds of ’safe’ tomatoes, which was to last them just over a day. 300 pounds!
* One of my classmates is a caterer, and I’m a bit shocked that (1) she has never eaten caviar, and (2) she has never eaten in a French restaurant. Then again, I’ve never had snails (escargot). But that will soon change.
* The chef’s double-breasted jacket is designed to “switch sides.” That is, if the front gets messed up, you can unbutton it on one side and button it up the other side. There are holes and buttons on both sides of the double-breast. Who knew!?
* Canola oil is just Canadian soybean oil.
* Yesterday at the gym, the TV was turned to a rerun of “Top Chef” on Bravo.
* I don’t know the final outcome of “Top Chef” and it’s damn near impossible to be on media blackout on this campus for that!! (I have it recorded at home, so DON’T TELL ME!)