Day 25: China + Review

Finally Monday! I could not wait to catch up with my buds at school after being away for a week – I had missed them so much.

Unfortunately, the only chance I got was a whispered hello and pat on the shoulder from Valencia, as I was almost late! I had stopped at the bank on my way and it had just taken longer than expected…anyways, I walked in at 10:30 am sharp, to greet a short Chinese lady, standing behind the counter. Hellos would have to happen later.

Chef Helen Chen

Chef Helen Chen, cookbook author and owner of Helen’s Asian Kitchen, was here to share on Chinese cuisine, everything of which she had learned from her mother.

I immediately thought of Jonathan, my younger brother, who had just landed in Beijing earlier this morning on his travels. I wonder what foods he will be tasting this week…

Chef Helen was quite comical and quite different from the restaurant chefs that we had visit us in the past; the environment she created made me feel like I was at home in a Chinese kitchen, listening to…a mother!

“The Chinese kitchen is simple. One knife, one pan. Everything is cut in the same shape. Cook always eats last.”

Chef passed around samples of 100-year-old eggs. She cut it with a thread because the inside was so delicate. I am still not sure what kind of egg it is and I gave mine off to Anthony. It just did not look like something I could stomach at the moment.

Hundred Year Old Eggs

Some interesting notes from Chef Helen:

About the rice. Asians take rice seriously.

  • “We get the shivers if we don’t have rice at least once a day.”
  • “99% of Asians use rice cookers. The only time they aren’t used is if there is no electricity.”
  • White rice has a rice:water ratio of 1:1, while brown rice is 1:1.5 in a rice cooker.
  • NEVER take a metal spoon to rice. – always use a more gentle tool.
  • Kids are first taught to make rice.

On ginger…Buy it plump and hard. Not shriveled or moist. Use the edge of a spoon to peel it.

On tofu…Chinese pronounce it THO-FU. THO-FU, or soy bean curd, is extremely versatile. Chef Helen recommended trying the tofu dish that is served on dim-sum carts in wooden baskets – a delightful dessert of tofu pudding with ginger sauce. It is her favorite.

On Stir fry…“Stir fry from your shoulder, not your wrist.” Stir fry must be served in a flat plate and served to guests immediately.

I noticed that Chef did not add any spices, besides some red chili flakes, nor did she add any salt. Most of the flavor came from the soy-based sauces, such as soy and hoisin sauce, and fermented vegetables. Interesting.



After a stir-fry lunch and finally some hugs all around, we prepared for the kitchen. I think we were all excited to be back by the flame, because we were dressed and ready a good 20 minutes in advance.

The rest of the afternoon, we spent with Chef Douglass, catching up on our spring break travels as well as reviewing some key skills: boning a chicken, reducing chicken stock, poaching an egg, crafting a french omelet, whipping up risotto, and pan roasting a statler breast.

While many times, I did furiously flip back to previous pages in my handy notebook, I must say that being comfortable in the kitchen made a huge difference.

I boned my little chicken in less than ten minutes. No fear. No feelings. Just doing the task at hand.

Little Chickens.
Statler breast with mushroom pan sauce.

Egg poaching was a breeze – I now make poached eggs for lunch every Friday, on my day off.

Even my French omelet came out rather lovely on the first try, which was a pleasant surprise. I had tried making one for my dad last week in Mexico and I had not met with the same success. (I think the secret is…lots more butter.)

Whew. Good day. Quite tired today, thanks to the missing hour.

But I am not complaining. I am all about the saving of daylight.

Day 24: France

The kitchen has a beautiful way of bringing you to the present.

Especially on those days when you have to drop a live lobster into a pot of boiling water.

Lizzi the lobster.

I was in a bit of a rush this morning and did not get to have my tea. I’d rather go without it than have it rushed – tea time is sacred. I was serving as a patient for Boston University’s dental board examinations, which entailed 5.5 hours of sitting in a dental chair, being inspected by various cheery grandfathers disguised as board examinee dentists, while my dental candidate did his best work. Pleasing the grandfather dentists would mean that he too would join the ranks.

What an experience – I cannot decide if it is something I will hardly remember, thanks to all the anesthesia, or something I will never forget, as this was a big day for the dentists of our future. (My dental candidate was awesome – if you are reading this, send him some good luck wishes for his exam.)

Quarter to 1pm, after the last jolly Santa checked my anterior #10 tooth, I gave my new dentist friend a good luck hug and sleepily walked out into the chilly sunlight. I hoped the flaps on my winter hat would hide my puffy face…

Briskly making my way back, I strode into the classroom at 1:07pm. The kitchen was silent and I could hear a man talking faintly. Chef Weson must be demonstrating something…

I quietly slipped out of my street clothes, suited up, slid into the kitchen alongside my classmates to listen to the lecture. A few eyes lit up as they met mine and I instantly felt warmth – I was reminded of how lucky I was to have friends a family like this.

Today Chef Rollie Weson, French chef instructor at Johnson and Wales and the son-in-law of Jacque Pepin, was in the kitchen, teaching us all about French cuisine.

After he finished demonstrating how to debone the chicken for the Coq Au Vin that we were about to make, I went up to Chef, introduced myself, and apologized for being late. He smiled and welcomed me to the lesson.

Chef Weson demonstrates.

I was sad to have had missed the morning’s lecture, which I heard from the others, was awesome. Nevertheless, I was here now and quickly tried to brush off the remnants of my morning so that I could focus.

Focus, Sonia focus! I think I read and re-read the first line of the recipe 5 times before I gave up on the functionality of my mental space and just decided to do something one-pointed, something meditative. I minced garlic.

Thank goodness my teammates, Rachael and Caitlin, were so on top of everything. One step at a time, we eased into the flow of the complex French recipes, and I started to get my bearings. We whipped out some pretty awesome flavors…

coq au vin: chicken in red wine. This is a deliciously soothing braised chicken stew. The chicken is cooked in red wine, along with various vegetables and herbs until it is tender and falling off the bone. In France, they serve the chicken meat on one plate and the broth on another. In America, they do it differently – more like a stew.

coq au vin

Although I don’t ordinarily eat chicken, I could not resist having a bit of the soothing broth and the tender chicken. It brought some life back into my tired self and tender gums. Besides, Chef said ours had the best flavor and “taste, taste, taste your food!” has been the motto of my week if you read Day 22.

bouillabaisse: This is an animated seafood stew, composed of fish, clams, mussels, and lobster cooked in vegetables and white wine.

YES, WE HAD TO DROP A WIGGLING LOBSTER INTO A POT OF WATER. It looked like a scorpion. Now I was grateful for the anesthesia exhaustion – I never had time to dwell on this task prior or think critically about it. It just happened. We did it. Standing on a step stool, Rachael dropped him her let’s just call it Lizzi, in. After Lizzi was nicely pink in the face, I butchered her with my Chef’s knife until she cracked. I knew Lizzi was a girl when her roe spilled out from the center. I am a cruel monster.

Lizzi alive.
Lizzi cooked into bouillabaisse.

Chef spread some of Lizzi’s money-making roe on toast. I did not taste that.

Once everything was in the pot, we tasted the bouillabaisse for seasoning and something was missing. Rachael and I shrived our noses at the thought of adding the sickening Pernod liqueur that the recipe called for, but actually, that was just what our stew needed to bring it together. We served this with some mayonnaise smothered croutons that we floated across the surface. A show-stopping dish indeed. Or as Chef Weson would say, “Unctuous!”

steak diane: Steak with mushrooms, flambé style. Chef explained that alcohol is the only thing that should catch fire in your pan. Fat/oil that catches fire will oxidize, leaving the awfully taste of gasoline, and lots of free radicals I imagine.

Steak Diane

I did not make this dish, as we were running out of time and Chef gave us a choice of what to make as our last dish – I chose to make salad lyonnaise instead.

salad lyonnaise: A salad of frisee, bacon, poached egg, and nicely toasted croutons. I rendered the fat off of some bacon and popped some ghee smothered bread cubes into the oven while Caitlin whipped up a garlicky vinaigrette. Valencia came to join our team and we all took turns poaching our eggs to perfection. I made mine sans bacon and it was delicious.

salad lyonnaise

Things I learned…

  • beurre manie – this means “butter by hand.” Butter kneaded with flour and used as a thickening agent.
  • Chefs prefer kosher salt for seasoning because it gives the best grip on the fingers for a good sprinkle. Morton salt is too fine.
  • Chef Weson insisted that we immediately go home and throw away the red-and-white pepper container in our mother’s cupboard that has been there for 15 years. No flavor lives in that box. Freshly ground black pepper is the only way to go.
  • Knuckles are the tastiest part of the lobster.
  • The French use a lot of ghee, aka clarified butter, in their cooking. I did not know that until now.

Who would’ve thought?


Day 9 – Poultry Part 2

Today was too much fun. Why? Hmm. Well, I was so busy cooking the meat that we had prepared the day before in the most interesting ways that I hardly have any notes to share.

I think I will explain my day today with photos.

I cannot believe that nine hours flew by without me checking my watch once. I made things I have never ever made before and they turned out pretty decent, if not above average. Chef Douglass was amused that I had never cooked chicken before and complimented my dishes multiple times. Wow. I was really pleased with myself.

Besides cooking new things, what made today all the more exciting?

The environment of the kitchen. The sense of urgency. The fire-in-the-belly feeling. The camaraderie.

Chef explained that when you plate something, you want to all dishes to come up within seconds of each other, so that things stay hot and do not cool unevenly. He also emphasized the importance of warming the plate if you are serving a hot dish. So today, it was not just about our individual efforts of cooking, but a team effort of presenting the food together, as if we were working in a restaurant.

Hey are you ready?! Yelled station 1.

Hey five minutes! Yelled station 3.

Hey my chicken is not cooked yet, hold up! Yelled station 4.

Hey, I need a clean plate!

Everyone get your dishes up!

Rather than worrying only about the outcome of our own dishes, we worried about taking care of each other. If I had a free moment while things were in the oven, I went to the dish pit and washed dishes. When I was stuck in the back basting the chicken wings, my teammates cleaned my work space. My partner stirred my sauce, while I ran to get our plates warm. It was this rapid fire, cohesive momentum that kept everything moving at an excitingly functional pace.

So you must be wondering…what did we make?

Let me tell you about our feast.

Spicy Chicken Tacos with Fresh Corn Tortillas

Spicy Chicken Tacos made by Team 1

Shredded chicken thighs in a spicy tomato chipotle sauce, wrapped in freshly pressed homemade tortillas and topped with lettuce, pickled onions, cilantro, chives, and crema fresca. Tasted it. I approve.

Pan Roasted Statler Breast with Tomato and Rosemary

Pan Roasted Statler Breast in Tomato and Rosemary (someone’s beautiful plate)

We each made our own dish and raced up to plate together, with warm plates of course. A statler breast is a chicken breast, with the drummette still attached. We “frenched” the bone for a nice presentation.  I did not taste this one, but it looked beautiful and Chef said mine was cooked well.

Chicken Wings and Drumsticks

Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings – Rachael

This was my first time making these and I must say, it was so simple and so delicious. Rachael, our wing pro, showed me the ropes. We coated the chicken wings in rice flour, baked them in the oven, smothered them in a spicy sriracha guava sauce that we had reduced, and then finished off for a few more minutes in the oven with toasted sesame seeds. Tasted these. Delicious. The leg and wing meat was super tender.

Chicken Breasts in Mushroom Cream Sauce

Chicken Breast in Mushroom Cream Sauce – Valencia’s awesome plate

We cooked our skinless chicken breast and then made a mushroom cream sauce from the fond or chicken residue left behind in the pan. I am not a mushroom fan, so I did not taste this one, but Chef really liked my sauce and said the chicken was cooked well.

Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Apples

Pan Roasted Duck with Apples

We seared the duck quickly and then used the same pan to caramelize apples and scallions. I did not taste this one but I think we all were successful in getting our duck cooked a little too well.

Chef also made Duck Liver Pate, a very buttery mousse made from sauteed duck livers, Duck Confit, salted and roasted duck, and a Whole Roast Duck.

By the end of class, we sure had a feast.

Some things I learned:

  • 160 degrees F is the magic number to know when your poultry is cooked.
  • Don’t put sauce on top of poultry skin. You want the browned skin to be shown.
  • Skin can cook longer than meat. Let the skin get brown and crispy.
  • Cook the side of meat you wish to present first.
  • Cook with all your senses. Ears to hear the cracking. Eyes to see the maillard reaction. Nose to smell the doneness. Taste to know if it is tender or overcooked.
  • Preheat the pan on the fire before you add anything. This way, the oil does not burn.
  • Always assume a pan is hot. Touch it gingerly.
  • Maseca – corn flour with the mineral lyme. It is used to make tortillas.
  • Add your brandy/liquor when the pan is not on the flame as it likes to jump up at you.
  • True colors come out in the heat of the kitchen. Stay present. Stay focused.
  • Teamwork is what makes everything possible.

Today was a reminder of why I love kitchens, why I am fascinated by the food environment, and why I am here.

Now going out to celebrate a successful week with my foodie family.


Day 8 – Poultry

Today was no cake walk.

Today was Poultry Part 1.

Excited? Yes. I’ve never cooked with poultry before. And while I don’t eat it, our recipes looked awesome.

Nervous. Yes very.

Chef Chris Douglass (from Day 4 – Sauce) was back to lead us through our first butchering lesson.

The day started off quite mellow, with an in-depth discussion about birds – the different types, the way they are raised for eating, how they are humanely killed and prepared, and how they are purchased at restaurants.

Chef Douglass bones a chicken.

Chef Douglass slowly demonstrated how to bone a chicken, expertly carving his boning knife around the sinewy carcass to partition the thighs, drumsticks, breasts, wingetts, and drumettes. He showed us how to take hold the knee with our thumb and crack the hip bone at the ball-and-socket joint, so that we could find the right place of separation. That it made a nice crunch. Yikes. Chef explained that in the restaurant world, meat is money, and that we should try to not leave any good meat on the carcass. He also pointed out that while the thighs are more delicious and more tender, the breast is the most valuable as far as market price goes.

Overall, I found this demonstration intriguing. It was interesting to see the anatomy of the animal so clearly. Okay not bad.

Le duck.

Next came the duck. This was quite a different story. The bird came wrapped in a white bag and when Chef lifted it out of the bag, a puddle of red juice remained. I found that quite very bothersome. The bird was bigger, heftier, pale pink on the outside, and hued with deep maroons on the inside. Chef Douglass reached into the vent (the bottom of the bird where they make a big hole to clear out the insides) and pulled out the neck. My stomach seized, my arms stuck to my sides, and I shuddered. That was its neck. Then came a little bag of special things like the liver and gizzard. From the front row, I could smell a deep smell of something I did not enjoy so much. Oh boy.

Our turn. The first thing Chef said was, “Okay everyone hold up your hands. Got 10 fingers? Good. Make sure they are all there by the end of class.”

I set up my cutting board, got my sharp knives out, and went to go pick out my little chicken. It took me a few attempts to gather the courage to reach in and pick it up with my bare hands, but finally I did it. I patted it on its pale little bum and said, “Oh hey, baby.”  (I find that talking to the situation always makes things less scary.)

In all honesty, I enjoyed boning the chicken. It was fascinating to examine the legs, the hip bones, and the sternum, as I sliced away at the sinewy skin. I wasn’t exactly chopping but rather gently tearing away the skin and tissue with my knife, as if I was cutting through thin paper. I appreciated that this bird was small, clean, and not daunting. I was not afraid of it. Not too much later, I had managed to cut everything the way Chef had ordered. Well that was successful! My classmates and I gathered all the extra fat and put it into a big pot for rendering. We tossed the carcasses into a big pot for stock.

Hey baby.

Our next task was to roast a whole chicken. Quickly my team seasoned another young chap with EVOO, salt, pepper, garlic, plenty of fresh rosemary and thyme, stuffed him with lemons and popped him in the oven. Periodically, we checked his temperature, by sticking him in the leg and in the breast with a thermometer, waiting for him to reach at least 160 degrees. He turned out quite beautifully I thought.

Finally it was duck tales. After changing my cutting board, I confidently went to pick up my bagged duck. It was heavier than the chicken, but I knew that boning it consisted of the same general idea, so I was not worried. I flipped it on the breast side as Chef had shown and began to cut away the white paper. I saw a snippet of its little duck feet. Suddenly, my arms froze to my sides and my tummy dropped to rock bottom. I must have been making some kind of horrendous face as if I had been petrified by a basilisk because my friends across from me stopped their butchering and exclaimed, “Sonia, are you okay!? What’s wrong?” Then I don’t know how it happened, but the tears started rolling. I raced out from my station to the other side of the kitchen to take some deep breaths.

I was perplexed at my own emotions because I don’t even LIKE ducks all that much. I just think of them often when I see them at the Public Garden. I find them entertaining as they dunk their heads underwater with their rumps and little feet sticking up while looking for food.

Well, after some much needed comforting from our program coordinator Lisa and a nice sip of H2O, I went back into the battlefield with Chef by my side. I asked if he could remove the neck out of sight, and he kindly and swiftly did so. He also pulled out that bag of goodies for me we studied the tough gizzard muscle and soft liver together as my tears dried.

Feeling more confident, I began to cut into my duck. This was actually easier than the chicken for two reasons – firstly, it was bigger. Secondly, it had clear contrasting colors between the dark red meat and the pale skin, providing a clear outline of where to cut. I jumped and screamed a few times during the process when I saw a few undesirable puddles of blood around the shoulder region. (My amazingly supportive partner for the day, Caitlin, just so happened to be the only other vegetarian in our class. I could not have done it without her.) I emerged better off than I thought, with well-cut pieces of duck. My hands were covered in duck grease by the time I finished.

My duck breast.


Some things that I learned:

  • Duck fat is very expensive and very prized.
  • The wishbone is the collarbone.
  • Poultry is easier to work with when cold. As it heats up, it becomes more slippery.
  • “Frenched bone” – this is where you expose the bone on the chicken/duck for aesthetic purposes.
  • Chicken should cook until it reaches 160 degrees F.
  • Rendering: this is where you cook all the skin and fat from the birds on a low heat to bring the fat together.
  • To remove the skin from a whole tomato, score an X on the bottom, toss it in boiling water for 20 generous seconds, then in an ice bath. The skin should come right off.
  • Never cut a chicken right after you pull it out of the oven. Otherwise the juices will leak out. Let it rest and let the juices come back into the meat.
  • When you plate chicken, only put what is edible on the plate. No large sprigs of rosemary. Oops. No lemons with the skin on.
  • Emotions are enigmatic and I have more courage than I thought.
Roasted chickens.

While I was relieved to be finished with my butchering, my heart was still rather heavy, thinking about the ducks that I see everyday at the Public Garden. It did not help that our large pot of rendering duck fat bubbling on the back stove was filling the kitchen air with a heavy, fatty residue. Today was one of those tough days.

As I walked out of class, I was met with pouring rain and strong winds. I didn’t even bother to pull out my umbrella. It was too carefully tetras-ed in the bottom-most layer of my backpack beneath my box of lemon bars. And I just figured a nice, thorough, cathartic soak would only do me good.


Day 2 – Stocks

My heart was racing, my stomach flip-flopping up and down and all around, I kept reaching my hand in to give it a try and then withdrawing quickly as if I had touched a hot tea kettle. It was the big, white, glassy eyes staring back that kept discouraging me from the task at hand.


COME ON! I encouraged myself loudly inside. It was only Day Two and I did not want to be the weak one in the group. But didn’t anyone understand my deeply ingrained fear from childhood? I found these creatures so gross that growing up, my spot at the dinner table was always with my back facing our goldfish tank, so that I did not have to see them swimming while I ate my dinner.

“Just close your eyes, you can do it,” gently chided my partner. FINALLY, I stuck my hand in, pulled out the slippery fish, and ripped its head to the right, exposing the bloody guts into the sink. My table cheered.

Hmm, now with the haddock’s head gone, my fear was gone. Very interesting. I rinsed that long silvery guy and dropped him into the stock pot. Wow.

If you haven’t guessed yet, my group had been assigned to make “Fish Stock.”

Our lovely fish stock.

Today Chef Jeremy Sewall, owner of Boston’s highly esteemed restaurants, Lineage and Island Creek Oyster Bar, as well as in collaboration with restaurants, Eastern Standard and Row 34, treated us like professional chefs in the kitchen. He ordered clear instructions and gave direct, simple commands, such as “Rip 10 fish heads off, rinse them, and toss them in the pot.”

“YES CHEF!” we replied.

Unlike our last lesson, the focus was not on our chopping precision. “Chef, how would you like these onions chopped?”

“I don’t know, how would you like to chop them?? Doesn’t matter really,” he replied.

Chef Jeremy came down to our amateur level, often asking us questions. After just a few minutes, I was not afraid to ask him questions in return, even those that I thought might be simple, silly ones. Chef was with us every step of the way, never letting us stand idly by the pot.

Each team made a different stock and throughout the day we were often instructed by Chef to drop everything and “COME OVER HERE AND WATCH.” I understood how to de-glaze the roasted veal pan for the veal stock and how to simmer the blonde chicken stock with a sachet of herbs tied together to bring the flavors out. I also learned how to caramelize the carrots with onions, garlic, and tomato paste for the “brown” stocks, or the ones with roasted meat. And the mushroom stock was just beautiful – a clear brilliant toasted brown. I don’t even like mushrooms but I will say, this was something special.

Chef Jeremy Sewall showing us the roasted veal and chicken.

Some things I took note of:

  • Chef emphasized that stocks were not a garbage pan. Definitely not. Rather, they were the start of the end product. Chef stressed the importance of using good quality ingredients in the stock.
  • Stocks require lots of patience – that is how they become wonderful.
  • Never add salt to a stock. It ruins it’s purpose.
  • Stocks are supposed to be clear. No fat, no clouds, no sediment.
  • The more fat on the chicken, the more you have to skim off as it cooks. You do not want a fatty cloudy stock.
  • The size that you chop your veggies is important – too small and they will crumble, creating cloudiness in your stock. (Our team won the most beautiful, clear stock award).
  • Mirepoix – the super important foundation for stock, which is traditionally: 50% onion, 25% celery, 25% carrot.
  • Fish stock is delicate and can taste awful if not made thoughtfully. Use white fish, fresh ingredients, and light floral flavors.
  • Veal stock has to cook for a long time. We are leaving ours on overnight.
  • Chicken stock can be blonde, with regular chicken. Or brown, with roasted chicken.

Day 2. I am definitely not as exhausted as Day 1.

Soups tomorrow.