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Diary: December 15, 2002

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Thursday, December 12

Instead of sitting through a demo, putting together lunch, cleaning up, and so on, we took a break today for the L’academie student celebration. Those of us in the culinary career training program prepared lunch for everybody, and then we were joined by the pastry students for lunch and celebration.

George and Jonathan were in charge of the big things for today’s meal: barbecued beef brisket, barbecued pork ribs, and baked beans with fatback. They’d spent yesterday preparing rubs and sauces and getting things marinating and soaking, and I tried to help them get things moving this morning by putting their beans on to cook and so on. Other students made cornbread, coleslaw, and other fixings. Melanie went to Safeway and came back to school with fluorescent red and green Rice Krispies and ordinary marshmallows, which she proceeded to make into Rice Krispie treats. (I kept teasing her about them, joking that we went to culinary school to learn how to make Rice Krispie treats and then moaning, “ooh, FD&C Red no. 5” while snacking on them. She must hate me by now.)

Chef Francois was still getting things together for the assorted Christmas Great luncheons and dinners, so some of us helped him with that. He asked me to make yet another Buche de Noel for Saturday’s event, so I made a bunch of marzipan décor and got the roulade baked, filled and rolled. I was quite fast with the cake after practicing yesterday. I don’t especially like the taste of roulade cakes (they taste of egg and sugar and not much else, probably since they’re made of egg and sugar and not much else) but I love buttercream, and I found myself wishing I could make a cake for family and friends. Perhaps next year I will make a Buche de Hanukkah and decorate it with blue marzipan stars of David and make a little marzipan menorah with almond wicks.

At least two of the pastry students are vegetarian, and when we’ve had family meals recently they have been reduced to picking at slaw and bread and salad for their lunch. I did this plenty in my vegetarian days, and I always told my hosts I didn’t mind but it secretly irritated me. It’s not hard to make something substantial, preferably with protein content, that will satisfy a vegetarian and make them feel like they’re being looked after. I am no longer a vegetarian myself, but the school attitude towards vegetarianism bothers me periodically. I don’t think it’s important to make a huge production out of catering to vegetarians, but the fact is there will always be vegetarians eating at the restaurants where we cook, and as paying customers they will always demand and deserve a decent meal. Shouldn’t we be taught to provide it?

Chef Peter and George were dismissive when I asked whether or not we were fixing vegetarian foods for the vegetarian pastry students. “They can eat slaw!” Uh, no. So I made a batch of vegetarian baked beans and asked that some of the potato skins be prepared without bacon. I then labeled the vegetarian beans and the fatback-seasoned beans so that it would be easy to tell the difference. It made me feel better that I at least was doing what I could to make every student feel welcome at the party.

We opened the lunch buffet line around 1pm, and everybody cracked open bottles of beer and started tossing back Ivelisse’s special egg nog (with coconut milk and plenty of dark rum). The pastry students brought plates of brownies, coffee and vanilla ice creams, and fudge sauce to go with Melanie’s Rice Krispie treats. Chatter flowed freely, and we hung out gossiping about the kitchens where we will extern.

After lunch, two of the faculty members organized us into teams for a culinary trivia game. They used a set of cards from a board game called something like “gourmet challenge” and went around asking each team to choose question categories and then giving them questions. I thought I’d do pretty well, as I’m reasonably well-read on food issues, but I embarrassingly failed to get a significant number of the questions shot at my team and others. (I think my team also got unlucky and had a small percentage of the “easy” questions.) We didn’t do so well, but we had a good time just the same. The winning team members were each given a bottle of a French red table wine as a prize.

We packed up and went home a half hour early, feeling a little dejected that school is so close to being over. Tonight, Amy sent around a sweet, gushy email to all of us about how much she is going to miss us day-to-day now that we’re about to extern. I’ll miss my classmates too, but I’m also looking forward to the next big experience. Ortanique’s kitchen will be so different from the now-familiar L’academie kitchen, and I look forward to getting to know its staff, its menu, and its stations.

Friday, December 12

Today was the last market basket we’ll have the chance to try at school. I was on the team of three for the very first time since we went down to teams of two (unless somebody is absent, 15 students in my class = six teams of two plus one team of three). Zoe and Kristin and I were placed together.

I was in the mood to work in pastry, so I asked if I could make the dessert for today. Kristin and Zoe quickly agreed. I started by finishing the Buche de Noel for Chef Francois, and then asked Kristin and Zoe what they were making for our meal. Kristin wanted to make a seared pork tenderloin with sauerkraut studded with dried fruit, and Zoe was kicking around some celery root dish with seared scallops as a starter. I suggested apple fritters and spice ice cream as an appropriate finish to those two dishes, and they agreed it all sounded good.

I spent my last full day at school mostly in the pastry kitchen, putting together the spice ice cream and later the apple fritters. I love apple fritters if well-made, but have never made them and have only made ordinary donuts once. I poked around Chef Somchet’s bookshelf looking for recipes and found a great-looking yeasted batter in Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Pastries book. The recipe called for sparkling apple cider and sounded like it would produce a delicate fritter, but realized that I didn’t have time for a yeasted dough. I ended up pulling the recipe from the On Cooking textbook; it was leavened with baking powder and was packed with plenty of apples. I prepared a Frangelico-spiked glaze to brush over the fritters with Zoe’s advice and assistance.

I think today’s menu may have been one of the most beautifully plated, tastiest meals I’ve had at school. Zoe made these potato “mirrors” to garnish her scallop dish that were especially impressive. Mandoline-cut, wafer-thin potato slices, dipped in melted clarified butter, sandwiched with a single leaf of parsley, weighted and baked slowly to be flat and crisp. They looked like potato-parsley playing cards. She also made a leek-bacon compote and turned the celery root into a puree. Kristin’s pork tenderloin was delicious and came with a great wholegrain mustard sauce. Chef Peter happened by while I was eating it and snarked on me, the Jewish former vegetarian, chowing down on pork. And the fritters were great, especially with the spice ice cream (I’d added a scrape of black pepper to the ice cream mixture before freezing, which worked quite well to cut the richness of the cream). Kristin told me she never finishes her desserts, so the fact that she ate almost everything I served her was remarkable.

I am grateful that I spent my last full day in the kitchens just as I spent my first day: learning, playing with food, doing the best I can to take even a simple item and make it special to look at and special to eat. We started with onion soup, and I remember figuring out as I went along how to slice an onion thinly, trying to keep the onions off the side of the pot where they may scorch, and chatting with Drew about why we came to school. And I spent my last day tossing pieces of bread into the fryer to test the temperature, tasting the ice cream mix repeatedly to get the spice mixture and level right, and asking Zoe to talk to me about making a good donut glaze. It’s not just onion soup and fritters, either. I can butcher a chicken easily and know how to braise tough cuts of meat, I can prepare a decent brioche and know the difference between parmegiano-reggiano and grana padano. My pasta is delicate and eggy, my shrimp are never overcooked, and even my simple salads taste far better than they did when I prepared them before coming to school.

I really didn’t just go to culinary school to learn how to make Rice Krispie treats; I came to learn how to cook and how to understand food. I have barely started to learn those things, and I’m glad I have a foundation to build upon while I extern and subsequently begin my “real” culinary career. I have tests on Monday and Tuesday, but the classwork phase is essentially over.

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Rochelle, congratulations on finishing your coursework. Thank you so much for writing your journal; I've looked forward to each entry. I hope you'll continue to write and post during your externship, and that your externship will be as rewarding to you as the course itself has been.

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Rochelle, your comments about providing food (that is to say, a balance of protein and carbohydrates) for vegetarians and your actions in regard to this are correct. It is not hard to make something at least palatable. Let them eat slaw is no answer.

"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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Did you know that you can make many types of cake into a roulade? I served 600 portions of a hazelnut and mascarpone-eggnog roulade on Saturday. Pastry instructors are teaching you traditional technique. Now you can take it from there! Nut meal can replce flour etc... Chiffon cake (which is an American development) works well in forming roulades also- the oil in the cake makes them flexible.

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The externship starts Wednesday. In other words, I get no time off. Ortanique is closed Sundays and I will have off every Tuesday so I can go to class. (I will probably work most Mondays, but hope to eventually make Mondays a day shift so Tuesday mornings won't be as hard.)

Ortanique is closed December 24, 25, and 26 (plus Jan. 1), so this does not concern me seriously. I'll be getting a short break, and I'll know enough about my new job to be able to enjoy the time away. I think if I had the break before starting, I might spend the whole time worrying over what comes next. :hmmm:

KarenS, I have eaten rolled cakes that did not taste like the roulades we have made at school (in a good way). What do I need to know to adapt a cake recipe into a roulade? I am quite fond of buttery but light cakes with chocolate buttercream, and may try to make a buche de Hanukkah with one next year. :raz:

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Just wanted to let you that I have thoroughly enjoyed all of your posts since day 1.

Thank you for the time and commitment you've put into this. It's been interesting, insightful, and a very good view of the rigors and pressure of culinary education. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors, and sincerely hope you will continue to post during your externship, time permitting, of course.


"Tell your friends all around the world, ain't no companion like a blue - eyed merle" Robert Plant

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