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.

Day 8: In which I encounter my first major stumbling block

It's midterm day. The questions were focused on last night's lesson, menus and recipe conversion. I thought I had figured out how to juggle the numbers around after repeating the computations in the two exercises we did last night, but I think I might have been misled, because I asked my classmates and they got different answers. I don't think I did very well in the midterm. I will probably barely squeak past the passing mark this time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 7: In which numbers swim in my head, like letters in alphabet soup

This was recipe conversion day. The class learned about the different kinds of recipes and menus - did you know that a restaurant that serves breakfast staples all day uses what is called a California menu?

Chef Vic also helped us become acquainted with the mathematics of the kitchen - the ways of converting recipe yields, computing the cost of making a recipe and figuring out how much to charge for each serving of a dish.

I had a hard time following the lesson because numbers and I have never really been on good terms. Later I tried to duplicate the class exercise at home, and, dare I hope, I think I cracked it:

Day 6: In which we learn about kitchen staples and I suffer mortification via red wine vinegar

We tasted different herbs and spices, later taking part in a graded tasting exercise. Each member of the class was blindfolded and asked to distinguish between turmeric and curry. Then we were asked to taste an herb - mine was tarragon - and a vinegar. After this we took our blindfolds off and attempted to pick out by sight the nut or spice specified by our instructor.

I scored six out of seven in the exercise, only getting red wine vinegar wrong (I thought it was white wine vinegar). That is really quite mortifying because I consume red wine vinegar everyday - it's part of the vinaigrette for the Luto-lutuan staple, the salad. The vinegar used for the exercise was even the same brand that I use.

Day 5: In which I learn that truffle oil smells like lighter fluid

We had a 50-item quiz on HACCP, food safety and nutrition. The quiz, if you remember, makes up 5% of our total grade. I think I did decently - not perfect, but fairly high.

After the quiz, Chef Vic lectured on how to identify different types of dairy products, vegetables and fruits. He was brimming with tips on the ideal ways to use each foodstuff. He showed us a small vial of truffle oil, which interestingly, smelled like butane, and joked that the oil was fantastic with gruel (he might have meant it as a joke, but the blending of gourmet ingredients and street food is always interesting).

Tomorrow, we are going to continue with the rest of our product identification module by getting a first hand look (and smell and taste) at some herbs and spices. I am also looking forward to
Friday's visit to Santi's, where the class is going to pick out some cheeses and a bottle of wine. That would be the perfect way to celebrate - or drown our sorrows - completion of our midterms.

Day 4: In which we muck around

We began class with another trip to the kitchen, this time to perform a wash-down. This task, which is done after each service (breakfast, lunch, dinner), involves scrubbing surfaces clean with a dishwashing sponge and detergent. One is supposed to pay special attention to work tables, sink tops, racks and stove and oven exteriors. My taller classmates also cleaned the exhausts positioned above the stoves. The soapy lather is then wiped down with a damp rag. Afterwards, the surface is sprayed with food-grade sanitizer and left to dry. When all this is done, four volunteer saniteurs from the class sweep and mop the floor.

"So, has the impression of the glamorous kitchen changed?" asked Chef Vic.

No, Chef. Yes, the sponges we used were sitting in water that was an ominous gray, while the rags were tinged a similarly dire color, but we did our homework and know that this is part of a cook's work. I might momentarily entertain second thoughts if you ask me to pick up with my bare hands the dead festering bodies of cockroaches - highly unlikely that there are any in your
immaculate kitchen - but otherwise I don't scare that easy. I suspect my being a neat freak might even make wash-downs enjoyable for me.

The rest of the evening was spent discussing HACCP and developing a sample food safety plan for catering a wedding. We were reminded to study for our quiz and midterm on Tuesday and

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Day 3: In which we learn about food safety, and spoons with citizenship

More lectures on food safety, including an overview of the HACCP (that stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point and is pronounced "hassip," if you want to show off at parties) system. HACCP is a way of identifying which points in the flow of food leave the food most at risk of contamination, and setting out procedures to minimize this danger.

Chef Vic asked us to bring our own tasting spoons. At this point my classmate Gelo piped up, "Does it have to be a French tasting spoon?" whereupon we learned that the French were the inventors of this Hydra of silverware, just like they came up with many other desirable things - kisses, leaves, braids and bread.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Professional Cooking by Wayne Gisslen

It turns out that Wayne Gisslen's Professional Cooking (6th ed), one of the books in my fantasy library, is going to be used as our textbook. Our instructor says it is the same book used in Le Cordon Bleu, the world's oldest professional cooking school.

So there, that's one part of my fantasy fulfilled.

The book comes with a CD that contains software allowing users to search for recipes, view nutrition information, generate shopping lists, perform measurement conversions and modify recipes. Nifty, isn't it? The software unfortunately does not seem to work with Vista, so I'm contacting tech support to see what can be done.

Renaissance Recipes by Gillian Riley

I stumbled on this little hardcover gem two days ago while killing time at a nearby mall waiting for class to start, and couldn't resist the P120 ($2.50) bargain it offered.

Some of what you'll find inside:

and ...

How could I have said no? It has art and cooking, two of my favorite things.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Aphrodite by Isabel Allende

My Facebook status today says, "T had a hilarious conversation earlier with a friend about hanky panky in the kitchen. Lines such as 'He garnished my salad!' and 'I batonneted his cucumber!' were exchanged." Said friend was telling me earlier about her "earthy" chef friends (and I don't mean the flavor they tease out of mushrooms).

In response - perhaps to encourage me to give in to my garnishing and batonneting impulses? - my friend I sent me this review of Isabel Allende's Aphrodite. The extract about how she procured some truffles is deliciously sensual. I'm adding Aphrodite to my reading list!

Day 2: In which we learn how to nattily tie a scarf, choose nourishing ingredients, not set the building on fire and make toxic green cream sauce

Chef Vic began our class by showing us how to put on our uniforms correctly. The apron, we learned, is not for wiping one's hands, as some believe, but for shielding our legs from heat. He also taught us how to tie our scarves properly. I've always thought our navy blue scarves add a nice touch to our uniform, making us look smarter and a little more lively, as if any minute we would break out into a jig. We fold the triangular neckerchief in half lengthwise twice, then knot it much like yuppies do their ties. I still do it awkwardly - I have not arrived at creaseless perfection yet - but I hope I'll get there someday. Otherwise, you might think, I'm doomed: how can I remember everything I'm supposed to learn if I can't even tie my scarf right.

We then moved on to a lecture on nutrition. Besides reviewing your usual carbs-proteins-fats-vitamins-minerals codex characteristic of food science, we also got to see the different food pyramids representing Asian, Mediterranean and Latin American diets. Canadians, we learned, use a "rainbow" instead of a pyramid.

Then we learned how to identify some essential kitchen equipment. We viewed a slideshow and - yippee! - stepped into the kitchen for the first time. Chef Vic showed us more kitchen tools, sternly reminding us not to put undercooked potatoes in the masher - it will break and we'll have to replace it - and to always use a stainless steel pan when preparing acidic and cream-based food. If we use pots and/or whisks made of aluminum, the food will react with the metal and turn an unappetizing (and poisonous) shade of green.

We learned how to open and shut the gas line and some basic safety procedures. One by one, we practiced lighting the stove and oven. I was gently corrected when I lit the burner in front of me first - it makes more sense to turn on the one farthest from me first so I don't burn myself (drat! See how smartly I conduct myself!). The ovens were a lot trickier - very few people managed to fire them up because the igniters started dying on us. We are going to try the exercise again on Friday.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 1: In which we meet our chef, and receive our syllabus

The night class instructor for Level 1 is chef Vic Sanchez, a former economist and member of the late senator Raul Roco's Senate staff. He also managed his family's restaurant for seven years and cooked for several major hotels in the Philippines, including the Mandarin.

In his first lecture, he talked about the giants of French culinary tradition: Boulanger, the "inventor" of the restaurant; Careme, who helped formalize cooking techniques; and Escoffier, the pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, a healthier kind of cooking with lighter sauces and respect for ingredients' distinct, natural flavors and whose Le Guide Culinaire is still considered the chef's bible.

There are two women and 19 men in my class. We are a diverse bunch - among our ranks are a call center agent, veterinarian, banker, a nursing board review center operator and a sexagenarian OFW recruiter.

This is our syllabus (click on the photo to zoom in):

Day 1: School orientation

As with any other academic institution, we started our first day with an orientation. Mark Anthony Catarojja, GCHA administrator and human resources manager, briefed us on Global Academy's background and the regulations, grading system and requirements we needed to take note of as students. The pertinent points of his talk include:

Global Culinary & Hospitality Academy's history
* Founded on February 28, 2007; our campus in Ortigas was the very first branch
* Timog in Quezon City will be the future site of GCHA's first restaurant
* Statistics: 399 diploma course graduates, 59 certificate course graduates, 84 Fast Track students, 18 batches graduated
* Industry partners and on-the-job training (OJT) venues (I wanted to know about this when I was inquiring but the school personnel I spoke to were coy about it): Shangri-la, Mandarin Oriental, Hyatt, Sofitel, Dusit Thani, The Peninsula, Sheraton, Hilton, Crowne Plaza
* Mr. Catarojja also said that students are now getting a chef's knife, paring knife and steel - all "worth P7,000 and hand-picked by the chef-instructors" - as a gift because the school overshot its enrollment target by 200%. Was this the surprise he mentioned?

Grading system
* Grades are released a week after the final exam
* The passing mark is 75%
* On non-lab days, students are graded for participation in class
* Marking scheme:
Final practical exam 25%
Midterm practical exam 15%
Regular practical exam 15%
Final written exam 15%
Midterm written exam 10%
Quizzes 5%
Professional conduct 10%
Attendance, punctutality 5%

* Students can re-take their final written or final practical exams, or both, only once, but may not re-take their OJT. Students who pass the re-take automatically earn a final grade of 75%. Re-takes are subject to availability of the room and instructor and students also have to pay fees for ingredients and room use
* Loss of diploma privileges, which means the student only has the option to continue attending in-house training towards earning a certificate of attendance, occurs in the following instances: failing re-take exams; and failing two class levels
* Failing students will not move on to their OJT

Other program requirements
1. Student assistance (SA) hours
* Students can begin assisting chefs after the first week of Level 2
* At least 10 SA hours are required for each class level; 40 accumulated SA hours are required in preparation for OJT

2. Externship/OJT/Industry training
* 480 hours for Diploma in Culinary Arts; 600 hours for Grande Diploma, both in a single venue
* Termination from OJT leads to expulsion from GCHA
-complete admission requirements
-good professional conduct (violation of school rules leads to loss of endorsement)
-SA time card
-student clearance

Other school rules
1. Class attendance and punctuality
* More than two days' unexcused absences leads to a grade of zero in attendance
* Excused absences need to be supported by: a doctor's note in the event of illness; parents'/guardian's note in case of emergency or death in the family; a police report in case of an accident
* Tardiness of more than 30 mins after the start of class is considered an absence
* Being in incomplete uniform is also recorded as an absence
* An absence of more than one week without official notice is classified as absence without leave
* Tardiness is defined as being 1 minute late after the official start of class and after a break.
* Official breaks usually last for 20 minutes only.
* Unofficial/bathroom breaks are permitted when cleared with the instructor

* Littering is subject to a one-day suspension
* Off-limits: School office; lounge area (but the night students are exempted from this); classroom and kitchen while classes are ongoing
* Smoking inside or near school premises and chewing gum in class are no-nos

* Complete uniform includes the chef's jacket, plain white undershirt, pants, skullcap, scarf, apron, black/white clogs or work shoes, black socks and hairnet for women
* Jewelry, watches, perfume and make-up are not allowed
* Men are required to have short hair and be clean-shaven
* Wearing one's uniform at inappropriate venues (eg, at a costume party) is prohibited