Thursday, June 19, 2014

Week 1: Famous Italian Chef menu

I'm over kitchen PTSD, mostly, and someone even mentioned that they read this blog! Amazing. 
Luckily I took notes as I ground through the course of courses. As the stress level mounts, these notes become more dramatic, to the point where names were changed to protect the guilty.

This week's tasks

  • Eighteen hours in the kitchen.
  • prepare mirepoix, sauté, cook beans for soup
  • sauté branzino fillets for tasting
  • make soupe de poisson from leftover bones from branzino fillets (staff meal)
  • make vinaigrette (staff meal)
  • make fish stock (branzino bones)
  • de-bone branzino (fillets). 
  • use Bermixer immersion blender to purée beans for soup. 

Filleting Branzino
Your best friend here will be a razor-sharp flexible fish filleting knife. You can buy these for a reasonable, even cheap price, from a restaurant supply store.

Start by cutting a bit diagonally toward the head, behind the pectoral fins, and if possible behind the ventral fin. Turn the knife and cut along the spine of the fish, working the blade against the bone to separate the fillet. When the fillet is free, turn it skin side down. Keeping the fish flat on the cutting board, work the knife under the skin at the tail section of the fish. Work the knife upward toward the head, scraping it along the skin.

This is a delicate thing, since if the knife is at the wrong angle you’ll cut the skin or waste product. It’s way too easy to waste some expensive fish.

If there are any bones, they will be near the head end of the fillet. Feel with your fingers, and cut them out by slicing a “V” in the fillet and lifting it out. Branzino bones are not removed with tweezers/bone pliers.

Peperonata prep: cutting Bell peppers
It’s impossible to create a regular 2” square from a pepper, especially the ones that look like they’re posing for Edward Weston. It would have been simpler to have the recipe state to cut the peppers into eighths or some other pepper-centric measurement. Cutting into 2” squares would have resulted in a lot of waste.

We got a pepper size clarification from the Head Chef, after an enormous effort to produce uniform 2" pepper squares per the recipe. If they’re over 2” you can cut them down. This is a rustic dish, so we could use the trimmings, too. Less waste!

Storing large quantities of fish
There are rules pertaining to what goes above what, arranged by highest cooking temperature on the bottom. Poultry, with the highest safe cooking temperature, is always at the bottom, then ground meat, then other meat. Fish is supposed to be stored separately from other raw meats.

The branzino fillets don’t go in direct contact with ice. The melting ice could make them too wet, even mushy. Instead, they’re laid out in a single layer on a hotel pan, covered with parchment paper, then a second layer, cover with plastic wrap. Count the number of fillets in the pan, and note this information on a piece of tape attached to the wrap. Place the pan in the coldest part of the walk-in (at the bottom).

The pans can be stacked 90° off so they’re not nested (if they settle, this could smash the fish). They can also be placed on sheet pans in the speed rack in the walk-in.

This is an ancient grain, something Cleopatra might have eaten. It's like wheat, only harder. Farro does not get soft quickly! After several hours of soaking - about seven - it had barely absorbed any water. We’ll soak the farro grains (whole) overnight for Wednesday and two days for Thursday.

Deboning chicken breasts
Chicken breasts, in culinary school, mean the entire part of the chicken containing breast meat. In other words, two supermarket breasts equal one culinary school breast.

They come on the bone in a case, and it's up to us to debone them. We get chicken stock from the bones and save money over ready-boned breasts.

This procedure is different from deboning breasts off a whole chicken. First, score the bottom of the breasts so you can separate them. Then, flip the product and break it down the center, crack!. Run your finger under the cartilage (this doesn’t always work so easily) to separate the meat. Then, slide your knife under the ribs, running along the bones to separate the meat. Trim the breast of fat as needed, place them in a hotel pan, wrap and put a count on them.

Mushroom Ragout
The mushrooms need to be sautéed before adding the other ingredients, so that they lose moisture. The whole point of a ragù is that it be thick, not soupy or saucy.

Once the mushrooms have sweated and reduced in size, the other ingredients (white wine, etc.) can be added.

Everything needs to cook down a lot, so use high heat. This is not a braise - the goal is to get the liquid out fairly quickly.

Our Menu

First Course: Fagiolo & Farro Soup with pancetta

Pre-soaked farro grains are cooked in pre-cooked, pureed fagiolo beans (beans, mirepoix, tomatoes, garlic, herbs).

This soup has a great, silky texture with a good bean flavor. I don’t know why we didn’t use cheaper, local pinto beans instead of expensive imported Italian beans, since they’re being puréed. It must be a Fancy Chef thing. It would have been interesting to reserve a few of the beans to see if their markings fade with cooking or remain. They really are beautiful when raw.

Second Course: Hand-made pasta. Nonna’s kerchiefs with mushroom ragout

Pasta squares, about 2” in diameter form a base for an earthy ragout made from an assortment of intensely flavored mushrooms.

We did not add any porcini powder to intensify the mushroom flavor. The pasta needs a very quick boil to remain al dente. We tried scraps, and kept them from sticking with a bit of extra virgin olive oil.

Third Course: Wild, line-caught fish

The fish turned out to be Branzino fillets, dredged in milk then polenta/A.P. flour/salt/pepper and sautéed. I find that I'm allergic to Branzino, but not enough that this prevents me from filleting about thirty pounds of the stuff. Mercifully, it does come pre-cleaned. The bones go into a cambro for stock and staff meal (I'm thinking French soupe de poissons for staff meal).

The fish will be served over pepperonata, a slow cooked mix of colored peppers, garlic, onion, bay leaf, salt, pepper and tomato. If I were home, I'd add some dried oregano, cook them in decent extra virgin olive oil until meltingly soft, then drizzle with a very high quality extra virgin olive oil at service. I'm not home. I do as told.

Cooking the fish is a very quick process as the fillets are very thin and will overcook in a heartbeat. Using breading slightly increases the cooking time, so you need to compensate, but it's all so quick that I never find out how much compensation was really required. By using a good quantity of oil in the pan and keeping the pan in rapid motion as you add the fish, you can keep them from sticking (this applies even more if no breading is used).

The polenta needed to be ground down in a vita-mix to make it less crunchy. Why didn't we just cook it longer? A mystery. Big Man does not like or encourage questions.

Fourth Course: Cruciferous vegetables

This is a carpaccio of thin-sliced kohlrabi, topped with watermelon radishes, coated with a vinaigrette. It’s garnished with fava & bull’s blood greens, Gorgonzola cheese and Maldon flake salt.

It's a beautiful presentation. Watermelon radishes are a great way to add interesting color to a plate, too. The cheese keeps this from going flat and adds umami.

Fifth Course: Almond tart

An almond tart with frangipane, cream cheese crust, and more cheese in the filling.

The idea is something about very local. So, Big Man had to drive to Nevada City to get the cheese. Clover -Stornetta cream cheese isn’t local enough? This is kind of funny, considering that we ordered the Gorgonzola and the beans from Italy. I’m confused about consistency, but if this is the way Big Italian Chef does it, then this is the way it must be done. Doesn’t anyone grow heirloom beans around here, make blue cheese, etc. Could this have been sourced totally locally to avoid inconsistencies? Will this question get me in trouble? Well, that’s the price of curiosity.

Some notes on Big Man. He's the guy who actually runs the kitchen. He's not concerned with fairness, hazing, nasty remarks. He's above the law, Mr. Life or Death. He'll yell at you about sanitation as he strokes his beard. At this point, he hasn't yet decided who he detests the most. He's not, ahem, seemingly in the best of health. Yet he manages to see everything that happens in the kitchen, somehow. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Week 2. Italian menu done!

Well, that was intense.

I probably filleted an entire case of branzino (European sea bass) by myself. In total our class processed about five or six cases.

To cleanly fillet a round fish takes practice, or you end up with tattered rags of fish instead of beautiful little fillets. Angle your knife down, just behind the pectoral fin, cutting down to the bone. Turn your blade to face the tail, then cut along the spine, one hand over the fish to secure it in place. When you pass the rib section, slide the knife through until the tip comes out just above the ventral fin. Slice back toward the tail along the vertebral column to free the tail. Return to your cuts along the head and slice the fillet from the rib section, keeping the blade against bone at all times. Separate the fillet. Turn the piece over, and make a cut at the tail end, turning the blade horizontal when you hit the skin. Grab the skin and work the blade horizontally up toward the head end, removing the skin in one thin, intact piece. Done!

Aside from that, everything was pretty much routine. Gallons of peperonata, trying to slice topologically twisted peppers into more or less uniform squares. Making bean and farro soup, heating carefully to avoid scorching it and ruining that day's soup. Sautéing all kinds of fancy mushrooms then reducing everything down for a ragù that went over some pasta kerchiefs made in house.

The kitchen really is constant, mostly controlled chaos. Everyone runs around trying to complete their task, sometimes getting pulled off to complete something else, fetch an ingredient, find a piece of equipment, ask for a clarification on a recipe.

At this point, we've only cooked together during the practice day (yeah, that's not a good reference). The difference is that there is a room full of paying customers outside the swinging door waiting to be thrilled by our culinary artistry. Yes, we've taken two cooking classes and two baking classes. Some of us have taken more cooking classes as electives, like Mediterranean cooking, garde-manger, American regional, catering... We supposedly know sanitation - at least, we're certified by ServSafe. There's still quite a distance between preparing something for a class where deadlines are (somewhat) flexible and jamming it out at restaurant speed with a team of fifteen people instead of six.

All in all, the lunch went well. The food went out, pretty much on time. We heard great things about the fish and the mushrooms.

Next week, Cuban food.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Staff Meal Recipes

One thing we do in the Oak Cafe kitchen is prepare staff meals. I suppose this could be compared to cleaning out the refrigerator on a larger scale. The best situation is where we can find something left over from production - trimmings, a few peppers, an onion, some garlic, fish bones, whatever - and turn it into a meal worthy of a chef.

There are a lot of benefits to this. We reduce food waste, since all those limited quantities of food are eaten instead of thrown out. We learn to think on our feet, because the ingredients choose us instead of the other way around. We're thrifty, since expensive ingredients are generally taboo - although occasionally obligatory.

There's nothing wrong with any of this food. It's just that it's funny sizes or shapes, not enough to serve, or extra from a cooking class that didn't need that much halibut after all.

So, here's what I've done so far.

Quick French Fish Soup
We filleted several cases of branzino, leaving lots of bones. There was only one logical thing to do: make fish stock. Since we were already at it, why not whip up a batch of soupe de poissons?

- branzino bones and meat scraps from fish stock (fumet).
- leftover tomato juice
- garlic
- tarragon, fresh, chopped
- potatoes, fine dice
- fish stock (fish bones, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley stems, bay leaves - we were out of thyme)

  1. Bring the tomato, stock, garlic and potatoes to a simmer in a stock pot or rondeau.
  2. Take out the fish bones and run them through a food mill to squeeze out whatever meat you can. Don't go too strong, since you're doing this bones and all. Add the fish paste to the soup.
  3. Use an immersion blender to purée everything in the soup pot.
  4. Add a bit of brandy that you found in a bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet.
  5. Add the tarragon.
  6. Just before serving, add some pastis (or anisette, but be careful since this stuff is not as dry as real pastis).
  7. This should be served with roux and croutons, but that's another thing with staff meals - they have to be done quickly without fooling around.

Cuban Poutine
We were doing a Cuban menu. We had bits of steak, trimmings left over from prep. There were a few jalapeños, and there are always onions and garlic. We had some badly cut julienned yuca fries, too. So, what if we sautéd the meat, jalapeños, onion and garlic, then added a bit of flour and oil to make a roux, then added some leftover papaya-mango-citrus juice to create a tangy gravy? Something we could then pour over the yuca for a kind of poutine, less the cheese curds (we didn't have any).

- scraps of beef
- garlic
- jalapeño
- cilantro
- onion
- flour (AP)
- mango/papaya/citrus juice
- oil


  1. Fry the yuca - like French fries with an initial oil blanch, then a second frying to crisp them up.
  2. Sauté the meat in some oil. When the meat is showing some color, remove it and set aside.
  3. Sauté the onion, jalapeño. Add the garlic toward the end, give it a few tosses and set it aside with the meat.
  4. Add some oil to the pan, then add some flour, stirring constantly. When the roux takes on some color, temper with the juice, stirring constantly. Heat until the gravy thickens and the flour cooks.
  5. Put the meat and other ingredients back in the gravy, give it all a stir.
  6. Plate some yuca, then pour the gravy over it. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Sautéed Halibut
There were two beautiful fillets of halibut left over from another class. This is one of those times where staff meal could use a premium ingredient. Since staff meal must be done quickly, the fish was left skin on, thrown into a pan where the skin would stick, then taken out with a spatula, leaving the skin in the pan. After you've made your quick pan sauce, some skin might still be sticking. No problem since a bit of water added to the pan softened it up enough for an easy cleanup. Skinning the fillets in advance would have wasted a lot of time, but cooking this way sidesteps the issue. If the fillets were patted dry, and the fish were scaled, the skin could have been fried crisp during the sauté process. But that would have taken more time!

- halibut fillet, skin on, rinsed.
- garlic
- dry white wine
- oil for frying
- salt, pepper
- freshly squeezed lemon juice
- cilantro, chopped
- parsley, chopped
- butter, melted


  1. Roughly chop some cilantro and parsley, squeeze with lemon juice and salt lightly. Set aside.
  2. Trim out the fish into about 4 ounce portions, leaving the skin on. 
  3. Heat a sauté pan, and when the oil is hot add the fish off the flame (in the interest of fast prep, the fish was not patted dry - if you add it over a high flame, the oil will spatter and catch fire)
  4. The skin will stick to the pan. This was the idea, no worry.
  5. When the fish is cooked from the bottom up, but not all the way, sprinkle some maldon flake salt on the fish and place the sauté pan under the salamander to broil.
  6. Watch the fish - you just want a slight broil, not charred embers.
  7. When the fish is ready, take a spatula and run it between the skin and the flesh leaving the skin in the pan. Set the fish aside.
  8. Place the pan on the flame and add the herbs and white wine. Scrape a bit if you like. Add the melted butter, stir and strain the sauce.
  9. Plate the fish either on the sauce or plate and pour the sauce over. Garnish with the cilantro/parsley/lemon and serve.

Friday, February 1, 2013

First day in the cafe kitchen. What can possibly go wrong? Everything!

Today, I was Mr. Optimistic. I even sort of volunteered for one of the chef positions. Sort of, because I happened to be sitting at the front and was directly in front of James, full eye contact, no way to refuse. Not that I wanted to, since if you're going to be chef and things go south, you want this to happen on practice day.

The menu, simple enough. A fresh green salad tossed with citronette. Baked chicken breasts with a salsa verde/chimichurri drizzle, served over cannelloni beans. Foccacia bread on the side. Apple crostada for dessert. Direct, straightforward, no sauces to mess up, no emulsions to break.

Everything seemed fine, yet catastrophe was lurking in the reeds like a 30 foot python. The ovens were on, the citronette ready, the salad greens washed, prepped and set aside, the chimichurri seasoned perfectly, the chicken cooking...

Maybe that problem where the hot water tap would not shut off should have been a clue that all was not destined to flow smoothly.

The kitchen was humming along, ready for an on-time 11:30 service. Ingredients were prepped, mise en place set, all the elements ready for our first performance. Right?

The first hint came as a calm remark from James, "Guys, this oven is set to zero degrees...". The oven with the chicken that's been "cooking" for fifteen minutes?

Yep. That's the one. See this knob? It needs to be turned...


Quick! Transfer the chicken to the convection oven!

Uh, how much chicken is that?

16 half breasts. We'll cut them just the way Teresa did.

So, I have this image of Teresa cutting the chicken on a 45° slant in Pro Cooking, fanning it over the beans and drizzling the slices with the chimichurri. Two portions per half breast, so 16 half breasts should yield 32 servings, right?

Wrong image.

The correct image was one half breast, cut in two, stood up on top of the beans. The chimichurri drizzle part was right, thankfully.

So, we're 15 minutes in the weeds and only have half the portions prepped and in the oven. Luckily, we had the missing chicken prepped and on hand.

A quick toss in a mix of parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper and into the oven they went.
Another half hour to cook.

Almost service time.

Where is the salad? It's not in the walk-in.


Hey, I'm telling you it's not here. Go check.

Nope, not there.

Please tell me it's not in the freezer.

Urrr... Yep, it's in the freezer.

Please tell me it went in a minute ago.

No... it's completely frozen solid. Crispy, brittle, icy.


Didn't whoever put it there see the word, "FREEZER" written on the machine?


Let's try soaking the lettuce in some cold water.

No good. The ice crystals destroyed the leaves' cell structure, it's limper than a viagraless codger.


Grab the mixed spring greens from the walk-in, prep them and let's move!

Put in some arugula to make up the difference. Damn this arugula looks like shit. Diseased or something, old, yellow, mucky. Quick! Pick out the good stuff and shitcan the rest.

Toss the green stuff, get the dressing on, plate, garnish, get it out. We're only half an hour late... but the chicken hasn't all cooked.

Finally the chicken was at temperature - 160°F, ready to pull out of the oven and hold for service.

The beans - the only dish that went down without a problem - were ladled onto plates and passed down, the chicken breasts cut and carefully placed, the chimichurri ladled on, the plates whisked out by the front of the house students.

The crostadas and bread, miraculously came off without a hitch.

Finally, the empty dessert plates began to stream back into the kitchen. We'd survived, bruised, late, in the weeds, but uninjured. There were no explosions, shattered plates, blackened dishes, burnt out equipment.

Except for routine clean-up, we survived our first day in the Oak Cafe kitchen.

Uh, what was that about someone spilling all the salad dressing?

Things for next time
  • Read the name on the equipment. If it says, FREEZER, make sure whatever you place inside is meant to be frozen. The salad should have gone in the lowboy, the thing next to the freezer.
  • The top red knob on the still (non-convection) oven under the range turns it on. The knob with all the numbers sets the thermostat. Screw either one up and you've got raw chicken! Although it's invisible, the top of the thermostat knob is the temperature setting.
  • Draw a plating diagram before service, in part to keep plating consistent, but also to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  • If you don't want to get yelled at, don't trash $17 worth of fancy greens!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crowded, hot kitchen here I come!

Here it is. I'm in. The dreaded class where we create food for paying customers, under the noses of at least three chefs who won't hesitate a nanosecond to come down on any errors like a ton of polenta.

I feel like Dorothy, going up the tornado in the house, looking at all kinds of things and people flying by as I look out the window. In this case, knives, potatoes, duck breasts, rondos, slabs of meat, flames, heat, dishes, looming faces of supervisors, haggled fellow students. Drama, emotion, all that Kitchen Confidential stuff. Well, this time there's no Auntie Em to help you, my pretty!

My first task is to find three chefs, each with twelve recipes that I'd really love to prepare. I suppose this means they're favorite foods. Do I even have 36 favorite recipes from one chef?

When I buy cookbooks, I look for variety. What cuisines don't I have covered? Which recipes look good? Is there a good recipe for civet de lapin? So, I tend to jump chefs.

I'm just not a hero worshipper. They're just people. I don't even want to meet a famous chef; they appear authoritarian, arrogant, obnoxious, unpleasant. I imagine myself treated to some combination of ignored, screamed at, dissed, insulted, cussed at. There might be a laughing Buddha style zen master chef, a mentor worthy of meeting out there, but I've never heard of him. Zen master chefs don't get multimillion dollar television contracts or run three star restaurants, it seems. Except maybe that guy in the subway in Japan, serving sushi.

A fellow student who survived the class added some sage advice: don't pick recipes that might be challenging. Pick things that anyone in the class can put together, yet are somehow excellent nonetheless. So much for my crazy chef with grilled and planked meats. Not practical. Although the techniques are relatively straightforward, they do involve hot coals, soaked planks of wood, basting and lots of smoke in the face.