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Diary: September 25, 2002

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#1 Malawry

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Posted 25 September 2002 - 05:18 PM

Tuesday, September 24

The program at L’academie involves six months of classwork and six months of paid externship in a restaurant. The externship phase begins in December, and during the externship we will be coming to school only on Tuesdays. Now that we’re past the halfway point in the program, my classmates (including me) are starting to think about the externships constantly. We are asking one another, “where are you thinking of externing?” Everybody has places in mind, but nobody feels especially secure about sharing those places with one another.

As I think about externing, it’s easy get overwhelmed. It seems unbelievable that I could handle being in an actual kitchen fulltime, and when I think about all the stories I’ve heard I don’t feel much better about it. At the same time I’m so eager for the level of learning and the activity of being in a kitchen fulltime, I can hardly wait. I know that the decision of where to extern is an important one.

Going with a big-name chef’s restaurant in DC may mean working a restaurant where the big-name chef is never present. I do want to work someplace challenging and creative, but I don’t think I can handle being yelled at constantly. I’m worried about transit; many of the dining areas around downtown DC have minimal parking, and Metro closes early enough that I’m concerned about getting home after a late night in the kitchen. I don’t know what my highest priority should be. I’m not as concerned about externship placement in a career-building sense in that I don’t think I will become a chef in the long run, but I am concerned in that I want my education to be serious and thorough.

I talked to Barbara Cullen, L’academie’s director of admissions and the woman who facilitates the externships, about these issues after school today. She spoke to my class about the externships in a general sense yesterday afternoon and had suggested we come talk to her about them individually to help us with our concerns. She encouraged me to consider some of the restaurants in Bethesda to do an end-run around the transit issues, and mentioned Persimmon, Black’s Bar and Kitchen, Addie’s, and Grapeseed as possibilities. She also talked to me about some of the downtown kitchens, and said I should consider trailing in a few.

Once this catering gig is completed this coming weekend, I hope to trail somewhere one night each week until I can narrow down my options in early November. The only way to figure out how to respond to my own concerns is to go live it for a night and see what it’s like. Hopefully things will become clearer once I actually get started.

Wednesday, September 25

Sanitation classes came to a close today with our ServSafe exam. Chris came to proctor the exam for us. I didn’t study at all or read over any materials in advance. I know I will pass and that I understand the basics from sitting through the classwork, and that’s all I’m worried about. I do look forward to doing something besides sanitation classes on Wednesday afternoons, but I think I’ll miss Chris’s insane enthusiasm for microorganisms. He’s entertaining in a strange sort of way. He says he’ll be back in a few weeks to start the new pastry students on their sanitation course, so we haven’t seen the last of him.

I’ve worked extensively with chicken two days in a row now, and I am finally starting to feel a little more adept at working with the flesh. Yesterday I took chicken legs off the carcass, deboned all but the bottom of the drumstick, carefully cut away all the flesh, and then stuffed the skin with a chicken mousse made by another team. I wrapped the leg skin closed with caul fat (another new thing, it looks and sounds disgusting but it works well at keeping the stuffed legs shut and moistening them as they cook) and baked it. Today I cut supremes (breasts) off of a few chickens to make chicken Kiev. Chicken Kiev relies on the breast tender being in decent shape and I only mangled one of the tenders, so I felt pretty good about the job I did. It helps that I am working harder at keeping my knives sharp.

I received my midterm practical grade today: I scored a 92. I am pleased with my grade since I felt I performed at a high level and finished in good time, but I admit I was hoping for something a little higher.

Since I finished so early with the sanitation exam, I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon doing more work for this Saturday’s catering job. (I spent several hours at L’academie on Sunday with Chefette again, so I was in pretty good shape.) I zested some oranges and lemons, julienned the zests, and candied them for garnishes. I made a big batch of lemon curd and a batch of ganache. I finished up by warming and sieving apricot jam for glazing the interior and exterior of the fruit tartlettes on the menu for this weekend. It’s nice to feel like I’m on the home stretch. I’ll stay after class Friday to make crème patisserie and bake the palmiers, and then all that’s left will be cutting, finishing and transporting the goodies.

Most of the people at school have figured out that I’m doing a catering job, and I’ve gotten all sorts of interesting questions and assumptions as a result. Catherine (the receptionist) asked if I’d worked in any food service pastry type jobs before, and lots of people have asked me if I’ve catered a lot in the past. (I’ve helped friends with the food for their parties many times, but I’ve never attempted something like this event before.) I’ve made statements here about not particularly caring for catering in the past. I like it more now when I am in control of the event, but I’m still not sure I like it. Somebody connected with the choir has already suggested that she might pass my name on to some people she knows who entertain regularly. I wonder if I will find myself in the position of being approached for these types of jobs, and if so how I will handle these offers.

When I got home from school and the gym, I made a quick sandwich for my dinner. We are out of mayonnaise at home, and since I wanted some mayo for my sandwich I just made some quickly by hand. It took me maybe all of two minutes, and the resulting spread was fresh-tasting and sharpened from extra mustard and lemon juice (which is as I like it). As I ate my sandwich I realized that I would have made a big production out of making scratch mayonnaise just a few months ago. I always made it in a machine because I thought handling a whisk was too much work. But real mayonnaise is super easy; if I can make hollandaise by hand then mayonnaise by hand is a snap. Amazing how obtaining one skill like handling a whisk can make a job so much more approachable.

#2 Louisa Chu

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Posted 25 September 2002 - 05:55 PM


Speaking of whisks, the day after I'd written to you last about chefs giving hands-on instruction, before I had a chance to ask as I'd intended, one of our chefs took my hand in his and showed me a better way to mount egg whites. I'd always held my whisk with the balloon nearest my pinky whereas I should have held it nearest my thumb, thereby using more wrist strength and momentum than upper arm and shoulder strength which tire much more quickly.

Congratulations on the mayo.

#3 Jinmyo

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Posted 25 September 2002 - 06:26 PM

As I ate my sandwich I realized that I would have made a big production out of making scratch mayonnaise just a few months ago.

Yes, it's so very easy once you've done it a few times. Perhaps it's going through those "few times" that creates such a barrier for some people between real mayonnaise or salad dressings or whatever and the pale prepared stuff. It's not hard. Learning is not hard. Making mistakes is not hard. But the thought of doing, of learning, of making mistakes...

Rochelle, my thanks once more for your consistency in keeping up with these reports. That can be hard.
"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

#4 oraklet

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Posted 26 September 2002 - 02:22 AM

a wonderful stream of wonderful reports.

on mayo: what size of whisk for a very small portion of mayo? perhaps not whisk, but spoon?

and i must admit that i don't understand the how-to-hold-a-whisk instruction. what does "nearest to the thumb" mean? more like a pencil, perhaps?
christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

#5 Kim WB

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Posted 26 September 2002 - 05:57 AM

Thanks, Rochelle, for your ongoing reports. I look for them every day!

OK, being an occassional co-dependent, but ALWAYS a mother, I have some input regarding choosing the location for your externship. The transportation issue, which is really a safety issue, needs to be the priority. If you are not going to be able to get home after a long night in the kitchen safely and relatively quickly, it will compromise your health in a number of ways. ( Crime, driving while tired) This should continue to be an important part of your decidion making process!

#6 slarochelle

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Posted 26 September 2002 - 06:45 AM

Congratulations on the test result. I know it's not as high as you expected, but it's nearing perfection and I'm sure the instructors have high standards.

Regarding trailing in DC/Bethesda professional kitchens, is that something chefs/owners are accustomed to doing? Are there any liability issues with having a non-employee around the equipment, food and customers? Is it common for students to trail at multiple restaurants before selecting one for the externship? I guess I'd like to hear more in general about how the trailing and externship process works.

Thanks for keeping up with the reports, I hope you can continue them into your externship.


#7 swissmiss

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Posted 26 September 2002 - 09:29 AM


Since you want to focus on food writing, have you considered externing at a newspaper, a magazine, or a television show? Would you consider doing your externship somewhere else besides D.C.?

And thank you for yet another great read! I can't wait to hear about your catering experience on Saturday!
Anne E. McBride

#8 Suzanne F

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Posted 26 September 2002 - 10:09 AM

Re: externship sites: think very carefully about what you want to learn on your externship (as it's clear you're already doing) -- then go for the absolute BEST place in that category. Even if you think it might be a little bit beyond your abilities. The whole point is to learn.

Especially for someone with little or no previous experience, where you do your externship can be far more important than what school you went to or how good your test scores were. My own personal experience: nobody cared that I had a perfect 4.0 average; they talked to me because I did my externship at Le Bernardin. Was I scared there? At first, of course. But once I realized that I actually knew a lot of the stuff they wanted me to do, and could learn what they were trying to teach me, it became a delight. Did I get yelled at? No, because that's not what Eric's kitchen is like. If that concerns you, look for a site where no one yells. Pretty simple, and yes, they do exist.

#9 Malawry

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Posted 27 September 2002 - 06:44 PM

Thanks for the excellent comments and advice.

KimWB, it will suck getting home after working at my externship no matter what. This is because my neighborhood has no finer or even upscale-casual restaurants. (It has many many other qualities which make up for this, of course.) But you have a point, and transit is definitely one of the questions at the top of my priority list when deciding where to go.

Oraklet, I used the same largish wire whisk for my mayo as I would use had I made a big batch. I wouldn't bother to make just a tablespoon...too annoying, and besides the smallest quantity really should be 1 egg yolk's worth (which was what I made, and the finished sauce was about 2/3 of a cup). You really need a whisk because you need to break the oil into very small droplets using multiple tines quickly or the sauce won't emulsify properly. I imagine using a fork might work if you insisted on making less than 1 yolk of mayo, but again, it's not worth the bother.

I used a medium-small bowl so that there'd be enough density of the sauce at the bottom to allow me to move the whisk around deftly. I've found that how you hold the whisk is less important than the tension of your grip on the whisk. If you grasp tightly, especially if you extend your index finger while doing so, you will fatigue quickly. Hold the whisk firmly but without squeezing. I usually hold with my index finger and thumb grasping the shaft, but sometimes I switch my hand to the far side of the bowl and rest the handle against my open, upturned palm. (George showed me this posture, and it's helpful when you're whisking something for a long time.)

Steve, many chefs and owners in the DC area are quite familiar with L'academie, and most of the upscale restaurants in town will accept the right extern. (The most notable exception is Citronelle, which never accepts externs. The Inn at Little Washington currently has a L'academie extern on-site.) Externs ARE employees, they are paid by the restaurant and usually stay on as an employee after the externship ends.

Most students trail a few places before making a decision (of course, it's a mutual decision between the student and the chef of the kitchen the student wants to extern with). Trailing usually involves showing up and either helping or staying the hell out of the way for a night while checking out what the vibe is like at the restaurant. I've trailed before, but not much. I haven't experienced the "stand in the corner and don't talk to ANYBODY" type of trailing but I might in the next few weeks.

Swissmiss, I had considered setting up an internship with a print publications, but I probably can't do it until after I graduate. I really need the kitchen experience, and the school is there to give me a kitchen oriented education, not a writing experience. I haven't asked if I can extern at a publication's offices since I don't think it's what I need to be doing in December.

#10 cabrales

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Posted 01 October 2002 - 11:31 AM

go for the absolute BEST place in that category

While I have no knowledge about restaurant externships, going to a facility that is generally perceived by others to be excellent is appropriate to maximize your options going forward. It's generally easier to move "down" (to the extent restaurants are perceived by other restaurants to be hierarchical in quality) than "upwards". :unsure:

#11 yvonne johnson

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Posted 01 October 2002 - 02:41 PM

Forgive me if this has come up before, Rochelle. What percentage approximately in the class don't want to become chefs in the long run? Second, I fully appreciate that this training would be valuable to a prospective food writer, but I wondered if you've received any interesting (positive, negative, neutral) comments about your career choice to become a writer?

#12 Malawry

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Posted 01 October 2002 - 03:36 PM

There are only fifteen of us in my class, Yvonne. It's easier to talk about people than percentages. :wink:

Chris F. has a history as an athlete (he's done the Ironman competition). He's interested in the connection between athleticism and cuisine, and wants to do something in that vein.
Ivelisse has worked at a hospital and I believe is a licensed dietician. She is interested in the connection between health and dining, so she enrolled at L'academie.
There are other examples, but these are the two that come to mind. Not all of my classmates want to be a chef in a restaurant. One person has been talking about externing at a hotel, while another is considering one of DC's bigger caterers since he's looking at building a catering business. Several people are curious about becoming personal chefs.

As for comments, do you mean from my classmates? My classmates seem to be supportive to neutral on the subject, though I don't know that I have asked directly. One person made a reference to me going to "the other side" after completing my formal education; he was mostly joking but also maybe a little nervous that I might write a review of some place he works. One of my classmates told me she had a dream about me talking about my diary on television. There have been a few other nice comments, but not much of note that I can remember.

As for others, it depends. Some food writers I've spoken with think school was a great idea, others disdained the idea and suggested that if I wanted to be a food writer I should just do it. You can read the thoughts of other foodies in responses here, especially from my introductory diary topic. My family and friends seem all for it, but they've thought of me as some kind of writer for a long time now.

#13 yvonne johnson

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Posted 01 October 2002 - 05:39 PM

Interesting. Stepping stone for some. Others final destination.