Wednesday, May 31, 2006

CIA boot camp (part 1)

I had a long and rainy drive from Hyde Park, NY to Boston to figure out what to write about the boot camp program at the CIA. But as I stumbled through my front door, soaked and tired, I still didn’t know where to begin. I was happy to be home, happy to be with Jason, happy to be in my own kitchen. As we were finishing our dinner of grilled mahi and braised fennel that Jason so lovingly prepared to welcome me home, I must have gotten unusually quiet and if you’ve ever met me in person, you’d know that quiet is not my normal state. "You have to promise me something," said Jason. "Promise that you'll tell the truth on your blog." The problem is that the truth is not always a comfortable thing to tell, particularly when talking about famous restaurants, chefs, and culinary schools, but I’ll do my best.

In stead of recounting events day by day as they happened, I am organizing my thoughts by topic. I doubt all the topics will fit into one post – as you know I have an opinion about pretty much everything, but one has to start somewhere.

The campus is absolutely stunning. It was a Jesuit seminary until the 70's, which gives the place its grandeur and lore. During our tour, we learned all kinds of interesting bits of trivia, like the fact that the meat room is where Jesuit crypts used to be and that the main dining hall used to be a chapel. The courtyards, the fountains, the ivy clad walls, and the number of people running around in uniforms makes you feel like you are in Hogwarts of pastry and cookery (as Tasting Menu so accurately named it).

The fountain in the courtyard of Roth Hall (the main building above)

Colavita center for Italian food and wine and restaurant Caterina de' Medici

Student Dining Hall

All kitchens and classrooms have glass windows on the hallway facing wall. This allows tours to peek in without disturbing classes. At first, it felt weird to have people staring at you as you chop your onions, but after a few days we got used to it.

When it was our turn to go on a tour, we got to peek in on a mushroom identification class.

The students:
There were 15 students participating in the boot camp program. 13 from US, 1 from Canada, and 1 from Mexico. The experience ranged from complete beginner to experienced home cooks. We were divided into 5 teams of 3. The lectures and demos were done with the whole class, but cooking assignments were different for each team. Here is our team #5:

from left to right: Mark, Helen (that's me), George

Our days looked roughly like this:
6:30 - 7 Meet with your team to plan how to cook that day’s dishes
7 - 8:30 Lecture
9 - 10 Demo by the chef
10 - 12 Each team cooks the dishes assigned to them that day
12 - 1 Eat what we cooked for lunch
1 - 1:30 Chef reviews our dishes
2 - 4 Wine tasting OR food and wine pairing OR more cooking lecture
6:30 - 9 Dinner in one of CIA’s restaurants

Topics we covered:
Day 1: Knife skills and stocks
Day 2: Dry heat techniques (sauté, pan-fry, deep-fry), soups, and thickening agents
Day 3: Dry heat techniques without fats (grilling, broiling, roasting)
Day 4: Moist heat cooking (braising and poaching)
Day 5: Final project (each team was given 2 main ingredients and we had to come up with an appetizer and entrée to feature those).

The instructor:
Ok, so maybe I got a little put off when our chef instructor, told us he hates sushi and wants all fish to be cooked through, but I must say, he was a wonderful teacher. He managed to keep us on our toes and laughing at 7 am 5 days in a row. His mother-in-law played a large part in making sure we were well entertained as she appeared in a number of hilarious stories about turkey, risotto, and most of the basic cooking techniques.

Lectures and Demos:
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much during lectures. Maybe it’s because I already understood the basic cooking techniques, or maybe because I learn better by watching than by listening. That’s why the demo was my favorite part of the class. The chef would pick out a few of the dishes we were cooking that day and demonstrated how to make them. That's where I picked up all kinds of little tips and tricks like how to tie a butcher’s knot, how to keep risotto from turning gummy, how to unroll pasta ribbons when cutting them by hand, etc. I just couldn’t help wishing that we drop the useless lecture and spend that time on demos and hands-on work. For example, the knife skills demo and practice only covered veggies (no deboning a chicken, filleting a fish, or trimming meat). The stocks were discussed in lecture, but we didn’t get to make them, which was a shame as I was really looking forward to that. Same for the sauces and thickeners – just lecture, but no demo or practice.

Plate presentation:
When we only had one week to go through all the basic cooking methods, the last thing I expected them to spend time on was presentation. But that’s what took up a whole lecture the first afternoon and that’s how our plates were critiqued every day – based on how they looked, not how they tasted. When you think about it from the professional cook’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. Customers eat with their eye. Few can tell if your dish is slightly under-seasoned or overdone, but everyone can tell if your grill marks are in the right place and if the food looks “gourmet" vs homey. When you realize that you can charge twice as much for the same dish in a restaurant if you make it look a little taller and place it on a plate with a wide rim, you start paying attention to this stuff. Of course, I don’t cook in a restaurant, so this stuff didn’t feel particularly interesting to me, but learning it didn't hurt. Here is what we learned about presentation:
• Don’t put your ingredients into different corners of a plate like a TV dinner.
• Create a central focus point (everything should overlap).
• Give your food some height, but not too much.
• Make sure all garnishes are edible (no rosemary or parsley sprigs).
• Use contrasting colors and textures.
• Nothing should touch the rim of the plate – the rim is like a frame of a painting.

Of course, as soon as you start creating rules, the really “cool” people start breaking them. Have you noticed how some of the more upscale restaurants started putting different parts of a dish into different corners of a plate and making food look really flat. These days, the TV dinner or deconstructed food is the new chic look. It’s just that the culinary schools didn’t catch up to it yet. Just like fashion, it goes in circles.

I must say that by the 5th day, our food looked like a brunch buffet at an upscale hotel, but still didn’t taste much better than a good cafeteria. Though, then again, that's what a buffet at most hotels tastes like.

Of course a lot of this could be explained by cooking in unfamiliar kitchen with 15 other people running around trying to locate their equipment and ingredients. I am sure many of these dishes would have tasted much better if we were cooking them in our own kitchens. But the fact that the emphasis of the class was on looks and timing and not on the taste didn’t help. In fact, the only explanation of doneness was to use a thermometer and the only explanation of seasoning was to add “enough” salt.

What did we cook? Come back tomorrow to find out.


Anonymous said...

So when are you opening your own restaurant?
I'll actually make it a point and visit Boston then.

Helen said...

Hi Dima,

I don't think I'd do too well as a restaurant owner. I obsess about taste too much :) But if you are ever in Boston, you are welcome to come over for dinner or take one of my cooking classes.


Anonymous said...

It's always different from the inside. I hope you'll keep your promise - the truth is so much easier to keep straight. Excellent report, keep it coming.

Katerina said...

I can't believe they spent a whole afternoon on presentation, how odd.

So how DO you avoid gummy risotto???

Helen said...

Hi Katerina,

about risotto... instead of constant stirring and adding liquid 1/2 cup at a time as most cookbooks tell you too, our chef poured in a lot of liquid in the beginning and stirred gently by swirling the pan once in a while. This prevented the grains from being smushed with a spoon or sticking to the bottom of the pan. If the grains are smushed, the starch leaks out of them and makes the risotto really sticky and thick. Once your rice is cooked to the desired texture (aim for al dente), you finish it with more broth, lots of butter, a little parmesan and salt. That last addition of broth keeps it loose and saucy and adding salt in the end gives you more control over seasoning since lots of liquid evaporates as risotto cooks.


Katerina said...

Cool! Thats funny cause that is how my Mum makes it but she always calls it 'cheating'.

Rita said...

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