Culinary Bootcamp, Week 14: Gearing Up and Making Things Happen

Happy belated Easter and Passover to everyone who celebrated. My store had a special Easter celebration with treats, prizes and give-aways, and I announced to our customers that “newsflash! Chocolate is good for your health!”

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Since school began, I’ve spent a lot of time cooking with my brother Tarek and our friends, but haven’t had many opportunities  to see my sister. We have crazy schedules, live further apart, and neither of us have cars, so it’s harder to get together, which is a little sad because when we lived closer we would have Crazy Sister Sundays and go for brunch. We spent a day together recently (the one day off I had from class and school!) to watch Julie & Julia, and I finally got to cook for her with some new-found culinary skills!

We both love eating chocolate and lots of vegetables, so I made a cream of spinach and zucchini soup (with milk)…

Green food is good for you unless it's the fuzzy kind!

…and polenta! Poor Mia had nasty store-bought polenta in a tube before so I promised to make one that she would love, because she insisted on washing the dish mountain that was built up while I was studying for this week’s quizzes and getting mentally prepared for restaurant days. That was really nice of her, but I was trying to break the Guinness World Record for tallest, teeteringest, crustiest stack of plates and utensils. When it comes to school and work, dishes are done often and quickly, but at home, I get cold when studying at night and put on a few sweaters, I warm up and then want to take a nap, which turns into sleep! Cooking for people after school is a win-win because it keeps me awake, active, warm, in practice, happily social, and people get fed!

Anyway, the polenta turned out really well! Spinach, sun-dried tomato, lemon juice, capers, garlic, onions, butter, milk, chicken stock, and cornmeal. I poured the rest into an oiled muffin pan to make…

Polenta cupcakes!

It was a classmate’s birthday and she had a 50’s party, so I showed up in my favorite fluffy, silky flower dress and brought the pan along. Everyone enjoyed them, including a super-sweet concierge who helped me find the party. Food is a great way to thank people!

On Wednesday we found out who our partners would be for our food-costing and menu development final project, and would also get to work with them through our 4-day practical final exam. I was very lucky and the instructors had me partnered up with Grace, a lovely, sweet, hard-working, pint-sized powerhouse. We got together on the weekend to fine-tune our Black Box dishes, and she even took me out for dinner! What a doll.

On Monday, we all arrived at our stations to find photos of our Black Box dishes. I winced at mine, and relished having the opportunity to make changes.

My dishes on the left, Grace's on the right.

A long time ago, during vegetarian menu development, one student who was sentenced to Lone Wolf status for the week said “I wish I had someone to bump heads with!” and it was like that for some people during Black Box as well. I was happy to have input from someone else and be able to axe what didn’t work.

Grace was brave during the Black Box and made chard tortellini with pesto for her veg appetizer. Pastas on a time frame can be hard! We tweaked the filling and added a cute salad of pear, fennel and red pepper.

Attempt #2 at Thai trout with lentils: Better, but not by much!

I screwed up the sauce this time, and even though we were allowed to change some things, the instructor wanted me to give lentils another shot. So this go round, we puréed the lentils and made them into a panko-crusted puck, which was then deep-fried. They actually dissipated into a crunchy mush, which tasted good, but looked like poop on a plate. Ugh! More improvement needed.

On Tuesday we were to make canapés out of leftover bits and bobs from our main dishes, which is important because canapés are given away for free, so you don’t want to lose money while enticing your guests and also have to make sure not to fill them up too much so they don’t order any drinks or food! Grace and I didn’t have any scraps to make these with (good news!) and were allowed to rummage for old and new things. She found a dried-up old beet and made a cute salad on a roasted beet chip; I found half of an apple kicking around in the veg bin and made candied apple chips with spicy, pistachio-ed goat cheese and a mini cilantro salad.

It was difficult to get the caramel to stay on the pre-dried apple without turning it into mush, and even though it was oiled, it stuck to the plate a little. If I did this again, I would set the chip down on some ground nut powder, coarsley chopped nuts, or sesame seeds after dipping the apple in caramel the second time.

I wasn’t allowed to spearhead any Chinese or African/Middle Eastern dishes for Black Box, but Grace had a Moroccan chicken dish that she wanted to work on and I was more than happy to lend an idea or two…hee hee…

Grace's Moroccan-spiced airline chicken breast with apple, apricot and pine-nut stuffed ballotine. Chickpea demi-glace sauce and bright, beautiful salad.

Up next, we were required to come up with an idea for a pear dessert. We wanted to make a no-bake pear cheesecake, but unfortunately, as time went by, we realized that there wouldn’t be enough time to let it set between our other dishes, and ended up making a ginger-cardamom-pear curd in sweet pastry tart with blueberry coulis. It didn’t taste bad, but it wasn’t what we wanted and it felt like a disaster. The tart and the decorative pear slices overcooked in a flash, I forgot to put lemon juice in the pear puree and it turned an ugly brown, and we were given the wrong fruit for the sauce so the blueberry coulis didn’t go with the dessert very well.

We were exhausted and a little crushed. I felt awful because Chef Christophe had taken time out of his day to hunt down his catering recipe for basic cheesecake and we didn’t get it done, Grace didn’t like the dessert (neither did I), and one classmate even commented, “what is that? Did you make that on purpose?

Now I know why some of the Pastry students are grouchy all the time.

It wasn't ugly, but it also wasn't what we wanted.

I was becoming frustrated because on days where we were trying to make leaps and bounds, my ideas were falling flat and literally looking like ass. I do not plan on serving crap to people!

This guy, though, could do it easily with style and flair. How do you serve something that looks like a plop? By making a joke out of it!

Bowes looks dead serious but is always ready to cheer someone up. He's awesome.

I needed to use this disappointment to get all fired up and told Chef Christophe that I wanted to try making the recipe at home, then bring it to school the next day (Wednesday). I spent some time adjusting the recipe for linear measurement (don’t have a food scale in my kitchen), he lent me the mini-tart pans and gave a few sheets of gelatin and some cardamom pods, because I had everything else at home. Grace and I made plans to meet up early, and try the cheesecake for breakfast. I worked for a few hours on making vanilla crème anglaise, rolling out the pastry crusts, puréeing the pear, making decorative pear slices, whipping the separate cheesecake components, and finally folding everything together, by hand, to see what the results could be like if we had an equipment breakdown or the machines we needed were in use.

I hurried to school, clutching the desserts in tow as if they were  briefcase full of diamonds. The thought of dropping them or suddenly tripping loomed in my mind! Handcuffing them to myself like Frankie Four Fingers of Snatch occurred to me, but getting your hand sawed off is not something that will help my future career.

My ginger and cardamom-scented pear cheesecake, swimming in saucy crème anglaise.

The good kind of crushed! In about 10 seconds my pear-slice poaching syrup went from clear to mahogany wood. It was poured on top of one of the cheesecakes because I love cracking the sugar on crème brulée and asked Grace if she liked the idea. She did, and this caramel was too dark, of course, but it was fun to see what it turned out like anyway.

Grace also made an adorable custard tart with pear on top!

I only brought home enough dough to make a few tarts, so there was a lot of leftover cheesecake batter. These were brought for classmates and teachers to enjoy.

On Wednesday, everyone found out who their other 3 partners were for the practical final, and the class played a racous game of Food Jeopardy as a final theory review. We shared the cheesecakes with our new brigade, and I was so happy that they liked them and wanted to use them as our group’s dessert during the practical final services, with a few cool finishing touches from another teammate’s confection. They’re a great dessert to have on the menu because they can be made ahead of time, are easy to assemble at service, plus they taste nice and one of our classmates, who is a baker, said that they looked handsome. I was flattered.

Chef Christophe said that other than using a food processor to purée the pear a little bit finer (using a food processor/blender), it turned out very well. Break out the sparklers, a French Chef said something nice about my dessert! I hope he is proud because I tried really hard to make this well, and show that his time and advice were appreciated.

By the way, extra crème anglaise is so good with fruit as a studying snack.

Chef Tony made lunch! Clockwise from top-left: Pork head cheese terrine, puerco pibil and refried beans on tortilla, pickled red onions, baby greens salad, duck prosciutto.

The inspiration for puerco pibil came from Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. On some of his DVDs, RR has 10-minute Cooking School extras, which are awesome. I actually read his book, Rebel Without A Crew, and wow, he would do anything to get that first film made. It’s fantastic that he encourages his fans to jump into the kitchen (“Not knowing how to cook is like not knowing how to f—!”). A healthy majority of his fans are young men, so all of you out there ought to know, it never hurts to impress people with food…

Chef Andrea Potter of Radha Yoga Eatery came to spend a day with Pastry and teach them about vegan and gluten-free baking. I was pretty jealous, because that was the workshop that I wanted to volunteer for at Radha this upcoming Sunday, but instead will be chopping vegetables or making stock or rolling out tart dough in preparation for our finals next week. Hopefully there will be another workshop soon! Gluten-free Ashley finally had a day where she could enjoy almost everything that Pastry made, and they shared some treats with her. Chef Andrea came by with a tray for the rest of us as well, and it was almost like the food had wings, it flew outta there so fast, proving that healthy treats can hold their own.

"I knew she'd grab the chocolate one!" That's not me they're talking about. Who do you think is taking the photo?

After the theory final exam, our team met up at a coffee shop to hammer out details, make sure we were meeting a new list of requirements, and tighten up our dishes. We were told not to get too attached to our Black Box ideas, be receptive to suggestions, and even ask for feedback from our new friends. I was so glad. One of the first things I said about my dish was “I hate my lentils and want to change the grain. Does this (insert idea) sound good to everyone?” Fortunately, it did, and one person even helped me figure out how to simplify the sauce for better results. Whew! Crisis averted.

On Friday we were given the day off, and some of us decided to come back to school because the class was invited to visit Chef Ian at Terra Nova in Richmond!

I hopped out of the car and got excited because of the barn.

Chef Ian showed us a map of the farm and rural park area.

Chef Tony was really intent on plowing rows of dirt.

I almost expected to see a group of hobbits when we approached this area.

I would love to live in a cute little house on a piece of land like this one day. Many people came in to tend to plots that they were growing, or just plain visit. Regaining connection to the land is something that I love about community gardens.


This gazebo would look magical for a dinner event if it had christmas lights and white sheets to form a canopy.

There were so many birds enjoying their peace and quiet in the fields, just as we were. I was mildly concerned about getting pooped on, because they circled back and flew over us.

It's easy to imagine some brightly-coloured jalopy in 1950's Europe chugging along here, with people laughing in the car, and maybe a white cow or two wandering in the pasture.

This is a cattail. Don't recognize it without the hotdog top? Neither did I. Terra Nova has a lot of them.

...a lot. We walked about 10 steps up a little hill and it was like a beautiful, endless sea.

Pear trees that will have fruit soon!

Watching my plants bloom flowers and grow fruits and veg was the happiest thing that I did last summer.

I've never actually been fishing, but if I were to go, it would be somewhere that looks nice and calm like this.

This heron moved very slowly in the water. Either it was trying to hunt something in the water, or it was trying to blend in with the sticks and grasses so we wouldn't eat it.

Japanese knotroot. Similar to bamboo, and grows ridiculously quickly! I told Chef Ian about the Mythbusters episode where they tested and proved that you could slowly kill a person by tying them down over where bamboo was growing. Ouch!!

Simon happily picked garlic chives. Those are powerful! Of course I liked them, too.

The gift of garlic!!! From Chef Ian, for our last service. These bulbs were large! Did I mention that Terra Nova is wonderful?

It was nice to spend a day relaxing and wandering around in all of that natural beauty, and on a sunny day! We picked herbs and greens for our upcoming lunch/dinner services, and brought some lovely things home, too.

My imitation-Italian breakfast the next morning: Chickweed and garlic chive salad (all from Terra Nova) on toasted whole wheat pita with Sriracha butter, parmigiano reggiano, and almond slivers.

The only thing that was not enjoyable during our visit was that I messed up my knee as we hopped over a water-filled ravine to see the pear trees. You know, it’s Richmond, the land is full of them. I landed fine, but my left knee and ankle kept feeling twangs of pain as we walked along, and they progressively got worse until I hobbled to my friend Jenny’s Make Your Own Sushi, Bitches! birthday.

My California rolls.

My California rolls.

My sun-dried tomato, caper, Sriracha mayo and marinated zucchini rolls. They didn't turn out very well, but tasted good!

Now, going to a party instead of seeking medical treatment might sound idiotic, but I had a project due on Sunday and didn’t have 18 hours to sit and be ignored in a waiting room at VGH, the walk-in clinics were closing, finals were coming up all week so I’d have trouble getting an appointment with my GP, and I knew that a med student and a guy from North Shore Search And Rescue would be at the party, along with ice! After calling the BC Nurse Hotline, walking verrrrrry slowly to Jenny’s, taking some ibuprofen, undergoing an improvised check-up, and getting wrapped some bandages by a professional, things are much better. I’m not going to try and run a marathon just yet, but that’s okay, I never did when I was 100% injury-free anyway.

It was nice to spend the day in bed, even though it was necessary. I was typing away for the project, standardizing recipes, writing critiques, feverishly drawing and colouring, and working on some top-secret stuff that I will write about later.

The whole knee situation was pretty funny, at least to me. I was worried about dragging my team back, and they were worried about my health. It would have been terrible if I couldn’t work and support everyone through the practical finals. This test is hard enough for any team to get through, let alone having one of your peers getting knocked off. We all have a lot going on in our lives outside of class, and I feel like my story would be titled The Girl Who Bit Off More Than She Could Chew And Then Her Plate Got Fuller And Fuller And Fuller Some More. That would be a very funny children’s book. It’s important to know your limit, but life without challenges is boring. There have been a lot of obstacles for me up until this point with school (emotional, physical, health/energy-related, work, habit-changing),  and I’m happy to have kicked their asses. We graduate on Friday. This girl is about to pat her tummy and throw down the napkin, even though she doesn’t want to.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back on the Easter weekend, one of my clients came in and was about to transfer to a new school for a program that she was excited to enter, but was daunted by stepping into the industry. As an upcoming sociology student, she had a conversation with one of her professors that basically went:

Client: So…Soche is kind of depressing!

Prof: Uh, yeah!

That wasn’t helpful. And she didn’t know what to do. So I told her about my situation: I love my school. I love food. I love cooking for people and teaching them. I don’t love stress, and I don’t love a negative environment. So what is there to do? Find the right environment that I can flourish in, and focus on the good things that I know I can help with. Same for her.

“Societal problems are always going to exist, no matter what,” I said. “You’re not going to like every dish at the table, so instead focus on the good plates that you can bring and share.”

This can be translated into any field. There’s going to be stress, BS and drama no matter what or where you go, so try not to get bogged down, and be satisfied by thinking of positive stuff that went on. If our first dessert didn’t screw up, we probably wouldn’t have had yummy samples for everyone to try and it might not have gotten picked. Chef Christophe also wouldn’t have seen how much I wanted for this to succeed, and Grace might not have known how much I appreciated her trust and hard work. I’m just happy that things turned out the way that they did, so that’s all that matters.

Failing at something is okay if you’re willing to pick yourself up and try again.

The chefs say that you have to make things happen!

Eat well!


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2 Responses to Culinary Bootcamp, Week 14: Gearing Up and Making Things Happen

  1. glutenfreegal says:

    I never thanked you for the gf cheesecake! It was really good, thank you!
    The farm looked like it was really fun, I’m kind of now wishing I had gone.
    Alternative baking day in pastry made me so happy! My group was talking about something while I was eating a cheese bun they had made and I pretty much tuned them out. It was fabulous! For the couple minutes I was eating it, it was my and my gf treats!


  2. kchellouf says:

    Ooh! So glad you enjoyed it! I re-did it and now it’s even better! Maybe I will make one on Thursday night and bring it to share with the class on Friday!

    I want to visit Terra Nova sometime in the summer (you can pick berries there!!) so if you want to, we can go together for sure!

    Alternative baking is so cool. I really want to learn about it, and checked out some books from the library. Maybe we can have a GF baking day in the future!

    See you tomorrow!

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