Culinary Bootcamp, Week 2: Sharp Knife, Sharp Skills

I’m just going to say right now that I’ve been having a bit of trouble: My chef’s knife is dull already, as are the knives of some of my classmates, because we aren’t honing them properly on our steels (metal sticks that look like cattle prods). We are doing it often, as we should, but need to perfect the technique. I’ve actually been dreading using my knife until today, knowing that even if my enthusiasm and skills could cut the mustard, the blade surely could not! Well, it could spread it around and make a big mess, which is what it’s been like. Dull knives make everything you do, harder and more dangerous.

Fortunately for us, Chef Angus An of Maenam graced our class with a visit today to show off his extensive knife collection, give us a whetstone-method sharpening demo, answer our questions, and give us advice. He’s super friendly and down-to-earth, for someone that successful, which is very nice. I’ve read and heard his name for a few years in the papers, and it’s always awesome when people’s graciousness matches or surpasses their reputation.

Our teachers are great and help us after class with a myriad of things that we have questions about, or need to get to know better: Today I stayed half an hour late with 2 other students to try our hands at sharpening our blades on these dried bricks of clay that came in our tool kits. Proper maintenance and care for knives are key, or else you can’t really do anything. I was able to create a new edge on my blade, and was so happy and excited; no longer feeling inadequate for my upcoming knife cut homework. Precision, hoorah!

My practice area at home. Yes, that is a ruler, and those are dimensions to know on the wall. Jinkies.

My homework: Brunoise (2mm x 2mm x 2mm cubes) and julienne (2mm x 2mm x 4 cm) vegetables. Thank Betsey I've sharpened my knife.

Speaking of knife cuts, I nicked my right hand’s middle fingertip. I have no idea how, but it didn’t bleed, so my classmates joke that it doesn’t count and I’m still in line to wait for a big nasty slice like everyone else. I’m hoping to avoid it, especially because sharp knives don’t slip. I’m high in iron and donate blood now and then, but I don’t donate finger tips, especially not in the form of someone’s meal.

The pastry class students are super nice. Many of them have already taken the professional culinary course that we’re in and give us tips, and also share their pastries with our class. When you do baking, you do a LOT of baking. It’s hard to resist when we’re hustling all day, sweating and starving, and someone sets giant trays of cream puffs and crème brulées (my absolute favorites) in front of you. I’ve decided to get back to kickboxing before work on the weekends, because I’m used to getting up so early and will go stir-crazy if there’s nothing to do.

The sugar makes us crazy.

We learned how to make delicious and beautiful canapés, assembling them after getting all of our mise en place (little tubs of ingredients) organized and ready to go. A hush fell over the room while hands shook and we all raced to get to the table. Everything was so beautiful, it was hard to eat them until I remembered how hungry I was.

I'm not usually a fan of cured/smoked fish, but this class is getting me to understand that a lot of times when we don't like particular things, it's because we haven't had them prepared well. My favorite was the beef, topped with crispy shallots and remoulade. It's hard to go wrong with beefy-oniony-mayo-y flavour, except that I would have liked this about 10 times bigger.

I usually don't like smoked/pickled/cured fish (or most seafoods) but am learning quickly that many of the foods that we don't like, are hated because we've had them prepared badly, or they were not of great quality. I definitely liked the beef with crispy shallots and remoulade best, but think it should have been the size of this entire plate. Just a suggestion.

In order to avoid hermit-itis, I’ve been studying ahead a little bit and cooking with friends and family so I can practice my knife cuts and not go mentally insane from isolation. We’ve been baking bread in class and I love, love LOVE it. Kneading the dough is so relaxing, and people (especially my employer) are so excited for something fresh and hand-made. I made bread at my brother Tarek’s house, taught him how to make it, as well as chicken broth, and turned that broth into a caramelized onion and carrot purée soup. I also visited my friend Patricia’s family, and we made a shepherd’s pie together, where I tested out an experimental bechamel sauce for under the potatoes, using whole wheat flour and margarine (there is no white flour or butter in her house). The teachers said it couldn’t (or was it shouldn’t?) be done, but it worked, and I added the juice of the beef we cooked off to flavour it. Yum!!

My first loaf from class. This shape is called a batard. In English, it means "bastard". I decided to name mine The Glorious Basterd, because I was pretty proud of it. Somebody joked that bread can be called something rude like that because it sounds good in French. I agree. One of these days there's going to be a lumpy style called "la merde."

My first baguette. Pastry students warned that it would be difficult, but this was pretty easy for me! I had to visit work after, and offered some to my staff and customers. People went gaga!

Many of us are taking Foodsafe on the 23rd, and some of us are planning a gluten-free cooking party afterward, so we can practice knife cuts, study a bit, get to know each other better, and hang out. One of our classmates, Ashley, is a celiac, and I love talking with her about food alternatives. Many of the preparations that we make use flour and she can’t eat them (unless potato starch will also work in it), so it will be fun for sure to have a day where she can enjoy everything!

Ashley was super sweet and brought me a giant chunk of a lemon loaf that she made. It was so light and delicate that I never would have guessed that it was made with a gluten-free flour substitute, because usually they are heavy like bricks! Are you listening, Choices? I actually devoured this whole thing with a glass of milk while studying cooking videos and let out an involuntary "Aaaaaaah!" sigh after. Yes, it was that good. My station partner this week noticed that I'm "lemon-crazy" like his sister. Yup!

Everyone in our group will find something that they’re good at. I’ve found that some of my talents include shaping bread, turning potatoes (shaving them into tiny footballs with 7 smooth sides), and plating my food decoratively when the teacher tells us not to. Whoops! I’m super excited for next week: We’re starting off on Monday with pastry dough and a lemon tart! Yay!!!

I’ve been pretty crazily busy, what with school, and all of the studying/homework/online Rouxbe video watching/laundry that comes with it and will do my best to post at least once a week. Soon we will have slightly less homework/reading because we’re learning all of the basics in addition to techniques right now. I like posting to get more practice cooking at home, and would love to look back and read through my progress after graduation. Sixty-two classes to go!

Eat well! And study hard if you’re in school!


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