Sabena, our Library Assistant, has almost completed the ICC’s Essentials of Fine Cooking class and has wonderfully documented her experiences below.
“This is not Red Lobster or Olive Garden” bellows Chef Jose to us minions scurrying around the kitchen prepping for the gratin dauphinois. “This is a fine cooking class and everything has to be perfect.”
Perfection it seems comes in various forms. For instance, it means a tidy workstation. Tidy translates into being clean and sanitized. Difficult at best when one is preparing squid and the ink sac inadvertently breaks skewing indigo and slime all over the board and fingers. Another is proper tailliage as vegetables have to be cut to perfection.
On Monday, May 19th our lesson was meat. We prepared grilled marinated butterflied lamb with braised market greens and a gratin dauphinois. While explaining how to grill meat to perfection, we were told sternly that there was no such thing as “well done” meat. I had piped up asking about it as that is how I like to eat meat. Short of a thrashing, I was told that it would be better to eat his shoe. I looked at it and realized it would take strong teeth and a long time for me to chew it. All of us cooked our meat so that it was seared on the outside, rosy pink inside, napped with the red wine gastrique and served with a scrumptious gratin dauphinois. I polished off every bite.
Our second dish that evening was another marinated meat, this time tri tip steaks with sauce Bordelaise and creamed spinach and topped with addictive potato gaufrettes. This dish was “Michelin starred” as Chef Jose reminded us when we were about to present.
Tonight is our last day of class where we will be cooking scallops and potato gnocchi. The past three weeks have whizzed past almost in a blur. Despite aching knees and back pains, we have made zuppa de pesce, grilled salmon eaten with ginger buerre blanc, sautéed quail stuffed with aromatic barley and mushrooms, chicken fricassee with wine. With the veal fricassée. Chef Jose changed the recipe to the one eaten at La Polidor, a legendary Parisian restaurant where Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller dined. This we presented with a rice pilaf. We were told not to rinse the rice. Not washed? Indians would revolt.
Chef Jose also tossed in a few bonuses: he taught us how to poach eggs. “Swirl the water!” and in his hands, the egg whites were tame. In my kitchen, the egg white flays to all sides except where the yolk is lying. Practice, I remind myself. Another gift was how to debone a chicken breast. Easier said than done. We managed to get the bone out but the chicken breast looked the worse for wear.
Chef Jose also taught us how to truss a chicken. Apparently there are several ways to do this and he taught us the easiest. Result? A struggle – to put it mildly. The chicken refused to behave. In applying seasoning, he preferred to do it at the end for most recipes. Where black pepper was concerned, he said it didn’t belong in cooking despite my protests.
In his efforts to sometimes be “mean”, he failed miserably. Quite frankly, I don’t think he had it in him. We will all miss him and will have to imagine him in our kitchens regaling us about the art of fine cooking.