So you’re thinking of culinary/pastry school: Whisking and your arm

As I’m writing this post, my right shoulder is a bit stiff, which is why I’d like to point out a few tips to prepare you to start culinary or pastry school about your arm muscles. Having completed culinary school and now almost 20% complete in pastry school I am very well aware of the physicality and stamina needed to be comfortable in the kitchen. As a student you are taught to use your hands when whisking rather than using a machinery to do the job, this is akin to an automotive technician apprentices to use hand tools rather than power tools. Using your hands allow you learn and feel when your product is at the correct stage, stiffness, texture, colour, etc. When you use a food processor or an electric mixer, the changes are very high for the student learner to overmix.

You will whisk … a lot. A few things that whisking is involved: mayonnaise, hollandaise, sabayon, meringues (macarons), whipping cream, souffles – it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is one of those things that you may be making at least once a week, or more. We made an Italian meringue in class today and luckily it was something that would be impossible to do by hand so we broke out the KitchenAids.

Italian meringue on lemon sabayon tart (Lemon sabayon tart with Italian meringue)

The proper technique when whisking is to loosely hold the whisk in your hands so that it is not a tight grip, relax your shoulders, and allow the wrist action of moving back and forth to do the job. You do not want to be whisking so hard that you are clanging the sides of the bowl loudly – doing so would result in a metallic tasting product as you are rubbing off metal-on-metal. But you do not want to be whisking slow in which no air and texture is build up, or in case of sabayon, that the eggs end up cooking in the bowl over the bain marie. You can switch from your dominant arm to your less dominant arm. Practicing on your less dominant arm will give you a boost when you can be ambidextrous in the kitchen. And make sure you have a strong core – stand comfortably but firmly, straight back/not arching/not leaning, and engage your core muscles.

So as you are prepping for culinary school or pastry school make sure you get in several push ups and pull ups each day — you’ll thank me for it. 😉

Things I’ve whisked by hand so far:

Mille Feuille/NapoleonCheese souffleCrispy salmon with bernaise, gnocchi and pesto sauceMy canapes for menu devmacarons

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Week 13 and 14: The final countdown

I haven’t been counting to the last day of class but we only have 5 more class days left in the Professional Culinary program as I write this post. Part of me don’t want classes to end yet. As I am reflecting on the classes from the past two weeks it has been long, exhausting physically and mentally. We have been doing restaurant days, followed by a black box exam and our written exams (from the school’s and from ITA.) This past week (week 14) we were grouped into our final team for the real service days on week 15.

I am amazed about how far I have made it! Several weeks ago I was still anxious about restaurant days and not knowing if I am ready for it. The chefs have laid out a really, really good course plan to bring us this far and looking back on the first two weeks I would have told myself to trust the process and concentrate on each new skill.

We cooked some of the more expensive menu items for 3 restaurant day practices – foie gras, oysters, more lobsters, souffle, beef tenderloins. Each day we would have chef demo a 4 course menu, we prepped the mise en place, and for service the chef would called each station with an order. We would take turn in our partner group to cook and plate. The plates are then brought up to the “pass” for a chef’s final check through to see it is good or needs to be redone. The good plates are then brought to the table and we would wait to get our next order from chef.

(I’m posting this on my phone so here’s a load of pictures to be organized later in a nicer gallery.)

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These few restaurant days were tough – new recipes, not much sleep as I was reviewing the new recipes the night before, time pressure when chef calls an order, making sure nothing comes back, and eating cold food (we didn’t eat until all 4 courses were served). My partner and I have never worked in a kitchen before so it was not until day 3 where we finally found our rhythm. There may have been some tears that may or may not have occurred in and out of the kitchen. It is important to have a healthy stress reliever in your back pocket (mine is chocolate.)

A key thing is we’ve made good food and we have pushed ourselves further than we have had to and we are only going to improve with more time in the kitchen. 😉

Next post to focus on the black box and my salmon confit dish.

Week 12: Contrast in Modern Cuisine – Molecular Gastronomy and Macrobiotics

This was an interesting week where we spent two days each in seemingly different end of the spectrum in modern day cuisine – molecular gastronomy versus holistic nutrition and macrobiotics: clean artsy plates versus good for you vegetarian burgers. However there is one thing that is common – good food takes time. With molecular food there are the different parts in food preparation to bring a plate together such as braising meat sous vide for 36 hours on a circulator. With holistic nutrition we talked about soaking, sprouting and fermenting. I love the differences in each and we were able to marry the two together in our Friday menu development with a combo dish with modern techniques and macrobiotics.

As a bonus Chef Katie from this season’s of Top Chef (also a previous grad of Northwest Culinary Academy) was in town for our two days in Modern Cuisine study and gave us insight to her take on molecular gastronomy.

Here is my attempt with a vegan miso soup with a tomato spheres. I had the hankering to make a tomato soup all week. 😉

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The tomato soup was prepared first thing in the morning with calcium lactate added and frozen in large circles. The miso soup was made using miso that was prepared by the class from January. Frozen spheres where dropped in a warm solution of sodium alginate that should form a gel skin around the tomato spheres. I had trouble executing the spheres. Besides getting the correct ratio of calcium to liquid volume, I have also later learned that the pH balance is also important to form a successful sphere. Tomato soup by default is quite acidic. Now you know if you plan to do the same thing in the near future. 🙂

Week 11 continued – Momofuku; Chinese; Japan; and a Menu Dev

Momofuku!

Asia week continued with a nod to David Chang’s Momofuku concepts and recipes. This is not about “Asian fusion” where a dish has soy sauce added to it. Actually, do not use the term Asian fusion, period. We talk about using techniques and flavours to execute dishes that are yummy, and all of the Momofuku recipes we put together were. The Momofuku class is seasonal last year’s class didn’t get to do this, and unfortunately next term’s culinary students won’t have it either, so if you are new student coming in January, ignore the following pictures ;):

Chinese

Chef Ian led the class for Chinese and Japanese cuisine. I was most comfortable and excited with these two days as these were food that were most familiar to me but the recipes are new to me and I’ll definitely be cooking these recipes again and again.

Japanese

Asian Menu Development

My team of three stove made came up with the following dishes for menu development:

I love the Thai Red curry paste recipe I made, there was a bit too much content in the curry, and I should have used more coconut milk to create more sauce (but we had a shortage of coconut milk in the kitchen.) Here’s my recipe for the Thai red curry paste, which is completely vegan 🙂

Thai Red Curry Paste (vegan)

1 T shallot, chopped
1 T garlic, chopped1 T galangal, chopped
1 T red chilies, deseeded and chopped (adjust to taste)
1 stalk of lemongrass, finely chopped
6 Kefir lime leaves, finely chopped
2 T soy sauce
1 t sugar
1/2 t white peppercorn
1/2 lime, juiced

1. Combine all ingredients in a pestle and mortar or a food processor, and process until you get a thick paste. Add to curry recipe with coconut milk.

Another favourite recipe from this menu dev:

Gintara Saikyo Yaki

1 T sake
1 T mirin
3 T miso (red or white, I used a red miso that was made 3 semesters ago in class)
1/4 c sugar

1. Bring the sake and mirin to a boil for 20 secs. Stir in miso and sugar. When the marinate has cooled, allow the black cod to marinate in for at least 30 minutes to 3 days.

2. Sear black cod flesh side down, flip fish over, baste with marinate and finish in oven at 400 degrees F for 10 more minutes.

Here are other dishes cooked up by the class:

And the unending number of dishes left in our sink for clean up, we thought we were never going to ever finish washing dishes from today:

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Week 9, 10 and 11 recap: A trip around the world from my stove

This is my catch up post so that I could continue blogging about other things so that it doesn’t seem out of order ;). After recovering from the stress of midterms we are back in the kitchen with a renew energy. There is a bit more elbow room around the stove. I have little bits of notes here and there with my thoughts on the last several weeks, but having now wrapped up Asian week, I am able to reflect on the whirlwind tour we’ve made cooking different cuisines. We made a lot of dishes. A lot. And to really re-emphasize it, A LOT. If you have been following my Instagram feed (with only part of it making it to sharing on Facebook) you would see that we ate a lot tasted many flavours. Most evenings I would be skipping dinner. There were a lot of hits, but a couple of misses (I’m not sure I found that the manti from Middle East days was as enjoyable as it was hyped up to be :(). All in all, it was a really good trip to have been on.Week 9: We got started in with a week in Italian cuisine. Fresh and simple – my type of food. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Week 10: A couple of days in the Middle East. I loved the mild use of spices that created so much depth. Some highlights:

Latino days. Those empanadas are sooooo addictive.

Week 11 Monday: We started off the week with an Indian/Thai banquet on a Monday. We had enough food leftover to feed the pastry students for 2 days. 🙂 Since week 10 we have worked as a stove (of 3-4 people) rather than in teams of 2 which allows us to get more recipes done. For the Indian/Thai banquet, not only did the entire class work on several menu items, each stove was also given a specific recipe to accomplish. My stove contributed the Egg Biryani and Mango Raita. This is just a visual feast for the eyes. All I can say is, wow, we did it! (Despite lunch being served at 2pm and the pastry students might have been starving.)

(to be continued – Momofuku day, Chinese, Japanese and an Asian menu development.)

Midterm week wrap-up

I’m not sure if I was able to get much sleep during last week – Week 8’s midterm week – as there were butterflies in my stomach leading into each day of the exams. Midterm consisted of 3 days — day 1 is a written exam; day 2 is the school’s practical exam, and day 3 is the ITA’s practical exam. The midterms also marked the first time were we were judged and marked on the food we prepared in the kitchen. I know I’ve walked into each exam fully prepared (as much as I could), and the butterflies settled as soon as I put my knife to my steel. We were given a lot of time to prepare for the midterms in the weeks leading up to it. I’ve been making omelettes, gnocchi and creme brulee at home; on Monday, the entire class in teams of 2 practiced going through the midterm; on Tuesday after the written exam, some of us stayed to practice the recipes; and there were also a lot of mental walk-throughs in my head. Overall, I’m happy with my results knowing that they were strong marks and it was a fair reflection of where I am with my skills so far. I am (nervously) looking forward to the finals and restaurant days where my goal is to ace them. 😉

Here are my tips to prepare for the midterms:

  1. Practice, practice and practice. There isn’t any substitution for actual hands-on practice, but it also helps to do mental walk-throughs to go through the steps in your task list and to anticipate each actions.
  2. Prepare a good task list.
  3. Get a good night’s rest (as much as possible).
  4. Don’t drink any caffeinated drinks before the exam. You don’t want to be running to the bathroom or getting shaky hands, especially for the practicals.
  5. Taste. Don’t send anything up without first tasting it yourself.

Midterm Day 2 My 3 dishes prepared for midterm day 2 practical.

Midterm Day 3 My 5 dishes prepared for midterm day 3 practical.

Halfway mark! Week 7: Charcuterie, Field Trip, Quiz #2 and Brunch

Sometime during this past week I have completed over half of the professional culinary program at Northwest and I can see myself working the line in a kitchen. We were introduced to the term charcuterie with the hands on butchery of a side of pig and lamb. Understanding charcuterie allows us to know how to utilize each part of the animal to maximize yield. There were 3 sides of pig at 192 lbs each and the total amount of garbage after all the trimmings was only 8 lbs. We have render the pig’s skin to gelatin, pig’s fat into lard, stock from bones, headcheese, pork chops, sausages, and the works. We even went on a field trip to visit Two Rivers Meat in North Vancouver and saw the inside of a meat packer/butchery/processing and came out from it very inspired from the passion from each employee working there.

Friday consisted of quiz #2 for the term. There is a quiz every 4 weeks. There were a lot of materials to study for in this quiz which covered the French mother sauces, seafood, food costing, and pastry. We have also studied the material from charcuterie week but it wasn’t on this quiz, but it will definitely be in next week’s midterm. There is a group of us who are on a Facebook chat group which we used as a study tool.

Let’s talk about this midterm… I can’t believe it’s midterm week already! It will consist of 3 days- Tuesday will be a written exam, Wednesday is a 2.5 hours practical, and Thursday is a 4.25 hours practical to satisfy the ITA’s requirement. So far my entire weekend has been immersed into playing the practical exam days in my head over and over again. The exam is individual-based, and knowing I have been able to accomplish my first menu dev solo and creating a mayo, I do have some confidence going in to this week, but not without practicing at home, I’m working on omelette, gnocchi, hollandaise, creme brulee, and knife cuts.

A couple of things I’m looking forward to doing – using the pressure cooker hands-on (we’ve used pressure cooker in class a couple of times, but I didn’t have too much involvement with it other than adjusting the heat below it), and using a pasta machine.

Ten Things I’ve Learned from Culinary School (so far)

Week 5 wrapped up with 2 days doing pastry (love) and 3 days at the farm for farm-to-table classes (highly appreciated). We are a third of the way to completion and we have learned a lot, with more to learn still.

Here is a top ten list of things I’ve learned thus far that really stood out for me (that I personally didn’t know before culinary school). Some of these are part of the curriculum, and some are not.

10. French cooking terms
To name a few: Mise en place, mirepoix, bouquet garni, concassé, brunoise, paysanne, sautoir, singer, garde manger, entremetier, sucs, emince, napper and velouté.

9. Using a black steel pan
I always thought it was tricky to use one, but the trick is to know when your pan is at the right temperature. (See my previous post on hot pans.)

8. Rice Bran Oil
See my previous post Are you using rice bran oil yet?. 😉

7. Butchering poultry
It is not that hard. The key point is that you are not actually cutting through any bones but in between the joints.

6. Maximizing really good olive oil for cooking
When buying olive oil, always buy the best one you can afford. Stretch out the use of your really good olive oil for everyday cooking by mixing 1 part olive oil with 4 parts rice bran oil.

5. Leaving salt and pepper out in a bowl by the stove
Rather than using a salt and pepper shaker, we practice seasoning food with the finger pinch technique. One finger pinch would be a small amount vs. a regular 3-finger pinch which would be more. This practice also adds to using more of our 5 senses. If leaving salt and pepper in the open bugs you, you can always use something with a lid or look for a pretty salt pig.

4. Cooking rice using the pasta method
I’ve always steamed rice, but you can cook all grains – including jasmine rice, with a boiling pot of seasoned water. Cook until tender and drain out the liquid. The liquid can be reserved as a grain stock to use in other preparation. (I do prefer using my rice cooker.)

3. Seasoning and tasting
Right along side with seasoning is tasting. Taste often. The right amount of seasoning makes the dish sings. We primarily season with salt and pepper (white or black depends on what you are cooking), and as we get into sauces and dressing, this can be with other flavour elements like lemon, lime, sriracha, etc.

2. Sharpening my knives
I have always known the importance of a sharp knife, but honing my knives before I use them has become a habit at home. Plus, I’m sharpening my own knives on my own stone. 😉

1. Using my senses
This include the five senses (sometime six – taste, smell, touch, hear, see and intuition) and common sense. You need all of your senses when cooking. We often will not be given the length of time required to cook something in class but a status – until browned, until soften or until it’s cooked. There are a lot of common sense that would be appreciated in the kitchen, too.

The importance of honeybees

We are back at Terra Nova Farm for a 3-day series on Farm to Table. As Chef Ian promised on our first visit to the farm, it will change you each time. One of the highlights from today is getting a lesson on honeybees and visiting Chef Ian’s bees. I am aware that bees are important (from the save-the-bees petitions, news article about bees dying), but I didn’t realize exactly how important they are.

  • Number 1: Bees pollinate 1/3 of the food we eat everyday. Keeping honeybees close by farms and community gardens help increase the yields.
  • Products produced by honey bees – bee pollen (medicinal supplement helpful for allergy sufferers), honey (because it is yummy, I use it for soothing sore throats), bee wax, propolis (medicinal supplement), royal jelly (medicinal)
  • The social culture and dynamics of bees are amazing. The things I have learned from watching “Maya the Bee” with my kids are only a small fraction of the things that goes on in a hive. There are a lot of drama, action and sex that goes on in there that makes Housewives of (Name-a-Location) seem tame.
  • Bees are not wasps. A quick way to distinguish them is that bees are smaller with rounded bums – and are good; wasps have pointed ends and are evil. Wasps are carnivorous, will sting you and bug you at your summer bbq (we had to deal with a wasp problem in our attic over the summer). Honeybees only sting if their nest is threatened, and before that they will warn you – first by buzzing around you, second by bumping their heads on you, and lastly, they will sting (and die after) if you still pose a thread to them.

The visit at the hives for me was a really calm experience even with the hundreds buzzing around us – knowing that you have the proper protective gears and how bees “bee”-haves really helped. All of the motions with the hives (performed by Chef Ian) are slow and smooth. Perhaps one day, I might be able to deal with my arachnophobia, but no rush on that.

For more information on bees, visit http://www.bcbeekeepers.com, http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/bee-guidelines.pdf, http://www.bbka.org.uk.

Week 4 recap

As I’m writing this post, I do have my chef’s jacket cut apart into 3 separate pieces in a confident attempt to tailor it to fit me better :). During my stage last night at a fabulous hotel downtown (more on that below), I found that my jacket kept getting caught on the upright oven handles so I figured today was as good as any to tailor my jacket. For any new enrollees, do go and try out the sizes beforehand. I’m also banking on my fact that I will not be gaining any weight in the next several months since I’m bringing in the size of the jackets (which after a month of classes, I am down a pound so far).

Now, on to more serious stuff. Today’s post features pictures taken on Thursday by my partner of the week, Grace (thanks Grace!! ;)). I left my phone at home that day, and these images are not found on my instagram feed. If you want to check to see what else is new, follow me here, http://instagram.com/monica_cakesandoptions.

Week 4 – The good, the bad and the ugly

Week 4 was quite a varied week. We covered several different topics including sauces, butchering poultry and breads/sandwich making. We made quite a few classic dishes using protein such as the salmon rillette, salmon roulade, lemon chicken prepared en papillote, jamboneau of a chicken leg, and southern fried chicken and quite a few rich, buttery sauces – veloute, demi-glace, chasseur, poivrade, bechamel. Also covered off sandwich making, which I honestly do think it is straightforward, except for the preparation we were using for the main events inside these sandwiches.

Good – learning to make bread! I’ve never made my own bread before this week and have learned it is not that difficult to make. We baked baguettes which we used in a philly cheese steak sandwich. We also made pullman loaf, morel mushroom bread and mini-bagels for other sandwiches. And even started on two different pie doughs – pate brisee and pate sucre.

Sample of the baguettes made in class:week4-baguettes

Philly cheese steak and a club: week4-sandwiches

Bad – I wasn’t happy with our demi-glace due to its lack of deep rich colour, but it still tasted ok. You really must brown the onions to achieve the deep brown colour the demi-glace.

Ugly – Wednesday. The day was long and was very taxing and I had my first kitchen injury – I had a small burn on the edge of my palm from grabbing on a hot handle. The day also included menu development which is a great opportunity to cook what you want to, but I don’t get feel we get enough time to research, prep and plan during the day for this. It felt rushed but everyone was able to deliver someone at the end. We needed a grain element and a vegetable element to go together with the duck breast. My partner and I were able to pull through on it, she came up with an easy and refreshing pickled salad using the extra brunoise veggies I had from Monday, and I used the extra grains we over-prepared from Monday in an attempt on an “orange” grain, but the colors from the carrots and oranges that I reduced with a brown stock and made to a puree didn’t take on in the grains. I’m happy to have my brunoise cuts showcased in the dish, it was previously used in a pilaf dish, which the vegetables just mushed in with the grain and was covered by the salmon roulade sitting on top of everything.

More pictures from Thursday:

My partner Grace and I making mini-bagels: week4-grace-bagelmaking

Mini-bagels! Covered up for poaching and baking the next day:week4-bagels

Cucumber tea sandwiches: week4-cucumbersandwiches

Our attempt to stack the highest prawn tub wall yet:  week4-prawntubswall

First stage

My first real experience in a professional kitchen. There were two of us from the school helping the chef to plate 4 courses for 35 guests while the kitchen is still serving the other guests. It was a positive experience (I want to say “lots of fun” but there was quite a bit of work but in to it). A lot of what we have learned in the first 4 weeks of classes proved really helpful – the different kitchen tools and mise en place. A lot of the preparation was prepared ahead, and the chef explained to us ahead of time the placement of dishes and prep work required for each of the courses so when it was go time, it was quite smooth. The menu was inspiring also. I deep-fried pickles, sliced beef briskets, fried beignets and even fried an order of french fries for a table (since I was standing by the fryer). The chef was helpful to explain how he prepared each item and we’ve learned a lot. There are ideas there that I’m jotting down to use for later menu devs.

There will be more stages to come as it is an opportunity to explore and learn from different chefs and kitchens.