January 27, 2011

oh my lobster

A big part of why I chose to come to culinary school was because of the hands-on aspect, and boy have I been getting it.

The first week we did spend a few days going over safety procedures (via hilariously outdated videos and horrific narratives of kitchen mishaps), plus getting our chef uniforms and knife kits.

knife set
(Thanks again to Maura for goodbye-gifting me the knife bag!)

But right after that we launched into food prep, which involved looking up recipes from the school's collection and just making them, guided here and there when we could manage to grab the chef instructor walking by.

I think there are maybe 100 of us first semester students, split into morning and afternoon sessions. The sessions are then split again into savory and pastry (to switch mid-semester). I'm in the morning session, currently on the savory side with Chef Morse, and amongst us 22 students we're divided into the breakfast, sandwich, salad, and service stations (in teams of 5), with 2 lucky students serving as student chefs.

Instead of arriving at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, students chefs have to come at 5:45, which meant nobody wanted to do it. I would say that Bernie and I got stuck with the job, but we both wanted to fill in wherever was needed, so we became it.

As student chefs we attend to all of the stations, locating ingredients and providing the occasional direction. We also get assigned special projects from Chef Morse, which at first meant things like steaming potatoes.

steamed potatoes

But it quickly escalated to juicing 6 pounds of greens for a frozen salad (more on that later), preparing things like red wine jus and roasted garlic mustard dressing and lemon sabayon (yay sauces!) for demonstrations to advanced culinary students, and then one day there was a recipe involving fresh lobster.

lobsters in box

Three of them came in the box. And they were very much alive, waving their constricted pinchers in vain whenever provoked. Chef Morse said we would be doing something like twisting their heads off with our hands, which of course I assumed we would do after they were cooked (having been coaxed into a nice hot bath...). I assumed wrong and experienced the "Julie and Julia" lobster scene moment of utter panic.

A neighboring chef instructor deftly knifed one through the head (which is apparently the most humane way of killing them, since it is instant). Then I watched Chef Morse repeat the gesture of inserting the blade into the top and slicing clean through between the eyes. Then there was one lobster left. I had to do it.

After I sliced it the lobster stretched upwards and started crawling forward. That was terrifying, especially since it exceeded the chefs' description of death rattle (when the nerve impulses are jerking around for life but any known consciousness has ceased). So I knifed it again, just to correct any possible mistake.

fresh lobster

This was the first time I've single-handedly killed something larger than a fly (or cockroach), and I don't know how I feel about it. I am still going to eat meat, I think.

But I noticed that after the lobster was cut up into pieces, my feelings toward it were completely different. And I think the food industry is such that meat is completely depersonalized, and people would feel differently if they were closer to the sources of their meat/food.

But enough musing, as I have to get to sleep so I can hustle another day, though no longer as student chef (since we rotate every week). I hope to be able to post more often, but 7-8 hours of class a day does make it hard. Wish me luck!

January 20, 2011

everything new and crazy

Culinary school has begun, but before I delve into that I just wanted to recap the craziness that has been the new year.

My first week was spent being sick, leftover from December and all the stress that came with packing my life up and moving. After sleeping through days and drinking tea on repeat, I finally caved to antibiotics, which was just as well since I had an sinus/ear infection. Luckily I got better to go room-hunting in San Francisco for a day, and was able to find a room right by campus.

Spent a week in Hawaii, most of which was spent visiting my best friend on the Big Island. Made sure to indulge in some local Hawaiian cuisine, which is meat and starch heavy, something which I think is shared by many physical labor-intensive countries (Latin American rice/beans/pork/plantains, African corn/cassava/dough/fried stuff, etc.).

Helena's Hawaiian Foods
This is the kind of food that would be at a lu'au, even though I didn't get to attend one.

I finally eat a loco moco
Loco Moco: a traditional plate usually consisting of hamburger patty and fried egg served over rice and drenched in gravy (though this had the addition of mushrooms and onions).

Spaghetti Chicken Combo
A fast food fried chicken and spaghetti combo.

It's interesting that Hawaii's food is composed of many different cuisines: Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Korean (kalbi in the first picture of this post), Chinese (won ton noodles are even offered on fast food menus), etc.

You can see the influences in the desserts as well:

And it is delicious
Shaved ice: usually topped with crack seeds, pickled plums and the like (Japanese/Chinese).

Mochi ice cream (Japanese).

Their famed sweetbreads (in different
flavors like guava and taro)
Sweetbreads (Filipino).

But what I really wanted to talk about, besides the exploration of Hawaiian cuisine, is the discovery of novel cooking methods, like the way they toast hot dogs in Hawaii. They have these nail-like irons that they stick the uncut buns on, which toasts the inside of the bread and gives it a toasty crispness that you wouldn't expect with hot dogs.

Bun Irons & Mustard Taps
I can just imagine using that for other purposes, like maybe a creme brulee puff with the crispy top actually inside. Crazy, I know.

But anyway, after a week in Hawaii I flew back, immediately moved in to that room I found, and started classes the next day at 6:30 in the morning. I still haven't recovered, and probably won't for a bit since I have class 40 hours a week, but I'll try to post again soon.