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?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

First and Last--The Conclusion

(Part one starts below this entry)

I stopped myself for a second, watching the medallions sear. I tried to bring to mind what it was I knew I needed moments ago. I had no idea. The heat on the onions was back to what I wanted, but the rings I’d thrown in a minute ago were no good—just by looking at them, you could tell they were oil-soaked and terrible. The oven was on, the flattops were going full tilt, most of the burners were on; it was pretty hot. I felt two trickles of sweat run between my shoulder blades and I very much wanted a drink of water. I got the old onions out of the oil and tossed some new ones in; they began to brown right away, and I suspected maybe they wouldn’t be entirely done when I had to serve them in five minutes. But then again, five minutes—as fast as they were evaporating right now—was a pretty long time.

I flipped the medallions, and they looked great: a nice, dark brown sear. I put the broccolini in the appointed pan, dribbled some water over them, and tossed in a generous pat of butter. The butter melted, started to emulsify with the water, and I pushed and pulled the pan so the vegetable would jump and flip and coat itself with the glaze. I seasoned it quickly and put it aside. One task down. It was 5:36.

Some pools of red juice showed on top of the medallions and they came out of the pan to rest. I would have preferred they rest for 10 minutes, but it wasn’t going to happen. The oil in the pan was almost smoking, and I poured it out in the compost bin positioned right behind my station. I deglazed the pan with a healthy shot of wine, ladled in some sauce chasseur, checked the onions—another minute, maybe two—and realized what it was Id forgotten. I grabbed a plate and threw it in the oven to warm up. There. As simple as that: problem alleviated. The sauce was bubbling nicely; the pan came off the stove. 5:38 and counting. I pulled the onions out, shook the basket, tossed the rings into a bowl and pelted them with a handful of salt. The clock said I had about 90 seconds. The plate came out of the oven, a ladleful of sauce went on it, with the two medallions set on top. The gratin—I’d spaced that one—out of sight, out of …—so I cut a wedge with my paring knife and shoveled it alongside the medallions. The broocolini got plated. I bit into an onion ring—maybe it could have gone another minute, but it was a minute I just did not have.

What I did have was about 30 seconds. There was some sauce on the edge of the plate and I wiped it off with a clean paper towel. Then, strangely, I put the towel to my lips and tasted.

Shit, I thought. Dammit.

It hadn’t been the warm plate I’d forgotten about. The sauce was sharp on my tongue, very acidic. I’d completely forgotten to swirl some butter into it. I’d done some pretty good cooking that afternoon, and it was about to go to ash because I’d forgotten one simple step—one of the most basic steps in finishing a sauce like this—and the doneness of the broccolini, the perfect medium-rareness of the beef, the beauty of the gratin was all going to be overshadowed by the lack of a tablespoon of butter.

In the instantaneous way that your mind can do these sorts of calculations, I figured it would take me 90 seconds to get some butter into the sauce still steaming in the pan, wipe the old sauce off, and replate. That would be ten points off of my grade. How many points do you get docked for missing butter?

I carried the plate over to the skills chef. I’d take the risk.

I was the second to last person to be evaluated, which meant 16 people had gone before me. I stepped up and the evaluation began. I was already angry at myself, and feeling seriously defensive.

“Nice meat—just the right color,” he said after cutting into one of the medallions. He ate a forkful of gratin. “Okay, the potatoes are cooked just right.” The fork went to the plate. “I might have taken the broccolini out 30 seconds earlier. It doesn’t have the bite it needs. The onion rings—maybe a little longer in the oil next time. It’s not the end of the world, just a tiny bit underdone.” Finally, he ate a tiny morsel of the beef. “Consistency of the sauce is good, beef is tender. Okay, nice job. Really nice job. Just watch that broccolini in the future.” He scrawled something down on his grade sheet.

I stood for a second and almost told him, “Hey, man—come on. Bust me on that sauce. It sucks. It’s really sour. Come on.” But I went back to my station instead. I tried the sauce on the plate again. And it did suck. I heated up the sauce in the pan, swirled some butter in, mopped most of the old sauce off of my plate and ladled on the new. I started eating my dinner. And then I figured it out. The guy had eaten 16 bites of meat, 16 bites of gratin and broccolini, and 16 onion rings. His palate had to have been sapped. He'd only mentioned textures during the critique. He probably couldn’t have really tasted a thing.

The gargantuan (in myriad ways) Fernand Point, whose book Ma Gastronomie was reissued just this past week, wrote, “Success is the sum of a lot of little things done correctly.” I roasted a chicken last Sunday at home and forgot to take out the wishbone. Just tonight, I was making chicken stock in my kitchen, was preoccupied with all sorts of things I needed to do, and forgot to rinse the bones. When I served some homemade pasta to some friends the other night, I neglected to top it with the garnish of fresh basil I’d chiffonaded. I just simply forgot.

“If you take a shortcut now, you’ll be taking them for your whole career.”

So I didn’t lose any points, at least not for the most glaring thing on my plate. I ate my food, and it tasted great. But still: I’d done some pretty good cooking that after noon and it was all going to be overshadowed by the lack of a tablespoon of butter.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

First and Last

We’d gotten our menu assignment: beef medallions—sauteed—to be served with a sauce chausseur, along with deep-fried onion rings, potato gratin, and broccolini. The hitch was—as it had been for the last two weeks—that the completed meal had to be presented for evaluation at a specific minute. You could not be early. You could not be late. You had your minute, and that was it. Mine was 5:41.

There were things that could be done in advance. At 4:45, I heated up a gallon of water, salted it heavily when it came to a boil, blanched the broccolini, and shocked it in ice water. I rolled it between paper towels, and set it off to the side. Later, a few moments before presentation, I’d heat it up with a little butter and a splash of water, season it, and put it on the plate.

The Skills Chef had remarked several times during the previous three weeks, “If you take a shortcut now, you’ll be taking them for your whole career.”

For each minute you were off, you lost five points. I had not been off for the two weeks we’d had our appointed times. I’d watched others come up two minutes, three minutes, even 15 minutes late. My station was right near the Skills Chef’s desk, and I got to listen to them being reamed out. After they’d been evaluated, they’d take their plate and walk away. I’d watch the chef shake his head and begin scrawling on the grade sheet with his pen.

By 5:00, my gratin had been in the oven for a while. We’d run short of the right type of pan to use, so the one I was forced to employ was too small. The gratin kept bubbling up and over the sides. I could hear the liquid sizzling when it hit the bottom of the oven, and smell the burning as it cooked away.

I had been working with the same partner for three weeks, and I liked him quite a bit. We looked out for each other: turned things down when the burner was too high, got supplies, equipment and ingredients for each other, and stayed out of each other’s way when our minute came to pass. This day, he was set to go about 25 minutes before me.

I tied butcher’s string around my medallions to give them some shape. I cut up the onions for the onion rings. I chopped some parsley last minute for my partner’s garnish. I wiped my station down. It was about 5:10.

My partner and I were sharing the same sauce chasseur. I’d made it for the two of us. The sauce is usually used for chicken, but tonight it would be plated with the beef. You sauté some mushrooms until they begin to caramelize, throw in some shallots, and wait for them to turn translucent. You take some cognac and white wine, deglaze the pan so all the brown bits come up, and let them reduce by half. You add demi-glace. Cook it for a little bit, strain, and wait until you’re just ready to use it. If you’ve read the recipe instructions correctly, you’d know that some seeded, diced tomatoes get added and briefly simmered, and the whole thing is finished by adding a little butter and stirring until it dissolves.

At 5:25, the oil for the onion rings was way too hot. I turned it down, floured them, then put them into the batter. I’d let them sit for a few until it was time to fry them. I’d taken the gratin out of the oven, where it had been drooling over the edges of the pan, about 15 minutes earlier. I fired up a pan to sauté the medallions, which I’d let rest after they were done for about 7 or 8 minutes.

I tasted the sauce. It was a little sharp, but I’d add the butter right before serving, so that sharpness would be blunted. I dribbled a little clarified butter into a sauté pan, waited a moment and threw the medallions on. I’d had the heat way too high. I pulled the pan off the heat and told myself to put them back on in a moment. Time was beginning to erode much more quickly than I’d anticipated. It was almost 5:30. The onions needed to be fried. I’d forgotten about the broccolini. I fired up another pan to heat it. The kitchen clock was right in my line of sight, and the seconds were liquid and slippery. After a minute or two, the onions went in the oil. When I turned the heat down, I’d accidentally turned it off. They bobbed for a moment with a few timid bubbles popping away at the rings’ edges. I cranked the heat up and put the medallions back on the burner. A skin was forming on the sauce. I was also missing something, and I couldn’t remember what. It was 5:35.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

How I got here (part 1 of many)

When I was 12, on New Year’s Eve, my mother made a very creamy shrimp curry. I was allowed a small glass of red wine to go with the meal. The shrimp was spicy and rich; in combination with alternating sips of wine, I almost cried, it was so good. Despite countless promptings, she says she still doesn’t remember that meal.

That same year, my mother made fettucine with a tomato sauce that was fine enough to haunt my palate ever since. She had baked semolina bread to accompany the pasta and sauce. I remember dipping the bread into the sauce, and after tasting it, my entire body starting to sing. Again, we’ve tried breaking it down, but she can’t figure out how she made it.

I remember these dishes, though. And to rip off a line from Denis Johnson: I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

Anthony Bourdain--what have you wrought?

Around a year before I started at the CIA, Nelly and I were driving back to NYC from her Dad’s place in Rhinebeck, and steered off Route 9 onto the campus grounds, just to take a look.

I mentioned before: it’s hard to not be knocked out by the place—a beautiful, fountained piazza with the Hudson River hooking by, the stained glass scenes from the lives of the Saints, the Itallian villa.. But what grabbed our attention right then was the neck of a chubby young student in full uniform, flanked by his parents. A tattoo a little smaller than fist-sized was inked just below the line of his chin. It was ostentatious and looked brand new. And it looked familiar: a prison tat-style rendering of a skull, capped with chef’s toque, a long knife clenched between the teeth. The same one that’s scarred onto Anthony Bourdain’s arm and is on the cover of his cookbook.

Since every student is required to do a four-and-a-half month externship, it’s a perpetual topic of conversation. At yet another dinner where, chronologically, I could conceivably have fathered most of those seated at the table, two of the kids noted that when they had to do their extern, their number one choice was Les Halles. They wanted to cook next to Bourdain.
“You know,” I said. “he isn’t going to be there, right?”
This news was greeted with, first, a blank stare; next, dismay; and finally, anger.
“Yes,” one of them insisted. “He will be.

A few nights ago, a class had gone badly, and a few of us sat at dinner ignoring each other. Two nearby kids—I mean young—were swapping war stories about whiskey and cocaine. It seemed very important that each recognized in the other a battle-scarred, been-around-the-block veteran. I got bored and tuned out. I tuned back in when I heard one say, “Anthony Bourdain is my favorite all-time cook.” He paused for emphasis. “Actually, he’s about my favorite person on the planet.”

If, like I said earlier, that Thomas Keller is a God in the world of the CIA, I guess that would make Escoffier the holy spirit. But without question, the messiah and redeemer is Anthony Bourdain, and Kitchen Confidential is his Apocrypha.

It’s been a while since I’ve spent much recreational time in NYC’s East Village. One upside to Brooklyn’s hyperdevelopment was that it eliminated the need to hit Manhattan for thrills and kicks. But I remember the place being dense with a mob of rockers whose bands all played CBGB’s in the opening slot on a weeknight, emaciated legs jammed into black, skin-tight denim, their blood enriched with heroin, all them like living Madame Tussaud models of Johnny Thunders. The logic went roughly like this: Johnny Thunders shot up. If I shoot up, I will be Johnny Thunders. Thunders, of course, was one of many who went through the same cogitative circle looking at Keith Richards. The cautionary aspects always get ignored; Thunders is dead, and Keith looks like he is. But listen to Exile On Main Street and tell me the logic doesn’t almost make a perverse sense. Who wouldn’t want to create something that good? The logic breaks down if you believe in the transformational power of narcotics rather than in talent. But the idea of achievement through mimicry is potent and enduring.

Anthony Bourdain is a pretty fine writer: “My unemployment was running out, and the responses to the resumes I’d sent out inevitably invited me to meet with such a transparently doomed bunch of chuckleheads that even I, the seasoned carrion feeder, couldn’t stomach the prospect of working for them. There was a guy planning a Marla Maples restaurant; Marla would sing in the upstairs cocktail lounge, he confided, ensuring hordes of high-spending gourmets. The feng shui advisor was riding a cosmic groove around the half-completed restaurant when I arrived for the interview, boding poorly for the man’s prospects. I deliberately tanked the interview.” Every writer wants first and foremost to have their own voice, a set of linguistic tics that ID’s them immediately, and Bourdain has that gift in spades. He’s also got a magnetic on-screen personality, and he’s a handsome guy. The man’s cultured and literate, and pretty damn sharp. Plus he’s a riot (“Vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…”) If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know it’s impossible to put down. I haven’t met a single person on campus who hasn’t read the book, and usually they’ve done so multiple times. The book is, person by person, probably one of the single biggest inspirations for the career choice they’ve made. More than anyone on the Food Network, more than anyone who has ever sautéed something in front of a camera, Bourdain and Kitchen Confidential are responsible for swelling the ranks of cooking schools over the last decade.

We were asked during the first day of CIA orientation how many of us wanted to have our own cooking show. I was stunned and slightly horrified to see the majority of hands in the room go shooting up in the air. Not, as I discovered afterwards while eavesdropping on a number of conversations, a show like Emeril or Giada or Sandra Lee, but a show like No Reservations. I guess, ultimately, that does beat the alternative.

Charlie Parker was cultured and literate. Keith Richards—channeling the ghost of Oscar Wilde with rotted teeth and a backbeat—is cultured and literate. William Burroughs was cultured and literate (Johnny Thunders always struck me as being a little slow, but I’d be happy to be corrected). A good rule of thumb is that if you’re the innovator, you’re probably a bit sharper than average. If you’re the mimic, a lot less so.

When you’re done making stock, you can use the bones and mirepoix a second time to make a second stock. This is called a remouillage. It’s pretty pale, and really weak.

A lot of us on campus who’ve read Kitchen Confidential have enough perspective to recognize the sheen of romanticization laid over those stories. A lot don’t. In their view the cook is a pirate. If you haven’t snorted blow off of a waitress’s breasts, you have not had an authentic kitchen experience. These guys tend to fetishize speed—speed and quantity over quality and everything else. They seem to believe that Bourdain’s penis is gargantuan—as long and lethal as a chef’s knife. They seem to want people to believe theirs measures up. It’s at least where a lot of them seem to keep their hands when they walk or stand still, and they’ve affected a serious swagger.

Bourdain can knowledgeably toss the names Saulnier, Soltner, Bocuse, et al into his writing. He’s got a lot of knowledge to back himself up, even if he is by his own admission a workman rather than innovator. Even when he gets a little drunk on his own mythology (“They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s…” Oh, come on now. You’re pushing it.), he has enough smarts and irony to know there are other and better trails he could have taken down the same path (“I went for the easy money,” he laments at one point). By contrast, during one in-class presentation on Antonin Careme—grandfather of Haute Cuisine—given by fellow students (one of whom had been at the table talking about Les Halles and his externship), chaud froid was repeatedly pronounced “chod froyd.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New Posts a-Comin'

I have my midterm tomorrow--making fresh pasta, starch gelatinization, risotto, the protein levels of various flours, and what the hell a chelazae is (for the record, it's a set of knotty cords that lie on either side of the yolk in an egg. I just realized I'll have to go back and re-read what function it serves).

After the midterm, I'll be back up and running.

Monday, September 29, 2008

My Peers: A Consideration, part I

For the most part, my peers are pretty young. In my class, there were a total of 77 baking and pastry students beginning the first day of June 16th. Of those 77, 8 had degrees. Most of the student skin is white. A lot of it is still pimpled.

Occasionally, I pass someone in the vicinity of my age group in the hallways or outside. We always make eye contact, and shoot between us a knot of mixed messages—a recognition of someone feeling the same weirdness over the age difference; a strange sort of shame at having been in the thick of puberty, if not full drinking age, when most of the other students were still breast feeding; a fleeting unease that it all might be too late for us.

I was exactly like the younger students: I went to college right out of high school. I’d grown up in the country and arrived in Boston dizzy with all the goings on. I was primarily interested in music and I saw a lot of great bands play: Jane’s Addiction in a club the size of the average living room; the Bad Brains, original line-up intact; Fugazi in a church. I was terrified of women but sought out their company at every opportunity. I drank a lot of cheap beer. Academics were just background noises. I went to a pretty decent school. I was a terrible student—my grades were awful.

I wasn’t really ready. In a lot of ways, I was a pretty young 18. When I think what I could have done with the resources around me, my stomach knots up.

So every time I have a CIA assignment, every time there’s something to read or homework to be done, I’m at it with the sort of seriousness coaxed out when you realize how few chances you really get. In an environment where a person gets to—is encouraged to--fixate entirely on food and its preparation, why would you not want to read and analyze Escoffier’s recipes? Or pore over Gray Kunz’s Elements of Taste? Or let Harold McGee explain the precise chemistry behind why an onion caramelizes under the influence of slow, steady heat?

At my age the answer is obvious. If I were the age of most of the others, or a different person, it would be a lot more nebulous. I understand that. I get it.

We’re all tossed in together, all of us in those checked pants, heavy-footed in black clogs. We’re cutting up meat and vegetables side by side, or listening to lectures as a group, washing dishes, mopping floors, eating at the same tables. I get to hear a lot of things.

The first week or so, you gravitate towards anyone you’ve even briefly met. So I found myself at the same table for a number of meals with this one 18-year-old kid. All I ever saw him eat were hamburgers.
“So,” I said, “I couldn’t help but notice you really like hamburgers.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much all I eat.”
“Do you want to try some of this?” I pushed a plate at him that had foie gras mousse piped into profiteroles. It had been up for grabs on a buffet table when you walked in the cafeteria door. I was ecstatic when I figured out what it was. I’d eaten as much as I could from the plate. He wrinkled his face.
“No, man. That’s cool. I won’t like it.”
“Really? How often are you gonna get this? Try it.” I suddenly felt like my mother.
“No. I just want the burger. I can’t wait until they teach us to cook these things.”

Overheard: “I’m failing everything. I failed gastronomy. I’m failing meat. I got a D in product knowledge. I need to concentrate on my studies. So as soon as I’m done with this bag, I’m going to quit smoking weed.”

The Skills chef was yelling at me. I was calmly stating my case back to him. Which was probably the first in a chain of mistakes.

“Listen to me, Jonathan. Listen: things are going to go a lot easier for you at this school if you do it the way we tell you to.”

“I understand, all I’m saying is---“

“Do it the way I tell you!”


“All I want to hear from you right this second is ‘Yes, chef.’ Do you understand? All I want to hear is ‘Yes, chef.’”

He stared, waiting for me to say it. I was having a hard time dredging up the words. They were feeling particularly heavy on my tongue. He kept staring. I couldn’t do it. Mercifully, a pot clattered to the floor off to our right and, distracted, he walked away to shame whoever had dropped their clarified butter on the tiles.

I have no idea what’s wrong with me.

I said to someone a little older than average: “No kidding—you live in the kiddie dorm? What’s it like with all those tykes?”
“Well, someone got taken to the ER the other night because someone else bit his arm. Oh, and last night, someone took a shit in the shower.”

Next: More Conversations, Eavesdropping, and Campus Snapshots. Plus, coming up: Anthony Bourdain, What Have You Wrought?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What I Learned (butchering, part IV)

The farm’s dirt driveway cut through green fields, and a few yards down from the road a sign read “Welcome CIA Students and Brook Farm Friends.” For most of the ride, the four of us in the car had talked food, Thomas Keller (the Muslims may have 99 names for God, but around the CIA there’s just one: Keller) and the cult of celebrity, run down other students we didn’t care for, and generally avoided the topic of killing. With the farmhouse in sight the conversation swerved down a darker bend; we made jokes that weren’t all that funny and laughed too hard at them. We parked the car, gathered the knives, and, speaking for myself, took heavy steps to the back yard.

The yard would have been big and open, normally, but this afternoon was crowded with vehicles and equipment. As we walked towards a set of tables to put our things down, we passed a mobile chicken coop, presumably filled with the work at hand. A dozen or so feet beyond that was a 55-gallon drum full of bubbling water on top of a propane burner, and next to it a cylindrical tube with finger-sized rubber pieces extruding off the interior sides and on the bottom. There were a few tubs filled with water nearby. And throwing their shadows onto the tables were six traffic cones upended and nailed to a cross beam. Beneath the cones, someone had dug a trench about six inches deep. On this assembly line, no one part of the process was more than a few feet from another.

The farm was run by a husband and wife team. They were a good looking couple, at the upper end of their 50s, or early into their 60s. A lot of years of hard work had helped sculpt their faces. They looked a bit young to have been on the countercultural vanguard, but seemed more a product of the early 70s; they’d probably done a post-Altamont retreat back to the land; if they hadn’t spent time on a commune, I would have been surprised. If you’ve ever seen Robert Kramer’s genius film, Milestones, this was a pair from the cast three decades on. They radiated warmth.

Both of them shook our hands and thanked us in advance for our help. On one of the tables was bread and butter; suddenly buckets of freshly picked corn appeared. The wife and the husband dumped the corn in the bubbling water. Given what was set to happen, the idea of food and eating seemed lunatic. But no one else appeared to hold that point of view; the bread disappeared. People took corn as fast as they could. The wife was suddenly in front of me holding out a pile of it. “Go ahead,” she said. “It was picked and shucked just a few minutes ago.” What do you say in the face of this kind of hospitality? You don’t say no, and I didn’t. And the corn was something to exult over—someday I hope I’ll have some that good again.

Here were all these people gathered together, eating, but there was nothing celebratory to the moment. The ambience was muted, stilled, with the tenor of a commemoration. A stereo in my head grabbed onto the line from Bukka White’s antique blues song, Fixin’ to Die: “Just as sure as we live, sure we’re born to die.” Over and over in my skull, as I tried to suck stuck corn from between two teeth. The wife said a few words about how the chickens had lived well, been treated well, and she read a poem she’d written from the bird’s point of view, absolving the killing because it was natural to die, and the chickens’ short life had been a good one.

And then it was four in the afternoon, and the light was thick. Things began dying. By the coop there were two wooden cages. The husband brought a few of us to the coop, crawled inside, and handed out chickens two at a time. Six chickens were put into each cage. The cages were carried back to the cross beams; we reached in and picked up a chicken by its feet and held them upside down—if they’re held that way long enough, they go into a trance; they’ll fight you, though, when you first try to turn them feet-up. Once they were sedate, we drew them head-first through one of the cones. Our meat instructor spoke his softly-accented instructions: hold the head with your thumb under the chicken’s beak. Put the bolster-end of the knife blade against the bird’s throat. Draw the blade across, applying firm, even pressure. The head should pop right off. All of us stood thronged together, knives in hand, waiting. The first bird went into the cone.

It was coming onto fall. I’d noticed a few of the leaves beginning to tint with color. My parents were getting a little bit older. We’d all see another winter, but only so many. We have only a finite number of times to watch a full moon wax, to see it turn the topography around you a dusky silver.

The chickens had been brought to the farm as newly hatched spheres of down, and had grown ineluctably towards this point in time. The farmers’ daughter, a girl of maybe 14 or 15, had appeared. She wore ratty jeans and a green t-shirt. She still had her adolescence all over her; someday, when that awkwardness dropped away, she’d be very beautiful. She was keeping to herself, sitting off at a distance. The first chicken went into the cone. The daughter just broke. She streamed tears and she wouldn’t look away. She sat with her arms crossed, weeping with more intensity. She’d helped raise them. She’d witness the entirety of their transition. Watching her, my eyes welled up, too.

That first bird: a young woman from school was the first to kill, and it didn’t go as well as it could have. The knife seemed to stick; the bird freaked out; she responded in kind but got the knife through the neck. She had blood running down her cheeks and held the head in her hand. She was blameless; it’s hard for your hands to know what to do. In the cluster of students around her, I saw one of the teaching assistants from school, her eyes also shining with tears.

Most of us were shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. I held my knife with a tight grip. Other students were reaching into the cages and pulling out the chickens. I watched people lifting the birds up, watched their wings flap frantically, heard them squawking, saw them being killed.

I love my parents and I want to live forever. I love my girlfriend. And I felt a wild surge of resentment move like electricity through me, angry that everything has to end. People I’d known or admired or were influenced by, pets I’d kept, family I’d loved had ended. Jerry Garcia was dead. William Burroughs was dead. My dogs, Nigel and Cedric, were both dead. My grandmother, gone 22 years and still walking into my dreams, was dead. My uncle, too. These last, I truly miss.

It came to be my turn. I could feel the bird’s pulse under my thumb. I positioned the knife as instructed, and drew it hard across the chicken’s throat. And then I was holding its head in my hand, blood on my arms and shirt, watching the body convulse. My foot slipped and slid into the trench. My work boot was glistening with blood.

The body was dunked into the same water that had cooked the corn. When the feathers began pulling away, it was removed from the water out and put into the cylinder. The cylinder whipped the bird around and the rubber extrusions pulled away the feathers. Any feathers left were plucked by hand at a nearby table. Then we gutted the chickens, the viscera still hot. The carcass was then washed and put into a tub. We went through this for hours, until past dusk, stopping when the 100th chicken was finished. About 2 hours before the end, I got stung on my neck by a bee. Our instructor made me stop, put ice on it and sit for a few minutes. “Karma, huh?” he’d said.

In the early evening, I’d watched three other students playing around. In front of the daughter, who sat without saying anything to anyone, eyes red and wet, these three made bloody handprints on each other’s shirts and took pictures. They held up a living chicken with one hand, knife in the other, with a stupid rictus of a smile splitting their face, and they took pictures of that, too. I noticed my friends and some others staring at them in disbelief and contempt. I’m hoping there’s a special compound in hell for people like this.

At the end of the night, the husband and wife asked us to gather in a circle and tell them what we’d learned. One by one, we each mouthed the same platitudes about respect for food, being closer to the food source, and like that. But what I actually learned I still only feel.

For the first few minutes, the car ride back was hushed. But then we started talking about food, the cult of celebrity, running down other students we didn’t care for.

The next night, Nelly and I roasted a chicken. When I carved it, I got every scrap off of the bones. Every piece of that bird was priceless.

And the day after, Nelly and I went to the home of our new friends, Thisbe Nissen and Jay Nicorvo. Like us, they’re recent immigrants to Saugerties. They were showing us around their house, and stopped by the chicken coop, filled with a small flock of two-month old chickens. The chickens were beautiful—some of them were real show birds, their feathers wildly colored and tufted. They treated these chickens almost like pets. One of them was eating out Nelly’s hand. They’d given them names—one was named Monsanto—and were counting the days until they began laying eggs. I stooped to stroke a chicken. At one point, Jay and Thisbe asked what I’d been up to that weekend. I didn’t tell them.

Next: My Peers: A Consideration.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Something’s Got to Die (butchering, part I)

At the kitchen table in Malden, I’m watching an online video—required viewing for the meat butchering class that preceded Fish—called “Calf Slaughter.” The class is taught by an older German man of imposing height and massive hands. He’s capped with a head of grey. He has a voice with the same cadences and lilts as Werner Herzog’s and he makes you want to impress him.

The class was held on the fourth floor of Roth Hall, the former Jesuit monastery, in a room facing east. The first sunlight would ease over the peaks of the mountains just as class started. The room felt old. You could imagine that there had been fierce arguments here about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

When our instructor would lecture about meat, he was sometimes difficult to understand. The mind tends to turn unfamiliar sounds into sounds you recognize. I’d be taking notes, hearing a normal set of sentences: “The chuck is one of the primal cuts of a side of beef. The round is another primal cut, and its sub-primals are the knuckle, eye, top round…” etc. And then I could swear he had just said something like: “Night tracking turns nighttime to birds.” We’d often look at each other in bewilderment. Naturally, all of us loved the guy.

I pay almost no attention to the video’s credits and preamble but when the feature part of it opens, there’s my instructor, 20 years younger, brown-haired, face unlined. He’s wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and green rubber boots, and he’s stroking the head of a calf. It’s important, he’s saying, that when an animal is slaughtered, it feels no stress, no fear. It degrades the quality of the meat. And, more, the very fact of the animal’s existence means that if it dies, it needs to die humanely.

“Unfortunately, for us to eat,” he’d said in class before I watched the video, “Something—something—has to die. And that animal—or plant—deserves our respect. It demands our respect. It demands our attention. Our commitment to not waste it. If nothing else, this is what I want you learn here.”

In the video, his hands keep playing over and around the calf’s ears and neck. The animal’s eyes are both plaintive and stupid. My instructor suddenly takes a step back, pulls out a Luger, aims, and puts a bullet through the calf’s head. The video is in real time, and 25 minutes later, he has the calf skinned, gutted, and ready to be butchered.

With a lifetime of butchering behind him, when those hands—with so much dying accumulated in his fingers—touch some part of an animal, it must feel a shiver run over its flesh.

The Duck Died in Vain (butchering, part II)

For lunch one day a couple weeks earlier, I had half of a duck, set on top of wild rice, resting on my plate. Most of the eight of us around the table had the same thing. The duck had been pretty much destroyed with an excess of heat; it was desiccated and tough, the meat was seized-up and fibrous. I took another bite and looked around. Everyone else was struggling to chew it and swallow. I took another bite.

I started getting pissed off. Whoever had done this was a jackass.

“You know what?” I finally said to my friends. “Whoever did this is a jackass.” I took one more bite and began gathering some steam, saying, “Really. What were they doing?”

“Not cooking it right, obviously,” someone said.

Someone else said, “Don’t throw stones too hard because in a few weeks, you’re going to be the one screwing up the duck.”

“No, seriously. Consider a duck. Who doesn’t love a duck?” People at the table next to us turned to look. “They’re cute, they’re cool to watch. They’re tasty. And—damn—this duck once walked around. It was happy. It enjoyed itself. And look at it now. This creature truly died in vain. No, I won’t be the person screwing it up. This animal got completely disrespected. A pointless, useless death.”

100 Chickens in Four Hours (butchering part III)

The meat instructor had asked us if we would volunteer to go with him after class the following Friday afternoon, to a CSA (community sustained agriculture) farm just outside of New Paltz, New York and help him slaughter 100 chickens.

I believe, as many others do, that if you aren’t a vegan or otherwise strict vegetarian, you should someday kill something. Not just observe a slaughter, but touch an animal and end its life. So I said yes, I’d volunteer. About 16 or so others said yes, too. Wear old clothes, we were told. Bring a boning knife. Sharpen and hone the knife. Bring an extra t-shirt, because you’re going to get dirty. We’d carpool and caravan to the farm.

The ride there took about half an hour, through New Paltz, up along a steady slope to where the Shawangunk Ridge pitches itself straight against the sky. During the whole trip, grey banks of clouds hid the sun, spat down some rain, and retreated. The mountains are a dark blue and green; looking at them at that moment, they were so beautiful you understood why people will fight so hard to stay alive.

Next: This isn’t the first time I’d driven up a mountain to slaughter birds.

Monday, September 8, 2008


I watched my blood trickle bright and red under the heavy fluoresence of the CIA fish room. The gills of a fish—a sea bass, in this case—are heavy, crude syringes, livid with bacteria. There’s nothing on them you want introduced under the skin. I’d been scaling the fish; I’d been careless—it was 6:15 and my alarm had gone off at 2:36 AM—and the spikes punctured deep into my thumb. I dropped the scaler to the red tile floor, stepped away from the sink, and barked an obscenity. In five minutes my hand would feel like it had been drenched in acid. Minute by minute the pain graded up. Before long, it was exquisite, total. My eyes watered. A little drum of nausea beat in my stomach.

A friend walked up to me, pulled my hand in front of his face, whistled, and said, “Prepare yourself—that’s going to hurt like a bitch.”

This was the 11th day I had gotten up not too long after midnight. I’d driven morning after morning from Saugerties with a head full of cement, semi-delirious, my heart clutching and coughing from too much caffeine. I’d drink the coffee outside, on the porch, under a spray of stars, listening to the whistle of the freight trains that ran all night right near the house. I’d move pawns and rooks through the upcoming year, through the program’s endpoint, trying to figure out what I’d do when it was over. I’d be at school at 4:30, to cut up fish.

The chalkboard on one wall would have a list of all the required fish. Whatever was cut up in the morning was sent out to all the student kitchens. You got the fish out, scaled it, and fabricated it. The fish kitchen is in the basement of the CIA, is always frigid, the red tile floor is always damp, and room stinks perpetually of dead seafood. And you needed to pay attention to what you were doing.

The protocol for injuries in the school kitchens is to, first, assess the damage. If there’s no risk of death, clean the wound out, put on a glove, and keep working. At this point, everyone can laugh at you. There were no gloves in the fish kitchen. I doubled up on Band-Aids, and moved to the center island of plastic-topped tables where the bulk of the butchering was done. I started cutting the fish. Most everyone—13 of us—was too busy to have laughed, or even noticed the injury. The instructor—invariably called and referred to as “Chef” at the CIA—was walking the room.

Bass are hard-boned fish; when filleting them, you use a cutting technique called the “up-and-over.” This is supposedly the hardest cut to learn. Cut from behind the gill plate through the head. Roll the knife, cut back to free the fillet. Slice down the back to the tail. Flex the knife over the spine. Finish by flexing the knife over the ribs. Make sure the fish is “swimming” to the right. Make sure the dorsal fin is towards you. Their eyes stare at you the entire time.

Since the class started, most of my fillets had been looking like road kill.

And then the Chef—a man my age, of obvious and fearsome intelligence—took a moment from his rounds to stand at my shoulder and ask, “What the hell are you doing?”

I squirmed, just a little bit. What the hell was I doing? I had a cold fish under my fingers, and scales stuck to my forearm. I had a knife in my injured hand. I’d just started cutting away the flesh from the bones. I was also so tired I couldn’t recall my middle name. I was angry, because I was so tired. I was full of ire at being made to feel uncomfortable, and, with this man at my elbow, beginning to feel frayed. My mind had gone tabula rasa; there was nothing there. What the hell was I doing? I went for honesty; I just said, “I don’t know.”

He stared me down. He was about six inches from me; I could feel either heat or hostility radiating off of him. He kept staring. I noticed that his eyes were seriously blood shot. I forgot completely about my hand. His lips pursed and he looked like he might spit bile. His breathing picked up speed. He said, “Yeah—no kidding you don’t know.”

When this guy cuts a fish, the flesh seems to just swim away from its body. The bones and ribs are bare, and you can hear a chorus of mermaids and sirens singing through the mists. But I was the one cutting and, now, he was glowering at me and all I could hear was the sound of everyone else’s knives. I shot a look around; I had never seen my peers as focused on anything as they were right then on their fish.

He began speaking a mantra: “Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right.” Every syllable was a drill right into whatever confidence I owned before class started. “Where’s your right hand?” he asked. I had no idea. My head buzzed with static. I moved a hand. He pushed it away. “No, not that right hand. Your other right hand. Come on. Oh, for God’s sake, come on. I said, ‘to the right.’”

I felt different emotive sparks start to flicker all through my head. I wanted to turn and grind the fish in his face. I wanted to drop under the table and crawl away. I wanted to fall to my knees, kiss his hand, and beg him to leave me alone. I wanted to cut the freaking fish correctly. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to remember where my right hand was. All these things in turn, in reverse, simultaneous.

I started flopping the fish around. At some point, I must have gotten it right because he walked away. My hearing came back: I heard him yell at someone: “If I ever see you pick up a fish by its tail again, I swear I’ll stab you.” And then to someone else: “This is a really easy technique if you know what you’re doing. Which you obviously don’t.”

My hand had reverted to a high alarm of pain.

I know everyone has a role they play. His was to be the Idi Amin of this chilly, fishy Uganda-in-a-basement. He wore scales instead of medals. My role was to be cowed and terrified, and to grope around my guts for some kind of grace under pressure. Strike the last one. I got the first two down, though. I knew he wasn’t like this outside of the room. Probably. He had told the class he’d followed the Grateful Dead around for four years, endearing himself to me immediately, and had just gone to see Bob Weir (the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist, for those who don’t know) play a few days ago. “It was amazing,” he said. But for me and everyone else: what I was in the classroom is what I’m like outside it, only distilled. Ever done anything you’re ashamed of? Something rotten you surprised yourself with? You wonder how you could have sunk to doing it. It’s not so dissimilar to the feeling of seeing your masks dismantled and getting a good glimpse of the sun-deprived skin underneath.

Every day in meat and then fish class, which runs for 14 very long days, you are evaluated on your performance. You don’t know when, but you’re being watched, weighed, and judged. Once in a while, well before the fish gill incident, I’d notice a little inexplicable tremor in my knife hand as it approached the fish.

Outside on a break, I watched the sun come up. A tug boat moved slowly up the Hudson, away from Manhattan. My hand throbbed. I was thinking that I’d really like to watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie again. And I thought of my two novels, and the short stories. The fish, the writing, the film: they were stitched together.

Where I'm Writing From

When you pull onto the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (henceforth, CIA), it’s hard to not be impressed. This is intentional. They went at the planning and landscaping with grandeur in mind. The place is situated a couple miles north of Poughkeepsie, in Hyde Park, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. It’s got herb gardens, a piazza, intricately manicured grounds. It’s like Disneyland for cooks. But the central nervous system is an immense Citizen Kane-esque building, Roth Hall. Roth Hall was once a Jesuit monastery, but now it houses a huge dining room and all the kitchens where classes are held. The dining room, where most of the eating gets done, has huge, vaulted—maybe 100 foot—ceilings, with huge stained glass windows encircling the four sides. It’s strange to be eating a foie gras mousse, look up, and lock eyes with Jesus. There are about 50 round tables with room for 8 – 10 people at each one. The lighting is soft, and, when it’s full, the room pretty noisy.

The program itself is intense. The first six weeks is all academic: food history, product knowledge (want to know how to choose the best possible beet? Well, pay attention on day 9), food safety (How are the bulk of the really nasty foodborne illnesses spread? You don’t want to know. Pray that your cook has washed his or her hands, though), and culinary math (this recipe serves four; you want to do it for 534. Do the math…). Then comes meat and fish butchering. Then basic culinary skills—knife cuts, stocks, soups, all that sort of thing. Then you spend time—one “block”, three weeks at a shot—in the teaching kitchens. You spend a block learning cuisines of the Americas—the US, Mexico, etc. A block learning Asian cuisine. Another learning to cook for catering crowds. On and on. What you cook while you’re in those kitchens gets served to the other students for lunch and dinner. You spend three weeks tasting wines. You are rigorously tested on everything. The drop-out rate is high. At one point in the middle, you go on an externship, spending four to five months working full-time in a restaurant. And after approximately 19 months, you’re done.

There’s a very strict dress code. Either you wear your chef’s whites, with the checked pants and a pair of clogs (the mandatory outfit if you’re in a kitchen). Or, you wear “business casual,” which means polo shirts and khakis, so everyone looks like they sell electronics at Best Buy.

One other quirk of the program: you are either an AM or PM student (morning or night, as you might have guessed). Sometimes, no matter what you are (I’m a PM student), you have to get there early. Like for meat and fish. For 14 school days, the alarm went off at either 2:30 or 3:30 in the morning, and I made the 45 minutes drive to school. It does a number on your head and body, if you’ve kept normal hours your whole life.


Hello, I’m Jonathan Dixon. I was conceived in Brooklyn and raised in New Hampshire. I’ve lived the past 16 years in New York City. I am currently living in Malden-On-Hudson, a hamlet of Saugerties in upstate New York. The Band used to live in Saugerties, and they recorded The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan about five miles up the road. In my world, that’s a pretty big deal.

I’m old enough so that I really have no business being enrolled in cooking school, but, nonetheless, I am in my third month of classes at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). I applied without thinking much of being accepted. I got in and was offered an exceptionally generous aid package. So, I made a decision.

I used to have a semblance of a career, one I pursued half-heartedly. I was a staff writer for Martha Stewart. Overlapping with Martha, I taught lit and creative writing classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 101-type English classes at the now-defunct Interboro Institute in Manhattan. For a period, I supported myself writing about music, movies, and books, mostly for the Boston Phoenix, a few times for New York Newsday, and, for one brief moment when I was a whelp, for the New York Times. I have an MFA in creative writing, and two novels essentially completed. One of the novels makes me want to piss myself in embarrassment. The other is in its third draft.

I believe that if you have an experience, one that just by its very nature is going to exert some kind of transformational pull on you, it should be documented. I think the CIA is one of those types of experiences, and the purpose of this journal is to document it.

Just a note: There are three principle players in this exegesis: myself; Nelly Reifler, a writer of fiction and my girlfriend of several years; and the Culinary Institute. No one at CIA will be identified by name, unless they are a public figure. An example of a public figure might be Tim Ryan, the president of the school. But with the exception of an early entry, I suspect there won’t be much to say about him. The other students and instructors will be named pseudonymously. It just doesn’t seem particularly fair, otherwise.