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Diary: November 24, 2002

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Thursday, November 21

Due to my late night, I never had an opportunity to talk about yesterday’s cheese presentation. Steven Jenkins, who does the cheese buying for Fairway in NY and has written a book called The Cheese Primer, came to present information about cheeses and orchestrate a cheese tasting for us. We were packed into the demo kitchen with the pastry students for the presentation and tastings.

Steven is a somewhat grizzled man in his early 50s. He is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about cheeses, and wanted us to understand what a good cheese is like. He kept stating that cheese is not a fad food or “gourmet,” that it is peasant food. “I am a peasant. I have peasant virtue,” he repeated every few minutes. “Cheese has peasant virtue.” He discussed the history of cheeses and their importance in European cultures, and talked to us about how some of the cheeses we were tasting were made. He also talked about what not to do with cheese. He exhorted us to avoid “stuff with stuff in it,” cheeses with bits of vegetables or herbs mixed in, and disdained unimaginitive cheese plates with red delicious apples and table grapes. (We sampled our cheeses with a mild and a hot mango chutney, almonds, walnuts, pecans, several kinds of salami, figs, baguette slices, and pieces of currant-walnut rye bread.)

All the 13 cheeses we tasted were American artisanal cheeses. One of my favorites was the Vella Dry Jack from California, a hard cheese with a chalky white pattern similar to that of parmegiano-reggiano. It was sweet and nutty. The Harvest Moon from Bingham Hill Cheese Company was also delicious, one of the best triple-crème type cheeses I’ve tasted. There were several blue cheeses in the tasting, including the creamy Bel Gioso Gorgonzola and the mild Hubbardston Blue from Westfield, MA.

We haven’t had this sort of session in some time, where we taste multiple foods in a single category to learn how to discern their characteristics and appreciate their nuances. I wish we did more of these educational tastings, since I learn so much from them. Plus, they’re a lot of fun.

Friday, November 23

Marta is involved in Food and Friends, a local organization that feeds people who are unable to leave their homes. She spoke to Chef Francois at some point a few weeks ago about having L’academie donate some pies for their Thanksgiving food packages. Somehow it came out that we were going to make 200 apple pies. We’ve been working on them all week.

We started early in the week on dough, using a recipe Chef Somchet loves for “perfect pie crust.” We purchased buckets of sweetened apples from a supplier and used disposable aluminum pie plates. Just the same, the sheer quantity of work involved is overwhelming. People had to roll out bottom crusts, roll out top crusts, cut out vents in the top crusts, egg wash bottom crust edges, fit on top crusts, trim pies, crimp edges, egg wash and sugar tops, bake the finished pies, wrap them in foil, put them in boxes, and tie the boxes in bundles of 5. I spent most of my pie-making obligations on crimping, egg washing, and sugaring pies.

We started out enthusiastic (well, somewhat) about the project, but then it got somewhat more boring. And then it got really old. Some people got better and more efficient about handling pie crust, while others got gradually more slapdash and careless. 200 pies didn’t seem that terrible to me initially but then it seemed overwhelming as I saw how much work it required, and we didn’t even have to make the filling.

By this morning, there was little energy left for the project. We were on the verge of finishing, but the last few dozen seemed to take longer than ever. My hands were totally dried out from folding up cardboard boxes all morning, and the pastry kitchen was littered with pie dough and flour. I was happy to bundle up the last three stacks of pie boxes around 3pm. I’m pretty good at American pie crust by now, but I have no desire to see it again for some time.

After class let out, I headed downtown to Ortanique for the purposes of trailing. The DC location of Ortanique is overseen by Chef Scott Houghton, but the executive chef is Chef Cindy Huston who mostly works at the Florida location. Chef Cindy happened to be on-site tonight, so I had the opportunity to meet her and say hello. I immediately liked her; she is friendly and knowledgeable. She spent some time hanging out in the kitchen chatting about football before going out to work the dining room.

Chef Scott had me assist with various tasks related to a special event; the restaurant has an upstairs which can be closed for private events, and tonight there was some group coming over for finger foods prepared by the restaurant around 9pm. I plated prepiped pate on croustades and endive leaves with goat cheese in the basement prep area. Then I went upstairs and helped the garde-manger cook by cutting sections off of peeled grapefruits and oranges, slicing grape tomatoes in half, and dicing beefsteak tomatoes. I was allowed to go behind the line around 7pm and watch during most of service.

Their line is large, and includes two fryers, a food washing sink, two very large ranges with ovens, a convection oven, two salamanders, and plenty of reach-ins and lowboy refrigerators. I stood near the garde-manger station, which is staffed by Ana and Kevin (who, like many people who work closely together in restaurant kitchens, seem to deserve their own sitcom). They plate all the cold food, handle some of the hot appetizers, and take care of all the dessert plates. Then Jaime, Zachary and some guy whose name I did not catch take care of the lengthy hot line. Chef Scott and Sous Chef Mathias (sp?) trade-off on expediting, depending on who is available.

The food is beautiful and leans towards sweet-spicy-tropical flavors, including a lot of Floribbean type cuisine. Salmon in calypso sauce, West Indian curried crab cakes, whole fried snapper with Jamaican peas and beans, conch fritters, bouillabaise, and fried calamari salads were prepared over and over again near where I stood. I had the opportunity to taste a few things and everything was delicious, fresh and sparkling in flavor. When the special event started I helped to fry mini conch fritters, spicy chicken wontons, and wings and washed out sauce ramekins in the food wash sink behind the line.

This was a very friendly and casual kitchen, and I enjoyed the mood. I was quite exhausted, though, and ready to go when the last few orders straggled in from 11pm seatings. I went and found Chef Scott and told him I needed to leave. I asked if he was interested in having me join them and he said from what he saw I had the right attitude and he could teach me the skills. He did admonish me to work on my Spanish (which I know is a serious issue, it was hard for me to communicate with Ana and Jaime especially) but said that he’d be happy to have me on board.

So I am now faced with a decision: Ortanique or Colorado Kitchen? I am leaning towards Ortanique, though I need to see the logistics of what they could work out for me. Their menu is longer and more interesting, which would give me an opportunity to learn more different things while there. I suspect they can pay better than Colorado Kitchen can, plus the food is more challenging. Colorado Kitchen is so tiny that I’d be doing everything they have to do almost immediately, which has its own attractions; they are also closed on Monday and Tuesday which would mean a regular day off right before my Tuesday classes which is attractive. I hope to finalize details and set a start date this week.

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It depends on the usual factors: whether or not the student has experience, the size and budget of the restaurant, how desperate the restaurant is for help, what the student can negotiate, etc etc etc. I think most externships are in the $7-10/hour range, but people are private about what they earn so I don't know that for sure.

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Two questions:

Did the cheese person present any Minnesota of Wisconsin cheese? In the past couple of years, there has been an explosion of wonderful, artisan cheesemakers on the scene here. There are a couple that are at the St. Paul Farmer's Market every weekend (this one rivals the Madison farmer's market), and I am impressed with what they are producing, and am impressed that I am more impressed this year than last with what they are doing.

Your externship. Each has their pros and cons. What does your gut say? You are going to be working really hard. At which place do you "get the best vibes?" Just one more question to ask yourself, along with all of the practical ones.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Hi Snowangel, I know we tried at least two Wisconsin cheeses, and I will try to look over my notes as to what they were over the next few days. Most of the cheeses we tried were from New England or California, though. It's wonderful that there are exciting cheeses where you are living. I wish we had better cheeses at our farmer's markets. Keswick Creamery started coming to my local market this season (they were already at others in the area) but their cheeses are a little disappointing to me.

Your advice on the externship is well-stated, and I appreciate it.

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Rochelle, did you have the sense you'd be on garde-manger at Ortanique? If so, that's like the garbage run and you'd be better off at Colorado. More varied range.

Cheese tastings. Mmm.

Again, excellent work on the diary and my thanks for it.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

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

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

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

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Jin is once again absolutely right -- a big (or even just biggish) kitchen will put you on gm (especially if you're a girl). A small one will force you to do almost everything.

200 pies, eh? Sounds like banquet work to me. Very real world. And yes, very boring. But if you're there, you have to do it. No one will ask if you're having fun.

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