Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rejection letters: what if...?

What if rejection letters, when they bother to send them, actually said something interesting and useful? What if, instead of say-nothing pieces of corporate pablum, they informed, amused, guided? What if they just told the brutal bitter truth, without any sugar coating?

What if a company, in the rare instance where they bother to send anything at all, also set up a feedback or question channel? So there could actually be some real communication? Do I mean waste some employee's precious salary time to actually respond to follow-up questions by useless people? Yes indeed. Useless people still talk, they might have even been customers. They might not be so useless if you communicate directly - maybe their lives don't fit into predefined little boxes on a computerized application form. You never know. 

Here are some rejection letters that will never get written:

Brutal Truth

Dear Applicant,

 In analyzing your application, we determined that you have more experience and education than our managers. Hiring you would make them uncomfortable, and we worry that you might not be controllable nor fit into our corporate environment. 

Please stay away. You make us nervous.

The Management


Dear Applicant,

We get so many applications that we just let the computer sort them out. There's not really much difference between all of you, so it comes down to this: since you didn't know anyone in the store, we didn't hire you. Next time, remember that boot licking is a valid tactic.

I'd say that we wish you the best of luck in your employment search, but that would be a lie. I really don't care.

If by chance you become friends with one of our managers, re-apply. If not, don't bother.
The Management


Dear loser:

If we wanted to hire you we would have called. Some technocratic MBA in our company requires us to notify useless toads such as yourself whether we want to or not. If it were up to me, you'd remain in suspense forever and I could do something more useful with my time than write form letters. You really don't deserve anything.

We looked at your application. It tells us that you're a washed-up, unsexy basket case who can't do any better than to apply for a no future, part-time seasonal position doing menial tasks that could be done better by a monkey. Your life is a waste, you'll never amount to anything, and there's a reason your love life isn't working.

In case you're too stupid to figure that this letter means NO, it does. We don't want you, we never will, and please don't ever come here again, not even to buy a cork to plug your leaky butt.

Mr. de Sade, personnel.

Feel good

Dear Valued Applicant,

We loved everything you've done with your life, but regrettably cannot hire you at this time. 

Our store is small, and even though you seem wonderful, we just don't have room to hire that many people. We'd really like to hire everyone, but we can't.

Thank you for considering us as your employer. We are honored by your confidence that we could make you happy in the workplace. Thank you again.

Thank you for your time and we're so very sorry that we can't hire you.

Have a nice day and thank you again,
The loving, caring personnel department

Electrons flash, phosphor glows,Information flows luminous.
Eighty-three words, a life.
Digital Freud 101010... 101010;
Helium II heart.


How did you find us? Why did you apply? It seems you have knowledge, experience and skills. It says you work hard for low pay and don't mind. Are you here to take my job? I have fifteen cats and three turtles to feed! You can't do that to me! I have needs, and you're trying to destroy my life. Did John in human resources put you up to this? Well, I'm on to you now. I know he's wanted me out ever since I broke his beer stein at the office party five years ago. I see what you're up to and it won't work! I'll stop you! You can't work here! I'm not afraid of you! I say who gets hired, your plot is foiled! You won't infiltrate my company. Your evil attempt to destroy me is over. Terminated. 


I had a pair of socks that looked just like you. They didn't have any toes. Maybe you have toes, though. Socks are nice. I want them back, but rodents took them away for nesting material. I never saw them again, just like I'll never see you. 


I don't know why you want to work. There's really no point. It does no good to work when the government and the banks will just take your money away and leave you shivering in the cold. What would you buy with it? Stupid things that you'd never remember ten years from now. Buying things only makes you feel better for a few minutes, then you get the bills and feel worse because now you're more broke than when you started. You only think you need a job, but you don't. You don't need anything, because nothing matters. Whatever you do, you'll die eventually, probably alone and unaided. That's life. It's all dark, there's no hope. Your money will run out, you grasped at the wrong straw and we're throwing you into the raging current to drown, bloat and wash out to sea. We only hire people like myself, who see reality for what it is.

Short, direct and obscene

Hey Asshole!

Who the fuck told you that you could work here? You can't. Your application wasn't good enough for us. Looks to me like you don't know shit about anything, so don't come back later knockin' on my door. It's closed. 

What do you think we are, a charity? We're not here to save the world, pal. We're here to get rich. So we owe you nothin'.

My asshole boss makes me respond to jerks like you, so between you and me, I'm gonna tell you some things. The pay here sucks, it's not even enough to buy cat food, there aren't any bonuses, they ask for unpaid volunteer hours to "stay competitive" but the shithead bosses all drive new fricken Audis. Figured out where you'd fit in? Yeah, right in the shit, up to your eyebrows.

Louie, personnel

We are the one percent

There are 49 million people living in poverty right now in this country, almost a fifth of the population.

You're one of them. 

I'm not. I have a fat bank account, a stable of luxury cars, properties all over the world. My mistress gets more money per year than the operating budget of Burkina Faso. I also happen to be the boss of the huge conglomerate that owns the store where you applied.

I don't care about you, because you're poor. If you weren't poor, you wouldn't have tried for a low-paying temporary job and I wouldn't be sending this message. 

You'll stay poor and I'll stay rich. There's not a damn thing you can do about it. We own the government. They won't help you.




Dear Applicant,

Our state-of-the-art job applicant analysis software scanned your application. While we cannot give you a favorable response to your request for a job, here are the results of the analysis:
  • The computer determined that based on your experience and education that you're older than our standard hiring age. Perhaps you should try babysitting.
  • Your skill set was excessive for someone who would just be selling knick-knacks, expensive little machines that sit on a counter, gizmos and cookbooks. You would just be bored.
  • We received over 1204 applications for this position. Some were recommended by our employees. They get the jobs; you don't.
  • Your use of words such as "consequentially", "numerically" and "mise en place" place you outside of one standard deviation of the current norm for Pacific State Standard American English. Our customers wouldn't understand a word you would say. 
  • Your experience in this exact position was insufficient. You indicated three years or more of sales experience, but it was not in one of our stores nor a virtually identical store run by a competitor. We require that you did the same thing for at least ten years, sold the same items and were never promoted.
  • The position you applied for requires a total lack of ambition. It's seasonal, so no matter how well you perform you will be released from employment on December 25th at 1:00 am after you finish cleaning and re-stocking the store.
  • Currently, we prefer applications filed in text mode: U will C 4 me is gr8t 2 wrk @ your biz. This communication form wastes less server space.
We hope this information will be helpful to you in the future, and that it will console you to know that there was really no possible way for you to get this job short of a close personal connection with the Management.

So long,

The Management

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hold the leafy bits, please.

You want to make a hamburger? The good tomatoes are gone. We're out of lettuce. You didn't bake buns. It's October.

Yeah. But it'll be great, really. Simple.

Just a few ingredients:

Onions: that red onion that I forgot in the pantry, and those half onions that I put in the fridge yesterday. Slow cook in olive oil with a bit of brown sugar, salt and pepper. Very slow. Raise the heat at the end and deglaze the pan with some orange juice. The onions should just melt in your mouth. That will be the base upon which the burger sits.

The burger. Half a pound of beef, fifteen percent fat maximum, grilled, with nice char marks on top. Seasoning: salt and pepper. Yeah, it's just a sketch but the char marks really were there. Trust me. I wouldn't lie about char marks.

The chips. Oops. Forgot about those two Russet potatoes in the pantry. What's this? A Yukon gold potato? Slice 'em up, blanch in oil, quick final fry, salt and pepper again. Ready to go.

Plate it like in the illustration. Except I drew a really fancy, expensive plate. That's the nice thing about illustration. If you can imagine it, you can draw it. And you don't have to actually have it in your hands.

The wine was a cheap Monastrell that comes in a beautiful bottle with a passion flower on it. The wine is great with this kind of food, and makes a great vinegar container afterward.

Rejection slips, corporate America's way of saying they care

You're going downtown!

Sur la Table
in this case, "Dans la Poubelle" would be more accurate.

Well, amazingly enough, I got an answer from Sur La Table, one of the places that requires an online job application. It came from someone named They said this:

"Thank you for your interest in Seasonal Sales Associate position at Sur La Table.

After careful consideration, the decision has been made to pursue candidates whose qualifications more closely meet our needs.

Thank you,

Sur La Table"

I doubt that even an A.I. could have formulated a less human response, nor one that gave less information as to what, exactly I didn't qualify for. "More closely met our needs". OK, fine. In what way? What needs does a store hawking cooking supplies have, if not knowledge of the goods being sold and sales experience? 

What the hell is "careful consideration"? Do they have "careless consideration"? Did someone get a message stating, "We carelessly considered your application, and after a few beers, a kiwi martini and a couple of drinks we'd rather not name, we decided we don't like you. Go away.". What would the careless process be, exactly? Darts? Dice? Cockroach races?

I also love the use of passive voice: "The decision has been made". As though they didn't make it, as though some other agent made the decision, but they're going to keep who it was vague. Perhaps a well-worn ouija board kept in the closet for seasonal hiring? Did someone channel a nameless dybbuk out of the void?

Then they "pursue candidates". Right. Hello! If YOU were pursuing candidates, they wouldn't need to fill out your application! YOU would contact THEM! Get this: candidates pursue YOU. That's how this whole nasty, degrading, depressing evil corporate mindfuck works. They apply, you reject. Get it? Just say "contact", "follow up" "respond to". Not "pursue". Wrong verb. 

This said, I do like Merriam-Webster's definition of "pursue": "...overtake, capture, kill, or defeat". Maybe I should count my blessings and be happy they're not "pursuing" me after all.

It's not like I was applying for the position of CEO. I was going for Seasonal Sales Associate. Expendable, temporary, and not necessarily highly qualified. So WTF? I didn't list elf boots as an asset? Not enough, ho ho ho?

Your application was processed. You don't fit in. The Decision Has Been Made. Go away, and never come back. You're off the table.

I had a painting gig (watercolor) in the area, so I decided to pop in and see what their "more qualified" people looked like. They looked kind of like this, from memory:

The design creeping under the woman on the right's top is a tattoo. She is not sheltering a large green creature on her breast. Yes, her top did plunge like gnocchi dropped into hot water.

None of them looked to be over thirty years old. Some of them didn't even look like they'd hit twenty-five. Is age a qualification?

Monday, October 24, 2011

It's that time of year again... chiles en almendra

Chiles en nogada are a seasonal recipe made during the overlap of pomegranites, chiles poblanos, and walnuts - as well as apples and pears.

I make them with almonds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds instead of walnuts. The chili stuffing is small cubes of beef, onion, garlic, apple, pear, pluot, raisins, more almonds, a bit of cinnamon, salt and black pepper. I was out of Sherry, so I splashed everything down with a bit of Calvados. It was supposed to have acitrón (candied cactus) too - it's traditional, but I didn't have time to get down to the supermercado to pick some up. I've also made them with pork, but the beef seems to hold up a bit better and is more assertive where pork tends to blend in with the other flavors.

The white sauce is crème fraîche, goat cheese, toasted almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds - and a bit more Calvados. The whole thing is topped with pomegranite seeds and fresh flat leaf parsley.

Except for the switch between walnuts and my mix, this is a traditional Mexican dish, a variation on chiles rellenos from Puebla. There's some controversy about whether the stuffed chilis should be fried in egg batter like regular chiles rellenos or not. Obviously, I'm on the side of "not". I think the sauce is rich enough not to need the batter, and there's no tomato sauce for it to soak up as there is with normal chiles rellenos.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No. You can't have a job, and other rants

This one's political.
After my desultory attempts at finding some form of supplementary employment, I've come across all kinds of corporate strategies to reduce all people to something resembling a cockroach immediately after molting, and to treat them accordingly. Then I sometimes have flashes of insight on other issues, like the tax structure. So, here they are, my comments and recipes for moving everything a micron closer to utopia.

I tried to send a message to President Obama via the White House web page, but all I got was a bunch of nonsense error messages, an endless "connecting" message and finally the message above. In other words, I got the electronic runaround. Isn't it great that politicians can make their web sites act just like real politicians?

All I tried to say is why don't you tax the rich when things aren't going so well, and lower their taxes when they are? In other words, create some incentive.

Maybe it was too simple an idea for a political computer server to understand. Maybe they just don't want to hear about taxes. I would think that some index exists out there that gives the current pulse of the economy, and could be used as a tax index. I mean, there are all those fancy PhD economists out there who constantly create indexes for this, indexes for that.

The way I see it, giving money to the rich won't help anyone. When is the last time a Wall Street mogul bought you a drink or your bank gave you real interest? Yeah, that's what I thought. The rich just invest their money offshore where they get a high yield. Maybe they'll buy a company and outsource everything except highly paid executive positions to a far-away land where workers are paid in some currency with an exchange rate measured in peanuts.

But if by helping the common man, elevating the middle class to a livable position, they can save on their taxes, maybe it will be like giving them a heart. Like virtual caring. Like Robin Hood's spirit really does live on, somewhere, instead of the current "steal from the poor and give to the rich". 

Applying for employment
While I'm being political might as well throw some well-deserved rotten end-of-season tomatoes at the inhuman, degrading policies of Corporate America when it comes to the hiring process.

Once company brags about being a Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. Perhaps, once you're hired this could be true. However, their hiring process leaves a lot to be desired. Like their fifty question psychobabble personality-id-ego screening test that applicants must take online. I suppose some squinty-eyed human resources cyborg considers this to be the best, most accurate way to eliminate everyone who will not fit into their corporate culture. No matter if they're applying to be a janitor, serve cheese, shoot photographs, bake bread or cut meat. It's obvious that all these people will have identical personality profiles. Isn't it? Yes, the HR people say so! The strange thing is that it seems like this barrier comes up even before questions like can you really cut a slab of beef into recognizable (and sellable) steaks and roasts? Or do you know an f/stop from a unsharp mask? Nah. What matters is your karakteristika, comrade. Skills are nothing next to a personality that scores 85% or better on their little Turing test.

Feedback, now you want feedback?
Most application processes are online, automated, unseen by actual humans, never pondered by human brains. I imagine that there's some kind of filter algorithm that searches for key words, correlations and Spock's brain to determine if you're fit to enter into the ranks of their poorly paid part-time seasonal minions. So, they are very good at checking everything as you apply, moving data from page to page and finally, when the SUBMIT button has sent your entire life flashing through the ether to their server, sending a APPLICATION RECEIVED message to your e-mail. After that, unless some wannabe AI found you intriguing, apt and compatible, you may hear nothing. Ever. Or, you may receive an impersonal, passive voice message that gives you no information on where you failed to measure up, but leaves no doubt that applying to their company again would be a tragic waste of time.

Strangely enough, right after I posted this I got a rejection notice written in Corporatespeak, basically saying to get lost and stay that way.

It seems that the people who have found jobs typically knew someone in the company who could get them around the system. I wonder how they scored on their karakteristika.

How do I know you're not...
Some companies assume you're guilty until proven innocent. They want to know you pay your taxes, aren't some kind of criminal, haven't plotted against a government (except perhaps some enemy of the USA), that you feed your fish and are kind to stray cats. All this before you're even considered for a job. No investigation of your entire background by a company who can't even guarantee that their data will be safe from hackers. I want to investigate them, too. Can I see if the people looking at my social security number, address, driver's license, etc won't run off and sell the data to identity thieves? No? Why not? It's not like these corporations really hold the moral high ground here. They do hold lots of lawyers, though. So you hope that your information is safe and that if it isn't that someone will make things right. Yes, I'm dreaming. It probably isn't and no, they won't.

Your information is safe with us!
Some companies are small and do things the old-fashioned way. They accept your application on a standard form that's somehow different for every place I've applied to. Then they toss it into a drawer. Safe. Secure. Don't think about what could happen late at night when you can't sleep. Maybe I'm wrong, and they shred it as soon as I walk out the door. From all the calls I've received, this may indeed be the case.

Immigration status for sale
I just read that some senators want to give some kind of residential visa to anyone who comes in with cash and buys a home over $500,000. Yep, half a million bucks. Once again, handing something to the real estate industry on a platter.

Actually, this is a good idea. Except for the "buy" part. I'd much rather see "build" than buy, since that would employ a lot more people and not just give more gravy to the real estate industry. Building a home means new permits, so local governments get some money. It hopefully uses designers, architects, landscape architects, engineers, interior designers to determine its form and function. Then there are all the materials - and these could be required to be from the USA. Then there's the small army of people who will pound those nails, lift those trusses and polish off the new American dream home.

You're not corporate
You've done everything the qualifications list, or better. You know the software. You know the processes. You'd be great at this job... except... you're not corporate. You never did these things while working in the bowels of a large company. You never managed corporate people. You didn't do what you did in the corporate way. You're not one of us, your resume is non-standard. You know too much, yet you know too little. We're not talking to you. So what if the qualifications demand you know 27 technical computer programs, speak 12 different languages, are able to pilot a hovercraft, can prepare sauce béarnaise with five variations, have experience working with naked mole rats in their native habitat and can type 178 words per minute? You're not qualified unless you're corporate.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Before baking, looking like a bad attempt at an ogre's purse

After cooking, looking much more edible

Note the lower crust: cooked!
I've now started my dreaded baking class. This is the one where we make cakes, supposedly. Although right now we're deep in pie country. This is good, since pies are much more familiar, if not easier to make.

Our first assignment: the Crostada. These are to pies as slugs are to snails. No shell. No tin to provide support and structure. So these things will change shape as they bake, flattening as the apples inside liquefy. They're rustic so that's all right. It's also fine that you can't roll out a perfectly round crust to save the Earth from invading monsters from Planet 67. A rustic crust in this instance is a happy crust.

A crostada is a pie crust folded up like an ogre's purse over a fruit filling, brushed with egg wash and topped with streusel (not streudel. I don't know why they couldn't invent more dissimilar words. Must be another diabolical method to torture culinary students).

The crostada in the photos wasn't made in class. Although we used a fancy deck oven at school, the bottom crust was half raw. Uncooked flour is not what I want to taste in my dessert, so I decided to play with the thing at home.

This crostada went on a baking sheet on top of a pizza stone, with nothing to insulate it from the stone's heat. This did the trick, along with a bit longer cooking time. The lower crust was acceptably done, without the raw flour flavor.

The great thing about crostadas is that they can be any size, and someone less than skilled at rolling out perfectly circular dough can take shelter under the term "rustic".  It's rustic, not circular! It's planned that way! All is well. Eat!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pork chops, avocado, fancy salsa

Today I ripped out most of my tomatillo plants to make way for the winter garden. There were more tomatillos than I'd expected, so now I'm up to my ears in chili verde sauce.

Not to worry, though. Reduced, strained and lightly monté au beurre it becomes positively snooty, far from that stuff served in little plastic cups all over California.

Here's how the acid balance worked out: Neutral/acid pork chop, slightly sweet avocado, sour sauce, sweet carrot/potato/onion. Dark beer to stand up to the bit of morita chili that's in the salsa. Not that it's hot. Just a tingle of heat to keep things interesting.

I still have about a pinto of chili verde, unstrained, that I can use for something else. Maybe those schweinschnitzel left over from dinner with my uncle. Maybe some kind of torta milanesa. That could really hit the spot on a fall Sunday.

Monday, October 10, 2011

New couche!

proofing loaves in the couche

ciabatta, ready to eat

Real bakers use couches. Not just on their babies, either*. A good couche is strong and a bit absorbent, keeping the loaves in shape yet allowing them to slowly lose moisture as they proof. For highly hydrated breads, this is a very good thing.

I'd been using an old cloth rice sack. Botan brand. Too thin to stand up and support the loaves, and since it's thin it couldn't do much in the absorption and wicking department, either.

Real baker's couches are linen. I thought they were cotton, but no. Linen. Untreated linen canvas. Hey, I'd seen this stuff at the art store. Untreated cotton was even on sale when I got there, so away I went.

The first thing I noticed was that the material was not exactly odor free. Untreated apparently does not mean washed and odor free. When I first gave it a quick rinse, the water was yellowish. So, no choice but to soak it in a pot with a bit of dishwashing detergent in it for about an hour. Then rinse, rinse, rinse some more until the fabric smelled of nothing at all. Success.

Let the couche dry, then lightly spray with oil, then dust with flour. Place a loaf of ciabatta dough near one end, fold the end up against the bread, then fold the other side of the couche up against the other side of the loaf. Add another loaf. Repeat until done.

If there was enough flour on the couche, the bread should come off without too much problem. Since this is ciabatta, it's very limp and sticky. It really wants to stick to the couche. Don't let it. That flour is all that stands between you and a sticky mass of dough plastered to the fabric.

With the help of a bench scraper, you can get the loaves off and onto a peel well coated with semolina flour. I prefer semolina to corn meal, since it doesn't have that crunch that separates it from the bread. It blends with the dough, but still allows a limp, sticky ciabatta loaf to slide off the peel onto the hot pizza stone.

This batch of bread came out just about perfect. Off-white crumb with good flavor (thanks to a biga prepared yesterday). Crispy crust. Large, open holes. Maybe I'm wrong, but the couche really seemed to help.

* French joke. Too long to explain.

Mozzarella, the fast way

the newly made cheeses

taste test: Caprese salad

There are basically two ways to make mozzarella cheese. One is fast, involves citric acid, rennet and milk. The other is slower, and involves some bacteria to make things interesting. For my first venture into cheesemaking, I didn't want to mess with bacterial cultures, since the whole curdling process was still terra incognita.

Basically, you get some good milk, in this case Trader Joe's cream on top. It's about as close as you can get to something that came out of a cow, except for the pasteurization. The cream will actually float to the top, like gaffers tell me it did back in the forties when milk was milk food was food.

The next step is to put in some citric acid powder, then heat the milk to exactly 88° F. Add a measured quantity of rennet. Stir. You can now heat things up a bit more. The milk will curdle, unless something went drastically wrong. I put too much citric acid in, but it still worked. The amount of rennet used for 1/2 gallon of milk is so small that my scale didn't even register one gram of the stuff.

Once it curdles, the fun begins. In the biological, more flavorful process, you would add some bacterial culture and let it munch on the curds for a while. That would take longer, but supposedly give a better flavor. That's how they make the mozzarella that floats around in whey. For this lazy (or rushed) person's method, you just strain out the curds from the whey, squeeze out the excess whey, and form them into little balls ready for transformation.

Once you've got the little balls formed, the whey gets salted and heated up to 175° F. This is hot enoough to just barely melt the cheese, and that's the whole idea. Yeah, someone told me about using a microwave, but I have a lot of trouble imagining some cheese maker in Italy microwaving their formaggio. Ever see a Renaissance painting of cheese makers putting the stuff in microwaves? No? I didn't think so. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I'm going old school.

The first time I tried this, I used a spider to fish the cheese balls out of the hot liquid. Bad idea. The melting cheese oozes into the mesh and is a real mess to get out again. After that, I used a ladle Just pour off the hot whey to leave the cheese, place it on a cleaned and sanitized cutting board and knead it a bit. Return it to the hot whey and repeat.

At first, it seemed like the clump of disobedient curds would never organize themselves into anything even vaguely resembling cheese. Then, after about the third pass through the hot whey, things began to happen. The mass became more amenable to stretching. Like taffy, everyone who has made the cheese says. Indeed. Another pass, and the stuff really did start to behave in a taffy-like manner. After another, and it even looked like cheap, store-bought mozzarella that comes shrink-wrapped in plastic. A bit of kneading, just like making bread boules, and I had a mozzarella mini-ball of my very own, glistening with a wet sheen and no sign of clumpy curds. Uniform. Homogenous. Cheesy.

So, I'd successfully taken half a gallon of perfectly good milk and turned it into half a pound of resilient white cheese similar to the cheap mozzarella that you'd put on an average pizza. Other than the thrill of discovery, of boldly going where I'd never gone before, was it worth it? Time for a tasting.

Although summer is over, we still had a few unspoiled tomatoes hanging on the vines. No frost yet. There was also some basil that I hadn't got around to freezing for winter pesto. A bit of olive oil, some home made vinegar and I had all the makings for a caprese salad. I also had some of the aforementioned store-bought mozzarella for comparison. There was the added thrill of eating something where the cheese and vinegar were home made; where the tomato and basil all came from our garden.

The result? Well, although making this cheese isn't especially difficult, it doesn't give a significantly better result than its store-bought equivalent. Perhaps the milk is of better quality. It might be a bit softer and easier to cut. This isn't a strong flavored cheese, so the biggest determinant of flavor in the homemade stuff was the amount of salt added (I'd tried three dosages). I suppose I could add things to the homemade cheese that aren't typically found in store-bought mozzarella, like cumin or chipotle peppers or nigella seeds. Nigella seeds? Hmm...

I'm not giving up on home made cheese by any means. I just think that cheese is meant to be chewed on by a host of bacteria, transforming it into something more flavorful than smashed, melted and stretched curds. This, however, is where it gets complicated. Mesophilic, thermophilic... Flora danica, lactococcus, Geotrichum candidum, penicillium, more penicillium... There's that other mozzarella method that's not too time-consuming, but getting into things that resemble Camembert, chevre, blue cheeese... probably not too feasible without spending some serious money and waiting months for the result. Cheeses want to be at a certain temperature to ripen, so I'll probably need a wine conditioner. A cheap one. Perhaps from some former yuppie's garage sale, somewhere. In working order. Somewhere to put it. Or a cave, maybe. Start digging and eventually... no, it fills up with water during the rainy season. Nix that idea.

So, the next steps could be fromage blanc, crème fraîche, queso blanco, that bacterially active mozzarella... although I'd really like to make some fancy cheese, the kind that costs $35 a pound and treats you to layer upon layer of complex fermenty tastes.

If you're intrigued by all this, and think that you'd like to play with curds and bacteria, Sacramento has the store for you: Brew, Ferment, Distill. BFD for short. They sell all kinds of arcane, alchemical looking equipment and supplies for making wine, beer and cheese. In the future, they plan to add fermented foods to their repertoire of supplies, so you can make your own sauerkraut, kimchee or whatever strikes your fancy. For now, I'll stick to cheese.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apple-Lime soufflé

My sanitation and safety class tends to finish early. Most people leave, but they're missing out. The instructor brings DVDs featuring French chefs and has been playing them after class. For some reason, I'm the only one fanatic enough to watch, but why not? I'm still getting out earlier than the class' scheduled end time, and I'm getting lots of ideas. The whole idea of this program is to become an almost-chef, so why does it matter if I learn cooking techniques in a non-cooking class?

The last video featured Michel Guérard, whose recipes were then given to a housewife, a grandmother, a macho type and two children to replicate. Granted, this was a French housewife, grandmother, French macho type and two French children. So maybe their palates were a bit more educated than you'd find here. Or not. The housewife seemed like someone whose habitual cooking tool is a microwave. The grandmother, on the other hand, seemed like an excellent cook although she couldn't quite get a handle on what M. Guérard was doing with his foie gras recipe. The macho guy grilled some chicken - airline breasts, a strange choice for a macho guy, but as long as he's messing with fire and smoke not altogether inappropriate. The housewife did some kind of fish, if I remember right. It wasn't a raging success. The kids got something interesting: apple-lime soufflé.

The soufflé had an ingredient that I doubt I could find here: Lait Gloria. This is apparently evaporated milk that comes in cans in France. M. Guérard discovered that it can be whipped and added to soufflés, where it adds another level of flavor and richness. His process was to cook down some apples, pass them through a tamis (strainer), mix the result with some lime juice, lime zest, egg yolk and fold it into a mix of whipped Lait Gloria and the more standard egg whites beaten to stiff peaks. Then pour the result into some ramekins, bake it off and enjoy.

After making crepe batter, I had a lot of extra egg whites. There was a lime sitting on the table, and some apples. Voila! Everything I needed to try that soufflé less the Lait Gloria that I'd have to do without.

Apple-lime soufflé
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 egg yolks (use the other yolks for Hollandaise, aioli, whatever)
  • 2-3 apples, cut into cubes and cooked down
  • 1 lime,  juice and zest
  • sugar
  • Calvados (apple brandy)
  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Grease four smallish ramekins, set aside.
  3. Cook down the apples with some sugar and Calvados. I added the Calvados because something had to step in for the missing Lait Gloria.
  4. When the apples have cooked down, uncover the pot and let them cool.
  5. Squeeze the lime and plane its zest into a bowl with a bit of sugar.
  6. When the apples have cooled, add them into the lime juice, then add the egg yolks and whisk all this stuff together vigorously.
  7. Beat the egg whites and a bit of sugar to stiff peaks.
  8. Fold the apple-yolk mixture into the egg whites, and immediately transfer the fluffy stuff into the ramekins, then zip everything into the oven. If you're smooth, you can put the ramekins on a cooking pan. If you're not, they'll slide off and break on the floor. The cooking pan makes it easier to zip everything in and out of the oven, but if it's just going to end as a heap on the floor, it's not a crime to quickly put the ramekins in the oven individually.
  9. The soufflés should be done in 12-14 minutes. Check through the door - if you open it, they'll fall faster than the stock market after Bernanke's latest bad news. When done, they'll look dry, they'll hopefully have risen, and they'll be starting to brown on top. 
As soon as you remove them from the oven, soufflés fall. That's just the nature of the beasts. If you stop for photos, they'll pretty much have fallen all the way before you attack.

The result of mixing the lime and apple is that the soufflé has a crisp, green apple taste. The limes aren't even apparent - they just seem to intensify the apple flavor. I didn't add a lot of sugar, so without the richness of the Lait Gloria the soufflé felt a bit thin. Like a low calorie version. Still, it was a more refreshing version of the dish than usual. This is probably something that will need some more experimentation before it's ready for prime time, but with a bit of work could be made into a great light dessert for an autumn meal.

Stocking up at Oxbow Market

Oxbow Public Market interior

Step inside, your charcuterie awaits!

pancetta & friends, Fatted Calf
cured meats, Fatted Calf
margharita pizza ingredients, Ca'Momi

pizza napoletana, Ca'Momi

Where's the Urfa pepper? Yipes! That's all we've got left? How 'bout the Aleppo? Nope, not much of that, either. Is there any good ham? We could make some crepes to go with this French cider... Nope. Looks like it's time for a trip to the Oxbow Market in Napa.

Oxbow market sits next to the corpse of Copia, the failed food/wine/art/whatever museum/center/restaurant/garden. You even park in Copia's lot. I'm not really surprised that Copia failed, since it really didn't seem to know if it wanted to be an art museum, food exploration center, gathering place, cafeteria or restaurant. During the few times I visited, there didn't seem to be enough live food-related action. I went expecting cooking demonstrations, product showcases, lots of foodie stuff happening all around. I expected to be dazzled by all the activity, where little known ingredients would be explained, cooking processes shown off, the palate educated and new horizons discovered. Instead, I found an interesting restaurant that I thought I'd try later (nope. gone), a cafeteria (a cafeteria in a center that should have all kinds of culinary sophistication?), an interesting garden, lots of static art and few active food demonstrations. Maybe other days were better; I went during the week. But still, a center like this needed to draw people all week long, from a large area, so where was the sizzle?

The sizzle is at Oxbow, though. There are numerous restaurants, a place to buy interesting (and expensive) cheeses, a purveyor of florescent cupcakes, a butcher, a fish market, a produce stand, a bakery... There are some puzzling places, like antique stores with expensive culinary artifacts. Nothing edible as far as I could tell. There's a place with lots of tables, all occupied by people sitting behind their portable computers. A tea shop. An olive oil store. Lots of little restaurants: Mexican, Venezuelan, Undefined multi-cultural, Italian, burgers, oysters. Ice cream. None of this was my reason for going. I was there for some charcuterie from the Fatted Calf and some spices from Whole Spice. Too bad that Copia can't be reconfigured somehow to interface with Oxbow to create a gastronomic destination worthy of Napa.

Fatted Calf, unlike the salumeria in the Ferry Building, has more of a French approach to cured meats, although not exclusively so. This means they've got rillettes. They even have them in two options: duck or pork we took the duck). They have duck confit ready to take home and heat, covered in lots of tasty duck fat. There's foie gras (we'll take a slice...). Smoked ham (more slices, for the crepes). Pancetta (a chunk, please). Head cheese (a taste, offered by the house, a nice gesture). We skipped the fresh rabbit, duck, lamb, pork and other locally raised offerings. We were tempted by freshly made sandwiches, beef jerky, pâté... but resisted. You have to stop somewhere, after all.

Now, on to the next item: the chili powders. Chili urfa has a deep, almost coffee-like flavor, and isn't so hot that you can't use enough to taste it. Aleppo is hotter, but with a bit of tart chili flavor to round it out. The latter is my go-to chili for whenever I want a bit of heat in a dish. Urfa is for when I want something more complex and richly flavored, usually for Mexican or Middle Eastern dishes.

Whole Spice will let you buy things in bulk, and if you come in with an empty container of one of their spices, they'll refill it for you so you don't have to pay for the jar. So, Aleppo and Urfa peppers are back on the menu. Grab the chilis, pay, get out. Don't look around! I have to concentrate on what I came for in here lest I run up a huge bill with exotic spices I've never heard of and want to try.

There are a few quirky places. The coffee place is designed so that the person working there seems to always have her back to the customers. We stood a while, not sure if she was on the phone, preparing an order or both, shrugged and walked on. The ice cream shop had one bin of peanut flavored product, so I asked if there was a separate scoop for the nuts. "Uh... Well, I dunno... lemme see...". Wrong answer.

In the process, we tried a real Neapolitan pizza margherita at Ca'Momi, made with most of its ingredients imported from Italy, baked in a wood-fired oven. Type 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, even the salt came from Sicily. They must be a real foodie place, since instead of olive oil, they said "EVOO". Strangely enough, they didn't say if the oil was imported or not. To their credit, there's no chili flakes or Parmesan cheese, since these ingredients aren't used on veritable pizza napoletana. Even more to their credit, these things aren't necessary; the buffalo mozzarella melts in your mouth, nestled in an almost liquid San Marzano tomato sauce, punctuated by an occasional bite of fresh basil. They do have other pies, but this is the big test. With so few ingredients, everything must be perfect.

Goodies in hand, we headed back to the car, just as a new storm front rolled in from the West.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Carbonnade Flamande

It was a cold, dark night in Bruges, Belgium. We had found a tiny café with many dishes I was totally unfamiliar with, including this one. The description looked good, it was a house specialty and above all I was trying to boldly go where I had never gone before. The plate arrived, steam rising from its surface along with a complex aroma that made me grab my spoon and go for a tongue-burning taste. Rich, layered, deep. Beef, beer, herbal, onion flavors slow-cooked together to create the perfect dish for a cold night after a day spent exploring.

Some recipes add mushrooms. Others omit the bacon. Most call for dried herbs. I didn't remember mushrooms from my trip to Bruges, and these are not herbs I typically use dried, since thyme really has a much better flavor when used fresh. So 86 the shrooms, keep the bacon, change the herbs to fresh and keep them in the background. Make sure the beef stock is rich, since this is where a lot of the flavor will come from.

You could probably drink wine with this plate. I don't know why, but you probably could. But if you're staying in the Belgian mode, beer is your drink. The Brasserie d'Achouffe brews some interesting stuff, like Mc Chouffe. It's a brown ale, somehow a mix of Scottish and Belgian brewing styles that result in a smooth easy to drink beverage that complimented the beef in the carbonnade quite well, and the sauce even better, maybe because of the sauce's beer base.

This is something that is even better the second day, so I made a lot. I have another bottle of beer I'd like to try...

Carbonnade Flamande (Flemish Beef Stew)
Preparation time: about 30 minutes, assuming that you have beef stock.

Cook time: until the meat is fork tender, somewhere over two hours.

Yield: about six serving plated like above. About four people if you're being copious on the carbonnade and skimpy on the potatoes (and they're hungry).

Yes, this recipe is metric. That's because it's Belgian. It's also because here in the USA we're too scared to make the jump and join the rest of the entire planet. So, consider this a bit of a shove in the right direction. It really is an easier system to use - once you no longer have to convert from gallons, pounds and all that nonsense. Maybe more importantly, worrying about having exact quantities of ingredients is a great way to screw up a dish (unless you're baking). Use your head and go with the flow. This isn't an exact thing, since onions, garlic, sprigs of herbs, etc. don't come in uniform sizes anyway.

  • About 1 kg beef, cut into 3 cm. cubes
  • Flour for dredging the meat
  • 2 medium yellow onions, chopped into about 1 cm pieces
  • Several cloves of garlic, to taste, finely chopped
  • 200 g or so bacon, cut into narrow strips. I used uncured.
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 50 cl of dark beer (Downtown Brown, in this case. Drink the rest)
  • Enough beef stock to cover everything once you've added the beer. The quality of your stock will have a big influence on the quality of the dish. If you're buying your stock, check to see how much salt is in it and adjust the recipe accordingly.
  • Thyme, fresh (about 1/2 sprig).
  • Bay leaves, 3
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Fresh parsley for garnish
  1. Get everything ready: slice the beef into cubes (if you didn't buy stew meat, already cut), cut the onions and garlic, slice the bacon, wash and prepare the thyme, take the beer out of the fridge so it's room temperature.
  2. Dredge the meat in the flour in batches small enough to fit in your pan without crowding.
  3. Heat a sautoir (sauté pan), add the oil, and gently brown the meat. Don't cook it, since it will have plenty of time for that later. You just want to brown the meat/flower mixture for added flavor.
  4. Remove the meat from the pan, repeat with the next batch.
  5. Sauté the bacon a bit until it gives off some tasty grease
  6. Increase the heat a bit, add the onions and garlic. Fry them until they're soft. They'll take on the color from the pan and pick up some of the meat flavor.
  7. Turn the heat down and deglaze with a tiny bit of beef stock, scraping the pan with a wood (or other non-scratching) spatula to remove the fond (brown stuff) from the surface of the pan. I poured just enough to sizzle and lift the fond while scraping. When you're done, the pan should be clean, the onions dirty (this is good, though - the fond has a lot of flavor that you want in the cooking liquid).
  8. Add the beer, stir it in. There should be a bit of foam, but it will go away as things cook. At this point, a crock pot would work, since the meat has been browned and all that is left is a long simmer.
  9. Add the stock and herbs, enough to cover all the meat. 
  10. Cover, and reduce the heat to low so that the liquid just simmers. A few tiny bubbles coming to the top, as long as the liquid is over 75° C (167° F) is probably ideal.
  11. Check from time to time that the liquid is simmering, not boiling. Boiling the meat is bad, and will give you tough, dry beef instead of moist, tender morsels.
  12. After about 90 minutes, you can start checking for doneness. If the meat is fork tender, it's ready. 
  13. Depending on the amount of connective tissue in the meat, you might need more cooking time.
  14. If you have a lot of sauce, remove the meat and increase heat to high to reduce it down. It's OK to boil the sauce, since the meat isn't in it. Return the meat to the sauce once it's thickened a bit and you're ready to eat.
Serve with boiled new or fingerling potatoes and garnish with chopped parsley. I peeled the potatoes after steaming them (to avoid doing the dreaded tourné cut), then put them in the sauce to heat up.

More about the Brasserie d'Achouffe here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Look what was in the garden!

"I just got back from the garden, and look! We still had some zucchini....", my wife said as she dropped the sack of veggies on the table. By now, I knew that resistance is useless. Zucchini has my name and my address and it's not going to let go.

So, what about stir fry? Fermented black beans and chili along with an incandescent wok should turn the stuff into something at least minimally interesting.

Stir-fried zucchini
First, a note about using a wok. It needs to get hot. Really hot. Flaming afterburner jet exhaust hot. So hot that the wok will turn black all the way to the rim as it seasons. There is only one way to do this at home: buy a chicken or turkey fryer burner that attaches to a propane tank. It's not ideal, since there's no ring for the wok, but you can still hold it upright over the burner and it wont' fall off under normal conditions.  You will need to season your wok if it's new - it basically needs a coating of baked-on oil, just like a cast iron pan.

  • Zucchini, cut diagonally. I peeled strips off the things so they'd look a bit more interesting, but you can't really tell from the photo.
  • Black beans. Available in the Asian foods section of your supermarket. These are fermented soy beans - try to find some with a minimal amount of other ingredients.
  • Garlic, finely chopped
  • Turmeric, fresh grated
  • A hint of celery finely chopped
  • Green onion, diced
  • Chili flakes (I used Aleppo)
  • Soy sauce
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • High-temperature oil

  1. Salt the zucchini and let them sit. This will draw off some moisture, but it will also make them less crispy at the end. Skip this step if you want them crunchier.
  2. Prepare the other ingredients, put them in containers that can be accessed in nanoseconds, because when the wok is hot, that's about all the time you'll have. Garlic with onions, turmeric and celery. Zucchini. Black beans. Soy sauce with vinegar.
  3. Wash the salt off the zucchini and pat dry
  4. Place everything around the wok where it's easy to access.
  5. Light it up. Fwoooosh!
  6. The wok will start to smoke almost instantly. Pour in a bit of oil, and immediately add the garlic and onions. Toss them around a few times. There could be a few small flames coming off the wok. It's normal and they should go out quickly. If they don't lift the wok off the heat and that should take care of them. If there is a huge, smoking column of fire, you put in too much oil.
  7. Add the zucchini. Mix it in with the garlic and onions. Let it sit a bit, toss it, let it sit.
  8. Add the black bean sauce, give it a couple of tosses (or stirs)
  9. Toss in the vinegar/soy mixture, give it a couple of tosses and pull everything off the heat. The whole process should have taken 60-90 seconds.
Slide the food out of the wok into a plate, serve immediately over steamed rice.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A bit of chef satori

The chef and sous-chef I worked with at the event were great. Everything went smoothly, the guests were well taken care of and they actually seemed like human beings. Everyone put their head down and did their job. They greeted guests with a smile and described their offerings in mouthwatering detail. They had some of the best food at the event. Coincidence? I think not.

They were professional, paid great attention to quality, and helped to restore some glimmer of hope that I could, someday, find a niche in this industry. Although I wasn't asking them for a job, either.

Employment wasn't why I was there. Gaining experience, learning, talking to working chefs to see how they think and act, their approach to food, watching them work and seeing if they enjoy their job were. A bit of culinary exploration wasn't out of the question, either, with so many restaurants present.

Near the end of the event, they released us to wander the event, taste food, quaff wine, sample beer... and check out the other restaurants. Most were staffed by people who looked like they were enjoying themselves. They also looked like they were proud of what they were serving and happy to share both food and information.

One chef, however, was not smiling. He hovered in the space behind a table laden with food samples, scowling. Unfriendly. Unwelcoming. I'd never met him, as far as I know. So why was he scowling? I'd never visited his restaurant. I never sent them a job application. I don't know his name.

Did he somehow recognize me from past comments in this blog and resent something I'd said about hiring, courtesy, professionalism? Yeah, I didn't exactly hold back when telling of my first experiences as a back of the house job seeker - yet those were my feelings. After all, when someone won't even give you a chance, not even an unpaid stage, there's not much risk that offending him will lead to denial of a job. When giving someone a job application - even if it's in bad faith - is too much to ask, there's not much left to say or do, is there?

I suddenly realized that if things had gone differently a year ago, I could have had this guy for a boss. This could be his normal nature, his mien totally unrelated to anything I might have done or said. This man was someone who could have turned my first foray into the hospitality industry into nights of living hell. Or this could be a bad first impression and things could have been great - who knows?

In any case, nobody said that working in a restaurant is easy, and if by some miracle I'm ever hired, I hope it's by someone who leads by inspiration and guidance rather than fear.

So, I'm continuing with my classes, even though they may in the end prove futile in my effort to find paid work in the hospitality industry. If nothing else, I'll be able to cook and bake pretty much anything. I'll probably know enough to open my own restaurant, although the day I decide to do this is the day I deserve to be swept away to a calm place by men with sharp hypodermics and soothing solutions.

Pork meets bitch, they fall in love, live happily ever after

Yesterday's culinary event featured some fascinating beer tasting after I'd finished working a table.

We talked about food and beer pairings, notably the question of which beer, exactly, goes better with cassoulet (lamb/duck/white bean stew). Nobody at the event seemed to know, but there was a beer expert who gave a talk last year and said that such a beer does indeed exist. And once you've had it, he claimed, you'll never go back to Cahors (a Malbec-based wine from France).

Another thing I found was that a chef's uniform gets you a lot of very generous pours. Wine and beer. You also get to skip the "this is a Cabernet Sauvignon and it goes with..." type of conversation and jump right into the style of the wine, its terroir, and the things you really want to know if you're going pair it well with food.

So, inspired by some intriguing flavors brewed in Belgium, I decided to head down to the big liquor store, buy a few intriguing bottles, and experiment.

My first idea was to make a Flemish Carbonnade, basically beef stewed in beer and brown stock. It has onions and herbs, but the main flavor comes from the beef, stock and beer slowly simmering together. Once I'd bought the ingredients, I realized that it was already 4:00 pm. That would put dinner around midnight since I'm out of brown stock. Something for tomorrow, then.

I bought a bottle of Mc Chouffe, my favorite from last night's tastings, to pair with the carbonnade. Expensive, but then it comes in generous 750 ml bottles, all the way from the Ardennes region of Belgium. Too expensive to pour into a stew. So I bought a six pack of Bitch Creek ESB Ale for the cooking end of things.

I suppose I should back up a minute here. I thought the bottle said, "Birch Creek" until my wife pointed out the actual spelling. A bit of research, and yes, there is a Bitch Creek, it is in Idaho and I would not want to try piloting a kayak down that maelstrom of water crashing over rocks. It's rated Class 4+. Dangerous.

Hmm. This ESB Ale looks pretty tasty. What if, I thought... So, my first foray into beer-food parings matched the ESB with well-spiced country style pork ribs, marinated with some deep, toasty chili urfa, a bit of brown sugar, some salt, some balsamic vinegar, a bit of garlic and... stop. That would do it. That would throw grilled pork, roasty, toasty, coffee deep chili flavors, salt and cilantro at the ale.

Into the fridge for a couple of hours to get the flavor into the meat (longer would be better, but we were both starving).

The meat would sit atop some Isreali couscous, made with a vegetable base: sautéd mirepoix with a bit of finely diced bell pepper and a bit of minced garlic. A bit of dry Vermouth to deglaze the pan, then enough water to cook everything to al dente.

Finally ready for  plating: mound some couscous in the plate, fan the meat over it and garnish with a bit of cilantro. Time to put ale to food and see if they get along.

Yes! They're not hissing and spitting on my tongue like alley cats eager for a rumble. They're actually purring, rubbing against each other, and acting like friends.  The spices and some red Hawaiian finishing salt paired well with the beer where a wine might have struggled. So did the cilantro garnish. My conclusion: a successful pairing, and something to consider proposing if I ever work in a beer pub.

This ale would probably go well with beef, too. Maybe a perfect hamburger ale, assuming that the hamburger in question was heavy on beefiness and maybe mushrooms, too.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Great Zucchini in the Sky Gives a Sign

Well, remember two posts back where I was less than enthused about eating zucchini? Tonight, I volunteered for an event with ARC where we helped restaurants attend an event by working in their booths so they would not have to pull personnel during a busy Saturday night service.

So, what wonderful thing did we serve? Zucchini chips. We also served an excellent meatball slider, but I was in charge of plating over 200 little cups full of zucchini chips. That's hours of zucchini, moving at speed to fill cups of crispy green chips fast enough to keep up with demand, as they were flying off the table.

This was a bit too strange for coincidence. In the entire event, no other booth served zucchini. Only this one. I was chosen at random, and could have been placed anywhere. I could have had meatball slider duty at this booth instead. But no, the Zucchini Goddess had other plans for me. Maybe a 40:1 chance of meeting up with the Green One. Yet, there I was.

All the while I was filling the cups, then dusting them with minced parsley, I could almost hear the laughter of the Zucchini Goddess, echoing across the heavens. If I went outside, looked up and squinted hard enough, I'm sure I would have seen an enormous grinning green face looking down from the clouds, laughing hysterically.

So, there it is. Zucchini as proof of the existence of God. No more leap of faith required, it's all right there in the Zucchini Miracle. Although no chip bore the unmistakable likeness of any known religious icon. I think.

We, the students

We all look like this. Yes, even the women. It's the uniforms. OK, the shoes may vary, and the women generally have shoes that men wouldn't be caught dead wearing. But when we're crowded around tables, nobody can see our feet.

We all have black hats, kind of like large skull caps, no pirate symbols allowed. You can buy a ventilated version that's much better if you happen to be working over something hot or if the air conditioning fails again.

We have aprons, tied over our chef coats so that the coats will stay clean. That's the theory, but in reality stains know very well how to avoid the aprons.

We have chef coats, with the school logo and our names embroidered on them. Cloth buttons. Long sleeves that you have to keep constantly rolled up. OK, so if your sleeves have to be constantly rolled up, why not make them half length? Is this a carryover from when these were some kind of French army coats, before the days of Napoleon? Tradition? Think of all the things they could do with the material now used for useless sleeves. They could probably clothe half of Elk Grove.

We're supposed to all have white T-shirts beneath our chef coats. Some people cheat. It depends on the instructor. I think plain black shirts look sharp, since they harmonize better with the hats. One instructor will throw you out for anything but plain white. Others are less fussy. Normally, the shirts don't even show under the chef's coat.

The pants are really comfortable, at least for men. One woman was ready to kill something because her pants did not, would not and could not be made to fit her. Another thing that goes back to the French army, perhaps. No women in professional kitchens back then. You have a choice here: black and white plaid or black and white houndstooth. Forget the solid colors that you see in the chefs' store. They're for when you work in that trendy little Italian place, if ever.

We can wear any shoes we want, as long as they're closed. No sandals. Probably a good idea, since I'd really regret pouring hot oil over my bare feet.

Despite our uniform enforced uniformity, everyone has a different approach to class.

Some people never talk. Maybe I'm from another planet, but I would have thought that a bunch of people gathered around a table would communicate a bit more. Or at least utter a word now and then, like "umm" or "ecch". What they lack in oral skills, they seem to make up in texting ability. Every time there's a break, these silent participants who have nothing to say to any of us rush outside, whip out their phones and typically spend the entire time communicating. I have no idea what they say. I wonder if they complain about how noisy the rest of us are, or maybe what the chicken tasted like.

I wonder which people the instructor likes. The ones who talk in lab, or the ones who say nothing and just slice their onions, chiffonade their basil and grind their garlic. Imagine the silence if the rest of us were to leave. I have no idea how they would coordinate anything. Texting, maybe. Talking gives the lab class a lively atmosphere, but maybe it's too much? It seems like often the instructor would prefer us silent, so she could whisper her comments, or at least not have to shout to be heard. Maybe silence is considered more professional. I don't know, since this question never came up. Since I'm one of the noisy ones, maybe ignorance truly is bliss. Maybe I should try a day of silence and see what happens, something I could call penance for the zucchini fiasco.

Some people flunk. The instructor announced the number of failed tests, then said, "Take notes, people!". Maybe people think this stuff is easy and you don't have to study - until it's too late. You might think you'd have to study when the book weighs 7 lbs 1.8 oz (we have good scales) and is a bit over 1-3/4" thick with micro-thin pages (hmm. That's thicker than a good steak).

There are lots of things to study, too. Like learning to distinguish between a sauteuse and a sautoir. Don't ask me; one is a frying pan with straight sides, the other with sloped sides. There are a zillion herbs and spices. Cooking techniques. What temperature water when starting a stock (cold). What goes in mirepoix and in what proportions. What a spider is used for, or a china cap, or a chinois. Why was that stew meat tough and dry, to what temperature should I cook pork, and much more. It's like stuffing a huge cookbook into your head.

Most of us do fine. We discuss the subtle difference between simmering and poaching, ponder the merits of cooking en papillote. We learn to apply less black pepper to things. We still get yelled at, but it's part of the learning process, right? At least the old days of pot-throwing chefs are over, at least in this country.