As is typical for boot camp, my day started at “oh-dark-hundred,” or four a.m. civilian time. Shower, dress, pack an equipment bag, and head out under the cover of darkness. The drive was short and traffic light, and I found the designated parking garage then check-in area with no problem. Soon there were 16 of us filling out paperwork and getting our uniforms. When that was complete we got the first treat of the day: breakfast.
The school policy appears to be that anyone wearing a uniform (mostly chef’s whites and checked pants) and a name tag is entitled to breakfast; there were easily over one hundred people coming and going in the short time I was there. Since breakfast is a meal a cook needs to know how to make, and since this is a school, the restaurant is a class just like all the other restaurants on campus; that is, there’s a chef/instructor managing the kitchen and the students do all the cooking and order-taking. The menu ran from omelettes and pancakes to chorizo burritos (what I had) to poached eggs on yesterday’s jambalaya – and several large baskets of hand-made bread and pastries.
At seven we were greeted by our chef/instructor (John DeShetler, a/k/a “Chef D.” a/k/a “Chef”); in the military he’d be called the drill sergeant. In no time at all he had introduced us to the goals of the class, the skills we will be learning, the schedule, several tips for cooking better (mostly, cooking smarter), basic kitchen safety, knife types and uses, and the six basic knife cuts we would learn in the kitchen. We then got a short break to change into our uniforms (leather shoes, hounds-tooth trousers, double-breasted chef’s jacket, neckerchief, toque, apron, and side towels) and head for the kitchen. Chef D. gave us a quick tour of the kitchen, explained our stations and where to get the food we’d be preparing, introduced his assistants, gave a brief demo on how to sharpen and hone knives, then showed us how to cut onions (small dice, large dice, basic slices, and “fancy” slices, that is, sliced with the grain for uniformity and strength). We then went to our stations and repeated what he had just shown us.
The rest of the morning went the same way: demonstrate, practice; repeat. We cut carrots and potatoes (julienne, batonnette, brunoise, small dice, and for the carrots, oblique), celery, garlic (minced), grapefruit and oranges (“supreme”), apples, and kiwi (including a really cool way to peel them using a teaspoon, so the fruit emerges round, not faceted). By then it was time to clean our stations and our knives and sit down to lunch.
Lunch was basic but satisfying. Prepared by the class assistants and using most of what we had just cut, we dined on roast chicken, onion soup, mashed potatoes and gravy, brisket and corned beef (left over from last week’s charcuterie class), glazed carrots, fruit salad, and desserts left over from some other class. Nothing fancy, but perfectly cooked and very tasty.
After lunch it was back to the classroom for a lecture on plating and presentation; Chef said far more than I can summarize here, but the key points he drove home over and over were to keep things clean and simple, to put on the plate only things which can (and will) be eaten, and to balance tastes, textures, flavors, colors, and shapes.
The last drill for the day was an introduction into our “market basket” project: Each team (of four) will be given a selection of meats, starches, and vegetables, and will have to plan, prepare, and serve a meal made from as many of those ingredients as possible. My group got the seafood basket: cod, clams, arborio rice, squash, and a handful of vegetables. When the lecture was complete we broke into teams and started discussing the menu. Our first draft menu is an appetizer of risotto with clams, followed by an entre of cod (broiled? sauteed?) on a bed of spinach, pureed squash, sugar snap peas with almonds, and fried leeks. We also have a red bell pepper but we can’t decide yet whether to include it in the risotto (chopped) or make it into a sauce for the entree. I’m sure our menu will change between now and Friday but for our first day I’m pretty happy with our first draft.
Tonight’s dinner was not part of the program so I decided to take advantage of a Red Robin just up the street from my motel. I don’t have enough time to write a proper review (tomorrow starts just as early as today did) so let me give you the highlights: The burger (with bacon, and Red's red&green pickle relish) was cooked nicely and tasted quite good. The fries (steak fries, never my favorite) were run-of-the-mill food service frozen, reconstituted, extruded potatoes, and a bit over-salted. In contrast, the (small order of) onion rings were large and plump with a crunchy batter that I could almost believe was made in-house; they were some of the best onion rings I've ever had. As if that wasn't enough, they’re served with two sauces (“campfire sauce” – like a mix of commercial thick/sweet barbecue sauce and mayo, and a surprisingly good and bright ranch dressing), and I ordered a helping of the chipotle mayo as well. All three were delicious and went perfectly with the onion rings. In my younger days, when I could eat as much as I wanted and not pay the price for it, I would have gotten a second order just so I could finish the sauces.
That’s it for tonight; time permitting I’ll write again tomorrow. Until then …
[Monday, 07 February 2011]