Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bull and The Pig

Today was one of those days where I really enjoy being a student at the Culinary Institute of America. Few people have the privilege of waking up on an ordinary, snowy March morning, walking a hundred steps from their dorm room, and witnessing a mad genius, speaking of his philosophy towards food for an hour and a half. Then, sprint to the library across campus and witness a personal hero prepare a dish they have wet dreams about, and actually get to speak to her. The conversation may have only lasted a minute, but was more meaningful than a lot of conversations that person has had with most friends.

Yes, I am speaking of my experiences today, and the two chefs I am referring to are Ferran Adria, the Spaniard who has changed the way people think about food, forever, and the British chef who is doing (in my opinion) some of the greatest stuff on the planet right now and who I personally adore, April Bloomfield.

I went to the gym an hour early to try and get a seat for the Ferran Adria lecture, and when I arrived, I discovered that just about the entire school had the same idea as me, and that the entire gym had been reserved by teachers, and that in order to get a spot I would have to lie about whose class I was in, and risk the wrath of that instructor, but nothing was going to stand between myself and Ferran. So I jumped past the guard and snuck to a seat and waited for it all to begin.

When Ferran finally came out, I discovered that the discussion was to be about a new book released called "The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at El Bulli." El Bulli is the restaurant that changed it all; Ferran's mothership and a mecca for cooks and diners world wide. It is open for six months a year, and the other six months are spent at their test kitchen, developing the menu for the next season. They receive 2 million reservation requests anually, but can only fill 8,000 a year. Forty courses per guest come out of the kitchen for each of the forty some odd guests nightly. Ferran is so innovative, that he only has to pay about three or four of his kitchen employees. Cooks and executive chefs from the best restaurants all over the country beg the man to let them pick herbs for him. He bases his entire kitchen staff off of free, yet extremely skilled labor. Cooks jump at the opportunity to experience the works first hand, even if they do not speak spanish, or get paid. The book was about these stagiers, these nomadic students of cuisine.

Crazy dishes like liquid ham fritters, spherical olives that are like olive flavored gushers, Mussel spheres in a potato and bacon soup with dots of double cream and cubes of apple jelly, grace the menu and make the guest wonder if what theyre enjoying ever was in fact actually food. Ferran is both known as a genius for what he does, and a culinary terrorist for giving others the idea that they can do things he does, when in fact they cant. They can't take six months a year to just play around in a kitchen, they don't have an innumerable army of the most intelligent, talented, and passionate cooks begging to work crazy hours for no pay at all, and they don't have the balls to taste something, love it, put it in front of a guest who has traveled across the fucking planet and paid thousands of dollars in total just to eat your food, knowing fully well that half of the diners will hate it, and the other half of the diners will see it as the most brilliant bite of food they have ever had in their lives. These are the liberties that Ferran has developed, that make him a one of a kind chef at a one of a kind restaurant.

The most memorable moment of his speech was when he said something along these lines: People often think of my food as strange, because they dont understand it, but I don't believe it is. There is no such thing as strange cuisine, only strange cooks.

And god damn it, I smiled and took a little confidence out of that bold statement, because I am one strange fellow.

But El Bulli, the restaurant will close its doors in July, never to open for another service ever again. Instead Ferran is doing what he has always intended to do with the restaurant. He is opening it to the world, while closing it to guests. He's turning it into a food research institute, that posts live updates worldwide of all the innovations and developments his cooks are making, as they happen. You may not be able to eat his cuisine, but it will be more easily experienced than it ever was before.

As soon as he was finished I ran to the library to get a seat to see April Bloomfield prepare blood sausage with a fried duck egg. A dream dish for me. And she started it out in the most picturesque way possible. She began sweating a shit house of bacon and red onion, until it was a sweet, salty, porky jam. I was hooked.

She continued making the dish and taking questions and I was just admiring the process and quietly trying to muster up the courage to ask her the question I had been dying to ask. And just as she finished up the final touches on her dish, I raised my hand and was given a microphone. I just prayed that my voice wouldn't crack of I wouldn't choke on my own spit like I tend to do when I'm nervous. I took a breath, and these words slowly came out of my mouth.

"It's obvious that there is a trend towards utilizing offals in America, and I think that you're one of the people that should take a large part of the thanks for this happening. But when you first opened The Spotted Pig, were you at all tentative or nervous in implementing all these dishes with things like pigs ears, tongues, and livers to a target market that had never been introduced to these ingredients?" She smiled and looked me in the eye, which she didn't really do to anyone else. She stopped what she was doing to look at me, and to give me her direct response. Her answer was something like this:

You know what, I never really gave it a second thought. I wanted to serve my guests the things I love to eat and love to cook, and if they don't like it, well I really don't care. There are plenty of other restaurants in the neighborhood that will cater to their specific tastes. I cook the food I like, because its what I know and I do it with love.

I smiled, thanked her, and just like that the whole demo was over. I sat in my seat as the auditorium emptied and pondered her advice, paired with what Adria said. There was an overwhelming theme of both of the day's lectures. Do what you want to do, do it with passion, do it with love, and don't listen to any of the morons who try and knock you off your track because chances are you are more knowledgeable than they are. Take risks, for Christ's sake.

I graduate in less than 3 months. And these bits of advice and unlimited wisdom really helped ease some of the anxiety I have about leaving school for good, and trying to do what I need to do. I know what I need to do now. I'll be in touch with some friends in the Dairyland for advice, a point in the right direction, and to catch up on things. I've gotta talk to people at the CIA. ANd I've gotta let the people who I plan on working for know that I'm here, and I'm ready to hit the ground running.

Busy week ahead of me. Finishing wines and starting the restaurant life at the CIA. On top of trying to get all my other shit sorted out. Should be fun.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Champagne and Cheetos: Wine "Studies"

For those who do not know, Wine Studies is the most difficult class at the Culinary Institute of America. It requires a ton of studying, and a ton of knowledge retention. We are not only expected to know grape varietals, different wine making techniques, and how to pair wine with food, but by the end of the class, I should be able to look at a glass of wine, smell it, and taste it, and be able to tell what kind of grape the wine is made of, where it was grown, and roughly how old the wine is (for reds, mostly, as most white wines aren't aged). Not only is this class the most demanding class I've encountered in my entire life, it signals the beginning of the end.

My schedule at the CIA is divided into 5 fifteen week terms. And the start of Wines Class means the beginning of fifth term. Thirteen weeks from tomorrow will be my last day of school, ever.

Let me walk you through what we learn about wines. The class takes a region by region approach. First was California, including Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Central Cali. There are hundreds of AVA's (American Viticultural Areas) found in California. AVA's are the special place names that can be written on a label that will usually indicate quality in a wine and raise the price. For example, Napa Valley is an AVA known for its incredible Cabernet Sauvignon. Inside Napa Valley, there are tons of AVA's, such as Rutherford and Stag's Leap. We are expected to know what grape varietals each area is known for and what qualities of the region, whether it be climate or soil, effect the grape and how they effect the finished wine.

The Green Valley AVA, of the Russian River Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a large amount of sparkling wines. But the Dry Creek Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Zinfandel and Syrah grapes, because it's climate is slightly warmer than the rest of Sonoma County, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir need a cooler climate. It's a lot of fucking valleys, creeks, rivers, counties, and AVA's to memorise, along with a lot of grapes and wines. It gets repetative, but it has to be crystal clear, or you fail and pay 4200 to retake the class.

And that's just the US. Foreign countries don't even have to put the type of grape on the label. While in the US, the label will read 2006 Reisling from "Such and Such Vineyards" from the Willamette Valley, Oregon; the French label their wines by the region the grape is grown. A bottle of French wine may read "Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, (Fill in the blank winery) 2007". We have to know that the the Region of the Loire River valley where the grape is grown is Muscadet de Sevre et Maine. There are regions called Muscadet, Muscadet Gros, etc. The grape primarily grown in this region is not Muscat, which would only make things easier, no, it's a grape called "Melon de Burgogne" which means Melon from Burgundy. To make things worse, the grapes neither taste like melon, nor do they come from Burgundy. The "Sur Lie" means that the grape itsself is pretty simple and straightforward, so in order to add some complexity to the wine, they age the wine with the yeast still in the wine and age it "On it's lees" or "sur lie". Thank God I took French in High School or I'd be lost.

And you know what, were cooks damn it, so we should be able to know what foods go with wines. The Muscadet I mentioned earlier would be awesome with oysters on the half shell, a Melbec from Argentina would be killer with big fatty steak, a super dry Riesling from Alsace would go great with some choucroute (sauerkraut slowly cooked with bacon, sausage, and other smoked delicious pork products; a combination I've been craving since I tasted a riesling from the Finger Lakes on Friday). When we have tastings in class, we taste about ten wines every night, we have to imagine foods that would pair well with each wine. Yesterday, while tasting Champagnes (from the Champagne region of France... nothing else can be considered true Champagne) a particular pairing was mentioned by our snobby ass wine professor. Apparently a student of his had mentioned once that a nice bottle of champagne and bag of cheetos was a sublime combination. Our teacher doubted the validity of the statement, and proceeded to pick up a bag of cheetos on his way home, and popped a bottle of "Brut, Blanc des Blancs, Premier Cru Non Vintage" (Which is a dry champagne made from only chardonnay grapes, from the first growth signifying quality, and made with grapes from several different years). He described the tandem as "killer". I knew at that moment that I had to try it.

So today, a study day, meaning that we don't have class and are expected to spend the day catching up on reading, a few friends and myself, decided to do a little tasting from our dorm rooms. There was a bottle of champagne, cheetos, seven other bottles of wine, a vast spread of takeout chinese food, and six studious cooks, looking to develop their palates and wine knowledge while getting hammered on a day off school. I have to say, that the cheeto and champagne were to die for. Try it yourself, take a bite of a cheeto (preferably of the "puff" variety) then sip the champagne. The fatty, cheesy powder on the puff coats your palate, then the acidity from the champagne cuts through the fat brilliantly, and the bubbles (as if they were the magical scrubbing bubbles from the cleaning product ads) magically lift the cheesey powder away and prepare you for another cheeto. I could have eaten the whole bag and drank the whole bottle, but I had to share. The standout pairing of the chinese take out was an off dry riesling with spare ribs. They were slightly smoky, and salty because of an abundance of soy and hoisin. Holy Shit.

I tend to talk shit about the CIA public in general. The school is only slightly corrupt, and the majority of the student body is pretentious, cocky, and not willing to work as hard as a young cook needs to in order to make it in this industry. It's a ton of talk, and not nearly enough walk. But I have to say, I'm lucky to have settled into a niche of friends who are not only really great people, but pretty damn hard workers, and pretty talented cooks. And today I learned what restaurant I'll be in for the first six weeks of restaurant row, and was pleasantly surprised to find that all of my friends will be slaving away with me, bangin out covers, and bustin each others' balls. It'll be the closest I'll have been to recreating the environment in the kitchen at L'Etoile. A few really close cooks, lots of jokes, lots of hard work, and as soon as somebody slips into the weeds your buddy will have your back and all will be okay. And after Friday night service, we sit and enjoy a nice beverage, and talk shit. I cannot wait.

City this weekend. Interesting plans, stay tuned.

Until then enjoy your champagne and cheetos, and thank me later for the suggestion.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's Been A While

I realize that its been about a month since my last post. I've been busy as hell with class, and traveling a lot, and honestly, I just haven't had time to write anything at all. It seems like just moments ago I was in my Cuisines of the Mediterranean class, and I blinked my eyes, and suddenly I've finished that class and my banquets and catering class and I'm getting ready for my wine class.

I've had some great weekends and visits to the City in that time too. Family members have come several times and it was a great chance to show them a first hand glimpse of what I do on a bi-weekly basis. First, my mom came along with my sister (surprise) to visit my Aunt and Uncle in CT, then go to the city. Visits to Ssam Bar, Artichoke Pizza, Milk Bar, and the ever so disappointing Doughnut Plant were on the agenda, and we enjoyed the shit out of it all. Anna even ate a few things she never had before and did a fairly decent job keeping up with me. She took the competition factor seriously, but still didn't match my level. I handed her the olive branch when I didn't go for the dirty water hot dog from the street cart which would have made me the undisputed champion.

I guess that one of the reasons I haven't posted in a while because my family came to visit. The reason I started writing this whole thing was because I was hundreds of miles away from them and I wanted to share my experiences with them, but they saw it for themselves this time. I had a blast and they did too.

A few weeks later I went back to the city because my Aunt from Texas was in town visiting with friends. She brought a friend with her from Texas too and wanted to take me and a friend out with them to dinner. I picked a spot and brought along my friend Taylor, who you may remember from previous posts. We met them at Convivio a one michelin starred restaurant in Midtown East. It's owned by Michael White, a Chef who has several restaurants, all featuring different regions of Italian cuisine. Convivio is his southern Italian restaurant. I ordered the fusili carbonara for my first course. Tender hand made fusili pasta with pancetta, pecorino romano cheese, and finished with egg yolk. It was incredible. And for my second course I got the Parmigiano crusted veal chop with guanciale brussell sprouts. It was a beautiful rendition of several of my favorite things in life. Salty cheese, caramelized brussel sprouts with pork fat, and tender baby animal. It was a great meal, with great company. I hadn't seen my aunt in years. Just spending time with her would have been good enough, but being able to have such a great meal at such a great location made it a very memorable night.

I finished my banquets and catering cooking class, which was pretty easy. I mean, before school I rocked out banquets for 800 people with a smaller crew in a smaller kitchen. 72 should have been a joke, but yet again, people at the CIA manage to over think and under prepare for shit and the shit hits the fan. But we survived. Then we started serving the banquets... thats right, for seven days I had to take drink orders and fill water glasses. The thing was, I actually didn't suck at it. And it was easy as shit.

Then the day came. The end goal of this class is that one class cooks the banquet for a graduation ceremony, and the other groups serves it. My group was responsible for serving it, and as group leader I was responsible for serving the VIP table. The table included CIA President Tim Ryan, Three Michelin Star Chef Laurent Gras formerly Chef of L20 in Chicago, and several Chef instructors from the CIA. I had visions of wine being dumped all over Gras, or hot coffee being spilt on Tim Ryan's lap, but as the day arrived, I had a sense of calm assuredness that everything would be fine. And it was. I was instructed to hover near the table to make sure that everyone had everything they needed. So, as they sipped they water, wine, and nibbled on their bread I listened intently to each of their conversations, and it was really interesting to hear what they talked about. Gras, a frenchman, is extremely interested in cycling and the Tour de France, so they discussed cycling, skiing, and other sports for a while, and then they discussed food trends, which nation was going to have the next big thing in the food world, and they discussed the Michelin system. They even took time to discuss "Giggles" a sex shop just north of campus.

When it was all over, I thanked the table, told them it was an honor to serve them today, and walked away. The strangest thing though, was that I realized in 15 short weeks, it will be me and my family sitting at those tables. In another blink of an eye I will be finished with school, and out in the world, working my ass off yet again. I'm ready for this vacation I call school to be over, and quick. Time to get back to reality, and out of this Hogwarts for cooks.

But shit, I still need a job.