Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Today we cook!

this looks much easier on TV...

Equipped with my gleaming white chef's coat, pants, cap, apron, and the proper closed-toe, non-skid shoes (a.k.a. sneakers - trainers in the U.K.), we put heat to food and step up to a well-used Wolf gas cook top whose burners look like inverted Space Shuttle engines.

Our task is to prepare an herb rub, insert it under the skin of some boneless chicken breasts, sauté the breasts until they're browned, and chuck them into the oven to finish cooking. While the breasts are underway, we prepare a sauce from the fond left in the pan. We also make mashed potatoes as our starch. The garnish will be a leafy stalk of basil.

The chicken breasts are huge, like they came from some avian porn star. Thick. Not something that would be thoroughly cooked through to a safe internal temperature of 160° F in the allotted time. Day one, and we're already behind.

The sauce, sitting in a pan over a burner whose lowest setting seems to be "char", goes quickly. Too quickly. Even setting the pan on the warming shelf doesn't stop the slow loss of liquid - it evaporates out of the pan, leaving the shallots and garlic behind like salt crystals at Badwater.

The mashed potatoes worked fine. We even added a bit of garlic to make them more interesting. They await the chicken.

We take the chicken out of the oven, slice it. Pink in the center. Back in it goes. Again. Pink. Back in.

Finally, the chicken is ready. Each breast has to be sliced diagonally into five pieces. Four pieces are not as aesthetic, sort of like rocks in a Zen garden. Except that this is burning hot chicken, we're behind and the plates and oval mounds of mashed potatoes are waiting to receive the slices that will be fanned beautifully over them. Then the sauce will coat the chicken in a shimmery, luscious nape for the piece de resistance.

The sauce, bane of my existence. I add the butter, for the "monter au beurre" step, whisking frantically to try emulsifying the little liquid that remains into the butter. Too much butter, too little liquid. I cannot change the laws of physics, I shout. Nonetheless, I manage to achieve something that resembles a sauce, although it's really more bits of soggy shallots drowned in a massive amount of butter.

On goes the sauce, decorative sprigs of basil crown the oeuvre, and we're ready for evaluation. Late. Bad sauce. Chicken cooked. Basil should grow "naturally" from the dish. I withhold comments about this novel type of horticulture. Epiphytic basil that grows on chicken... that would reduce the chicken farm's carbon footprint, but GMO basil would never pass as organic.

Day one over, and much pondering to do over how to manage the thermonuclear heat of the burners and become their master, find where everything is located for next time, delve into the chemistry of sauces, and wonder if all this is going to work out in the end.

Culinary arts, day two

People crowd into the room, many of them hoping to secure a place by adding. There are about forty people in the room. The room only has work space for a little over twenty people.

Thank the Powers, I'm in!

Now it's time to buy a knife set - an 8" chef's knife, boning knife, paring knife, potato peeler, instant read thermometer, and the coup de grace: a bird's beak knife. This last instrument is like a paring knife, except that it's curved like a bird's beak, with the sharp edge on the inside of the curve. It's for doing the tourné cut, something apparently used to torture students in cooking schools the world over, yet not typically done in restaurants in this country. It generates a lot of waste and is labor intensive, so it's easier (if you're a restaurant) to buy machine cut "casino potatoes" and use your kitchen crew for more essential duties.

Culinary arts, day one. Fall semester, 2010.

Enrolling is easy. Actually getting into classes is not.

Nonetheless, I persevered and finally managed to enroll in Knife Skills, Becoming a Chef and Professional Cooking.

I arrived early, to find my knife skills instructor sitting on a bench outside the classroom. After exchanging ritual insults, we chatted a bit, went into the classroom, took care of formalities and left. Class dismissed.

But... I thought we'd put knife to potato, maybe chop a pile of onions. No. You must be in uniform. A white T-shirt, black and white checkered chef pants, a chef's jacket, a black skull cap and a white apron. The jacket must have the school logo (so you can't actually use it to work somewhere), your name embroidered under the logo, and fancy cloth buttons. Since the one place on Planet Earth that supplies these clothes was backed up, none of this had arrived by the first day of class. The potatoes were spared for another three weeks. We would listen, take notes and watch while the potatoes and onions sat safely in their cartons. Their day would come soon enough.

The back story

 Is the (lemon) grass greener on the other side of the fence?

My day job is in construction - designing landscapes. Things are not exactly rosy in this field, where we've lost an estimated 37,000 jobs in our area alone. Unlike banks, we get nothing from the government except requirements for very expensive insurance, paperwork, and requirements to have done five years of the same thing to successfully bid on even the most banal of projects.

So, maybe the construction industry is not the best place to be right now. I'd done photography a long time ago, and continue to apply these skills for occasional projects. It's just that the outlook for this career does not seem much better than for construction, and you have to compete with every bored houseperson with a decent camera and lots of friends for referrals.

What about working in a restaurant? I'd taken some cooking classes about 20 years ago, planned and prepared menus and food for groups of more than 30 people, and still do private parties. Over the years, I've collected a lot of cookbooks, made all kinds of dishes from all kinds of cuisine and have a lot of friends who ask me when I'm going to open my own restaurant.

There's only one catch: working in a restaurant compares to preparing private parties like driving down the freeway versus doing hot laps in a Ferrari. I would need some training, plus real restaurant experience.

I enrolled in culinary arts at the local community college. Knife skills, professional cooking, theory.

I started my quest for a job in a restaurant that prepares interesting food, where I could learn something.

And this is where the fun begins...