*Names of boot camp participants have been changed to protect their privacy. Most names of the CIA personnel remain the same except the Kitchen Assistants, who will figure both positively and negatively in our kitchen adventures.
The “hungry hubby” (from now on referred to as HH) and I awoke at 4:30 am on Monday morning, June 18th. I did not get to sleep until 1:30 am, tossing and turning and kicking myself for guzzling Coca-cola all day on Sunday. Or maybe it was just anxiety. Will I be sent home for being an absolute moron in the kitchen — or worse, set the whole kitchen on fire?! All these thoughts were racing through my mind and, try as I would to quell them, they just would not go away.
Just as I fell into a deep slumber, that earth-shattering wake-up call came. It was so hard to get up but HH and I were both excited. Our orientation was at 6:00 am. We were almost at our parked car at the hotel when we realized we had forgotten our back pack full of kitchen utensils (knives, whisks, tongs, etc.), so HH went back to get them. Imagine a warrior heading out without his weapons! I could think of several words to describe us, but I’ll just attribute the “forgetfulness” to first day jitters. Yeah, right.
We got to the CE Dining room at the J.W. Marriot Continuing Education Center. We were the first ones to arrive, and our orientation person, Jennifer Doran handed us our parking pass. She also made coffee, bless her heart! The other participants began trickling in. I was surprised when a man in a wheelchair, Jacob, came in. Love of food knows no bounds and Jacob just proved it. We were given a quick rundown of the rules, especially the ones concerning parking. We were asked to park at the lower level of the Anton Plaza, which was no big deal really.
We were then shown our lecture room and quickly escorted to breakfast at Farquharson hall. For some reason, it reminded me of the dining halls at Hogwarts. I guess it used to be a church. The high, domed ceilings were impressive and so were the stained glass windows. And where the altar used to be were now omelet and crepe stations on a stage manned by CIA students. I got excited. Crepes with apple compote! What a great breakfast this would be. The HH rushed off to get us more coffee as I got up to the crepe station and placed my order. The crepe guy was very courteous but I caught a hint of nervousness in his voice. My suspicions were confirmed when he fumbled the first crepe and had to dump it. Uh-oh…we had to get to class in 20 minutes. I tried so hard not to look at him and make him more nervous…but I was really hungry! Finally he served me a neatly rolled up crepe pocket. I stared down at the small serving and knew I would wolf this down in no time and still be hungry. HH was smart enough to get an extra bagel, so I sequestered the other half and gobbled that up too.
When we got to class, a gym bag, with CIA boot camp imprinted on it, awaited each participant. I got my uniform out only to realize that it was way too big. I guess I’ll have to go to the admin office to get a smaller size after the lecture, I thought. I was already in a daze.
Our instructor walked in. He was quite tall and dark skinned. His name was Phil Crispo. He was a Scotsman and boy did he have a great accent! We all took turns introducing ourselves and giving a reason why we wanted to take this class. Some were sent by their spouses but most of us just wanted to learn about French food. There was a mother and daughter team, two friends, and solo attendees. HH and I were the only couple in the group.
After that we went straight to a Powerpoint presentation as the Chef went down the list of what identifies Northwest France cuisine.
Butter,cream, and more butter.Apples.Calvados – you guess it – apple brandy !A la Normande – normally refers to fish with sauce made from cream, apple cider, butter and calvados.
Northwest France is comprised of Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley. Their signature dishes are Friture de La Loire (deep fried fish), buerre blanc sauce, tarte tatin.
It was a brief lecture because we also needed to form our groups. The class needed to break up into 5 groups of three. HH and I agreed to be on the same team (we were on a vacation after all, and it would not make sense to be separated from each other). A guy in the group, Wyatt, who was a Skills Boot Camp veteran, joined our team. Together, we formed team three. On our team’s menu were the following:
· Grenouilles (frogs’ legs)
· Homard a la Armoricaine (Breton-style lobster)
· Haricots Verts (Green Beans)
So off we went to the kitchen. Everyone needed to be in uniform, so I had to take care of that business first. HH was fine in his uniform but he accompanied me to the admin office to get mine changed. The uniform swallowed me up…I really felt like Bozo the clown. I think they designed the chef’s jacket for men…hmmph no wonder there were not a lot of renowned female chefs. Well, I did not come to Boot Camp to make a fashion statement, so I marched out of the ladies room in my ill-fitting uniform.
There were two kitchen assistants (KA) waiting to assign us our station, Harry and Luke. Chef Crispo laid down some rules in the kitchen. Keep your stations as clean as possible. No hot dishes in the dirty dish rack. Washing your hands was a “given”. But any time you handled food that was not to be cooked any further, you had to wear gloves.
The first thing Wyatt showed us was how to tie our aprons properly so the strings didn’t get in the way. Next we had to get those little plastic containers to set up mis en place. We also needed to get a list together to the KA for some ingredients that were not readily available like the brandy, etc. Why do I feel like I’m already running around in circles? Okay, that punk kid Harry was not very nice. He was lazy and was dragging his feet on some of our requests. “Why did he even sign up to be a KA if he was going to make some snide remarks every time you ask him for something”, I wondered. Now Luke was the total opposite. He was very helpful and respectful to seemingly kitchen-challenged ladies like me.
Well, we got the frog legs and green beans oops – I mean “haricots verts” – but no sign of lobster. The chef said seafood was usually hard to procure on Mondays. (So Tony Bourdain was right in his book Kitchen Confidential: do not order fish in restaurants on Mondays; chances are they are leftovers from the weekend). The Chef offered the alternative of shrimp but said he would still order the lobster which would probably get in on Wednesday. Great! I still wanted to see how to humanely kill a lobster. Knife between the eyes is what I heard but I still want to witness it.
Service was at 12:30 p.m. The Chef wanted plates warm for hot dishes. Everything needed to come together at the same time.
Our group’s menu looked pretty easy. We just had to sauté the frog legs at the end. I noticed the boys, HH and Wyatt already coated the frog legs in flour. I was dubious about this because I know the moisture was just going to gunk up the flour. Well, HH was on sauté duty so that was his call. The haricots verts were boiled and ready for final prep. HH had to cover the beans because a passer-by, like Chef Crispo would snatch one up and pop it in his mouth. The shrimp could be done ahead of time. Following the instructions for the lobster we had to sauté scallions, onion and garlic in butter for 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and sauté for probably 2 minutes more and then take the shrimp out, add the brandy and flambé. Then add tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley and tarragon. Stir in wine, clam juice and water. Simmer for 15 minutes until it thickens. Turn it off and wait till it is time to serve to add the shrimp to finish cooking it through. While waiting we needed to refrigerate the half-cooked shrimp.
At 11:30 am, I told HH to fire up the frog legs. They were starting to burn too quickly. I suspect it was because they were pre-floured. He had to take them off the sauté pan before they were cooked through. I transferred them to a hotel pan to finish up in the oven at 400 °F. We were not used to this high-BTU burners either. Industrial strength burners can easily burn the skin off your hands if you’re not careful. After the frog legs were done, we made the sauce for them which was basically adding the vermouth, chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley, lemon juice and capers to the fonde (crusting) that had formed on the sauté pan.
Then came plating time. We were to prepare a presentation plate and a family plate. Wyatt had already warmed the plates in the oven. As I plated the shrimp and the frog legs I sprinkled some chopped parsley, much to Wyatt’s dismay. He said that they (meaning CIA instructors) do not like all that fancy-smancy useless garnish stuff. I argued “- But it looks appealing!” So we left it at that.
At 12:20 pm, the chef was hollering “ Let’s go!” (which sounded like “Lez go!” … did I mention how I loved his accent?)
Oh boy, where did the time go?
I was not sure why I was running around the kitchen again – and who put their mess on my station?! HH replied that it was me and I just had amnesia. “In the weeds” is what they call it. When your station is so messy and the pressure of service is upon you, your brain is probably in the same shape.
Finally, all our dishes were on the communal table. I was so tired I almost forgot to take pictures. Here’s the hubby looking good in his chef uniform.
We ate at the CE dining room. I was still feeling fatigued. I could barely eat. My feet WERE KILLING ME.
My favorite dish from this region was the Leek and Camembert tart. I nearly did not sample it because it looked quite plain …but the flavors just hit you. It’s the cheese. The chicken braised in apple cider and finished with cream also had a very good flavor. As for my frog legs, the sauce that went with them was good but I prefer this amphibion’s legs deep-fried. The shrimp… was perfectly cooked I thought; it was so tender and the sauce was so rich I can’t wait to make this with lobster!
After lunch we headed back into the kitchen in order for Chef to critique our dishes. I was clasping my hands on my chest as he picked up the shrimp dish with all the parsley garnish. He methodically swept up the parsley. Wyatt was right. Chef Crispo said “ I want to see functional garnish. If I can’t eat it, I don’t want it on my plate.” Chef said if we wanted more parsley we were to mix it in the sauce. He also told us to think vertically in terms of building the plate. Regarding the frog legs, he said it would have been better if we separated them in two. As it stood right now, they look like a piece of a*s. We all cracked up laughing at that remark because the HH had made a similar comment earlier. Also, the Chef confirmed my misgivings about pre-flouring a sauté dish. You always want to do this right before you cook it because the moisture of the protein will coagulate the flour and allow the hot pan to burn your food quickly.
We weren’t the only team with non-functional garnish. It seemed every other team had that issue.
After that we reconvened at the classroom. The Chef announced a tour. HH and I decided to skip that and just head back to the hotel. I wanted to put my feet up or just collapse on the couch.
But first…some shopping was in order. We went to the CIA bookstore to peruse some goodies. There were a ton of cookbooks, every title I could imagine. HH and I ended up with some iron-on patches for our chef’s jackets, some t-shirts, a license plate holder and some other goodies.
Caterina de Medici
I thought I was not going to make it to dinner. After taking a warm shower I just wanted to sleep. In fact, I felt like I was sleepwalking all day! We were told earlier to be nice to the wait staff at the Italian restaurant since it was their first day. Great! Guinea pigs were we? Our waiter did pretty well in taking our orders although it was obvious he was shaking in his shoes. And when it was time to open our bottle of wine, he broke the cork! I felt so sorry for him. He got assistance somewhere else. Then he returned to pour the wine. His hand was shaking so badly, he spilled the wine on the table cloth. The table got so quiet, all of us were dreading more wine being spilt… but our waiter managed to get through pouring five glasses with only one casualty…mostly on HH’s wine.
Otherwise the meal was pretty okay. My appetizer of mixed charcuterie was fantastic, my seared duck breast was cooked properly and the sauce was so glossy and well-bodied. Still I felt it needed more seasoning to complement the strong taste of the duck. The dessert of coffee caramel was so-so…
The best part of the night was getting to know the other participants in the group. Gerald was an anesthesiologist (he said he passes gas for a living … ha ha) and he was at the boot camp with a friend Bianca who operated a bed and breakfast in the Hudson Valley. Brandon was a computer guy and was sent to boot camp by his wife. Apparently he does most of the cooking at home. All of them share the same passion for food that we do. I felt like we spoke the same language. I think a true sign of a foodie is that he can still talk about food even after he is stuffed full of it.
I had to be the designated driver that night. HH was plastered after he and Gerald became the main consumers of two bottles of wine at our table. This was in addition to our allowance of two pours of selected wine.
It mattered not. I survived the first day of Boot Camp!
What I intend to make from this region:
Homard a la Armoricaine
Breton style Lobster
Chicken Sauteed with Apple Cider and Cream
Tarte aux Porrezux et Camembert
Leek and Camembert Tart
What I learned today :
1. Use a functional garnish, not a decorative one
2. Revisit knife skills.
3. Hot food on warm plates. Putting hot food on cold plates is a big “no-no”.
4. When arranging plate for service, think vertically.
5. Use the best ingredients.
6. Obsessive attention to detail is a hallmark of French cuisine.
What I need to work on:
1. Timing for service. Getting everything ready at the same time. I need to get my head out of the weeds and keep a clean station in order to do this. I realize that this is not like a home kitchen where I can take my own sweet time and sip some wine. As the HH said : we need to hustle!