Pancakes. I had been dreaming of a lovely stack of them all the way from the hotel this morning. My dream though was fast becoming a nightmare as I stared at the CIA student struggling to make these ubiquitous breakfast items. When we arrived at the breakfast kitchen 20 minutes ago, there was no line at all. But then, the chef-in-charge stepped out. And that’s when all hell broke loose. The order-taker seemed more content chatting than making sure orders were being filled. The pancake griddle seemed to have lost its heat (or maybe it was user error). The line to the breakfast kitchen had grown to 12 people – all looking like their patience was about to run out – but I could just be projecting my own feelings here. I watched as other people behind me got their orders and when mine finally arrived, I was presented with anemic soggy-looking pancakes.
No amount of syrup could salvage this mess. “The chef really needs to get in there,” I told HH. As if on cue I heard a loud voice in the kitchen berating what seemed like every single station. I shook my head in partial disbelief “Are these kids really here to learn anything? This is the third day I had a sub-standard breakfast!” Little did I know that my words carried some truth to them as we would find out in the coming days.
When we got to the lecture room Chef Crispo informed us that our lobsters had arrived.
“If you need anything else, just tell me and I’ll get it for you.” Then addressing the entire class he said “If you guys want to taste $200 balsamic vinegar, I can get that arranged too.” My eyes lit up “I wonder if he can get us black truffles?” HH told me not to push it.
Then Chef launched into our topic of the day:Southeast France.
This was the region closest to Italy so there were a lot of Italian influences in its cuisine. The region of Burgundy, known for its wine, was also home to the famous Coq Au Vin and Beef Bourgignon. The Powerpoint presentation showed a picture of a plate of escargots with one snail, complete with antennae, moving away from the plate on a scooter. Everyone started giggling. The Chef, in mock indignation, said “This is what happens when you get California (CIA Napa Valley) involved in making the curriculum.”
Do I detect an undercurrent of competition between the two campuses?
He went on to talk about Provence which was famous for Bouillabaisse, a fish stew that originated in Marseilles. Talk of this locale could never be complete without mentioning the famous “Herbs de Provence”, an herb combination of thyme, rosemary, savory marjoram, hyssop, lavender and basil; this mixture was frequently used on grilled items. “A la Provencale” meant olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs.
Our menu for the day was long: the Country-style forcemeat from the previous day, Homard a la Armoricaine redux (Breton-style lobster), Escargots en Beurre a l’Ail (snails in garlic butter), Coq au Vin (chicken in red wine), tartiflettes (potatoes with bacon and Reblochon cheese).
Before I headed down to the kitchen, I made a stop by the Apple Pie Bakery. I thought it was a good idea to get a soda to keep the caffeine and sugar running as I went about the business of this day. When I did arrive in the kitchen, there seemed to be more drama again unfolding about station assignments. Seriously! This better not be a regular occurrence since we have three more days to go, I thought. Someone from the other team was almost throwing a tantrum.
I started cutting up the chicken for the Coq Au Vin. Then I heard more annoying comments in the background about “people” stealing stations. I turned around and said in a very calm voice addressing the KAs who were trying to figure out a solution: “You tell me where to go and I’ll go”. HH approached me and said quietly through gritted teeth “Please stop me before I strangle someone.” “Need a rope?” I replied wryly.
Bianca, trying to be a peacemaker told me “Veronica, I would love for you and HH to work beside me. I love chatting with you all.”
In the end, the KAs put their foot down and let us maintain our current stations.
Great! I really needed to get this Coq au Vin going. The longer it simmered the better. Wyatt started preparing the veggies and the other components for the chicken stew while I browned the chicken in a large pot. There was no lid for the pot so I just used an aluminum foil to cover it after I poured the wine in.
The lobsters came, alive and kicking with all their appendages. Their beady little eyes were popping out in a curious manner. I named one of them Wilma. Big mistake, right — because she was about to be sent to the guillotine. I should have just named her Marie Antoinette instead. Chef Crispo asked for a French knife which was longer than the 8-inch chef’s knife. He spread Wilma’s claws out on the cutting board and stroked her head which was supposed to make a lobster drowsy. Then he positioned the blade between Wilma’s eyes and in one swift stroke, split the shell open. Briny fluid gushed forward and filled the grooved edge of the board. I thought I was ready for this but I just said “Oh” then I turned around, I was feeling sad and numb for some reason. After a few minutes, HH came by and asked if I wanted to do the third one. I said “Let Wyatt try it, at least one of us (meaning HH) already knows how. You can show me later at home.”
With all the stovetops taken nearby I went to the other room to start the potatoes. I was taught never to leave a boiling pot unattended so I stood there waiting for my potatoes to be done. Chef came by and said “What are you doing? Watching the potatoes boil?” What was I going to say to that — it was exactly was I was doing. I said I was afraid that they would boil over since my station was so far away. Chef said they’d be fine, so I scurried back to my area.
Fabrication means to prepare an ingredient for cooking. To “fabricate” a fish may mean to cut fish into fillets. Fabricating a lobster was what HH was doing right now as he separated the shell from the meat. He had to use a mallet to pound the claws to get the flesh out. A small scissor was useful to cut through the length of the lobster tail and release the meat from there.
Lunch service was at 12:30 pm. It was only 10:30 am right now and the Coq Au Vin was humming along. Since Wyatt wanted to do the sauce, I guessed he was going to do the finishing touches too. I volunteered for escargot duty which was pretty simple: sauté garlic in butter, add escargot, squeeze lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley. Done. I could do this at the very last minute.
That was when I saw HH, looking dazed (and pale?) standing with his uniform full of red stains on it.
“Did you cut yourself?” I rushed to him, a bit alarmed.
“I thought I did too,” He replied in a bland voice,” But it’s lobster blood. I just committed lobster murder…I killed a lobster.” I think the idea had finally sunk into his consciousness that he actually had to kill a live animal in order to cook it. “I don’t want to do this again. I need to see a psychiatrist.”
One had to understand. Wilma really looked very cute. HH and I were the biggest hypocrites. We loved animals –- but we loved meat too.
I contemplated ways to get HH out of his apparent “shell-shock”. I did have visions of Cher giving Nicolas Cage a slap in Moonstruck as she said “Snap out of it!” Somehow I didn’t think that would work the same way with HH right now but we both really needed to get over this.
Anyway, his lobster dish was looking really scrumptious what with all that tomalley (the soft green substance in the body cavity of the lobster) that was mixed into the sauce.
To get his mind off the lobster, I asked HH to help me finish the tartiflettes. I had him grate the cheese over the dish. We can go ahead and finish the presentation plate since it did not matter if it was cold anyway.
At 11:30 am, I suddenly remembered the Country-style forcemeat. I needed to slice it up and put some mustard on it. The Chef saw me transferring it to a dish that was just as long as the forcemeat. He stopped me and went looking for another platter. He came back with a big white plate. What?! All that space for a little old meat? Then I understood why. He rigged a string diagonally across the plate as a guide. Then he cut a 3/8-inch thick slice of forcemeat and laid it flat at one edge of the plate; then he propped another piece letting it stand diagonally on that first piece. The rest followed and he relinquished the arrangement, recommending that I space the slices evenly. After I was done, I put two bowls of different mustards, one Dijon and one plain on either side of the plate.
Another chef, Chef De Saultier, came by, stopped to look at my forcemeat, and with an approving “hmm,” moved on. It was later that I found out that making forcemeat was a revered art and is a prized skill among chefs. No wonder Chef Crispo wanted it served properly.
I looked at the time and noticed it was almost noon. Sh*t! The escargots! Good thing they did not take long to prepare. I quickly whipped it up and Ugh! they tasted nasty ! The snails had no flavor by themselves but I had no time to fix them because I heard Chef Crispo hollering in his Scottish brogue for us to get moving with our fare.
We did a final sampling of our dishes. HH and Wyatt worked on plating the lobster. The Coq au Vin was served with the tartiflettes, which were to die for by the way. As for the escargots, I wanted to just throw them out, but hey –someone might be crazy enough to like them. And of course the forcemeat was positioned in an honorable place at the table.
As each team’s preparations made their way to the communal table, I noticed a difference in the way the offerings looked. They appeared more professional, maybe? Was that it? There was an abundance of must-try dishes, I couldn’t help but pile my plate with one thing after another.
When we all sat down to partake of the meal, I did not feel tired at all, I felt elated with a sense of accomplishment. The Coq au Vin tasted of the wine that it was simmered in. Wyatt finished it with cream which gave the stew more body in the sauce. The lobster was succulent and the sauce was so complex it teemed with an amazing blend of herbs, spices, — and the savory taste that only a lobster’s tomalley can offer. “Wilma, you offered us a good meal, girl. Thanks!” I murmured solemnly. The Bouillabaise that Melanie prepared had a very robust briny flavor. She had used some of the leftover shells that HH had from the lobster fabrication. The gougeres made by Brandon had the required cheesy nature but the crust was too thick and felt heavy. Cheese Choux Pastry should be so light it should feel like air in your mouth. They could have been overcooked, squeezing the air out of the little cheese puffs. And the list went on: Cheese Fondue, baked ham steaks in cream, shrimp in garlic-tomato sauce, etc. One dish that I did not taste but everyone seemed to be raving about was the tapenade, or olive spread.
During the critiquing segment, Chef Crispo praised the tartiflettes that our team made. He said that the combination of the bacon, cheese and potatoes went so well together and was cooked and seasoned perfectly. Regarding the Coq au Vin, he said to remove the skin in the future but I did not agree with him (not to his face of course). I would rather skim the excess fat off than mess with the skin – personally I think this is what gives the initial browning of the chicken a good flavor. Maybe Chef did not like chicken skin. But he congratulated the class on a job well done and paid us a huge complement by saying “You all have done fabulous work here. Now ask yourself if you would pay for any of these dishes here in a restaurant. I would!” He did remind us that we still need to work on keeping stations clean.
That afternoon was the French wine class. Our instructor, John Fischer, was a huge French wine aficionado. I can tell that he had nothing but disdain for California wine. “Wine was created to complement the food that you eat. Americans are fond of big wines that simply overpower the food.” By big he meant the full-flavored cabernets that almost have a jammy taste. He droned on about the different regions of France; he had HH’s rapt attention. As for me I zoned out by the time we got to Burgundy wines. Hey, I loved my Cabernets and I do have an open mind, but my taste buds just crave deep flavor. He told us to judge the body of a wine by comparing the mouth-feel to the consistency of water, skim milk, 2% milk, whole milk and cream. We got familiar with some wine terms like flavor profiles: dry means sour, fruity means sweet. If you feel saliva starting to form under the tongue, chances are the wine is sour. I remembered the Riesling which had the viscosity of water tasting very dry. In fact, Fischer said that Riesling was the best white wine for food because drier wines wake up the flavor of food. At the end of the wine tasting, HH and I both developed sour stomachs like we always did when we drank French Wines. We finally found out why. They were meant to be had with food. If that was the case, we reasoned, they should have offered us some cheese during the tasting.
Mutiny at the Bounty
American Bounty was one of two restaurants (the other being the Escoffier) at the CIA that served refined cuisine. Its menu was typically based on the availability of the freshest local ingredients. This was also the final training arena for the CIA students who would be graduating in three weeks.
Joining us at our table tonight was Gerald and Jacob. Bianca had her family with her at another table and the third table was where Wyatt sat with the rest of the class.
Our server was pretty timid; we could barely hear him speak. Anyway, I managed to order the Peking duck appetizer and the grilled pork chop, which I ordered well-done. I noticed that the food was taking longer than usual to come out of the kitchen. I looked around and it did not seem to be a busy night for the restaurant so I thought that was strange. When my duck appetizer arrived, I was disappointed. It was seasoned very well but I thought the name did not represent the dish at all. When you say Peking duck, it usually means “crispified” skin. All that was on the plate was a tiny sliver of crispy skin on top of pulled duck meat.
While waiting for the main course, we had a lively conversation around the table. I found out that Gerald and Jacob were avid meat-smokers. It was so entertaining to listen to Gerald talk about the time he smoked 60 lbs of pork butt for his church. Very knowledgeable – that man. When my pork chop was served I tried to slice into it with the regular force I would use if wielding a steak knife. My knife felt like it was not denting the meat at all. What the h*ll ?! Taking a deep breath I tried again this time with more strength. With laborious strokes I cut around the pork chop and tried to chew the tough meat. It tasted like rubber. I forked the entire pork chop and held it to the light. It was freaking raw! I did order it well-done and this chop looked like it could crawl off the table.
Totally disgusted, I just gave up on my entrée and decided to wait for dessert. Jacob said that what I had was even less than medium-rare – I did not bother having it re-cooked since I had totally lost my appetite. The rest of my table had finished their dinner when I noticed that Wyatt’s table still had not received theirs. Ryan, a guy in our class who was probably in his 60s stood up and was ready to walk out the door. The mait’re d finally showed up (after Gerald went to get him!) and tried to calm Ryan down. The funny thing was when the orders arrived, they placed the wrong plate in front of Ryan. I felt I was watching a comedy of errors. Needless to say, some heads were going to roll the next day. I remembered Chef Crispo told us this morning that he could not wait to hear about what we thought about American Bounty. I suspected he was going to get an earful tomorrow.
Gerald said the maitre d should have showed up sooner. Instead the maitre d said that we wouldn’t have had this issue if we were served a prixe fixed menu. Oh now it was our fault? The large table that got served last started leaving immediately after finishing their entrée. They did not bother with dessert. They did not miss much. I ordered a dessert of flourless chocolate cake and again it was not worth the calories.
I’m seriously having second thoughts about taking the Pastry Boot Camp.
What I learned today:
1. How to kill a lobster. Okay, I watched but, that counts, right?
2. How to serve forcemeat properly.
3. How escargot is actually cooked. Or in this case re-heated ( I had a phenomenal one at Balthazar and they used a broiler and compound butter.)
4. How to taste wine.
What I want to make from this region
1. Tapenade. I want to know what the fuss is all about
2. Coq au Vin. I want to try this with white wine and brown the skin after the cooking.