Macaron Stage at Atelier Pierre Hermé

A view of the pastry kitchen

Hope you all had a great Christmas! It took me several tries to finally finish this post, what with holiday orders, shopping and celebrations. So here it is , my experience as a stagiere at Atelier Pierre Hermé. Should I tell you all how nervous I was? I had a dream a couple of nights before my class that I burned the caramel and got booted out of the program. I really should not be afraid of caramel because I make this all the time at Petites Bouchées. Caramel fleur de sel is my best selling macaron but sometimes old fears remain in our subconscious always waiting to bite us in the ass.
To compound my anxiety for the class, I did not seem to be over my jet lag as I had hardly slept the previous night, and if my boot camp class at the CIA was any yardstick, this hardly bodes well in my favor.
Anyway, when I got to the classroom, there were a few students already there. I counted 12 seats. When everyone arrived, our instructor immediately launched into the philosophy of Pierre Hermé about his products. I started to zone out because I’ve already heard this before. After this short introduction, we headed out to the kitchen where we weren’t allowed to bring our personal belongings like handbags, which is why I did not take pictures of our first day.
Our instructor, Olivier (I know, I forgot his last name), proceeded to delve into the discussion of ganaches and different fillings. He would first explain in French and then he would translate in English. For some reason, the English version was always shorter. Maybe it does take more words to say things in French.

 He divided us into 4 groups. I was assigned to the English-speaking group “so we could understand each other,” Chef Olivier says (duh, makes sense). He began to assign the fillings to each group. Our group, group #2 gets compote orange passion, caramel buerre sel (oh shit, "I am going to burn in hell" was my initial reaction), banana – avocado ganache (yum!), ganache chocolate lait passion (hey, I make this already). He then explained each of the recipes. For example, custards should not be overwhipped because the foam will prevent it from cooking properly, whip after custard had gelled. When working with yuzu juice, you need to respect the temperature, add the butter at 40 C/ 104 F or your ganache will be grainy. When making the olive oil ganache (this was one of my favorites), it is important to know at what temperature cocoa butter melts and solidifies -> 31 C/ 88 F, warm the oil to 35 C/ 95 F so as not to seize the cacao butter. He also discussed storage of the fillings. Some were stored at 4 C/ 39 F and some were stored at 12 C/ 54 F (hmmn…might need to sequester one of hubby’s wine coolers).

Wall of ingredients, alphabetically arranged

Chef said we needed to finish our fillings before lunch. I was getting hungry and I glanced at the clock it was 10:30 am, don’t we get a little break – what? all the fillings? what, no break? Everybody started to get busy (or look busy), I guess no break. My team was an interesting bunch, not using their real names, Stephan was from Slovenia and Diego was from Spain. We started with the passion-fruit ganache which I was very familiar with and then the avocat-banane ganache, which I was not. This was also my first encounter with a semi-dried banana. The fruit does not resemble a wrinkled piece of dehydrated fruit however all the moisture has been sucked out of it. It was kinda rubbery feeling and wasn’t oxidized at all. Chef was very adamant about adding the cream slowly. "like mayonnaise!" he would repeat over and over like a mantra. I was nervous at first about melting expensive chocolate in a microwave that I was not familiar with, but it looked like their microwave had very low wattage since after 2 minutes, the white chocolate hardly melted. Chef came by and told us to start the caramel. I ignored him hoping one of my team mates would be up to playing with sugar. No one budged. Hmmn, looks like I’m not the only one NOT looking forward to this. Chef came by again…so I sighed and went looking for a saucepan to make the caramel. Turned out, Chef was going to do it because he was going to take the caramel pass the normal caramel high point. He used a white bond paper to test the color of the caramel and it was a real dark amber before he deglazed it with the demi-sel butter (yes, half-salted where the heck can I find this in the U.S.?), then the cream. He then left us to cook the whole lot back up to 110 C/ 230 F. Whew that wasn’t too hard. After all the fillings were made, we headed back to the classroom for the technical part of the class. It was 12:30 and I was really starving. These French are hard core.

Continue reading

Pastry Bootcamp with Tartelette

caramel mousse lab1

Cupcake burnout. Is that even possible? These little treats had been my focus since the beginning of this year and I’m really happy with what I have developed, but now I feel it’s time to turn my attention to tarts and layered desserts. Pouring through my baking books would only result in a longer learning curve and time is at a premium. I need to learn it now and I need to learn it fast.
So I enlisted the help of a dear friend. I hired the services of Helen – the force behind the gorgeous blog, Tartelette. I asked her if she could design a curriculum that would cover pies, tarts and layered mousse cakes in a compressed schedule of two days. Helen said “Heck, ya!” and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The plan was to fly her in on July 9, so she can also be here for some festivities (my birthday!) the “Hungry” Hubby and I have planned for the weekend.
On the way to the airport last Thursday, HH kept asking me if I knew what Helen looked like, and I assured him I did! It is the first time I would be meeting her in the flesh…two years of emails and half a year of French lessons on the phone, and now I finally see her…walking towards me from the long stretch of airport corridor. She is beautiful – just go check out White on Rice Couples’ Portrait of a Gourmand…… and annoyingly skinny. I mean come on, why is every pastry chef I meet as slender as a reed?!
Before we headed home we made a quick stop at Whole Foods for some eggs and cream but we especially needed plums for the tart.

tartrings labeled

We basically hit the ground running. After settling in for just about 45 minutes or so, Helen was ready to get rolling. Flour, butter, eggs and sugar were taken out to start the first dough: Pate sablee – a sweet tart dough. Helen graciously shared the recipe from her up and coming book. This type of tart dough is frequently used for sweet tarts and can be notoriously finicky to roll out. After forming the dough, we let it rest in the refrigerator. We immediately proceeded with the Pate Brisee, which is your basic pie crust. With this type of dough, whose flakiness and tenderness is often a delicate balance of the ingredients, working it quick and fast is of prime importance. This also joined the pate sablee in the refrigerator for chilling. The frangipane (almond) cream was up next. I just received a box of simply flawless Meyer lemons from Mary, of Alpineberry, who tweeted that she had a harvest of 20 lbs. and asking if any of us would be so kind to take some off her hands. Helen suggested we zest some of fragrant citrus skin into our almond mixture. I admitted to Helen that I was pretty naïve in slicing fruits suitable for dessert presentation (ever wondered why I always used raspberries or blackberries?) so she did the job of prepping the plums for the tart. She did compliment us for our sharp knives.
The pate sablee was taken out of the refrigerator to be rolled onto 3-inch tart rings. Helen showed me how to lay them in and pack them nicely with the thumb. I managed to tear up some but this dough is pretty forgiving and very suitable to patch-up work. It is essential to maintain a floured surface underneath the dough that is being worked into the tart ring or it might stick to the surface. Equally crucial, is making sure that the edges of your tart rings are free from dough and any remnants of it should be neatly scraped at the top and the bottom of the rings to ensure easy release after baking.
We had plum frangipane tarts after a dinner of Vietnamese cuisine. We also rolled, cut-out and baked the pate brisee discs to be used to build a fig mousse tart later. We then proceeded to make Michel Roux’s rough puff pastry. It is different from a regular puff pastry because there is no butter block. The pieces of butter are mixed into the flour just like a regular pie crust except they are in cubes instead of thin strips. This was when Helen lectured me about handling the flour-mixture too gingerly. She said I have to get my hands in there to work quickly and decisively – not be afraid of it. Helen proceeded to do a couple of turns of the dough plaque and said that my French rolling pin is not really French – they actually use the ones with handles back in France (I made a mental note to get that type).
Those who know Helen is familiar with her habit of visiting blogs and twittering at 2 am in the morning. Well, I’m often in bed by 11 pm but I did manage to stay up until midnight :).

figmousse cake label

Continue reading

Meeting the Picasso of Pastry


Weeks ago, I was lamenting the fact that I got an email from the French Pastry school in Chicago that I did not make the selection in an exclusive class taught by Pierre Hermé. A week after that, I got a phone call from them telling me that I was on the waiting list and a spot had opened up – did I want it? Heck, of course! I tried so hard to keep my voice calm but I remember barely squeaking out the information needed to reserve the slot. Apparently there were 2000 entries – hmm… I wonder how far down the waitlist I was – but who cares!

That was in the 1st week of March. Can you imagine the difficulty of containing my excitement and waiting 2 ½ months for this class? Fortunately I was kept busy with a new job assignment, the business and a visit from my brother.

You can’t believe how paranoid I got about getting sick or about flight cancellations or whatever might prevent me from attending the class. However, I did arrive at the French Pastry school in full chef’s uniform and was greeted by the school director who instructed me to go up to the second floor. Three tables were arranged in a U shape where I saw about 10 students seated and having coffee or tea.

I was informed that they had our chef’s jackets made especially for the occasion and I eagerly looked for my name. It was then that I saw him…suddenly appearing and walking over to the table to greet the students at the tables, and then he headed my way. I managed to smile …he smiled back and greeted “Bonjour”, then gave my hand a firm hand shake… and all I could get out was a weak “Bonjour”… as he moved on to the next person.

Gah! I was suddenly reminded of Meg Ryan (Annie) in the movie, “Sleepless in Seattle”, where she flew all the way from Baltimore to Seattle to meet Tom Hanks (Sam) and all she could say was a weak “Hello”. I am an idiot!

Over a breakfast of black-truffle eggs, bread and rose-litchi jam; I continued to ogle him as he took the chair right across the table from me. Luckily for me, his assistant Michaél was seated right next to me and spoke perfect English; in addition, he was very friendly. I sure did not waste any time and grilled him on the technique of their macarons. PH uses Italian meringue in his macarons and I complained that it was too sweet. Michaél agreed that it is indeed sweet but that the shell is balanced by the filling. I told him that I was giving him the benefit of the doubt until I tasted them (Quite cheeky, aren’t I?).

I eventually found my voice and talked to Pierre. I told him that I had made his white truffle macaron from his PH10 book and that the result was awful. Could it be my truffle paste? He agreed with me then and related that it took him a while to find the right truffle paste for it. He said that for our class he has included a black truffle macaron recipe as well as a foie gras one. Oh my God… I couldn’t wait!

Although Pierre spoke English, he was most comfortable speaking in French. Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, owner of the French Pastry School, was on hand to quickly translate. (Incidentally, my lessons with Helen helped tremendously because the language did not sound completely foreign and I was able to pick up on a lot of new French vocabulary). We were initially asked to introduce ourselves. I’d say we were an interesting bunch – there were a couple of pastry chefs from some high-profile places like Spago, Payard and Robuchon. There was also another food blogger in the class, Mitzi of Yummy in the tummy blog – such a sweet lady!

The class started with PH’s power point presentation regarding his ideology on how he runs his business:
1. Quality of his ingredients
2. Attention to detail. He hates perfection but loves detail. He confers that if you look for perfection you will never be satisfied. He continually desires to make his offerings interesting and different from others. Every patisserie in Paris makes macarons but his macarons stand out in terms of detail.
3. Packaging – enough said.
4. He encouraged us to always think of how we can do things better. His recipes are never staid. He keeps on tweaking them.

His products are classified in three categories:
1. Classics like tarts and millefeuilles
2. Fetishes – which are his flavor combinations
Ie. Ispahan, Chloe, Sarah, Elise
3. Creations – how it is interpreted – Emotion, Miss Gla Gla




Before PH started delving into his recipes, Chef Pfeiffer informed us that we were having a test at the end of the class on how to properly say the word macaron. “Maca-RAWN” with that tricky French R sound.

We had a total of 12 creations, one of them not yet released.

 But these included the following :


Black Truffle Macaron
Emotion Depayse (green tea , red bean, grapefruit)
Emotion Ispahan (rose, litchi, raspberry)
Ispahn Entremet
Chocolate and Foie Gras Macaron
Macaron Ispahan
Macaron Satine (Orange, passion fruit, cream cheese)
Miss Gla’Gla Ispahan glace
Revelation ( tomato puff pastry, black olive, olive oil and vanilla mascarpone)
Tarte Ispahan
Vanilla Tart
New Creation 2008


It was confusing at first as we jumped from recipe to recipe while completing each component at a time. We started with the geleés and the English cream that went with the buttercreams. Most of PH’s macarons use ganache, but his Ispahan uses buttercream.
I’m sure it will be tedious for most readers if I get into too much details in this post. I selected a few pictures and some captions to share with you a gist of the class. Warning: there is an overabundance of the Ispahan creations – they are absolutely heavenly!!!

Preparing the Tart dough

PH preparing the sugar dough for the Vanilla Tart. He told us to  mix the dough only a little so the tart dough will not puff too much.


Preparing the Litchi Gellee for the Tarte Ispahan.


Delicious Chocolate and Raspberry Sable we had during the morning break. Pierre directed us to undercook them. The interesting crunch witihin the cookie comes from Fleur de sel.


PH getting down and dirty with the Ispahan macaron batter. He said there was no spatula big enough to mix the batter properly.



Piping the macaron batter for different creations.


My first taste of PH’s macarons. Passion fruit and milk chocolate. It was the moment of truth too – the shells were not sweet at all. They had the perfect texture. Though I certainly love my French Meringue method, I am curious again to try sucre cuit again. 


PH weighs each component of his Emotion creations. This is because the balance of flavors are very important. Such attention to detail!


Putting the different Ispahan creations together. It is important to select raspberries of the same size.


Shaping the vanilla mascarpone cream for the tart. Poured into warmed rings so it can be lifted out easily.


Taking care of Miss Gla Gla (gla gla is what the French say when they are cold)


Pierre with a margarita in hand during cocktails. We headed out to Art Smith’s house (Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef) for Mexican food.



Most activities on the second day were assembling all the creations.


Working on the Ispahan tarte.


PH  pointed out that the tart shell should be really browned otherwise you will taste the flour.


Finishing up the Foie Gras macaron. Pierre said that his idea of a perfect macaron should have a lot of filling.


Rolling out the tomato puff pastry in the laminator.


Ispahan Emotion


Ispahan Entremet


I asked Pierre what he did with the litchi juice leftover from the can. He answered that  to take a bath in it was a dream of his. Someone commented:"With rose petals?" The class burst out in laughter.


The finished Vanilla Tarts with the trademark PH logos.

The next few pictures are from the dessert buffet that immediately followed the class . We started with some champagne. But seriously, I think it was pretty cruel to have us eat all the desserts in one hour. I mean look at the spread!






My favorite macaron turned out to be the foie gras macaron. This is not savory; rather, it is sweet. How this combination worked simply blew my mind. Pure genius!!! I was not able to finish a whole Ispahan entremet…my tummy was pretty close to screaming – Enough!!


I was able to take four macarons home to the "Hungry" hubby to try. I tried to take him the Ispahan Entremet but it did not survive in my purse as Mickael said it wouldn’t. 😦

And of course , the class will not be complete without a picture with the man himself and his brilliant assistant Mickael. 😀


Learning from the Master…

It was a rare opportunity that I was able to spend two full days with the most brilliant pastry chef of my lifetime…


Recognize him from his profile ?


No? How about this front view shot?


Still do not recognize him? The clue is in the initials of his chef's jacket or his most famous creation shown below :



More later… I just got back and there is a ton of pictures to sift through. And as usual when I go on this "business" trips I end up in a sugar coma…

Boot Camp Day 5: Enlightenment


           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.

Anyway,I digress.

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.

Boot Camp Day 4:Recovery and the Making of a Chef


            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:

1.      Cassoulet

2.      Perigord stuffed eggs (deviled eggs)

3.      Basque Chicken


Boot Camp Day 3: Hubby needs a psychiatrist


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.

3.      Tartiflettes.

4.   Gougeres.