Cooking with Jason

Friday, October 21, 2005

Skills II

Skills II is much like Skills I, except that there's no knife tray and the food takes a big step up in complexity (much to my dismay, we still made stock every day). Not that the food was all that difficult, but compared to what we did in Skills I it was a big change. Instead of making a soup or a sauce, we'd make a full plate: protein, sauce, starch, veg (or two). For example, Sauteed Chicken Breast with Sauce Finnes Herbes, Whipped Potatoes, Green Beans, and Glazed Carrots. Real cooking, in other words.

Timing became a much bigger issue in Skills II. In order for everything to come out well, you had to ask yourself some questions and make some decisions. What is going to take the longest? What has to be done at the last minute? What can I do ahead of time, then either hold hot or reheat at the last minute? Are those herbs going to make it if I cut them early? Do I have a warm place to hold that Hollandaise so it won't break?

Sitting here well after the fact, with the benefit of both hindsight and more experience, I can see these issues incredibly clearly. At the time, however, this was a challenge. Chef Vanoli, for all his great instruction, was still a new teacher and didn't drill into us the importance of planning in the form of prep lists and timelines. Most of these questions were asked, if they were asked at all, in the kitchen as I got to work. The decisions were made on the fly and weren't always correct. Yes, this is how you learn, so all in all it was a good experience.

For the three weeks of Skills I, I had worked with the same two people on a station. We each cooked and presented our own food, of coure, but after awhile you fall into certain habits. One person always gets the produce. One person puts on a pot of water and gets an ice bath for tomato concasse. The other person grabs pots and pans. This way you make way fewer trips in the kitchen and can work more efficiently. You also look out for each other, "Matt, watch your sauce, it's boiling." "Can you pull it off for me?" "Yeah, no problem." That sort of thing.

In any event, we changed teams for Skills II. One of my teammates remained the same, while the other joined a new team and we picked up a replacement. It was nice to have that little bit of continuity, and we quickly fell into our old habits... except the new guy, who had a hard time fitting in. He'd frequently gather ingredients we'd already gotten for him, or pick up something for himself without checking to see if we needed it as well.

What's worse, he was careless. On the day we made glazed beets and braised red cabbage (those are two seperate dishes), he dumped his beet cooking water -- stained a deep red, of course -- into my pot of cabbage. He had already presented his food, was trying to clean up his part of the station, and thought it was his pot of cabbage. Without naming names, I told chef what happened when I presented my plate, and he gave me a pass on the cabbage.

On egg day, the featured item is Eggs Benedict, which not only requires you to make the tricky Hollandaise sauce and keep it hot (but not too hot, or it'll break), but to perfectly poach eggs and have everything happen at the same time. As you might know, I've cooked a ton of breakfast in my brief time in the industry, so I was rolling right along. Hollandaise done, sitting over a pot of simmering water. Eggs in the poach water. Muffin toasting, sliced ham sizzling, plate warm and ready to go. Down goes the muffin, topped by the ham. Eggs are done, quick blot dry and on to the ham. I turn to grab my hollandaise -- gone. WHAT?! Same deal as with the cabbage: he thought my bowl was his, and he'd already presented. Fortunately, he had only poured the contents of my bowl into the food waste bin and there was some stuck to the sides. I frantically scraped down the bowl, grabbed his hollandaise and whisked some of it in to what was left of mine, quick taste and season, and it was on the plate.

In a miraculous turn of events, Chef loved it. "You've cooked breakfast before," he said. "Yes chef, that's almost all I did for a year before coming to school," I replied. To which he said, "I can really tell by this dish." In a word, "woo".

Fortunately, the vast majority of Skills II went much better than egg day. I continuted to cement my reputation as "the smart kid," and was often the only one in class to raise a hand when Chef asked a question. At one point, I raised my hand to answer, he looked over with a big grin, waved me off, and said, "I know you know, I need to hear from someone else."

Here's the menu from each day:

  • Day 1: Glazed Beets, Braised Red cabbage, Duchesse Potatoes, Chateau Potatoes

  • Day 2: Rice Pilaf, Risotto, Jardiniere Vegetables

  • Day 3: Fresh Pasta, Tomato Sauce

  • Day 4: Eggs! Hard Cooked, Soft Cooked, Fried, Scrambled, Omelet, Benedict

  • Day 5: Poached Salmon, Bernaise Sauce, Parslied Potatoes, Green Beans, Julienned Vegetables

  • Day 6: Shallow Poached Trout, Sauce Vin Blanc, Rice Pilaf, Glazed Carrots, Sauteed Spinach

  • Day 7: Roasted Chicken, Pan Gravy, Ratatouille, Roasted Potatoes, Broccolini

  • Day 8: Braised Short Ribs, Soft Polenta, Roasted Root Vegetables

  • Day 9: Chicken Fricasee, Whipped Potatoes, Steamed Broccoli

  • Day 10: Sauteed Chicken Breast, Sauce Fines Herbes, Spinach Pasta, Root Vegetables

  • Day 11: Sauteed Trout Meuniere, Wild Rice Pilaf, Brussels Sprouts, Tourneed Carrots

  • Day 12: Pan Fried Pork Cutlet, Spaetzle, Coleslaw, Braised Collard Greens

  • Day 13: Grilled Strip Steak, French Fries, Grilled Mixed Vegetables

  • Day 14: Seared Beef Tenderloin Steak, Sauce Chasseur, Potato Gratin, Broccoli Rabe, Onion Rings

  • A few notes on these...

    Day 2, when we did risotto, was an eye-opener to me. This was the one day Chef refused to teach the CIA method, and who can blame him? He's Italian, I think he knows how to make risotto. I had only ever made risotto by using three additions of stock, everything carefully measured, with lots of stirring and a long cooking time. Imagine my shock, then, when Chef Vanoli added almost all the stock at the beginning, hardly stirred at all, and only cooked the rice for 16 minutes. All his reasoning made sense, and of course it came out wonderfully. I made risotto at home that weeked using Chef Vanoli's method, and Carrie said it was the best I'd ever made. Needless to say, I'm not going back to the old way. Along similar lines, we got better instruction on pasta than we could have gotten from almost any other chef at school, and Chef also showed me a new way to make polenta that, of course, came out better.

    What else... the steaks we received on Day 13 weren't very good. We also have to approximate grilling at school, placing grill pans over the burners. They don't get as hot as you might like and are no substitute for outdoor grilling. The steaks on Day 14, however, were darned good. Seared in a smoking hot pan, finished in the oven to just about medium and served with Sauce Chasseur ("Hunter Sauce") -- yum.

    We also had a knife practical on the last day of class. It was basically the same test we took to finish Skills I, except that he added eight potato tournees to the list and we had the same amount of time to complete it all. If you're unfamiliar with tourne, it's a ridiculous knife cut invented by some horrible French chef in order to torture his cooks. OK, so that's only half correct. Basically, it's a seven-sided football sort of cut, usually for potatoes. This picture gives a pretty good indication. I had really struggled with my tournees throughout Skills II, though I did improve pretty dramatically from week one to week three. Then, when the chips were down and the pressure was on, I somehow managed to produce near-perfect tournees for the knife practical. It's as if my paring knife was moving itself... I've never tourneed that well in my life, and I probably never will again (nor will I ever have to, most likely). I finished the tray on time, and Chef gave me a 9.8 out of 10 for my efforts.

    To wrap this all up, I did even better in Skills II than in Skills I. My daily performance grades never dipped below a 90%, averaging a 94% over the 14-day block. Throw in academics -- homework, quizzes, a coasting project and the final, where I always pad my grades -- and the knife tray, and I walked away with a 96%, "real" A. The streak lives on!

    In other news, I fear Fall may have lasted all of about three weeks here in the Hudson Valley. After a sweltering summer, we had a month of very pleasant weather. As I type this at approximately 10pm, however, the temperature outside has already dropped to 39 degrees, which was supposed to be the overnight low. Brr!

    1 Comments:

    • Why are you still writing about Skills II three days before the start of Asias?? You completely skipped two blocks!!! I must say that this is very apathetic of you.



      p.s.- And know this: whereever you go, whatever you do, you can never leave the 2-5-8.

      By Blogger JohnK, at 12:39 PM  

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