Making It Official…..

I am going to keep this short and sweet.  After some soul-searching and some really hard thinking, I have decided to withdraw from the Culinary Institute of America.  Over the last few months, I struggled to find my niche at the school and the greater surrounding community.  The CIA possess an abundance of opportunities for its students and provides a level of hands-on education that many of classmates found enthralling.

I did not.

However, my time at the school is one I will treasure less for the education and more for the amazing students who I was surrounded with every day.  If anyone is curious where tomorrow’s culinary leaders are being made, take a trip to St. Helena, CA and talk to some of my classmates.  I respect their passion and their drive. I envy their focus and determination and wish I could bottle and drink it myself.

What is next for me? A little down time to lick my wounds, recenter my focus and then get back on the saddle to see what is out there. The Partner has been fantastic in all of this and has been a bedrock of support.  Aside from being cute, he is amazingly wise. As I lamented to him on feeling like a failure because I was considering leaving school, he said “You are not a failure. School isn’t always  learning about what you like. It is also learning about what you don’t like, what your limits are and what is important to you as a whole. Sometimes school isn’t about learning the skill, but about getting to know yourself.” Deep stuff huh?

So with that, I am closing the door on one thing and seeing what lies behind the next. Just like 2010 was full of surprises, 2011 appears to be just as packed full of twists and turns.

Practice Makes Perfect……

My back aches.  My fingers  marred with knicks.  Burns cover my wrists and forearms.  And my shoulders have permanently connected with my ears.  I am nearing the end of my Skills One-Kitchen Basics class and it can officially be said that it has kicked my behind from here to China and back.  This is the first time in my life where I have felt defeated, elated and satisfied in the span of six hours.  Each day starts with lecture in a classroom for about 30 minutes, then we move into the kitchen where we are placed into groups to complete a set of assignments dealing with stocks.  From there, we complete our knife cut drills and proceed into our individual work that we present to the Chef for a grade.

I have been very upfront that by nature nervous when it comes to my kitchen skills.  From the very  beginning, I have doubted whether I could hang with the “big dogs” but I am happy to say that for the most part I have held my own.  While I may not be a “natural” in the kitchen, I have worked diligently on my knife cuts, slowly raising my scores and increasing my speed to where I am able to cut several cups of julienne, diced, brunoise and minced vegetables in under 40 minutes.  To understand where I came from, I started three weeks ago barely  able to cut a half cup of three vegetables in an hour.  I am far from proficient and am still in awe of certain members of my class who sail through these knife trays with time to spare.  Honestly, one person in particular who I will call “Milo” has amazing knife skills.  His cuts are precision and simply beautiful to look at – he is my inspiration and where I aspire to raise my level.  However, he is never 100% pleased with his scores and has on several occasions questioned the Chef on why he did not get a perfect “10”.  I respect that he believes in his work to the degree that he will argue its validity.  I, on the other hand, am normally just quite proud to finish all my cuts and to not have lost a finger.

If you read the blog often, you may have noticed that I have posted several inspirational quotes in the last few weeks.  I find that these quotes are almost mantras that I say in my head as I am doing my knife cuts and assignments.  The above quote from Aristotle is profound in its depth of meaning and simplicity.  I have seen the fruits of my hard work.  I  have challenged and pushed myself to do better.  When I have not pushed myself to the point where I thought I  could not go, I did not achieve superior results.  I now know that I am stronger than I was yesterday, yet I still have more to go.

I have tried hard not to compare myself with my classmates because their journey is different from my own.  The barometer I set to measure my success needs to be based on my own goals and mandates.  I won’t fool myself into thinking that my work is stellar, but I know my attitude towards my work exceeds my own expectations.  I have found a zen and contentment that I believe comes from putting it all out on the table every day and holding nothing back.  It’s exhausting and draining, but then I never assumed culinary school would be anything less.

A Famous Man Once Said….

One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein…….

A poster of this quote hung in my room all through junior and high school.  Whenever I faced a challenge or a question, I could not answer, I would look at this quote and think “nothing is impossible if you can think it”.  And with that, I would set my mind to finding some creative way to solve my issue.  While I was not always right, I always found a solution.

This week I entered the Teaching Kitchen at school and found myself faced with a set of challenges, both external and internal, as I began my foray into our Skills One course.  Skills One is part of a core set of cooking fundamental courses designed to drive home the basics of cooking methodology, form and technique.  This is a polite way of saying that we spend the hours a day doing knife drills that would make a grown man cry.  Brunoise, dice, mince, alumette, & concasse are all terms that I thought I knew before walking into class, but in the last three days I have come to know intimately.  I have the nicks, scratches, cuts and sore wrists to prove I have been on the front lines battling a mountain of vegetables.

I have been improving steadily but then I started at the bottom of the class, so I had no place to go but up!  However, as I completed my knife tray today, the above quote sprang into my head.  I don’t know why, but the quote lodged in my head for the remainder of class as I completed my onion soup and cleaned.  It stayed with me on my ride home and as I stood in the shower trying to get the knots out of my shoulder.  And then it hit me…….

I have done nothing to stoke my imagination in school.  It has been facts for the last 2 months straight.  I have done nothing to fuel the creative side of me that drove me to apply to culinary school.   It’s one of the major reasons why I have been so unhappy with my experiences so far at the CIA.  I am not stoking the creative flame….and it’s dying.  So I need to find some creative outlet in school if I am really going to be the best chef I can be.  I will never be a fantastic knife technician or probably the best cook for that matter, but I can set a table like no one’s business and dress a plate that would make Martha Stewart slap her momma (metaphorically speaking of course…).  I need to be creative and right now, the lack of it in my life is eating at me, sapping my energy and really putting a damper on my time here at school.

I came to school to learn but I also came to think, daydream and imagine.  It’s about time the CIA gives me the room to be me.  And if they can’t….well, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.  Until then, I have the week off from school.  I am going to recharge my mind, body and soul.  A little trip to SoCal and maybe a home project or two…..it’s gonna me nice!

Graphic courtesy of Qwickstep.com

I Need to Watch Finding Nemo to Atone For My Sins Against Fish ……

Today is the last day of Fish Fabrication. I have tasted caviar, slaughtered countless squids, sliced my way through a school of mackerel and become Public Enemy #1 to rock cod.  I danced the tango with multiple bi-valves and sent many crabs & lobsters to a steamy death.  I smell like a fisherman.   I saw things that have made me swear off fish for a long time to come.  But I am done!

But honestly, lets go back to the horrible things we learned about fish.   For example, did you know that parasites, in particular worms, are a normal occurrence in many large fish such as swordfish?  And lets not forget the various illnesses you can get from seafood…..scrombroid, cigutera, and the various toxic fish poisons.  It  makes me think that Red Lobster could be the deadliest place on earth…..

 

Aka “The Fish Gaunlet of Death”

 

Aside from my fear of seafood, the fish fabrication class went much better than the meat fabrication course.  While we had the same instructor, this time around he definitely loosened up and I think in turn had a huge impact now only on the class but me personally.  I tend to clam up during stressful situations and with the mood being considerably lighter in the kitchen, I found myself much more relaxed and receptive to information in class.  I think everyone’s personalities really are starting to shine and it’s really great.

We basically cut and fabricated anything with gills in this course.  I got my hands on trout, skate, squid, clams, lobster and about 10 other things when it was all said and done.  It was an encyclopedic run through our world’s oceans and all that is fit to eat.  Since I rarely cooked with fish, seeing all the various kinds of seafood and how to prepare them was really interesting and a little intimidating, but I really enjoyed it.

Again, let me thank my team for an awesome class.  Without these all-stars, I really do think I would have had a harder time.  We stuck together, kept each other’s backs and in general were our own personal cheerleaders.  Each of them are true class acts.  Jed – your dry sense of humor always provided the perfect way to break an awkward moment.  Alex – you are a leader that motivates by example whether you know it or not.  Rob – thank you for keeping it real and never failing to make us laugh.  Gabe – while you deflated my ego once or twice, it was always to build me up.  Thank you for letting me look over your shoulder repeatedly and never letting the team get too full of themselves.

Here is a stroll down memory lane…….

 

Alex with a very tiny fillet I just cut....

 

Carnage......

My first victim....I called him Fred.

Tory hard at work removing fish cheeks.....

 

The remains of my mackerel......

Doling out our victims....

 

Shellfish Buffet....never want to shuck oysters again!

Variety of US and European caviars......

Caviar Parfait.....

Starchy deliciousness to put the caviar on.....

Octopus....which I realized has a great purple color and a horrible texture.....

 

Ok, I am off to take the final!  Wish me luck……

Keeping it Real in the Kitchen

The kitchen is all about hierarchy, but at times, the structure that is set up to help run the kitchen efficiently creates what I call Little Kitchen Dictators (LKD).  My class now enters into our Seafood Identification and Fabrication course where we slice, dice and fillet our way through the underwater world.  I am not sure what happened, but today I saw the first inkling of LKDs in our cohort and it concerns me.  I may just be hyper-sensitive as I have been having a struggle with finding my confidence in the kitchen and may be projecting.  But I swear, I saw little things and heard snide comments that may be think twice.  I hope for all of  our sakes, that we don’t lose the magic and keep the commanderies.  I really want out our teaching kitchen to be a…..

So leave the drama for your Momma.  Leave the attitude at the door.  Ain’t no divas in this kitchen unless we are talking about Aretha singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T (add in head swivel and finger wag for extra emphasis).  However, I think my team is going to be great this go round.  I lucked out and got some awesome guys – I consider myself blessed as I think I can learn alot from each of them. 

Robert, Jeb, Alex, Gabe — you all are my boys and I wish each of us a fantastic 7 days of seafood fun.  But just know, if y’all get sassy with me …..

Graphic: Toothpastefordinner.com

I may be quiet and reserve but I keep it real in the kitchen.

Meat Ab Fab…..

I have survived a week and a half of meat fabrication and identification.  I feel like I have run the “Protein Gauntlet” having hacked, sliced and cut my way through poultry, beef, lamb, pork, veal and sausage.  As a rough estimate, we have processed and fabricated close to half a ton (1ooo lbs) of flesh making everything from Frenched racks of veal to beef roasts to airline chicken breasts to forcemeats.  The sheer amount of information thrown at us combined with being in the kitchen from 2:00 – 8:30pm every day proved to be challenging.  I came home every night wanting to collapse into bed.  Fortunately reeking of raw meat is a major motivator for not falling asleep with your clothes on. Overall,  I can’t honestly say that I am any better at butchering than when I started the class.  However, I do have a deeper respect for the proteins that take up the majority of the American plate every day.

I leave this class with mixed feelings because while I am more knowledgeable about meat, I am now more wary of the kitchen.  I never quite felt 100% in the kitchen; never at ease and never quite myself which I think showed in my work.  I was not confident and my nerves got the better of me more often than not.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember things and identifying the various cuts of meat proved a challenge.  The final was a bit gut wrenching since there was an identification portion of the exam and I blanked.  It was as if all the angst I felt in the last week all went to my head and wiped my memory clean.

I was anxious and apprehensive for much of  my time in the kitchen which has me thinking hard about my future.  One of the reasons I considered cooking as a second career was because I always enjoyed the quiet calm that came with me being in the kitchen.  It was a place where I felt safe and centered.  In the kitchens at school I feel overwhelmed and lost.  My heart pounds,  my mind races and insecurities (real and imaginary) boil up.   I feel weak and incapable.  It’s horrible and  I am hoping that what I am feeling is due to an unfamiliar setting and working with people I don’t know well.   With any luck it will pass as I spend more time with both and I will get back to my happy state of “kitchen zen”.

The stress I was feeling in the kitchen was no fault of my team who I found to be quite enjoyable and supportive.  Rodney,  Matt, Scott and Molly – thank you for dealing with my constant questions and for allowing me to peer over your shoulders.  Those small gestures saved my sanity multiple times and I appreciate it.

As mentioned, my team had one of only three girls in my cohort, Molly.   I consider myself lucky to have worked with Molly and have developed a deeper respect for her as a person and leader.  When you first meet her, she strikes you as a quiet person….what my Grandmother would call a “mousy” girl.  However, I saw her repeatedly shut down members of our class with just a sentence.  She stood her ground and made her thoughts known, but never in a loud or bossy way.  She was assertive without being pushy.  It was actually really quite awesome to watch because so often the people she interacted with never realized that they weren’t getting their way until after the situation which I believe is a testament to Molly’s quiet will.

For the most part, my cohort came together as a team and delivered.  I am proud of us and what we have accomplished so far.  I hope that we can continue the unity and build on it.  Here are a few candid shots from our week and a half of meat fabulousness……

 

Twisting sausages...needless to say the words "meat", "sausage", "big", "fat" and "hand" were used extensively in multiple combinations....

The "meats" of our labor....breakfast links.

 

Raw Porchetta (Roasted Pig Belly)

 

 

Cooked Porchetta.......delicious crispy swine goodness......

 

 

Me in my chef whites....can you say buffet worker at Ye' Old Country Buffet?

 

 

My cohort .....a gaggle of future chefs......

 

 

Cooking up tasty meat scraps...aka Scooby Snacks

 

 

Working the line......

 

So In This Alley You Will Find…..

One of the questions I consistently get now from friends and family is “So where do you eat when you go out to dinner?”  Well that question has one major fault at its crux as a student, my restaurant excursions are limited to a occassional burger or burrito or what The Partner wants to treat me to on the weekends.  During the school week, I am pretty resigned to eating the food prepared by the different classes at school.  First and foremost, school food is free.  (Don’t forget, I am paying for the CIA out of my pocket).  Second the food at school, for the most part, is on caliber with many moderately priced places in the Bay Area.  Last, the company of my fellow classmates, can’t be beat.  But if I am really feeling the urge to venture out and have something local, my choice is Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen

Photo Credit: Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

Located literally on a backstreet off of St. Helena’s main drag, the restaurant is a fixture for locals and a well-regarded stop for tourists between wine tastings.  The restaurant is the creation of Cindy Pawlcyn, the James Beard Awardwinning cookbook author, chef-owner of Napa Valley’s Mustards Grill and Go Fish.  As a side note, Chef Pawlcyn’s influence can be felt across Napa as she also helped in the creation of Fog City Diner, Brix and Tra Vigne to name a few other restaurants. 

As for the food it is by no means, mind-blowing, but the food is comforting and delicious.   The cuisine is a spin on casual California with an electic selection of worldly flavors.  However, what brings me back mostly is the feeling you get when you arrive……it reminds me of how a sweet gentile Southern hostess would welcome you into her home.  Guests enter through the brick patio which in the spring, summer and early fall is teeming with flowers and foliage — it’s quite beautiful and relaxing, so its the perfect mood  altering experience before sitting down to dinner.  Tables are dressed in crisp white linens and everything has the feel of an upscale bistro. 

 

When I go, I like to start off with the Backstreet Fry which is the house take on calamari.  Lightly fried with red onions and okra, this is the perfect dish for two.  I then follow it up with the Grilled Quail — moist and delicious, it is served with creamy polenta.  As for desert, I haven’t had the opportunity to order my own yet since I am normally am too full from dinner. But if you do order dessert, just know the dessert menu is seasonal, so you get to be surprised when you visit.  However, last time I was there, they had this wonderful berry crumble that made me giggle like a school girl.  

My only complaint about Cindy’s is that they really squeezed in the maximum number of tables they could into the space, so at peak hours it can feel a bit squished.  On more than one occasion, I learned WAY too much about my fellow diners’ intimate home affairs thanks to the proximity of the tables.  Additionally, because tables are so close, at least twice our orders have been off because  the server gave us food for the next table over. 

Aside from that, I think Cindy’s is the perfect place for a casual weeknight dinner or a weekend brunch. So I suggest next time you are wine tasting visit Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Just be sure to invite me along……. 

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen 

1327 Railroad Avenue 

St. Helena, CA  

707-963-1200