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.