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Food Studies: Haute Cuisine Time Trials
Restaurant cooking is a funny thing; it calls for creativity and artful assembly, but at the same time requires an almost machine-like consistency and sensitivity to detail. Essentially, it is a restaurant's goal to cook a menu of unique and interesting dishes, but also to have each dish come out exactly the same every time.
For the last month or so at the French Culinary Institute, we have been practicing just this. Level III (of six) is based on a menu of sixteen dishes—four appetizers, four fish dishes, four meat dishes, and four desserts—that students rotate through, sometimes preparing the dishes as a group, sometimes with a partner, and sometimes alone. Four plates of the assigned dish are prepared and brought to the chef instructors for critique at a set time.
If this sounds vague and completely monotonous, bear with me as I walk you through last night in more colorful detail. My partner and I were assigned dishes from the garde manger and saucier stations (appetizer and meat), and were slated to present potage cultivateur (vegetable soup) and pot au feu (stewed beef short ribs) at 8:45 and 9:30, respectively. Cooking began around 6:15, and we started with the short ribs, which needed to be blanched immediately and stewed stovetop for at least two hours.
Then, it was a marathon of various taillage, (which you're familiar with from the last post)—for the soup: emincer leeks and celery, chiffonade cabbage, paysanne carrots, turnips, and potatoes, macedoine green beans. For the stew: cocotte carrots, turnips, and potatoes. Trimmings (scraps) were cut into mirepoix and used for vegetable stock. Short ribs and vegetable stock simmering away, we cooked the vegetables for the stew à l’anglaise (in boiling, salted water) and started on the soup by sweating bacon (because in France, not even vegetable soup is vegetarian), then leeks and celery on the flat top. Carrots and turnips were added, vegetable stock was strained and poured in, then cabbage, and later the potatoes, which are the soup's binding element.
By now, it's 8:15 and about time to start thinking about plating. I bring plates and bowls over to our station while my partner slices bread and grates cheese for the croutons that will garnish the soup. Bowls go in the oven around 8:20 (hot food = hot plates, and when it comes to soup, there is no such thing as a too-hot bowl), and we taste the soup to check the seasoning. It tastes like bacon and not much else, so we add salt and pepper, taste again, more salt, taste, more salt, taste, more salt, taste, more salt. The flavor is still a little bacon-y, but the salt does help to bring out the vegetable flavors.
Croutons go in the oven at 8:35, just until the cheese melts properly. Four equal-sized pieces of chervil are picked, and we set up a serving tray with four doily-lined plates. Bowls come out of the oven at 8:41, and we ladle the soup into them at 8:42; this gives us enough time to make sure each bowl has the proper ratios of bacon/vegetables/broth, but not so much time that the soup gets cold. At 8:44, two croutons are placed on the side of each bowl, garnished with a piece of chervil.
We carry the tray up at 8:45 exactly, and give a plate each to the two chef instructors. They think it tastes bacon-y, too, and maybe a touch salty. One of the bowls has too much vegetable and not enough broth, but the taillage is consistent, the soup and the bowls are adequately hot, and the croutons are on point.
We bring the tray back to our station, taste the soup again, and vow to use less bacon next time. The plates and bowls go to the dishwasher, and we turn our attention to the pot au feu. I pick the meat out and strain the cooking liquid, which then gets skimmed and put back on the stove to reduce. I take the meat off the bone, trim it, then cover it to keep it from drying out. My partner starts on the sauce Raifort that will accompany the stew: cook the roux, add stock, let it simmer and reduce, add cream, add salt and horseradish to taste.
Again, I gather plates and bowls, and at 9:15 I fill each with the appropriate vegetable garniture (one each of carrot, potato, and turnip cocottes, a piece of leek, and a piece of celery) and put them in the oven. I season the reduced cooking liquid (salt, salt, salt) and put the meat back in with it to heat. We taste the sauce Raifort and realize that the roux wasn’t cooked long enough—the flour taste comes through and it’s a little bit glue-y. It’s too late to do it over, though, so it gets put in a ramekin to serve. Bowls come out of the oven at 9:27, and two pieces of meat are placed in each, along with the vegetable garniture already there. Broth is ladled into each bowl, and we carry the tray up at 9:29, setting it in front of the chefs at 9:30.
The portioning and ratios of meat/vegetables/broth are correct and consistent from bowl to bowl. They like the meat; it’s cooked nicely and properly trimmed. The leek is too big and a little bit crunchy in the middle, but all of the other vegetables are right. The broth is a little bit greasy, and they’re not so happy with the gluey sauce Raifort (it's pretty bad), but overall the dish is quite good. We take the tray back to the station, throw out the sauce immediately, eat some of the stew, and start cleaning up.
What sounds like a somewhat tedious exercise in repetition and consistency is actually a really engaging, hands-on process. Gertrude Stein, when asked about the key to good writing, said, "to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write." The same holds true for cooking (for anything, really); you cook something, then cook it better the next time. Level III is essentially a drill in plating, timing, and consistency, and its repetitive nature is what makes us all better cooks.
To be continued...
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