A reflection.

Written on May 5, 2016, the day after my final.

As I sit here typing with my wrists aching from chopping so fast in the last 48 hours, my hands torn apart from those spicy Italian red chilis, my belly full of Scotty’s bread pudding, Rachael’s kibbeh, and Valencia’s ricotta, I cannot help but notice the joy and lightness that fills my heart.

I am so proud of our Chef team – seeing everyone’s plates today at the end of the final today blew me away. It has been an amazing semester working with a unique, loving, and wonderful group of peers that I now think of as family.

Reflecting on my journal from day one until now, I see so many transformations that have taken place in my life – within the kitchen, among my peers, in regards to the way I think about food, and so much more.

I would like to share just a few of the many ways in which this culinary program has impacted my life.

(This is a lengthy one.)IMG_0262

 

The Knife.

Before this program, I never used onions or garlic in my cooking, even though I enjoyed their flavor, because I found them inconvenient to chop up. On Day One with Chef Barry, I did not particularly enjoy spending our four hours in the kitchen hunched over my board painstakingly trying to brunoise, chiffonade, and julienne. The knife was unfamiliar territory and I found it so uncomfortable. Yet as we delved into recipes, many Chefs corrected my posture and advised me to choke up on the knife. I became well-versed in onion tears and garlic fingers. Chef Michael Leviton’s passion for his own knife inspired me – I stopped fearing my own knife and began chopping what was on my board with confidence. While I am still slow and steady, chopping is no longer a chore but an act of enjoyment, especially when my knife is razor sharp.

Chef Etiquette.

Learning proper chef’s etiquette has been invaluable. Our many Chefs’ emphases on mis en place, maximizing time, utilizing ingredients, working clean, and being consistent have really had an impact on the way I wield myself in the kitchen and on the resulting product of my food.

No longer am I spending extra time going back and forth to a recipe. Rather, before starting to cook, my mind has already mapped out the fine details: Okay, so make sure the blanching water gets put on first and have your ice bath at the ready…For this part, I need the small frying pan and a wooden spoon…hmm egg whites, I need a whisk for sure…and when should I pre-heat that oven? I need a 125 temp on that salmon before it comes out. I’ll save that lemon rind for some nutty gremolata on top, and these broccoli stems can come home with me for soup.

Proper planning and attention to detail has brought an immense amount of clarity to my brain, has saved me time, and made me more consistent as a cook. I can be faster and have more focus on the actual cooking process, which is great.

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Final projects complete!

In the beginning, I was afraid to taste my food.

As a very health conscious eater, I was worried about the amount of butter, sugar, flour, and salt that I would have to eat during this program. However, as the days went by, I shook off this fear, realizing that tasting food was essential to making a good dish, essential to making me a better chef. A little of anything was not going to hurt me anyway. This was a huge breakthrough. By tasting,  I learned that lots of the same flavors that we enjoy from butter, cream, and salt can be derived in healthier ways, such as using vegetable purees, acids, and yogurt. I also understood why fat is so tasty – after all, fat is flavor. 

A thick skin.

Yes, I did burst into tears after I set my final dessert plate down – it was just an emotional release waiting to happen. But, I will say that this program has toughened me, brought me immense confidence within the kitchen, and has shown me that I am much more capable than I thought.

I remember the first day in which we had to present our sauces. I was trembling and could not figure out how to make it look less like a blob on the plate. I covered it in saffron (of all things!).  Laughing as I look back on this event, I am amazed to reflect on what types of food and technique that I have had the courage to present in front of my peers and these top Chef instructors along the way. Working on the fryer and grill have been brand new machinery for me, and yet I managed to pull of a fried appetizer for our Market Basket with Chef Chris, a grilled squid salad for Chef Michael, and so many curries and creations along the way.

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Thick skinned bagels.

Finding my voice.

I remember the first few weeks of the program when I was afraid to say, “BEHIND YOU!” in fear of sounding rude. While I still speak in a softer voice, the line “HEY BEHIND YOU HOT!” translates to care and concern for others, rather than anything rude.

Meat.

I have never tasted steak or lamb before this program; working with meat has been fascinating and enlightening. Chef Barry’s butchering days were very educational.   I really appreciated working with the whole animal, understanding where its parts came from and why we had to cook a shank differently than a tenderloin. I am proud to say that I can cook a decent steak now!

I wondered, before starting this program, if I would enjoy eating meat after tasting it. However, in fact, the opposite occurred. While I enjoy the technique and skill that I have gained from butchering chickens, searing steak, and braising lamb, my preference for meat has not changed. In fact, I might even like it less than I did before, now that I can recognize the smells and flavors of the product so much better than before. Isn’t that interesting?

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Chicken Roast.

India.

There is a resurgence, an awakening, for my interest in Indian cooking. During the course of these three months, I have realized that my palate knows Indian flavors quite well. I was motivated to practice my masalas and chapati making skills. My mom has given me cooking advice everyday. Toasting and grinding my own fresh spice blends is a new favorite hobby – it makes all the difference. I cannot wait to dive deeper into my country’s cuisine.

Yoga and food.

I cannot help but reflect on the ways in which this culinary program has impacted my yoga practice. While being in the kitchen all day long has not exactly helped my posture, this exposure to food and the elements that surround it have heightened my senses. I smell better. I taste better. I am more alert in my listening. I am aware of my peripheries. I understand the force of fire. Cooking brings me to the present. Remaining steadily focused on a task, such as mincing garlic, despite the changing environment around, is meditative. I even use cooking metaphors while teaching my yoga classes now, and my students seem to really enjoy it.

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Metiga and I on graduation.

Ultimately, this program has made me realize that there is a reason for why being in a kitchen makes me so happy, and that I can make delicious food. Chef Barry mentioned the “fire in the belly” feeling on the first day of class – throughout this program I have experienced that feeling and passion for cooking and feeding others.

I am so grateful to the staff, the Chefs, and my peers for this great experience.

While my journal started as a homework assignment, it has blossomed into a beast feast of it’s own nature.

I will most likely be continuing to write in it for a while.

sonia

 

Day 46: Bread?

Today was supposed to be BREAD DAY.

I could not wait to get my hands dirty in sticky, wet flours.

I was ready to wrestle with glutenin and gliadin.

I was even looking forward to the sting my nose from the sour yeast. And of course, the aroma of browning crust in the oven.

Chef Priscilla Martell, veteran bread maker and bakery owner, gave excellent demos in the morning – slapping the dough on the table, forming bagels, kneading and mixing, revealing the threads in the live, natural starter. What an exciting day ahead of us, right?

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Chef Priscilla shows us the active starter.
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Beautiful threads.

EXCITING? SURE. BUT NOT QUITE WHAT I HAD IN MIND.

Just as we set up our stations in the kitchen, a shadow fell over me. I felt strange.

Am I seeing things? Everything looks…hazy. Is it smoke? What is falling from the celiling? Are you seeing it too? OH MY GOODNESS, EVERYONE OUT!!!!!!!!!!!

No, it was not a fire. Thank goodness.

Something about the vents reversing, blowing gross dust particles into the entire industrial kitchen. We all were sneezing and coughing. My chef coat was covered in “soot” or whatever it was.

And in result, bread day, you could say, ran away from us.

Gluten 1, Sonia, 0.

Instead, I walked home in the lovely seventy-five degree weather, made a coconut milk mocha milkshake, and took a nap in supta baddha konasana next to the window, with a blanket of sun streaming across my waist.

Bread Day to be continued. All is well.

sonia

 

Day 44: Island Creek Oysters

We are all sitting in a Thai restaurant today for lunch waiting for our food. As we stare at the decorative fish tank, filled with exotic and beautiful fish, the first thought that comes to our mind is, “Okay, so how would we fillet that flat guy?”

We spend the rest of the conversation discussing how we would cook the silvery guy in the back, the fat black one, and the tiger striped one to the left.

Yes, we are a strange bunch of kiddos.

Today, it was Island Creek Oyster Day. Out the door at 7 am, we rode over to Duxbury Bay, took a boat out on the water, and got a chance to see how oysters were spawned, raised, and grown.

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I am on a boat. Woohoo.

Did you know that oysters are hermaphrodites? Or as the boy showing us around at the farm explained, “so they can first be a dude and then be a chic.”

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Spawning Oysters.

Did you know that oysters live off of algae?

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Algae for the oysters.

Did you know that oysters purify 50 gallons of water per day?

This tour truly made me understand why oysters are such an exquisite item and special food. So much work goes into cultivating them.

Carrying home fresh bay breeze and a bag of Island Creek Oysters, we returned to school for some time in the kitchen.

We shucked oysters.

We filleted all kinds of fish.

We cooked a lot of sea creatures.

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Hello Mr. Salmon

Today, I worked on a GIGANTIC salmon.

Holding it by the tail, I scraped the scales off. It was quite heavy and many times wanted to slip from my grip. Scales went flying everywhere, on my face and chin. I filleted it and scraped the spine for pieces I could use for tartare. No waste.

Then I grilled it and it was delicious.

Good eats today.

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Chef grilled some oysters.
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Team 1 on crab cakes.
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My team’s beer battered clams.
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Mr. Salmon’s belly grilled. 
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Team 2’s whole roasted Branzino.
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Team 1 on seared scallops.
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Team 4 on poached fluke.

Am I the same girl that used to be afraid of fish?

sonia

 

Day 40-43: Jean Claude and more.

First, the good news.

There is more sun. The walk home in evening light does put a skip into my step, despite the fact that I am buried under my knife case and bags of various food.

Now the other news.

The days are getting longer and yet moving faster, if that makes sense. Early starts. Late nights. Final projects. Tick-tock. These next three weeks are going to fly by.

I missed you all last week. However, I can’t not share some quick recaps from some amazing days.

Day 40: Catalonia Day with Chef Dante!

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Potato and Smoked Mozzarella Croquets.

We made recipes from his childhood. Steak Candy, the most delicious cornmeal cake with vegetables, and smoked mozzarella potato croquets.

Day 41: Four Seasons of Pasta with Chef Sara Jenkins from NYC’s Porsena and Porchetta restaurants. This was a night event that we helped Chef to cater. Besides lots of handmade pasta, we made the most delicious pea-mint raviolis. The best part was that after all of the guests were fed, we got to celebrate in the kitchen with leftover Italian wine and the homemade pasta that we had made. A very fun night indeed.image

Day 42 & 43: Jacques Pepin and Jean Claude

We had the opportunity to Skype with Chef Jacques Pepin, the founder of our program. Unfortunately, he could not make it in person.

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Talking with Jacques.

I asked Chef: “Chef Jacques, how do you stay healthy while living a chef’s life, long hours, high stress…”

Jacques Pepin responded without blinking an eye, in his jovial voice, “You drink a lot of wine!” We all laughed. Then, after pausing, he continued. “And, well, you know your body. The life of a chef is tough, tasting everything and at the end of a long day, all you maybe eat is a piece of bread and cheese. This is why it is also important to work with really good ingredients.”

What an amazing teacher.

His partner Chef Jean Claude spent two days with us, creating magic right before our eyes. The 80 year old pastry chef spun sugar from his fingers. He was loving, he was cross, he was incredibly ambitious, and our strictest teacher ever.

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Chef said, “Pleez don’t show zis photo to mi wife!”

He yelled at us. He grandfathered us. He kept us on our feet moving for two good 9 hour days. He would not eat until he made sure we were first fed. We followed him around with a small plate of food and kept encouraging him to leave his choux pastry for just a moment to take a few bites and get some energy.

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Eat something, Chef!

When he became really cranky towards the afternoon, our program directors gave him a cup of “water” which he later revealed to us with a wink, was actually some nice white wine. That really cheered him up. A true Frenchman.

“Sonia! Who iz Sonia?!” He asked, pulling out the first slab of puff pastry that met his palms and reading the label on the plastic film.

“Me, Chef,” I said, raising my hand and speaking loud enough so that he could hear me. He was rather hard of hearing.

“Okay, so, well, we are going to use your puff for the orange tart. I hope you don’t mind. And now we will all see how well your puff pastry came out,” he said quite firmly in his heavy French accent.

Yikes.

He unwrapped it, pounded it intensely with his rolling pin, cut it in half, and paused. “It is perfect.

I emitted a sigh of relief. “Well, you are a great teacher, Chef.

He turned to the others and while lovingly brandishing my nose with his finger, he said, “See, she is a diplomat. She should run for president.”

Maybe. But I was not just throwing out nice words. We had spent the whole previous day under his watchful eye, painstakingly making this prized dough.

We shared a feast with Chef Jean Claude, and before he left, he kissed us each on both cheeks.

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Fresh Orange Tart, Kouign-amann, Cheesecake, Choux Pastry Swans, Noisette Cookies
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Salmon en Croute with wine, of course.

What a special man, what a special experience.

sonia

Day 39: Market Basket

Today’s menu must incorporate…

Dun…dun…dun…

  • Fluke
  • Fava Beans
  • Count Neck Clams
  • Fingerlings, and
  • Jumbo Asparagus

Appetizers up by 3pm. Entrees up by 4!

YES, CHEF!

But, what is fluke again? Umm, clams? And, how on Earth do you cook Fava beans…?

I am incredibly impressed with my mini Chef family today. Not only did we pull off some more than decent dishes with these somewhat foreign ingredients in a short amount of time, BUT we performed with an elegance, grace, a sense of confidence.

The fire in the belly feeling.

The amount of variety that we experienced today was amazing. Everyone’s personality showed up in their dish. It was beautiful to see, share, and taste.

Here is what I made:

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Pakoras

For my appetizer, I made asparagus, fingerling, and fluke pakoras with tamarind-date chutney. (Pakoras are a popular fried snack in India made from spiced gram flour.)

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Clam Curry with Fava Bean Rice

For my entree, I made a South Indian clam curry with fava bean pulao. The seasoned Basmati rice made me homesick for my childhood days and the coconutty curry was not too bad at all.

I helped myself to seconds.

sonia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 38: Fish

 

Fish are friends, not food. Oops, sorry Bruce.

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Go Fish.

 

Imagine cooking and eating the freshest seafood you have ever tasted from 10am to 6pm?

I am SO FULL. 

And I feel good inside too. Something about becoming one with the sea is strengthening and nourishing.

Today we had Max Harvey.

“DON’T CALL ME CHEF,” he said in his rough, straightforward, seaman’s voice. “I’m old school, don’t hate me.”

Max Harvey is a fisherman. He lives in Jamaica Plain. He enjoys his coffee with cream and sugar. He can fillet fish perfectly in seconds and make it look like he is cutting through butter. His face is tanned from the sun, his skin is salty, and his hands are well, what I imagine fisherman’s hands to look like. He speaks quite softly, or QUITE LOUDLY depending on the occasion or his mood. He knows a wealth of knowledge about the sea, and about fish.

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Max Harvey

While Max does not want us to call him “Chef,” he is truly a skilled chef in the kitchen; okay, perhaps he is rather “unorthodox” as he keeps telling us, but he sure knows how to make fish taste delicious.

What did we do today? More like, what did we not do?

The warm up…

Max makes us fish chowder.

  • Tip: Don’t cut the fish into pieces, just let it flake apart naturally.

We shuck oysters, clams, and day-old scallops.

  • Fact: Scallops live the high life in these big mansions of shells. Sometimes they let little hakes live with them. How generous.
  • Fact: West coast clams literally made me homesick because they tasted like the Pacific Ocean.
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A scallop in it’s shell.

We make ceviche from scallops, shrimp, Spanish mackerel (my favorite), and clams.

  • Fact: Ceviche is good for about a day.
  • Fact: I have not had ceviche before. I like this.
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Tuna Crudo

We make crudo from char, Spanish mackerel, and tuna tartare.

  • Fact: I like this too.
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Ceviches and Crudos

The work out…

We make monk fish.

  • Note: This is a tough little monkey to cook.
  • Tip: Hot pan and hot oil or the fish will stick.

We sear tuna and cook swordfish collar.

  • Note: Practice this.

We roast whole black sea bass and porgies.

  • Note: Such a beautiful presentation and also a delicious way to eat fish.

We slather compound butter on filets and broil them.

  • Tip: Hot oven and hot broiler. Different fish will react differently to this bake but all will be delicious.

We fry fish of all kinds – flounder, redfish, fluke, mackerel.

  • Note: Flour, egg, panko, fry it up.

Chef makes us a Bluefish dish with eggs.

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A feast of fish.

The sprint to the finish…

We kill a live, wriggling lobster and pan sear it with a buttery roe sauce.

  • Note: The most exhilarating thing I’ve done all day.
  • Fact: It continues to wriggle for most of the cooking process so just pretend it’s having a nice time.
  • Tip: Not for the squeamish.
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The specimens.
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Lobster and butter.

The cool-down…

We eat more buttery lobster and do dishes.

Yes, my tummy is happy. I don’t think there was a single dish that I did not particularly enjoy. I am proud of my mini chef family today.

We really pulled it off.

sonia

Day 37: Charcuterie

Char-cu-ter-ie

/shar-coo-der-ee/

This is a new word for me.

I think the first time I heard this word was quite recently in my wine class. In all honesty, before today, I had no idea what it really meant. What would we be cooking?

Char = flesh      Cuterie = cooked

“The art of preserving meats through cooking or curing,” explained Chef Kevin O’Donnell, Executive Chef of the Salty Pig and the newly opened Boston restaurant, SRV.

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Rabbit En Porchetta

While today was absolutely filled with strong smelling, slimy, meat, it was also quite fascinating. The process of how meat turns from its raw form into a hot dog or a piece of pepperoni is something I take for granted.

Chef Kevin, or, Kevin as he asked us to call him, was an extremely kind person with tons of cool experiences in Italy, New York, Paris, and now Boston. He made the day’s lesson so interesting, even for a non-meat eater like myself.

I was also tickled by the fact that Kevin reminded me of character in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on a sausage-making day like today. (A compliment for sure.)

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Chef Kevin

 

Let me enlighten you some notes from the day.

Charcuterie evolved from necessity. Preserving food was helpful for soldiers during the war.

Charcuterie requires precise measurements, everything down to the gram. Chef’s recipes were filled with numbers and he also used Centigrade temperatures, as that is how he was taught in Europe.

Some methods:

  • Dry cured/salted – prosciutto, salami
  • Brining – ham, corned beef, deli meats
  • Smoking – bacon, kielbasa
  • Confit – “cooked with fat,” pate, head cheese, terrine
  • Fresh sausage – ground and spiced/flavored meat stuffed into a casing and cooked

Chef understood animals and their muscles so well. He explained that like gluten in bread, casein in milk, and albumin in eggs, the protein in meat is called myosin. Myosin is created not only by the animal’s usage of the muscle, but by how we handle the meat in preparation. Depending on the muscle you are working with and the type of charcuterie you are preparing, you may need to mix the meat a lot or very little.

The art of charcuterie uses tons of components that I had never heard of or thought about before. For example, caul fat. We wrapped our seasoned rabbit in a layer of the most delicate, lacy, caul fat, which had come from a cow. After the whole “rabbit en porchetta” cooked, the caul fat had rendered and sealed the whole thing into a shiny coating.

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Chef Kevin shows us how to wrap the rabbit in caul fat.
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Caul fat up close and personal.

Filling the sausages were also entertaining, as I had never seen the process in such close proximity before. We filled our pig mortadella in hefty beef casings and our flavorful lamb merguez in fragile sheep casings.

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Grinding meat is a team effort.

After cooking, the sausage smelled amazing. While I did not taste, I definitely appreciated the art of charcuterie.

Great day of learning.

Already brainstorming of what to put in a vegetarian sausage.

And in case you were wondering, pepperoni is made from pork and beef.

sonia