Chef Phil Crispo was already at the lecture room when we arrived. He appeared to be working intently on the computer, but I was sure he was eavesdropping on the animated discussion in the room about our awful service at the Bounty the night before. I was right.
“So I gather that there were problems with service last night?” He asked tentatively. The whole room burst into renewed chatter.
“We waited for an hour for food!”
“ I was served the wrong dish!”
“ No one came to our table to explain to us what was taking so long.”
Poor Chef looked taken aback by all these complaints he was receiving. Shaking his head, he got busy scribbling all of our comments down.
“These students graduate in three weeks!” He said, quite perplexed at what he was gathering from our experience. “These mistakes are unacceptable!”
“Is it because we have pre-paid dinners; is that why they treated us like second-rate customers?” Ryan, the guy who nearly walked out last night, interjected.
“Boot Camp participants are very important to the school,” Chef Crispo assured him. “Most of you have a genuine passion for food even more than the average student. You give up precious vacation time to attend these classes, not to mention spending your hard-earned cash to be here. We want you to have the best experience possible, work with the best ingredients possible. There are 15 of you. If each of you tell 20 other people of your bad experience that will add up to 300 bad opinions of the restaurant and the school.”
“To tell you frankly, not all of our students deserve to be in this program. A lot of them are just in it for the esteem of being in the Culinary Institute. Not all of them have the talent or the passion. They do not understand that it takes a lot of hard work to be successful in a restaurant kitchen…and there is lot of pressure. That is when students start dropping out of the culinary program.” Chef Crispo added, “I cannot not tell you how embarrassed I am about the experience you had at American Bounty but I can assure you that this will be addressed.”
He went on to say that there was a lesson in this too. “Mistakes happen in the kitchen but how well you recover will define what kind of cook or establishment you are going to be.” To describe what he meant by recovery, he gave an example of a returned dish that was undercooked. To simply put the same one back on the grill is not an option. You must start a new one and be more mindful that it is cooked to the right temperature. The front of the house, meaning the host, must also be quick to acknowledge this mistake and apologize for the delay.
Our topic for this day was Southwest France, the land of foie gras and duck confit! Our menu, though, was a big let down. We did not have any of the duck courses assigned to us. We had Garbure – a cabbage stew. Some other team was making cassoulet, which was what I had always wanted to make since reading Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. But, alas, that will just have to wait till I get home.
One thing I noticed about my team was that we seemed to be working more cohesively. We changed tactics for the fourth day. Instead of helping each other out with every single dish, which tends to create confusion, one was assigned responsibility for a certain course. I let the guys pick what they wanted to do because I was pretty comfortable with making any of dishes. Wyatt wanted to make the Garbure, “Hungry” hubby wanted to make the Filet de Rouget a la Bordelaise (filet of Red Snapper with Bordeux wine), while I was left with the Beignets de Mais (Corn Fritters).
Ouf! Mine was easy. I could prepare the batter ahead of time and just fry them at the last minute. I tested one fritter and judged the seasoning. When I was satisfied, I kept the batter in the refrigerator. The one thing I noted with the corn fritters is that you must be able to tell when they are cooked through without drying them out (much like a pancake). A tablespoon of batter yields an ideal size for pan-frying. It cooks evenly this way. I used an index finger to press down on its center to test for doneness; if it feels firm then it is done.
Meanwhile, Chef Crispo brought in a bottle of expensive balsamic vinegar for tasting. I’m guessing that small bottle cost over $100.00. The syrup was jammy – it was the perfect combination of sweet and sour. You could just drink it !
After that I proceeded to help Wyatt and HH whenever they needed me : chopping vegetables, making the croutes (croutons) for the garbure – I forgot to mention that oven mitts were unheard of here so I had to learn how to use a kitchen towel fast to take pans out of a hot oven as I did when I made the croutes. You have no idea how hard my heart was beating as I reached into the hot oven with just a folded kitchen towel; I thought I was surely going to embarrass myself by dropping the hot pan of croutes, but somehow I managed to get through this.
My favorite demo of the day was the fabrication or preparation of a duck leg. First, you loosen the meat from the thigh bone by using your knife to scrape it off, then you cut off excess fat from around the skin flaps, chop the knee knuckles off, and cut a slit at the edge of the skin flap and slip the bone in. The leg looks like a breast after this. You may also tie it up with a piece of kitchen twine.
Like the third day, I did not feel too tired or pressured in the kitchen at all. I think it was because the team was more organized and we knew exactly what we needed in terms of utensils and gadgets the moment we stepped into the kitchen this morning. Looking back, the first day was confusing because we were in a new environment. Once we had gotten used to where things were, I began to enjoy the atmosphere in the kitchen more and more.
The meal was again phenomenal. The cassoulet was pretty good, and the duck confit used in it was properly salted – though I still l prefer the version I made at home. HH’s seafood dish was cooked to perfection; the topping he used on the fillets complemented the mahi-mahi and trout he used. Amazingly enough, I did like the broth of Wyatt’ garbure; I may not discount cabbage totally in my cooking adventures, after all. Like the tapenade of the previous day which I missed tasting, everyone was raving about the flavor of the Perigord stuffed eggs. Now I guess I’ll just have to make them.
The chef was very generous with his compliments. He said that the taste of my corn fritters and the way they were cooked was spot on. He also said that HH’s provencal topping for one of his fillets was delicious. In fact I remembered the Chef stopping by HH’s station to admire his prep work for the fish. “Beautiful!” is what the Chef said. But his biggest enthusiasm was reserved for the deviled Perigord eggs. He said they were neatly scooped in and were “The tastiest deviled eggs I have ever had!” Now I really want to try them.
That afternoon, Chef was going to do a discussion of the Mother Sauces. Although he said that contemporary sauce making does not follow the same method anymore, it is still included as a cornerstone of the CIA’s curriculum. He started with the making of a roux – a combination of equal parts butter and flour and heated to a desired color. The color of the roux and its application depends upon how long you cook the roux. A white roux is used for the classic Bechamel sauce, a brown roux, which is darker because it is cooked longer, is used for Espagnole sauce. HH and I were so perplexed at how efficiently Chef Crispo taught the class. As I have said before, there was no wasted movement – every action had a purpose. Chef was stirring that nearly full pot of hot sauce without looking at it and talking at the same time. Ah-mazing! He also made a funny –looking aromatic for the sauce that he said resembled his mother-in-law . For a lecture that I thought was going to take the entire afternoon, Chef was done in half an hour. This man definitely deserved the title of Master Chef!
An Evening at the Escoffier
This was our last evening at the Culinary Institute’s public restaurants. So far, the only place for dinner I had truly enjoyed was Caterina de Medici. I think our group’s reputation preceded us for the host of the Escoffier was very solicitous of Ryan. In fact, the entire wait staff seemed to be very attentive to our every need. I remembered having a very good mushroom appetizer and the wine – the wine kept on flowing. Obviously they were making up for the debacle at American Bounty. My dinner of rack of lamb was cooked to my preference and it was very tender – it was the best of all my entrées at the Culinary Institute Restaurants.
The deflating thing was this dinner was very anti-climatic. The food that we prepared at lunch was every bit as good as this dinner fare, I thought, though not as elegantly presented, nor as nicely garnished. All I could think of as I sampled another disappointing dessert was the prep we had to do for the last day of Boot Camp: Classical French Cuisine.
What I learned today:
1. How to work better in a team.
2. How to fabricate duck legs.
3. How to tie a roast.
4. How to use a towel instead of an oven mitt.
What I want to make from this region:
2. Perigord stuffed eggs (deviled eggs)
3. Basque Chicken