Chapter 8

In Which Adam Survives a Second Day at Boot Camp

Day Two of boot camp started much like day one: Wake up while it’s still dark out side, put on my uniform, drive to campus while it’s still dark out, eat breakfast (french toast with seared foie gras) while it’s still dark out, then get to class just as the sun is rising.

Lecture today was intense: four forms of one basic cooking method, thickening and thickeners, and sauces. Today’s cooking method was dry heat with fat, and the specific forms were sauteing, stir-frying, pan frying, and deep frying. Chef D. talked about the different kinds of fats for each method, the proper equipment, the sizes and shapes of the pieces of food to be cooked, the correct temperatures, and some tricks for what can be done in advance and how to avoid some common problems.

Thickening, thickeners, and sauces weren’t quite as chock-a-block with information but we did get our first dose of “kitchen math” in the form of ratios of the parts of thickeners and how much thickener to use for how much liquid to be thickened. Sauces was just the most basic introduction: What are the classic sauces, what can be done with them, how are they made, and what are the contemporary sauces.

After lecture came the day’s recipe review. Each team was given a menu of a salad, some form of meat or fish, a starch, and a vegetable; Chef D. then blasted through the recipes, touching only on the high points, the things he wanted us to change, and more tips on how to avoid the problems we were most likely to encounter. I liked the challenge of getting a recipe then having to start cooking it only a few minutes later but I’m not sure how my classmates felt about that; on the other hand, I think some of them read their recipes last night. I should consider that for tonight.

The scene in the kitchen went back in forth between chaotic (trying to find ingredients without knowing where anything was, all while trying to move around the other 18 people in the room) and controlled but hectic (everyone measuring, chopping, cooking, mixing) – and just when you thought you could concentrate on getting something done, Chef D. yelled out “demo” and everyone dropped what he or she was doing and went to see the next technique on the agenda. In the end, though, everything came off pretty well for a bunch of amateurs; there were no cuts or injuries of any sort, no dishes completely ruined, nothing badly over-cooked, and (with help from Chef) the plates pretty enough for any dinner party.

My team’s menu was a chopped “steak house” salad (lettuce, corn, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, celery, radishes, capers, blue cheese, and hand-made garlic croutons and red wine vinaigrette), (deep) fried catfish (prepared by yours truly – my first time using a professional deep-fryer), creole dirty rice (made with sauteed chicken livers), and okra with stewed tomatoes. We didn’t make our own stocks and the assistants prepared our basic mise en place for us (chopped onions, garlic, celery, tomato concasse, and probably a few other things), but everything else was prepared by the students.

When the cooking was done, Chef D. gave us some tips for making our presentation plates (two per team, salad on one and everything else on the other) and the rest of the food went onto platters for family-style dinner. At exactly 12:30 p.m. (the target time) we lined up and served ourselves a spectacular lunch. When that was done, Chef called us back to the kitchen for a critique of the plates and of the food itself. Most of the salad plates needed help but everything else was at least passable; the food itself all came out pretty well and Chef agreed that several things (about one item per team) was near perfect.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on a tour of the campus. Some of it was about the school, some a brief glimpse into most of the first-year classes, and the rest (about half) to an in-depth look at the “bottom of the house”; that is, the meat and fish fabrication classes, the pantry, and the storerooms. Between the smell of fish (the coolers in the classroom were broken), the deep chill of the meat classroom, and the small army of people trying to supply a huge quantity of ingredients to an unknown number of classrooms, it’s no wonder those areas aren’t included on the public tours! (Apparently, the school is the third most popular tourist destination in the New York Hudson Valley area.)

Boot camp includes dinner in all three of the school’s restaurants; tonight it was Ristorante Caterina d’ Medici where we dined on excellent Italian food. We were presented with a selection of appetizers (a risotto made with red wine, a buckwheat pasta with cabbage, potatoes, and cheese, and cavatelli pasta with a sausage ragout) then offered a selection from the menu. I had a truly wonderful duck leg with white beans and sopressa (a hard sausage); it was cooked perfectly, the flavors were wonderful, and the whole dish an excellent choice for a cold winter night. Dessert was a warm chocolate cake with caramel which was good but not as notable as the duck.

I’m tired and full and happy, and there’s just enough time to push this entry out before I have to go to bed. This 4:45 a.m. thing is already getting old and annoying.

[Tuesday, 08 February 2011]