The Journey Is At Times More Important Than The Outcome….

Last night’s class opened up a can of “whoop a**” on me.  From the knife cuts (fluted mushrooms and tourne potatoes), the dishes we cooked for presentation (glazed beets, braised cabbage, duchesse potatoes) to kitchen clean-up (we stayed until 9:30pm cleaning) it was a stressful situation (in my opinion).  Over the last three months, I have had highs and lows in my affinity for culinary school and have  seriously doubted everything from my ability as a chef to my aptitude for remember information. My first day in this new course brought back all the feelings of inadequacy I felt the first time I stepped into the kitchen two months ago.

I have a tendency to psych myself out and to over-analyze situations — in essence, I scare the crap out of myself for no good reason.  This self-created anxiety is one of the issues I work with my counselor with because it tends to block progress in my case.  Modern psychology states that small amounts of stress are good for running at peak levels of productivity. I am unique that the thought of stress actually creates unhealthy amounts of stress.  I find it amusing that my classmates are always complimenting me on my calm demeanor in the kitchen.  It isn’t that I am calm at all — on the inside I am doing cartwheels but I know that if I don’t focus and try to control the internal chaos, it will have detrimental effects.  Once rolling, the stress compounds and that is when you find me a sweaty mess talking to myself in the corner or angrily yelling at my classmates over small things.  Neither is a good scenario, hence why I try hard to go in every day with a game plan and really not get too shaken up.

Because of this tendency, I often get lost in the moment.  For some that is a state they aspire to embrace but for myself it’s something I avoid. Many times in my life, I get caught up in the here and now, but never look at the path I am have or the journey as a whole.  As I get older, I am appreciating life as a whole rather than compartments. Yet, somehow this “whole perspective” is not translating to culinary school – this is a journey I need to remember because it has informed me about some much regarding myself. In life we can take many different roads, but those roads we take, well in particular, the road I have taken, I need to pay attention.  Yeah, sometimes we deviate or go off path – but that is the beauty of a well-lived life.

Last night, as I laid in bed exhausted, I thought of the poem by Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”. I memorized it in elementary school for a contest and still remember it to this day, considering I can’t remember my Mom’s birthday, it’s no small feat.  Little did I know that some 20 plus years later, it would have such new meaning to me……

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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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

Recipe: Skate with Orange Hazelnut Brown Butter Sauce

One of the great advantages about going to culinary school is that I have a host of award-winning, world known and just darn good chefs around me at every moment I am in the classroom/kitchen.  Our fish fabrication instructor, Chef Scargle, walked me through creating this dish during the day we fabricated skate.  For this of you who don’t know what skate is, it is a non-bony white fish that looks like a small ray:

 

Skate Wing.....

 

The wing of the skate is normally the only thing eaten on the fish.  I found the flesh to be quite light, flaky and tender…..in many ways it has the same characteristics that make tipilia so popular.  The fish combined with the sauce is truly a wonderful sensory experience and is perfect for a Fall evening dinner party.  Besides, the skate wing, once fabricated, almost look like angel wings, so presentation-wise it is a show stopper.

Let me know what you think………

Skate with Orange Hazelnut Brown Butter Sauce

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

* 1-2 pounds skate wings, filleted and skinned
* 8 T unsalted butter
* Flour for dusting
* 1/4 fresh squeezed orange juice
* 1/8 cup toasted hazelnuts
* 1 tablespoon fresh juilenned sage
* Salt
* Pepper

Preparation:

Take the skate wings out of the fridge, salt and let stand for 10 minutes.

Heat a pan over high heat for 3 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-high and put in 4 tablespoons butter.

Combine pepper and flour in shallow bowl.  Meanwhile, dredge the skate wings in flour and shake off the excess. Fry in the butter over medium heat, about 2-3 minutes per side. Be careful when turning, their odd muscle structure makes them difficult to flip without breaking.

Remove the skate wings to a warm oven and add the remaining tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat until the butter is a light brown and add a pinch of salt. Add orange juice, sage and hazelnuts — it will spatter. Scrape any bits that may have stuck on the bottom and cook for 1 minute.

Plate skate and drizzle sauce over fillet.  Serve immediately.

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……

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......

 

And Let the Cutting Begin…..

Today is my first day of Meat Fabrication, which is a really fancy way of saying butchering.  As it should be no surprise, I am quite nervous especially since this will mark my first official day in the Teaching Kitchen (aka the “TK”).   So for the next 7 days, I will be slicing, cutting and sawing my way through various pieces of beef and fowl. 

Got Beef?

Graphic Credit: www.lonelylanefarms.com

 

I don’t know what to do with my free time at moment, since class does not begin until 2:00pm.  Fortunately, this will change when our Interpersonal Communications class starts on the 14th — yup, the CIA wants to be sure that not only are we good chefs, but we are good communicators as well.  So I am curious what that class will be like since the art of communication is not necessarily something I have found be central in most kitchens.  Screaming and cursing, yes.  The art of constructive feedback, not so much.

And a final note, after many requests, I will post my first “official” picture of me in my full uniform, including the dreaded “stove-pipe” hat that makes me look like a failed Benihana chef.  I will post it some time this week, so let the snickering and laughing commence!

Here is to me keeping ownership and complete use of all my fingers……