Ever notice how once life gets in a rhythm..time just seems to fly by? It seemed but only a few days ago that I first donned my PCI whites and strode, a fresh-faced greenhorn, into my first day of stocks and sauces. But after six months of burns, cuts, cussing, pounding red bulls and messing up a hell of a lot…well…I’m still green. But I had the privelage to learn (and struggle) under some amazing instructors, and I can say I understand food a lot better than before. And from that knowledge comes greater admiration and respect for the craft.
But really, to write up my cumulative thoughts on my time in school would require more than a paltry paragraph. (Perhaps another entry.) Heh, but obviously it’s been awhile since we’ve written, so we’ll start out easy just to get the juices flowing. I guess we’ll begin with the end…my final menu.
So the premise of the final was pretty simple: prepare a three course tasting to be served to the judges, consisting of an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Utilize only the specific ingredients named on a list, and nothing more. Three plates of each must be made, totaling nine dishes. The three courses must exhibit a unifying theme, and judging will be based on workflow, efficiency, timing, taste, appearence, creativity, technique and execution. You have three hours. You can almost see it in your head:
…the chairman takes a step back, eyes intent on the camera…a moment of silent tension…and then he flings his hand towards the heavens and screams:
Star-Anise Poached Lobster, Avocado Puree, Citrus Supremes
Something about shelling out 25 bucks for little more than a pound of meat makes you a lot more cautious when cooking it. But for all its hype, taking a lobster from thrashing-on-the-board live to buttery goodness on a plate isn’t as intimidating as one would think. It all lies in the timing. Well…having no qualms about driving a knife through a live creature’s head helps too.
Shelling a lobster is something of an art…it takes a certain amount of finesse to get nice presentable pieces of meat. Generally, cooking it properly ensures that the meat pulls away from the shell. If not, it sticks to the shell, and you end up with lobster confetti. Anyway, we make a quick beurre monte (an emulsified butter sauce) and flavor it with whole star anise. The shelled lobster goes in the star anise beurre monte and infuses/cooks until service. A quick avocado puree made with olive oil, champagne vinegar and lemon juice, and then we supreme some beautiful orange/blood orange segments. Toss in some dressed frisee and that’s about it.
Lobster poached in butter? It’s hard to go wrong…but the star anise adds a little twist to the flavor. And while you’re soaking in the richness, the sweet and tangy citrus comes in and cuts it a bit. The fat in the avocado puree helps the flavors to meld together, while still remaining bright from the vinegar and lemon juice. A little dressed frisee for texture, and bam, there’s your app.
Sichuan Style Smoked Duck Breast, Duck Confit Soup Dumplings , Celeriac Puree, Baby Spring Vegetables, Ginger-Citrus Sauce
If the app was relatively simple…then this, in contrast, was probably most damned complicated dish I’ve ever made…but as I’m steadily coming to learn, complexity isn’t always a good thing.
First we take a whole duck (no, not live) and butcher it up. The legs and breasts get cured overnight in a mix of star anise, 5-spice and other assorted goodies. Once out of the cure, the breasts are cold smoked with a mix of black tea leaves. After the breast picks up the scent of tea leaves, it gets scored and thrown into a pan. Low heat for 15 minutes or so, and the fat should have rendered out, leaving that crispy duck skin everybody loves. Meanwhile the duck legs are used to make duck confit. This is a pretty traditional French preparation, intended to preserve meat for long periods of time. In order to get super-rich, fall-off-the-bone tender meat, the legs are submerged in duck fat, then cooked on super low heat overnight. 30 minute meals, this is not.
Convenient segway: this, to me, has definitely been something I’ve picked up in my time at school: Good things take time. I love slow food. For me, sometimes what distincts a good dish from a “I can die happy” dish is a matter of time. I mean, look at it…pork shoulder, lamb leg, short ribs, pork belly, these used to be considered “undesirable” cuts of meat. But mesquite smoke that pork shoulder for 14 hours, or red wine braise those short ribs for 4 hours, and what was once an unwanted cut of meat becomes the most delectable dish you’ve had this week. And that’s the beauty of cooking, taking something normal and mundane, and making it into something transcendental. I’ll take that braised pork belly over the filet mignon any day. (Maybe it’s Chinese in me.)
Anyway, back to the entree…
For the dumplings, I essentially tried to make xiao long bao. If you aren’t in the know, Xiao long bao are known as a Shanghai specialty, and are prized not only for their flavor, but for the unique quality of containing a bit of hot soup inside. The result is a sumptuous bite of…well…heaven. (And scalded taste buds if you aren’t careful.) Haha, yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “That pretentious little bastard!” People spend their entire lives trying to master this technique and here I am trying to put it on my final. Obviously mine fell quite a bit short…if we can even call them xiao long bao. Anyway, instead of the traditional pork filling, I filled the dumplings with shredded duck confit along with a cube of gelatinized duck stock, which would melt upon steaming, thus mimicking the prized soup quality of xiao long bao.
A quick celery root puree, blanched sauteed spring vegetables, and a ginger-soy-citrus sauce later and we’re there.
Right, so, before you cry foul and scream “hypocrite!” I’ll beat you to the punch and admit that these aren’t really traditional Chinese dishes. Consider them my “take,” utilizing French technique, while still maintaining a distinctively Chinese flavor profile.
Longan Mousse with Sesame-Honey Tuile
Compressed Kaffir-Lime Mango with Blood Orange Syrup and Candied Kumquats
Macha Ice Cream
Ehhh…this isn’t really the best picture out there of the dessert course, but it’ll have to do.
Dessert. The dreaded downfall of many a cook. (Just ask the guys on Top Chef.) The less said about this course the better. There’s a reason there are pastry chefs and there are savory chefs…but more on that another time. Given the debacle that was my baking and pastry final, I steered clear of cakes…and tried to keep the individual components as simple as possible, while still maintaining some uniqueness.
The trio starts with a longan (dragon’s eye) mousse that is most delicate flavor-wise. If you’ve ever had lychee, the flavor is somewhat similar. The mousse has a bit of richness from the cream, but still maintains a light and fluffy texture and the whisper of longan flavor.
Next comes the compressed kaffir-lime mango. Ever see vacuum-packed meat with all the air removed from the bag? Yeah it’s like that. The mango takes on a deeper, darker hue, almost having a jewel-like quality from both the infusion of the syrup and the compression. So what you get is a deep, sweet mango flavor that ends with a hint of the kaffir lime to pick things up.
Lastly, the macha ice cream ends the trio as the richest of the three components. The sweetness of vanilla and sugar is tempered by the slight bitterness of the macha powder, while the sesame-honey tuile lends some nice, nutty crunch.
So then, how did it all go? Well, in hindsight I learned one key lesson: When you spread your focus across several tasks, the quality of each component suffers. Basically, like many young cooks, I just tried to do too much. So even as your vision for a meal remains firm, your execution wavers.
And that all points back to one of the key tenets of fine cooking…do the simple stuff, perfectly. All the truffle stuffed foie gras in the world won’t matter if you can’t cook a pork loin perfectly. Or put another way, a perfectly cooked, tender chicken breast speaks volumes more about a cook’s ability than some fanciful-looking lobster dish.
So at the risk (or the assurance) of sounding cheesy…what has school taught me? That I still have much to learn. (In a good way.) That I’m still an infant cook, but all that I picked up in school has set me up to continue learning, relishing, and celebrating cuisine as long as I decide to walk this road.
…yeah that was pretty cheesy.
(By the way, I’ve a bunch of photos I’d like to eventually put on the blog…but for some reason they keep on de-saturating when viewed with Firefox vs. Safari. Anyone have any experience with this?)