Archive for the ‘education’ Category
Well, my internship at the James Beard House is over and my feelings about it are mixed. I miss spending the day working with food, putting my skills to use, and using new equipment. I miss preparing ingredients that I would normally (or rarely) be in contact with, such as truffles, fresh-from-the-farm baby golden beets, and micro-celery. I miss the adrenaline rush at service time, when 80 beautifully designed, identical plates have to get out in 5 minutes, which has to be repeated at least half a dozen times, and usually more. It’s a rush that lingers even at the end of the night, when it’s 11 p.m. and you’ve been on your feet for 12 or 13 hours, and your feet are throbbing and your back is screaming and your fingers ache from chopping several pounds of onions, and your hands are scarred and burned from the momentary lapses in memory or judgment, when you forget that the pot was only just turned off or the sheet pan has been sitting on the industrial pilot light all afternoon. I miss the satisfied smiles on people’s faces as they come through the kitchen to leave, and their comments about how fabulous everything was. I miss being part of that creation. I miss the satisfying contrast of having just done a shift doing something I love when I am at my full-time job hating what I’m doing. It gave me something to look forward to—a glimmer of hope that there is something else out there for me.
What I don’t miss is being on my throbbing feet for 12 or 13 hours, the backaches, the painful burns. I don’t miss getting home at midnight, thoroughly exhausted, yet unable to fall asleep because of the adrenaline still coursing through my body, and having to get up early to go to work the next day.
If I were younger, I would probably be able to deal with the “cons” for the rewarding “pros” of restaurant/catering work. But, unfortunately, I came to this juncture in the road later in life and, physically, it’s just not something I can do full time. Sure, I can handle it on a temporary basis, in short spurts, or occasionally. But all the time? No. I’ve been a personal chef and that is exhausting as well, but it’s on a totally different level in terms of time constraints and control, both of which are in your hands. But it’s also a tough business to negotiate. You’re totally in control…and you’re totally responsible. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, bookkeeping, marketing, etc. Just the marketing alone was daunting enough to make me run and scream. So, I’m looking elsewhere.
But I digress. I was talking about James Beard and I wanted to share some of my observations.
While every chef had a different take on food, a different disposition, and a different way of running a kitchen, I also noticed some common riffs. For example, ice cream was a common component of dessert. I understand this, since one of the rules of good meal planning is to use a combination of textures. Ice cream fits the “smooth and creamy” bill easily and it’s a crowd pleaser. But I read somewhere a criticism of the use—or rather, overuse—of ice cream in desserts. Whoever it was said that they were sick of seeing ice cream in every chi-chi dessert. On one hand, I agree. Surely, these highly acclaimed chefs could find something else to fill that texture bill; on the other hand, people really love ice cream and the flavors that can be created are boundless. (Of course, some people get a little out of control with the flavors, but that’s another story.)
Another similar theme was the use of gaufrettes (waffle chips). One chef using them was not remarkable; three chefs using them meant it was a trend. It told me that waffle chips have become a go-to item to make dishes look pretty and appealing. I don’t know if this has been the case for a long time or if it’s a relatively new trend, but personally I can take gaufrettes or leave them.
I also noticed that most chefs have embraced the use of the “spoon push” when saucing plates. I know that there are only so many ways to sauce a dish, but pretty much everyone has adopted this particular practice. Micro greens were the ubiquitous garnish, but since the JB House supplied those, it made sense. Duck ham, or duck prosciutto, seems to be another currently hot product. Maybe it’s been around a while, I don’t know, but it was certainly new to me. Poached pears were also a popular dessert component.
Each chef also had their own little touches that were unique to him or her. Chef Kaldrovic, from Sea Glass at the Inn by the Sea, used his own homemade lobster oil to garnish his lobster bisque. Blackberry Farm used their own charcuterie. Chef Ryan Poli, of Tavernita in Chicago, created a really nice “natural” serving platter by combining kosher salt with whole spices. Tony Esnault, from Patina/Los Angeles, cut his imported French truffles into thin little circles to garnish various dishes. And Fortunato Nicotra at Felidia had his gluten-free ravioli, as well as housemade burrata. Only one dinner had themed drinks: Blue Inc., with their Anorexic Model (Pierre Ferrand Cognac with Lychee Bubbles, St. Germain, and Berry Garnish) and Blonde Afro Puff (Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow) and liquid PB&J, courtesy of wine director Tricia LaCount.
I also want to say the staff at the JB House were all so helpful, patient, and hard working. I always felt particularly terrible for the dishwashers as the evening went on and the massive piles of bowls, pots and pans, dishes, and multitude of utensils piled up higher and higher. Those guys have their work cut out for them.
The things I experienced and the lessons I learned at James Beard will always be in my mind as I move into the next phase of my life. I suspect that as I work with food, at home or at a job, I will have flashbacks to my days and nights at the JB House. I welcome those flashbacks as reminders that I was lucky enough to not only get a scholarship from the James Beard Foundation but to get some training at one of the most prestigious organizations in the culinary world. In the end, it may or may not get me where I want to go, but I’ll always have that particular notch on my belt. I met some really great people—some humble, some eccentric, all intensely focused on their art. If I learned only one thing, it’s that no one is perfect, not even highly acclaimed chefs at the top of their game who have been invited to cook at the James Beard House. And if those people can make mistakes and still be considered great chefs, then so can I.
Thanks to everyone at the James Beard House for being so nice. It was a pleasure to work with them all and I hope to see them again, as both a volunteer and a diner.
On Saturday February 25, 2012, I worked my last internship dinner at the James Beard House. I was so excited to get my hours completed so that I can get my diploma and move on. But I walked in there a little sad, too, knowing that it would be my last time, at least as a “student.”
This dinner was with Chef Jason Santos of Blue Inc. of Boston, and his theme was Modern Comfort Food. The idea was to take comfort foods, the kind many Americans remember from childhood, and “adultify” them—that is, to give them a modern take.
So, for example, one of the hors d’oeuvres was miniature corn dogs. But these dogs were made of kobe beef, which explains why I didn’t get that hot dog repeat action when I tasted it. I haven’t had a hot dog in more than 20 years, but the chef de cuisine, Brad, handed one to me after they were cooked, and everyone, including Chef Jason, was standing there watching. I felt obligated to taste it. But it wasn’t bad. Anyway, for that hors d’oeuvre, I cut up the hot dogs and skewered them on lollipop sticks, which I’d split in half for little mini munchies. Although, mixing the batter for the dipping of the dogs was the easiest thing I did all night, the frying was probably the most complicated because the Fryolater decided to be difficult on this night. Thankfully, I was not the one doing the frying.
The housemade ketchup was a flavorful sauce that was definitely a notch up from the store stuff. It was a nice balance of acid, sweet, and tomato flavor, and everyone was treated to a jar on their way out (I made sure to grab one for myself, too). The “pot roast” was actually short ribs, doughnuts were filled with fig jam, and…well, I really don’t know what the foie gras was supposed to represent but it was the focal point of a “PB&J”—it was served with a peanut purée, toast crumbs, and strawberry gelée. The Nutella powder on the seared scallops was another nod to childhood delights but served in an entirely new medium.
One hors d’oeuvre that was not on the menu was the deep-fried eggs. These eggs were soft-boiled, just until the whites were set, and I helped to very carefully peel them. This was a difficult task because they were truly just barely set and, therefore, so fragile that they broke open very easily. The other volunteer rolled them in flour, dipped them in beaten eggs, and coated them in panko breadcrumbs, and laid them out on a sheet pan. Later, they got lowered into Fryolater for a crisping. At that point, the hope was that they would not break in the oil. When diners cut into them, they got a yolky treat. Personally, I’m not a fan of runny yolks, but many people are and (I suppose) that was a delightful surprise for them.
I so wanted to try the pretzel rolls with mustard butter, but they all went like hot cakes. They were served as dinner rolls at the table but were made from pretzel dough, and the mustard was in place of butter. Needless to say, they were a big hit. They looked soooo good, too. Damn.
Probably the favorite part of the meal for most people was the soup course. This was Creamy Tomato–Goat’s Milk Soup with Pumpernickel Croutons and Micro-Basil, which was served in Campbell soup cans. No, really. The soup from the cans was dumped and was replaced with the homemade soup. I made the croutons, which I made really small to fit into the cans comfortably. The idea was to put a whimsical twist on an old favorite; people seemed to enjoy the whimsy.
The pre-dessert (which was a new concept for me) was a real throwback to after-school treats with a strawberry milkshake and jelly doughnut, and the dessert course was a holiday memory made up of Sticky Toffee Pudding with Gingerbread and Eggnog Ice Cream.
His wine director is Tricia LaCount, a really sweet person who mixed up some wild elixirs to accompany the menu. The most intriguing of her concoctions was the Amarena Cherry–Infused Vodka with Amarena Cherry and Peanut Butter Powder, which was essentially a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with a kick, of course). And the lingering flavor in the mouth really was like I’d just eaten a PB&J. I really would’ve loved to try her other drinks—especially the Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow—but she had set up her bar in the atrium, removed from the kitchen, and I just didn’t have the time to chase anything down, so to speak.
And so went my last James Beard event. I walked out happy, proud, relieved, and sad. I really am proud of my work there and despite moments of sheer depression over things that I’d done not quite right, I think I did most things right. I’m going to look back on this experience fondly and, hopefully, as the start of a whole new chapter of my life.
Kobe Corn Dogs with Housemade Ketchup
Deviled Eggs with Tuna Tartare and Olive Tapenade
Buttermilk-Fried Chicken Fingers
The Anorexic Model — Pierre Ferrand Cognac with Lychee Bubbles, St. Germain, and Berry Garnish
For the Table — Pretzel Rolls and Mustard Butter
Caesar Salad with Crispy Egg, White Anchovies, Crème Fraîche Dressing, and Pickled Onions
Krupp Brothers Chardonnay 2009
Pan-Seared Scallops with Slab Bacon, Tabasco-Soaked Cherries, Nutella Powder, and Maple Aïoli
Krupp Brothers Black Bart’s Bride 2007
Creamy Tomato—Goat’s Milk Soup with Pumpernickel Croutons and Micro-Basil
Krupp Brothers Black Bart’s Bounty Syrah 2007
Foie Gras PB&J with Peanut Purée, Toast Crumbs, and Strawberry Gelée
I Know I Jamm Jamm — Amarena Cherry—Infused Vodka with Amarena Cherry and Peanut Butter Powder
Pot Roast with Carrot Purée, Blue Potatoes, Onion Ring Salad, and Horseradish
Krupp Brothers The Doctor 2007
Milkshake—Fig Jelly Doughnuts with Vanilla Bean Mascarpone
Sticky Toffee Pudding with Gingerbread, Eggnog Ice Cream, and Micro-Celery
Blonde Afro Puff — Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow
Day 9: Chef Ron Eyester, Rosebud, Atlanta, GA
Day 9 of my internship was non-stop. I began working almost immediately and it seemed like I never stopped. There was no break to speak of, although food was brought in to munch on as we worked.
Chef Ron Esyester has a little bit of a reputation. He created an alter ego for Twittering and called himself “The Angry Chef.” It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek vehicle for venting his frustrations with the biz. Eatocracy, CNN’s food blog, invited him to do a blog, called “Six ways customers tick off chefs,” and he was skewered by commenters who did everything from calling him names to sending him death threats.
I asked him if he really tells off his customers. He said, “I’m not afraid to let customers know what’s on my mind. I’m of the belief that the customer is not always right. But I do believe that a guest is a guest.” (I hope he realizes that I was just kidding by asking him that!)
But that doesn’t seem to really be him. In fact, I didn’t find him to be angry at all. On the contrary, he was very even-tempered and quite patient with me, even when I wasn’t sure about how to do something. And he’s quite involved in philanthropic activities: he volunteers at local schools, serves on the board of a local farmer’s market, and donates meals to firefighters on Thanksgiving.
But he definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer. He infuses his work with humor and a tongue-in-cheekery that reflects his non-traditional path in the culinary world: he didn’t go to culinary school—he went to The Citadel, a military college, and received a degree in Literature. And when another volunteer and I called him “Chef,” as we were taught to do in school, he told us to just called him Ron, that he couldn’t stand the whole “Chef” thing. In fact, everyone to him is “brother” or “sister,” as in, “How’s that salad coming, sister?” and “Can you take care of this for me, brother?” His menu is an example of his down-to-earth style: the beverage selection is called “stuff to drink,” the eggs on the brunch menu is “stuff with eggs,” and the favorites list on the brunch menu is “stuff regulars eat.” The pricing of the available wines are described as “cheap,” “decent,” and “good.” He is a believer in locavore eating, something he picked up from his former boss, Scott Crawford, who came to assist him the night of the Beatles dinner.
He’s very into music and got this idea from a Jerry Garcia dinner he did a couple of years ago. In fact, he has different ideas for combining music and food. To him, they are often (if not always) intertwined. For example, he found himself so well prepared, that he had time to devised an extra hors d’oeuvre—a soup shooter, which he concocted from the poaching liquid from the haddock (see menu below). He called this “Beatles Bisque,” and commented that it’s like an encore after a concert—a little extra something. We had music going in the kitchen all day long, from (of course) the Beatles to the Band to James Brown. One of the JBF staff who came in said, “It’s like a jam session in here.” I sang my way through dinner that night.
By the end of the night, I was showing my work on my physical being: I was covered in chocolate from the dessert and smelled fishy. One of the things he had me do was to make a roux, which I whisked into an oyster soup, which got on my hands; I trimmed and chopped scallops; later, I removed the little suction cups from the tentacles of several octopi; then, I chopped anchovies; and during dinner service, I poured the impromptu “Beatles Bisque.” By the time I left the JB House, I had a somewhat oceanic aroma about me. I think a couple of cats tried to follow me home.
On the other hand, oysters and chocolate are considered aphrodisiacs, so it could have been a worse combination.
I’ve never heard of anyone removing the suction cups from octopus tentacles, and that was definitely a new experience. My favorite task that evening was cutting up and cooking mushrooms. But I’m talking about a HUGE pot of mushrooms. The pot I used was a rondeau, which a child could take a bath in. Seriously. The mushrooms were for the Braised Mushroom Manicotti with Lightly Pickled Leeks, Lamb Jus, and Midnight Moon Cheese, and it was a combination of cremini, king, shiitake, enoke, and trumpet mushrooms, plus a black mushroom that I had never seen before (and neglected to ask about). They were foraged and were mixed with leaves, twigs, and rocks that I had to pick out. But what a gorgeous mixture of fungus! Part of the dessert was a pistachio cream, which I made using the fabulous Vitamix blender (one of my fantasy toys). It was so smooth and delicious, I fell in love with it. It’s going to be my new dessert topper. You can see more photos HERE.
You say you want a revolution? Well, you know… Okay, I don’t know where I’m going with this Beatles song reference, so here’s the menu:
Beatles Tribute Dinner
I Am the Walrus — Scallion-Baked Eggs with Milk-Poached Haddock and Cornflake Crostini
Eleanor Rigby — Carolina Rice Fritters with Dates and Curried Honey
Penny Lane — Fish’n’Chips with Potato Gaufrettes, Onion Crème Fraîche, and White Anchovies
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away — Spaghetti and Nantucket Cape Scallop Egg Roll
Lamberti Extra Dry Prosecco NV
Octopus’s Garden — Chilled Octopus with Baby Fennel, White Beans, Borage Cress, and Citrus–Oyster Vinaigrette
Conti Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010
Magical Mystery Tour — Braised Mushroom Manicotti with Lightly Pickled Leeks, Lamb Jus, and Midnight Moon Cheese
La Scolca Pinot Nero 2008
And Your Bird Can Sing — English Tea–Braised White Oak Pastures Chicken with Georgia Grits, Olives, and Natural Jus
Museum Tempranillo Crianza 2008
Piggies — Crispy Pork Cutlet with Mean Mr. Mustard–Bacon Sauerkraut and Lemon and Honey–Marinated Dried Apricots
Hugel Riesling 2009
The Ballad of John and Yoko — Buttermilk–Chocolate Cake with Pistachio Purée and High Road Craft White Chocolate–Toffee Crunch Ice Cream
Churchill’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Porto NV
Savoring Spain with Chef Ryan Poli
Day 8 of my Internship at James Beard was spent “Savoring Spain” with Chef Ryan Poli from Tavernita restaurant in Chicago.
Working with a different chef and crew each time has given me a broad view of attitudes and atmosphere in different circles, and it’s been very interesting. You can get a general sense of what it’s like to work with that chef because a person is usually the same at work as they are at home.
Of course, how a crew behaves at the James Beard House can be different than how it behaves in its own environment because it’s a special occasion for a chef to do a dinner at the JBH. A spotlight shines on them that they don’t have on them every day (even if they are a celebrity chef) and everyone who attends is focused on the food in a way that the average diner is not. Not to mention that the press is always at these dinners: representatives from such publications as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and at one time, Gourmet. Interviews take place, photos are taken, and the food is reviewed.
There was a sense of nervousness in the air that I felt the moment I walked in to work with the Tavernita crew, and much of the day was spent working in silence. There was shop talk and a little bantering, but for the most part, everyone was focused on their task. Chef Ryan checked and re-checked his mise en place for every single dish and I could see the focus in his eyes.
I’m not sure where the anxiety was coming from—I’m sure he’s been in the spotlight before. But he seemed to know exactly what he was doing and I had no doubt that it would all come off well in the end. Even when trying to figure out the plating, he seemed to have a vision that he managed to express, even if everything wasn’t exactly as he had planned.
Working at the James Beard House, I feel the way Steve Martin and Alec Balwin must feel hosting Saturday Night Live: I know the behind-the-scenes crew, even though the “on air” talent changes; I know how the stage feels; and I know where the bathrooms are. Therefore, I had no qualms telling him not to worry, that it would all come together. I’ve seen moments of panic, anxiety, and frustration, but, always, the dinners come out marvelous and the diners walk out exhilarated. Dinner on this night was no exception. Everyone walked out with the usual look of sated euphoria and compliments to the chef. And with a sigh of relief from Chef Ryan.
I don’t do oysters so I can’t comment on those, but the croquettes—a round mouthful of a crispy coating with an incredibly smooth, creamy interior—and the Pintxos de Escalivada (roasted peppers and eggplant on grilled bread) were quintessential Spanish tapas fare. The patatas bravas were Chef Ryan’s spin on the classic Spanish dish, which is usually potatoes cut into chunks, fried, and topped with a spicy tomato-based sauce. Chef Ryan’s version turned the potatoes into little cylinder-shaped cups and filled with two sauces: a spicy chile sauce and a garlic aioli (unless I’m getting my sauces mixed up). One pop into the mouth and you got all flavors coming together to make one composite burst. (The cape gooseberries that went with the gin-and-tonic drink for this course was delicious—sweet-tart with a slight hint of tomato.)
I didn’t try the octopus either, but it was visually stunning. They cooked it sous vide (a slow, low-temp bath) and then grilled them for that smoky flavor and bright color. Arranged on the plates, it was a work of art. And one of these days, I’m going to have to try making crispy artichokes. Delicious!
People were duly impressed with the leche frita (fried milk) and many people asked how that was done. I wasn’t in on the process from the beginning, but the “milk” is made into a custard, which is allowed to set in the refrigerator. Then it is cut into rectangles, breaded, and fried. It had a appealing texture and a mild custard-y flavor that was enhanced by almond ice cream, almond crumble, and dulce de leche. People were fascinated by it.
More photos HERE.
Here’s the menu:
Pickled Oyster Cocktails
Ibérico Ham Croquettes
Pintxos de Escalivada (Roasted Vegetables on Grilled Bread)
Housemade Sweet Vermouth
Winter Gin and Tonic > Death’s Door Gin with Clementine, Cape Gooseberries, and Winter Spices
Fluke Crudo with Artichokes, Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts
Arabako Txakolina Xarmant Txakoli 2010
Beet–Artichoke Salad with Arugula, Cabrales Blue Cheese, Crispy Artichokes, and Pickled Shallots
Burgáns Albariño 2010
Octopus with Fennel, Orange, and Olive Tapenade
CVNE Viña Real Reserva Rioja Crianza 2007
Rib-Eye with Potatoes, Sweet-and-Sour Fennel, and Habanero Chile Butter
D. Ventura Viña do Burato Mencia Lurra Garnacha 2009
Fried Milk Pudding with Almond Ice Cream, Almond Crumble, and Dulce de Leche
Lustau Solera Reserva San Emilio Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV
Day 7 of my internship at the James Beard House was called “Champagne Elegance” and was headed by Chef Todd Hogan, Executive Chef of Indigo in Roswell, GA. Chef Todd’s menu was a French-inspired blend of easy-to-love modern classics, such as fava bean hummus, to more daring plates, such as Corn-Dusted Smelts with Lemon Aïoli (almost whole except for the head and tail) and Veal Rib-Eye with Bacon–Onion Marmalade, Fiddlehead Ferns, and Fried Chanterelles.
Chef Todd’s demeanor throughout the day was calm, cool, and collected. Even when I screwed up. Which made sense after he told me that he had been an instructor at Johnson & Wales University, one of the best culinary schools in the U.S.
I was put to the task of slices gaufrettes on the mandoline. (Graufette is just a fancy French name for waffle fries. Well, technically, gaufrettes are dessert waffles, something like Italian pizzelles. Gaufrettes pommes de terre are waffle fries— pommes de terre being “potatoes.”) Anyway, Chef was concerned about the size and shape of the potatoes so he had one of his crew slice the potatoes while I laid them out on a sheet pan and then helped brush each one with browned butter. They were then put in the oven to crisp up like chips. Unfortunately, they baked unevenly and some of them burned. Chef decided that they were burning where the butter was dabbed on (as opposed to being brushed on).
I’m not entirely convinced that this was my fault. First, I wasn’t the only one brushing on the butter; second, the gaufrettes were so thin and fragile that to run the brush across them without destroying them was almost impossible; third, one tray burned entirely—and quite evenly—which means they were just in too long. Whatever the case was, I felt terrible and I apologized, because I was a part of the whole thing. But Chef just said to stop with the butter and to spray the rest of the potatoes with cooking spray, which helped them bake more evenly.
The next task I was given was to make sweet potato pancakes. The pancakes in my first batch were too fat. Then they were too small. Then the grill got really hot and they started to burn. Then I was flattening them too much. It seemed that I just couldn’t get them right. Enough of them came out well, but I was getting pretty frustrated there for a while. On the plus side, I used a flat-top grill for the first time and learned how to cool it down when it gets too hot.
This evening proved my theory that you can do something a million times, but it’s when they’re watching that you screw up. C’est la vie.
On a sad note, Chef Todd’s restaurant, Indigo, sustained a fire recently. Hogan considered the possibility of canceling his James Beard gig but decided that they needed to soldier on and do something that would make them feel good. I said, “And here I come along and screw up the sweet potato pancakes.” They were very nice about it, and Chef Deborah Willyard, Chef Todd’s assistant for the day, told me to “Stop that!” It’s a life-long habit I have of beating myself up, and I’m working on stopping it. (Chef Deborah, by the way, has a catering business in Marietta, GA, called Blue Dragonfly Catering. I love the name and told her so.)
One nice aspect of the evening was that one of my classmates, Elena, came to have dinner with her boyfriend. It was really nice to see her and I was glad to cook for one of my peeps. Once again, I’m hoping to get some professional photos, but for now, here’s my gallery.
Here’s the menu:
Hot-Smoked Lamb Loin with Sweet Potato Cake and Spicy Tomato Jam
Corn-Dusted Smelts with Lemon Aïoli
Fava Bean Hummus with Black Truffle Pâté
Housemade Duck Prosciutto with Blackberry Conserve and Bleu de Chèvre
Iron Horse Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay 2008
Duck Confit–Goat Cheese Napoleon with Crispy Potato Gaufrettes and Meyer Lemon–Infused 25-Star Balsamic Glaze
Iron Horse Vineyards Russian Cuvée 2006
Double Beef and Thyme Consommé with Short Rib–Butternut Squash Dumpling
Iron Horse Vineyards Classic Vintage Brut 2006
Baby Arugula with Warm Walnut Morbier, Dried Apricots, Red Onions, and Orange Blossom–White Balsamic Glacé
Iron Horse Vineyards Wedding Cuvée 2007
Veal Rib-Eye with Bacon–Onion Marmalade, Fiddlehead Ferns, and Fried Chanterelles
Iron Horse Vineyards Ocean Reserve 2005
Farmhouse Pear Tarte Tatin with Drunken Fig Gelato
Drambuie Caramel Milkshake
Gluten-Free Italian Indulgence
Chef: Fortunato Nicotra, Executive Chef of Felidia in NYC
On February 1, 2012, I did day 5 of my internship at the James Beard House. I assisted Chef Fortunato Nicotro, Executive Chef at Felidia, Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant in NYC.
It was the most interesting day for me thus far. First, I signed into the volunteer log book as usual. The log book has a column for the chef/event, for the volunteer’s name and signature, time in/out, and one for the volunteer’s school. I saw that another volunteer had already signed it and in the school column, it said “NG.” That meant Natural Gourmet. I haven’t seen another NGI student at JBH—most of the volunteers are either from ICE or FCI (Institute for Culinary Education and French Culinary Institute). When she walked back in, I introduced myself and found out that she graduated a couple of years ago and is now doing well with a catering and home-delivery business. (Shout out to Amy!) She lives in Western New York State and just happened to be in NYC this particular weekend and decided to volunteer.
Then, the chef and his crew arrived a short while later and as they came in, I immediately recognized one of them. She was another NGI alumnus, who graduated a few months ago, and I had helped out with her Friday Night Dinner. (Report on that FND HERE.) She interned at Felidia, which turned into a job. How about that for a coincidence? So, not only were there 3 NGI graduates there (when I was usually the only one), but one was a member of the chef’s crew, and I had actually worked on her Friday Night Dinner. I mean, I could have worked any Friday Night Dinner over the course of 11 months, and I happened to choose that person’s FND, and then encounter this person on a JBH shift of my choosing. What a small, weird world it is. (Shout out to Debbie!)
That was pretty cool. But my night became even more dramatic when, just prior to the guests arriving, two women walked in and leaned against the counter. Since all guests have to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room, I really didn’t pay attention. I was busy spooning broccoli rabe into little shot glasses. I looked up briefly and one of the women smiled and said, “Hello.” I said, “Hello” and continued with my task. A moment later, I looked up again and it dawned on me that the other woman was Lidia Bastianich. I almost lost my broccoli rabe. Holy crap. Then I realized that the woman who had said “Hello” was her daughter, Tanya. And me without a camera! Doh!
They stood there and watched for a while as Amy and I helped the chef de cuisine (whose name I, unfortunately, missed) make little parfait hors d’oeuvres of ricotta, broccoli rabe, and saba. Lidia was watching me so I was as precise as I could possibly be. She and her daughter then went up to the private dining room and the rush of guests began.
I cut up burrata for a burrata and tomato salad. Burrata in Italian means “buttered,” and it is so named because it is made up of an exterior shell of mozzarella filled with a mixture of soft mozzarella and cream, making the texture buttery. I also sliced and speared salami with little wooden forks, dabbed homemade mustard with mustard seeds on them, and topped them with a homemade salsa of some sort (it looked like apple or pear and some root vegetables). I arranged them on a rectangular platter, the center of which Chef adorned with thinly shaved Grana Padano (my favorite grating cheese).
As usual, I didn’t get to sample everything because first priority is plating for the guests. If there’s anything left over, the staff gets to eat it. Unfortunately, there isn’t always food leftover, or it disappears before I get to grab some.
I absolutely wanted to try the Butternut Squash-Chocolate Ravioli with Butter-Sage Sauce, so I kept an eye on it. When all the servings were plated, there was plenty left for us, and I dove right in. The ravioli were absolutely divine. You would never have known that they were gluten-free. The dough was tender and fluffy, but firm enough to hold the filling, which was a delicious squash puree. The sauce was probably a thousand calories but it was luxurious. The tops of the ravioli got a generous dusting of ground pistachios. It was an extremely indulgent dish.
During the introduction/Q&A part of the evening (when everyone makes their appearance in the dining room for a round of applause from the guests), someone asked about the ravioli. Chef Fortunato talked about the process of coming up with a good gluten-free pasta that was superior to the stuff you find in the markets, but I don’t think he actually said what combination of flours they used. I think one of them was rice. I’d love to get my hands on the recipe. (Hint, hint, Chef Fortunato.)
I also tasted the beef duo of Braised Flatiron and Steak Tagliata, which were both tender and so flavorful, and I loved the Mashed Spinach and Potatoes. They were fluffy and smooth and delicious.
The cookie plates were adorable, and there were also little chocolate cakes adorned on the plate with a pistachio brittle that was worthy of a plate of their own. I never seem to be able to taste the ice cream at any of these dinners.
When dessert had been served, we were ushered up to the fourth floor, where Lidia and her guests awaited in the private dining room. I was so excited to be standing there in front of Lidia, who had obviously enjoyed the meal. The meal I helped plate! (Still getting over that.) On her way out a while later, she stated that everyone had done a great job. Of course, it was meant mostly for the main crew, but she did look at me, too, and I decided to bask in it anyway.
Chef Fortunato was really nice to me and I found his giddiness at the end of the night endearing.
I truly wish I’d remembered my camera. My phone camera is completely inadequate. However, the evening’s official photographer is a great person. I had met her a couple of events ago and I will be asking her for photos of both events. I’ll put a link here when the photos are available.
I really, really need a new camera.
Burrata and Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinegar
Bagna Cauda with Vegetables
Ricotta, Broccoli Rabe, and Saba
Flor Prosecco NV
Mediterranean Shrimp Salad with Toscanello Beans, Marinated Anchovies, and Tuna and Branzino Carpaccio
Bastianich Adriatico Friulano 2010
Butternut Squash–Chocolate Ravioli with Butter–Sage Sauce
Bastianich Vespa Bianco 2009
Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano Risotto with Pear and Celery
Bastianich Vespa Bianco 2009
Beef Duo: Braised Flatiron and Steak Tagliata with Mashed Spinach and Potatoes and Braised Red Cabbage
Benanti Rovittello 2005
Poached Quince, Almond, and Frangipane Tart with Bourbon–Maple Syrup Ice Cream
Benanti Il Musico Moscato Passito NV
Chef: Mitchell Kaldrovich, Executive Chef, Sea Glass at the Inn by the Sea, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Chef Kaldrovich had an interesting journey from his homeland of Argentina to the outskirts of Portland, Maine. If I remember the story correctly, he was born in Russia to a German father and Italian mother, grew up in Argentina, and worked in Argentina, Patagonia, Australia, and Lake Tahoe, where he met his future wife. When he attended a French culinary school in Argentina, he was introduced to the wonders of seafood. As he put it, the word “scallop” in Argentina brings to mind “a picture of the shell,” not the mollusk itself. He heard of lobster thermidor for the very first time and became acquainted with seafood cuisine. Then, while working at Lake Tahoe, he worked with Maine lobster, Maine shrimp, and other seafood that came from Maine, and he fell in love with it all. So, when he and his wife talked about where they wanted to live, Maine seemed the logical choice.
And, so, the menu that he presented at the James Beard House was a seafood menu infused with Argentinean influence. His roots show, even through ingredients that were not part of his world view while he was growing up.
I told him that I have roots in Argentina as well, in a roundabout way. My parents lived there for a number of years and my brother was born there. They didn’t come to the U.S. until he was about 6 years old. Consequently, my mother’s food was always Italian (of course) but accented with Argentinean preparations. Chef Kaldrovich said that Argentinean cuisine is partly Italian, anyway. That is true.
While I am, admittedly, not the biggest seafood fan, I am fascinated by Argentinean cuisine, mostly because I ate it growing up without really knowing that I was eating it. It’s a lot like the way I enjoy picking out the Spanish words/phrases from the language I spoke at home—I had always just assumed was pure Italian, but after I took Spanish in school, I began to realize that what we spoke was actually more like “Italglish”—Italian, English, and Spanish. When I began doing research on Italian cuisine for my first cookbook, What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way, and international cuisines for my second book (not out yet), I saw the Argentinean influence in my mother’s cooking. I now enjoy picking out the Argentinean dishes and ingredients from the food I ate, which I assumed was purely Italian.
His Corn–Lobster Empanadas were delectable, and his lobster bisque was visually appealing with the squirt of lobster oil on top. The Malbec mustard was a condiment that I coveted (I’ll have to work on a recipe for that). He also made a vegetarian version of the Slow-Braised Beef Tripe Stew because he had received ahead of time a request for a couple of vegetarian plates (although, it became a chaotic string of last-minute requests for no dairy, no garlic, no fish). I tried it and it reminded me of a stew that seems to be universal around the world, differing in spices. The squash and the garbanzos and beans reminded me of North African Squash Stew, as well as Italian Squash and Bean Stew. It was beautiful to look at, but it also had a comforting, homey quality to it.
Personality-wise, I found Chef Kaldrovich to be really nice and he obviously loves what he does and loves being in the kitchen. And I think he loves to make his crew smile.
Here is the full menu, along with the wines that were served. More photos HERE:
Poultry Liver Crostini
Maine Crab and Apples on Endive
Il Faggeto Prosecco NV
Fern Hill Farm Goat Cheese Croquette with Beet Tartare
Butter-Poached Lobster and Tender Gnocchi with Baby Turnips, Chantenay Carrots, and Tarragon Beurre Monté
Manos Negras Torrontés 2010
Slow-Braised Beef Tripe Stew with Pork Belly Confit, Sugar Pumpkin, Garbanzo and White Beans, and Sofrito
Lake Sonoma Winery Chardonnay 2010
Serrano-Wrapped Salmon Roast with Grilled Leek–Seaweed Stuffing, Confit Roots, Organic Quinoa, and Malbec Mustard
MacMurray Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2009
Gaucho Mixed Grill > Grilled Dry-Aged Beef Strip Steak with Chimichurri, Herb-Roasted Sweetbreads with Balsamic Syrup, and Housemade Sausage with Salsa Criolla
Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec 2009
Caramelized Chocolate Bread Pudding with Dulce de Leche Gelato, Hazelnut Brittle, and Espresso Chantilly
Churchill’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Porto NV
Over the last two days, I did two 12-hours shifts at the James Beard House for my internship. Here’s my report.
The first night, I worked with the crew from Patina restaurant in Los Angeles, headed up by Chef Tony Esnault. Chef Esnault is a protégé of culinary legend Alain Ducasse, and earned his restaurant a four-star review in the Los Angeles Times.
The theme of the evening was Black Truffle Extravaganza. The nine different dishes that were executed all contained black truffles, including dessert. There were thousands and thousands of dollars worth of black truffles in that place. At $800 per pound, I would not be able to afford even one knotty fungi. Then, his truffle importer, Christopher Poron, brought in about 6 or 7 more pounds in a little cooler bag. These truffles were huge and very aromatic. I alone shaved and cut into little circles about $1,600 worth of the black fungus. I would say that people got their money’s worth.
Aside from shaving truffles, I picked 300 little leaves off celery, laid them out on a sheet pan, and brushed each one with egg wash. Talk about painstaking. They then put them in a low oven, where they crisped up into little chips.
It felt like I was working in a traditional French brigade kitchen. It wasn’t that all the cooks were formal or that Chef Esnault, a Frenchman, cracked the proverbial whip, but it just had that “French kitchen” vibe. And it seemed as if Chef Esnault is an old-school kind of chef who really has no use for a woman in the kitchen. [See comments below.] He wasn’t mean or rude to me; on the contrary, he was very polite to me—when he addressed me at all. I think he was just indifferent to me—I could have been there or not, he couldn’t have cared less. The only time this changed was when he yelled at me to hurry up and put these teeny, tiny little crispy celery leaves on top of these little celeriac squares and julienned celery. This was not easy. Trying to balance fragile little chips on top of a small cube AND a julienned celery is frustrating, especially when you have an assembly line going and the plates have to get out. I felt like Lucy on the assembly line at the chocolate factory. I actually thought that while I was doing it, and it made me chuckle.
It was a loooonnnggg day. We never got an official break and we didn’t get any food until after dinner service. I had to scoot away to sit down for a couple of minutes at a time and snack on a few of the food items I brought with me. I finally got out of there at about 10:30.
Here’s the menu:
Potatoes with Truffles
Champagne Louis Roederer Premier Brut NV
Duck Foie Gras with Poularde, Artichokes, Frisée, Mâche, and Truffle Vinaigrette
Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Glazed Seasonal Vegetable Mosaic with Black Truffle Condiment
Vogelzang Vineyard Reserve Viognier 2010
Seared Day Boat Scallops with Potatoes, Leeks, and Tuber Melanosporum
Pazo de Barrantes Albariño 2010
Milk-Fed Veal Tenderloin with Celery and Jus Truffé
Neyers Sage Canyon California Red 2010
Poached Pear with Brown Butter Cake and Black Truffle Ice Cream
Pavi Due Sorelle Vin Santo 2003
While I refused to sample the veal, everything I did taste was delicious. My favorite part? The Vegetable Mosaic. Simply delicious. I wish I’d gotten a shot of it.
The next day was a completely different experience. I worked with the chefs from Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN. The atmosphere was much more mellow and laid back. And I was so happy to see that one of the chefs was a woman. Another volunteer was also a woman, though she left at about 4. That’s not to say that they were lackadaisical about their work; on the contrary, they were so prepared that it left relatively little for the volunteers to do. We got a nice long break, which went a long way toward keeping up my energy level. But we did have things to do and once dinner service began, it was the usual adrenaline-rushed craziness of getting the plates out.
I had written about Blackberry Farm when I was Assistant Managing Editor at Travel Agent magazine because they do cooking classes on the premises. They grow their own food and have animals on the farm from which they get some of their meat and their eggs and make their own charcuterie. They also brought along a few black truffles, which had been plucked from the ground only hours before in (I believe) North Carolina. While the French truffles were, without a doubt, flawless, these locals truffles were more perfume-y and fresher tasting, which is understandable.
Chefs Joseph Lenn and Cassidee Dabney were a pleasure to work with, as they brought a sense of fun to the work. They take their business seriously, but it was clear that their attitude was that you should whistle while you work. I like that. If you have to do something all day long, it’s best to enjoy what you’re doing.
I peeled and quartered little baby red and golden beets from their garden, shucked oysters (not well), piped field pea puree onto little pieces of crisp rice thingies that they made themselves, sliced biscuits, and whatever else needed to be done. Another wonderful dinner.
The Blackberry Farm menu was:
Biscuits with Pork Belly, Blackberry Farm Preserves, and Pickles
Capers Blades Oysters with Muscadine Mignonette
Blackberry Farm Charcuterie
Carolina Gold Rice with Field Pea Purée
Domaine des Terres de Velle Auxey-Duresses 2009
North Carolina Trout and Beet Salad with Watercress, Preserved Lemon, and Trout Roe
Domaine Saint-Marc Bois de Blagny Meursault 2009
Blackberry Farm Pencil Cob Grits with Sorghum, Benton’s Country Ham, Pickled Ramps, and Hollandaise
Domaine Alain Jeanniard Les Saussilles Pommard 1er Cru 2008
Guinea and Dumplings with Poached Egg and Black Truffles
Domaine Durieu Cuvée Traditionnelle Rouge Châteauneuf–du-Pape 2009
Roasted Lamb with Blackberry Farm Peas and Greens
Domaine Paillère & Pied-Gû Gigondas 2005
Blackberry Farm Blue Cheese Cheesecake with Pears and Pecans
More Photos HERE!
If you read this blog, or know me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, then you know that I just graduated from The Natural Gourmet Institute on January 6. I briefly reflected on this event, and now I thought I’d share the menu with you.
Every meal at The Natural Gourmet Institute is a fabulous one. I’ve done shifts working Friday Night Dinners for other classes and guest instructors, but on this Friday evening, my class was being served. We got to sit back and enjoy the meal without working, fussing, freaking, and, best of all, cleaning. The menu was created and overseen by instructor Chef Elliott Prag, who did a great job. So, here’s what we had:
Trio of mushrooms:
Mushroom Sherry Soup with Cashew Cream
Mushroom Walnut Paté with seeded (gluten-free, homemade) crackers
Mushroom Tempura with Shoyu-Yuzu Dipping Sauce
Shepherd’s Pie with hazelnut crust, spiced and seared tempeh, root vegetables, and sweet potato topping
Roasted Brussels sprouts and cipollini onions
Salad of Frisée and radicchio with olives, raisins, and pickled shallots in sweet rice vinaigrette
Cardomom-ginger poached Seckel pear
Gluten-free ginger tuile
This was a completely vegan and gluten-free meal.
Everything was expertly plated and looked beautiful. But, more importantly, it all tasted delicious. I enjoyed everything, and so did everyone else at my table. What’s interesting is to see people who are usually carnivorous, or just meat-and-potato people, taste the food at Friday Night Dinner and surprise themselves by enjoying it. The look on their faces of utter astonishment that they could possibly enjoy and be filled by a vegan meal is priceless. And I know a few people who enjoyed it so much that they plan on going to more Friday Night Dinners.
What made the mushroom appetizer trio particularly good was the fact that they used several different mushrooms—cremini, oyster, chanterelles, porcini, and perhaps others. Singly, these mushrooms all have their own distinct flavor—some earthy, some woodsy, some with nutty undertones—but together, they create something that is flavorful and complex.
The shepherd’s pie was a clever combination of tempeh and root vegetables and rather than be accompanied by sweet potatoes, they were topped by them. At the risk of insulting Chef Prag, I want to say that the pie was so cute! I don’t know if he would appreciate the word “cute” being applied to one of his entreés, but I mean that in the best possible way. They were these little, individual pies, decorated in a way that was both classy and quaint (see photos). And dessert was sweet and gratifying without being too much after such a filling meal.
I am getting sad writing this. There was something electric about going to class that you don’t get just anywhere. Friday Night Dinner was always a rush of adrenaline, and the frenzy and excitement always outweighed the anxiety over doing a good job. Ultimately, we always did a good job.
Thanks to everyone at NGI. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Last night was my graduation ceremony and dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute. While it was a little sad saying goodbye to my classmates, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The kind of excitement that comes with knowing that there’s a whole new world out there waiting for you. The kind of excitement that lets you know that you’ve accomplished something wonderful and that will take you somewhere.
I always said, right from the beginning, that I wanted a culinary degree because I felt that it was the one credential that was keeping me back from getting the kind of job that I wanted, and I’m still hoping that it will open up those doors for me. But the truth is, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to end up.
It’s exciting and scary at the same time. But I’m going to grab that piece of paper and wave it around for all to see, because if that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.
I’ve got to complete my 100 hours of internship now. I have to start over because I had to bow out of the internship with vegan dessert instructor/author Fran Costigan. I felt terrible having to do that, but circumstances forced me. So I will now be interning at the James Beard House.
I’m almost there.