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.