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.
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.
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.
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.