Monday, November 23, 2009

Sobering up

I read this on a pastry chef's blog:

“You made these? But you’re such a little girl!”

–Male restaurant owner (and ex-model) in his early 40’s. He was looking for a consultant to improve the dessert menu in his incredibly popular and upscale coffee shop. He’d just seen and tasted two desserts I’d made (a warm apple tart tatin and a flourless chocolate cake) and loved them but could not, for some reason, connect the talent on the plate to the woman who had prepared them.

I was 32 years old.

I will probably get this a lot, since I enjoy/suffer the blessing/curse of looking younger than my years.

And oh, the animals I will be working with! So, I've realized, my classmates juvenile behavior is just a preview of egregious things to come.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In which I asphyxiate on the lump in my stomach

Juggling my schedule has become this dizzying balancing act, so I have failed to write about school. Composing an entry means setting aside time and sitting down to think - two luxuries in short supply for me right now.

Anyway, D-Day has arrived. It's here - the cuisine component of our course is about to end. To pass it, we have to go through one comprehensive written and practical exam each.

This is D-Day for the practicals, where I am supposed to cook three courses in 2.5 hours. The knot in my stomach is killing me. Then tomorrow, the entire class takes the written exam.

I got dealt a lemon. The schedule I'd hoped for was to be asked to take my practical after the written. That way, I'd have three more days to get ready. Instead, through a class lottery - that's one I'd never hoped to win! - I got picked to be in the first batch. That knot in my stomach is really fear of the unknown - I did not have time to practice making one of the dishes and am not sure what pitfalls lie in wait.

Well, when life hands you lemons, make lemon beurre blanc or lemon meringue pie. I'll do the best I can. I've already prayed to St. Macarius, protector of chefs, and offered 10 crudité platters with EVO. I need all the help keeping it together later.

The three courses I'll be making are:
Cream of Celery Soup
Niçoise Salad
Stuffed Chicken Suprême with Duxelle and Allemande

And for posterity's sake, here's my action plan (essential for not running around like a headless chicken):
1 Fabricate chicken. Cut bones into 2-3in pieces. Boil pot of salted water for NICOISE vegs.

2a Drop bones in stockpot. Wash. Cover with water. Bring to boil. Skim. (Yield of STOCK: 800ml)

2b Dice mirepoix (reserve 250g celery for soup). Prepare bouquet garni (parsley stems, peppercorns). Add to skimmed stock. Simmer for 1.15hrs.

2c Wash all vegs and salad greens.

3a Boil beans in salted H2O for 2mins. Shock in cold water. Brunoise mushrooms.
3b Boil NICOISE potatoes in salted water for 15mins. Set aside.

4 Finish brunoise mushrooms. Cut NICOISE tomato > wedges. Spinner > lettuce. Chill both and NICOISE plate. In saucepot, boil water for egg.

5 Julienne leeks. Small dice onion (SOUP). Mince shallots (SUPREME). Mince garlic. Wipe chopping board. Chop parsley, tuck into paper towel. Start boiling NICOISE egg (10mins).

5b Wipe board. NICOISE: Cut beans 2in. on a bias. Set aside.

6 Transfer cream (SOUP garnish) to squeeze bottle. Chill SOUP cream garnish, tuna and beans (NICOISE).

7 Check NICOISE potatoes for doneness.

8c Peel NICOISE egg. Chill.

9 Start turning SUPREME potatoes, carrots, sayote.

10 Sweat SOUP onion, celery.

11 SOUP: Add 30g flour, make white roux. Deglaze with white wine, let alcohol cook off.

12 Resume turning SUPREME potatoes, carrots, sayote.

13 Gradually add 500ml chix stock to SOUP (don’t forget to strain!). Bring to brief boil, simmer 20mins.

14 Saute SUPREME mushrooms over high heat until liquid evaporates. Deglaze with white wine. Cook until almost dry.

15 Stay near mushrooms. (Scald?) Add 30ml cream for SUPREME mushroom stuffing; season. Finish turning SUPREME potatoes, carrots, sayote. Set aside.

16 Add 30ml cream to SUPREME mushroom stuffing. Season. Set aside to cool.

8a Make ALLEMANDE > Make blond roux (butter + flour).
8b Gradually add strained hot stock, stirring constantly. Simmer for 20-30mins.

17 Process SOUP in blender. Check color (if pale, add a little parsley). Strain into pot, check consistency.

18 Brown ANGLAISE vegs for SUPREME. Add water, sugar, bring to simmer [START TIME: ]. After 5mins simmer [START TIME: ], check sayote. After 3mins [START TIME: ], check carrots. After 5mins [START TIME: ] check potato.

19 Heat pan for chicken SUPREME. Stuff chicken with duxelles, season. Sew incision shut. Rub chix with oil. Add oil to pan. Pan sear chicken skin side first. When presentation side nicely browned, turn. Brown other side, lower heat,. Finish in oven. Check ANGLAISE!

19b Reserve extra duxelle. Keep warm near stove.

20 Make NICOISE vinaigrette (garlic, olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt, pepper). Heat SOUP bowl.

21 Scald cream for SOUP. Gently add to soup off the heat. Get chilled cream in sq.bottle. Plate SOUP and garnish with chilled cream, parsley.

22 Get chilled greens, potatoes, green beans, tuna, tomato, egg for NICOISE.

23 Re-whisk NICOISE dressing. Dress greens. Arrange on plate. Add height!

24 Add tuna to center of lettuce bed.
Peel potato, large dice. Slice egg > quarters.
Add dressing to beans, diced potatoes. Array around tuna.
Arrange tomato and egg wedges.
Top with anchovies, olives. Garnish with parsley.

25 Check chicken in oven. Rest. Check ALLEMANDE. Fry leeks for SUPREME garnish. Drain on paper towel.

26 Make egg/cream liaison. Temper with some hot veloute. Adjust with lemon juice, season. Heat plate.

27 Remove stitches from chicken underside.

28. On plate, place bed of duxelle. Top with chicken. Arrange tourne. Garnish with sauce and leeks.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Oils & Vinegars: A Gourmet's Guide by Karen Farrington

Photo from

I bought this from a bookshop near school yesterday. It's loaded with information that will boost anyone's culinary eggheadedness without fail. The entire book covers different oils and vinegars, their history, production, uses and standards of quality, but unfortunately has no recipes, which disappoints me a little.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Giving back

While thousands of my countrymen lost their lives, family and/or property due to Typhoon Ondoy, there I was high and dry in my room. The worst tribulation I suffered that day was not being able to go out at will. There wasn't even a power failure to put a crimp in my plans to collapse in front of the TV.

So, partly to assuage survivor's guilt and mostly because I felt it was my civic duty to help out, I joined my school's relief effort, which consisted of cooking food and giving it to the Red Cross. I got repaid with a small kindness a day later: my employer decided not to deduct the time off from work I took for that activity.

We were able to make enough on that day to feed 1,000 people rendered homeless by Ondoy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness by Edilberto Alegre and Doreen Fernandez

Oh no, somebody stop me. I have gone insane. Two days after a big-ticket book purchase, I bought another one. In my defense though, P140 is hardly a big-ticket amount.

Anyway, it's Doreen, dean of Filipino food writers. On Amazon, it says that it's out of print. And it's another lucky find, the prize of another unplanned saunter into a bookstore. So let's not call our friendly neighborhood mental health professional just yet.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Alinea by Grant Achatz

I went to the Manila International Bookfair, and adopted a new baby that is keeping me up most nights:

It wagged its tail and picked me. It was the only one of its kind - I didn't see it at the other booths and it seemed to be the only copy left in the National Bookstore stall. So. This is the best P1,684 ($35.59) I've ever spent! I feel it's quite underpriced (but shhh, don't tell Nanay) - even at the original price of P2,105 ($44.49) sans the 20% discount, that's still cheap for a 400+-page, deluxe edition cookbook.

I don''t plan on replicating the recipes at home any time soon. Some of the recipes actually look doable, while others look too complex in terms of the complexity of methods or exoticness of ingredients used. Where does one source microchives in the Philippines, for example? And good luck, LL, cobbling together a sous vide cooker in your bare-essentials dwelling.

I bought it more for inspiration, to channel the spirit of Grant Achatz's innovativeness and food philosophy in my cooking, and to use his food presentation styles - "plating" would be a misnomer, since he often does not serve his food on plates - to inspire mine.

Who is Achatz? I first came across him while looking up molecular gastronomy, stumbling upon this excellent article on his battle with tongue cancer. A promising young chef is threatened with being struck down by a terminal illness, which, if he survived it, also included the very real possibility of the permanent impairment or loss of his sense of taste - that had to be one of the most richly ironic jokes the universe could ever play, and I've been fascinated ever since.

More than the drama of his illness however, it was his philosophy towards food that drew me in. Far more eloquent commentary has been written about this, so I'll just say that what struck me the most was his affinity for the avant garde, and his attempts to challenge old notions of dining out as a relaxing, laid-back activity. From Alinea's disorienting hallway to his custom of serving food that makes guests squirm, Achatz actually wants to make diners feel uncomfortable about what they're eating, to provoke thought and elicit emotion.

For more about the Alinea cookbook, visit Alinea Mosaic, the companion site.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day 48: In which an extra set of (undamaged) fingers proves most desirable

I want a skin graft for my birthday. I cut myself in class thrice - all due to idiocy - on three different fingers. My injuries included lopping off part of my nailbed, ugh! "Excellent decision to take your hand off the chopping board!" chef Vic said as I was about to hack off the bone and, possibly, my fingers, with a gigantic cleaver.

But there's a happy ending to the story: I scored a personal best in labwork for this level. I'm not sure how that happened. Our dish last night was Pan Seared Frenched Pork Loin with Polenta and Chasseur Sauce. The chef liked everything, amazing!

Frenched, by the way, refers to a cut of meat in which the chine bone is left protruding. It reminds me of English ladies' patrician pinkies sticking out during high tea. Only the French can turn the adjective referring to their peoplehood into another signifier for a professional cooking term - like the tourné, it is more evidence of their deliberate efforts to keep their kitchen hauteur esoteric (rolls eyes. But no, that's not racism, mes amis Français. Please think of it as good-natured ribbing).

My polenta and sauce were well-seasoned and of the correct consistency, and the blanched green beans were fortunately done just right. The last time I had a blanched vegetable - asparagus for grilled tenderloin labwork - for garnish, it got overcooked. It turns out that one is supposed to let it stay in tap water for some time after cooking. I'd just dipped my asparagus in the cold water and took it out immediately (apparently you can only do that if you have ice water). The poor things were as limp as my self-esteem that night!

I didn't think my pork was something to write home about - I found it a little dry inside, in fact. But the chef liked my cooking last night (and that, really, is something to write home about!). He only took off points for the way I arranged the beans on the plate - I should have just arranged them in one row parallel to each other instead of stacking them diagonally like fallen lumber converging on a point atop the pork.

So, it was a lucky night for me in the kitchen, though it left me wondering: are my standards for "good" food really that off? Am I from another planet?

In other news, my favorite "new" food is polenta. I love its mouthfeel - the way the finely-ground grains of corn tease and tickle the tongue before dissolving. It's an elusive-feeling food - before you can put your finger on what exactly that new texture in your mouth is, the polenta has already disappeared and slipped down your gullet. Hey Bill [Buford, the journalist who apprenticed to Mario Batali. He complained in his memoir of the experience that it was such a pain to cook in mass quantities], polenta ain't that bad. You should've just thinned it out with some milk or water.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pass the hummus

Dear French people,

I had wanted to specialize in classical and contemporary French cuisine because one of my Big Dreams was to live in Paris and cook there for a living. You were, after all, the people who invented professional cooking, and what better way to become a master than to be in the heart of all the action?

As my education in the culinary arts progresses, however, I am discovering that you use horrifying amounts of cream, butter and eggs, in spite of claims to the contrary that your womenfolk are not fat.

You might admonish me by flashing your moderation cop's badge. But tell me, how can one be moderate in the face of all that luxurious creaminess? Knowing myself, I will probably have scarfed it all down before you can say pâte à choux. Besides, if I taste food for a living, all those little buttery morsels will eventually creep into my arteries.

Perhaps you might want to send over one of the disciples of your kitchens to disabuse me of this notion. 'Til then I have decided, until further notice, that my personal cooking and eating philosophies would be better served by Mediterranean cuisine.

Xoxo (with many libations of extra-virgin olive oil),

Friday, September 11, 2009

Power dressing: Alain Ducasse

For the acclaimed chef's acolytes. I haven't "discovered" him yet - I'm still in my Julia Child and Susur Lee worship stage.

Alain Ducasse, 53, is a French chef and holds three Michelin stars in three countries. He operates restaurants in Monaco, New York, Paris and at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In 2003 the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences named him the ‘Finest Chef in the World’.

Suit by Georges Feghaly
At work I wear chef’s whites in Egyptian cotton. I once designed a range of chef’s uniforms – though I don’t think I’d have the talent to design normal clothes. I wear classic suits a lot, always with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. I also have some red stitching on the lapel of my jackets – that’s for the Légion d’Honneur. Once you've accepted the honour you're meant to put the red stitching on every suit. I keep it pretty small. But I still get asked a lot about it, outside of France at least.

The suits are all made in Monaco by Georges Feghaly, a Lebanese designer friend of mine, but I wear them because I like them, not out of loyalty. He uses Loro Piana fabrics – and sober ones. He usually has good ideas but once persuaded me to buy red trousers. I wore them once while on holiday on an island. They made me look as though I’d fallen into a pot of paint.

Shirt by Georges Feghaly
Georges usually makes my shirts and ties. I have my shirts tailor-made because I love the cotton Georges uses and it makes for a better fit. He makes a special shirt with a collar tab for the tie. He also likes to monogram my shirts. It’s like being back at school, you always know that it’s your shirt if you lose it.

Shoes by Alden
I buy all my shoes in the US, usually at Barneys New York, and all from the same company – Alden. They’re made of horse leather and I only buy them in black or brown. I have a suitcase full of new pairs in case they stop making them. Being a chef I’m used to being on my feet a lot, so comfortable shoes are very important, and these are very comfortable. They have some metal in them somewhere though, so I always set off alarms in airports.

Watch by Audemars Piguet
I like this watch because it’s so slender. Like a lot of men now, I collect a few watches – enough to make sure I always get the time right.

Glasses by Oliver Peoples
Like my shoes, I only wear the one style, which I’ve been wearing for 20 years now. Keeping it simple is a bit of a life philosophy for me.

Source: Financial Times

Sunday, August 30, 2009

First stint as student assistant

From Scenes from my first SA stint

The event was a nine-course degustation dinner held every last Saturday of the month by Cuisson des Amis, a catering and food service company founded by entrepreneur Karl Tan and several other chefs, all Global alumni. The venue is his house in Pasig City.

The menu showcases Cuisson des Amis's flair for Filipino fusion cooking:
Aperitif: Tuna ceviche, Lato (seaweed) with lumpfish caviar and Bouquet of fine julienne of cucumber and carrots

Appetizer: Trio of Phyllo basket sisig with quail egg and calamansi beurre blanc, Bangus paté and pineapple marmalade with balsamic gastrique, Garlic and parsley toasted fresh pandesal

Soup: Semi-consommé of clams with chilli leaves

Salad: Mixed greens with kesong puti, candied pili nuts and cherry tomatoes on orange-balsamic vinaigrette

Pasta: Creamy peanut gelee-stuffed ravioli in cream sauce with crispy binagoongan pork flakes

Intermezzo (this is an item used to clear the palate): Camias with honey and ginger sorbet

Fish: Tilapia fillet ala Parmigiana with calamansi butter compound and sweet potato croquetas, with mango and orange cream and green mango salsa

Main course: Chicken roulade stuffed with aged cheddar, sweet pickles and Hungarian sausage, in chilli liver sauce, and with truffle oil and almonds rice pilaf

Dessert: Duo of Coconut cheese cake with sweet corn (but the chef decided not to add the corn anymore) and macapuno, and Otap fruit pastry

I helped with mise-en-place and plating, and discovered I could competently make quenelle shapes. What I liked most about the experience was the rush of working to finish plates for service. The expediter would call out, "I need nine soups in five minutes!" and, moving like a well-oiled machine, the kitchen would scramble to meet the deadline. The feeling of gratification from being part of a team that turns out plates of good food is immediate.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Class trip: Laya

08.23.2009: I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've been to Antipolo. My very first trip to the city involved dining at Vieux Chalet, a Swiss restaurant nestled in its hills, and a dose of art at Pintô Gallery.

I've made another pilgrimage to Antipolo to eat again, this time with my classmates for a five-course dinner at Laya, a "personal dining" restaurant a few meters away from Pintô Gallery in Grand Heights Subdivision. The restaurant offers a Southeast Asian menu that changes weekly, along with a customizable dining experience where guests can specify what and how they want to eat. Diners can make requests such as a string quartet, their favorite wine, special table settings or being able to watch the chefs prepare their meal.

The dining area has an intimate ambience that makes the place perfect for dates, marriage proposals and wedding receptions. The dining area is on a terrace overlooking a pool, a massage hut, and a small bar. There's also a private, glass-walled and curtained nook within the dining area for a more intimate setting. Small Buddha statues and wall hangings dot the landscaped garden and the dining area, adding to the serene atmosphere of the place. The twinkling lights of Manila can be seen from the garden and the dining area. (I'll post the pictures of the place sometime this week since I don't have my memory card with me as of posting time.)

For our dinner, we had the menu called "the best of Laya":

Appetizer: Nori prawn roll with mango papaya aioli (right), shrimp & chicken wanton bag with Thai sweet chili (top), and stir-fried kaffir lime pork in lettuce wrap (left)

Soup: Thai-spiced pumpkin & cashew nut soup. I liked this spicy soup, although the taste of the ginger tended to overpower the other flavors.

Salad: Mango salad with bagoong dressing. I love the dressing! Since I'm a big salad fan, I will attempt to replicate it at home one of these days (when I know more about cooking, most likely).

Entree: A choice of (a) Pan-seared honey ginger Norwegian salmon with toasted cashew nuts and sweet potato mash. The salmon was tender and moist and I liked the innovative use of sweet potato in lieu of the usual potato.

or (b) Herb-marinated US hanging tender steak with honey-roasted garlic mashed potatoes and mixed greens in Asian dressing. The steak lived up to its name - it was very tender and the sweet, red wine sauce complimented the meat nicely. My only quibble about both main courses was that the mash was cold.

Dessert: Cashew mango kesong puti and Chocnut banana spring rolls with creamy Chocnut dip. Very nice use of local ingredients - Antipolo is famous for its cashew nuts. There's also the nearby Rizal Dairy Farms, although I'm not sure if the kesong puti was sourced from the farm (even if it isn't, it's easy to find in the Philippines).

Irene Tan-Gurango, who co-owns Laya with her husband Ricci, used to work for the school as its human resources officer. As our very pleasant hostess, she led the dining room staff in personally attending to us. She made sure that my classmate Adam, who has a seafood allergy, still enjoyed his Laya experience by being served different fare.

What made this dinner resonate with the group was that all the chefs are alumni from our school. "I brought you here to show you that there's life after Global," said chef Vic. The three Laya chefs - Ricci, Ogie and Katrina - talked about what to expect in our industry training, advising us to consult with our chefs about the best venues to train in. Our on-the-job-training would be a very challenging and stressful time, they said, but we should expect to succeed if we take it seriously.

I should've been star-struck - Irene fronts the band Chubibo; Ricci used to be with Hungry Young Poets and Mojofly and he even sessioned for The Dawn - but I didn't have my rocker cap on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Day 33: In which the stars and pilot lights align

08.24.2009: I'm happy to report that I scored a personal best in our practical final exam as I finally broke the 90% threshold.

Our class of 21 was divided into two groups, with one group starting at 5:30pm and the other commencing at 7:30pm. (I was in the first group). Each member of the class had to make white chicken stock, and use that for risotto alla parmigiana. The stock had to be flavorful yet clear and free of impurities, while the risotto needed to be plated correctly (in the middle of a heated plate, in a manner highlighting the texture of the grains) and served piping hot.

After grading us, chef Vic said he was looking for proper stock-making technique, which includes skimming the stock for impurities before adding the mirepoix and aromatics, and reducing cooking to a simmer after bringing the stock to a boil.

The stars and pilot lights must've aligned and I must've done many of those things right (although saying that does not sound good, as if I'm running around like a headless chicken unaware of what I'm doing). My only obvious mistake was being stingy with the salt in my risotto - chef Vic complained it was under-seasoned. It's a tendency dating back to childhood, I guess, when I once put too much patis (fish sauce) in a ginisang monggo (sautéed mung beans) dish and my father said it was easier to adjust too little rather than too much seasoning. The chef also didn't like how I sprinkled some parmesan on the area of the plate surrounding the rice - he said it made the plate look dirty.

Still, it looks like there's hope for me after all.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 32: In which my knowledge of sauces remains stuck in Escoffier's day

08.21.2009: Those of you who know me well might recall that it usually takes only either the presence of books or food, sometimes both, to cheer me up.

I was feeling the need for some book retail therapy last night, when I and the entire class were blind-sided by at least seven questions in our written final exams. These questions included naming the six modern-day sauces. I didn't really memorize that part of the lesson because chef Vic told us to concentrate on remembering all the small sauces, and so was able to name only three. The answer to the other question was gastrique, the term for sugar caramelized in vinegar. Okay, this was my fault. I really should study everything.

The most satisfying trips I've ever made to bookstores are the purposeless ones, when I walk into a store with no agenda except to browse the shelves. The pleasure of finding an unexpected treasure becomes even more intense, like finding a P500 bill on the street or running into a very dear friend one hasn't seen in decades.

So, imagine my happiness wandering into Booksale in Starmall Mandaluyong and finding a DK Eyewitness Companion to French Cheese for only P140 (about $3), marked down from the original P240. Although I am not a turophile, or hardcore cheese connoisseur, I appreciate this veritable encyclopedia of more than 350 cheeses, brimming with useful information on their nomenclature, places of origin, production and how to identify good-quality ones, how to cut and serve them and which breads and wines to pair them with.

Cover photo from

It's designed like a guidebook - small enough to be tucked into a bag pocket and handy enough to be carried in one hand (while you have a wedge of Bûchette de Banon in the other, I suppose). It's beautifully illustrated too.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Days 30-31: In which we learn about the underrated potato

08.18-19.2009: The potato used to be among the most important foods in classical cuisine, says Gisslen. Gratin Dauphinoise, duchesse potatoes - the names attest to the tuber's place in the kitchens of the aristocracy.

While its place in the spotlight has been superceded by flashier, more glamorous starches such as pasta, the potato is still an important part of classical and contemporary cuisine.

For demo day, chef Vic showed us how to make French fries, gratin dauphinoise, duchesse potatoes, croquettes and whipped/mashed potato.


Whipped/mashed potatoes:

Gratin Dauphinoise (pronounced "dohffanWAH") reminds me of a potato-based lasagna. You cut the potatoes as you would potato chips, then layer the chips alternately with a milk, cream and garlic mixture in a pan or dish. This is baked for up to 20 minutes until a crust forms on top. I didn't find the Dauphinoise very impressive at first because it had only a few basic ingredients - potatoes, milk, cream, garlic and salt - but was pleasantly surprised by its cheese-like umami-ness when I took a bite.

Duchesse potatoes use the same basic recipe as whipped/mashed potatoes, but are piped from a pastry bag. They are mostly used as decorations.

And since we're talking about all things potato, here's "The Potato Eaters" by Vincent van Gogh, one of my favorite artists:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Days 29-30: In which I learn the importance of attention to detail

08.13-14.2009: It's the second day of the starches module. This time, we focused on grains. The chef showed us how to make paella (above), rice pilaf and risotto. I saw some arborio and basmati rice in their raw states - the latter sticking in my mind, or my olfactory glands, rather, for its cockroachy smell.

To make rice pilaf, you saute long-grain rice, such as basmati, in some butter, simmer it in liquid, and finish off the cooking in an oven. The rice should come out fluffy and not too moist, and you fluff it out even some more with a fork before plating:

On practicals day, I forgot to cook off the wine - again! - for the risotto, and garnished my pilaf the wrong way by sticking the bay leaf in it upside down. Chef Vic also pointed out that since he wanted to see the texture, I should not have turned out the rice into a rounded dome. Details, details.

Chef Vic's risotto topped with Parmesan cheese:

Days 27-28: In which we roll out pasta by hand

08.11-12.2009: That's chef Mike Yap's (pitching in for chef Vic) finished fettucini with tomato sauce made from scratch, and spaghetti aglio olio.

We learned how to make not just these sauces, but also how to make fresh pasta. It's quite a laborious process because one has to make a dough, rest it, pass it through a machine several times and hang it up to dry. Before the lesson I thought freshly made pasta was superior to the store-bought one, but it turned out there are benefits and disadvantages to using each kind. The most memorable idea I took away from this lesson was that macaroni in commercial usage refers not just to the bent, elbow-shaped pasta but to all kinds of factory-made dried pasta.

My classmate Marjun hanging up the finished fresh fettuccine:

Practicals day went by smoothly, almost. The class made fresh pasta with tomato sauce. Being the dunce that I am, I managed to make a few slip-ups here and there, such as forgetting to cook off the alcohol in my sauce. Tomato sauce is made with a little white wine, and if one does not let the alcohol evaporate, there is a strong aftertaste. Still, my dish turned out well enough, and the chef was pleased, saying it was "delicious". I could not answer when he asked before tasting it if it was good (I wanted to say, "I don't know what your notion of 'delicious' is, sir," but that sounded a bit too smart-alecky).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Day 26: In which I get all weepy on you

08.10.2009: When the tasks I am required to perform and master in school get a little too complicated, I often ask myself, What the hell have I gotten myself into?

I find that I'm starting to pose the question with growing frequency as our tasks grow more and more complex. I asked myself this during fish day, when we were asked to fillet fish and fabricate squid, oysters and mussels.

I posed the question to myself on sauce day, when our chef demonstrated the making of five mother sauces and I made a sorry curdled mess out of my hollandaise sauce the day after.

I asked it again last night. The order of the day was to make brown chicken stock and slice two jicamas into six tournés - one chateau (2 in. long x 3/4 in. wide) and five cocottes (1.5 in long x 3/4 in. wide).

The key here was to multi-task like crazy. I had to simultaneously slice and brown the bones in a pan on the stove, slice the vegetables for the stock, make a sachet of herbs and spices, brown the vegetables and stir them occasionally so they don't burn, skim the surface of the simmering stock for scum, tidy my station in between and turn the jicamas.

In between there are bursts of frantic running to the sink to rinse my knife and hands or clear out unneeded equipment. My tournés did not turn out the way I wanted them to. Meanwhile, my stock was rated well, though points were probably taken off because of mistakes in my technique.

And then there's always being sleep-deprived on a class night, staggering home drained after a practical exam, losing some of my social life and worrying over how to allot vacation leaves to studying.

I'm not complaining - I love every minute I spend in cooking school. My teacher and the school staff are affable, and I'm fond of my classmates, who show me many small kindnesses and treat me like a sister ("Bro, take care of her," they say to the last person I'm left with when going home).

While the pressures of schoolwork are enough to make me want to wring my hands and tear up my apron, I know all of this pales in comparison to the hubbub of a real kitchen, where you have 50 things going on at once and you can barely hear each other over the racket of service.

So, sometimes I shall ask, What the hell have I gotten myself into, not to rant, bemoan nor complain, but to convey bemusement, astonishment and joy at all the amazing and groovy new things I'm learning about food.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The highlight of my weekend

I finally managed to do a decent-looking tourné after buying a turning knife on Saturday from Kitchen Pro in Shangri-la mall, Ortigas. It's a small knife with a curved blade that measures around 2in. long.

I practiced with the knife, first on candles (too hard), then on jicama, and finally on soap. This was the product of my soapy efforts:

Why are they so important? My grade (for my practical midterm exam later) and future depend on these seven-sided, football-shaped buggers. While a huge improvement over a previous effort, they are far from perfect, so I will practice every chance that I get. And who knew that Zest soap would be the key to excellent knife skills? The soap has just the right firmness for practicing on. It reminds me, in fact, of the flesh of an eggplant. One also does not have to worry about discarding or consuming pounds of vegetable; just melt the soap in a little boiling water, re-form, and practice again!

Stupidly, I also got cut on two fingers while washing the tourne knife, but I take comfort in the fact that I was cut while cleaning the knife, not while I was cutting with it, so that means I was using it correctly.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Day 17: In which we start anew

07.29.2009: This is our syllabus for the second level, which focuses on stocks, sauces, soups and starches (click photo to zoom in):

Days 15-16: In which rocking saves the day

These are our final exams. The written one covered everything we'd previously studied, except for food safety, sanitation and nutrition.

The practical one, which I was more worried about, required each student to fillet a tilapia, brunoise an onion, and make the julienne and batonnet cuts on a jicama.

I was doing fine in spite of my onion brunoise being too large. Chef Vic praised my fish - hooray, practicing at home paid off! - and my clean station, but the jicama was the spanner in the works. I remembered the wrong dimensions and used the measurements for batonnet - 1/4in by 1/4in by 2-1/2in - for my julienne. My finished product was too large, of course, and if I'd been the teacher I would have failed myself, but at least, said chef Vic, I had the rocking motion down almost pat, and that saved the day. I think I got 85% for my practical, which is more than great, considering the flubbed julienne cut.

Days 13 -14: In which I run afoul of fowl

Look at me, I'm cheating. I'm well into Level 2 of my Grand Diploma course now, but I haven't finished posting about the first level yet. My schedule is getting more and more hectic, hence the cheating - I now have to combine two classroom dispatches into one post, when previously there would be an individual post for each day. I apologize for any tears, burnt meat pies and any general wringing of hands this may cause (ha ha!).

So, on with the hoodwinking on this blog. Day 13 revolved around poultry - the types of fowl served for food and how to fabricate, or make the different cuts of poultry, before cooking.

First, we learned how to truss, or tie up a chicken with butcher's twine. Trussing a chicken before it is roasted is done so that the chicken does not splay all over the place, ensuring even cooking.

Then, chef Vic showed us how to do the different cuts. This is his finished tray:

The neck and wishbone. The latter needs to be removed before fabrication:

The suprême (pronounced "sooprem") or airline cut (above), and chicken breast for stuffing. The suprême is a chicken breast quarter with the wing bone exposed. I have no idea why it's called the "airline" cut, but it reminds me of an English lady holding her pinkie up as she drinks tea:

Chicken lollipops, which come from the wing part:

He also demonstrated how to cut up poultry into eighths:

This was all too complicated for me, but I managed to earn a decent grade. And sorry, the pictures must be too gory for some.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Food quote of the week

Si l’amour ne demande que des baisers à quoi bon la gloire de cuisinier? (If love requires only kisses, what is the use of the fame of the cook?)
-Rene Black, maitre d'hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria from the 1930s-40s

Monday, July 27, 2009

My knife bag

I bought a knife roll yesterday to carry my knives and tools around. It's black, made of canvas, attracts lint and is uncompromisingly ugly. The edges are even frayed because they catch on the velcro straps that hold the bag shut. I had no choice because it was the last one available and I had already walked through sheeting rain to get to the store. (I'll upload the photo tomorrow).

Here in the Philippines, chefs don't have too many options for expressing their personal style through their clothes and accessories. They are always limited to the standard white or black coat, checked pants, black socks and clogs.

While one can probably find colorful aprons, oven mitts, towels or silicone mats in any mall in the country, the options for knife bags are mostly limited to black, beige, blue or red, all in dire-looking plain canvas.

The Chefy Store, managed by chef Giannina Gonzalez, has some colorful printed options made out of either photo canvas, nylon or microfibre. Her materials are imported from Hong Kong and the bag has slots for 8 tools, plush a mesh pocket inside for small implements. Very pretty and quite reasonable at only P1,500 (add P300 if being delivered), but I'm not so convinced about its durability and functionality. I'm not sure if I can fit everything I need into the bag, and if it will have room to grow with me. Banditgear sells similarly colorful patterned and monochromatic bags that can fit 12 tools.

The Chefy Store's Licorice bag:

My favorite ones, however, are the leather versions owned by Eric Ripert and Barbara Lynch. Lynch went on to market hers as the Knivblad satchel. My current obsession, sparked by The New York Times' The Moment blog, is to have my own leather knife roll.

Barbara Lynch's knife roll (the new and old ones):

The exterior of Lynch's bag, which is made of luxuriously soft suede:

‘‘I think knives deserve to be carried in style,’’ says Ripert, who owns this leather-and-suede beauty:

I've contacted a leatherworker to see if I can have a similar one made. The initial estimate is P3,500. I might have one made as a gift to myself when I graduate, or I just might be crazy enough to order one this year.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What a hot butcher!

Sorry about going Paris Hilton on you, I couldn't help it! Anyway, this is part of lab work tonight. I'll post about Days 13 and 14 a little later this week. I just have to get past our final exams on Thursday and Friday. And my besotment with Dave Meli.

Chef's Tip:
Play the video full-screen to get the complete Dave Meli experience. (But wait, you say, that's not a legit cooking tip! Who cares).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Day 12: In which the gruesome murder of a fish is committed

Lab day. We were to execute and submit the following items:

* de-scaled
* finned and gutted
* 1 side skinned
* 1 side skin on
* bones and head removed intact, then cut into 4

* tempura
* butterfly
* ball

* shucked
* in the half-shell

* de-bearded
* cleaned shell
* meat removed cut from shell, then replaced

* cut into rings
* scored
* head without eyes
* beak only

After doing all the lab work, we were to compute for the weight and price of all the usable parts we could obtain from the tilapia, a process known as butcher's yield. This time, the math was the easy part.

I started with cleaning and shucking the mussels. On lab days, my strategy is to start with the easy tasks to get them out of the way, reserving the better part of my time and energy for the head-down stuff. I had to wash, pare off the barnacles and debeard the four mussels on my tray. The trick with shucking mussels, I discovered, was to insert the shucker near the hinge connecting the shells, slowly twisting the tool until the slit grew wider.

That done, I wrestled with the oyster. Opening an oyster's shell is about as easy as trying to dig your way to China with a penknife. Try as I might, I could not make, pardon the expression, heads or tails of the gnarly shell and where to insert the shucker. My oyster looked like a lump of sand and concrete hastily put together by a starving carpenter as he hears the lunch bell. All I managed to do was break off bits of the shell. I wasn't sure if points were to be deducted for damaging the shell but with each calciferous fleck that came off, I imagined points from my GPA crumbling away.

I decided to put the darn thing down and do the shrimp, a task which passed without incident. The squid also gave me great joy, their skins coming off easily like worn out socks. The beak, tiny and burr-like, was easy to coax out of the head, and the flesh easily yielded to my knife.

Now it was the tilapia's turn. As early as the first step, de-scaling, the blundering clod that I am sprang into action. My classmates expertly scaled their fish, while I sent the scales flying mostly into my face as I artlessly grappled with the scaling tool. This, by the way, was the first time I'd ever used one, thank you.

The fun part was removing the bright red gills and eviscerating the fish, letting the red-yellow viscera drip out. Yum!

I started sweating when it was time to fillet. As I cut away I felt the pressure of trying to make the fillets as whole and perfect as possible. I tried to cut as carefully and as close to the bone as I could, but my cuts were still not close enough. I also failed to take out some bones in my fillet. The chef spotted them instantly (why are you so wise, sir?)

I made other blunders. While making the fillet without skin - this involves peeling off the skin near the tail until you have a flap of flesh big enough to grasp with your hand - I was terrified the meat would break off. Thankfully it didn't, but Chef Vic later told me I needed to cut closer to the skin. How does one do that without tearing it, I wonder? I dread to think of the filleting horrors awaiting me on Finals Day.

Now, back to my briny friend. After futile eternities prodding at the tightly closed shell, I finally managed to weasel the shucker into the sucker (sorry, could not resist. The oyster gave me a hard time; I deserve the relief of a corny one-liner or two!). I had never been so happy to see mollusk meat as I was that night.

I think I did a much better job here than with the vegetables. More importantly, no one in class got cut. It seems we've all grown more comfortable with our knives. I think I flubbed my vegetable cuts because I was sometimes more afraid of getting injured.

We ended the evening with a meal of squid and shrimp. Our victims were simmered in some parsley and spices and spooned over rice, and they were good.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Day 11: In which we learn about flowering squid and well-groomed mussels

Thursday's session was all about fish and seafood. Chef Vic lectured on the various types of fish, mollusks and crustaceans commonly served for food.

He demonstrated how to gut and fillet flatfish and roundfish, shuck oysters and clams and clean shrimp and squid. We also learned how to prepare shrimp in various ways: tempura-style, butterflied, and "balled".

Mussels, I discovered, have a fibrous "beard" which needs to be removed prior to cooking.

Squid, meanwhile, can be sliced into two or four lengthwise halves and scored with small lattice-like cuts. When cooked, the squid swells and turns into what looks like the concave half of an armadillo's armor. My classmate called this a flower, and the class, all manly testosterone exuberance, laughed at him.

Starting with this post, I'll begin doling out the tips I learn in cooking school. Here is the first one, appropriately about a fishy matter:

Chef's Tip:
Lean fish is best used for making broth. Oily fish, such as tuna or salmon, is too strong flavored, and its oil will also make the broth, well, oily.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Day 10: In which we earn our first battle scars

As expected, some of us got cuts while practicing our knife skills last night in class. We earned some sort of dubious school record after eight people, including myself, got injured. I got my cut attempting to tourné a jicama (that's the real English word for singkamas, not turnip). The tourné, where you make a vegetable into something resembling a seven-sided football, is the most challenging cut of all to master. My turned vegetables, especially the one of the eggplant, looked like monstrous alien invaders more apropos for a science fiction B-movie.

My other cuts were also uneven, although Chef Vic, our instructor, praised my batonnets and minced garlic. By God, I'll keep attempting the tourné and the other cuts, even if I manage to fillet all of my fingers. My friend and house neighbor A has even kindly agreed to let me do the cutting and chopping for her Monday dinner.

Tonight, meanwhile, is fish and seafood night. This is one of the things we're going to be doing:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Day 9: In which we get acquainted with our best friend

Last night was knife skills lecture and demo. These are all the cuts we have to master (click the picture to zoom in):

Tonight, we do the cuts ourselves. Since students are not allowed to take videos in class, I turn to the old reliable stand-by, YouTube.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Food quote of the week

Anyone who loves real French cooking cannot afford to live in fear of fat.
-Alexander Lobrano, from his article 'A Remembrance of Things Present', Gourmet magazine, July 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

A week in culinary school: An assessment

It's been exactly a week since I began going to culinary school. In that week I've had a 50-item quiz, a midterm, a graded tasting exercise and a written HACCP assignment. I've been in the kitchen twice, but not yet to cook.

Let me talk about the program I am enrolled in first. Global's Grand Diploma (GD) in professional cooking, baking and pastry arts appears rigorous enough, laying a thorough theoretical and skills groundwork for would-be professional cooks. One thing I would like to see added to the program though is a specialized module on wine.

My school schedule, 6-9pm on Tuesday-Friday, is suited for working professionals. GD and Diploma in Culinary Arts (DPCA) students take cuisine classes together for the first five levels, then GD students who pass cuisine move on to baking, classes of which are held in the morning or afternoon.

I like the school's emphasis on gaining practical skills - starting with Level 2, each Diploma course student is required to log in at least 10 hours per module as an assistant to an industry-recognized chef. Those hours are different from the industry training or on-the-job-training - 600 hours for GD students, 480 hours for other professional programs. I had previously worried about how I was going to practice what I was learning - irony of ironies, I live in a place where the landlady forbids us to cook inside our rooms.

The school has a spacious kitchen that can amply accommodate a class of 21 students. What I wish the school would improve on is its washroom - there is only one bathroom for each sex and a common sink.

It's been a great week so far, and I'm having a blast, notwithstanding the kilometers I have to walk everyday - but it's great exercise! - and the 5-ton book I have to lug around daily - but it's great exercise!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Our new knives

Each student in my class is now the owner of a silver-sheened chef's knife, paring knife and steel. Chef Vic says this year is the first time the school is including knives in a student's package, and our batch is the first beneficiary of this gift.

There's food porn, and then there's knife porn:

Each knife is also beautifully embossed with the GCHA logo of interlocking wheat ears.

The school is also ironing out a deal that will allow it to sell knife sets and holders at a much more student-friendly price. I'm glad I did not give in to the temptation of buying knives before school began.

I have to constantly suppress the urge to take the knives out of their sheaths - I have become addicted to the zing! they make as they leave their plastic protectors. The metallic tinkle reminds me of the sound a sword makes as it is unsheathed from its scabbard in period films. I fancy that I am some sort of Joan of Arc of the kitchen, slicing through enemy pigs and valiantly defending the grill against invading carrots and stalks of celery.

When I start naming my knives - Pablo? Fifi? The Juliennator? - you will know that I have reached the point of no return and need to be committed so I pose no danger to myself and to others.