Yup. That’s Duff Goldman from Ace of Cakes. I’m posting the photo for no real reason other than that he’s famous. He was the celebrity chef at the March of Dimes Event last night, but didn’t cook anything (though he donated a cake). He was nice to me because I unsurreptitiously dropped the name of a big client of his, whom Duff likes and respects. In the context of that conversation it came up that I was former Big Law attorney, to which he responded that he believed I “had it made . . . Do you know how many chefs are looking for great lawyers?” He proceeded to inform me that Wolfgang Puck’s lawyer is the ultimate badass in the industry and in ridiculously high demand, because his ability to negotiate hefty deals (e.g., bringing Wolfgang Puck’s gourmet pizzas into airports) leaves his chef-clients sitting on a pretty pile of money. Food for thought (no pun intended) . . .
The March of Dimes (apparently so named for FDR, because March of Dimes was initially begun as an effort to research cures for polio and FDR is on the dime) event took place at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. A GAZILLION times better than the McDonald’s event (see prior post), even though I didn’t get to cook nearly as much. Set up in the Grand Ballroom, the event consisted of 14 tasting stations (food + wine), each manned by a chef/winemaker of a well-known restaurant/winery. I was paired (at my request) with the Chef John Toulze of The Girl and the Fig, one of Sonoma’s best restaurants. Just to show you how swiftly a hotel can turn a room, here, the ballroom at 4:45pm (15 min before event start), and then a mere half-hour later at 5:15pm:
Chef John was cool but with a dry sense of humor. We didn’t particularly hit it off initially because he first encountered me pushing a big dolly through the kitchen; the dolly had one of those wonky wheels and so it would go left, right, left, right, and John was behind me, trying frantically to get by but couldn’t because I kept (unintentionally) swerving in front of him. It was actually kind of funny in my opinion, but I guess he didn’t think so. Anyway, he eased up after actually realizing he was stuck with me (I requested to be paired with him since A and I are celebrating our 13-year anniversary at The Girl and the Fig next Saturday and I wanted special treatment). He also eased up after I told him how terrific the dish we were serving was; and honestly, it was AWESOME. Here, slow-braised Mano Formate pork belly with a parsnip puree and pomegranate gastrique.
You might notice that, given the way the display card was printed (by March of Dimes — the first line reads “Slow Braised Mano”), we got the same question over and over again: “What’s braised mano?” Mano Formate technically means “hand made,” and is the branded name for The Girl and the Fig’s in-house charcuterie. I started by giving the correct answer (“it’s actually mano formate pork belly, as in our house made bacon”), but that got boring after a while so I just nodded when people asked whether it was “braised hand.” (One guest asked me if it was braised pig knuckle, which was at least somewhat legit so I gave him a second piece.) Chef taught me a couple great tricks of the trade (e.g., how to squeeze and swipe the puree across the plate at just the right speed so that it doesn’t look like a giant sperm; how to efficiently rotate through the plating sequence so guests are always eating the food at the optimal temperature; how the “slight” drizzle of a sauce which looks perfect initially can quickly spread into a mini-pool that swallows up the star of the dish). And the event was chill enough that he even sent me off to sneak bites of other chefs’ dishes so he could make sure ours was the best (it was).
Interesting point about cooking in a vast hotel kitchen: The walls bear laminated color photos of some of the most popular dishes so that the chefs know precisely how to plate them. For some reason that surprised me.
Interesting point about cooking in a vast hotel kitchen IN SAN FRANCISCO: Though Spanish may be the key to unlocking every other kitchen in this country, here in the Bay Area it’s . . . MANDARIN. That’s right. My ability to say things like, “Buo buo, wo ke yi bai tuo ni bang wo zhao chu liang bai er shi wu ge xiao cha tze ma?” (“Uncle, might I trouble you to assist me in locating two hundred twenty-five salad forks?”) totally made my life (and Chef John’s life) easier.
Last thing I’ll say: At the end of the night I had to dump the oil from our flash fryer in the appropriate place. This involved me carrying a 40-quart stockpot filled about halfway with 250 degree oil across the length of the ballroom, through the giant kitchen, through the dishwashing area, to the used-oil disposal. At one point the oil sloshed toward me, then away, then toward me, then away, reaching JUST below the brim before re-settling. My life literally flashed before my eyes, or, more accurately, images of my life as a mangled being covered with third degree burns all across my lower torso and upper thighs flashed before my eyes. Note to self: In the future, find alternate means of transporting items that can kill. (It also dawned on me in that second that, if it spilled on me, I would likely immediately drop the entire pot and send boiling oil across the room toward a ton of other people. It really freaked me out for a split second.) Interestingly, at about this time a drunken female guest in a two-haircut skirt (as in, her skirt was so short that she needed two haircuts to wear it) decided to stop me (despite me first loudly saying, “Excuse me, boiling oil coming through”) and ask “Where’s the auction? Where are we going?” I actually did get angry at that point and suggested she ask someone who wasn’t carrying something that could deform her entire body if dropped, whereupon she’d never need that second haircut again. She was too drunk to register.
Le pocher (poaching/boiling) and le sauter (saute-ing) are equally as self-explanatory as le griller and le sauter, and there really aren’t many tricks, so I’m going to skip this lesson for the most part. Perhaps the only new/interesting substantive info to add to our collection is that, when a menu says “butter-poached X,” (e.g., Thomas Keller’s famous butter-poached lobster), they really don’t mean “poached” in the classical sense, since poaching is technically never done in pure fat. Rather, cooking food in large quantities of fat really constitutes frying, except that — as explained in a previous post — properly fried foods are fried in fat at a high temperature (320 F and up), whereas “butter-poached X” is “fried” at temperatures only about half that, say, 160-180F. Thus, the very same technique that we are taught to avoid in le frire, namely, to never fry in low-temps lest the food sop up the oil and taste greasy, is precisely the technique used in butter-poaching. So butter-poaching = crappy frying technique. Of course, for many foods such as lobster or potatoes, allowing them to soak in the fat is exactly the objective, so it works. But otherwise the use of the term “poach” in that context is a bit of a misnomer.
Indeed, le pocher and le sauter are so run-of-the-mill that Chef L did not even bother to demo the techniques today. Instead, we went on a field trip to a restaurant/commercial equipment supply store. First, however, every member of the class had to sign a waiver that took up a good 3/4 of a page, detailing that the signatory “knowingly assumes any and all risks” and releases the school and its administration from any and all claims arising from this extremely dangerous venture to the store 4 blocks away. I’m guessing some moron either fell into a pothole or cut himself on a display meat grinder so as to necessitate such (barely enforceable) legal precautions. Whatevs. Off we went. The store was quite amazing, with every piece of restaurant equipment you could ever imagine. My fave, however, was the Macho Nacho. I swear, if I were still earning a law firm salary, this is what I’d get A for Christmas since it’s so badass. Of course, he’d likely use it to store financial modeling textbooks, which largely negates any badass-ness of a heat-retaining nacho holder/display case, but it’d still be pretty awesome.
Oh, we also spent a bit of time in class on restaurant economics, specifically AP (as-purchased) costs versus EP (edible portion) costs, budget variances, margins, and the like. Most of the class was lost, except yours truly of course, who just couldn’t help get a little snarky:
Classmate (Chinese — yes, this matters): I don’t get how you calculate the food cost, help me.
Me: Ok, see this column of cost per unit? Since the cost per unit of 1 egg is $0.12, and the recipe calls for 4 eggs, the food cost for the eggs is $0.12 x 4. [AND SO ON AND SO ON…]
Classmate: But how do you know you’re supposed to multiply instead of divide?
Me: [trying to explain]
Classmate: Ok ok, don’t get testy.
Me: But I have to get testy! You’re Asian, you’re supposed to be good at math. YOU BRING SHAME UPON YO FAMIRY!! [wagging finger in face]
Classmate: [Droops] You’re right. I kinda do.
Me: [Feel like bad person for about 0.2 seconds, then self-righteously comfort him by telling him that he’s probably really good at doing laundry.]
Today we had our first Practical Exam — classical Knife Cuts. So far we’ve had 6 Written Exams, on which I’ve gotten a perfect score on every one. Since we all exchange papers with our neighbors to grade, and my classmates like to compare scores, it’s become the running joke that I only get 100s because, well, that’s what I do. (They’ve apparently decided that the reason for this is because “SOMEONE went to COLLLLLEGE,” which they confirmed after one of my classmates asked, “So, if you’re a lawyer, does that mean you went to law school? And if you went to law school, does that mean you went to college?”)
But I proved them wrong today on our first non-written exam, where I got an only slightly-above median score. (Fittingly, the top score went to the kid with a sculpting background who’s working toward becoming a food stylist.) It was actually a bit of a relief, since I don’t love being perceived as an overachieving Asian robot (only sometimes). On the other hand, I must say I was disappointed because I thought I was more exacting than most of my classmates, and excelling at classical knife cuts requires nothing if not exactness. My main issue was the extreme rush — we had 30 minutes to do the exam, and just like they say on Top Chef, “it went by soooooooo fast.” It did literally feel like only 5 minutes.
Here’s what we started with: one potato, one carrot, one onion, one tomato, two cloves of garlic, 3 springs parsley, and 3 basil leaves.
The test was to produce, within 30 minutes: 1) 10-12 carrot julienne — 1/8″ x 1/8″ x 2-1/2″; 2) 1 tsp. carrot brunoise — 1/8″ x 1/8″ x 1/8″; 3) 6-8 potato batonnet — 1/4″ x 1/4″x 2-1/2″; 4) 12-14 potato small dice (or mace doine) — 1/4″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″; 5) 1/2 onion ciseler — small dice done traditionally by keeping the root on the onion and slicing lengthwise, crosswise, and then down in order to obtain a small dice; 6) 1/2 onion emincer — flat-top rainbow-style thin slices; 7) basil chiffonade — ribbons; 8) parsley hasher — fine mince; 9) garlic hasher — fine mince; and 10) 1 tomato concasse — a tomato cored, blanched, shocked, scored, quartered, seeded, sliced, and then diced, in that order. There was actually some strategy involved in this; if you f’ed up an item and had to get more product (e.g., dyeing the garlic green because you hasher’d it after working on the parsley, or brunoise-ing the whole carrot to get the perfect cut and not leaving enough for your julienne), you lost points. This was my exam:
My big strikes were the parsley and garlic hasher, which I didn’t do until the last 45 seconds because I was obsessing over the widths of my carrot julienne. My bad. I must say, though, if there’s one exam on which my parents might actually be pleased that I did poorly on, this was it.
Of the 7 classical French cooking techniques, these two (grilling and frying) are probably the most self-explanatory. (We used chicken — again — and of course the black dude in the class was the expert on frying it.) So I won’t elaborate. Here are just a few useful tips:
Le Griller. 1) To cut down on grilling time, do the cross-cut pattern (quadrilles) on an alternate basis — grills marks on side 1, flip and do grill marks on side 2, flip back and do cross-grill marks on side 1 again, flip and do cross-grill marks on side 2. 2) When the grocery store sells “chicken breasts, with rib meat” and charges you more than it does for plain old chicken breasts, don’t fall for it. The rib meat is a dinky little piece of meat that’s smaller than the size of a postage stamp, and isn’t really worth squat. 3) After grilling meat, make sure to let it rest for roughly half the time it was on the grill to allow the juices to go back into the meat and keep it moist.
Le Frire. 1) After battering whatever it is you’re frying, let it rest for a second before dropping it into the fryer. It’s supposed to help the batter adhere a bit better. 2) When frying, the key is to not overcrowd the pot/fryer so as not to bring down the temperature of the oil. (Average temp for “normal” sized items — onion rings, smallish pieces of chicken — is 360 degrees F.) So long as you keep the temperature high enough while frying, the protein should create a natural seal and effectively cook in its own juices (and not soak in the hot oil), which will ensure that the food does not come out greasy. 3) Probably goes without saying, but you don’t ever want to fry with olive oil, since the smokepoint is way too low to support deep frying. 4) For onion rings, you want to first soak the rings in buttermilk so as to loosen the membranes that line the insider of the onion, and hence, each ring. After soaking for 10 minutes, you should be able to easily peel off the membrane, which will make the onion rings super easy to bite through without worrying that the whole onion will come out of the breading (we’ve all had that experience.) Sidenote: According to Chef L, membranes are a great temporary substitute for human skin — wrapping it around a cut finger will help cut down on the healing time pretty significantly.
It seemed like every class was doing cool stuff at school today, so I made the rounds and took some shots so we’ll all know what a badass I am soon to become. Foundations III (two cycles ahead of us) was carving up whole hogs.
I had two thoughts upon seeing this: 1) Watching the piggy brains get scooped out and tossed in the compost made me miss my mom, who adores the stuff in the form of a popular Taiwanese soup and passed along this love of pig brains to my sister and me. (My mom used to claim it would make us smart if we ate it, but after realizing we would eat it regardless of whether it had any supposed benefits, she quit bullshitting us.) I was half-tempted to ask for the brains myself so I could cook it up and serve it to my classmates in case it really does have any benefits in the smarts-department, but didn’t think that would be well-received, either literally or figuratively. 2) The pig’s tail, which you can see in the photo, is not at all the squiggly curlicue that I had expected. According to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who first sparked my interest in cooking (no joke; Little House in the Big Woods’ descriptions of butter-churning and maple-syrup-candy-making still get me to this day), she and her sister would fight over who got to eat the pig’s tail after they took turns roasting it over the fire. But this piggy tail didn’t look at all delicious, and for a second I actually thought it was a different body part entirely until I realized it was attached to the back, not the front, of the pig’s butt.
Catering and Buffets (5 cycles ahead) was playing around with aspic and forcemeat today. The “tree” you see on the plate is actually made of scallion stems and celery leaves, pretty impressive. The meat jello, which the students offered us for tasting, may as well have been an ethnicity survey: Only the Asian and Hispanic kids dared to try it.