A Look Behind the Scenes #2

Part two: Basic Kitchen.

Now I am nervous. Its our first day of basic kitchen and I have all my gear. Or wait- do I? I frantically check all of my equiptment. Knife roll. Notebook. Whites. Skullcap. Necktie. Socks. Shoes. Got it. I head into the kitchen and find a spot next to a friend in the back of the class. I put my belongings down below the high metal tables and sit on the stool, and wait for class to begin. Both our Chef from the classroom and our new kitchen Chef take their place at the from of the room and give us our instructions. First, we learn how to tie our neckties. I struggle with this, probably my nerves getting to me- all I can think of is the fact that I have never cooked for anyone but my family and friends. What if I cant cook as well as I think I can? I guess Im here to learn but I try to control my distraction as the Chefs go over tools well need, safety rules and our presentation every day. We are to be on time and dressed appropriately. Everything that is not done correctly will be taken out of our marks.

The next few days of knife skills were a painful blur. I learned I had not been holding a knife correctly at all, leaving a painful blister on my right index finger where I should have been holding it all along. We slice, dice, julienne and brunoise carrot after carrot, potatoes and onions. I bandage my blister but the bandage comes off frequently, my knife rubbing against my raw flesh. Its painful but I push through the discomfort. My hands cramp up from squeezing the knife so hard, in fear it will slip and I will lose a finger. Eventually, I start to become more comfortable. My hand feels like it is one with the long, thin blade of my Chefs knife. I hone it to keep it sharp- for it is much harder to cut yourself on a sharp knife than a dull one. I watch in awe as Chef minces garlic in lightening speed, and cuts an onion into perfect small dice without shedding a tear. Shes small but she is swift and powerful- I can only hope I one day have that kind of skill.

Once comfortable with knives we move onto soups. We start with a delicious tomato soup garnished with a creamy avocado tomato salad that is to die for. The next step is a French onion soup- my favorite. Im not quite organized at my station yet, and I end up burning most of my onions in an attempt to rush around while they were caramelizing. Chef assures me that the soup will turn out fine, though it will not be of restaurant quality. I feel defeated. I can cook. I want to prove myself.

I slowly become more organized- or, an organized chaos as it may seem, as we move into dressings and salads. I wake up with a sore arm the day after we make mayonnaise- whisking with pure manpower only, a machine will not provide appreciation of the process. I take a taste of the perfectly emulsified condiment in the fridge- pure success. I learn to plate as we make a modernized nicoise salad, one of my favorites- and a nod of approval from the Chef makes my day.

By the time we make it into eggs I am feeling confident, but I know this is one of the hardest tasks a chef in training has to accomplish- learning to cook a perfect egg. We spent an entire week practicing the french omelet, which I learn fairly quickly. Ironically it is the American omelet I struggle with. Chef comes over at one point and takes my spatula out of my hand, guiding me and showing me exactly how to make that omelet come together. After a few tries, I have it. I am fine with the fried eggs. I turn mine over easy with ease, I hard cook my eggs to perfection, no ring of sulfur to be found. My medium cooked egg is a little soft, but that is more of a timing issue. Poaching eggs is another story. Although I enjoy poached eggs on toast at home often, I cant quite get the technique here in class.I keep ending up with whispy whites, or a too-hard yolk. Somehow by a stroke of luck, on the day of the exam I poach my egg beautifully. Sometimes you just need to have a little faith.

We learn how to make hollandaise- a daunting task as any. I have made hollandaise before, on an early Saturday morning when I was craving eggs benedict and decided to give it a try. But I was lucky that one time, because my first attempt in class is a disaster. It seems to come together but the moment I take a torch to it my sauce splits, disaster on a plate. I squeeze by on the exam, making sure I am quicker with each step to get it right. My determination is the only thing keeping me afloat.

Over the weeks we cover more dishes than I ever imagined we would. We make crepes and bechamel sauce, scalloped potatoes, fresh pasta with a tomato onion ragout- the fresh pasta being the only thing I am fully confident about- we learn to seperate a chicken, stuff duck legs, braise carrots and elegantly filet a fish.

Our final comes before I know it, and I am cooking osso bucco, making ravioli and slicing apples for a whole pie. It is a grueling two days, but I make it through, with a large slice of apple pie as my reward. I finish the ten weeks with six new burns, a few healing cuts on my hands and a whole new perspective on cooking food.