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Diary: October 30, 2002

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Tuesday, October 29

This was one of those long days with nothing to do in it. I came in early and made both focaccia and pizza doughs, thinking I could sit them in the walk-in overnight and bake them off tomorrow morning. The morning demo was extremely short; we learned how to make Thai green and red curries, and Chef Somchet demoed a cold rice noodle salad with sauteed shrimp. We were split into teams and given a ridiculous amount of time to get everything done. I asked my teammate, Amy, if I could go into pastry and make the coconut ice cream for dessert. She said she didn’t mind, so I went in with Em and got the ice cream freezing within a few minutes.

Em and I decided to make some cookies to go with our ice cream (which we had made for everybody in the class), and we chose some coffee-chocolate chip ones we’ve made in class several times before. We were out of chocolate chips, so Em went to a nearby supermarket to buy more while I mixed up the dough. We got the cookies in the oven and looked at the clock: 10:30am! I went to see how Amy was doing and she had already finished all of our mise en place and was working on other projects to kill time.

Around this time, Chef Francois came to me and handed me a telephone call slip with Jacques Pepin’s phone number on it. “I just talked to him and he said to call him here at 5pm today for your interview.” Huzzah! The rest of the day started to pass a little more quickly after I got this news. I filled my time by cutting up a bunch of toppings for my pizza and focaccia, helping Amy with a caramel sauce for the coconut ice cream, and so on.

After I got home, I set up my phone and computer and called Jacques Pepin. I remembered a comment on eGullet that I should try to ask some interesting questions of him, and so I had written a few more personal, fun type questions about his food history. My first was a question about an early cooking memory. He seemed taken aback by my question, and said he didn’t really have an answer. “I left home when I was 13 to apprentice in a restaurant where my mother was a chef. I was always in the restaurant working, washing, cleaning tables. Chefs are stars now, but 20 years ago we were at the bottom level. We didn’t know that somehow, some day we would be asked to remember these things.”

After this response, I decided to stick to more traditional questions. Chef Jacques seemed happy enough to answer them, and gave detailed responses when he could. He also asked me questions at various points, including whether or not I knew who Craig Claiborne was and what my parents’ professions were. I learned some interesting facts I hadn’t seen in my research, such as that he turned down an offer as the chef for the Kennedy White House when he moved to the US to take a job as a corporate chef at Howard Johnson’s. “I’d already worked for Charles de Gaulle and thought it would be the same sort of thing. The Howard Johnson’s job sounded more interesting.”

We spoke for about 20 minutes. I came away thinking Chef Jacques is much like Chef Francois, except he had his name on books and his face on television rather than founding a cooking school and a major culinary organization. They both enjoy teaching, believe in the importance of technical skill, and are serious and passionate about their work.

By the way, I did address the idea of an eGullet chat with Chef Jacques. He politely declined, saying that he has his plate full with the similar work he does with epicurious.com, Food and Wine magazine, and other food media.

Wednesday, October 30

Today’s schedule was a sharp antidote to yesterday’s leisurely pace. I boned out an entire shoulder of lamb, which took me quite a long time. I was glad I had sharpened my boning knife on the stone recently, because it would have been even harder with a dull blade. Tunneling out the shoulder blade was especially trying. I worked and worked and worked the meat and sinew away from the bone, pulling the flesh away repeatedly, and after a while I started wondering where the bottom of the bone was. When I finally pulled it out I waved it triumphantly and said “YES!” before getting back to work.

In recent weeks I’ve noticed my discomfort with handling meat has started to fade. I did not mind breaking down the lamb today, and wasn’t nearly as anxious about the job as I have been in the past. I had no trouble tying the stuffed meat shut neatly and tightly. I was not disturbed by the sticky, “meaty” feeling on my hands. I didn’t cook the meat correctly, but today was the first time in quite a while that I didn’t handle it well. (I neglected to turn it over halfway through roasting in the oven. Apparently, Chef Peter mentioned this, but I missed it. My inexperience with meat means that I don’t intuit such handling without specific instruction. It was a fixable problem, fortunately.)

After our break, Chef Peter told us that the menus in the remaining weeks will be mostly light, and that we’ll have more days like yesterday than we will like today. “This is your time. If you want to try something, try it. Practice it. It’s up to you to fill the time. You do whatever you feel you need to work on.” I started thinking of all the things I’d like to get right before I leave for externship in December: tourneeing a mushroom. Folding a paper cornet. Cutting a julienne more quickly. Cooking a proper omelet every time. Baking good French bread. These are some of the same skills that are why I wanted to attend culinary school, and I can do a rudimentary to adequate job at all of them, but I am not at all satisfied. I’m glad I’ll have the chance to work on it before entering the “real world.”

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Definitely a modernist. The Asian style dishes we've made have been decidedly Americanized, and this was no exception. Both curries were based on commercial pastes and canned coconut milk. Chef Somchet said that when she was in Thailand she made her own pastes, just like everybody else did over there. Here, she thinks the ingredients are not as good, and it's not worth the bother. After some pressing, she said she'd show those of us who are interested how to make a fresh paste sometime.

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Chef Somchet said that when she was in Thailand she made her own pastes, just like everybody else did over there.

Probably at one point everybody did, but nowadays I think Thais are as like as you or me to use commercial paste, and as prepackaged ingredients go, it's one of the best.

You can go to a stand in Thailand and buy paste that someone else has made in the traditional style; they just scoop you a hunk off a big mound. It's like Baskin-Robbins only with curry.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Another great entry, as always.

I was sitting with my wife and newborn son in the hospital today while both were sleeping and I thought to myself - today is Friday! I wonder what Malawry is making with her market basket right now?

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