Today marks the start of my fourteenth day of culinary school. To summarize: I’m really, really tired. My omelettes need work. I’ve got decent knife skills but am very, very slow. I like chopping vegetables, washing lettuce, working with my hands.
We’ve settled into a routine already. We’re dressed and ready with our stations set up by 9am (knives out, cutting board in place). Catherine, our instructor, gives an overview and a demo of what we’re doing that day. Around 10am we get to work, usually in groups of two, and by 11:30 or 12 we have something ready for lunch. It’s a working lunch – discussion about the flavors, texture, process, etc. It’s the only time we sit down during the six hours we’re in class.
After lunch we clean up and Catherine gets us back on our way – usually a bit more demo and instruction, then we work until 2:30 or so. Catherine gathers us up for an overview of the day and then we clean up.
The weeks are broken up with activities outside of cooking. On our second day, we went on a field trip to the SF Produce Market where we took a your of our produce supplier. It was eye-opening, mind-boggling, informative. Craig Stoll of Delfina came in and talked to us one morning. We had an amazing full-day tasting workshop with Barb Stuckey, who wrote Taste What You’re Missing (I highly recommend this book!). A local food entrepreneur was with us one afternoon last week.
In just two weeks, we’ve moved through many of the basics – food and kitchen safety and sanitation, working efficiently and cleanly. We cut mounds of carrots and onions on our first day, and many more the next day. We ate soup, soup, and more soup for the first week. Mostly creamy soups, but also French onion, since we sliced a ton of onions.
Our first quiz and knife skills practical were last week, and yesterday we had our second quiz. For our first practical, we didn’t have to be fast, just accurate. Catherine used a ruler to measure our dice (1/4″ celery, carrots, onion) and batons (1/4″ carrots). We had to slice onions and thinly as possible, and then the dreaded julienne carrots.
It seems like we learn a new way to cut or a new vegetable every day. We learned how to turn potatoes, carrots and turnips. Very traditional, very French. It also makes very pretty, even-cooking vegetables and teaches knife control.
We moved from veloute soups into stocks and sauces – bÃ©chamel, espagnole, demi-glace, bordelaise. A lot of emphasis is placed on technique and translating that technique into more modern dishes. Many of the vegetables get cooked, usually glazed, for lunch. We almost always make ourselves a simple salad to go with whatever else we’re eating for lunch.
Last week my teammates and I made brown veal stock two days in a row. Plus we learned how to butcher a veal breast, how to make veal blanquette (bleh – but hey, we had to eat something). Vegetable stock and chicken stock were made almost daily.
The director of admissions started meeting with everyone to begin developing ideas for what everyone wants to do for their externship and beyond. I have lots of ideas. We’ll see which ones stick.
I TA’d my first class, a cooking fundamentals class taught by Jodi, the school’s founder. She’s a great teacher, and it was a lot of fun. We have opportunities to TA or attend the recreational classes during the term. I’m very happy that I chose SFCS.
I’ve always kind of poo-poo’d consommé. It’s a lot of work, making a stock, then taking a bunch of protein and assorted vegetables to make a raft that just gets thrown away. And all you’re left with is a clear broth. A lovely, clean, delicious clear broth. Okay, I liked it. I liked making my raft and watching my cloudy stock magically turn clear. I liked cutting paper thin slices of mushrooms and floating them in vegetable consommé.
Last week we had our first simulation of cooking a dish on a line. Sautded chicken breast (we got to practice deboning, of course), with sauteed mushrooms and a pan sauce. It was a little nerve-racking, making up a chicken breast and deciding it’s done by poking at it. Making a pan sauce using pinches and ladles. There are no timers in the kitchen. We’re being taught to use our senses to know when something is ready or where it is in the cooking process. I ate my chicken breast. I’m still alive.
The focus is now on eggs. Eggs! I love eggs. They’re challenging. I’m on a mission to cook a perfect French omelette. Not there yet, not even close. Poaching isn’t so bad, I do that a lot at home so it’s mostly finesse and getting it to look pretty. Eggs also encompasses egg sauces – bÃ©arnaise and hollandaise, and creme anglaise. I’m not complaining.