Culinary Bootcamp, Week 13: Excessive Excess Tips the Scales/Culinary Clash of the Titans

Hopefully this post is as good as what I remember typing before it got wiped out. Right now my brain works strangely, in that I can’t remember what day something happened last week, but can remember almost paragraph for paragraph what I wrote, or a client’s account number. Friday was my first actual day off without school, work, or both, since January 4th. I’m counting on a little rest after school to bring it back up to speed because this is a little bit scary, what with written finals coming up this week and everything.

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This post contains rants. I did not go to bed normal and then wake up as a psycho, but I happen to be very opinionated on several issues that happened to come up this week, including high-demand ingredients, farming practices/animal ethics, politics, poverty, small businesses, “borrowed” discretionary income, and how they all tie in with food.

Just thought you’d like to know.

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Earlier this week, a classmate and I were talking about our jobs. In the summer, he fights forest fires in BC’s interior. When I’m at the store, clients often consign clothing and accessories from high-end labels that get drooled over on TV and in magazines. Very different. We learned something interesting during a presentation about mushrooms: Certain expensive mushrooms grow very well after the earth has been scorched, and so a number of suspicious fires have been started in the past, possibly (well, likely) to do with people looking to make some money.

Another unusual fact that I am aware of is that my age bracket of women, from 19 to 25, is the largest burgeoning group of citizens declaring bankruptcy. Yes, there are a lot of financially smart young ladies out there, but unfortunately, there are a lot of girls out there who want all the latest toys and fashions, and lust after everything a celebrity touches in ads or music videos, but don’t understand the repercussions of their spending habits. I don’t know why, but for some reason, many people have come to think that they deserve premium everything.

Treating ourselves every now and then is good for morale, but living way beyond our means is irresponsible and when too many do it, with everything from purses to truffles to houses, we have problems, like global economic meltdowns.

So while neither of us condone setting trees ablaze or going into massive debt to have that dress that you saw the other night on Gossip Girl, we have jobs because people want things that are hyped up and a demand has been created. Fortunately, at the store, we sell them at a fraction of the original price so if you really want it, you can shop and enjoy responsibly, and even make money by selling your own belongings to finance the purchase, if you’re savvy. As for the flames, there’s absolutely no excuse for driving people and animals out of their homes and damaging the planet. Unless you’re a bolt of lightning, in which case you’re just going to do whatever you want.

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Our teachers were talking about some of the most sought-after ingredients, like black-market truffles, foie gras (fwah-grah), champagne, lobsters, caviar, and how they’re only popular delicacies because people say they are, so there’s a ferociously synthesized need, if you can call it that (I consider them to be in the want column). If you think about them, truffles are a fantastically smelly mushroom, foie gras is a controversial block of fat, champagne is a bubbly white wine, lobsters are giant, feisty prawns, and caviar is salty fish eggs. What makes them great is how and when people choose to use them. Everyone’s palate is different, and unfortunately, I’ve tried all of these and didn’t like them, with the exception of an occasional tiny drizzle of truffle oil on freshly laminated pasta. When it comes to both food and fashion, I do enjoy nice, high quality things, and explosive, zany style, and love to hear about what other people think and enjoy, but I trust that my body knows what works for me the best.

Now, in class, we had to make something that was very over-the-top. Tournedo Rossini is a duck-fat-fried crouton, topped with a beef tenderloin steak, pan-seared foie gras, and a slice of black truffle, with a Madeira wine demi-glace reduction. It was requested by and then named after an Italian opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, who was also a gourmand (goor-mond), which is what I would like to think of as the classy, high-society term for a person who eats high-quality food and drink until they have to be buried in a piano box, like Fernand Pointe, whose catchphrase was “butter, butter, give me butter, always butter!”

We were asked to incorporate beets and asparagus into the dish somehow, and it almost seemed like an exercise in futility. It was like putting a leaf of spinach on top of a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, or serving a green salad with a stick of deep fried butter at the Texas State Fair.

Tournedo Rossini, one of the richest things I've ever eaten.

The first time I ate foie gras I found it to be repulsive and might have liked it more if it had been prepared differently. The only restaurant where I have tried and liked it was at Refuel on 4th Avenue. They were in little croquettes, 3 cubes to a plate, deep-fried, so they were crunchy on the outside and melty on the inside. Just a few tastes, simply used well. Anything more than that might have been going overboard.

My partner seared the foie gras and cooked the steaks perfectly, while I fried the croutons and worked on veg (par-cooking asparagus, roasting and marinating the beet). I ate everything except for most of the foie gras. The teachers were generous and gave us each a piece that seemed too big, because one bite was enough to clog your tongue up. If I were to put this dish on a menu, it would be with foie gras the size of about 2 stacked toonies in volume, pan-seared or maybe bruléed, or if I were to buy a little jar of foie gras to use at home, it would be just a little bit on top of something every now and then, like the cherry on top of something lovely. I hoped that my partner’s stomach would process the food all right, because she used to be a vegetarian!

One classmate who also couldn’t finish their plate said “All right, it’s crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, I get it. What am I supposed to do with the rest of this?

Foie gras is a big deal to some people, both for and against it, because of the process that it entails. Farmers raise a flock of geese or ducks, then put them in cages and gavage (gav-azh) force-feed them grains with a tube, after starving them all day, so their livers fatten up to around 8 times their normal size. Many chefs and foodies love its taste, and many people are enraged because of how it disregards animal rights. It was banned in Chicago, and is about to be banned in California.

Now, there is such a thing as ethical, natural foie gras, if that sounds believable. Chef Dan Barber met a Eduardo Sousa, a farmer in Spain, who took care of his geese as if they were his own children, or better. If kids were meant to have their livers out. No gavage, but yes to keeping the noise down, checking food levels, making sure they were happy, it was out of this world. Sousa kept repeating, “I’m just here to give the geese what they want.” When asked why he didn’t sell his products to chefs, he simply replied, “chefs don’t deserve my foie gras.”

For reasons that are different than his, I agree with that answer. What he made, so perfectly and with such TLC, is amazing, considering how most of the food production system works. The restaurant industry is known to have a lot of waste, and it would be shameful for any of this to get thrown out. I might be putting too much stock into this, but if you were either to love your animals and raise them naturally to fatten them, or raise them however else and force-feed them, throwing out the sole material that you raised them for is kind of similar to trashing a child’s drawing after you told them to colour for hours (even though kids are not raised to be scribbling machines).

I did a little homework and found that the aldermen in Chicago’s city council voted for the foie gras ban without knowing too much about it, which is why it was repealed when a group called Chicago Chefs for Choice brought in some experts to rebut that gavage isn’t cruel or painful. I’m not sure how I feel about that, even though it is true that they have very elastic esophagi. Nevertheless, if council wanted to get into an edible ethics battle and turn into the food police, maybe they should have thought about Chicago-style grilling and deep-dish pizza, and how people might start railing on carcinogenic food and artery-clogging treats, subsequently asking for bans on those as well. Even further, if those geese/ducks weren’t asking to be force-fed and foie gras was banned, couldn’t one could logically argue that killing cows for steaks is cruel/non-consensual and ought to be outlawed?

If you open the door during a flood, more than just a trickle comes in, so sometimes it’s best to just keep the door shut in the first place.

I think that if a person doesn’t like something, they shouldn’t eat it, instead of serving other people their beliefs. I read that New York City might ban salt. If I even begin to even describe how ridiculous that is and how it will affect the quality of food (and tourism, in turn) I will need another entire blog post, but will try to squeeze this into a few paragraphs.

Brooklyn’s Democratic State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz says that Americans are eating too much salt, which leads to hypertension, heart attacks, and even death. This is true and he does have good intentions, but pardon my language, his plan is not the best way to achieve the goal of a healthier America, so it is not going to work, just like Chicago’s foie gras ban.

If the unhealthy populace of Americans are eating too much salt, which is true, and are dying because of their eating habits, also true, what do they have in common? High amounts of sodium and fat are  processed garbage and fast foods are readily available across the nation, not just in New York, a major hub of fine dining, an elevation of the industry where food is often served in smaller portions and even more-so prepared very carefully to taste. By the way, there are 246 McDonald’s locations in New York. And some of them deliver!

Systems, as a whole, are not perfect (the food system, the health system, the anything) because people are not perfect. At one end of the spectrum, people are dying because of overeating, while at the same time, on the other end, people are starving to death. There is a major distribution problem, which is why a broader solution is necessary if real results are wanted. Why does this proposed bill, which hits only one city, enable many American citizens to continue to make excuses and absolve themselves of vital nutritional responsibility, but chefs will get punished? Chefs have a responsibility to make what their customers want and make it taste good. The industry is moving up to a stage where Chefs also have to make sure that they know how to accommodate their customer’s health needs as well, but Chefs are not babysitters and if a person chooses to go out to eat 7 days per week, 3 meals per day, with unhealthy food, it is their own choice and you can’t tell them otherwise.

Nobody is shoving a tube in their mouth and force-feeding them. And if you think that that sounds mean, I’m speaking as a person who used to wear pants twice the size of the ones that I wear now. I decided that it was possible to eat chocolate and live an active, healthy lifestyle. I think that people look good with a little meat on their bones, but when eating habits become damaging to your health, you have to do something about it. Your health is all you really have, never mind all that stuff you own.

If the government really wanted to discourage people from convenient, processed junk that would kill them and create a financial drain on the health care system, they could force fast food restaurants and snack manufacturers to abide by new guidelines, or move forward and tax the you-know-what out of these types of foods (or give tax cuts to people who buy healthy foods/get activity), so that people might not eat them all the time, leading them to think that they are more expensive than nabbing a bunch of spinach or learning to make food from scratch to bring to work or school. The idea of including food awareness in your life as a skill-developer, a pleasure, a fuel, and a learning experience could eventually erase the feelings of numbness and ignorance associated with not listening to your body’s real needs.

If this ban goes into effect, it will probably not last very long, and is unlikely to catch on in other cities and states. Except for maybe Chicago. I used to be a sodium-phobe, and it’s funny to be arguing for it now, but school has shown me how even just a tiny pinch of salt can enhance the taste of everything. Taking away salt is like taking away a cook’s right hand (if they sprinkle with their right hand).

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In class we made apple galettes (tarts), continuing our focus on French classics. I’m used to the type that has the edges folded up to hold in the apples, and was worried that our pinched-only barrier would flop over or something, but the dessert contained itself, a miracle! I was once referred to as The Bride of Satan for making addictive little galettes with puff pastry, apples, cinnamon, cranberries, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and caramel sauce. I saw that movie Legend and don’t think I’m going to marry a big red guy who looks like Tim Curry playing The Lord of Darkness.

This version was simply apples on top of crème pâtissière and flaky pastry.

“Can we add cinnamon to it?” one student asked, during the demo.

“No.” the chef replied, continuing to assemble the food.

The class laughed.

I like fanning things out prettily. This looks like my feather headband collection.

My partner did a great job with the flaky pastry dough.

Momo from Pastry, with a table of their celebration cakes.

Momo's adorable cherry blossom cake with a shrine! It makes me want to go pick up some Hello Kitty shoelaces or something.

I was tempted to bite one of these buttons and find out what they were made of, but you don't mess with bakers. Just don't.

Sara made this beautiful cake to practice before making a similar one for some friends who are getting married.

After school, I went back to Colourbox for a hair trim, where Kim (a vegan, celiac foodie) and Barb (one of our Serious Foodie graduates) oohed and aahed at photos of the cakes. Can you blame them? I’m ready to swoon all over this laptop.

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Next up, French Classics restaurant day! Off to the races again.

Did you know that beef tartare and hamburgers are safe to eat raw, rare, or cooked to a medium level of doneness? They are, if you buy a good cut of meat, chop/grind it up finely yourself and then serve it right away. The reason why pre-ground meat has to be cooked thoroughly is because sometimes accidents can happen in the slaughterhouse, like if they’re sawing a cow in half and accidentally buzz through the intestines, getting e.coli bacteria all over the meat, or hoof and hair bits make their way in (cows are pretty much always surrounded by clouds of their own methane gas and step in a lot of poop), or the grinding machine is dirty. The heat is supposed to kill the bacteria, but after writing this paragraph, I realize that it’s probably a safer and better idea to just cut the meat up all the time if you need it to be a finer texture.

Beef tartare actually has a lot of ingredients in it, including Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, parsley, shallots, and more. I always thought it was just beef!

Duck breast in morel mushroom sauce with squash flan, potatoes boulangère, and, our choice, sautéed chard wrapped in more chard. Tee hee! Almost every team had trouble with this dish getting approved at the pass. We were afraid of keeping flans hot for too long, but found out later that they would not overcook if kept in a bain-marie.

Floating islands: Quenelles of meringue that are poached in milk, then drizzled with caramel while the milk is turned into crême anglaise.

A warm, composed salad with Belgian endive, radicchio, watercress, apple, bacon, mushrooms, and a surprise. We give leftover food to Pastry, and they had an entire table covered!

“Why doesn’t anybody want their salad?” one of the Pastry students asked.

“There are chunks of kidneys in it!” I whispered.

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We’ve been getting ready for the industry by learning all of these great culinary skills, but if you don’t have a fab resumé or don’t know how to wow your interviewer in person, nobody will find out what you can do. We had a day based around finding work (Industry Day) and a few guest speakers came in, including Chef Anthony Nicalo of foodtree, a pro-transparency web-based service that promotes open communication between growers and consumers, Heather Loke of culinary temp agency Cooks for Hire, and Chef Alessandro Vianello, a NWCAV graduate who is now the head chef of Preston’s Restaurant at the Coast Coal Harbour Hotel. We signed up for class knowing that the food industry can be tough, so it’s always nice to hear from people who have fun with their careers and share their stories with us.

During Chef Anthony’s visit, a pseudo-debate opened up about the food system as a whole, beginning with one student who didn’t believe that things were going to reach the tipping point and finally change, with supermarkets serving less-expensive and lesser-quality ingredients to a minority, while the majority shops at things like farm markets or gives more business to local food growers.

“They’re not going to go without a fight,” he said about supermarkets and mass food-producers.

They’re not going to go at all. I don’t believe that it’s similar to a war of attrition, because if it were, the big box stores would win, hands down. It’s not possible to eliminate the other option here, or else Wal-Mart wouldn’t exist, so instead, build up strength in the things, people and places that you believe in and support better businesses. There are always going to be people who want things cheap, accessible, and all in one place. Their biggest concern, and most important bottom line, is not where things come from at all, it’s how they save money. Sometimes that’s just how life is.

What you can do though, is try to change your opponent’s tactics, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his free-range chicken battle with Tesco. If you can show the giants that the masses want something different, they will maybe one day start thinking about kind of implementing a smallish change (unless you’re at Whole Foods). It’s a start! If people are speaking with their dollars, businesses have to listen if they want to survive, so we have to make sure that we put them where it counts.

I brought up a point about how in North America, a lot of people live close to the poverty line and don’t nourish themselves well, but they could if they plan carefully and use their finances wisely. How many starving students do you know who talk on/play with their iPhones all day and rack up massive data fees? In many places in Europe, everything is more expensive, including food, yet people don’t care because it’s better food, and they also don’t seem to mind going out every day or so to pick up something fresh. They just make peace with it and do without something else (owning cars or property). We could learn a lot from them.

No time for plating and presentation! Chef Warren made mashed potatoes and we turned veal blanquette (white stew) that was made a few days ago into pot pies. I volunteered to wander into Pastry repeatedly and linger around the convection oven.

It looks happy in there.

Crème caramel. We made these the week before and switched fridges on Monday, so unfortunately I didn't get to try my own. I really would have liked to know how it turned out, because I've had ones made by my mom and sister, but had never made one myself. Fortunately, they're easy!

To top off Industry Day, one of our students gave an excellent presentation about starting a business, already having done so herself. She was very smart to get the class involved with writing or calling words out!

In the evening, the Chefs took some of us out for dinner at Maenam, as thanks for volunteering the most for the Serious Foodies classes. I really enjoy being at the school, coaching people at a stove, playing with ingredients, trying the food, and getting to know the other students and instructors better, and would have been happy with just that. I consider the opportunity to be something special in itself, but this in addition to it was so nice.

A little bit of lots of things on my plate. When your hands start jittering with excitement, you know the food is good.

I made sure to have 2 drinks at dinner so I’d fall asleep as soon as I got home in order to get some rest. Everyone else in class seemed to be nervous about our Black Box exam the next day, even losing sleep over it!

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Black Box competitions and exams are what that show Chopped is based on, where you get a few secret obligatory ingredients and have to make a dish with them. We were required to make two portions each of one vegetarian appetizer and one main course with a protein (within 2-and-a-half hours), and were even told what our obligatory options might be, for proteins, grains, and vegetables. There were so many requirements and rules that imposed too many limitations on the creative ideas that I wanted to use, that I wasted valuable planning time on trying to find ways to navigate a dish through the instructions and make sure all of the targets were hit.

I would have preferred to have received no warning/rules at all, walked in, grabbed my ingredients, and then make whatever dish I felt would showcase the ingredients well, but this was a harder test than what you see on TV. This was scarier than the practical midterm exam for some people, because at least with the midterm it’s all review. Black Box requires you to do a lot less studying and a lot more planning and idea homework. You can’t teach that. Either it works well or it doesn’t.

I woke up early the next morning, to shake awake, eat a good breakfast and finalize my plans. No matter how much preparation you do, you will still get a little nervous right before walking in. The ingredients that I received were trout, butternut squash, and puy lentils. The squash piece was cut too thinly for me to carry out my game pan so improvisation was needed. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people were hoping for quail as their protein (except Rene, who is allergic to poultry) because they’re so tiny and easy to rip the bones out of. On top of all the other rules, an addendum was added: We weren’t allowed to make food from our own ethnic cuisine because it’s like cooking at home, which is understandable, but for me, that meant cutting out not just one major region’s cuisine that we learned about in class, but two! The fish, squash and lentils would have been prefect in a tagine-style stew together so I went to work, laughing and wondering if the instructors gave them to me to see what would happen.

The first thing I did was throw the squash in the oven with a few cloves of garlic and immediately began breaking down the fish. Too much time was spent removing all of the pin bones that were hiding in the fillets, because I was paranoid about the teachers catching them in their throats. We were expected to make a stock or fumet out of our bones, so I dodged classic culinary wisdom and booked a flight to Thailand, making a fish stock with lemongrass, crushed garlic, red chili pepper, lemon, onion, ginger and smashed peppercorns.

My appetizers took way too long to complete, and even though they were allowed to be served at any time and I was multi-tasking between dishes, I decided to serve them cold and brought them to the table right at my 12 o’clock deadline, along with my mains and breathed a huge whoosh of relief. All of the rules swirling around in my brain finally flew out of my ears and I went home to take a nap.

Roasted squash rillette with caramelized onions, puy lentils. Spicy-sour apple and cucumber salad, curry-lime mayo and cilantro oil.

The inside. I would have liked to have stacked this rilette on top of the salad, but with the salad being a bunch of cubes, I was concerned about the layers shifting and splitting.

I accidentally deleted the picture of my main course, which was trout filet dredged in seasoned flour and pan-seared, on top of a puy lentil-sesame-green onion-ginger salad, julienned red pepper and carrot, and finished with a spicy, sour, sweet lemongrass coconut curry.

Along with having to make some type of stock with the bones, we were also required to use some type of butter emulsion as a sauce! I could have used a little more elbow room but discovered how to fudge it: Infuse Thai aromatics into the stock, reduce it like crazy to concentrate the flavour, make a gastride with white wine or rosé and more Thai ingredients/curry spices, mix them together, reduce a little further, strain, add coconut milk, check seasoning, whisk in the cold butter!

I have never made a Thai curry before that had wine or butter in it, but there it was, and it actually tasted very freakin’ good. I’m not going to make them like this all the time, because it’s far too much work, but it was nice to discover what the teachers call another way to skin the cat.

In any case, I’m just glad the Black Box is over because I’m not satisfied with my dishes and can’t wait to re-vamp them or help my partner give her dishes a face-lift!

Eat well!


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