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.