The day started with Chef Phil Crispo inquiring about our dinner the previous night at the Escoffier. I could see relief in his eyes as he was met with positive reviews. I wanted to point out that I still have not had a dessert that “rocked my world” at any of the CIA’s public restaurants. But in fairness to the school, the desserts that were handed out during lunch at the CE dining room, a production of the pastry classes that day, were pretty phenomenal.
Maybe we had a bad shift that week of pastry students assigned to the restaurants. Or maybe culinary education just teaches you the foundation skills you need to succeed in the food business. You develop your own style, individuality and creativity when you start working in actual restaurants – when you are exposed to the reality of it all.
There are three types of cooks: a craftsman, an artist and one who is both. A craftsman is one who has the knife skills and efficiency in working kitchen implements but his dishes do not take your breath away. An artist has the palate and intuition to make a meal unforgettable, but the price to that bliss is chaos in the kitchen. Finally, the few who are gifted enough to be both are the ones who become the Thomas Kellers, Patrick O’ Connells or Mario Batalis of this world.
The topic of the day was Classical French cuisine which a lot of people associate with the work of Augustus Escoffier. It is said though that what we know now as French Cuisine had its roots in Italian cooking when an Italian girl, Catherine de Medici came to France in 1553, to marry the Duke of Orleans who later became King Henri II. Appalled by the condition of the eating habits of the French, she brought an army of Italian cooks to produce a delicate cuisine that is reflective of Renaissance Italy.
Augustus Escoffier was the leading French figure in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was known as “the king of chefs and the chefs of kings.” He proposed that less food be served and that dishes be made lighter. With the advent of refrigeration, thick sauces need not be made anymore to disguise the flavor of rotting meat (yuck!) and the sauces like what another culinary figure, Careme, introduced — espagnole, bechamel, velloute and allemande — were further refined into what they are known to be today. If you see the names of dishes repeated over different French menus, chances are they are Classic French.
Since our strategy yesterday worked, our team decided to do the same today – each member taking responsibility for a certain dish. The “Hungry” hubby took charge of Salade de Roquefort, Noix, et Endives (Endive Salad with Roquefort and Walnuts) and the Sauce Tomate (tomato sauce). Wyatt took care of the Cote de Porc a la Milanaise (Pork Cutlet Milanese –style) and Garnish a la Milanaise (Milanese Garnish). I was left with the Beignets de Pommes (Apple Fritters). Fritters again! This time they were to be deep-fried.
We stepped up our game a little. Before the first mis en place was set, we outlined our plated dish on a piece of paper. That way we wouldn’t be scrambling at the last minute for required service ware. It greatly helped to have a clear vision of the end goal –- how our menu was going to play out.
As I prepped for the fritters, I encountered a slight problem. The kitchen was out of butter. We had two new Kitchen Assistants (KA) that day: Alan and Lis. Alan was compiling a list of needed items before he went to the stock room. I told him I needed apricot sauce and an apple corer. The apricot sauce was not on the menu, but one thing I have learned from these past days of boot camp was to think outside the menu. I envisioned my apple fritters to be served with apricot sauce, vanilla ice cream and some cinnamon-covered toasted walnuts.
But events were working against me. The butter did not arrive till an hour and a half later into production. None of the pastry kitchens would lend the KA an apple corer so I was forced to cut the apples into crescents which ended my aspirations of presenting my dish with the ice cream sitting in the middle of a cored apple piece. These beignets were more trouble than I thought! I hated paring apples (thank goodness I had a peeler), taking their core out and slicing them into pieces. I missed that nifty tool I had at home that did the coring and cutting in one stroke. The apple slices need to macerate in Kirsch for an hour. Then you dip them into a beer batter before dropping them in a deep fryer. And that’s not the end of it. You have to dredge them in confectioner’s sugar and put them in a 450°F oven or broiler so they can form a glaze.
Talk about high-heat cooking. I liked this experience though because I got to work with a commercial deep fryer, complete with all those big frying baskets. I did miss the demo of Chef Crispo on filleting a Red Snapper but I made sure HH was there to witness it.
Of course the experience wouldn’t be complete without some participant making things harder for you – like cluttering your station. I really hate that because I’ve been priding myself lately on keeping my area orderly. First I found a hot baking sheet on my cutting board – I asked the offender nicely if I could put it in the dirty dish sink. Then HH found the same person’s bowl of grated cheese teetering precariously on a small bin that was on our station.
I told HH to “…let it fall to the floor.” Hah. That would teach them. Obviously the hubby was nicer than I was so he informed the group that he nearly “dropped” their cheese.
The last straw that had me seeing red was when someone from the opposite kitchen moved our pot of tomato sauce from the front burner to the backburner without asking permission.
I took a deep breath. Mastering the heat in the kitchen also meant working with certain characters without losing your cool. Everything was under control, as I glanced over at Wyatt basically getting ready to pan fry his pork cutlets and Chef Crispo showing HH how to present his salad. If there was anyone who could do the salad right, it would be HH. Not that he was my darling “Hungry” Hubby but because he was the salad master, even at our house. I heard Chef telling HH that his creation tasted “Perfect!” No wasted dressing (when you lift the salad no dressing remains at the bottom) and the seasoning was just right. Chef also told the hubby to throw in some finishing salt so you get that punch of flavor when you initially bite into the salad.
And the wife, the future benefactor of this new salad, was pleased.
When we assembled at the CE dining room for the last lunch of Boot Camp, there was joy as well as sadness in my heart. Joy that I was able to make it through boot camp with no major disasters and sadness that it was over. Bianca brought some Champagne to celebrate; she proposed a toast to Chef and to everyone at the table. Jason, a veteran of past boot camps, said that we were the most normal group he had ever had. Apparently there were some participants who were on golf vacations and thought that culinary boot camps were a great way to pass time.
The Chef was seated directly across from HH and me. I noticed he had a lot of HH’s salad on his plate. Man! He must really like it. For my part, I enjoyed the depth of flavor of the Chicken Consommé Royale and the refreshing Vichyssoise which was a cold potato and leek soup served in shot glass and garnished with manchego cheese straw. It was pretty fancy and one to definitely try at home.
During the final critiquing segment, the Chef congratulated us for being a group that showed a lot of enthusiasm as well as talent in the culinary arena. He said that what he had seen in the final day was very impressive; a lot of dishes were well-executed and could very well be served in a restaurant. After that speech he handed us our certificates and wished us good luck, hoping to see us in future boot camp offerings.
There was some poignancy in the air as the hubby and I departed campus. We were feeling the same. We did not want to leave.
2 months later…
The boot camp has indeed challenged me to improve my craft in the kitchen. I continue to improve in my knife skills, taking care to sharpen my knives briefly before each use – it really does make a difference! Pan-frying and sautéing come easier to me now too; it doesn’t matter if I have to cook chicken breasts, scallops or duck breasts – fear of oil splatters are now a thing of the past! I have not mastered the “tossing of the pan” yet, I need to find me some M&Ms to practice with. Best of all, I use kitchen towels 90% of the time now in handling hot items in the kitchen. It really isn’t that much harder than an oven mitt and it is more professional as that is what you see in restaurant kitchens.
I leave you now with a simple recipe of the refreshing salad HH made at boot camp. We have made this over and over in the past few weeks. The lemon zest in the candied walnuts blends so well with the lemon juice in the dressing. The unique flavor of hazelnut oil also makes it a great alternative to olive oil.
Salade de Roquefort, Noix et Endives
Endive Salad with Roquefort and Walnuts
· 1 fl. oz lemon juice
· 1 fl. oz Hazelnut oil
· 1 ½ tsp Tarragon, chopped
· Salt to taste
· Ground black pepper to taste
· 2 lb. curly endive or frissee lettuce
· 2 ½ wt. oz Walnuts, toasted, chopped roughly
· 4 wt. oz Roquefort Cheese, crumbled ( we have also used Gorgonzola)
1. Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, and tarragon in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Let dressing stand for 30 minutes.
2. Chop the frisee and wash. Pat dry and transfer them to a large salad bowl. Add the walnuts and cheese.
3. Add the dressing and toss until the endive is thoroughly coated. Serve immediately.
Preparing the candied walnuts
Toss the nuts in some watered-down egg whites then coat with lemon zest and sugar. Toast until brown.