Cooking with Jason

Friday, September 09, 2005

Skills I in Review

Skills I and II are over, I haven't posted in a month... I guess you could say it's time for an update.

My chef for both Skills I and II was Alberto Vanoli, who was, as we had thought, teaching for the very first time. This had its advantages and disadvantages, but overall, I thought he did a great job for his first time out. Today, our last day with him, he took pictures of us working and then a group photo at the end. Chef Vanoli is from Bergamo, a provence in the northermost part of Italy. I've been really interested in Italian cooking lately, so he was a great chef to have for these six weeks, and he didn't disappoint when it came to topics like risotto, pasta, pasta sauces, and polenta.

Skills I, a typical 14-day block, moves pretty slowly and is built on a great deal of repitition. Every day, the first thing we did was prepare 30 pounds of mirepoix (in best instructor voice, "an aromatic vegetable mixture, usually consisting of 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery") to flavor the chicken or veal stock we'd be making. Every morning, we (and by "we," I mean that day's stock team) loaded the giant steam kettles with the roughly 120 pounds of bones needed to yield 15 gallons of stock each. If we were doing chicken that day, the bones were loaded first thing, the mirepoix added just before lunch, and then the stocks were strained, bagged, labeled and cooled before we left between 1:30 and 2pm. If it was a veal day, the bones would first be roasted in the oven until just before lunch, we'd start the stock after lunch, and leave it for the evening class to finish, as veal stock cooks quite a bit longer than chicken stock.

After getting the day's stock work finished, it was time for the most nerve-wracking task of them all--the knife tray. Each day, we honed our knife skills with a timed knife assignment. This generally consisted of the following:

  • 2 onions, sliced 1/8" thick
  • 2 onions, small dice (1/4"x 1/4"x 1/4")
  • 1 potato, batonnet (1/4"x 1/4"x 2")
  • 1 potato, medium dice (1/2"x 1/2"x 1/2")
  • 3 tomatoes, concasse (blanched, shocked, peeled, and seeded)
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 bunch parsley, minced

    Sometimes, Chef would change the potato cuts slightly, giving us julienne (1/8"x 1/8"x 1") instead of battonet, large dice (3/4"x 3/4"x 3/4") instead of medium dice, or adding a paysanne (1/2"x 1/2"x 1/8" tile) or brunoise (1/8"x 1/8"x 1/8") cut to the mix. To finish this knife work, we were given 40 minutes. I know that sounds like an eternity to cut up some vegetables, but when you're going for precision--and precision is everything--it's not nearly long enough.

    Eventually, you develop a system. Or at least I did. Onions are easy, get those out of the way first. Next, potatoes, a bit tougher but not bad. Then, run through the minces, where it's easier to skimp if you have to in order to make the deadline. Shallot first, then parsley, then garlic. Garlic can be kind of sticky and make a big mess of your board and knife, so always leave that for last. And parsley of course gets everywhere, so that's next-to-last.

    The first couple of days, I don't think anyone in the class finished on time. But it was cool, as he didn't take any points off for speed in the first week. On day one, I was about ten minutes over, but Chef was very impressed by the accuracy of my cuts. I didn't mention that I had done this same thing nearly every day during my apprenticeship. In general, the less he said the better. It got to the point that I'd walk up there with my tray, he'd pick through the cuts, and say, "It's pretty good, Jason," and I would know I'd done a good job. As far as the knife tray went, "Pretty good" was about the best compliment you could hope to receive from Chef Vanoli.

    By the second week, I cut my time down to only being five minutes over. It was at this point that he started getting on us a bit more, particularly about time. On Friday of week two, I was three minutes over. When we took the final knife practical on day 13, I was less than a minute over and the cuts were rockin'; I scored a 9/10 and went home happy.

    Oh, and we cooked food too! Besides knife skills, the focus of Skills I is soups-stocks-sauces. As it should be, since stocks and sauces are at the base of pretty much all classic Western cuisine. Here's a quick rundown. Remember, this whole thing moves pretty slowly. We're talking one soup per person per day at the beginning.

  • Day 1: Intro
  • Day 2: All about stock
  • Day 3: Vegetable Beef Soup
  • Day 4: French Onion Soup
  • Day 5: Consomme
  • Day 6: Potato-Leek Soup and Whipped Potatoes!
  • Day 7: Puree of Lentil Soup
  • Day 8: New England Fish Chowder
  • Day 9: Cream of Broccoli Soup
  • Day 10: Creamed Spinach (sauce Bechamel), Cauliflower Gratin (sauce Mornay)
  • Day 11: Mayonnaise, Steamed Broccoli with Hollandaise
  • Day 12: Brown Sauce (sauce Espagnole) and Jus de Veau Lie
  • Day 13: Tomato sauce, dried pasta, vinaigrette
  • Day 14: Test day (Consomme, Hollandaise, Written Test)

    Now, the good news is that I had done pretty much all of this before, which is a huge help. Some of it I hadn't done in two years, but it was still nice to have some sort of idea going in rather than having never even seen it or tasted it, as was the case with many of my classmates. Of course, Chef did an extensive demo each day, preparing each item from start to finish while we watched, so it's not as if you were going based on the book and nothing else. Still, though, this is where my apprenticeship really paid off (and it's about time, given that it was an unpaid apprenticeship).

    Overall, I did very well in Skills I. My high point was Day 5, when he tasted my consomme, observed my perfectly julienned garnishes and that they were cooked correctly, and said, "It's perfect. This is the best soup I've seen today." Much like when Chef Clark shook my hand and said "good job," I was so stunned I could only manage a "thank you Chef" in response. My worst day was Day 10, when I just couldn't get organized or focused and wound up presenting pretty poor representations of both dishes; it was the only day I scored below a 92 for daily performance. Sufficiently shaken, I rattled off 95, 93, 100 and 100 to close out Skills I. Another A-, and my non-B streak lives to see another block.

    A quick aside--I really haven't done Skills I justice here, unfortunately. If you really want to know what it's like, check out Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef, in which he attends the CIA and devotes an entire book to it. Because Skills I is so fundamental, so important, and the first time you really get into a kitchen here at school, he spends more time on it than any other class. I cannot reccommend this book highly enough, and his descriptions of Skills I are right on the money.

    Three-day weekend this weekend before the start of Skills III; I'll have the Skills II recap up before Tuesday. Have a good weekend!
  • Monday, September 05, 2005

    Comment verification

    Just a quick housekeeping note: In order to help prevent spam (unwanted comments), I've turned on Blogger's "word verification" feature. What this means to you is that in order to leave a comment, you'll have to go through the extra step of entering a unique word that Blogger gives you (this prevents automated programs from leaving comments, since it requires an actual person to read and enter the word). This shouldn't be a big deal in the grand scheme of things.