we straggle back after the holiday break. at the streetcorners, men in heavy jackets hawk christmas trees and wreaths, carved reindeer and pinecone art. the wind blows in colder and barrels in tunnels down broadway like a freight train.
chef chris is there, early, as he always is.
"i think he lives here," one of the girls says in the locker room (where is my sharpie? oh yeah, there it is. do i have everything? is my hat on straight?) we were back, we were here. as michael ruhlman says in the making of a chef, "that's all that mattered now, the physical fact of my presence. this was a physical place."
there's excitement in the air. module 2 takes a sharp break from the heavy protein cooking to teach grains, vegetables, and breakfast. these are new to us, completely foreign to this kitchen. i look at my prep card, alien to anything we've done in class so far.
egg whites to stiff peaks
fold in chocolate mixture
the souffle is one of the magician's tricks of the kitchen. add a little beaten egg white and some flavor, pop it in the oven, and voila! risen from nothing like lazarus from the dead. magic.
"beat the egg whites, i wanna be able to grab your bowl and turn it upside down with nothing coming out. this is what's gonna make your souffle rise - these egg whites are gonna expand and firm up and trap all that hot air like a balloon."
he retrieves his chocolate souffle from the convection oven, risen perfectly. he dusts a little confectioners' sugar on top.
the next day, we make pasta.
"what is the difference between pasta a home cook makes and what a restaurant makes? at home, you're only making one pot. you throw the most valuable part away - your starch water. you're gonna use this water to make your sauce, thin it out if it's too thick, whatever. it's liquid gold. it has flavor. it will bind better."
"I like this recipe," he said, "it's not fancy. it reminds me a little of olive garden, actually. but it's good. make it good."
i gather my items. at the table, i carefully brush the mushrooms with paper towel. never get mushrooms wet if you can help it, they'll absorb the moisture and get soggy. i start slicing. chef comes around.
"here, let me show you something." he takes my knife and instead of chopping the stem from a mushroom and slicing it, he instead chops all of the stems from the pile and then starts slicing. the knife never stops, he simply keeps feeding it.
"always do all of one task first. it will go faster. i know. i'm a very good mise en placer."
"you know what my interview was to teach here? i had to cook an omelet." chef chris shrugs his shoulders. "no, really."
cook a perfect omelet, the mark of a chef, the hallmark of classical training. how do you approach the eggs? a thousand techniques. he shows us his. "i'm gonna put a little cooked mushroom in here. you know why?"
"look outside. what do you see outside?" we look at the setting sun on the manhattan skyline. shrug. "america, that's why. we're in america. it's a free country. i can do whatever i want."
he flips his perfect omelet onto a plate, garnished with creminis.
"okay, i want you to show me a perfect french omelet and a perfect american omelet." chef says. he looks at the fifteen heads scribbling in pocket notebooks. "questions? no? goodbye."
contrast the french and american styles. the french omelet, cooked slowly in figure-eights like a custard. no color to the eggs, perfectly smooth, the top should be just barely wet and runny ("like a dog's nose"). i tip my skillet and fold the omelet onto the plate, filling with pre-cooked mushrooms and thyme, goat cheese, caramelized onions. fold the omelet into thirds, like a letter.
want to see more modules in culinary school? check out the culinary school tag!
who goes to culinary school? a huge variety of people! high school graduates, mid-career changers, those who want to be chefs, those who want to go into food media, those who just want to learn about food. there's no limit on who can attend and who you'll find in your class.
i don't think i'm good enough. that's the beautiful thing about school - they teach you from the beginning. you don't need to be good, that's what you're going to learn. you're not going to roulade a turkey on your first day. you'll learn to identify herbs, hold a knife, apply a bandage.
how much does it cost? culinary school comes in a wide array of costs. on average, you can expect to spend around 20k for the entire program. however, the most well respected schools like the cia cost significantly more.
what are the hours like? this entirely varies based upon the program selected. i attended ice's hybrid program - with classes on wednesdays and thursday nights from 6 to 10 pm - and then again on saturdays from 9 to 5. most normal programs are monday through friday, 8 to 5.
how long is the program? this varies heavily from school to school. most programs are between nine months to a year. the cia requires a 2 year commitment.
what culinary schools are there? they're all over! most cities now have a culinary program offered at a nearby college. new york has the cia, ice, and the international culinary center. le cordon bleu is all over - including in chicago and austin. i recommend doing a search to see what's closest to you!
do i need to go? not at all. there's arguments on both sides on whether or not you should attend culinary school. the bottom line is that you should go if you want to. it will give you a great foundation of knowledge before heading into a professional kitchen - but you'll still be green as sin and have to work your way up. alternatively, you could choose to not go and save yourself the tuition. a lot of amazing chefs have followed this path, choosing instead to climb the kitchen ladder and learn on the job.
do you eat everything? you can. you should. you don't have to. we had several vegetarian and vegan students who ate as their diets allowed. as a diabetic, i was extremely moderate and careful during certain (pastry, i'm looking at you) lessons.
do you have to kill things? yes. you'll at least need to kill (dispatch) a lobster. trust me, it's not so bad.
how much homework is there? less than you're afraid of and more than you may think. there's far less traditional homework - you're unlikely to be doing much in the way of papers (i think we had about one per module), but you are expected to take copious notes, read your copious notes and commit them to memory, and spend a great deal of your personal time volunteering and trailing. this industry is about connections as much as it is about skill.
can i do this on top of a full-time job? definitely! ice offered nights and weekends as a program. check out your local school to see if there's something similar.
what can i do with a culinary school degree? anything you can imagine! you could become a professional chef in a restaurant, a private chef, write the cookbook on modernist cuisine like maxime bilet, open a restaurant or manage one, go on to study food science, write recipes, blog, anything at all!
have more questions i missed? let me know and i will add it here!
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chef chris is a chef's chef. he leans constantly against the stoves with his hands loosely behind his back, shrugging. chef ana has disappeared back into the catskills, whence she came, back to her garden of tubers and kale, carrots she had pulled to have us try. ("this is what a carrot should taste like. and you know what? it's already lost flavor from when i got it this morning. that crap they sell you in supermarkets? you know how long it's been dead? two weeks. what kind of flavor is that gonna have? you tell me, i'm just talkin' to ya.")
module 2 is the meat of ICE's curriculum. this is where the bones of cooking are taught, methods and techniques to weave into future sous vided salmon filets and gold-filigreed souffles. i finger at the hem of my increasingly soiled jacket (is that wasabi powder on the sleeve?) and breathe him in. i like a man with no fucks to give about mousses and foams, who simply wants good food cooked and presented well. "make it beautiful," he calls over the class. you eat with your eyes first, your nose second. mouth third.
moist heat cooking techniques are any technique where water (again, not oil) is applied with heat. this is your braising, your boiling, your stewing. these are long, slow methods. hours in pots with softly simmering bubbles breaking down the connective tissue on thick cuts of flesh.
these methods use water's natural boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit to control the temperature the item is cooked at. as the water steams off at 212 degrees, the water bath is never raised higher that that temperature. as this is also lower than the browning point of the Maillard Reaction (covered here in dry heat cooking methods), the food also does not darken and brown as it might in a saute or a roast. conversely, steaming, cooking the food (in our case chinese striped bass and sticky rice) uses these quickly heated rapidly-moving molecules to quickly raise the temperature of the food to above boiling. (evaporated water consumes a great deal of energy during the evaporation and condensation process, far more than simply heated air does, this energy is expended on the food - which is why steaming is a much faster process than baking or roasting, despite using similar temperatures.)
my bag is heavy on my shoulder and perpetually unzipped. fliers and schedules are shoved in with pastry bags and offset spatulas, microplanes and spatulas. out of fifteen in a class, there are three guys in total and i somehow take up residence with them.
if you show up late, you have last pick of your recipe. the rule of the table. he who has the conch may speak. i rush to class, checking all my jacket buttons on the way down the hallway, darting past porters with huge metal speedracks laden with today's pull (swordfish, veal, celery, artichokes, zucchini). i check my sidetowels, that my short pale hair is tucked under my cap. put my coffee under the table. chef chris nods at us.
i make paupiettes de sole. take a sole (beautiful gray flatfish, eyes on one side, both staring up at you, unfocused.) drive a flexible knife down, down along the backbone. slowly peel the ridged pink and white flesh away from its' skeleton, drag your knife down the bones like a xylophone. flip it over. do it again. throw the tenderly-attached guts away (how fragile we are, you realize, barely held together by sinew and silverskin.) lay the fillets flat and pull your knife through, quickly, to release the skin. slice leeks thinly and toss with orange zest and butter, saute until soft as a pillow. roll the leek confit up in the sole fillets and braise in a covered dish with wine and butter. toss with parsley, maybe. more leeks.
every class has its villain and as i'm plating my dish, he comes up and grabs one of the paupiettes from the resting rack and pops it in his mouth with a grin.
"hey! what the actual fuck?" i say.
"oh sorry," he says, smiling, "i thought you had enough."
on other days, i make osso buco. italy's love affair with the animal, use everything. it's not a frugal mantra but a demand for flavor. put the bones and the stringy meat of the legs into the pot. the meat is dredged in flour and cooked dry in the pot until the brown comes, encroaches shyly along the edges, leaves marks in the pan. at the time, my nose is deep in bill buford's ode to mario batali in heat. his veal shanks are my veal shanks. his are slow-cooked for eight hours in chianti wine and heaping spoonfuls of cracked black pepper. mine, regrettably, are tossed in a boxed red that the school buys in bulk. but these are still the same bones of the recipe handed down generations ago, flavored with medieval nutmeg and cinnamon we've traded for lemon and parsley. still the same. still, always, the same.
Chef Ana Sporer strode into the classroom with fiery red hair and a fiery, wisecracking spirit. she's a force out of nature, barely taller than my five-foot-one frame and constantly winking blue eyes. somewhere in her late fifties, she trained in restaurant and hotel kitchens before opening her own acclaimed joint, ruby's hotel, up in the catskills of new york.
in the walk-in this morning, there's a tub of chicken breasts and a tub of steaks. we're nervous, excited, this is our first time actually cooking. what if i present undercooked chicken? i've never cooked a steak before.
module 2 at ICE is divided into several sections: dry heat cooking methods; moist heat cooking methods; beans, grains, legumes, and advanced vegetable preparations; and breakfast cookery. we're beginning, appropriately enough for the beginning of november, with the introduction of sauteing and roasting in dry heat cooking methods.
so, what is a dry heat technique? it's more than simply baking. a dry heat technique is any that does not fundamentally involve water - this includes sauteing, pan-frying, deep-frying, and roasting (among others). sauteing, cooking an item in over medium-high heat in a sautoir or sauteuse with a minimal amount of fat, is really the backbone of most kitchens.
there's a round metal tray in front of me. i lay out two chicken breasts, as alien to me as anything, and gingerly salt and pepper each side. chef ana has us turn the burners on to get the pans smoking hot while she demos.
she's easy with her movements, like a dancer. she squirts in a swirl or two of canola oil - just enough to coat the pan with some extra give. she waves her pale hands over the oil, feeling for it to get hot and start to warm her palms like a bonfire. "it's a series of analytical questions that you've gotta ask yourself before you approach the stove." she says, "sauteing is a high heat, quick method. we don't have time to break down a lot of muscle fiber or cook through - so we can only use thin, tender cuts of meat. you got a pork shoulder? yeah, you're not gonna be sauteing. use your head. think it through. i'm just talkin' to ya."
i squirt in the canola oil, trying to mimic the exact amount. dip the thin end of the chicken breast in, just to make sure that sizzle is there, that the oil is hot enough. lay the breast down, presentation side first so it gets that beautiful, crispy brown coat. let it sizzle for a few minutes, until the proteins cook and curl inward, releasing the pan. the meat is ready to flip when it no longer sticks. so we flip, go another few minutes. finish in a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, just to be sure.
once the breast is resting, in go diced shallots and four ounces of red wine. we add the red wine off the stove, so the flames don't shoot up and singe our eyebrows. i add a healthy bit of chicken stock, reduce down till the sauce is fluid but viscous, covering the back of my serving spoon. cover the chicken in the pansauce.
pan-frying and deep frying are related methods, dependent on whether or not you submerge the item entirely in oil or otherwise. oil cooking, like sauteing, is considered a dry heat cooking method as it lacks water in the preparation.
we come in to giant pots of canola oil over the fires, the air thick with the smell of oil and frying. my pores already feel clogged over. today we're doing southern buttermilk chicken, broccoli tempura with soy-wasabi sauce, sole meuniere, and french fries.
chef ana stands at the front of the class. "here's the key - keep your oil in the right temperature. don't let it drop below 350 and get over 400. make sure it's at 375 before you drop your food - especially the chicken - because the temp is gonna plummet."
keeping the oil hot is crucial to maintaining a beautifully fried and not oily exterior. i set up a standard breading procedure for the chicken, keeping one hand for the dry ingredients and one hand for wet. flour, batter, crumb. flour, batter, crumb. across the table, my companions are dredging the sole filets in flour. someone is carefully rolling parsley into a cigar shape and slicing through, neatly, to sprinkle over the top of the finished sauce. i cut up chunks of butter and hold them in a six-pan until necessary.
each day typically involves five recipes. as they become more complex, each member of the five-person table takes command of one recipe and, while others help as they finish their own dishes, are responsible from start to execution of the dish.
"we're gonna wrap the front table up in paper and i want everyone ready to present their dish by 9 pm. if we get done in time, we'll all sit down family-style and eat." chef ana yells out across the kitchen, her voice clear as a bell.
want to see previous installments about culinary school? check out the culinary school tag!
“Draw a number.” Chef Mike passes around a salad spinner, filled with folded bits of white paper, each marked with a number in black Sharpie. I take a number, quietly unfold it. “1”, it says. “We’re going to divide into groups. You have 90 minutes for your practical. If you have the number 1, you’re going at 6:30. Number two, you’ll start at 7:00. And if you have the number three, hang out and watch tv in the lounge or something, because you’re not starting till 7:30.”
"psst." i whisper, "what number do you have?" emma shows me her slip with the dark '1' scrawled on it. somehow, all of our table's members but one are going in this first batch. this brings me a sense of minor relief. we work remarkably well together - always bringing extra ingredients and wiping down one another's cutting boards. good, i think, don't take my team.
"the practical is very simple. you have ninety minutes and three items to prepare. make me a perfect cream of broccoli soup." chef folds his arms across this chest, eyebrows arching, "i want it to be bright green. smoking hot. i want nappe, it should coat the back of the spoon when i pick it up. you need it to be velvet." chef mike looked over his tABLET TO US, "MAKE ME A PERFECT MAYONNAISE. DO IT LIKE YOU DID LAST WEEK. YOU'RE NOT USING ANY ARTIFICIAL EMULSIFIERS, SO IT SHOULD BE A LITTLE RUNNIER THAN THE STUFF YOU BUY AT THE STORE. REMEMBER, IT AIN'T GONNA TASTE LIKE HELLMAN'S." HE LOOKED, GRINNING, OVER AT CHEF SCOTT, RECENTLY HIRED AS A CHEF-INSTRUCTOR AND TRAILING OUR CLASS THROUGH THE MODULES, "CHEF SCOTT IS GONNA TASTE ALL YOUR MAYOS." CHEF SCOTT GRIMACED, SMILING. "AND LASTLY, BRING ME TWENTY PIECES OF EXACT MEDIUM DICE POTATOES. I DON'T CARE WHAT ORDER YOU BRING THEM TO ME, I DON'T CARE WHEN. JUST GET ALL OF THEM BEFORE US BEFORE YOUR 90 MINUTES ARE UP."
HE PAUSED. "TEAM ONE, YOUR TIME STARTS RIGHT NOW."
cream of broccoli soup is based on a chicken veloute sauce, one of the five french mother sauces, characterized as chicken stock cooked and thickened with a roux. as the raw flour of the roux needs to be thoroughly cooked out of the veloute, this is key to get on the stove as soon as possible, to allow it as much time as needed to cook out. following that, the broccoli must be blanched (to retain its bright green color) and shocked, then pureed in a vitaprep. everything should be finished with cream, reduced to a perfect consistency, seasoned like a motherfucker, and then served visibly steaming hot. in concept, it sounds easy to knock out. in practice, it took me a little longer to control my nerves and get my mise en place under control. i lined all my items up in clear plastic nine-pans, hand-mixed the buerre manie, and slowly ladled out 40 oz of chicken stock.
somehow 45 minutes disappeared into the ether. half of my time is gone. the cream of broccoli soup is still incomplete, the veloute finished and pushed to the back of the stove, my broccoli shocked and waiting to be pureed. i still have to make mayo. medium dice potatoes. i rush to puree the broccoli and finish the soup. the ability to pull speed out when i need it is something i've noticed but haven't yet been able to turn on all the time (still currently true), being fast and moving efficiently and with energy is a key component to working successfully in a kitchen. i puree my soup, adding extra broccoli puree than the recipe calls for, just to nail that bright green color. i carefully place two blanched and shocked florets on the top, cast my sight about for my grading sheet. it's disappeared. i panic and toss everything about in my blue kitchen kit and spy it, over on another table, with my name crossed out and another student's written in. fuming, i walk over and deliberately grab the sheet back, bringing my soup out for inspection to chef.
"the taste is good. nice color and consistency." he gives me 90 points out of 100. "the only thing is - it should be hotter." of course it should, it shouldn't have sat there while i searched for a stolen paper. fuck. i threw together my mayonnaise emulsion (good, too thick, nice flavor) and medium diced potatoes. my 90 minutes finished at 9:00 pm, i jumped into line with my final product at 8:59 pm, just barely skating in at the finish.
"slightly irregular," chef pronounced them, "but good."
November 1st dawned particularly cold. I trudged down the four flights of stairs and long avenue blocks over to the 86th Street Station, walking in just as the 6 train was pulling away. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” I begin muttering under my breath. I look at the arrivals board - the next train isn’t coming for twenty-five minutes. Okay, I tell myself, it’s going to be fine. It’s just after 8 now, you’ll just go get a cab and get there in plenty of time. One raised hand later and I throw my bag in the back of a yellow cab.
“23rd and 5th, please.” The cab driver nods, turns the radio back up, and begins heading over to 5th avenue. A sea of red lights rises in front of us. 5th is closed. We navigate over to Park. Madison. Second. All closed around 57th St.
Finally. The FDR. We pull up in front of the school at 9.15 am.
Chef Mike and our newest instructor, a newly hired instructor, Chef Scott, have both been intoning heavily that today’s lesson is a trial by fire. “Sauces,” Chef Mike says, “you’re going to go through more pots than you ever have so far. Keep your station clean. Keep your dishpit clean. Do not even dare to go over and drop a pot off at the sink without cleaning it.” Chef Mike crosses his arms across his chest, dreadlocks spilling out the back of his tall chef’s hat. “Today is going to kick your ass, whether you think you’re ready or not. Work clean and you’ll be okay.”
we start with rouxes. a roux is a foundational aspect of classical cooking, a mixture of cooked fat (typically butter) and flour. chef mike pulls the sautoir pan toward us and demonstrates the quickly changing properties of the same two items, butter and flour. after a minute or two of cooking, the mixture takes on a slightly deeper color, roughly that of my pale hair, and looks like wet sand.
"this is blond roux. this is the most common and it has the most thickening power and the least amount of flavor." he puts it back on the stove, cooks and stirs a little bit longer. the color deepens, the butter liquifies more. now, it runs like organic peanut butter, similar color and consistency. "this has more flavor but less thickening power. this is a brown roux. these are the two you will use the most often." but then, he puts it back on the stove and cooks it a few minutes longer. the liquid is gone. the roux is nearly black. it crumples like ground beef. "and this," he said "is a black roux. you'll see this in creole and cajun cooking, like down in new orleans. try it, taste it."
I do. it tastes like slightly burnt popcorn.
the other foundation of classical cuisine are the five french mother sauces.
- sauce bechamel: milk thickened with a blond roux, generally seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg, onion, clove, and bay leaf.
- sauce hollandaise: emulsion of lemon juice, butter, and egg yolk.
- sauce veloute: chicken stock thickened with blond roux or buerre manie.
- sauce tomate: tomato puree, pork salt belly, thyme, garlic, onion, bay leaf, roux.
- sauce espagnole: veal stock, brown roux, beef bones, mirepoix, sachet d'espices.
with the exception of the hollandaise, enjoying popularity as the sauce of choice for benedict breakfasts, most of these sauces are showing their age. they're not common in modern cooking, so reliant on rouxes. Modern cooking prefers alternate, lighter ways to thicken sauces - such as reductions and cornstarch slurries. we learn this too, chef mike ever careful to give a balanced education between the traditional french cookery of the lesson and the current industry trends.
it's relatively uncommon to actually use a mother sauce directly - more commonly, we learn, are the derivative sauces. variations on the mother sauces that provide flavor and variety. there are hundreds of variations - like sauce bearnaise (hollandaise with shallots, chervil, and tarragon) and sauce mornay (bechamel with a mixture of parmesan and gruyere cheese).
we huddle over our stoves and the kitchen, after two weeks of butchery, is suddenly flooded with an intense, welcome warmth. it smells like food finally. chef walks around and tastes our sauces. "I want you to plate your rouxes. i want to taste them and see them."
midway through the lesson, the realization dawns on me that I am sick. truly, actually, completely ill. i prop myself up between the ceramic-tiled wall and the stove. focus on each stir of the pot. stir, stir, stir. i swallow. you can do this. focus on the task. you'll get home soon.
we clean up and change, quietly, in the locker room. there is the nervous rapport of new acquaintances. i leave quickly and dart out to catch the 6 train, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep the world away. i settle my bags around my feet and grip the pole, leaning my forehead to the cool metal. the train lurches to a halt.
"ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a train delay due to a sick passenger at grand central." internally, i groan. the passengers next to me start trading nervous glances. five minutes pass. ten. a baby cries. someone offers milk. seats are traded, for women with children, tired after standing for so long.
new yorkers are not nearly as hardened as we like to pretend.
warning: this post deals with butchery & fabrication. there are graphic photos of butchery of animals.
in the second week, culinary fundamentals gives way to our first real class, introduction to meat, fish, and poultry. chef mike looks at our class with a grin. "i hope you're ready to break down some meat."
it is saturday, our long day. i arrived early, tucked my hair under my commis cap and hefted my giant bag of kitchen tools and black knife roll. i put my coffee under the table, next to a long row of white kitchenaid mixers. i keep forgetting to button the top button on my chef's coat and one of the girls nudges me. psst. your top button's undone.
our first task of the day is a knife skill drill. they're getting more complex with each day. now chef is asking us to peel and medium dice three potatoes instead of one. and a carrot. parsnip. mince three cloves of garlic. you have thirty minutes. chef walks around, inspecting our work. time is not your friend.
today's lesson is on fish. there are three basic types and their respective filleting. flatfish, roundfish, and active fatty roundfish.
"there are eight quality checks to make sure you're getting a good product" chef says. i scribble in my notebook. one. make sure the product is received under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. two. the gills should be dark pink to red in color. three. the eyes should be bright and never red nor cloudy. four. there should be a pleasant sea smell. five. the meat should be firm and never squished or bruised. 'you have muscle on you, yeah? press your arm. it should feel firm, like your arm'. six. there should be a clear protective gel covering the outside of the fish. seven. the scales should be firmly adhering and never flaking off. eight. there should be no belly burn from acid buildup and residue in the body cavity.
we all look around, excited and nervous. this is, for many of us, kind of a realization moment of holy fucking shit, we're actually in culinary school. chef mike slices cleanly around the sole's gills, just behind the head. he slides down and marks a notch in the fish's tail. 'on a flat fish, like sole, you will get four filets out of it - two on the top and two on the bottom. use your knife to cut alongside this middle bone, down the spine. now slowly, use long strokes to work your way in from that initial cut and slowly separate the meat from the bone. listen for this sound, if you hear it, you're doing it correctly.' there is a sound like a zipper, as the curved, narrow boning knife slips along the ribs of the fish.
we each take a fish and learn remarkably quickly that chef mike's skill is understated at best. i've always been more of a kinesthetic learner than visual, so i immediately fumble at my memory. how was the fish positioned? how was the knife held? what do i do? this became my refrain during butchery, but my hands quickly began to learn how to perform the tasks. the knife slipped slowly down the bones of the fish, tap tap tap, like a zipper. i remove four fillets from my sole. chef passes by, nods. 'good.' he says.
the roundfish and the fatty roundfish, striped bass and mackerel respectively, are variations on the same theme. they each give up only two fillets apiece, as opposed to the sole's four. the filets come from the sides of the fish, instead of the top and bottom, but again along the backbone. i place my fish down with its back toward me, and make an incision just above the bone, from where i'd notched the head down to the notch in the tail. long, narrow strokes. clean. precise. for the mackerel, we change things up only slightly and remove the head entirely, where it had previously been left on the carcass for the sole and striped bass.
'we cut the heads off,' chef says, 'because we don't generally make stock from these fattier fish. can you make stock from it? sure. you can do anything you want. the japanese make stock, dashi, from these types of fish. but we're gonna make a fumet, so take the heads and tails off.'
there's a low murmur when i arrive in class the next day. 'we're doing crustaceans - do you think we'll have to kill the lobsters?' chef mike arrives with a lobster-killing grin on his face.
class always begins with a knife drill, followed by a lecture, in which chef mike demonstrates the techniques of the lesson, then about 2.5 hours of actual cooking time. at 9.30 pm, we clean up, scrub the kitchen from top to bottom and return it better than we had found it. after the skill drill (medium dice potatoes, carrots, celery, minced garlic). we gather around the central hexagonal table for lecture. on the tray, the lobster, now removed from the refrigerator and growing warmer every second, is becoming active. it crawls off the tray. chef grabs it and puts it back, we squirm mildly, aware of the impending fate.
'yes, you'll have to kill it. yes, i will teach you how to do it humanely. no, you're learning how to be chefs now, there's no way to get out of this.'
crustacean and shellfish fabrication involves several components. we start off small, with mollusks. chef grabs a few scallops, some are nearly twice the size of the others. 'these are scallops. the large ones are sea scallops, the smaller ones are bay scallops. there's not much you need to do with these, simply make sure the muscle on the back is removed. not all of the scallops will have it, so don't destroy the scallop looking for it. when you're done, get a half-sheet pan and line it with parchment paper and i will come around and look at them.'
he picks up a clam, firmly shut. 'when you get clams and mussels, they should always be closed. if they're open before you put them in heat, throw them away. if they don't open in heat, throw them away. there are clam and oyster knives up here. i don't think any of you grew up on a boat and shucked these everyday, so i don't trust you to do it directly in your hand. be careful, practice safety. wrap your clam in a clean towel and slowly work your knife in between the lip of the clam. once it's inside, turn your knife like a key to pry it open, then open it the rest of the way. remove your clam and place it on your tray. for the oysters, only remove the top part of the shell, leave the oyster in the bottom, more deeply rounded part.
chef picks up a squid, 'first, pull out the quill from the top part. now, you're going to very carefully slice just below the eye, trying to keep the ink sac intact. this is the squid's defense mechanism and has a great salty, sea flavor. keep these. next, turn your squid's bottom end, with the tentacles, upside down and squeeze. you're going to carefully force the jaw out. on the top part, rub your knife along and remove the skin and the fins. these can be cut into rings and fried or put in soups. for now, just leave it on your tray. we'll add it to a soup later.'
the moment of truth had arrived. the lobster had attempted another (thwarted) escape. chef picked it up and placed it squarely on his white cutting board. with little ceremony, he placed the tip of his chef's knife above the lobster's head, squarely between the eyes and drove the point forward in a clean downward motion. juices ran out.
'and that,' chef mike said, 'is how you dispatch a lobster'.
my hair is peeking out from under my cap and i lug my (packed) blue bag of kitchen equipment into the (packed) locker room and shove the bag into the barely-large-enough locker. off come the billowy pants and the jacket.
'i had no idea what your hair looked like under that hat!' one girl says. i laugh, i'd forgotten that i'd shaved the side of it a few days prior. we all disappear into our uniforms at school, forgetting that any of us have lives outside of the kitchen.
'i'll see you all on saturday, i've gotta go catch the 6!'
'what's the lesson on saturday?' someone asks.
'poultry.' another replied. 'get ready.'
The upperclassmen give us a look of empathy when we file past them into the kitchen. "first day? this module is a rough one. you don't really get to make anything to eat for awhile."
ice divides the professional culinary course into six modules spaced somewhat evenly over the time. the first three are culinary, the fourth is a pastry course, the fifth is culinary and preparation for our senior buffet service, and the sixth is our externship. ice is particularly notable in that, instead of having an in-house restaurant where we practice firing orders to tickets, we instead each are placed in an actual new york city restaurant to receive real life, hands-on experience. they start talking to us about our externships from day one and i feel a thrill at the concept of someday cooking for a restaurant like atera or aquavit.
"start thinking about where you might want to extern and what would be a good fit for you. do you want to work for a female chef? for a place that focuses on farm-to-table? for high-end, fine dining?"
don't worry, ice, my mind is already racing.
we aren't cooking for the first or second lesson. instead we receive our knife rolls, which is a little bit like fucking christmas. we go around the stainless-steel table with our folding chairs and cups of coffee and talk about who we are, how did we each get to this point? there's a wide range of ages in my class, from freshly out of school to late thirties and looking for a change in career. i half-expected, at twenty-eight, to be seen as too old to be making this major of a switch. however, the class averages in their late-twenties and early-thirties.
our next lesson covers sanitation. this is another non-cooking lesson, an extreme rarity. concepts are covered on cleanliness and how to store and transport food properly. we cover temperatures and parasites. there's a lot of pride involved in keeping a meticulous kitchen, abiding by all standards, maintaining that A rating from the NYDOH.
saturday marks the beginning of the actual program. saturdays, in the hybrid program, are actually two lessons split over a long day. we have our first lesson beginning at 9:00 am (sharp) and continuing to 1 pm. After a short 15-minute break, we begin our next lesson, which finishes at 5:00 pm (or, more accurately, when the last dish is cleaned and the kitchen is immaculate).
wake up at 7.30 am. leave the house by 7.50 to catch the 6 train to 23rd street, which invariably has some kind of delay and i stare bleary-eyed into a cup of 7-11 coffee. i listen to the dead weather on the train. i get to school around 8.20 and slip into our changing room, cheerily tiled in yellow and orange. this is where we take the outside world off and become something different. i tuck all of my hair under the short white commis cap and slip on my billowy black and white checkered chef's pants (that i'm certain three of me could fit into). i button up my chef's jacket completely, put a sharpie in my shoulder pocket and a notebook in my back pocket.
this saturday is a double lesson of knife skills. we still haven't sullied our knife kit that was given to us on wednesday, the array of blades looking sharp and deadly in the black knife roll. we come in around 8:15 and 8:30 am. although class starts at 9, there's a pile of prep work needed to ensure that the classroom and your station is set up for the day. your mise en place. each table is set up with paper towels, tasting spoons, and a pile of salt. each of the eight stoves gets canola oil, white and red wine, tasting spoons, and another pile of salt. we run water for the dish sinks. we review the pull lists, printed sheets with a list of the ingredients brought up to the kitchens by the stewarding department, to make sure that everything we need for the day is ready and accounted for.
and once that's all done, I set up my own station. make a knife tray, by using a half-sheet pan and a piece of parchment paper with my name and table number written on it. on this, i stage my tools for this particular lesson, usually my 10" chef's knife, peeler, and shears. i grab a cutting board and slip a wet piece of paper towel underneath, to make sure it won't slip around.
our first lesson is on medium dice. chef chris demos the cut on each of the vegetables we will be using - carrots, onion, and celery. the three of these come together to form mirepoix, the basic vegetable building blocks of most stocks and soups in classic cuisine. we'll be using it later that day, in fact, to create a basic all-purpose vegetable stock.
mirepoix was created in france in the mid-18th century. although we used a 3:2:1 ratio (3 parts carrots, 2 parts celery, 1 part onion), there's no standardized ratio and can be adjusted based upon your personal preferences. it imparts a subtle flavor to the stock, nothing overpowering, nothing identifiable as any of their singular components - just flavor.
"don't hold your body flat against the table. hold it like you're shooting a bow and arrow. don't slice down, slide the knife forward. use the entire length of the blade to make your cut."
chef chris makes the rounds and inspects each of our finished vegetable cuts.
"you see this here? it's a little crooked. i can tell you were standing flat against the table, your arm wants to slide to the left, that's where you get the angle."
to finish, we sweat our vegetables in a large stockpot with a little bit of oil and a heavy dose of salt. we add our sachet d'espices, a square of cheesecloth filled with thyme, parsley, bay leaf, and peppercorns, to our saucepots as well as a gallon of water. it simmers. the room slowly begins to warm and smell like food. we jostle around the burners to ensure that we're keeping the stocks at a simmer, not letting them boil. stirring. adjusting. tasting.
we bring our stocks to chef for inspection. we've just made our first thing in culinary school - basic vegetable stock. chef says 'not bad' and we each feel like we can take on anything.
as i'm packing up my things for the day, i'm reflecting on how glad i am to have not cut myself throughout the long day of chopping. as i'm shoving my kitchen scale into the huge blue bag, i nick the side of my middle finger on the sharp scale.