At the very end of the last lesson of Module 2, Chef Anna left our sweaty, scrappy, practical-surviving class with an ominous message:
“The next five lessons are going to be the hardest nights of your life. That’s no BS. Prepare yourselves.”
We all stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded, as she slowly nodded. But then she let out her signature bark of a laugh, popped a cork, and we all smiled. We drank champagne, and later she told us that after the fifth lesson of Module 3, the world would re-right itself and things would go back to normal in our kitchen classroom – challenging and enjoyable, minus the break-neck pace and scary intensity.
It’s hard to believe that will ever be true after the first two lessons of Mod 3.
Sunday night was our first class with our new instructor; after four months with Chef Anna, we bid her farewell in order to learn from and work under a new chef. Most of us had a sneaking suspicion that this chef’s primary role would be to whip us into shape – and, as I realized when our new chef instructed me to stomp animatedly on his foot to demonstrate the difference between his standard regulation steel-toed shoes and my far less adequate brand new Crocs – we were right.
The past three nights we have staggered out of the doors of the kitchen soaked in sweat, coated in remnants of everything from Fois Gras to Sweetbreads to Blood Orange juice; mushroom gills and caul fat lodged under our fingernails, comis caps pushed back on our beading foreheads yet somehow still in place, chef coats buttoned all the way up to our flushed necks. But. But. I finally get what chefs mean when they talk about “The Rush.” And the best part is – this is only the beginning.
The challenge of the first five nights of Mod 3, unbeknownst to us when we finished Mod 2 and couldn’t see further than the two-week vacation in our path, is the practice of prepping, cooking, and plating to near-perfection a full dinner menu for two people, in real-time. That means that class starts at six PM, lecture ends somewhere in the ballpark of 6:30 to 7, and we are required to plate our appetizer at eight, first entrée at eight-thirty, and second entrée at nine. As unseasoned culinary students, we pull this off with nowhere near the savvy or style of Top Chef contestants, but still, the tension and urgency in our classroom rides akin to that of a QuickFire challenge.
Sunday night, we started things off on a very doable note: Ahi Tuna Carpaccio with Micro-Greens, Radish Sprouts, Oil-Bloomed Capers and a Spicy Horseradish Aioli. The tuna was more fragile than a hot crepe, and it was all I could do not to tear it as it stubbornly stuck to my fingers, the plastic wrap, and generally everything but the plate. After a few minutes of struggling, finally, success…
Continuing our seafood theme, up next were a duo of Seared Sea Scallops, Braised Cabbage Chiffonade with Lardons, Parsnip Sauce and Miniature Pommes Frites. This was crazy-good and I could literally drink that parsnip sauce out of a mug. I know what you’re thinking – of course there was butter in it! Does anyone drink anything besides butter-laden sauces out of mugs anymore? Come on…
We ended Night 1 under pressure, but strong, with the bizarrely named “Sautéed Halibut and Warm Vinaigrette.” For the record, our class spent the first ten minutes of class trying to identify what exactly about this dish actually constituted a vinaigrette. We concluded that the name was a farce. Our new Chef rationalized that if it were summer, perhaps you would put this on a menu as a “Vinaigrette” to highlight the spring vegetables and light flavors, which are far more seasonal than a “Vegetable stew.” Either way, it was totally delicious and rocked the house. I’ll be making this one again.
Sautéed Halibut with Warm Citrus Vegetables: White and Green Asparagus, Turned Artichokes, Tomato Confit and Fennel.
Night one was hard, no question about it, but the general mood leaving the classroom Sunday night was positive, upbeat, and excited.
Night two was a different story.
Chef had toyed with the notion of cutting the Arctic Char from our Monday night menu. Perhaps he thought, like I did, that something about mixing Fois Gras, Sweetbread, Quail, Culinary students and Mondays was just asking for trouble. But then, he changed his mind. A Chef’s prerogative, I guess.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working with such delicacies as Fois Gras and Sweetbreads, let me lift the veil of mystery for you. Fois Gras is essentially the overgrown liver of force-fed ducks, making it high in fat and politically incorrect undertones. It’s really exploded in popularity lately, but that doesn’t mean it’s become any less of a pain to prep. Fois Gras is loaded with tons of tiny, thread-like veins, which mostly still contain blood and need to be removed with tweezers before cooking. Ideally, this is done without mangling the two lobes of the liver. As Chef Anna would have said, “don’t go digging for gold.” In my own words, it’s a pain in the you-know-what.
Meanwhile, Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of veal (more politically incorrect-ness) which need to be soaked in milk, blanched off, removed of their membrane, and broken up into “nuggets” before they can be cooked.
Plus four pounds of mushrooms that had to be brushed free of sticky, stubborn dirt by hand. Plus venison.
Optimism, my friends. Optimism.
We were really moving along quite nicely – at one point around 7:45 there was even a lull that perhaps gave way to false overconfidence – and were able to put up the appetizer, seared Arctic char over mixed greens with citrus vinaigrette, blood orange supremes, herbes fines oil and candied blood orange zest, with little problem. We even allowed ourselves a short break to dig into the dish and enjoy a bit of dinner before turning to our entrees.
From there, things got hellish as we attempted to stuff baby quail with sweetbread “marmalade” while searing off our venison. There was one point where the bunch of us stood with saggy sheets of caul fat, some more than others clumsily wrapping their birds up like presents, more bow-tying than trussing with kitchen twine. I looked up in the midst of this process, realizing that I personally had zero clue whether my venison was on the stove or in the oven; my brain had shot off in various different directions with no intention of allowing me to keep up. I was simultaneously clocking how long the mushroom gratin had been in the salamander, locating my venison and approximating its doneness; stuffing, wrapping and trussing my quail, and trying to remember where the chestnut compound butter was. This is what chefs do.
In the end though, we survived. The quail came up at 9:10, rather than 8:30, and no, Chef was not pleased. But the cranberry sauce was thick and syrupy, the quail moist and succulent, and the overall effect dramatic. Perhaps the most startling and abstract food photo I’ve taken, Pan-Roasted Quail stuffed with Sweetbread Marmalade; Fois Gras Bread Pudding; Macerated cranberry pan sauce.
The venison, amazingly, came out cooked to medium-rare perfection (I was pleased, as red-meat is one of my greatest challenges) and Chef’s greatest criticism was that I should have left the sauce to the side. We served the venison and its chestnut-red wine pan sauce alongside a four-mushroom and potato gratin and sweet-potato-pine-nut puree, an earthy, satisfying and strongly autumnal combination. But because we plated this dish nearly forty minutes past deadline, there wasn’t even a moment to snap a photo.
And so we dragged our bodies from the kitchen a good thirty minutes past ten, pondering inwardly and aloud how we could possibly prevent such madness from ensuing again, and how long before we could unwind with a beer in hand. Some questions are more easily answered than others…
Stay tuned for Mod 3, night 3 later this week!