Monday, February 25, 2008

ChefX, the devil's advocate and rock heads

This past Saturday, aside from learning about burdock roots (notes on that later), I had a very informative discussion with ChefX about culinary school.

He asked me about my 5-year plan, and if I was still considering going to school. I felt really honored that he asked, and it helped for me to talk through my thoughts with someone who's actually been in my shoes. ChefX never went to school. He moved up the ranks by serving his time in the kitchen for many years, being mentored by some formidable chefs in the city. So you can guess what his opinion of culinary school was: "DON'T DO IT!"

Here is a dialog between ChefX and myself as devil's advocate:
ChefX: The teachers are a bunch of "rock heads!!!" who will teach only outdated, archaic knowledge about food you'll never use in a real kitchen.
DA: But isn't this the case with any subject matter? Doesn't learning the foundation of any classic technique will seem archaic? I learned to make oil paints with ground pigments, eggs and cottage cheese. I didn't need to learn this skill, but it helped me come to a deeper understanding of the art of painting. Was it essential for painting? No, but it certainly enriched my overall experience of artists and their paintings.

ChefX: You'll spend $30,000 or more on a program that teaches nothing about the essentials of a real kitchen
DA: Yes, it's hard to justify that figure. This is what I struggle with. With education, I want to say it's all priceless, but then what if ChefX is right? What if it turns out to be bogus?

I don't believe in going to school for to learn a craft, especially not for that much money.
DA: Perhaps.But I would like to go for the academic knowledge, perhaps more than, the technical knowledge.

ChefX: Because every kitchen has a different way of working, you'll have to relearn everything in every kitchen you work in anyway.
DA: Not exactly everything. I will have a base understanding of how things work and why.
ChefX's retort: You can learn these basics just by reading tons of books and practicing the techniques at home.
DA's retort: I would spend every minute of the day self-learning if I could, but I only have a small window of time to read and cook. Jacques Pepin "Complete Techniques" calls to me from my desk, but when will I get through the 865 pages? I have a refrigerator full of ingredients for at least 3 different recipes, but that means of being up until 2 a.m. for 3 days in a row testing them.

ChefX: The most successful chefs never went to school. They all learned on the job.
DA: True, true. But those chefs, including ChefX, started in their teens or in their early 20's. Also, times have changed. From what I've read, these days a degree from a respected culinary school will help open doors and find the connections you need. And the argument that most successful chefs haven't attended school is not entirely true. Many have studied in European schools, either in France or Italy. Hmm... that gives me some ideas...

Although I feel just as iffy about this school thing than ever before, at least I know where ChefX stands. He must have said the words, "don't go to school" and, "rock heads" about half a dozen times. Even the sous chef Adam, who attended school because he "got a late start" at 28 (oof! so young!), said he wished he had learned in real kitchens instead. So there it is. The big question mark still looms before me. What to do?

For now onto some food notes from Saturday.

Task: Julienne a quart of burdock root.
Notes: Burdock root basically looks like a long, thin, muddy branch. Adam asked me to only rinse it lightly and rub it down with a towel, without peeling it. Once I did this, it still looked quite muddy and unappealing, and I was a bit skeptical. He taught me to slice the root on a bias, to create super-thin, long oval disks, then stack the disks like fallen dominos. You julienne them into super-thin strips, then cover them with some rice wine vinegar since they oxidize quickly.

The key here (as I discovered too late after enthusiastically slicing an entire root) is to slice and julienne only a small portion at a time so that they can be covered immediately with the vinegar. So the rhythm is slice-julienne-dunk, slice-julienne-dunk. I also realized after julienning them, why it's so essential to keep the muddy skin on. The tips of the julienne provided a really pretty contrast to the whites of the root. I love how everything is done with intent here.

Task: Slice a little more than half a quart of fines herbes.
Notes: I am no longer afraid of these. Well...maybe just a little afraid of the chives. With my super-sharp Japanese knife and a whole lot of practice, ChefX thinks I've "got the backwards slice down." Woohoo! Now if I could only work faster...

Task: Make pesto.
Notes: Adam toasted some walnuts, then asked me to crush them with the bottom of a saucepan. That's a new one! Such sophisticated techniques we use at RestoX. Meanwhile, we threw some shallots into a pan, covered them with olive oil, then let them sweat over medium heat. We also covered the nuts in olive oil and let them cool. Next, I made a chiffonade of about half a bunch of mint. Once the shallots were cooled, we mixed all ingredients together and seasoned.
This "pesto" goes on top of a mushroom soup for garnish, so it's more gooey and nutty than your typical green pesto with cheese.

End notes
After the "no school," talk from ChefX, I asked if I could start coming in for service during the week. He said I was welcome any time. Perhaps this is what he was aiming for - more free labor from Undercovercook! But I shan't be that cynical. Truly, we are both benefiting from this arrangement, like a bartering system. I don't know how long I can sustain two days at RestoX while still holding onto my day job, but we'll see.

Next up: service #3 at RestoX.