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Adventures at the French Culinary Institute


manton
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Greetings.

I have noticed some past threads asking about the French Culinary Institute's amateur programs. As I am about to start a class tomorrow, I thought I would post a running log of my impressions.

The FCI is located in Lower Manhattan. It is a professional school that trains working chefs, but also offers amatuer classes. It is not as prestigious as the CIA (but then nothing is) and the program is far shorter. Still, it is regarded as one of the best schools in the country, and arguably the second best.

The CIA also offers amateur classes, in particular the famous "boot camps." The longest of these is five days. Amateurs cannot enroll in any of the professional classes. This is also true at FCI, but with a twist. They do offer their "Culinary Techniques" course for amateurs. This is the identical course and curriculum that all entering students at the FCI are required to take -- if you've read The Making of a Chef, the equivalent at the CIA would be "Skills 1." The curriculum was desinged by Jacques Pepin (an FCI board member) and closely follows his book La Technique. Indeed, the class used to be called this, but the name was changed. The book is not required (at least not so far as I know) but the instructors do strongly encourage students to get it.

The amateur version is 100% populated by amatuer students, but anyone who successfully completes this course and later decides to enroll in the professional program can get course credit and a tuition reduction. I don't know, but I believe that this is the most intensive amatuer course offered in the country. I know that neither CIA nor the California Culinary Academy offers anything like it.

As I said, tomorrow is my first class, so I have no impressions as yet. However, I have already taken one amateur class at the FCI, which prompted me to undertake this endeavor (it is, I realize I have yet to mention, 22 consecutive Saturdays).

I intend to post a running log of the experience. I would also be happy to answer any questions (to the extent that I know the answers) so fire away.

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I wanted to get this up yesterday, but oh well. Many of you will probably find this horribly obvious and boring, and for that I apologize in advance.

OK, first day complete.

I mentioned that I have taken a previous class at the FCI. This was Knife skills -- at three days (or six evenings) it is the shortest amateur class they offer. As an aside, I will say that they offer an 8 day (or 16 evening) class called "Essentials of Fine Cooking." But I called and asked whether, if I were fairly sure that I would one day want to take the full "Culinary Skills" course, I should bother taking Essentials, or would they be duplicative. The answer was, just go straight to Culinary Skills and skip Essentials.

Knife Skills was pretty low key. We had two chef instructors, both of them relatively young Americans, and they treated us very gently. There were 22 of us. We learned all the basic cuts, plus how to truss, butcher, and debone a chicken. We also learned how to butcher and filet flat fish and round fish.

The instructor for Culinary Skills is not so low-key. He is older and French. The first thing he told us was that, as he is accustomed to being very hard on students, the administration had never yet allowed him to teach an amateur class; this is his first. He said he was directed to go a little easy on us, and pledged that he would try. I guess he is trying, but he is a lot tougher than the two nice Americans from Knife Skills.

Chef Xavier – or “Chef X”; “it’s easier,” he says – proclaimed himself old school. He first intoned that everyone had to be in uniform at all times. Now, they said this in our last class, and even enforced it. But Chef X took things a step further. I was accustomed to leaving the last (upper right) button on my jacket undone. I felt that it vented a little body heat and also gave the uniform a degage air. But the Chef noticed immediately and called me out on it. Button up, no exceptions. I did. His uniform rule is very strict: if anything is wrong, fix it immediately. If you can’t (e.g., if something is just missing), go home.

There are nine of us in this class. There were 22 in Knife Skills. We are in the same kitchen. It has 6 islands, with four stations each. We students are, for the moment, paired up. We may get split up if Chef thinks we can work fast enough on our own. We work facing each other, we each have a (very powerful) gas burner, and we share an oven (it opens on both sides of the station) and the flat-top above it. There is also a nifty shelf at about hairline level above the station.

In the kitchen, there are also several enormous sinks, four freezers, for fridges, one demonstration station for the Chef, and equipment everywhere. All the pans in the kitchen are All Clad stainless, and there are literally hundreds of them – at least 200 total, I would guess.

I did not get a good read on who is in the class, in terms of what everyone does in real life as it were, but one guy works full time in a restaurant and is therefore ahead of the game by a long way. I am not sure if I am the only other one with even a modicum of training, but it is possible, probably likely. Not that I am great by any means, but having taken Knife Skills I was at least aware of a lot of concepts and terminology in advance.

Terminology is important to Chef X. He did not hesitate to order us all to memorize the proper French term for the various knife cuts, pieces of equipment, and recipes, etc. He would quiz us on them as we worked today, and be rather brusque if we got something wrong. He also did not hesitate to say that we are expected to do homework. Among other things, a term introduced one day should be known by the next session. Also, we should come prepared, having read through our course binders (sort of like a textbook) in advance. He also wants us to hand-write, on 3x5 cards, all the key definitions and measurements of the recipes we are doing and have them in our jacket breast pocket. The exercise, he says, will help with memorization, and in any case, after today, referring to the binder in class is verboten.

Of course, as we are not in the professional program, he really can’t do much if we slack off except make us feel dumb; but he is good at that, and it is not a good feeling. Also, should any of us -- for instance, the restaurant guy (I don’t want to use students’ names) – want real credit for this course applied to the career program, if we do badly, he could flunk us and make that impossible.

But whatever the case, he is imposing and makes you want to impress him. At least he has that effect on me. Maybe it is the froggy accent. It certainly helps.

We spent about two hours just listening – to lectures about uniforms, sanitation, organizing a station, food handling, and equipment. There is a “correct” way to do everything, and once you are told what it is, you are expected to do it. Some really are matters of safety. Like don’t wave your knife around when you carry it to the sink; hold it down at your side, blade facing back.

However, other rules seem less important. Such as, they lay out trays with the foods (vegetables mostly) that can hold at room temperature safely throughout the class. When you go to collect them you are supposed to take a bowl, put them in the bowl, and then carry them back in the bowl. You are not supposed to carry vegetables around by hand. If Chef gave the reason for this, I missed it. But several people got rebuked for doing it. I did it once, got away with it, felt bad, and did not do it again.

A word about equipment. Your tuition covers a toolkit. So did Knife Skills. But this is a much bigger kit. That one had, as I recall, a chef’s, paring, boning, and filet knife and a peeler. I think that was it. This one has something like 30 tools, which I won’t list. All those knives and more plus other stuff. Mercer is the brand. Most of the stuff is decent, some rather obviously cheap. But I would not be expecting top of the line equipment in such a kit. I was fine with the Mercer knives in the last class, but less happy with them today. But I will get to that.

Chef gave a mini lecture on every single piece of equipment in the kit. Then he showed something that I thought was cool. You know those little thermometers with the light blue plastic stem thingies that look like pens? You stick the thermometer through a hole in the plastic at a right angle? Well, we got one of those. I have had them for years. Chef got a bowl, filled it with ice, then poured in some water, and put the tip of the thermometer in the water. If you look on the back of the dial, you will see a hexagon shaped metal plate. If you look on the plastic faux-pen handle, you will see the outline of a hexagon, the same size. Make sure the metal hex is inside the plastic hex, snugly. Then you can turn the dial and adjust where the needle is. Wait a few minutes with the tip is in the ice water and watch the needle drop. When it stops, simply twist the dial until is at 32 degrees. This is known as “recalibration.” I had thought that "recalibrate" was a word invented by Star Trek writers for Geordi La Forge, but it appears to be a real word, meant to describe a real phenomenon. Live and learn. Chef said to do this every couple of weeks or so. I am sure that most or all of you knew this, but I didn’t.

Then chef began demonstrating cuts while we watched.

Julienne turnips, then brunoise.

Trim, wash and julienne leeks.

Jardinaire carrots, then macedoine.

Emencier onions, then shallots, then garlic, then ciseler them all.

Then chiffonade Boston lettuce.

Then supreme a lemon. (There was a French name that started with a “p” for taking off the rind and pith, but I forgot what it is, and it’s not in my binder, so if he asks me that next week I am hosed.)

Then, finally, tourne potatoes and carrots.

I have done all this before, in Knife Skills, and then practicing at home. I am decent at some of it. I can get through onions, shallots and garlic pretty well. But I am not so good at the cuts that have to be visibly uniform. My julienne and brunoise truly lack style. But my tourne really sucks @$$, to use the technical French culinary term.

Anyway, a few things struck me in the demo. First, I was taught in knife skills to make julienne “like matchsticks”. That is, very thin, but still thick enough to be somewhat sturdy. The books I have also define julienne in this way. But Chef X wants his julienne to be “like hair” as he put it. He sliced his turnips paper thin – so thin that it reminded me of what in Knife Skills Chef Janet called paysanne. I did paysanne OK, when starting from a batonnet, but doing the whole tranche that thin I found very difficult.

Second, he did not cisele the onions the same way I was taught in knife skills. In that class, we were taught to – after the onion was peeled and halved –make a series of cuts, straight down, in the direction of the root, without going through the root. Then make several cuts parallel to the board, also without going through the root. Then slice away. This is also what all my books say. Chef X said to make the cuts like the spokes of a wheel with the center bottom of the flat part as the hub, and then skip the parallel cuts altogether. I found this more difficult and asked if I could continue the other way (I feel I am pretty good at that, especially compared to other cuts). I got permission because, he admitted, my way was the official FCI way, whereas his way was just his preference.

Third, he was using his personal knife, a Shun. This gratified me, as the owner of two Shuns, who occasionally hears them derided as “yuppie knives” for people with more money than skill. No doubt I do have more money than skill; and I don’t even have that much money. But I love those knives. So it was nice to see a real pro using them.

Fourth, I know that the proper technique is to have the flat of the knife more or less always in contact with the middle joint of your fingers. Chef did this masterfully, needless to say. But I have always had a bitch of a time with it. Today, a minor tragedy resulted. But I will get to that.

After all the demos it was time for lunch. One of the “perqs” of culinary school is that meals are included when you are in session. This is called “family meal,” the same as at most restaurants’ staff meal, and the food is really very good. So it was during knife skills, and so it was today.

However, we had a little confrontation today. Every day during Knife Skills, we ate family meal. We went down to the family kitchen on the first floor, loaded up, and brought our plates back upstairs and chowed down. Which we did today. But today we were opposed. A woman in the family kitchen objected to our being there and got into a heated argument with Chef X. I don’t know if he simply pulled rank, or if his superior hauteur carried the day. But we ate. She stalked off, literally cursing. And then, when he left, she stalked back and cursed some more. I felt sort of bad for her. Clearly, she thought that we were in the wrong, and that her authority was being undermined. But I had to follow my general. Plus, I was hungry. And, like I said, the food was good.

After lunch it was time, finally, to work.

I started with the turnips. I cut tranche after tranche and Chef deemed all of them too thick. I thought they were about right for Knife Skills and “by the book” for my small library of technique books, but Chef X rules here, and he deemed them too thick. Three turnips died in my attempt to do a proper (for Chef X) julienne and brunoise, but I got there.

Not without blood, however. I was upbraided several times for not keeping my fingers close enough to the flat of the blade. I had trimmed my turnip properly, had my thumb properly positioned behind the vegetable, and had my fingertips properly curled – all this Chef X conceded. But he wanted to see the flat of that knife run flush against the flesh of the middle joints of my fingers. And I was cutting “standoffish.” So I tried, with real concentration. But, alas, the best laid plans of wannabes and hacks …

My knife caught the tip the nail of my left ring finger. Not a terrible wound. Just a small piece of nail gone. Not much blood.

Funny thing, at one point, much earlier, Chef gave a caustic lecture about self-inflicted wounds and all the paperwork they entail – for him – if really bad, and urged us not to waste his time. He also said that in every class, some idiot – he might have actually said “moron”, I don’t remember – always cut himself on the first day. Well, ladies and gentlemen, today I was that idiot.

Chef helpfully helped me at the First Aid station. He sprayed the wound with two different anti-bacterial sprays. Both hurt like hell. I don’t know if it was the pressure or the contents. Probably both. Then he wrapped a bandage, then some gauze, then a “finger condom,” to use Ruhlman’s phrase. I had never had one of these before. I am typing with it now. It is a nuisance, but quite good for its purpose. I recollect that both Ruhlman and Buford cut themselves badly on their first day, so I figure, this is like being hazed by them in absentia. Or something.

I got right back to work. My third turnip was julienned to Chef’s satisfaction. It’s hard to make even slices that thin. Many sort of tapered off to nothing. Those I had to compost. One I had enough planks thin enough to satisfy the man, making the juliennes was easy. Making the brunoise from there was especially easy. Cutting those paper thin planks was a pain.

Julienning leeks: easy. Brunoise leeks: easy.

Jardinière carrots: a bit hard to make everything even. I had to go slow. Same with macedoine.

Emencier and ciceler onion/shallot/garlic: easy.

Chiffonade: easy.

Supreme: medium hard. It was easy to get the rind and the pith off. Cutting the slices out while avoiding the membrane took some exactitude. I broke a few, and then in taking out the seeds with the tip of the paring knife, I broke a couple more. Still, I ended up with seven perfect supremes, which was not bad.

Tourne was a bitch. I did OK, in that the veggies were roughly the right shape – footballs – but emphasis on “roughly.” Interestingly, Chef used his paring knife for this, not a “turning” or “birds beak” knife, which I understand is the traditional knife to use for this cut. Anyway, he was looking for a perfect 7-sided cut. This I did not achieve. He said at one point, “if you work for Alain Ducasse and he asks for tourne and you give him this, you will be fired.” Lucky for me, I don’t work for Alain Ducasse. Lucky for Ducasse too, I guess.

We did five recipes. 1) Turnips a l’anglaise, which is basically boiled in extremely salty water and then shocked in an ice bath to stop the cooking. 2) Carrots a l’etuve; this is cooking them in a little water, not even enough to cover them, with some salt and butter in the water, covered with a parchment lid. 3) carrots glacer, which is much like etuve but with sugar. Chef demonstrated the three “degrees of doneness” as it were of glace: blanc, blonde, and brun. Now, these terms are not literally correct when applied to carrots, which are never white or blonde. However, the idea is simple enough. Blanc means adding no color at all. Blonde means adding a little color. Brun means brown, caramelization. Obviously, with a white vegetable like a turnip or potato the color designations will be more literal.

We had to arrange our cuts on a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Every example had to be arranged in neat little piles. Then, at the end of the day, we brought our sheets up one by one for a critique. Which the Chef gave loudly, to make sure everyone could hear. A couple of people really got an earful. No one was chewed out over anything hard, but he was annoyed over what he considered easy cuts not done well. Julienning leeks, he said to more than one person, should not be any trouble since you don’t have to tranche them, nature has already done that for you.

We were not graded but judging from Chef’s comments, I would say that restaurant guy did the best, another guy was second, and I was third. Restaurant guy however did not get effusive praise because chef more or less expected him to do well. The second guy was lathered in praise. With me, Chef acted more surprised, I think because of my lousy initial julienne, my lousy tourne, and the cut.

That’s pretty much it for Day 1. 21 more to go!

Edited by manton (log)
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manton, i will really look forward to these...been a while since i was in culinary school, and a little refresher is always good.

(There was a French name that started with a “p” for taking off the rind and pith, but I forgot what it is, and it’s not in my binder, so if he asks me that next week I am hosed.)

please, please (without getting yourself negatively noticed!) find out this term...i knew it once, and have been trying to get it back for several years...my (bad) memory seems to want it to mean "to peel alive" or somesuch....would love to have that term in my vocab again.

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

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please, please (without getting yourself negatively noticed!) find out this term...i knew it once, and have been trying to get it back for several years...my (bad) memory seems to want it to mean "to peel alive" or somesuch....would love to have that term in my vocab again.

It is "eplucher." Turns out it was in the binder after all.

Edited by manton (log)
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I bought some sacrificial vegetables yesterday to practice on. Here are the results:

p1050502sz9.jpg

I am a bit underwhelmed.

The tournes actually look better than the ones I did Saturday, if you can believe that. But they are not smoothly seven-sided.

The macedoine are mostly square, but not uniform. They frustrated the heck out of me because I mostly got them right the first time. I don't know about the rest of you, but I find that carrot battonets tend not to stay straight. They bend, whcih makes cutting uniform cubes really hard.

The jardinaire are pretty good; first try on those.

The two piles of brunoise look OK, but if you could see them in real life, you would see that they are far from uniform. I sort of wonder how much it matters when they are close in size to grains of salt, but I know that it matters to chef, so it must matter to me.

The julienne of carrots are a little flatter than they should be.

The turnips are pretty good. The left turnips are more matchstick size -- mostly uniform, but too big for this chef. The ones on the right are more his speed.

p1050518jt4.jpg

Lemon eplucher on the left. Still a little pith that had to be trimmed. Doing this right, you leave no pith, and you take no flesh. Hard.

On the left, the first set of supremes. Not bad in that I did not break any. However. you are supposed to be able to pick the seeds out with the tip of a paring knife without leaving a visible gash. I failed.

p1050527qh8.jpg

Both supremed. I mostly did a better job on the second one, in that I was able to navigate the membrane more easily and get the slices out faster, but I also broke one. C'est la vie.

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What a day.

First of all, I was on time, but barely. I cut it deliberately close, to sleep in, and made it, but only just. I was rushing around getting set up, buttoning my coat in the spare moments when there was nothing in my hand, being glared at by Chef all the while. It was not fun. Next time, I plan to arrive 30 minutes early, like I did on the first day.

Second, we lost a student – my partner, as it happens. I don’t think it was anything I said. We really didn’t talk much. I don’t think I smelled bad either. Word was, she just thought the course was too much, so she transferred to an “Essentials” class. That’s the 8 week (as opposed to 22) course that teaches many of the same skills we are learning, but obviously by no means all. It is also “recipe driven”. The course is geared around teaching you 25 recipes for making at home, dinner parties, etc. It sounded interesting, but technique is fundamental, so here I am.

Chef saw that Restaurant Guy and I were each at our stations, solitary, and said offhandedly, “Maybe you guys should get together, eh?” We looked at each other and thought, “Only if you make us.” It’s not that we don’t like each other. That is, I don’t dislike him; only he knows what he thinks of me. It’s more that it’s more challenging to work alone. Chef never brought it up again, and we stayed alone for the rest of the day.

Chef let some interesting tidbits drop as he lectured today. For instance, he used to be the chef de cuisine at La Cote Basque. This was a legendary New York restaurant whose heyday was in the '50s and especially the ’60s into maybe the mid-’70s and that hung on until 2004. Along with La Granouille (still open, but very dated), Lutece (closed recently), Le Cirque (now in its 90-millionth iteration) and perhaps the Four Seasons, La Cote Basque was one of the powerhouse postwar (that is, post WW2) NYC restaurants. Expensive, exclusive, famous, sought-after, excellent food. It was less self-consciously “fancy” than the others; the Basque country is, after all, not known for haute cuisine. (At least, it wasn’t before Adria and El Bulli). But it became one of those “in” places that stayed in for a long time. Truman Capote spent most of the last years of his life writing a big book about New York society, which he never finished, but he did manage to publish one chapter, called “La Cote Basque.” Thinly veiled fiction, the chapter in fact revealed all kinds of private conversations he had had there with society ladies over the years, and did not make them look particularly good. Most of them never Spoke to capote again. Anyway, for more on La Cote Basque, see this: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/2...2ta_talk_gopnik

Now, a word about illustrations. This was the second day I did not have a camera. On the first day, I did not think of it until I got there, and then thought, “Gee, it would be neat to take pictures of this, I should bring one next time.” So this time I had my camera out and on my desk, and even remembered this morning “Oh, I want to bring the camera.” But of course I forgot to put it in my bag. So no illustrations.

Another word about terms. I will use all the ones I remember – but I left my binder (textbook) at school. Very, very stupid. I hope they find it and save it for me. This is also a problem because Chef expects us to have the recipes memorized by the time we show up, and that does not look so likely for me. However, next week (really in two weeks, as there is no class next week) is stocks, which I know pretty well. But I don’t know their recipe.

OK, today was a remedial day of sorts, in that we learned very little that was strictly new. But we cooked a lot more than we did last week – all vegetables.

The lecture was a long one – at least two hours. We crowded up around Chef's station, on our feet, and listened. He quizzed us on our memory of all that we did the prior week, and re-demonstrated the tourne, plus all the other cuts we would be doing that day. He explained, but at that point did not demonstrate, all the cooking techniques we would do that day. At one point, feeling achingly tired, I snuck off to the side for a cup of coffee. Mistake. I was called back instantly. You do not turn your back on Chef when he is lecturing.

A big part of the lecture focused on what potato to use for which types of cooking. We used only russets today. And there is a whole class on potato cooking later, so I imagine that this was something of a side-track for Chef. But he did tell an amusing story. Chef recalled a time when the executive chef/owner of La Cote Basque thought it would be neat to have purple potatoes on the menu for fall. He bought a truckload of them, then left it to the staff to figure out how to cook them. They were apparently a bitch to cook. They shared all of the worst characteristics of every potato type, and none of their various virtues. Every traditional method sucked. Finally, through sheer trial and error, they came up with a way. Peel, blanche, shock, then peel again the now-softish outer flesh, then blanch again, but don’t shock – air dry – then proceed to sauté, and then finish in the oven.

The two absolutely new things that Chef demonstrated during lecture were trimming an artichoke and prepping pearl onions.

Growing up, I only ever ate artichokes one way. My mother took the whole things, steamed them, then we pulled the leaves off, dipped them in something (usually mayo) and scraped the flesh off the leave toward the base with our teeth. Beyond that, I never paid any attention because I hated the damned things.

Well, childhood trauma is no excuse at FCI, so I had to do this. First, you pull off all the obvious protruding leaves at the bottom. Then you use your paring knife to trim the remaining leaves down to the heart. This is rather hard. You work the knife in under one of the leaves and then saw all the way around. When those leaves are gone, you will see no deep green but only light green and yellow and white. You will also see a naturally indentation that goes all the way around the veggie. Cut the top off through that line and discard. Then peel the stem. Finally, use the paring knife to trim away any remaining dark green. I failed at this, as you shall read.

Pearl onions: I know two ways. First, boil and squeeze. Second, buy frozen ones that are already peel. Both WRONG!

Chef’s method: don’t boil them at all. Soak them in warm water. Wait a while. (He didn’t say how long, but in all it was probably an hour, because we were doing other things.) Then take them in hand, one at a time, use a paring knife to cut off the root and the tip, then squeeze off the skin. It is VERY important to get not just the outer, paper, skin but also the very thin (and damned near invisible) “second skin.” Hand peeling 30-40 pearl onions like this was not quick.

Actually, there were two other things he taught us. Green beans. I learned that everything I had been doing to green beans is wrong. You DON’T cut them before you cook them. Water gets in there, and never comes out. Mush. (This is why so many restaurant green beans are so bad.) You DON’T cut the root end off. You break it off with your fingers AFTER you cook it. And you DON’T line them up in big rows and hack at them with your chef’s knife. That may be efficient but it is butchery, and the pieces will not end up even.

Lemon juice. Forget stupid juicers. Take the lemon and roll it on the cutting board, pressing down with your palm. This sort of squishes the insides and releases the juice. Cut it in half. Take a fork, pick out the obvious seeds, then stick the fork in the middle of the cut side and twist. Squeeze the lemon aggressively, twisting around the fork as you go.

We were to do the following recipes:

-Green beans, carrots, turnips (both tourned) a l’Anglaise

-Pearl onions glace a brun

-Potatoes Rissole: that is, take the tourned potatoes, start them in cold water; once boiling, blanche for 2-3 minutes; air dry on a paper towel-lined plate; then sauté in oil until light golden, tossing constantly; then roast in a 400 degree oven (toss occasionally).

-Potatoes Rissole “a cru”, that is, raw: For this we were to use the potato balls. Same as above but don’t blanche first.

-Artichoke a blanc: this is not the same as glace a blanc, described in my post on last week’s class. This is something totally different. You take some flour, put it in a bowl, and then add cold water slowly and whip as you go. Add a little salt, lemon juice, and some oil. Take the liquid and put it in a sauce pan (we have to call these a “Russe”), put the artichoke in (it should be covered), then throw a folded towel over it and weight the towel down with a small plate. Otherwise the artichoke will float and not stay submerged, and therefore will not cook evenly. When it’s done (totally tender all the way through), you take it out, let it cool, then scrape the crinkly leave bases out of the heart, and trim the stem. It should look like a shallow cup.

When it was finally time to work, chef said, “Just do all the recipes I have told you.” He did not give an ordering. A few people asked. At first he said, do the ones that take the longest first. I.e., green beans first, etc. Now, prior to that he had said that when doing a l’Anglaise, you do the white veg first, and so on, and the darkest color last if you are using the same water (which were supposed to do). The reason is that you don’t want ancillary color on your white veg, but nothing can discolor a green veg. So I said, “Isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t we do it turnip-carrot-green bean?” Well, I got a major (metaphorical) tongue bath for that. “Guys, are you listening? Michael is the only one who is listening! What did I say that was wrong? How are we going to cook these vegetables?”

I got several dirty looks, so I tucked my head down and started to get everything ready. Meanwhile, chef began to cook everything that he had explained to us. There is a little video camera that looks down on his station and “broadcasts” what he is doing on a big screen. So while we were doing our prep and cooking, we were also watching Chef on “TV.”

Of course, I proceeded to blow it. I should have trimmed the artichoke first and started cooking it, because it would take by far the longest. But I was so eager to get back at the tourne, that’s what I did. I am pleased to say that mine sucked quite a bit less today. I practiced twice this week, and that helped. But watching Chef again, and getting his personal critique helped immeasurably. We tourned potatoes (easiest), turnips (medium) and carrots (bitch).

First, the bad part. Now, to start a tourne, you will end up with one or two sides that are completely flat. For instance, we were expected to get four tournes out of one potato. So obviously, you quarter it. And you end up with some 90 degree angles. Well, working that side was hard.

My first taters I thought were pretty good, but Chef said they were too short. He was looking for “cocotte”, i.e., 5 cm. He said, the widest part of the flat of your chef’s knife is 4.5 cm. So it should be a little longer than that. Use it as a guide.

I thought I had. But I had such trouble getting the shape right that I had to keep turning and cutting over and over than I made them too small. So I started over.

The turnips he said were too fat. “Those are like olives. I want torpedoes.” So another turnip had to die, but Chef got his torpedoes.

I did the carrots last. What made these particularly hard was that they were too small to quarter. So they had to be tourned from a semi-cylinder shape. Very hard to get that flat side rounded out. The other thing that makes them hard is that they are literally hard, much harder than a potato, and significantly harder than a turnip. You really have to push the knife toward your exposed thumb with real force, and just pray that you won't draw blood. (For those concerned, today, I didn't!) But in the end, my carrots looked better than the other veg.

There are several keys to getting this right. One, cut the initial shape a good 1 cm or more longer than you want the finished product. Second, make sure the top is nice and flat. If too pointy, you will never get it right; you won’t know where/how to start. So cut off the tip and get a nice flat top. Second, really choke up on the knife. The entire blade, almost, should be in your fingers with only the tip exposed. Use the tip to make a side. Then turn it clockwise until the next “ridge” is looking straight at you. Make another side. Repeat. Keep repeating until it looks right. Flip it over, if necessary, and turn working from the other tip.

Oh, and today, chef added a new twist. Use the very tippy tip if the knife to “shave” off the corners and round them out. “Helps them roll better when you sauté them.” Maybe so, but it was hard to do.

Anyway, this went on and on and on. Chef said that in Level 1 (that is, students completing this class in the career program) final exam, students are expected to produce four perfect tournes out of one potato in 30 minutes. By Level 4, the number rises to 16 (not from one potato, thank God). I would definitely fail.

I think Chef got a little exasperated with us. This time, food was brought to us, we did not go down to the family kitchen. When lunch was brought in, Chef said, “come on, we could tourne all day, and we don’t have time for that. Finish up, and have lunch, and let’s move on.” I certainly could have tourned all day. I started to get obsessed with getting the little buggers right. I think this week I will buy a sack of potatoes for practice.

Lunch was an Asian sesame chicken, veg stir fry, and jasmine rise. Excellent again. Maybe the pissed off lady from last week made it. Whoever made it, hats off.

Moving on. After lunch, we used the melon baller – or “Parisian scoop” – to make little potato balls. That was easy. You have to be sort of strategic in the way you use the tool. You want a staggered pattern, like a honeycomb, to maximize yield.

All potato – peeled but uncut, trimmings (but not peel), and finished product alike – had to remain under water at all times. I knew that potato turns reddish if it is in the air too long, but Chef is really insistent that this NEVER happen. Once he saw some potato that was not being worked on that instant, and that was not in water, and that student got an earful.

I wanted to get all my prep done before any cooking, as I do at home, but it became quickly became clear that there was no way I could cook all this stuff in time if I did that.

I did the asparagus and got that on the heat. I got my Anglaise water on the heat, too. All the while, I was peeling, cutting, turning, etc.

Having recently read several books by Ruhlman, Bourdain, Buford, etc., one theme that emerges is how efficient you have to be with your time. You cannot waste a second. Well, I sure felt that today. I was perpetually behind. I also did things in the sub-optimal order, and then fell further behind. Chef is willing to teach a lot, but he will not give us a road map.

Since I had a whole island to myself, at least I could spread out. I used three burners: the artichokes were on one. I would occasionally use tongs to lift the towel and check. Probably too often. They need at least 45 minutes.

Another burner had the Anglaise water. And another was for glace/sauté.

I did the pearl onions first. It takes a while for all the water to evaporate, and when it does the onions are still completely white. Then you get rid of the parchment lid (called a “cartouche,” we learned today) and sauté. I kept having to lower the heat, but even so, a thick dark layer of carbon formed at the bottom of the pan. But my onions didn’t burn. Alarmed, I asked Chef if I should be worried. “No, that looks great, let the dishwasher worry about the pan.” Nice.

On to the potatoes. I did the a cru, that is the raw balls, first. Chef stressed the importance of constant tossing. They were not perfectly round – that is impossible with a Parisian scoop – but close enough that they careened all over the pan like billiard balls. That was cool. Finish in the oven. Took longer than I expected. Probably 5-6 min on the burner, but more like 10-15 in the oven.

Then the rissole. Same deal, plus blanche. Of course, I should have done this first, because of the air dry step. But I did it last, like a moron.

Here, by the way, is a YouTube demo of rissole. The guy pisses on the tourne step and does his only with the Parisian Scoop, a cru, but the basic technique is the same: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwNhsJ8vpBY

Meanwhile I was doing my Anglaise of all the other veg. You test for doneness by shocking one and then poking with a paring knife. It is supposed to go all the way through, no resistance. “There is no such thing as an al dente vegetable,” Chef intoned, probably half a dozen times. “Here we cook vegetables properly.” I recall Ruhlman quoting almost the same words from his instructors at CIA, so they were like a familiar warm blanket.

What also made the whole experience so unnerving is that as you worked, Chef would call out questions. “Michael, what is the difference between glace and etuve?” These were addressed seemingly at random to anyone he wanted to torture at that moment. You could have a knife poised to remove a digit, but by God, you had better answer, and answer correctly. Lucky me, I always did. Others were less lucky.

The three pairs teams were done well before I was. Restaurant Guy – the other solo dude – was still at it, as was I, when everyone else was cleaning their station. (I at least hustled to keep mine clean as we went along, eliciting a compliment from Chef. The ladies behind me, by contrast, were a mess and drew a caustic rebuke.) But RG finished first. Chef had everyone bring their plates up. He critiqued them one by one, veg by veg. I alternated between listening, cleaning up, and finishing my veggies. I tried not to make much noise and mostly succeeded.

The very last thing I had to too was blanche some peas, shock them, and then put them into the “cup” of the artichoke heart.

The critique: My green beans, he pronounced perfect: “Green, flavorful, not crunchy.” Personally, I thought they were overcooked, but I guess I am used to al dente green beans. INCORRECT! Carrots, perfect. Turnips, two perfect, two undercooked. He pointed out that two undercooked ones were slightly larger. And by “slightly” I mean “slightly.” But slightly was enough. Damn.

Potato balls: perfect.

Onions: two out of maybe 30 still had the second skin. Otherwise, perfect.

Potato tourne rissole: two problems. First, he said they were too dark. Now, they were not black or burned by any means. Not at all. But they were darker than the example he had cooked. Second – no seasoning! You season them at the end. Well, while everyone was gathered round, and my potatoes were in the oven, I broke down my station and cleaned up. In my haste/zeal, I knocked the little mis en place cup that had my salt in it onto the floor. I cleaned that up and then promptly forgot to get more salt. I heard about that.

On the color: to be honest, I liked my cocottes. I thought the deep brown looked nice and gave the potatoes a nice crunch. But Chef pointed out that when they got too brown a skink formed and then wrinkled. It’s all about presentation. The lighter sides were nice and smooth. Still and all, they tasted good.

Artichoke heart: The peas were perfect. The heart itself was 3/4s perfect. But there was a small section at which I had not sufficiently trimmed away the hard green, and that part was undercooked.

On plating. I suck at this and have no imagination. I did what I saw everyone else doing. Put the artichoke heart in the middle, and arrange the other veggies around it, stacking the tournes like cordwood.

All in all, I estimate that I was second today. Restaurant guy was first, again. The guy who was second last time blew too many things this time. Everyone else was some distance back.

That’s pretty much it. I can’t believe this is longer than the (interminable) entry for last week.

One final word. On the subway uptown (#6) I miraculously managed to get a seat. Leaning forward to rest my tired head in my tired hands, I spied down at the other end of the car the tell-tale edge of one of our knife kit bags. It was a fellow student. I looked at her, and she at me. Our looks said, “We may not know jack, but the people on this train know much less than jack.”

Of course, for all we know, the sous chef at Le Bernadin was on that train.

I looked around for Eric Ripert. I didn’t see him. Maybe he lives on the West Side.

Edited by manton (log)
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I definitely want to continue reading about your adventures at FCI. i wanted to enroll in this course but unfortunately can't afford to. I emailed them to find out if there was anyway to get some kind of financial assistance... but never got a reply :(

do you get to keep the kit (might be a stupid question)?

Also thanks for that New Yorker link. I love there food/dining-related articles more then anything else. I will make sure to give it a read while on the train.

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  • 2 weeks later...

It’s getting harder. And so is Chef X.

Today was stocks day, and also we dipped our toe into sauces. (Not literally, I hope I don’t need to add.) I went to this class feeling pretty confident, as I have been making stocks and sauces for years, have read many recipes, and flatter myself that I know a thing or two about them. Still, I had to remember Chef X’s injunction from the first day: “In this class you don’t know anything until I teach it to you.”

Unlike last week, I arrived early. I immediately set up my station, and just as I finished Chef came in, orchestrating the delivery of our supplies. So I was pressed into work. Happily, I might add.

Indeed, this whole day I was sort of a teacher’s pet. Not Martin Price bad, I hope, but still. I worked very fast on everything, was always done first, and so was always asked to do something else.

The first thing Chef asked, though, was, “Did you come in last week?”

“No, there was no class.”

“Two students showed up, they tell me.” He shook his head. As everyone came in, he asked each one if they had shown up last week. Eventually, he found them.

Anyway, for about 30 minutes before class, Chef and I (and later Restaurant Guy, who also came early), did “pre-prep.”

We sorted all the vegetables and laid them out. We sorted the chicken bones (all backs) into five equal portions and put them in the fridge. We took the fish bones – the meaty skeletons of several huge flat fish – and used Chef’s cleaver to hack them into equal portions, then submerged them in cold water, and left the tap on running cold. This way, Chef said, they would “degorger,” that is, a lot of the scum would just rise off the bones and flow out of the pot. When they water ran clear, they would be pretty clean.

This was not the ideal way to degorger, he said. Ideally, the bones would be soaked in iced water overnight, but the people responsible for supplying this class forgot that. Chef had a few choice words for them.

He had several more choice words – even choicer, in fact – for the people responsible for the veal bones. “These are frozen,” he said, astonished. The guy wheeling the cart just shrugged. “What I am supposed to do with frozen bones? I am supposed to start this stock in an hour, less even? Why didn’t you take them out last night? You were supposed to take them out last night. The sheet was clear.” But wheelcart guy just slinked out of the room.

“I don’t know what is the matter with these people,” Chef said. “They know. Believe me, they know better. We make stock here every single day. They know we can’t start with frozen bones. But they give me this.”

It was, I must say, a truly tremendous box of bones. I wish now that I checked the weight. I would say that it was at least two feet by one foot, and six inches deep – totally filled with bones, all veal.

This was interesting to me because in all my years of making stock, I have rarely been able to get veal bones. Beef bones, yes. On those very few occasions, I have made good stock indeed. On other occasions I have used beef bones and veal shank meat, which has a round bone in the center, but did not look at all like the bones we used today. The Sokolov recipe, indeed, calls for half and half.

I asked Chef at one point why we were using no meat on any of the stocks, except that little bit that clung to the bones. He looked at me like I was crazy. “You know what that costs? These bones are $1.89 a pound. Even shank would be at least five dollars. You might as well open your wallet and just put money in the stock.” Except that would taste bad.

Still, I could see his point. When I make anything at home, cost is not the top priority. First is fun. Second is a good end product. Third is learning something. Cost comes maybe after that.

However, as Chef is always reminding us, in professional cooking, you cannot think this way. You have to save in every way you can. You have to make everything you buy work for you. Which is why all usable trimmings get saved, for instance. (And, indeed, I have been saving the usable trimmings from my home practice sessions for future use.)

Anyway, to degorger the veal bones, Chef put them in the bottom of a huge sink and let the cold tap run over them. Every few minutes he would change the position of the faucet. This went on for at least two hours. “Ideally, we should soak these bones overnight in ice water, too, and I would in the professional program, because I have control over the supply guys, but this is the best we can do today. The bones are not going to be that clean.”

Chef also began clarifying butter. Now, I have done this many times. I first learned how from Julia Child (not personally, of course). Take some butter, melt it on low heat, and then spoon out the yellow fat leaving behind the milky solids. Chef X, however, took five enormous bricks of butter ($30 worth easily) and dumped them in a Dutch Oven (or, if you want to be literal, an 8 quart rondeau). He had the heat on high and he positively boiled that butter. This was something I was certain you were never supposed to do. But he did it. The butter foamed up high, and then boiled violently. The foam turned into solids which all sank back to the bottom, just as Chef said they would. Then he put a fine chinois into a ban marie and strained the butter . The chinois caught all the solids. Voila, clarified butter. “This is not the school way, but this is the best way when you have just a little butter. Very fast.” A little? I guess in his world, this was a little. Anyway, then he told me to take the ban marie and put it in a water bath. This was just a hotel pan half filled with water, put over a burner on low. There our clarified butter hung out for the rest of the day.

Once we had all that ready, we hit the coffee machine, and I bragged a little about all my practice, and complained that I still could not get tournage exactly right. “Some students, they never get it,” he said. “When I teach Level 1” – basically, this class in the professional program – “and some student doesn’t have it down by the 12th day, I know they are not going to make it. Most have it by then. Keep practicing.”

OK.

Lecture was a little shorter this time. He defined mirepoix – vegetables used as flavoring – and then described three types. The first type is 50% onion, 25% carrot, and 25% celery. This is used for most stocks. The second was half onion, half carrot. This, he said, is used for derivative sauces when more celery would just add unwanted bitterness. The third, the so-called white mirepoix, is 50% onion, 50% leeks. You could use white mushroom trimmings if you have them, but this is not essential. In restaurants, he said, it would be considered too expensive to cut up good mushrooms just for stock. Anyway, white mirepoix is used for fish stock only. He also said to halve a head of garlic for all stocks, and to add quartered tomatoes to veal stock.

How the mirepoix is cut is important. The longer a stock simmers, the bigger the pieces should be. If you put little tiny cuts in a 12 hour veal stock, the will disintegrate and incorporate into the stock and cloud it. “And that ruins not just the look but the flavor, because it will be bitter and gritty. And if you have bad stock, you will always have bad sauce, always. Alain Ducasse, his stock is always crystal clear, and the sauce is perfect because he always makes good stock.” Chef brings up Ducasse a lot. He is the touchstone, the exemplar of perfection. I must ask about this later.

Anyway, long simmering stocks get big pieces – onions no smaller than quartered, carrots cut into four or five pieces, etc. Medium simmering stocks like chicken stock get medium pieces. Say, onion into 16ths and carrots into a dozen pieces. Short simmering stocks like fish and vegetable need very small pieces.

Then Chef ran through a series of words that we will be expected to know:

• Degorger: I mentioned this earlier, to soak the bones in cold water to clean them.

• Deglacer: Deglaze. You take the roasting pan used to brown bones and sometimes mirepoix from brown stock, pour a layer of water in, put on the burners over high heat and scrap up the sticky bits. Then you pour all that into the stock.

• Suc: the aforementioned sticky bits. I have always called this fond, I think because that’s what Cook’s Illustrated calls it.

• Mouiller: moisten. This just means putting water in the pot over the bones and mirepoix.

• Fremir: simmer

• Degraisser: degrease. This is a pain the ass. More in a moment.

• Ecumer: skim. As you heat the stock, scum will collect and float to the top. Use a skimmer – a slotted or meshed spoon – to get it out of there.

• Reuir: reduce. This is done two ways. First, with all the bones and mirepoix in there. The longer the stock is on the heat, the more the liquid will reduce. Second, after that stuff is gone, you can reduce still further. With the first, reduction is just a byproduct. You want to get the stuff out of the stock after you have extracted all the flavor. Every minute it spends in your liquid after that is just risking clouding your stock. The second reduction actually has a point, which I will get to.

• Vanner: Stir. Basically, Chef said: Don’t Do This. Very bad. Moving bones and mirepoix around guarantees that you will cloud your stock. Vanner is more properly a methodical "Z" shapend stirring of a delicate sauce.

• Tamponner: Drip some butter on top to prevent a skin from forming.

• Remouillage: take all your remaining bones and mirepoix after the stock is strained, and remoisten. The resulting liquid will be too weak to be called stock – most of the flavor will have been pulled out into the stock already. But it will be better than plain water, and can be used in stews, soups or anything that calls for water to be flavored by similar ingredients. Another example of waste-not-want-not.

Chef drew a rather amusing diagram of what goes on inside a stock pot on the dry erase board. I should probably use MS Paint to reproduce it, and maybe I will. But not yet.

The gist is, fat and scum are lighter than water so they float up. But heat also forces them down. Basically, there is a convection effect in the pot. Fat goes up along the sides where it is the hottest, then migrates toward the top center and sinks back down, only to repeat the process.

Now, Chef was very insistent that degraisser be done methodically as the stock simmers. What I have always done is skim off the scum (of course, because that is easy) but then not bother with degreasing until the stock is strained, cooled, and chilled overnight in the fridge, when the fat is all solidified at the top, like the surface of a frozen skating pond. So, foolishly, I asked about this practice.

“Lazy! Lazy, lazy, lazy!” But it’s so easy!, I protested. You are sure to get all the fat, and not waste any stock. I did not mention that Julia Child and Raymond Sokolov both say that this method is fine.

“What did I just show you?” Chef asked, pointing to his diagram. “As that fat circulates, it incorporates into your stock. You don’t want that. It will make your sauces taste fatty, or even worse, it will burn and taste bitter. Whatever you take out later, it won’t be all of it, not even close.”

“But when you de-fat with a ladle, you end up taking out a lot of stock, don’t you? And that’s wasteful.” I thought I had him here.

“Yes and no. You do take out stock, but it’s not waste unless you waste it. Get a ban-marie, put some water in it, not much just a little. Then ladle the fat into there. Then once you don’t see any fat in the stock, degrease that water into a smaller ban marie. Once it is degreased, pour it back into the stock. Then degrease the next ban marie. Keep doing that, one ban marie after another, until all the fat is gone.”

“Isn’t that a lot of work?”

“Of course it is! I had a chef I worked for in France, many years ago. He made us do this every day. Every day. It was horrible. But it made a great stock with no waste. Here at school we don’t do that. But we do use the ladle. You waste a little stock, but not much, and you save the stock from cloudiness.”

One other element, the bouquet garni. This is a bunch of herbs that get dunked in the stock that give it a little extra flavor. It consists of parsley stems – “Why not leaves?” “Because leaves are useful elsewhere and wasteful in a stock. You can chop the leaves and use them as a garnish, but what else are you going to do with stems?” And also thyme, basil, and peppercorns. And a very few whole cloves. “These are powerful, don’t use too many, five for the veal stock, two for the chicken, none for the fish.”

These all get tied up in a cheesecloth.

“Keller says to take the greens of leeks and use those as a casing, and stuff the other herbs and peppercorns in there and tie the ends.”

“I don’t like to do that because things float out, especially the peppercorns, then you have to hunt them down later.” I wish I had the presence of mind to ask why this mattered, since we were straining everything anyway, but I didn’t.

Then Chef ran down the basic definitions of the mother sauces. He gave us a nifty mnemonic:

Béchamel

Espagnole

Tomato

Hollandaise

Veloute

BethV. Get it?

He once again defined demi-glace as a stock reduced by half. Did I speak up and cite Escoffier #23? Well … no. I chickened out.

"If you keep reducing until you have only one-tenth or so left, the consistency is a like a syrup. That's from the gelatin in the bones that gives body to your stock. That is called a glace, and one or two spoons -- no more -- can make a huge amount of really good sauce."

“Now I am going to tell you a secret. This is not in your book. Taken an onion and cut in half, not along the axis, like you are going to chop it, but along the equator. Turn on your flat tops, and put the onion on there, cut side down. This is called onion brulee, means burnt onion. When the bottom is black like your shoe, take it off. We are going to put these in the stock.”

“Aren’t we never supposed to use anything burnt? Won’t that make it bitter?”

“That’s what everyone thinks, but it doesn’t. This is not the school way, they don’t like it. But the stock they make is weak, pale. Has no color and no flavor. Technically, I am not allowed to do this, so I tell my students, put in the onion brulee at the bottom and put the bones over them so they don’t float to the top and that way I don’t get caught. But you know what? Everybody likes my stock best, and they take it all because it tastes better and has a deeper color.”

Time to get to work. We were only going to make one giant communal pot of each kind of stock, but each of us did one portion of the mirepoix. Chef demonstrated the sizes he wanted for our mirepoix. For the fish stock (this, I should mention, is really called “fumet”), everything is emancer, that is, thinly sliced. For the chicken stock, slices maybe 1/2” thick. For the veal, a lot thicker, more like 2”.

We chopped all our vegetables and then presented them for inspection. If they passed, they went into one of three big bowls, the contents of which would later dumped into the appropriate stock.

Restaurant Guy and I were done first, so Chef instructed to roast the veal bones. We poured some corn oil in two huge pre-heated roasting pans, arranged the bones, and put them in the oven. After about 30 minutes, they were good and brown on the top. Chef said, “Downstairs, this is where they stop. They would use these right away. For me, they are not done enough.” He took a wooden spoon and raked through them. “See that? The underside is not browned. So we have to turn all these bones and roast them all over.”

“You can make a white veal stock if you don't roast the bones. Your book says to blanch them, that is, you boil them in water to get all the impurities and blood out, and then strain. We’re not gonna do that today. My way is never to blanche the bones because blanching takes out flavor. The first 45 minutes takes out most of the flavor, so why anyone would do that, I don’t know. If I need a white stock, I just don’t roast the bones, but I don’t blanche them either. Blanching is like a cheat, it’s to make it easier to get the scum out. But if you skim properly, you will get the scum anyway and you won’t lose flavor.”

Meanwhile, he got started on the fish stock demonstration. He used a huge rondeau for this – probably three feet across. For short simmering stocks like this and vegetable stock, you want the maximum surface area. “Sweat the mirepoix in butter, do you know what that means? It means cook slowly, do not brown. No color. When the onions are translucent, they are done. You go by how the onions look because the leeks are not gonna change much.”

When they were done, we added the fish bones. “Now we are waiting for them to turn white. When you see that, you know that step is done.” It took maybe ten minutes for that. Then he poured in white wine, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. He let that cook for a few minutes and added the cold water. “Water for stock must always be cold. People try to cheat by using hot water because they think it saves time. But the water should be brought up to temperature slowly. If it is hot in the beginning, it will cloud, and you will never get that out.”

We covered the fish by maybe a finger or two of water, and then turned up the heat. “Once that looks like it is starting to boil, turn it down to a simmer. Don’t let it boil,” he said to the guy whose station was in front of the burner where the fish stock was. “if it boils, it will cloud, and I’m gonna blame you. Then, once it simmers, it cooks for 20, maybe 30 minutes, that’s all. So when they say this is a fast cooking stock, 20 minutes, that means after the simmer. All the rest of course takes more time.”

"You know, nobody uses this any more. To make fish sauces they mostly use chicken stock now."

"Why?"

"Because it's easier, it keeps longer, and it has so many uses. It's not so economical to make fish fumet when you don't have to. Chicken stock is so neutral it can take on the taste of your fish just by deglazing the pan. But we are going to send this down to the restaurant today, and they can use it if they want for the next few days."

Next it was time for the chicken stock. We got our chicken parts and trimmed off as much fat as we could, and then had to break them into pieces. Chef suggested hacking with your chef’s knife. Well, I had my good Shun knife and didn’t want to risk that edge, so I asked to borrow his cleaver (a nice Global, the same one I have at home). That did the job right quick. Then the chicken parts had to be inspected and approved before we started. Once again, I was done first, so I was asked to collect them all after they passed and put them in the pot and get the water running.

I turned the heat on high. First, we were to get the water boiling, or nearly so. Then watch as the scum rises and skim it off. Then defat to the extent possible. Then, and only then, add the vegetables. This is not the way I had been making stock until recently, though I know from the CIA book Professional Chef that it is the correct way. I used to put everything in together and then boil the water.

After that, bring up to a near boil again and simmer. Then Chef showed us a neat trick. Defatting with a ladle is harder when have all those veg cuts floating around in there. You don’t want to remove them because they are adding flavor. So take a china cap and put it in the top of the pot, making sure that no solids get into the conical part. The liquid and fat will drift in there, and you can defat from there without risking any of your solids.

From that point, the chicken stock needed 2-3 hours to simmer. “You can also make brown chicken stock if you roast the bones before, just like veal, only it takes less time. Same with lamb, duck, pork, any bones you can get.”

I can’t remember how it came up, but before we left the chicken stock, Chef said, “It takes years to learn all this. Practice, practice, practice. School is only six months, and you can’t really learn in that time. I had a student come to me just last week. He got a job as executive chef at [Chef named a nearby restaurant]. He needed help planning the menu, he didn’t know how. I asked him, ‘If you don’t know how, why did you take the job?’ He said the money was $50,000.” Chef shook his head in disappointment. “If this guy wants to get really good, he can’t do that. In France it takes years just to become a sous chef. Over here, it’s different. What he should do is travel, that is if he can afford it, and work at the best places he can for five or six years. Do that and then become executive chef somewhere when he knows how.”

On to the veal. “We are not gonna get to taste this, the students tonight will strain it after their class is over, and they will use it. But for next week we will have some stock my other students make during the week to use for our brown sauce.”

Now, the thing were using to make the veal stock was something I have read about but never seen: a steam jacket kettle. It was this huge … cauldron (I don’t know what else to call it) used only for making stock. It had its own heat source, literally a layer of steam that heats it not just at the bottom but along the sides as well, and was totally self contained. Crucially, it had a spigot at the bottom, and its own strainer inside. There was simply no way anyone could lift a full pot this big, so that made sense.

Once our bones were browned, in they went, and we started filling it with cold water and turned on the heat. But I had to ask, don’t the burnt onions go in first?

“No, today it doesn’t matter because my boss is not here.”

Then we put the veggies on the roasting pans with two generous dollops of tomato paste each. “Some chefs just put it into the water. That is stupid. You have to cook your tomato paste.”

“What about putting it on the bones?” I have one recipe that says to do that.

“It will burn, the bones need to roast too long. Better on the vegetables, that is just enough time. Plus, the flavors combine nicely. Guys, you need to watch these vegetables. They’re not like the bones that can be stirred after 30 minutes, they need to be stirred more often. Don’t let them burn.”

Finally, it was lunch time. Breaded chicken cutlets, bowtie pasta, squash, and green salad. Not as good as the last two, but still very good. One of the students works as a waitress – I suppose I could call her Waitress Girl – and she proclaims that family meal at the FCI was much better than any she had eaten in a restaurant.

In between bits, I would go over to the oven and stir the vegetables.

After lunch, they were ready and went into the stock along with the bouquet garni. I have to say, that pot or whatever it is called is amazing. After a very short time, it had the water at a full rolling boil and beyond – great bubbles were leaping up into the air and splashing down. It looked like a volcano. “Guys, I think we can turn that down now.”

Time for a second lecture. How to make emulsified sauces. Traditionally, these are all considered part of the Hollandaise family, but Chef X. got a little bit literal on us and said that two of the ones we were going to make today – Béarnaise and Mayonnaise – were not true derivatives. I thought he had a good case with respect to mayo, not so much with Béarnaise. And what about BethV? Anyway, I didn’t say anything.

Hollandaise is a warm emulsified sauce; these are made with clarified butter. Mayo is cold; it’s made with oil.

Warm or cold, the basic principle is the same: take two things that ordinarily don’t mix, and mix them. The emulsifying agent is egg yolks: they are the glue that can hold together (say) oil and vinegar.

The ratio is very important. 100-150 ml of butter per yoke for warm, 150-200 ml of oil for cold. Put the upper end in your measuring cup in case you need it, but in all likelihood you won’t. Save what you don’t use. Pouring in too much guarantees that you will break your sauce. I remember from Ruhlman that his skills teacher, Pardus, argued that the ratio is key. The ratio is everything. The essence of the sauce.

Typically, the yokes are mixed with some flavoring agent and beaten over very low heat. This combination is called a sabayon. “If you are really good you can do it on the burner. In a restaurant they will expect that because it saves time. But you are just learning so you will do it the traditional way. Put your sabayon in a bowl and put the bowl over a water bath” – a Russe with a little water in the bottom, over medium low heat. I actually can make a Hollandaise at home directly on the burner; I use a small pot called a "saucier", whose sides are straight toward the top, but curved at the bottom so there are no corners where the sauce can hide from the whisk. But this time I did if Chef’s way.

You cook the sabayon very gently. In the case of Hollandaise, the flavoring liquid is lemon juice. Once the yoke foams, start adding the clarified butter in a think but steady stream. It must trickle in slowly. Meanwhile you have to beat it hard and fast with a whisk.

That’s basically it. The result should be thick and creamy.

For béarnaise, chef once again went off script. Red wine vinegar instead of white, first of all. Just a capful. Chef said red won’t really affect the color, but has a stronger flavor. The traditional recipe calls for white. Cisler some shallot, chop some dried tarragon, get a bay leaf, and then make some mignonette. These are cracked black peppercorns. He showed us how to use the bottom of a sauteuse to do that. You could also use a mortar & pestle. Ground pepper, however, is too fine.

Throw all that in a sautoir with some water, and boil, then lower heat and reduce until you have almost a syrup. Strain through a fine chinois, but don’t discard the shallot mix. “School would say to throw it out, but it is too valuable, so I want to save it. We are also going to put some in the sauce, which is not so traditional, but it makes the sauce much better. Different chefs do things different ways, I am not saying that mine is the only way, or the correct way or the perfect way.” Wow, some rare humility from Chef X. Then came the punch line: “But I got three stars from the New York Times, twice, so maybe my way is pretty good after all.”

Take the strained liquid and combine with the yokes. That’s your sabayon. Proceed as with Hollandaise. Once it is creamy and thick, add some minced fresh parsley and tarragon, salt and pepper, and two spoonfuls of the shallot mix.

“Oh, that is terrible,” Chef said, tasting his demo béarnaise. “No salt. We are not afraid of salt here,” he said, taking a huge pinch and throwing it in. “Much better.”

“You know they had the Level Six final the other day. Lot of big people here, Pepin, Soltner” – former chef/owner of Lutece, now with the school – “Sailhac” – another big-time NY Chef now with the school –“and the owner of the school. Tough, tough final,” he chuckled. “Anyway, when they got to the end, the owner of the school” –Dorothy Cann Hamilton – “tasted this one student’s dish and said, ‘Too salty! It’s these French guys! They are teaching you to use too much salt!’ I wanted to say, ‘Hey, lady, you founded this place, and named it the French Culinary Institute.’”

Of course, I therefore aggressively salted my sauce. It took a while to thicken –“You had it on the heat too long. Get a wet towel and make a ring and nestle the bowl there. Then whip it off the heat.”

That did it. Chef pronounced my sauce very good. Restaurant Guy, unfortunately, did not fare so well. “Too salty.” This from Captain salt himself? Turns out while the rest of us were using coarse salt, he had used table salt. The same sized pinch of table salt will be twice as powerful as coarse. Oops.

Meanwhile, Chef was barking out questions. “What are those cracked peppercorns called?” he asked of another student. No answer. “Come on!”

“Mirepoix?”

“You put mirepoix in béarnaise? I don’t know what planet you are living on.”

No one else answered, so I did.

After making my sauce I set about cleaning my station and chef asked, “Michael, what are the ingredients of béarnaise?.” This is easy, I thought, we just made that! So I rattled them off, certain that I was right. “Shallots, tarragon, pepper, bay leaf, vinegar, water, egg yolk, butter …”

“Wrong.”

Wrong? How could I be wrong? Maybe he wanted more specificity. “Ciseler of shallots, dried tarragon, black pepper corn –”

“Wrong.”

“Black peppercorn mignonette.”

“No. You don’t say that. Mignonette is cracked black peppercorn.”

So I went through it all again, with specificity.

Waitress girl had another hard day. Chef was really on her. He didn’t yell – he never yells – but she was not keeping up and he told her so. Nor did she really understand the recipe or follow along. I felt bad for her. "I don't think you are listentening."

"I'm listening!" she said plaintively.

"I don't mean right now, I mean earlier, when I explained all this. You need to listen, carfully. And your station is a mess, you need to keep it clean and organized."

Her partner got a little bit, too. “Is that gum?”

“Yes.”

“How are you gonna taste your sauce? How will you know if it is good? It will taste like cherry or whatever, not béarnaise.”

Last was Mayonnaise. One egg yolk, big spoon of mustard, pinch of salt. Stream in the oil. Finish with salt and ground pepper. Now, I still had not filled my little pepper grinder with peppercorns. The few times I needed some, I grabbed Chef X’s off his station. This time he had put it away. I’ll be damned if I was going to go through his bag. So I grabbed the bottle of ground pepper from the spice cabinet and threw in a pinch. When Chef tasted my sauce, the first think he said was, “Pepper a little big, no? Did you use a grinder?”

“No, I used the pre-ground.”

“Very bad, that’s too coarse. You need to use your grinder. Otherwise, the sauce is good.”

I broke down and cleaned my station and also filled my little grinder with corns. I was finished first, again, so chef asked me to help strain. I had to do the fish fumet while he did the chicken stock. I tilted the rondeau up at a steep angle, dipped a ladle into the lowered end, and just ladled it out, one little bit at a time through a fine chinois. I have to say, though I am not a fish person, it smelled … not bad.

Chef is fiercely opposed to pressing liquid through the chinois – something I always used to do until I read Thomas Keller’s injunction against it. “The point is to strain,” said Chef X, “to remove those particles, so what are you doing when you press? You are pushing them through.”

So I didn’t press.

Then he filled one of the big sinks with cold water and ice and we put the two stocks in there to rapidly cool them. “At home, you know, you leave things out, sitting their for a long time, and it’s very dangerous. Unless they are very hot or very cold, they will grow bacteria and make you sick. At home, I am not going to worry about you because you can only get yourself and maybe a few people sick, but here it’s different. Your stock will go down to the restaurant” – that’s l’Ecole, the school’s formal restaurant, open to the public – “or to the family kitchen, and you could get a lot of people sick.”

So the solution was to rapidly cool the stock in cold water. He took another step, which was to fill a ban marie with ice and swirl that inside the stock pots. Once they were cool, a professional student came and took them away. “Anything else, Chef?” he asked.

“No, that’s all. Thanks. See that guy?” Chef X. asked me. “I failed him in Level 3. He wasn’t getting it. Had to take it again. He was really mad at me. Now he is on Level 6 and he is a top student. Focused. Helps out around the kitchen all the time even when he doesn’t have class. He’s gonna do well.”

There is a kitchen adjacent to ours with another La Technique class, this one on its tenth session. The chef teaching it used to work for Chef X. at La Cote Basque. There is a little pass-through window at the dishwasher’s station, and the chef handed over a plate of one of their dishes for that day, poulet sauté chasseur, or sautéed chicken hunter style. I looked amazing to me, but Chef found fault. “Look at all the flecks in that sauce. It’s not been well strained. You would not see that at Ducasse.”

Then on the train, there was the same lady I saw last time. This time she had out her binder and a highlighter, carefully re-reading the day’s recipes. I took a nap and had a dream that Alain Ducasse took one look at some of my sauce, and flushed it down the drain.

Edited by manton (log)
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Yes, please continue these fascinating accounts of your time at the FCI. I lose track of time as I read them

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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I did not know how to use a knife properly before the Knife Skills class. Or, rather, it was a combination of not knowing, knowing but not caring, or knowing but thinking it was too hard.

I have made all these stocks and sauces except fish. The vegetable cookery was new to me, I just don't make vegetables that way.

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Manton, I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy reading your posts. Not only do I learn things and get a huge vicarious thrill from your experience, next time I go to L'Ecole I can say I know the chef! And there will be a day down the road when you will appreciate having kept such excellent notes. Best wishes!

"There's nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves."

Fergus Henderson

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Envy, pure and simple, describes my feelings at the moment. I want some Chef X abuse!

Some years ago, I took some week-long classes at the Ecole de Ritz Escoffier in Paris. I learned a lot but also was surprised at how much I already knew. A very good experience. But those were organized around topics/recipes so while the fundamentals were there they were not front and center as in your class. My favorite was a course on fish, but there was never (much to my disappointment) a dedicated class on fish boning techniques.

Please keep posting, and enjoy!


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Oh, oh, thank you SO much for this. You write so well! I've always wanted to take a serious skills class, and being able to read along over your shoulder is a real pleasure.

Thank you, thank you. : )

ETA! OH! You have great pics on your blog! You are a good person, to treat us with this!

Edited by pax (log)
“Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!”
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Let’s see if I can keep this one (relatively) short.

Today we continued the sauce lesion, and learned the other mother sauces – with the exception of velouté – and some derivatives.

I was early again, but there was less to do. One task was to open two enormous cans, one of tomato paste, the other of whole, peeled tomatoes. I looked around and could not find one. “Over there, by my case.”

I spotted an odd looking thing mounted on the counter edge; it looked like a small steel girder with a hand crank inserted inside some sort of guide and holder. This, apparently, was it. I studied it every which way but could not figure out how it worked. Restaurant Guy saved me. You lift up the girder, put the can on the counter right up close, then ram the girder down – there is a little blade at the edge that should puncture the can right where you want it to. Then use the hand crank to remove the lid. Simple.

Three stocks were brought up from downstairs. Or at least I though there were three. One was clearly chicken, one was clearly brown veal, and the other was … I didn’t recognize it. It was a pale brown, too tan to be chicken stock, too light to be veal stock.

Chef dumped the veal and the mystery stock into the same rondeau. Both were the consistency of Jello. “Chef, what is that?”

“Veal stock.”

“Why is it two different colors?”

“Because the light one is remouillage, you remember, the second moistening of the bones and mirepoix after you make your stock.”

Interesting, I had never seen a finished remouillage before. The difference in color was striking – it was several shades lighter. A visible indication, no doubt, of its weaker flavor. The first moistening gets all the good stuff.

“Chef, if we mix those, won’t our stock be weaker, and make our sauces weaker?”

“It’s not really a problem because all the sauces we are gonna make today with this will have fresh mirepoix and that will intensify the flavor. Of course if we used only pure stock with no remouillage, the flavor would be even stronger but our sauces will still be good.

“You know, you should be proud we are using this. Because we were supposed to use the stock we made last week, but students for their Level 6 final found it and took it all. I told you the students here love my stock. So I had to go find this. By the way, the restaurant loved the fish stock, too.”

Lecture was, first, a paean to why sauces are the glory of French cooking, the hardest things to make in the kitchen, and the most prestigious task for any chef. The rest was mostly an explanation of how to thicken sauces. There are X principle “binding elements” or “liaisons”:

• Roux: cooked butter and flour, 1:1 ratio, to the desired color. Blanc, no color; blonde, light color; brun, deep color

• Beurre manié: basically a cold roux; butter and flour simply mashed together with a fork.

• Slurry: cold liquid and some kind of finely powdered starch (arrowroot is best because it thickens well and does not distort the flavor), whipped, then added to the sauce.

• Egg yolks.

• Reduced heavy cream.

• Mustard.

The of course you can simply reduce. Water evaporates out and the remaining flavoring elements, which are naturally denser, make the sauce thicker.

Another option is to puree. That is, many sauces are strained. You cook them to draw flavor out of the mirepoix, then once you are convinced you are not going to get any more, strain and discard the mirepoix. But you could also run the sauce through a food mill, smashing the mirepoix into tiny particles that thicken the sauce.

I have been making roux-based sauces for years and years. I first learned from Julia Child, then moved on to Sokolov. The latter’s book, The Saucier’s Apprentice, is a delightful tour through the mother sauces and most of the famous derivatives, complete with recipes for what to cook with your sauce. But in more recent years I have moved away from roux and used either reduction, or else added reduced heavy cream. The latter is nearly foolproof and also adds a creamy taste to the sauce.

The problem with roux, and the reason why it is not in favor currently (apart from the fact that it is old fashioned) is that unless the flour is thoroughly cooked, you will taste it in the sauce. But cook too long and it will get bitter. You have a very narrow window, really.

Slurries are not so popular because the gluten is rather visible in the sauce and gives it what some consider to be a gluey texture. Chef X. blamed Chinese restaurants for this. “You know your corner takeout? That’s how they make everything, oyster sauce, hoisin, everything, some soy sauce in the pan and bowl of slurry by their side all the time that they whisk in at the end. So people see it now and they think it is a cheap technique and they don’t like it.”

But we are learning the classical way, so we were to learn to use roux and slurries. Well, except that we departed from classic in one way. I noticed that our text binder also defines a demi-glace as espagnole plus stock or glaze, but then it goes on to say that no one does this anymore, and in the modern context, demi-glace = veal stock reduced by half. Well, I can tell you that I used to make demi- the old way quite often, though I admit that even I have fallen off.

Chef had written out in the dry erase board the recipe for six sauces:

• Bechamel: milk and blonde roux

• Espagnol: basic brown sauce, brown roux and stock and mirepoix

• Tomato: pureed

• Fond de veau lié: veal stock bound with a slurry.

• Bordelaise: flavored wine and Espagnole

• Chasseur (Hunter’s): Fond de veau lié, mushrooms, wine and tomato sauce.

“There are a million varieties and derivatives of all these. Do I know them all? No way. My boss at La Cote Basque, who was trained in the ’30s, he did. But it’s not so important to know them all. What’s important is that you know how to make the basics. Once you know that, learning to make the derivatives is easy.”

This is certainly true, as I have found from experience. Our text binder has lots of derivatives listed, plus I have several books that list them. Escoffier has 89 derivatives for warm sauces alone.

We began with the espagnol. Now, the classic way to do this – which is what Escoffier says and also what Sokolov teaches – is to make the roux separately, add it to the stock, and then pour all of that into host stock, and then pour all of that over browned mirepoix.

Child says to sauté the mirepoix and some diced ham in clarified butter, and once it is deep golden, add the flour. That’s closer to the way Chef X. had us do it. Except instead of ham we used bacon lardon (cut into little strips). Brown that first, then add the mirepoix, then the flour.

He said to start with a little oil, then add the butter. The oil would prevent the butter from burning, and also spare you the task of clarifying it. The mirepoix was “small” but still quite a bit bigger than a macedoine. Brown it, then add chopped tomatoes (tomato concasse) and cook them a little.

Flour is next. Chef called the act of sprinkling the flour over the bottom of the pot “singer”. This is slightly different than a roux, which is nothing but flour and butter. Singer is when you add flour to other elements that are being browned. The purpose is the same. At one point later, Chef was quizzing us and asked what’s the term for adding flower like this, and one guy said “Singer?” as in “Jazz singer.”

“Singer is an English word. ‘Sahn-zhey.’”

Once the flour is browned, you add the tomato paste – cook thoroughly! Add your stock. First add just a little and turn the heat up high and make sure you scrape up all the suc on the bottom of the pan. Then the rest. Whisk vigorously. You need to beat all that roux into the liquid to avoid lumps. Then add the bouquet garni. Interestingly, chef had us use tarragon rather than thyme. Otherwise, bay leaf, smashed garlic clove, parsley and some peppercorns.

Bring to a near boil, then set on the flat-top. In this case, we were using our flat top in the classical French way, as a simmer plate. It maintains a very steady low simmer, better than a burner can, and in any case we needed the burners for other things.

Meanwhile, we had the fond de veau lié going on another burner. This was, at this stage, just a lot of stock, some mushroom trimmings, and chervil stems. Once again, chef had us pluck the leaves off for use somewhere else. No point in wasting good herb leaves on a bouquet garni. This mixture was then boiled until reduced by about a third, or maybe slightly more.

Tomato sauce. In all my years of sauce making – and it is my favorite thing to do in the kitchen by far – I had never made a classical French tomato sauce. I have made any number of Italian tomato sauces, but never this. The Italian versions are all quite dodgy – that is, there seems to be no codified definition of anything. Of course, as I have seen, French recipes vary too. Just look at the way the espagnol recipes that I have used vary. But the variances are small. Go and look at six different Italian cookbooks and how they say to do a Bolognese, and you will find six radically different recipes. French cooking is not like that.

Anyway, for tomato sauce you use a fine mirepoix, which is basically the same size as macedoine, but you don’t have to trim the edges first to make it look pretty. Unfortunately, I charged a head and cut mine the same was the mirepoix for espagnol before chef made the demonstration. Had to do it over. The reason they have to be so small is that they need to really get soft because they are going to be pureed through the food mill later.

Otherwise, the procedure is very similar. On difference is that you add crushed canned tomatoes and you use chicken stock. Your bouquet garni – the traditional one this time – needs to be tied in a cheesecloth so you can easily fish it out later. Once it reaches a near boil, onto the flat top.

Now we had to degrease the professional way – that is, with a ladle. This is hard. It’s not hard to get out the fat. It’s hard to get out ONLY the fat and leave the good liquid. You try to capture just the fat with the ladle, but some liquid always gets in. Chef X.’s sauces of course never had any fat on the surface, and the liquid in the square boys where he deposited the fat was always low. “How do you lose so little sauce? My square boys are full of liquid.”

“I’ve been doing this for 31 years. Maybe after 31 years – if I’m not dead – I’ll come find you and see if you are just as good. Also, for my first two years in the kitchen, that was virtually all I did.”

Two years skimming fat. Not as exciting as Two Years Before the Mast.

Anyway, for a while there, I just skimmed and skimmed. Whenever I looked at Chef X’s sauces, I saw no fat. My own, on the other hand, kept throwing up a lot, and no matter how much I skimmed there seemed to be more. The espagnol finally seemed to be done with it. This had an incredible aroma – much more flavorful – and also darker – than Julia’s, which always came out orange. The only difference in ingredients is the bacon rather than ham. Otherwise, it must be the quality of the stock. Also, we cooked ours for a lot less time. Chef said 45 minutes to an hour was plenty.

Then strain. I noticed everyone else pressing their solids in the chinois. MISTAKE! I did not do this, hence I ended up with a clearer sauce – nor did I get a verbal spanking from Chef X.

When the fond was boiled down, it was time for the slurry. Arrowroot and Madeira, whipped hard. (A slurry does not have to be this. The liquid could be water, wine, or stock; the starch could be flour or cornstarch.) Then another trick. Most chefs would just start streaming it into the stock. Chef X said to do something he called tempere. Ladle some of the hot liquid into the slurry bowl, and whip again. This gently cooks the slurry and makes its incorporation into the stock more certain and thorough. You don’t have to do this with arrowroot or cornstarch, he said, but with flour it is a necessity, otherwise the flour will never cook and you will taste in the sauce.

Once the slurry was in, the sauce gets simmered and skimmed some more until finally strained. Fond de veau lié does not go through the chinois easily, I can tell you. It takes forever. There are two ways to get it out. Swirl the chinois and let centrifugal force speed it up. Or tap the edge of the chinois with the butt of a knife. This is effective, but makes an annoyingly loud noise.

Then we got ready for the béchamel. We made a blonde roux – very simple, just cook the butter and flour together for a few minutes, tops, then set aside. After that it was time for lunch. All throughout that brief break I kept stopping eating to go and degrease my sauces. I was not as successful as Chef X, but I hope I was at least as obsessive, or nearly so.

Up until that point, I had been ahead of the game. But after lunch I started to get behind. I have read the phrase “in the weeds” a million times in foodie books, especially Ruhlman, but never really experienced it until that day. No matter how fast I moved, I could not keep up. I’d like to attribute this to the fact that I was working alone, whereas others were in teams, and I’m sure that was part of it, but probably not all of it. I tried to do what Chef said, which was get things on the burner, and then do prep when you are waiting for it to cook. But that caused some problems.

First we finished the béchamel. Near boil some milk. “When a skin forms, it is done.” Meanwhile I was cutting prep for the bordelaise, which I saw other people already had on their flat top. I looked at the milk. Seemed like there was a skin there. “Chef, is that done?”

“It’s about to boil!” he said, and darted over to the burner and turned it down. “Yes, it’s done,” he said dryly. “Milk will boil very fast. You won’t even notice. One second it is all calm, and then – poof! – it is over the side. You had the heat on too high.”

After that, you pour a little of the milk into the roux off heat and whisk hard. Once it blends, stream in the rest. The sauce should be creamy, but pourable. Season with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.

Velouté, by the way, is made basically the same way but with stock rather than milk. Also, nutmeg is not a typical velouté seasoning. Velouté is a classic fish or chicken sauce. “Velouté with cream and mushroom is called sauce supreme. What else is called supreme?”

“Citrus segments.”

“Right. What else?”

“Chicken breasts”

“Right. Same name for all these things. You gotta know what I mean. When later on we make chicken and I ask for sauce supreme, I don’t want you to give me oranges.”

Chef left out a grinder with white pepper for all of use to use. Stupidly, I forgot and used my own, landing a big slag of black pepper in there. But I went and got his and used it and whisked it all in. You couldn’t really see the black. Maybe I would get away with it.

I tasted the sauce several times and adjusted seasoning. This is an important skill to learn, and one that can only be learned by trial and error. Basically, you want just a little bite from the pepper, but not much. With salt, you don’t want to taste it at all. (That is a good principle for seasoning anything.) Salt wakes up inherent flavors but should not be a flavor itself. One thing chef stressed over and over: NEVER add salt at the beginning. Never! Sauces reduce, and their flavor profile changes. Once salt goes in, it can never come out. Add salt only at the end, and taste to make sure you have the right amount.

Another thing he said was, “If you over-season your béchamel – with nutmeg, with pepper, with salt, anything – the only way to correct it is to dilute with more béchamel. The only way. So add a little, taste, add some more. Don’t just dump a bunch in there and hope.”

Anyway, I got it right. “Beautiful consistency … flavor is perfect.”

“One of the things the school teaches is tamponner. That is, you rub some butter on the surface to prevent a skin. I don’t like that because it makes the sauce greasy. If you want to preserve your béchamel, if you are not going to serve it immediately, just get some plastic wrap and press than onto the surface.”

I got the bordelaise ready. Emancer of shallots, mignonette, bay leaf, one smashed garlic clove, and about a cup of wine. Near boil, then simmer on the flat top. Simmer for a long time. The wine should be almost gone. When you get to that point, add the espagnole and whisk. Simmer until you get a nappé consistency. That is, it coats the back of a spoon and when you draw your finger through it, it makes a clear line, parting the sauce.

As an aside, the one thing that all bordelaise recipes have in common is wine, shallots, pepper, and some sort of brown enrichment, whether stock, espagnole, glace or whatever. The recipe I have been using the most lately is Keller’s. He uses many more aromatics in the wine than just shallots – he adds carrots, mushrooms and many more herbs. Then only stock, not a roux-bound sauce (which do not appear in any of Keller’s books). The result is tasty, but runny. I always need to thicken with heavy cream.

Anyway, I think this was where everything started to go wrong for me. I did not hear Chef X say how far to reduce the wine. But I should have known, because I make bordelaise at home. However, I did not want to assume. So I kept asking, “Is this done yet?” And of course it never was. The other thing that threw me was how far behind mine was. Shouldn’t I have been done by now? But I wasn’t. Maybe everyone boiled theirs faster.

While I waited for it, I pureed my tomato sauce. At one point, I said, “Does anyone have a food mill, I need to strain my tomato sauce.”

That drew a rebuke from Chef X. “We do not strain with a food mill, and we don’t strain tomato sauce. Puree, puree, puree.”

So I pureed, pureed, pureed. The consistency was good. I brought it forward for inspection. “Did you season this?”

Crap. No, I hadn’t. How did he know by just looking? No pepper visible? Anyway, I took it back and seasoned it, tasted, corrected, etc. The seasoned sauce earned a “Very good!”

While my bordelaise simmered, I got to work prepping the Hunter’s sauce. This is a true classic, one that shows up in all the books, like Poivrade. For this one, we would use the fond de veau lié as a base.

A word on that. Basically, the traditional way was to use demi-glace as a base. But in fact you have other options. Any of the brown sauce derivatives can also be made from espagnole (as we did the bordelaise), from fond de veau lié (as we did chasseur), or from reduced stock. They are interchangeable. Espagnole probably has more depth of flavor. Fond is easier to do and since it has fewer aromatics, is better able to take on complex flavors later. Also, the color is lighter. This made it good for the chasseur sauce.

For the chasseur, we had to peel mushrooms – something that I had never done before – then slice, then ciseler shallots. Sweat in butter, no color. At this point, I realized that the sauce would be finished with some chopped tarragon, which I did not have. So I ran to get some. When I got back, there was some brown suc in my sautoir. Damn. “Chef, do I have to start this over?”

“Let me see. No, it’s OK, the vegetables have no color. But you don’t want to deglaze that suc. So get a new sautoir and continue cooking in the clean one.”

“Chef,” someone else asked, “how long do I cook this?”

“Until the shallots are translucent.”

“How long will that be?”

Chef got an impatient look on his face. “Look, I can’t say, you know? I could say two minutes or three minutes, or whatever, but that’s not what matters. What matters is, is it done? You need to know when it’s done. You can’t know that just by timing. You know it by sight. You need to learn that.”

When they are cooked, you add a little shot of cognac and flambé. That is fun. You just tip the pan over the burner, and the cognac will ignite. At first it will be a huge column of flame, then it will get lower and lower. It takes a minute or so for the flame to go out. Then add white wine and boil. Then, finally, the fond de veau lié and a little bit of tomato sauce. Whisk and simmer to nappé consistency.

While that simmered, I checked my bordelaise. “Chef, does this look done to you?” he came over and dipped his spoon.

“No. Nappé. Nappé. That is too thin.

OK, more simmer. “What about now?”

He checked again. “No. Do you know what nappé is? Were you listening?” He went and got his demo bordelaise and showed me. “Like that.”

Got it. This was embarrassing. I really should have known that. And, in fact, I did know it. I was just so flustered with the rush of work that it would not stay in my brain.

I finally got it down to nappé, seasoned it and presented it. “Too spicy. You used too many peppercorns.” He was right, that I had not measured out my peppercorns all that carefully. Which was an unusual departure for me that day, as I had otherwise spent a lot of time rather obsessively measuring mis en place cups on one of the many kitchen scales.

“Only ways to fix this are to add more stock, but we don’t have any more, or add lots of butter, which will smooth out the pepper but weaken the flavor.”

“Could I add more espagnol?”

“If you have it, yes, that would be the best way.”

I did, and I did. Simmer to nappé, taste, correct seasoning, re-present. “Did you add the monté au beurre?” This is a pat of butter swirled in at the end to add a little flavor and a little creaminess to the texture. Of course, he had mentioned it before, and of course I knew about it from books – and, of course, I forgot it. I went back and added it. “That,” he said smacking his lips, “is perfect.” Long journey, but at least I got to the right destination.

The chasseur sauce was now done, I could tell. Nappé, no doubt about it. I added the chopped herbs and seasoned. As Chef was passing by I asked him to taste it. “The consistency is perfect,” he said, continuing on.

“What about the flavor?”

“That’s good too!”

We were allowed to take our sauces home. I took my bordelaise, fond de veau lié and tomato. Not sure what I am going to do with any of them but I will think of something.

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Interesting!

If I could make a suggestion, you might want to seek out advice on liaisons from someone who learned about them more recently than the 1960s. A lot of that information about slurries is dubious. "Slurry" is a description of how certain starches are incorporated. Beyond that, you can't make any of those generalizations about them. Arrowroot is not cornstarch is not potato starch is not agar is not alginate is not tapioca starch is not anything else ... Chef is just revealing his biases toward the methods he initially learned. Escoffier didn't use arrowroot, and it sounds like Chef never really bothered to learn much about it.

Notes from the underbelly

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