The meaning of 'mise-en-place'

One of the first lessons students learn in culinary school is the meaning of mise-en-place. French for "put in place", it means that ingredients are prepped, tools are gathered, and everything is organized before cooking begins. It's a grounding philosophy that keeps your head clear and your body poised to make things happen.

The mise-en-place I gathered for a variety of fresh pasta recipes

The mise-en-place I gathered for a variety of fresh pasta recipes

After almost a year in the BU kitchen, I have become intimately familiar with the concept. As the teaching assistant from September to December (that flew by), I fastidiously 'mise-en-placed' my way through veal stocks, bread dough, handmade pasta, fresh ricotta, Thai green curry, Punjabi greens, tres leches cake and much, much more. I gathered produce for daily recipes, measured ingredients for morning demonstrations, peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, and washed caseloads of chicken backs for the stockpot. My corner of the kitchen was rarely without a project.

Working with Joanne Chang was a real treat

Working with Joanne Chang was a real treat

The organizational philosophy extended beyond my personal workspace and into big-picture planning. I'd review recipes for upcoming classes and make ingredient lists of things we were missing. To prepare for public events like Anson Mills with Barry Maiden, the MET gala honoring Jacques Pépin, ricotta-making with Mary Ann Esposito, and low-sugar baking with Joanne Chang, I'd start collecting and categorizing special supplies days in advance. When it came time to assist our visiting chefs during demonstrations, the mise-en-place mentality was at its height. I knew each recipe inside and out—not just how much of each ingredient, but the process, the timing, and desired outcome of each step. I'd stand in the wings and swoop in to remove an empty vessel, or to hand over a whisk seconds before the chef even realized she needed it. Like a ball boy at Wimbledon, I was always ready with one foot pivoted toward the action.

For me, the first few weeks as the TA was like a proving ground to show what I'd learned as a student. Did I retain those visual cues that tell you when pâte à choux is ready to be piped? Did I remember how to filet a flat fish versus a round? What's the ideal temperature for roasting a chicken? Students often looked to me for advice and my cooking knowledge (or lack thereof) was a direct reflection of the instructors’ ability to teach.

One of the numerous batches of mirepoix I prepared for chicken stock

One of the numerous batches of mirepoix I prepared for chicken stock

One of the first real tests came when the class was learning the art of sauce-making from chef Michael Leviton. The students were focused on their salsa verde and red wine reduction, while I was tasked with cooking some steaks for them to taste with. Cooking steaks for Leviton, the precision-obsessed, James Beard nominated chef who taught his very specific technique to me the previous semester—no big deal. Slightly nervous, but excited for the challenge, I gathered my mise-en-place. Three thick sirloins, a squeeze bottle of oil, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, tongs, a half-sheet tray with a rack, a digital instant-read thermometer, and a plate for serving were all within arms reach. Don't screw this up, I thought. Don't screw this up!

I performed the task exactly as I remembered, first searing and basting in a hot pan, then resting on a rack, finishing in a 300-degree oven and resting again until the internal temperature reached 130 degrees—perfect medium-rare.

I carried the plate to the front of the class where students were gathered to hear the chef talk about the precision and finesse required to properly cook meat. That it's not just about a flaming hot grill. That a charred exterior and blood-red interior are not desired outcomes. That many cooks get this wrong.

Confident, but not completely sure of what his knife would reveal, I stood sheepishly off to the side, contemplating escaping to the bathroom in lieu of being mortified by my imperfect steak. But as he sliced through with neat, angled cuts, he proudly proclaimed, "this is exactly what you're looking for".

I breathed a sigh of relief and I'm sure he did too. That evening I came home from school feeling like a rock star.

Jacques teaches a student how to make a parchment pastry bag

Jacques teaches a student how to make a parchment pastry bag

The culinary program changed my approach to cooking. I not only learned to keep my head clear and my space organized, I learned to work with a sense of urgency, to pay close attention to the sharpness of my knives, and to be in tune with all my senses. But most importantly, it taught my something valuable about myself—that I am happiest when working with my hands to create things. As a Gastronomy student, the physical labor of cooking is something I study through an academic lens. I observe, research, analyze, and put words on a page in an effort to contribute something to the world. What I've realized is that my academic studies combined with my culinary training have given me the gift of knowing what it's like to be truly engaged and fulfilled.

I look at my years in the Gastronomy program as the mise-en-place for my new career. My personal space is now fully equipped with writing skills, historical context, cultural awareness, kitchen know-how, and a broadened worldview. This spring I will graduate and inevitably be faced with the question "what are you going to do?" I may not have a precise answer, but I know I'm poised to make something happen.

A Weeknight Survival Tactic

Sometimes recipes are born out of necessity. Since I began the BU Culinary Arts program (and now work as the teaching assistant), I don't get home until 6:30 or 7—kind of late to be launching into a 2-hour cooking project. So to make sure dinner is on the table before the entire family falls apart, I need to be resourceful, organized, and fast. This means planning and shopping for meals on the weekends and prepping vegetables and other ingredients the night before. Things run smoothly when I can simply throw stuff in a pan when I get home (or even better, leave instructions for my husband to get things started).

It's this mentality that led me to a roasted butternut squash soup with curry and red lentils. The squash had been sitting in my fruit bowl for days, waiting for that window of time (the one I never have) to peel, chop, and roast it into something delicious. The vegetable was beginning to collect dust—it was stressing me out. So one night at 9 pm I cut it in half, put it in a covered baking dish, and roasted it in the oven while a did a million other things on my to-do list. With a cooked squash in the fridge, I was one step closer to a realistic weeknight meal. I had some red lentils and chicken stock on hand, so the following evening I was able to make a comforting fall soup in about 30 minutes. It was a necessity that ended up being a treat.

 

Recipe for curried butternut squash and red lentil soup
serves 6

Roasting the squash first accomplishes two things—it eliminates the need for peeling and chopping and it concentrates the sweet, earthy flavors of the vegetable. Tender red lentils practically melt when cooked, but the soup can be pureed for a smoother texture.

1 medium butternut squash (3 1/2 pounds)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sweet curry powder

1 cup red lentils

6 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons lemon juice

sour cream or yogurt for serving

 

1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds, and brush cut sides with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place cut side down in a baking dish and add 1/2 cup water. Cover with foil and bake for one hour. Once squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh with a large spoon and cut into bite-size pieces. This step can be done a day ahead.

2. In a 4-quart pot over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add the chopped onion and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and continue to cook for 3-5 minutes. Add lentils and chicken stock, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.

3. Add the cooked squash and lemon juice to the pot and gently stir to heat through. Add more salt if you like. Serve as is or puree in a blender. Garnish each serving with a spoonful of sour cream or yogurt.

Wild find

Like native strawberries, wild blueberries are one of those fleeting New England fruits that remind me to cherish every bit of summer. They're much smaller than the cultivated variety, but bursting with more intense, sweet-tart blueberry flavor. Pints of the tiny berries usually start appearing (with a hefty price tag) in mid-July, and can be found in specialty produce markets and farm stands in northern New England until mid to late August.

I can never seem to get enough, which is why I was thrilled when my husband and I discovered a sprawling patch of the ripening fruit on a recent walk in the woods (location purposely undisclosed!). One minute we were gabbing away and briskly stomping on sticks and rocks, the next we were in a zen-like trance, trying to outdo each other as we filled up our empty water bottles. There were so many, it was hard to stop.

Just a small portion of our berry windfall

Just a small portion of our berry windfall

After 45 minutes of hunched-over picking, we ended up with about two pints worth of the foraged berries. And that doesn't include the handfuls we snacked on while we hiked back home. We savored the hard-earned fruits of our labor—they were popped straight down the gullet, tossed onto yogurt, and most notably, sprinkled into these healthful pancakes. Quintessential summer. Quintessential New England.

 

Recipe for spelt pancakes with wild blueberries

This is my go-to pancake batter that is based on my sister-in-law Carol's recipe. I like to play around with different types of flours and flavorings. Try half flour and half cornmeal, or add a little lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of sugar. It's very versatile.

Serves 6

4 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for serving

1 cup spelt flour

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

2-2/1/2 cups buttermilk

vegetable oil for greasing skillet

1 1/2 cups wild blueberries

 

1. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and allow to cool.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and melted butter. Add 2 cups of the buttermilk and whisk to combine.

4. Add the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add more buttermilk, if necessary, to reach a pourable consistency.

5. While the batter rests, heat a cast iron pan or griddle over medium heat and brush with a small amount of vegetable oil. When the skillet is hot, pour about 1/4 cup batter for each pancake, top with a handful of blueberries, and flip when bubbles begin to form. Repeat with the rest of the batter. Serve with real maple syrup, soft butter, and extra blueberries.

Cleaning out the fridge

I hate throwing away food. During the summer, weekend excursions and impromptu backyard barbecues at the neighbors' sometimes leave me with a fridge full of forgotten produce. Staring at bunches of herbs that will soon fade to yellow, I start to feel guilty and proceed to turn the kitchen upside down with an afternoon's worth of rescue projects. This week, I saved a few helpless victims from ending up in the compost heap and their second lease on life was better than the original.

The recovery operation began with a box of wrinkled little apricots. They were never that great in the first place, which is probably why they remained in the produce drawer for weeks. Their slightly dry flesh had no sign of rot, but eating one was like biting into a slightly wet cotton ball. I've always heard that cooking sub-par fruit is a good way to eek out the most possible flavor. So I chopped them up and threw them in a pot with some sugar, lemon juice, and thyme. It simmered on the stove until I forgot about it. The result was an accidentally caramelized apricot jam. It was sweet and tangy with a subtle bitterness from burnt sugar. The sad stone fruits now stood proud in their mason jar—transformed from unwanted mealy fruit to "artisanal, small-batch" preserves.

Next up was a big bunch of Italian parsley with a few leaves beginning to yellow. How could I use it all up in time? "Three 'P' pesto" was the answer. I plucked off all the good leaves, gave them a rinse and a spin, and blended them in the Cuisinart with some Pecorino cheese, unsalted pistachios, olive oil, and garlic—another jar of goodness to stock the fridge, perk up pasta, and smear on sandwiches.

It made me feel good to save the dying produce. I felt even better about transforming it into something delicious. So take a look in the back of your fridge and do your good deed for the day. Your family and friends will thank you for the heroic effort.


Recipe for three "P" pesto

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 bunch Italian parsley, leaves only

1/2 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios

1/2 cup grated Pecorino romano cheese

olive oil

salt to taste

1. With the motor running, drop the clove of garlic into the food processor and run till finely chopped.

2. Add the parsley, pistachios, cheese, a few glugs of olive oil, and pulse. Add more olive oil, if necessary, and blend to form a paste. Taste and add salt if you like.

 


Recipe for accidentally caramelized apricot jam

1 pound fresh apricots, pits removed

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 sprigs fresh thyme

 

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients and bring to a gentle bubble. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the fruit breaks down and the sugar begins to caramelize, about 45 minutes.

A spring favorite

As promised, here is a taste of what I've been up to and what I hope to continue over the summer—getting inspired by seasonal ingredients and discovering new ways of bringing them to life. This one is something I worked on earlier this spring:

I love the idea of fresh fava beans. They aren't around for long this time of year, so I cherish their nutty flavor and smooth texture. The only problem is there never seems to be enough of them. You’re lucky if you find some in your weekly CSA share, but chances are the beans will amount to less than a cup by the time you shell them—a disappointing result after all that work.

I seem to get myself into this situation every spring. Enticed by the large, exotic-looking pods, I eagerly grab a few handfuls at the farmers’ market. But then what? What can I do with a measly portion of these earthy seeds that will allow their unique flavor to take center stage?  

I was faced with this challenge recently and arrived at what I think is the perfect solution. My go-to approach would be to toss them with some other spring vegetables and pasta, but would the precious beans get lost? Is that boring and predictable? If I really want to highlight the spring legumes I should make them the main ingredient, right? So with that in mind, I decided to make a rustic puree to spread on toast. It would be the perfect accompaniment to a leafy green salad.

The first order of business was to choose the best specimens from the market. Fresh favas are most tender when they’re still on the small side, so avoid pods that are huge and bulging. Once shelled, the inner seeds should have a pale green color—tawny beans have grown past their prime. After the favas are cooked, the tough, waxy skins should be removed (I know, some people can’t be bothered and would rather just eat the skins, but this step is crucial for a smooth texture).

Without giving it too much thought, I mashed the blanched legumes with the back of a fork and seasoned the mixture with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It was simply prepared and it certainly captured the fava-ness I was after, but it needed one more element of brightness. I added a few torn mint leaves to the mix and found the spread satisfying and delightful. The Levain loaf I bought from Mamadou (the Winchester-based bakery who sells at the Arlington farmers' market) provided an ideal delivery method. I toasted the bread and smeared it with the bright green mash.

My reinvented bruschetta, of sorts, may not constitute a meal or even a side dish. But I discovered a way to turn a small amount of my springtime favorites into a respectable snack that lets the starring ingredient stand on its own. Next time you think that scant cup won’t amount to a hill of beans, think again.


Recipe for fava beans on toast

 

salt, to taste

1 cup shelled fresh fava beans (from about 2 pounds unshelled beans)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves chopped

4 slices crusty bread, toasted

1. Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the fava beans and cook 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. When the beans are cool enough to handle, remove the skins.

2. Place the peeled beans in a medium bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon juice, and salt to taste. Mash with the back of a fork until you have a rustic puree. Gently stir in the chopped mint.

3. Top each slice of toasted bread with 1/4 of the puree. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and serve.

Transition

Well hello there. I'm afraid my blog has been dormant for a while—kind of like the sourdough starter that's been sitting in my fridge for months. It's about time to wake it up and tell you all about my post-culinary school transition.

Let me emphasize TRANSITION.

Toward the tail-end of school, I did a few "stages" (internships) at the restaurants of my chef instructors. I worked full shifts at 51 Lincoln, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Lumiere. I helped chef Dante of Il Casale serve calzone samples at the Best Buddies fundraising event. I don't necessarily have aspirations to work in a restaurant, but I was curious to experience the heat of the kitchen. I looked at it as an extension of the classroom—a place where the planning and organization skills could be put to the test in real time.

The gnocchi special I helped make at 51 Lincoln

The gnocchi special I helped make at 51 Lincoln

At 51 Lincoln I helped chef Jeff make fresh gnocchi for the nightly special. Together we seared wild boar then braised it with warm spices and sherry to make a ragu for the potato dumplings. During service, I worked alongside Cara, the garde manger (who just graduated from the BU program) to plate salads and desserts. I fried bread in clarified butter for croutons. I scooped sorbet and ice cream and arranged cheese and charcuterie on little wooden boards. Business was brisk and I could certainly feel the heat—literal and figurative—from the neighboring cook stations. I was in my element. "I could do this," I thought.

Working at Island Creek was a very different, yet equally engaging experience. Here I worked with chef Lauren who is in charge of pastry for ICOB, Eastern Standard, Hotel Commonwealth, The Hawthorne, and Row 34. Despite the breadth of responsibility, the all-female pastry department worked with a quiet ease. In a separate upstairs kitchen, 3 of us rolled, filled and fluted 90 miniature, lattice-top blueberry pies. I made a flourless chocolate cake while Lauren deftly frosted a birthday cake for a private party. Downstairs in the ICOB main kitchen, bins were filled with measured dry ingredients for the signature biscuits. Then we mixed and cut about a hundred perfect squares for the night's service. I mixed dough for mustard crackers. I simmered pastry cream. And I plated a few desserts once the tickets started coming in.

Mini pies for the Hotel Commonwealth private event

Mini pies for the Hotel Commonwealth private event

Cutting the giant square biscuits at ICOB was a satisfying task

Cutting the giant square biscuits at ICOB was a satisfying task

Working in pastry seemed to have less of a sense of urgency than working on a line. There was more repetitive motion, more standing in one spot, and less heat. Again, I felt right at home.

At Lumiere I stood between a French Laundry-bound chef on one side and a 19-year-old former Shake Shack employee on the other. It was a tight, hot, all-male kitchen. I started out with what I gathered was the official intern initiation task—making gremolata. Chef Leviton's version requires you to precisely mince lemon peel, parsley, and garlic for the signature aromatic garnish. There would be no hashing over with a chef's knife. I learned his method in class, so I was confident.

Beyond the gremolata and a few other prep tasks, it was here that I got the most experience working on a busy line. I wasn't just there to observe, they put me to work! My official duty during service was searing scallops. At first I thought "they're actually going to trust me with this?!" There was the single scallop for the tasting menu, trios for the appetizer portion, and 5 or 6 for the entree. Lumiere is known for the scallops, so the tickets came in at a steady pace. The black steel pans remained over heat for the entire night, and so did I. The heat was relentless, but I pulled it off.

Getting a taste of restaurant life was fun. What I learned from being in the kitchen is that I am happiest when I'm working with my hands. I enjoy being a maker. So as I transition into a new career, my goal is to incorporate "making" into whatever I do. I've been continuing to write stories and recipes for The Boston Globe. Developing recipes gives me time in the kitchen without committing to the chef lifestyle. I think a perfect fit for me would be to collaborate with chefs who want to write cookbooks, but don't have the time. I could help to translate their ideas into feasible recipes for home cooks. Getting insight into their creative process, testing recipes, and clearly explaining their techniques is something I could get into.

Part of my transition into a culinary professional will also incorporate more time in the BU kitchen. Beginning in September I will working as the teaching assistant for the new crop of culinary certificate students! I am trilled to return and relive the program from a different perspective. Until then, I'll be posting recipe ideas, things I'm working on for The Globe, and whatever other culinary goings-on I can think of. Oh yeah, maybe I should make some sourdough bread.

This is it.

It seemed like this week would never come. Okay, maybe I was just having too much fun and didn't want it to come. But alas, our final days in the BU kitchen arrived and were expected to be the culmination of everything we'd learned all semester. First was our final project, then graduation—two concluding events that tested our limits as students, as cooks, and as a team.

We had been hearing about the elusive "final project" since orientation. The individual challenge consisted of preparing an appetizer, main course, and dessert for our panel of core instructors. We were assessed on menu design, planning, proper execution, and timing. In previous semesters, students were given certain ingredients to work with, but we learned just days before that we had free reign (a blessing and a curse). We were given four hours to prepare in the kitchen on Tuesday, then we had to adhere to a strict timetable for service on Wednesday. The key was to have as much done in advance so that only last minute "firing" was happening on Wednesday. 

We had to name our restaurant, design the menu (ok, i have slight advantage), and present the dishes with descriptions.

We had to name our restaurant, design the menu (ok, i have slight advantage), and present the dishes with descriptions.

Choosing what to make occupied every brain cell until I was forced to submit my menu and ingredient list a few days before the big day. What is my signature dish? What can I make flawlessly? What will impress James Beard awarded chefs? Even though we were encouraged to keep things simple and "just cook something well", the pressure was on. In the end, I chose to make wild mushroom risotto as an appetizer, seared striped bass with spring vegetables for my main, and rhubarb buttermilk panna cotta for dessert. Every dish was something I had made before and I even practiced them over the weekend. I thought my menu was foolproof.

Damn was I wrong.

Ironically, the biggest disaster ended up being the simplest dish. When I went to unmold the panna cotta I had prepared the day before, there was a thick layer of clear gelatin at the bottom of each ramekin. I panicked. It was 12:30 and my dessert had to be plated at exactly 3:28. I knew it wasn't enough time for a new batch to chill and set, but I went ahead anyway, poured a fresh buttermilk mixture into cups, stashed them deep in the freezer and prayed. In the end, the panna cotta barely made it in front of the chefs before it slumped into a pool of slightly-thickened cream. I knew it still tasted good, but this was NOT part of my plan.

I thought my other courses were executed pretty well. To dress up my mushroom risotto, I had prepared ramp oil—a bright green emulsion of oil, blanched ramps, and a bit of garlic and parsley. I drizzled it along the edge of the shallow bowl and it created a bright frame for the pale and creamy risotto. One chef thought it needed more of a garnish. Another thought it could have used more butter and cheese. Meh, I liked it.

As a sort of "nage" for the striped bass, I had made a delicate broth with leeks, fennel, parsnips, parsley, celery, and white wine. I also blanched some bright spring peas, sugar snap peas, and julienned fennel and leeks. The seared fish filet sat on top of the vegetables and was crowned with a dollop of basil aioli and basil chiffonade. As one chef said, it looked like "spring on a plate". Definitely my intention. But another instructor found the fish slightly too salty and somewhat undercooked. My fish was undercooked—how embarrassing! I tried so hard not to overcook it (as fish often is), but I guess I overcompensated.

All in all, there was a good balance of praise and criticism, but I found the final critique to be anti-climactic. There was so much thought and preparation put into the dishes and not much reward. I guess I daydreamed about wowing the chefs. I guess I was disappointed with myself that I screwed up the dessert and undercooked the fish. The pressure got the best of me. I wanted it to be perfect and it wasn't. But hey, it could have been a lot worse and I was grateful for the opportunity to cook for such a distinguished panel of culinary professionals. 

Besides, there was no time to sulk. Immediately after our final project the students needed to team together to plan and execute a graduation dinner for our friends and family. We'd had a meeting or two and some emails bounced around, but I don't think anyone realized the enormity of the task at hand. We had a ton of food to make. This meant we had to come to some consensus, effectively communicate, assign tasks, and take ownership. With 11 different opinions and personalities, it wasn't easy. There was some bickering and a few intense moments, but we managed to pull it together.

I was nominated to design the menu, program, and table tents. Another student created a slide show. The two graduation co-chairs ordered ingredients, organized decorations, and planned table settings. And everyone cooked their behinds off. We expected about 70 people at the dinner and ceremony. I was in charge of making arancini, Sicilian rice balls. Together with the help of other students, we rolled about 165 golf ball sized appetizers that were filled with fontina and spring peas. I was also tasked with baking 12 batches of cantucini (almond biscotti) to fill take-home gift bags for all our guests. That kept me busy for a while.

The mise en place for 6 double batches of biscotti!

The mise en place for 6 double batches of biscotti!

Then there was the gnocchi incident.

After some of the students had prepared four batches of the Italian potato dumplings, I had the brilliant idea of storing them in plastic tubs in the freezer. "Sure, make two layers with parchment. It'll be fine," I said.  But we arrived the next day to find a mess of sticky dough. Not only should they have been spread out on sheet trays (in one layer), the freezer was on the fritz! I felt completely responsible and with only hours to go before the dinner, I remade another 4 batches of gnocchi. Thanks to my gnocchi partner in crime, Tim, we came out on top. Phew.

Gnocchi, take 2. This time I ensured there would be no sticking together!

Gnocchi, take 2. This time I ensured there would be no sticking together!

The fluke ceviche was prepared by Lucrecia, a student from Panama

The fluke ceviche was prepared by Lucrecia, a student from Panama

The mini arancini were a big hit

The mini arancini were a big hit

The beautiful Korean-style sushi prepared by student KyoungAh Kim

The beautiful Korean-style sushi prepared by student KyoungAh Kim

It was a lot of work, but cooking in a relaxed atmosphere for graduation was a nice contrast to the stress of final project day. Maybe everything didn't go exactly as planned, but our friends and family were blown away. "Outstanding!" said one of our guests. Now that's the reward I was looking for. 

Our last full week of classes

Jacques Pépin is a difficult act to follow. During our third-to-last week of school we were on such a high from being in his presence, it was difficult to imagine how we could return to the BU kitchen without feeling slightly depressed. The legendary chef was back at his home in Connecticut, his side-kick Jean-Claude in upstate New York, and we students (exhausted from all the excitement) staggered back into the classroom to wrap up our final days of culinary school. Thankfully, our week was jam-packed with challenging activities that left us no time to mope around.

It ended up being another whirlwind of a week. There was the fieldtrip to Kinnealy's—a meat processing plant located in Brockton, MA. Prepared with hats, gloves, and winter jackets, we toured the refrigerated facility and witnessed first-hand the care and craftsmanship that goes into all of their products. I thought seeing such large quantities of beef would ruin my appetite for meat, but it had the opposite effect. The plant was so clean and well maintained and there was an entire room devoted to dry-aging. By the time we left, I was craving a big juicy steak.

Fellow student Sam proudly dons a beard guard

Fellow student Sam proudly dons a beard guard

One of the many racks in Kinnealey's dry-aging room

One of the many racks in Kinnealey's dry-aging room

Another highlight from our penultimate week was a class called "In a Chef's Mind" with Jeff Fournier. The purpose of the day was to begin to understand how a chef arrives at ideas and how those ideas evolve into tangible, realistic menu items. Because he is a painter in addition to being a chef, Fournier's approach is unique. Sketching is an integral part of his thought process and he uses this as a tool for planning and executing dishes. To practice, chef Fournier gave us some ingredients to think about and we had 5 minutes to come up with an idea. "Bluefish, baby carrots, asparagus, fennel, ramps..." he rattled off. We had to use the protein, but could choose from an array of produce and pantry ingredients to complete our dish. Despite the lack of drawing skills, everyone got busy with pen and paper.

The beginning of my smoked bluefish idea

The beginning of my smoked bluefish idea

Being a designer, I'm used to thinking visually and conceptualizing on paper, but I'd never really applied that creative process to food. I thought about the bluefish and immediately arrived at smoke for the dominant flavor. Then I moved on to contrasting ingredients that could play supporting roles. Sweetness from roasted baby carrots. Tang from ramps emulsified into creamy yogurt. And something fresh and crunchy to provide a contrasting texture—maybe julienned raw ramp greens? I roughly sketched out my imagined dish and it started to come together. We ran through this exercise three times with different ingredients each time, then chose the most promising ideas to execute in the kitchen.

My smoked bluefish with ramp cream and roasted baby carrots

My smoked bluefish with ramp cream and roasted baby carrots

Fournier's process makes sense. When I got to my workstation I had a clear idea of where to begin and already knew what I wanted my bluefish plate to look like. While the filets sat over hickory smoke, I got to work blanching the ramps and pureeing them with thick Greek yogurt. The mixture was beautifully bright, but not the consistency I desired (it liquified in the Vitamix). Fournier suggested folding in whipped cream to give it some body. Once the fish was smoked, I seared the skin until crisp. Baby carrots were slow-roasting in butter on the stove. And at the last minute I decided to throw the carrot tops into the deep fryer. They would provide that contrasting texture and garnish I was after. I was pleasantly surprised with the finished product. Who knew I could come up with a dish from my own imagination and successfully cook a pretty close version of it an hour later? It was like an edible prototype.

There are many other factors that go into chefs' thought processes. There's the availability of ingredients, the time and labor involved in the preparation process, the time to plate for service, and of course, cost.

Our no-holds-barred brainstorm session was challenging and fun. It ignited my passion for combining food and design and snapped me right out of my post-Jacques doldrums.

Cooking with a living legend

It's 7 pm on a Wednesday night. Eighty ticket-holding foodies sit attentively while gulping down sparkling rosé. I'm standing underneath a kitchen demonstration mirror, my hands trembling as I peel and core apples as fast as I can without losing a finger. The audience is captive, but not because of me. I could be flambéing a roast goose and they wouldn't notice. Their eyes are fixed on the man by my side—the legendary Jacques Pépin.

Jacques was was kind and generous with his time—signing books and posing for photos after working in the kitchen all afternoon

Jacques was was kind and generous with his time—signing books and posing for photos after working in the kitchen all afternoon

I was proud and honored to be assisting the celebrated chef while he visited BU for three days. Jacques co-founded the Gastronomy program and at age 79 he still comes to work with the culinary students each semester. The time spent with Jacques in the kitchen culminated in 2 evening events that were open to the public. For both nights, he demonstrated recipes from his 2007 book, Chez Jacques, while discussing his philosophy on food and his journey as an artist. Besides being a prolific author and beloved television personality, Jacques is also a painter.

On Wednesday, my entire day consisted of gathering equipment and mise en place for Jacques demos

On Wednesday, my entire day consisted of gathering equipment and mise en place for Jacques demos

The menu was the same for both dinners and reflected simple traditions from his lifetime of cooking. We started with fromage forte—a savory cheese spread made from odds and ends of leftover cheese (camembert, stilton, chevre, cheddar, anything!), garlic, white wine, and a generous pinch of black pepper. Packed into little crocks and served with freshly made croutons, it was a quintessential product of his humble upbringing and resourceful approach to cooking.

The giant batch of fromage fort was blended in a food processor and divvied up into small serving dishes for each table

The giant batch of fromage fort was blended in a food processor and divvied up into small serving dishes for each table

We also made duck liver pâté with shallots, duckfat, ground bayleaves, thyme, peppercorns, and a few glugs of good cognac. The students hovered around an extra crock and slathered the rich earthy spread on the same crisp croutons.

After this apple tart was baked, it was glazed with apricot jam and calvados

After this apple tart was baked, it was glazed with apricot jam and calvados

While he demonstrated the dishes, cracked jokes, and told stories from his early years in New York, the students buzzed around behind the scenes to churn out scores of plated portions for every other course. With the help of Pépin's longtime friend and equally accomplished chef Jean-Claude Szurdak, we had been prepping and cooking for the event all day. After the fromage and pâté, we made truffle and pistachio sausage with warm leek and potato salad. Ground pork shoulder was seasoned with pickling salt, white wine and garlic, then combined with chopped truffles and pistachios. Logs were rolled tightly in plastic wrap, then foil, and left to cure in the refrigerator for four days (these were made ahead). On the afternoon of service, we poached the sausages and cut thick slices to serve atop the potatoes.

For the main course we made chicken thighs with morel sauce and rice pilaf. The sauce was enhanced with the soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms, fruity white wine, the pan drippings, and cream. It was the perfect marriage of elegance and comfort food. To cap off the meal, we baked rustic apple tarts with hazelnut frangipane.

Amidst all the prepping and cooking for the big events, Jacques still found the time to teach us how to bone a whole chicken for galantine—a task I've seen him perform on videos and T.V.. He's so approachable, it's easy to forget how accomplished he really is. But when I watched him work I realized I was observing a man with a lifetime of embodied kitchen knowledge. Knowledge that flows out of his fingers with ease and grace.

Here Jacques demonstrates how to completely bone out a whole chicken (he told us that once, during a cooking demonstration, Julia Child called him "such a good boner"!!)

Here Jacques demonstrates how to completely bone out a whole chicken (he told us that once, during a cooking demonstration, Julia Child called him "such a good boner"!!)

My chicken galantine was stuffed with ground pork, bread, garlic, herbs, and wine

My chicken galantine was stuffed with ground pork, bread, garlic, herbs, and wine

In addition to the perfected techniques and beautifully executed dishes, there's so much more I took away from my three days with Jacques and Jean-Claude. So much that I had to boil it all down to a "Jacques credo":

1) A chef is a craftsman before he is an artist. A young chef who is trying to be "creative" is like a writer who doesn't have a good grasp of grammar—it just doesn't work.

2) Good food should be simple.

3) Home is the best restaurant.

4) For experienced cooks, a recipe is an expression of one moment in time.

5) Food does more than fill a biological need. It can mean love, home, comfort...

6) The best food is the food you know (Jacques isn't interested in what he called a "plated unborn vegetable").

7) You can make a convincing "Champagne" by mixing white wine with Pabst Blue Ribbon (this one I got from Jean-Claude at the after-party!).

8) Great food is even better when shared with friends and the people you love.

So if nerves get to you in the heat of the kitchen or you dropped your tart on the floor, just relax and have another glass of wine. As long as you keep good company, everyone will still have a good time.

Field trip!

I never thought culinary school would entail boarding a mud-encrusted dingy on Duxbury Bay. But after a long haul through heavy traffic to the picturesque coastal town, our class swapped chef coats for windbreakers to visit Island Creek Oyster Farm. We motored in between small floating shacks that dotted the inlet until we reached the "oysterplex"—one of ICOF's sorting facilities. Two young men dressed in layers of plaid culled through crates of the day's harvest. There was a special bin for The French Laundry.

Our tour guide Bryan at the helm

Our tour guide Bryan at the helm

Oysters are sorted into bins according to size and shape

Oysters are sorted into bins according to size and shape

Perfect oysters bound for one of the world's best restaurants aren't easy to come by. It takes a dedicated team of aquaculture specialists and fishermen to cultivate the quintessential New England oyster—one that balances salinity with robust sweetness and also has the ideal cupped shell. It also takes about 2 years for the mollusks to go from seed to something you slurp off the half-shell. That's a lot of time spent filtering the waters (and microorganisms) of Duxbury Bay. Talk about terroir—oysters are truly a product of their environment.

Different types of algae grown for feeding oysters while they're in the hatchery

Different types of algae grown for feeding oysters while they're in the hatchery

We learned about the care and attention to detail that goes into oyster farming. ICOF has an extensive lab and hatchery that gives them a scientific edge and more control. Here they can create the perfect environment for oysters to spawn. They can grow the ideal algae to feed the "babies". They can maintain optimal water temperature and flow during the early stages. And they know exactly when to put the oyster seed into the bay. Everything is calculated and meticulous with the hope that someday, that tiny grain-of-sand sized bivalve will grow up to be good enough for us to enjoy.

Of course, we couldn't leave Duxbury without gaining an appreciation for the end of the oysters' lifecycle. It was only 11:30 am, but with a squeeze of lemon and a tilt of the head, we all blissfully reveled in the fruits of Island Creek's labor. 

Down to the wire

The past 3 months have been like a giant extended chef's tasting menu. We've sampled a world of cooking techniques, from classic French to rustic Italian to traditional Chinese to homey Indian. Our classroom's revolving door has brought instructors from every facet of the food industry including hi-end and casual restaurants, hotel kitchens, private chefs, food distributors, business owners, and cookbook authors. Now, as we near the end of the semester, the time has come to put our learning into action.

Today was our first "market basket". I'm not talking about the famed grocery store chain, but a culinary test where students are given a set of ingredients that must be used in an appetizer and entrée. We must work individually to plan and execute the dishes which are to be plated and brought to the front of class at specified times. It's kind of like Top Chef, only we get the ingredient list in advance and have a total of 3 hours to cook.

Mise en place for my mussel dish—saffron infused white wine, butter, spaetzle cilantro, sweated shallots and ginger, tomato confit

Mise en place for my mussel dish—saffron infused white wine, butter, spaetzle cilantro, sweated shallots and ginger, tomato confit

So, the given items were mussels, hanger steak, parsnips, and asparagus. We were warned not to get too creative with our dishes, but to focus on simple preparations that are executed perfectly. The chef (Michael Leviton, in today's case) isn't necessarily looking for culinary innovation, he just wants to see that you can cook the ingredients properly and make them taste good. Simple, right?

Well, everything was hunky dory for the appetizer course. I decided not to stray too far from the steamed mussels we learned to prepare with chef Leviton during our Provençal class. I used the hi-heat, white wine and butter technique, but decided to tweak the flavoring by adding saffron, shallots, ginger, and cilantro. In lieu of the croutons, I made spaetzle—little German dumplings—that provided a nice textural element for slurping up the flavorful broth. I was pleased with my results. German spaetzle with saffron and cilantro was admittedly all over the culinary map (Leviton took note of this), but in my mind, the dish was still simple and I liked it, so why not?

My world-fusion mussel appetizer

My world-fusion mussel appetizer

My comfortable, easy-going attitude of the first half of the day quickly gave way to a frenzied panic. After critiquing everyone's mussel dish, we had about an hour to get our entrée finished—seemed doable. But somehow between puréeing parsnips, frying shallots, and searing my hanger steak, I ran out of time. Once the meat was seared, it rested for 7 minutes, then went into a 300 degree oven. I figured it would only take about 10-15 minutes for it to reach an internal temp of 128, but I either misjudged or my oven was off because at 4:00 (the time we were supposed to be finished), the hanger had only just been taken out of the oven. It needed to rest for 10 minutes before slicing or else the juices would run all over the plate. Feeling like a failure, I brought my plated parsnip puree, roasted asparagus, fried shallots, and red wine pan sauce to the table. The steak was missing.

Where's the beef?

Where's the beef?

Midway through the tasting I snuck back to my station, sliced the steak, and topped off my anemic plate. It all turned out okay in the end and people seemed particularly pleased with the silkiness of my purée. I learned a valuable lesson from our first "market basket"—you can never be too prepared or do too much in advance. I could have seared the steak ahead of time and kept it at room temp for a couple of hours. I could have even finished it in the oven and then just warmed it up at the last minute. The moral of the story is, I got a little too confident with my time management and it came back to bite me. Next week's market basket, I'm conquering the kitchen like an overachieving boy scout on a mission. 

A fresh take on salt

Every restaurant chef that has come through the BU kitchen loves to sing the praises of salt. It's the biggest difference between home cooking and restaurant food. Whether seasoning a steak, water for pasta, a soup or a sauce, just use more of the stuff. Since the first few classes where we were let in on this trade secret, I've tried to oblige. But to be honest, sometimes I find restaurant food too salty.

We learned something crucial on this subject from chef Dante de Magistris and his perspective was a breath of fresh air. He's still a proponent of salt (he is a restaurant chef after all), but he urged us to keep context in mind when seasoning food. A chef's taste buds are different than those of a diner. Chefs in a busy kitchen taste things all day long, causing their palate to become somewhat "spent". Of course, more salt is going to seem bolder and better. But the guest out in the dining room is tasting that sauce for the first time and they aren't going to stop at one bite. The dish needs to taste perfectly seasoned until the last morsel. For a chef's single taste, the seasoning may seem just right, but for the guest who wants to clear his plate, it might be too much.

This lesson on understanding the context for which I am seasoning food was a valuable one. And we were able to take it into consideration when putting the finishing touches on Dante's favorite family dishes. We made "minestra" which for his Campanian family means braised bitter greens served over a corn flour "pizza". It was unlike anything I've ever cooked. Masa flour was quickly mixed with water and salt to form a thick paste and dropped into a sizzling hot skillet. It was cooked carefully until a golden brown, slightly charred crust was formed, then flipped for the same on the other side. The end result was something between an arepa and polenta—crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. We ate wedges of the "pizza" with ladles full of escarole and chicory that had been braised in chicken stock. Delicious peasant food that reminded me of my grandmother.

The corn flour "pizza" shortly after it went into the pan, a steam vent was poked with the handle of a wooden spoon

The corn flour "pizza" shortly after it went into the pan, a steam vent was poked with the handle of a wooden spoon

Flipping the pizza revealed a beautifully charred crust

Flipping the pizza revealed a beautifully charred crust

The finished "minestra" included braised greens and a bit of broth

The finished "minestra" included braised greens and a bit of broth

The steak pizzaiola—another example of making the most out of cheap, available ingredients—braised for hours until the tough flap meat could be cut with a spoon. With tomatos, capers, parsley, and Parmigiano, it was homey, satisfying, and had just the right amount of salt.

The alchemy of heat

In order to stay relatively sane, I am no longer adding posts for every day of culinary school. Instead, I'm trying to write for every other class, with the hope that I'll at least be able to mention all the dishes we've cooked and instructors we've had.

Today, Chef Michael Leviton again led our class. The best thing about learning from Leviton (and writing about it) is that he never leaves our kitchen without dropping an irresistibly quotable nugget of advice. Today's zinger: "it's important to understand the alchemy of heat."

Provençal roast lamb with white bean ragout

Provençal roast lamb with white bean ragout

The transformation he was referring to took place in a small pot of simmering anchoide—a Provençal flavoring paste made of anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. We first tasted the raw mixture. It was pungent and biting with distinct bits of each ingredient. But through consistent low heat (about an hour), the disparate elements melded together to form pure umami. Salty, earthy, tongue-tingling flavor.

We slathered the paste onto our boneless lamb roasts that were then seared, rested, and finished in a low oven. Leviton's meat-cooking technique yields perfect medium-rare results every time. While our roasts gently came up to temperature, we had a quick demo on cooking mussels. It was another lesson in understanding the effects of heat—in this case, blazing heat. "You have to scare the mussels", he said. So they were plunked down into a dry pan that had been sitting over high heat for about 3 minutes. This shock of high temperature helps the bivalves to open quickly and cleanly without any stretched or mangled-looking meat. After about a minute, we threw in wine, butter, tomato confit, gremolata, and garnished with fresh croutons that were pan-fried in olive oil.

The apricot tart before it went into the oven

The apricot tart before it went into the oven

Cooking foods from the South of France gave us many opportunities to learn about how to use and control heat. Low and slow for tomato confit, high and fast for mussels, dry heat for apricot tarts, moist heat for white bean ragout—we covered the spectrum.

In contrast, our morning lecture and demo from Helen Chen demonstrated one (very versatile) cooking technique—stir-frying. Helen is the daughter of the famous Chinese-American chef Joyce Chen and gave us a brief introduction to the history of Chinese cuisine. She shared her unabashedly opinionated views on Asian fusion cuisine ("fusion should be renamed confusion"), and drove home the point that Chinese is the mother of all Asian cuisines. She is a purist and strives to continue her mother's tradition of creating authentic Chinese home-cooked dishes. For our lunch she prepared 2 examples—chungking pork and and five-spice pressed bean curd with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, and Sichuan peppercorns. Most of the work for both dishes (and for a lot of Chinese cookery) was done in the preparation. Once all the vegetables were chopped and the other ingredients were gathered, the actual cooking only took about 5 minutes. 

Chinese pork potstickers

Chinese pork potstickers

Thai-style drunken noodles made with Johnathan Taylor

Thai-style drunken noodles made with Johnathan Taylor

After today, I liken the importance of controlling heat in Levitan's "suave" French-style cooking to the importance of mise-en-place in Chinese cuisine. We learned the same organized approach yesterday from Johnathan Taylor of Blue Ginger—most of the work is done in the preparation. No magical transformation, just planning and execution.

The art of plating

Putting food on a plate is a no-brainer. Literally. The more you think about how to present what you've cooked (and the longer you fuss with it), the more contrived it comes across. "I don't necessarily want to know that lots of little hands have been touching it", said our instructor Chris Douglass. Contemporary plating should be natural and effortless, but it still takes practice.

Lauren brought the components to pistachio apricot profiterols and everyone got to try their hand at artful plating

Lauren brought the components to pistachio apricot profiterols and everyone got to try their hand at artful plating

Both the morning and afternoon sessions today focused on the aesthetics of food presentation. In the AM lecture and demo with Lauren Kroesser (executive pastry chef for Eastern Standard, ICOB, Row 34), we discussed the key elements for successful dessert plating. Taste is always the most important thing to consider, but just as a chef must balance sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, she must also create visual appeal. What it the color approach—rainbow or monochromatic? Does the plate have any white space? Are there different levels of height? Is it whimsical, modern, fancy, or homey? Whatever the style, it's important to have a point of view.

Being a designer, I am aware of the increased appeal of food that's plated nicely. I like to think I'm pretty capable of making dinner guests drool, yet in class I seem to be stuck. Maybe it's the pressure of being in a professional setting, or maybe it's knowing that my finished dishes will be judged, but everything I do looks unnatural.

Why didn't I just place the pieces in a straight line on top of the sauce?

Why didn't I just place the pieces in a straight line on top of the sauce?

In our afternoon technique review, I perfectly poached and seared a chicken roulade, then cut it into slices on the bias. My sauce had just the right "nappe" (consistency). But when I fanned out my masterpiece on the plate, it just didn't look right. The arc of the pieces. The puddle of sauce. Did it look like something you'd get in a good restaurant? No.

I must be thinking too hard.

Asia

I heart Japanese food. I love everything about it—the importance of color and presentation, the adorable variety of serving vessels, the delicate flavors, the emphasis on fish, and the comforting aroma of steaming sticky rice. Today we had the pleasure of listening to food writer and cooking instructor Deb Samuels talk about her years spent living in Japan and how the cuisine became an integral part of her family life.

Deb started the conversation with rice. "No matter what the package says, it has to be washed", she said emphatically. The grains should be rinsed until the water runs clear, then soaked for 20 minutes before cooking. If you have a Japanese rice cooker (lucky me!), the soaking is taken care of. To accompany our rice, Deb prepared traditional miso soup by making a simple dashi with water, kombu (dried seaweed), and katsuobushi (dried, shaved bonito). White miso was blended in with a ladle and chopsticks just before serving. We also took turns making tamagoyaki, the traditional rolled egg omelet that is cooked in a special rectangular pan. And we all had fun grinding toasted sesame seeds in Deb's suribachi—the Japanese version of a mortar and pestle. The toasty paste was the base for a sesame dressing that would later get tossed with cooked spinach. Our lunch prospects were really starting to shape up.

Onigirazu pictured on the cover of a Japanese magazine

Onigirazu pictured on the cover of a Japanese magazine

For the finale, Deb introduced us to a growing food trend in Japan called onigirazu. It's a sort of mashed up version of the traditional onigiri rice ball—instead of being hand-formed, the rice is flattened, wrapped in nori, and cut in half. Western inspired fillings like spam, American cheese, and tomato sauce are popular. Bizarre and brilliant at the same time. Check out this video of onigirazu being made.

In the afternoon we turned to another (very different) Asian cuisine—Indian. With chef Robyn De Luca's recipes in hand, we took a regional tour of the subcontinent by cooking up North Indian lamb curry, Goan shrimp curry, Punjabi greens, potato samosas, lime rice, and griddled parathas. The intoxicating mix of exotic, toasty spices quickly filled the air. There were ingredients I've never heard of, like asafetida (a dried resin from a fern), atta flour (a type of whole wheat), and methi (the leaves of fenugreek). Once again, I was enlightened by new techniques that I would never tackle at home.

Mise en place for Goan shrimp curry

Mise en place for Goan shrimp curry

It's inspiring to learn about other cuisines that are so dramatically different from American or European styles of cooking. Next up on our calendar is another technique review day. After today's exposure to Eastern styles of cooking, I wonder if I'll be able to approach the food differently. How would a Japanese cook deal with a whole chicken? What kinds of Indian spices would work well with a sea scallop? Tomorrow I just might give it a go. 

Punjabi greens consisted of mustard greens, spinach, and fenugreek leaves

Punjabi greens consisted of mustard greens, spinach, and fenugreek leaves

Freshly griddled paratha

Freshly griddled paratha

The proof is in the boudino

On paper, it looked like a busy day. Chef Janine demonstrated 4 recipes in our morning lecture—chocolate malt panna cotta, coconut lime panna cotta, orange almond bread pudding, and torta di ricotta. She threw them together effortlessly with time to spare. For our afternoon in the kitchen, the packet of recipes was hefty and ambitious. There was chocolate mousse, lemon cheesecake (with lemon curd and candied lemon peel), chocolate cheesecake, mixed berry pavlova, and maple boudino. Would we be able to tackle such an array of custards and mousses in a single afternoon? Would our cheesecakes crack under the pressure?

Individual cheesecakes with lemon curd and homemade graham cracker crust

Individual cheesecakes with lemon curd and homemade graham cracker crust

With whisks in hand, we broke into teams and gave it a shot. First up was the maple boudino—a baked custard thickened with lots of egg yolks and sweetened with concentrated maple syrup and brown sugar. The individual cups were baked in a covered water bath until just barely set. Any longer, and they would become curdled (look up syneresis). Despite the overwhelming sweetness (I would omit half the sugar) ours turned out nicely.

Smooth and creamy boudino, check. Next up, cheesecake. Since the recipe involved several components, we divided and conquered. Eager to practice my new knife skills, I volunteered for the candied lemon peel. I removed the rind in strips and made sure there was barely a trace of the bitter white pith. Then 1/4-inch strips were boiled in several changes of water before being simmered in simple syrup (sugar and water). The final result was translucent, lemony curlicues. And as an added bonus, the infused sugar syrup can be stirred into cocktails or lemonade.

Little tastes of chocolate mousse made from Julia Child's recipe

Little tastes of chocolate mousse made from Julia Child's recipe

My group cruised through the cheesecake and lemon curd so it was on to the pavlova and chocolate mousse. We dolloped billowy clouds of meringue onto parchment paper and set them to bake in the convection oven. Cream was whipped while raspberry sauce was mixed and strained. We were on fire! Before I knew it, the final folds of beaten egg whites were disappearing into the chocolate mousse.

All that was left to do was taste.

My favorite by far was the pavlova. Unlike the other creamy desserts, it had the most variety in texture, color, and flavor. The merinque was simultaneously crisp and chewy, the fresh berries were bursting with sweetness and tang, and the mellow whipped cream gave that luscious, rich mouth feel. The maple boudino, in contrast, I found overly sweet and too one-dimensional. The first bite was great, but I couldn't imagine eating an entire serving.

The cooling meringues for Pavlova

The cooling meringues for Pavlova

Everyone felt a bit sick from the afternoon dessert orgy, but thanks to Janine's sense of organization and planning, we had done it. We made it through our thick stack of dessert recipes without covering the kitchen in custard. And we even had time to spare.

Back to basics, sort of

Today was supposed to be about reviewing techniques we've learned so far. At this point in the semester, we should be able to break down a chicken, make a quick pan sauce, cook and pureé vegetables, and successfully roast various foods in the oven. We should also be able to do these things within a realistic timeframe, and have a plate of hot food ready when chef Michael Leviton (or instructor today) expects. After turning the kitchen upside down as if it was struck by a tornado, then blowing through two—no three deadlines—I'm not sure we succeeded.

Perhaps our technique needs a bit more review.

Each of us was handed a chicken and chef Leviton quickly reviewed how to carefully butcher it into different forms. First, he spatchcocked the bird (removed the backbone and wishbone and flattened it), then he took half and cut it down into drumstick, thigh, and Statler breast (the "Frenchy" way of butchering that leaves only the first joint of wing attached). Then off we went to our workstations to replicate his handiwork. Since our first butchering day, I only buy whole chickens to use at home, so I've had a fair amount of practice cutting up birds without mangling them.

Leviton instructed us to pan-roast the half chicken and braise the leg and thigh from the other half. We were to place the bird skin side down in a hot skillet until golden brown, then into a 500 degree oven for 8 minutes. Then flip, and give it 4 minutes more. We also needed to make vegetable purees and roasted vegetables or potatoes to accompany our protein. The choice was ours. No recipes. This is where people started to get nervous.

There were carrots, parsnips, potatoes, asparagus, herbs, onions, garlic, shallots, wine, stock, spices, leeks, celery—plenty of produce to work with. Ahhh, the pressure! Decisions to make, a clock to watch, and nothing to guide us but our own intuition. It was certainly a challenge getting everything ready at the same time, but I think I pulled it off. My chicken was crisp-skinned and juicy. I made a simple parsnip purée and some pan-roasted carrots scented with orange and cumin. I deglazed the brown bits from my skillet with shallots, dry vermouth, chicken stock, and sage, then reduced, added stock, and reduced some more.

Not the best angle, but here's my pan-roasted chicken with jus, parsnip puree, and roasted carrots

Not the best angle, but here's my pan-roasted chicken with jus, parsnip puree, and roasted carrots

Despite the mounting piles of pots and pans and a somewhat cluttered workstation, I was pleased with my end result. But planning and keeping track of time is something I need to get better at. Being a working mother who's used to hammering out weeknight dinners with a chef's knife in one hand and someone's homework in another, I've got a pretty good handle on multitasking. But doing it in a professional kitchen is another story. Today was a good trial run, but I'm hoping for overall success next time around.