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Diary: October 9, 2002

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Monday, October 7

We went down to two-person teams today; from now on, there will only be two people to produce the daily menu. Chef Peter assigned a rather simple menu today and wrapped up his demo quite early, making it a reasonable amount of work for one day. I worked hard to stay ahead of the curve, which was a good thing since I ended up being called in to speak with Chef Francois about my class evaluations 45 minutes before lunch service. He had a lot that he wanted to talk about (nothing of great interest; mostly a monologue about focus and concentration) and kept me for over a half hour. By the time he let me out I had to scurry to make lunch happen on time, and I ran through the hallways in the last few minutes to fetch seats for my table.

After lunch, Chef Mark came to teach us for the first time. He explained some of the rudimentary basics of chocolate and tempering. He taught us about the crystal structure, and how once you heat chocolate enough to break some of the crystals you have to break all of them before you can put them back together. This is all controlled through heating and chilling chocolate. I am doing a poor job of explaining it, but it made perfect sense to me (in theory). He showed us how to temper using a marble slab (which was very exciting to watch, since the chocolate moves around a lot and you can see its form change rapidly) and how to temper using an ice bath. He also drew charts for us on the whiteboard showing relevant temperature points for different types of chocolate (dark, milk and white chocolate, that is). He dipped a few ganache centers into his tempered chocolate to make truffles to finish his demonstration. They hardened and became shiny quickly, and the walls of the truffles were thin.

Tuesday, October 8

Field trip day! We’d been promised a field trip to visit an organic farm in Rappahannock County, VA and a stop into the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington since beginning school back in July. The trip finally came today.

We met at the farm, Sunnyside Organic Farm, at around 10am. I carpooled with two classmates and we arrived super early despite a stop for breakfast. I occupied the time by checking out the horses in the barn by the parking lot, aided by a rather friendly barn cat. Once we all gathered, one of the farm’s employees appeared and took us on a walking tour.

We checked out raspberries, blackberry plantings of various sorts, and white and purple eggplant. Dogs who discourage deer came to greet us and happily enjoyed our attentions. We learned about their chickens and mobile chicken homes, and how they use them to help “scrub” plots of land in between crop rotations. We learned about how they manage pests without herbicides, and we learned a lot about experimental techniques they have tested on the farm. Our guide told us about how organic practices and best environmental practices occasionally diverge, and spoke briefly about the new organics regulations coming out later this month. I particularly enjoyed our stop in the unheated greenhouse, where basil plants are grown during the summer and fall. We could smell the basil while still some distance from the greenhouse entrance, and the sweet-minty-sharp aroma was almost overpowering once we entered. Sunnyside grows all sorts of basil…the common genovese, thai, a red-leafed variety, lemon basil, and so on.

I talked to our guide a little about my farm market obsession. Sunnyside sells at the Dupont Circle market in downtown Washington; I plan to check out their booth this Sunday morning.

After the farm tour, we visited the Sunnyside shop in town to kill time before our tour of the Inn at Little Washington. The shop was disappointing, mostly overpriced “gourmet” products available for less money at points closer to home, with very little of the produce from the farm I’d hoped to find. One thing about being in school: my perception of which “gourmet” products are or are not worth buying has shifted quite a bit. I’m still a sucker for good jams and mustards, but I have minimal interest in products like bottled marinades, salad dressings or pasta sauces. I create versions equal or superior to these products with minimal effort, and I can control the ingredients and season to my own tastes by doing so.

We headed over to the Inn next. Our tour guide was a graduate of L’academie who now serves as Chef Patrick O’Connell’s personal assistant. She took us through the public parts of the Inn, explaining the origins of various artworks, ceiling patterns, and interior design concepts. (The Inn includes fabric from a Napoleonic tent, among other rarities.) Our tour led to the kitchen rather quickly (the Inn is not that large).

The large windows, beautiful Vulcan stove with brass fittings, and cool climate of the Inn’s kitchen left me feeling like I’d wandered into an alternate reality where people live their lives working in such spaces. Gregorian chant music floated over the kitchen space. A PacoJet machine sat next to a table with assorted fruits and vegetables decoratively arranged on elevated dishes. The floor was spotlessly clean, and while everybody was busy, nobody was running about and everything was fairly quiet. The kitchen staff is outfitted with labrador-spotted chef’s pants and aprons, and the chef on duty explained that side towels are to be changed the moment they become visibly soiled.

The staff had prepared some platters of dried fruit and petit fours (shortbread wedges, brownies, tiny heart-shaped cherry scones, and so on) for us, and set out trays with glasses of iced tea. The food made us feel welcome in the kitchen, and helped us to loosen up and enjoy the kitchen rather than feeling intimidated.

We were encouraged to walk around, ask questions, and investigate what the cooks were doing. Among things I noticed: a former L’academie extern nearing his first anniversary busily checking in a very active live lobster delivery. A pastry chef piping “Happy Anniversary” and “Happy Birthday” in chocolate onto marzipan ribbons for dessert trays. A half-sheet pan of white bread cut into ¾” squares, for later use in World’s Smallest BLT canapes. The PacoJet whizzing through a mixture to make melon-mint sorbet in record time. A cook straining the sauce for braised rabbit…he wiped up the small spill he caused immediately. Another cook filling half-moon raviolis with an eggplant mixture; he used a scalloped cutter to cut the edge decoratively after he cut, filled, and sealed the pasta to make the scalloped pattern as clean as possible.

The stove at the Inn deserves special mention. Gas eyes have water baths underneath the suspended elements; if the cook spills something onto the stove, she can simply drain the water bath and refill it and the spill is gone. Refrigerated and dry, cool storage allow cooks to work their stations without having to turn away for fresh vegetables or dried herbs and spices. The stove is laid out more like a European two-sided station than like an American hot line, allowing cooks to interact. The stove was designed by Chef O’Connell with the owner of Vulcan Stoves and bears a plate with the Inn’s logo and Chef O’Connell’s signature.

I looked up after almost an hour and saw the last students walking out of the kitchen. I hurried after them and caught up before the tour wrapped up in the front entrance of the Inn. I carpooled home with my classmates wishing I didn’t have to return to the actual reality in which I live. I didn’t even eat at the Inn, but my perceptions were altered by the visit nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 9

Tempering chocolate did not seem simple when Chef Mark demonstrated it for us on Monday. His explanation was pretty clear, and I understood what he was doing as he did it because of the detail he’d given us. However, when it came time to try out the technique today, I found it difficult and borderline frustrating.

Today’s menu included chocolate truffles, and since I was eager to try out what we’d learned on Monday I immediately told my teammate Drew that I wanted to head into the pastry kitchen. We were almost out of 50% chocolate, so I set up a hot plate with a bain-marie and a bowl of 63% chocolate to melt. I tested the temperature against my lower lip as Chef Mark had shown us when I thought it was hot enough, and then I stirred the chocolate off and on over an ice bath. The chocolate dropped and dropped in temperature until it was almost fudgy in texture. I put it back on the bain-marie and warmed it a little and then tested it with a strip of parchment paper. I knew it wasn’t tempered properly, because it took too long to dry and when it did it looked pale instead of glossy.

I tried moving on and off the heat, on and off the ice bath a number of times. I asked Chef Somchet for assistance. I tested many, many parchment paper strips. The chocolate got to the point where it hardened quickly as desired, but it never got particularly glossy as I’d hoped for. Chef Somchet didn’t seem to have much advice for me except to say that 63% chocolate is much harder to temper than 50%. She did not explain why and I never asked for an explanation (figuring I should just talk to Chef Mark about it when I have time). Eventually Chef Somchet indicated that my chocolate was as close as I was likely to get it, and I used a hoop-shaped utensil to dip balls of ganache in the melted chocolate. I used the utensil to form a decorative swirl atop the balls after carefully dropping them on parchment paper, and I feel they looked fairly good for my first try. I tasted one after it cooled and the wall was thinner than I’d expected (a very good thing). Too bad they weren’t shiny.

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Rochelle, chocolate creeps me out. Still, all the best with it.

You say, and I quote:

One thing about being in school: my perception of which “gourmet” products are or are not worth buying has shifted quite a bit. I’m still a sucker for good jams and mustards, but I have minimal interest in products like bottled marinades, salad dressings or pasta sauces.

This would make a nice thread in Cooking, n'est ce pas?

"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

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Monday, October 7

....which was a good thing since I ended up being called in to speak with Chef Francois about my class evaluations 45 minutes before lunch service. He had a lot that he wanted to talk about (nothing of great interest; mostly a monologue about focus and concentration) and kept me for over a half hour.

"nothing of great interest; mostly a monologue about focus and concentration"

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