Yes! Our first day of actual cooking—well, simmering. With Chef John at the helm, today was all about stocks. We prepared white (chicken) stock, brown stock and fish stock using the chopped vegetables from last week's knife skills class. Cases of veal knuckle bones, halibut carcasses, and chicken necks and backs provided the key flavorings for each base. It was a lesson in fundamentals.
John Vyhnanek is a restaurant consultant who was formerly the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston, and chef/owner of the Harvard Street Grill in Brookline. An Escoffier devotée, chef John stressed the importance of good stocks as fundamental elements of fine French cuisine. We also discussed mirepoix, the base of all stocks and of several soups and sauces. I was already familiar with the onion, carrot, and celery trio, but I never knew about the proper proportions. In most cases, a mirepoix consists of 50% chopped onion, 25% chopped carrot, and 25% chopped celery. There are variations like "white mirepoix" in which carrot is swapped out for parsnip or leek. This is used in cases where the golden color from carrots is not desired. The vegetables are also cut into different sizes depending on how long the stock needs to cook. Fish stock only needs about 45 minutes, so the vegetables are cut into a small (but rough) dice. This allows maximum surface area for the flavors of the vegetables to be extracted. Brown stock, which is made from roasted bones (veal in our case), can cook for as long as 10 hours, so the mirepoix is cut into large chunks. This way, they don't completely disintegrate during the cooking process.
Falling apart under pressure is something most culinary students (including myself) probably have nightmares about. For the first time, 2 students were assigned as the sous chefs for the day. This meant they were responsible for delegating the work to 6 team members to ensure the stocks were all made correctly and on time. Despite their nervousness, they both did a great job. We even had the added pressure of the looming blizzard on our minds which sped up our schedule a bit so we could all leave class early. I don't know if I would have handled it as well as they did.
Listening to chef John talk about cooking methods made me realize there are huge differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking. I know this may seem obvious, but something just clicked when he discussed reasons for doings things certain ways in a professional kitchen. There are so many other factors to consider, like time and cost. For example, most restaurants don't go through the trouble of making their own brown stock—it's a multi-day process that just takes too much time. It's a better use of a restaurant's dollars to buy good-quality stock instead.
There is also an element of precision that comes into play in restaurant kitchens. If I'm making chicken stock at home, I just throw some chicken bones and vegetables into a pot, cover them with water, bring to a boil and simmer until I practically forget about it. In class, we weighed our bones, measured our water, carefully portioned out the mirepoix and even counted peppercorns to go into the 'sachet d'epices'. And we didn't just set it and forget it. Each stock was carefully timed for optimum flavor extraction. The attention to detail payed off in rich and flavorful stocks.