Friday, March 11, 2011

new blog

For anyone still looking at this, there's a brand spanking new blog from the fingertips of the same author at this address:

Over and out,


Monday, September 28, 2009

Practical, Pt. II

I plated the stew, one small serving on each of our plates. I cranked the heat under the root vegetables and then under the green beans. When I saw there was some activity, I plated those, too. I carried to cups of soup to a surface near the evaluation table. I had put the plates into the oven to heat up, and I took a side towel, grabbed the side of it, and carried the food over to the instructor’s area. I was 30 seconds early and I took slow, shuffling steps. When I reached the instructor, he was still evaluating the young woman who’d cooked right before me. The 30 seconds passed. Then 30 more passed. Then a minute, and then another.

I was getting a little peckish, verging on annoyed and soon to be irritated. I wasn’t quite close enough to hear what was being said, but the woman was doing most of the talking. As she spoke, she gestured a lot with her hands, and kept worrying her fingers.

I had been waiting for 4 minutes at this point, and she showed no signs of stopping. I could tell my food was cooling. Now I was pissed.

And she kept going. It became obvious she was arguing with the instructor. He bore an expression of solid patience, an almost kind look, and made no effort to cut her off.

I started tapping my foot. Then I shifted my weight from one foot to another. I kept putting my plate down and picking it back up. I slapped a stuttering rhythm against my leg. I cracked my knuckles. I had a sudden vision of upturning my food over her head. Six minutes late now.

The instructor turned and looked at me. We made eye contact and he held it. The woman turned to follow his line of sight and I saw that her eyes were red and watery.

She’d failed. This was her third time.

Everyone else who had finished was at work cleaning the kitchen.

Abruptly, the young woman stood, turned and walked with quick steps over to the kitchen door. She gathered her stuff and walked out.

The instructor watched her leave then motioned me over. I sat and slid his plate towards him.

“My food’s cold,” I said.

“Yes, I’ve kept you waiting. My apologies. It couldn’t be helped. I know you were ready, so no penalty. Now,” he said, reaching for clean utensils, “Let’s see what we have here.”

He took a bit of the stew. He chewed for a moment and looked up at me. He smiled, but it seemed rueful. He took a bite of the potatoes, then another. He nodded to himself. He took one forkful each of the root vegetables and the green beans. He tasted the soup. Then he pushed his plate away.

“So, Jonathan.” He leaned back and crossed his arms behind his head. He still seemed kind, almost friendly, but I was beginning to detect a slight hue of pity to his bearing. “Jonathan, what happened here tonight? I watched you at the beginning of the test and you were so efficient. I thought for sure you would ace this. But something...something went bad, no?”

“Yes.” He waited for more, but I couldn’t think of any way to elaborate.

“Well,” he said, finally. “What went bad?”

“I...I...I burned something. I had to start it over and I never got the time back.”

“Yes, you burned your roux.” Shit. He had seen that. “Also, your station looks like a pig sty, yes? Why didn’t you bring your dishes to the sink instead of just leaving them?”

“There was no room.”

“Then why didn’t you put them on someone else’s station? Someone who was done? No room? What kind of answer is that? That’s just silly. Come on.”

He stared at me. I figured this was, in essence, a rhetorical question. I shrugged. He held the stare.

“Alright then. Your stew is terrible. This’s...edible. That’s about the best I can say and that’s not saying very much. The meat isn’t quite tender enough. Your braising liquid is thin, sour. This is not what I want to eat for dinner. Not at all. But I very much like your potatoes. Your vegetables are cooked perfectly. Really perfectly. But I cannot get past this stew. Edible. Edible. Passable. That’s it.”

He tallied up my score and wrote it down on a piece of paper that he slid across the table to me. I looked. I had passed. Not by much of a margin, but I passed. Obviously, I felt no sense of triumph, no sense of accomplishment. Every piece of me, every cell, felt flushed with mediocrity.

“Thanks,” I said, and stood up. He shook his head.

“You have talent,” he said. “This was disappointing.” He pushed his plate to me. “You have quite a mess to clean up. Get started.”

I walked back to my station. One of the others came up to me. “How’d you do, Jonathan?” he asked.

“I passed.”

“What did you get?”
“I’d rather not say. I passed, though.”

“You pissed?”

I thought for a second. “Yeah, I’m pissed.” I grabbed some dishes and started carrying them to the sink. “Not at him, though.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009


At the end of everyone’s second semester at the CIA—right before you go out on your externship—you are required to take a cooking practical. You walk into a special kitchen constructed for just this purpose and draw one of six menus out of a metaphorical hat. You know exactly what dishes make up each menu, but you don’t know anything else. You’ll need to make a soup, a protein, two vegetables, and a starch. You’ve got 2.5 hours to make it happen. You’re watched and graded at every step of the way. The food is tasted, evaluated, and given a mark. You need to score above a 65. Obviously, you can’t fail. It happens, though, even to perfectly good cooks. If you blow it once, you pay $50 and take it again. If you blow it a second time, you pony up $50 more and take it again. If you fail it three times, you’re screwed. A third failure means an automatic 15 week suspension. But if you fail the test three times, that’s probably the least of your problems. This is basic stuff. Can you roast a chicken? Can you deep poach a piece of salmon? Can you make a good beef stew? Each menu component is something you’ve done a few times before in the Skills II and III classes, and you’ve presumably had some success with them. This is why I’ve never thought ill of people who fail it the first time around, or who scrape by with an insanely low score. Sometimes you simply have a bad day, and sometimes that bad day is when you’re taking your practical.

So let me tell you about my bad day.

My test was to be taken during the second week of my garde manger class—the class wherein one learned to make sausages, cure salmon, play around with fois gras, get a basic rundown on how foods get hot- and cold-smoked, and make a lot of appetizer-type items. In order to stay on schedule in class, I was getting there a little after 6:30 each morning, which meant leaving my house at 5:30, which, in turn, meant getting up at 4 so I could amp myself through the clouds on caffeine, then shower, shave, and eat something. Because I typically go to bed around 1:00 AM, my schedule was upended; I was trying to get to sleep by 8, and I felt like I had a perpetual case of jet lag. I was delirious all the time. To add to the fun, I had to work with sharp knives.

And on the appointed day, in addition to an altered consciousness, I also had to take my practical, starting at two in the afternoon.

At 2:00, I arrived at the Practical Kitchen, along with the five others who’d be taking the test that day. I knew three of them from class. The kitchen was pretty small: a few equipment racks, a pair of refrigerators, shelves of ingredients and sanitation supplies, and six workspaces with six burners each and a small, reach-in fridge (aka, a low-boy) below them. There were no sinks at any of the stations. Each work area was segmented from the others with a blue-tiled barricade.

I was prepared for every and all contingencies: I had all the possible recipes written out, a timeline for each of the possible menus, “shopping lists” with all the possible ingredients. My stack of index cards was about two inches thick.

I was very much hoping I would not have to make hollandaise, one of my least favorite things to do.

And if I could avoid making salmon—one of my most hated foods—I’d feel okay about it.

The start times were staggered by 15, 20 minutes or so. If you’re the last to go, you would have been waiting for nearly two hours before being allowed to start cooking.

We were given a tour for 30 minutes, and then loosed to go exploring, just to see where everything was. The instructor, a gentle-seeming Spanish man with soft-voice and an occasionally impenetrable accent, called the first student over. It wasn’t me. But as I walked by I caught a glimpse of his clipboard and noticed my name was last. I felt unsteady on my feet and suspected this would be a long, long afternoon. I wasn’t able to tell what the menu would be, but as the time passed and the others began cooking—one person got the roast chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and consommé, another (mercifully) got the salmon and hollandaise, also with a consommé—the possibilities got narrower.

An hour passed. I spent that time walking through and observing at a distance, from time to time bumping into the instructor, who was doing the same thing. He’d stop, watch from over someone’s shoulder, staring at a pile of scraps or dirty utensils or pans. He’d watch how they stirred, how well they seared a piece of meat, and then make a mark on a paper on that clipboard.

The next-to-last person was called, a young woman I’d never seen before but whom others seemed to know. She did not appear to be a favorite of any of them. They muttered about her being incompetent and unpleasant. Apparently, this was her second time taking the test. She was assigned a shallow-poached filet of fish. This meant that I knew exactly what my menu would be: beef stew, mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans, blanched root vegetables, and a beef consommé. I had never had much trouble with consommé—it always just seemed to work for me. But I’d witnessed others make a mess with it. You mixed egg whites, ground meat, onions, tomatoes, etc. into a slush, drop it into a pot of stock, bring it to a simmer and let it go. As the stock bubbled, the raft—as the now-solidified slush was called—pulled all the flotsam, particles, and detritus from the liquid, bobbed and jumped greyly on top, leaving you with a perfectly clear soup.

“Hey, Jonathan,” I heard. “Come here a minute, please.” The instructor told me he was making a switch. “Forget the consommé,” he said. “Do a cream of cauliflower soup instead.”

Then he started asking me questions, each one worth a few points: “What are the five mother sauces?”

“Veloute, béchamel, tomato, Espagnol, and hollandaise,” I said.

“Good. And can you tell me what an emulsion is?”

I was anxious to get cooking, and found my mind suddenly slippery. “Uhhh...when oil and a liquid are forced to co-exist.”

“What does that mean, ‘co-exist?’”

Words failed me. “When the oil molecules are forced to bond with the other molecules...” I was interlocking my fingers to illustrate this.

“But what holds them together?”

God? Destiny? “Uhhhh...another medium? Something in which the two incompatible molecules are suspended?”

“Maybe you mean a ‘stabilizer’?”

“No maybe about it,” I said with confidence. “That’s exactly what I mean.”

“And how is an emulsion formed?”

“” I put my hands to work for demonstration purposes. “You beat the hell out of it.” I whipped my hands around. I was seriously tired.

He looked like he was pondering the nuances of the word “hell.” “Okay,” he said after a moment.

Thus it went for a while. He gave me a 100 on this part of the test. And I was given the go-ahead to start cooking.

I immediately preheated the oven to 375.

There were a few ingredients stowed in the low-boy: some cubed beef, green beans, a turnip. That was about it. I looked at my menu cards—stew, vegetables, potatoes, comsomme— and then rocketed over to the storage fridge and commenced scavenging: small carrots for the root vegetables, a rutabaga, a whole lot of butter, red wine, and ingredients for the consommé: ground chicken (there was no ground beef), eggs, a few plum tomatoes, etc. I grabbed potatoes to mash. There would be other things I’d need, but I could get them later on.

About ten minutes had passed.

Beef stew and soup both take a while. The soup could just sit on a back burner, so I figured I’d start it first. I started making the raft for the consommé: a rough chop of the onions, cutting up the tomatoes, separating the eggs. I beat the eggs, and folded the other ingredients in. I went back to the fridge to get some stock. And it occurred to me that I had just made my first error.

“Forget the consommé,” the instructor had said. “Do a cream of cauliflower soup instead.”

Fifteen minutes had passed. Fifteen minutes had just been squandered. Nothing I’d prepped for the consommé could be salvaged for anything else. I toyed with the idea of just going ahead and making a consommé, but decided this could backfire. It hurt, but I tossed the ingredients. This was, I’d realize later, the first of two big mistakes I’d make that day. The lost 15—now 17—minutes would really cost me.

Five students had gone before me. The pots and pans at the dish sink had piled into a small Everest. I would need a few of them, because there weren’t that many left on the shelf. One of the first people to go had finished and was beginning work on the pile. I told him which ones I needed and he said he’d take care of me.

I then made my second big mistake, the one that would truly come back to bite me on the ass. I didn’t get that at the time, though.

The base of a cream soup—broccoli, cauliflower, mushroom, whatever—is veloute, a sauce made of a roux and a stock. I had noticed that there was no Espagnol sauce in the storage fridge. Espagnol sauce is a crucial component of the CIA’s beef stew recipe. It is something of a pain in the ass to make if you’re in a hurry. I was starting to be in a hurry. You need mirepoix, tomato paste, a brown roux, and stock. I’d deal with it in a minute, after I got the veloute going.

I looked at the clock and, man, a lot of time had passed. I started making a roux, enough for the veloute, working on a higher heat than I really should have. But I got it done, and added the stock bit by bit. I felt I was regaining that time. I let it simmer.

I cranked the heat under a large sauteuse, poured in the oil, and started browning the beef. As it browned, I worked on mirepoix for the Espagnol, and skimmed the veloute. Once the meat was done, I deglazed with the red wine, poured in the stock, added a bay leaf, brought it to a boil, and put it in the oven.. I’d gotten the time back. One hour, 40 minutes to go—more than enough—way more—to finish everything else.

I cooked the mirepoix until it caramelized. I spooned in the tomato paste and let it turn a nice, rusty red. When that was done, I added the stock, pushed it to the back burner, and let it simmer. I started boiling water for the cauliflower, cut it up, blanched it, shocked it, and set it aside. I did the same with the green beans in another pot. I fabricated the vegetables. I was in great shape again. For a few minutes I just stood and watched things steam and bubble, entranced by all the alchemy I’d just worked. I went to skim the Espagnol and noticed there wasn’t much flour rising to the top. I skimmed the veloute. I got the blender and made the cream soup. It was really good. One hour and ten minutes to go. I thought it was strange that there was still nothing to skim on the Espagnol, but not strange enough to keep me from pouring it in with the already-simmering stew. I’d skim it later. An hour to go. I’d mash the potatoes last minute. I had the beans and the root vegetables set for a quick stay over the heat with some butter, salt, and pepper.

The dish sink was still mounded, and there was no place to take my dirty dishes. I tried to neaten the dirty pans at my own station as best I could. I wiped down what I could around the stove. Leaving the mess was mistake number three.

With 40 minutes to go, I checked on my stew. I pulled it out and pulled the top from the pot. It looked watery. I tasted it. It tasted thin and almost acidic. Something had gone amiss.

It hit me just then: had never gotten around to making the roux for the Espagnol. I’d just forgotten. This was the root—the bedrock—of the problem. There was a significant paucity of flavor and texture to the stew. The 40 minutes suddenly seemed very short.

I could make a roux, I thought, and get at least a 20 minute simmer, maybe a few minutes more. I turned the heat to high under a pan, added some oil, and went off to get more flour. The flour went into the pan, and I whisked it into the oil. I should have done it in increments. I also should have paid more attention and not turned my back to deal with the potatoes because it took just a few moments for the roux to burn beyond salvaging. As I tossed it out, I realized, too, that the instructor had been watching me for the past 90 minutes. I had no idea what he’d seen.

I looked over at him and he was looking back at me. I might have just imagined it, but I think I saw him—very slightly—shake his head in a sort of rebuke. Something unpleasant bloomed in my stomach.

I needed the quickest possible fix here. When the instructor was busy evaluating one of the students who’d just finished, I dashed to the fridge and the dry storage. I took a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of soy sauce, a rind of parmesan, and some corn starch. I put a good shot of balsamic into the stew, followed by a few dashes of soy sauce, and then the rind. Soy and parmesan add depth of flavor—what the Japanese have dubbed umami—and I thought I’d get some sweetness from the balsamic. I left it on the stove top and brought it to almost a boil. The meat was not going to be that tender, but...

I got the potatoes in the boiling water. I was really pushing it, time-wise.

I made a slurry of corn starch and water, and, with fifteen minutes to go, added it to the stew. It thickened immediately. It still tasted off. I dumped in an immense spoonful of butter. It tasted passable.

Ten minutes to go. I speared a fork into one of the potato quarters and it felt done. I dumped them into a colander, put them into a food mill and started turning. That solitary potato was the only one of its brethren that had fully cooked. I scraped off the useable, parts of the other potatoes and found I had about a serving’s worth. I turned the mill again, with great vigor, and squeezed another quarter-portion out.

I mixed in the hot cream and the softened butter. I seasoned the potatoes and realized I simply did not have enough for the two servings I was supposed to present for evaluation. I eyed the cream of cauliflower soup, pondered my situation, and dumped a large ladleful of the soup into my potatoes. I mixed quickly, tasted—actually, they were fairly tasty—and put them into a pastry bag. I piped them onto the plate in one of the silly curlicue designs the CIA seems to like.

It was just about time to be evaluated...

Monday, June 29, 2009


Well, hello there. It's been a little while since I've posted anything. After a few months of strange weather, things have normalized somewhat. I am also in the thick of my externship at school, working at Tabla in NYC. I'm not certain writing about Tabla while I'm there is such a hot idea; not that I have anything bad to say, but I don't like the notion of my employers potentially--if improbably--reading the blog. But I am preparing a new set of entries. See you soon.

Monday, March 2, 2009


19 Months is on a very short hiatus. I've had a ton of stuff going on, am preparing for my big, do-or-die cooking practical in a few days, and need to focus my attention for a brief period. I'm hoping to be back up and running in about 10 days. Bear with me and check in again.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why I'm Here, PT.1

My girlfriend and I became a couple because I told a lie, and the lie involved cooking.

At the time we conjoined, I had a freelance job rating restaurants for New York Magazine’s website. I was given a budget of $75, enough to take one other person with me for two, maybe three, entrees and a couple of desserts. There was not usually enough left over for wine.

I had invited Nelly once before to join me on a review; it was a really mediocre restaurant still inexplicably thriving in the Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood of Brooklyn. I had some designs; she didn’t. The meal was terrible, but we had a nice time.

Two weeks later, I had another assignment already past deadline. I invited Nelly and she agreed to go. The day before, I decided to lie. I thought my own cooking, instead of someone else’s, might impress her. I emailed and fibbed, saying that the gig had been cancelled. But, would she like to come to my place for homemade ravioli? She said she would and that she’d gladly take the role of “obsequious sous chef.” I never got around to shouting orders, or picking up her handiwork, declaring it de la merde, dashing it onto the floor, and making her scrub pans. Actually, I did most of the work and just plied her with wine. Whether it was the vintage, the pasta, the very rich, pork-laden sauce—I don’t know. But we were a couple from then on.

Most of my life’s notable events, most of the best memories I have, are all enmeshed with food. Many of my memories, period, to tell the truth.

When I was 11, almost 12, my mother interrupted my reading of The Dead Zone and told me it was time I learned to cook. I told her I disagreed. She responded that women loved men who could cook. I had an apron around me and a wooden spoon in my hand before she could finish the sentence. She and my dad bought me a toque which I proudly wore whenever I was at the family stove. I must have looked hilarious. On one New Year’s Eve, way before my voice changed, I roasted a goose. I made half the family meals every week.

At 16, my parents called me to the living room and asked me what I wanted to do for a living. They wanted to know so we could start looking at colleges. “I want to go to cooking school,” I said.

“Try again,” my mother answered. “You don’t want that life.”

In college during my sophomore year, as I was studying journalism, my roommate Ben Smith and I had a kitchenette in our dorm room. We both went off the meal plan and I went into action. I stayed mostly within a limited repetoire of traditional Protestant Sunday dinners; we were, I am dead certain, the only students anywhere on campus routinely roasting lamb, potatoes, and making rich gravies. During a regrettable flirtation with vegetarianism, I had a specialty dish I made over and over of béchamel sauce, mace, curry powder, and broccoli glopped onto boiled white rice. The recipe is available on request.
At the Culinary Institute, you hear the term “career changer” a lot. Career changers are, naturally, a little older. Stereotypically, they’re one of those people who, every day, used to be strangled by a tie, whose heads were swimming with money or who quibbled the law. Who made a serious hobby of food, who read Bill Buford’s Heat, and decided to parley that hobby into a life. Who get mesmerized by the rush and howl of activity on Iron Chef America. Who will maybe get a job on the line and will probably hate it. Who’ll quit and go back from whence they came. Who won’t ever cook in public, but will make great meals at home.

During a lecture or when I’ve had my food evaluated, a couple of the chefs have looked at me with obvious curiosity, tinged, I think, with a very slight condescension. You, that look seems to say, are one of those people.

At least that’s how I interpret that look. Sometimes I get it from other students, too. I think. I might just be paranoid.

Because I don’t know: am I one of those people?

I don’t really feel like a career changer.

I’ve had a lot of careers.

I was a janitor in a coffin factory. I spent my days moving from dumpster to dumpster, emptying them of wooden casket pieces or the scraps of fabric used to line the coffin interiors. I collected empty cans of wood stain. I got free coffee at break time.

Later, I inspected nurse’s shoes. It was my responsibility to go through boxes of several dozen nurse’s shoes looking for defects in stitching, problems with the insoles, or any other aberrations. It was impossible to keep up with the number of boxes coming in. Sometimes I’d just have to stamp the boxes as “inspected” and send them along. I still worry that my shoddy inspecting might have contributed to the crippling of a nurse or to wicked, disfiguring bunions.

I was a foot messenger in Manhattan. It might have been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I kept it for a while, anyway. I had just moved to New York, I was outside all day during the spring, summer, and fall (and pretty mild winter), and I got to know almost every block of the city.

I did layout for magazines like Brides and Law Technology Product News. They were jobs of almost unbelievable tedium.

I was a nanny. I had a five-year-old kid in my charge. His mother was suffering from cancer. I picked him up from school, helped with homework, cooked him dinner, took him to movies. I talked to him when he was so terrified he didn’t know how to live. His mother got well, he got older, and I moved on.

I was a music and book critic for some pretty big papers. I saw hundreds of shows. I amassed thousands of records and books. I interviewed Pharaoh Sanders, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave, and dozens of others. Utterly exasperated, I walked out during an interview with Courtney Love.

I wrote for Martha Stewart Living. I wrote a lot about food. About caring for pets. About getting stains out of tablecloths. Out of necessity, I stayed for years, and prayed every night for the sweet and final deliverance of death. It never came, but the job did end.

I taught creative writing and lit at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I got to design my own courses; one was all about heroin, another involved movies and books about the end of the world. My last semester, I taught a course where everything had to do with murder.

I taught composition at the now-defunct Interboro Institute in Manhattan. My students came mainly from really tough backgrounds. One student, out on bail after getting busted for crack that he claimed was really his mother’s—and he was just taking the fall—asked if I could get his homework to him in Rikers.

And I’ve worked in restaurants.

And now I’m in cooking school. I feel like I’ve been headed in this direction for most of my life, but took some long, strange turns getting here.

A few years ago, during our early days together, I was at Nelly’s helping her prepare a Passover dinner. My father was quite ill and having a serious operation. I was freaking out. I felt sick to my stomach and out of my head. I kept coming to tears all during the day. I finally just addressed myself to the food. The two of us cooked for hours.

It was what I needed to do.

Why I'm Here, PT.2

But there’s another component to this, too. It’s a little more esoteric.

When I encounter the product of people’s skill and vision—real skill and genuine vision—I will often feel a sense of wonderment.

In 2002, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. My mind was on fire in the midst of those paintings. I went back three times. One night two years ago, Nelly and I sat watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, clutching each other in awe at what we were seeing. When I read Denis Johnson’s Angels or Fiskadoro, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or hear Miles Davis’ trumpet on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, I feel the same thing.

Would it be too weird to say that something of all that comes through when I read The French Laundry Cookbook or Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, or Le Guide Culinaire?

Whatever you do that’s an extension of yourself, whatever springs from your mind and hand, aspires—or should aspire—to that state. There’s not that much of a dichotomy in my head between writing and cooking. Or I should say, not much difference in the approach. You want a word to function perfectly, to unleash every connotation and nuance it has, and resonate alongside the words on either side. Is it that different from what you want an ingredient to do?

And in both cases, when you see someone with the skill to do it, to make a sentence unleash itself, or a dish unleash itself—it can bring that wonderment right out.

Skill is what I’m bent on.


When the weather turned last fall, my good friend from school came over and we were cooking. We’d gone to the Kingston Farmer’s Market and bought venison, butternut squash, pears, anything that looked good. We’d done our prep work and were outside on my porch, sipping scotch. We were talking about our externships, a long spell working for minimum wage in a restaurant, which every student has to do in the middle of the curriculum, and where we wanted to go.

“Why don’t you try for a magazine test kitchen or something,” he asked. “Wouldn’t that make the most sense?”

“What does that mean?” I said, sensing what might be coming and getting slightly riled.

“Well, you’re a writer, so aren’t you just going to write when you’re out of school? You don’t need the same chops that you would in a restaurant.”

“You’re really missing something here,” I said.

“What? I’m just saying that it’s less important.”

“No, it’s not.” I drank the rest of the scotch. I was kind of peeved. “I am a writer and I’ll always write, the same way I’ll always cook. Who knows—maybe I won’t own a restaurant. I might not end up being Ferran Adria. But that’s not the point. I am going to cook for people. I haven’t figured out the fine print, but that isn’t the point, either. If I never cook for another person in my life, I’m still completely fucking determined to be as good as anyone else—as good as you, as good as whoever. I refuse to fail. And this isn’t a goal-oriented thing. It has nothing to do with—“ I was waving my hands—“ ‘I need this and this to achieve this.’ It would be a pretty strange way to spend my time if that’s all it was. There are easier places to be.”


“I came because I couldn’t stand not knowing anymore. And I refuse to not know, and I refuse to not be good.”

“Okay. I figured. I was just checking.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Duck Died Honorably

A while back, I wrote about the senseless demise of a particular duck I’d eaten at lunch. I’d been incensed, riled up and pissed about how badly the duck had been treated in the kitchen. I’d gnawed and masticated it, finally managing to get some of its chewy, leathered flesh down my throat.

“The duck died in vain,” I’d pronounced.

By sheer luck of the draw, I was given the opportunity to make amends.

The duck I’d eaten was one of the standard recipes prepared in the Cuisines of the Americas class, which I was currently enrolled in.

Each student is put into a team of two and assigned a menu from the course curriculum. You rotate to another menu item and another partner every two days. So far during the class, I’d roasted turkeys and made stuffing with chestnuts and sausage; I’d prepared eggplant parmesan with fresh mozzerella that I’d made myself (not nearly as hard as you’d think); I’d done crawfish etouffee with shrimp-stuffed mirlitons; and finally, sautéed snapper (silk or vermillion, I couldn’t tell which. By the way, I’ve learned that the chances are good that when you order red snapper in a restaurant, you’re not getting red snapper, but more likely one of the two other varieties. What’s the difference? About $15 a pound. It’s hard to tell which is which. But if you get a whole fish, look at the eyes. If it has a black ring around it, that’s a red snapper. If not, it isn’t) served with grapefruit salsa.

And now it was day 9 out of 14. I looked at the schedule. The next day—and the day after—I would be preparing the very same duck recipe that had made me so apoplectic months earlier. I would be able to honor the duck, and redeem the insult to the entire species. I would not, under any circumstances, bring shame to the short life of the duck. I announced to my friends at dinner that this was what I intended.

On day 9, I arrived early. The night before, I’d made a meticulous list of all the necessary ingredients. The menu indicated that my partner and I would be making the duck, a port wine sauce to go with it, scalloped potatoes, roasted carrots, and broccoli. I gathered every ingredient and all the pans I thought I’d need. I cranked up the convection oven to 475. I got out the duck stock that two students had made the night before.

My partner was late, but as far as I was concerned, my only true partner was the spirit of the departed duck. When my human partner arrived, I stared at him in confusion.

“Hi,” he said. I didn’t answer. He shuffled. Then cleared his throat. “Okay, then. I’ll start on the duck. Do you want to get the potatoes peeled?”
I leapt in front of him. “No. No. No. I’m doing this duck. No one else is touching it. I’m sorry. I know that sounded bad. But this is personal.”

He just stared at me. He seemed utterly perplexed. From behind him, someone said, “It’s probably better not to get between Jonathan and those ducks.”

“Alright…how about I start the sauce, then?”

“No,” I said right away. “The sauce is part of the duck.”

There was a lengthy silence.

“Right. Yeah. Okay. Ummm…why don’t I start peeling and cutting up the carrots? Those aren’t part of the duck, correct?”

“That’s true,” I conceded.

“And the potatoes? Is it okay if I touch those?”

“Yes. Yes, that would be acceptable.” He walked away. I addressed myself to the ducks. I arranged them on racks in two giant roasting pans. I patted the skin and the cavity dry. I ran my fingers over the chilled skin. I laid my palm on one of them. I started massaging the bird.

A voice to my left asked, “What are you doing?” It was one of my peers. I felt a sudden sort of shame, like I’d been nailed leaving the bathroom without washing my hands or something. “Uhhh…,” I started to say. “Well, I guess I’m massaging the bird.” I took my hand away.

“Of course you are. Hey, why don’t you come back to Earth? Come rejoin us.” He walked off. I felt too embarrassed to continue massaging. I seasoned the birds instead. When the oven beeped, I opened the doors and put the birds in. I watched for a few seconds through the door glass. Then I went ahead with preparations for the sauce.

The sauce started out as two gallons of stock. It would need to be reduced to a couple of quarts. I started to get it boiling away in a stock pot. It would have, at the end, a velvety consistency and a rich flavor. At this point, it was thin as water and tasted of nothing more than day-old duck. I got out a wider, shallower pot and dumped the stock in. At this rate, it would take until 2012 for the reduction to happen. I kept veering between the oven and the pot. I went back and forth, constantly monitoring. I’d watched my partner fabricate the carrots, and get the potatoes put together and under the heat. I saw him at the stove with a small pan and some raspberries. I deduced that he might be trying to get his hands in the duck and sauce. I went over.

“What are you doing?” I asked as casually as I could.

“The chef told me to make a gastrique and add it to the sauce.” He was boiling the raspberries in vinegar and sugar, and reducing it down to a syrupy consistency. This was meessing with my goal of being the sole caretaker of the birds. But he was operating under orders. And I recognized I was getting a little out of hand with all this. I nodded and walked back to the ovens.

An hour after the birds were in, they had browned pretty nicely; the convection ovens cook things quickly. I called the chef over and asked what he thought. He prodded and pressed the skin. I followed suit. He squeezed the meat on the leg. So did I. “Take ‘em out of there,” he said. And I did. The ducks began to rest.

I focused completely on the sauce now. It still wasn’t reducing the way I wanted. I got the biggest rondeau in the kitchen and dumped the stock, with all its aromatics and now the gastrique, into it and turned the heat to high.

And after a little bit, that was done, too. I remembered reading in The French Laundry Cookbook how Thomas Keller instructed the staff to strain everything through a chinoise 15 or so times. If that was what was done at the French Laundry, then I’d do it here. The duck deserved no less. I wound up straining it just six times. Each time, the amount of sediment at the bottom of the chinoise was lessening. On the sixth none was there. I swirled in butter. I picked up a spoon and tasted it. It was, I must say, exquisite. I could have done shots of the stuff. Rich, with a hint of sour from the gastrique, and the flavor of raspberries throughout.

We carved the ducks, which had now rested for 30 minutes. The skin was crisp. My hand feeling weighty with trepidation, I pulled a large scrap of meat off the bones. I put it in my mouth. It was moist and tender. The potatoes and carrots came out. We plated the meals and served them. We sold out within about 12 minutes.

As the dinner service died down, my partner walked by and we high-fived. Tomorrow, we’d do the same menu again. I wound up getting a 97 for the day.

Make way for the ducklings…

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I Against I

A swollen half moon hung bright over the top of Roth Hall. The light from inside the Hall made the stained glass windows glow. It was beautiful but from where I stood in the school parking lot I didn’t, and couldn’t, care.

I had a rat in my head. Every word on my tongue was black acid. My pulse was fierce. I hadn’t felt disgust like this, or anger like this, in a very long time.

I tried remembering when.

Maybe the last time I felt a rage that made me sick was when I was working at Martha Stewart Living. A ridiculous, silk suit-wearing man had determined a lot of us in my group needed to go, in order to improve ballast. I was one of two staff writers then assigned to the Internet group, and I was to stay. I sat and watched as one by one, 20 of my group (in addition to many more from other departments), some of them my friends, were called in to a small office and fired. A few feet across from the office, in full view of everyone involved, a photo shoot was going on: the second-in-command’s dog. He was being fed treats, petted, brushed, combed, and pampered while dozens of people were cut loose and told to leave the building. My eyes were wet for a good portion of the day, watching my friends see their lives upended. When they left the building, they all went to a bar; I was in grad school and had class that night, so I couldn’t join them. When I got home, I drank enough whisky to get a bit drunk, and I started calling some of my former coworkers. I felt horrible that I had been allowed to stay. I wanted to quit in solidarity. But I had my rent to pay, and tuition, and I needed to eat. But I walked around the office wounded on their behalf. Two days later, I was told that if I wanted to keep my job, my attitude had better change. I lasted two more years. But I remember, on the day of the layoffs and for some time afterwards, experiencing a contempt for the company that made even my fingernails ache. It never went away, as long as I was there.

Outside the CIA, I was feeling it again.

“He has not taught us one thing, “ I was yelling to my friend. “He doesn’t taste the food. He doesn’t demonstrate anything. He doesn’t show us anything. He checks his email during class. He is useless. No techniques, nothing. Nothing. I haven’t learned one fucking thing.”

“You can’t tell me you haven’t learned a single thing. I mean really a single thing. Nothing?” my friend asked.

The literal, practical nature of the question dragged my momentum for a second. I answered honestly: “Nothing that I couldn’t have learned spending five minutes on Google.”

The “he” was one of the chefs. I had been looking forward to the class he taught for a while. It was something new, something I hadn’t much experience with. I’d walked into class fully prepared, excited, and for a little time that first day he seemed funny. But then, quickly, my heart felt ill. My peers didn’t, at first, seem to notice that something was wrong. Everyone bustled, did their work. But their fire seemed to start dying after a day or so. On the day when I’d later start yelling, there was a general feeling of numbness. The cooking was rote, without much energy.

He didn’t explain anything. He didn’t watch us work. He’d answer some questions if you asked, other times he’d pant out what he thought was withering sarcasm. There was no feedback, no critique beyond knowing you’d been docked points for some perceived infraction.

I’ve been on both sides of the desk. I’ve done a lot of time as a student. And I taught college for a while. I understand that teachers take different paths, put their hands on, or take them off, to varying degrees. One time, during a composition class I was teaching, in an effort to prove a point about Wikipedia, I made up outrageous lies concerning Somalia’s history. I told my students Somalia had been founded by Native American explorers and that Rastafarianism was the state religion, although it also had the largest concentration of Mormons outside of the United States. Carrying a firearm was mandatory, I said, and that the current civil war was ultimately over computer chips. I went on and on. I had them fact check the information and write a short essay. Most of them did the research and got the point. A few turned in papers that were hilarious and painful.

I understand what makes someone a good educator. But when someone is a horrible educator, I understand why and where he or she is screwing it up. And it was so blatant here, that my anger was boiling over.

“I tend to leave you alone,” he’d said to us the first day. I didn’t understand this translated into “I don’t give a shit.”

If you leave a student alone to find their own way, you still need to offer a little occasional guidance. That’s implicit in the titles of “student” and “instructor.”

The guy didn’t taste or evaluate our food. Okay: I saw him eat some of it one night, an hour after service was over. The food had been done and sitting out for well over 90 minutes. Whatever vitality it had when it’d been taken off the stove was long since sapped.

I don’t need to be spoon fed. I like to think I’m fairly bright, and I can usually figure things out for myself. But some things I just don’t know. I want to be shown.

At the end of every class, he’d lecture for an hour or more, well past the time we were supposed to be out the door. Maybe he was drunk on the timbre of his own voice. He seemed to like hearing what it sounded like being funny, being stern, making rebukes. Just saying words. What information he passed on was void of context, or any real practical application.

I don’t have a problem with difficult instructors. The fish guy, the maniacal French guy—they were terrifying. They yelled. They could gut you and drop you and make you feel like nothing. They were two of the best teachers I’ve ever had. The fish guy shouting and slamming his knife against the top of the table until your ears literally rang, the weird vermillion tint to the French guy’s skin and his bulging, outraged eyes when you weren’t keeping your roux moving fast enough—I would happily endure it all over again. I walked out of those classes knowing a hell of a lot more than when I walked in.

This guy has been teaching at the CIA for a long time. He’s got his tenure. He’s not going anywhere. I’ve had some bad teachers. I recall shop class in high school, when the teacher had been so perpetually stoned he just seemed stunned. I had a professor in college who told me that my writing sucked. He advised me that I was in the wrong field, and that I should genuinely consider a career in office management or manual labor. But this one: he was the worst educator I’ve encountered. And he’s been the only bad instructor I’ve had at the CIA.

Maybe he was a lightning rod. I’d had months of academic pressure; being in school was wreaking sheer hell on my income. It was definitely causing some tension at home; and I never had enough time—not for my relationship, not to do fiction, not to watch movies, not to read, not to do my freelance work; maybe this guy was just attracting the brunt of my angst.

But I’d wanted to learn something. And I wasn’t learning a damn thing. Also, I’ve mentioned that many of us are on scholarships, which are dependent on a good GPA. Every point has weight. I’ll take a hit if I deserve it. I have. But I feel differently when those hits seems capricious, when it’s based on nada.

We all have our ways of evaluating and dealing with life issues. I often ask myself, “What would Miles Davis do?” The idea cracks me up, even if it doesn’t always provide answers. I have a good idea what Miles would do with this guy, though. I wish I had the sand to do it.

So like I said, I was in the parking lot, not-so-quietly freaking out. My eyes were fixed on the moon.

“I’m dropping the class,” I said to my friend. “I’m X-ing out. Screw this. If I’m paying to be educated, then I want to be educated.”

I’d worked myself up to the point where my head throbbed.

“Are you happy with the food you’ve made?” Another question that momentarily derailed me. I thought about it for a good 30 seconds.

“Yeah,” I said, finally. “The food’s been good.”

“Okay. So there’s that. Stick it out. I think you should stick it out.”

“He’s a shit teacher.” I said.

“Yeah, he’s a shit teacher.”

“He’s a pompous asshole, too. Have you noticed that?” I was starting to lose my pique.

“Oh, man—he’s a total pompous asshole. Just stick it out. You’re one third through this.” He paused for a moment. “What if you X-out, and then wind up getting him again? Have you thought about that?”


“Ten days to go. Stick it out. Seriously. Just stick it out…”

So it went.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


A person’s palate is fickle and idiosyncratic. One night at school, I was making chicken fricassee. My instructor stood at my shoulder watching and commenting on every move I made as I stirred stock into the roux I’d cooked. He seemed to be a big fan of fricassee, and had a vested interest in seeing I didn’t irreparably muck it up. After much whisking, I guess that, ultimately, I’d done it the way he wanted.

“And now,” he said, turning to grab a small vessel of white pepper, “It is time for seasoning.” He began with just a pinch, but then added more and more, and finally, in a fit of enthusiasm, upended the entire vessel into my mix. He looked enraptured in a Proustian sort of way, eyes distant, a quarter-smile on his face, transported, perhaps, decades back, feeling the heat and smelling the smells of the kitchens of France where he’d learned what would become the rest of his life. As for me, my heart sank.

Have you had white pepper? It’s the eczema of seasonings, a raw blemish on otherwise perfectly good food.

As the fricassee cooked, mired in the now-ruined sauce, the scent reminded me of the chickens from the CSA farm after they’d been slaughtered, plunged into hot water to loosen the dirty, encrusted feathers, and eviscerated.

“This is nice,” he said later after tasting the fricassee, which was about the best compliment you could get from him.

“Hey chef,” I asked as he was about to walk away. “That white pepper—do you genuinely like it?”

He did a double take. He looked me up and down, distraught and incredulous, as if, when he was looking the other way, I’d sneakily pissed on his leg. “Yes,” he pronounced with great gravitas and a real intensity. “Yes. It is good stuff.”

Well, what can I say? The fricassee was made the way tradition prescribed. The goal of the CIA is to instill a sense of a that tradition, not to foment rebellion or dissent (check out the passionate arguments about brown vs. blond roux chronicled in Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef.). What Escoffier did in his hotel kitchen is the classical culinary Golden Mean. It is a Papal bull of cooking methodology, not to be deviated from without fierce soul-searching and debate.

So when your food is seasoned against your will by a man with roots Way-the-Hell deeper than yours in traditional French cuisine…go ahead and taste it. This is what tradition says it is supposed to be like. Now you know. And now that you know, if you want to do something different, you have a history to react against. A father to slay.


We’re spending two nights doing Mexican cooking, a ridiculously scant amount of time to try and get even a filament of it into your blood. We were taught the fundamental flavor profiles and rock-bottom basics in advance: which vegetables and meat and spice combinations are indigenous to which regions of Mexico; the primary cooking techniques (braising, roasting, etc.) we’d been doing for 2.5 months. This does not make any of us fluent in Mexican cuisine. But I flipped through Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico and I understood. Recipes are like that for me now: I get what’s going on and why.

We’ll be spending a slim three days on Chinese cooking.

Nelly, who was slightly incredulous, asked, “How can you possibly learn Chinese cuisine in three days?”

I began thinking in musical terms and answered, “You can’t. But it’s like teaching you scales.”

That’s the best analogy I can come up with. If you’re a musician, you learn your scales. When you know your scales, you can bang around with nothing but an E-chord and the results can be great (listen to John Lee Hooker’s song “Burning Hell” and tell me different). Or you can get out there and take wild flights, with transcendent results (listen to John Coltrane’s piece, “Ascension,” and tell me different).


And those notes of the scale really can add up, even in the hands of a neophyte like myself.

I’ve read different chefs comment on what the real test of a good cook is. Fernand Point said it was the fried egg. Daniel Boulud claims it’s the omelet. Thomas Keller and many others say it’s a roasted chicken. Success, to channel Point, is the result of many small steps done right, each step like a note in a scale. Like the notes we were taught.

If you want to roast a chicken well, dry the thing off. If you can air dry it in the refrigerator a day before you use it, do so. But make sure that it’s dry, inside and out.

Season it. Again, inside and out. Get salt and pepper in that cavity. Season the exterior with a liberal hand. Rub the salt and pepper into the skin. Season a little more. If you feel like it, cram a couple onion halves, some thyme or rosemary, or a cut lemon in there (Keller says this creates unwanted steam and simply won’t do it, but I’m a little dubious).

Now truss that bird. Use butcher’s twine. If you don’t know how (hell, I didn’t know how to do it neatly until recently; prior to that, my birds looked like ADD cases attempting bondage), get online and look it up. Make sure you know how to tie a slipknot, though—that’s basic.

Get the oven cranked up to 425. Put the bird in. Let it cook for 20 minutes until the skin starts turning a lovely golden brown. Be sure to baste regularly.

Drop the temperature to 375 (no lower) when the skin colors. Keep basting.

If it’s been around 45 minutes, put a fork into the cavity and tip the bird. The juices will probably be colored. Wait a few more minutes and do it again. If they’re clear—and not pink—the bird is ready to come out. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes (if you don’t you’ll regret it when you start eating). Carve it. Now you eat.

There: a bunch of small, sometimes nitpicky steps. But everything adds up.

Have a good Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


If you have any questions about the CIA, cooking school, cooking, food in general--please send them. There's a reason I'm asking.


Last Monday, someone remarked to me, “In the past two posts you talked about tasting your food. But mostly it seems that the CIA teaches skills and craft. What does it do to teach how food should taste? Also, how do you cook food well that you don't like? There's the guy who only eats burgers—does he know what foie gras should be like? I love to cook but don't like dessert. So: I just don't make desserts—problem solved. You don't have that luxury; you have to make what you don't like.”

I guess I need to make a confession of sorts. I’m like a lot of people—there are foods I prefer not to eat. Given a choice between eating a red (or green) pepper and not eating it, I’ll usually take a pass. Raw onions? Yeah, okay, but I’d prefer they were cooked. I’m not a fan of food so spicy your ears start to sweat. Brown rice? Well, if there’s no Carolina, basmati, or jasmine available…

But those are simple likes, dislikes, and indifferences. My skin won’t seize up at the thought of eating those foods. And I routinely eat peppers, onions, and brown rice without any resentment. In fact, I made a vegetable risotto in class that included red and green peppers which, when paired with Portobello mushrooms, took on a fairly sensational flavor.

On the other hand, I do have a couple of aversions. Both of them are real pains in the ass, too.

An aversion is something beyond reason, something that burps itself up out of your subconscious murk. It’s not a phobia—nowhere near as intense. Rather, it’s a knee-jerk response that, in the case of food, pretunes your palate to—no matter what the thing actually tastes like—broadcast an unpleasant white noise.

So my confession:

I hate fin fish.

And I hate almost all cheese that isn’t used as an ingredient and cooked into something.

The texture and flavor of most fish turns to trash in my mouth. Salmon and bluefish, in particular, both induce a low-grade, opaque nausea. Mackerel doesn’t sit so well, either.

Last night our friends Astrid and Erik were over and they brought with them several cheeses that stank alternately of vomit and putrescence. The more corpse-like the scent, the greater their enjoyment. Nelly, who doesn’t eat as much of the substance as she’d like, mainly because of my disgust, was delighted. The taste of the stuff, which I do distinctly remember trying as a kid, is (to me) a too-intense flood of dairy. Way more creamy than I can really handle. And, of course, with accents of rot.

But here’s where irrationality flexes itself: I love shellfish. I love mollusks. I will eat them raw or cooked, in any form. I like sushi. If you bread or batter a piece of cod, flounder, halibut, etc., and deep fry it, I will enjoy it with great pleasure.

And more: I made fresh mozzarella in class Thursday night and it was pretty damn good. I’ll liberally shave parmesan over any number of foods. I was really proud of an onion soup I made several weeks back. If there is cheese in a dish, melted and mingled, it usually tastes better with it than without it.

None of this makes any real sense. And it’s really a drag: those are two foodstuffs you run into with circadian frequency.

I read a piece by cranky Jeffrey Steingarten last summer that said it takes only 8 to 10 encounters with a food for a little kid to dismantle an aversion to it. As an adult, would it take more or less? Is it possible after a certain point?

My third dinner at school found me in the Banquet and Catering dining room, a full service cafeteria where waiters in vests and ties serve you your food, three courses of it, and attend your requests for iced cappuccinos, espressos, or iced teas with simple syrup. You don’t really have a choice what you eat, though. That night, I was confronted with a plate of broiled salmon. I drew the tines of my fork through the fillet’s flaking outer layers of pink flesh, and cut a chunk off. I would start nipping this aversion right here and now. I ate it. It tasted like mud. I got through six more bites before I admitted defeat.

A few nights later, I did battle with a plate of gravlax, later still more salmon, then sea bass, and tuna. At no point did any of them hum on my palate. They just didn’t taste good to me. In fact, they tasted pretty awful.

And then, of course, the time came when I had to cook them.

The initial engagement: a filet of salmon. It was to be poached in a court bouillion (water, wine, vinegar, bay leaf, carrot, onion, garlic, celery) and served with a sauce béarnaise.

Okay, I thought. No big deal. Just cook the thing, serve it, get evaluated, and go get something to eat.

One of the mantras that gets chanted ad infinitum at the CIA is simply: taste, taste, taste, taste, taste. Taste your food as you’re cooking it. Adjust seasonings. Do not let a stage go by in your cooking wherein it is not tasted. I made the bouillion and set it to simmer. Then I started the béarnaise: beat egg yolks with a vinegar-shallot-cracked peppercorn-tarragon reduction. Ladle in clarified butter. Beat the hell out of it with your whisk. Hold it over hot water until you’re ready. When the bouillion was set, I tasted it. It was pretty much all you can expect from water, vinegar, wine, etc. I tasted the béarnaise. A little rich, a bit thick. I thinned it with a few drops of water. Then I tasted it again. I added some more salt.

The bouillion was now at about 175 degrees. I figured the heat would drop ten or so degrees when I added the fish, which would still be in bounds for proper poaching temperature. I laid the fillet in, gently, and let it poach. Killing time, I stirred the béarnaise. I waited 10 minutes, watching the salmon fillet float dumbly around the liquid. The color began to fade and turn from red to pink. At some point near the 11 minute mark, it just looked done. I removed the salmon from its bath and blotted it dry. I poked it with my finger; it seemed to have the requisite amount of give. Then I put it on a warm plate, sauced it with the béarnaise, grabbed a couple of utensils, and carried the whole thing over to the Skills Chef.

“Hey,” he said, tipping the plate back and forth. “Nice consistency with the sauce.” He cut the filet open. It had the same appearance as the salmon that had defeated me at those dinners. He tasted it, chewed, and looked at me. “Okay, take a bite.”

I hesitated.

“Do you need a fork? Here.” He handed me a fork.

“No, I have one.” Another couple of silent beats went by.

“Well, the clock’s ticking—let’s go.”

I reached over, cut a piece off, and put it in my mouth. I wrinkled my face.

“Well,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Oh, man,” I answered. “It tastes like…” Shit? Yes, it does. But no, you better keep it clean. “It tastes like mud.” He looked distressed. He leaned in with his fork and speared another bite.

“No, no, no,” he said, chewing. “It’s not that bad. Okay, you need a little more tarragon in the béarnaise, but it’s not the end of the world. Don’t beat yourself up. The salmon’s done really nicely. It’s not mud—you did a nice job.”

I thanked him and walked back to my station. I paid close attention to the color of the fish. I started poking it again and again with my fingers, just to remember the texture of it—for next time.

But as for how the palate gets trained, that’s up next.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

My Idea of Fun

Two weeks ago, our friend Chesley ventured up from Manhattan to hang out in Saugerties. Chesley, a beautiful, enthusiastic woman who has biked across Viet Nam and India, is one of my oldest friends and I never have a bad time in her company. Cocktail hour, which would span the entirety of the night, had begun on the porch, and Nelly, Chesley, and I were catching up on the past four or five months.

“So, I think it’s just so amazing you’re going to cooking school,” she said. Ever since I met her, I’d been talking about how I wanted to go. “So are you having a pretty good time? Is it fun?”

I pondered that one for a second and said, “Cooking school is endlessly interesting. I’m completely engaged. I’d rather be doing this than anything else. I really like a lot of the people there. But am I having fun? No. No, I guess I’m not really having fun.”

I’m not there to have fun, I suppose, and the CIA isn’t responsible for providing it.


As I write this, it’s several weeks into the second semester, and the stats are thus: one person took a hiatus (known at the CIA as “X-ing out”). One person failed Skills III. A couple more are moving on—next up: Cuisines of the Americas—by the skin of their teeth. Everyone else is doing okay.

Part of the mandatory entrance requirement to the school is that you must have worked for at least six months in a restaurant prior to admission. The definition of working in a restaurant is pretty loose. For one person it might mean cooking on the line, employment as a cashier at a sandwich shop for another. Predictably, this results in a wide range of experience and skill. One guy might have worked for years in restaurants. Another guy, remaining nameless, worked his six months in a small but popular Brooklyn restaurant doing prep. He made crepes, mayonnaise, béchamel, but above all spent the bulk of his time turning his knife on piles of produce to transform big vegetables into little vegetables—and only hitting the line for the first time when the brunch cook couldn’t make it one weekend (and, despite needing to urinate for more than four hours, he did fine). As for a few others, I’m sure they made exact change quite efficiently.

The ones with the experience, naturally, exhibited their competency from the go. But, at this point, the differences between the veterans and everyone else are starting to narrow. It couldn’t be otherwise.

The first few days of Skills I were mayhem: piles of mutilated vegetables, sauces boiled to glue, glazed beets that looked like rubble at Dresden. I don’t have the strength to begin describing what happened to some of those hollandaise sauces I saw produced around me. I myself will wear a scar from a searing hot saucepan for my remaining days.

By the midpoint of Skills II, those who might have been initially graceless and bungling were still halt, but getting their balance. And at the conclusion of Skills III—the first time you’re cooking and serving other people—you could see who was simply terminally inept. The rest of us—the ept—pulled it off every day. There were some misfires, a few moments when the air around us in the kitchen went turbulent and hyper, but not once during the three weeks was anyone late when the doors opened and other students came in to be served. And frequently, people made some pretty good food.

But as for having fun…

The same reason I’m not having fun is also the same reason I can now do a really nice, very fine brunoise of vegetables without aid of a mandoline.

It’s also the reason that I don’t always sleep so well, and why—despite micro-successes when cooking, like the fresh pasta I made at the end of Skills II, or my cream of cauliflower soup the other night—underlying the focus and concentration and effort, my stomach is perpetually knotted up. Maybe not a Gordian Knot but definitely more than a half-hitch.

I said to Nelly the other day that school, and its all-consuming demands, do a number on your thinking. One day in Skills I, as we were practicing for our knife skills practical, I was cutting my batonnets 1/32 of an inch too big. It was the day the economy went south. I got upset at my handiwork. Nearby classmates agreed, yes, the ¼ by ¼ by 2-inch sticks of vegetable matter were indeed too big. I turned back to my cutting board and felt a cold dejection settle into my hands. I gave myself a mental beating. I wanted to sweep it all to the floor and crush it. I had a sudden epiphinal flash, though. Wait. The markets are crashing. The country is locked in recession. Sarah Palin exists. And you’re freaking out because your cuts are off by a micron? Get a grip, man. Clear your head.

But the CIA infects you that way. Your perspective gets skewed. And you find yourself not having fun.

People have a lot riding on their grades. Many of us are dependent on scholarships. The evaluations—the tasting and critique of your food—are vague, conditional to the whims of one chef’s palate. A soup that’s just right one night is over-seasoned the next night, and too watery, when prepared the exact same way. Points fall away from your grade. Your ballast is screwed up continually. You can’t get very comfortable.

And the school doesn’t let you get comfortable. Any move you make—from the way you sprinkle salt into a dish to whether you place a finished item in a hotel pan or on a sheet tray—can result in a Frenchman appearing suddenly at your elbow, eyes popping out of his skull, screaming, “Shit! Shit! This is shit! What are you doing? Dammit! Dammit! Why do I bother!?” There’s a thin bleed of adrenaline in your system all the time, just waiting for the swift condemnation and humiliation that follows. You second, third, fourth guess every action you take.

There’s also the psychology of wearing a uniform. Some part of you, something unidentifiable, is squelched when you all look as indistinguishable and ridiculous as you do wearing those toques and checked pants. I pass several elementary schools on my daily commute in and I’ve often been tempted to run down the school hallways, throwing doors open, screaming, “Hey kids! It’s Cookie the Clown!” and dancing a maniacal jig.

And your identity—your raison d’etre for being at the school, the activity you’ve married so much effort to—is represented by the materials on the end of a fork. When it goes into the chef’s mouth and you get strafed for the lack a few crystals of salt, there’s something baleful that starts to hum in your head and constrict in your guts.

Nelly and I were just talking about British writer Will Self. She brought up his book, My Idea of Fun, about a young man who is subject to the whims and direction of the Fat Controller, the all-knowing, all-seeing, malevolent dictator over the hero, Ian Wharton's, life. So far none of the chefs are an exact match. Occasionally, it feels like it, though. But can I think of a better alternative?