warning: this post deals with butchery & fabrication. there are graphic photos of butchery of animals.
in the second week, culinary fundamentals gives way to our first real class, introduction to meat, fish, and poultry. chef mike looks at our class with a grin. "i hope you're ready to break down some meat."
it is saturday, our long day. i arrived early, tucked my hair under my commis cap and hefted my giant bag of kitchen tools and black knife roll. i put my coffee under the table, next to a long row of white kitchenaid mixers. i keep forgetting to button the top button on my chef's coat and one of the girls nudges me. psst. your top button's undone.
our first task of the day is a knife skill drill. they're getting more complex with each day. now chef is asking us to peel and medium dice three potatoes instead of one. and a carrot. parsnip. mince three cloves of garlic. you have thirty minutes. chef walks around, inspecting our work. time is not your friend.
today's lesson is on fish. there are three basic types and their respective filleting. flatfish, roundfish, and active fatty roundfish.
"there are eight quality checks to make sure you're getting a good product" chef says. i scribble in my notebook. one. make sure the product is received under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. two. the gills should be dark pink to red in color. three. the eyes should be bright and never red nor cloudy. four. there should be a pleasant sea smell. five. the meat should be firm and never squished or bruised. 'you have muscle on you, yeah? press your arm. it should feel firm, like your arm'. six. there should be a clear protective gel covering the outside of the fish. seven. the scales should be firmly adhering and never flaking off. eight. there should be no belly burn from acid buildup and residue in the body cavity.
we all look around, excited and nervous. this is, for many of us, kind of a realization moment of holy fucking shit, we're actually in culinary school. chef mike slices cleanly around the sole's gills, just behind the head. he slides down and marks a notch in the fish's tail. 'on a flat fish, like sole, you will get four filets out of it - two on the top and two on the bottom. use your knife to cut alongside this middle bone, down the spine. now slowly, use long strokes to work your way in from that initial cut and slowly separate the meat from the bone. listen for this sound, if you hear it, you're doing it correctly.' there is a sound like a zipper, as the curved, narrow boning knife slips along the ribs of the fish.
we each take a fish and learn remarkably quickly that chef mike's skill is understated at best. i've always been more of a kinesthetic learner than visual, so i immediately fumble at my memory. how was the fish positioned? how was the knife held? what do i do? this became my refrain during butchery, but my hands quickly began to learn how to perform the tasks. the knife slipped slowly down the bones of the fish, tap tap tap, like a zipper. i remove four fillets from my sole. chef passes by, nods. 'good.' he says.
the roundfish and the fatty roundfish, striped bass and mackerel respectively, are variations on the same theme. they each give up only two fillets apiece, as opposed to the sole's four. the filets come from the sides of the fish, instead of the top and bottom, but again along the backbone. i place my fish down with its back toward me, and make an incision just above the bone, from where i'd notched the head down to the notch in the tail. long, narrow strokes. clean. precise. for the mackerel, we change things up only slightly and remove the head entirely, where it had previously been left on the carcass for the sole and striped bass.
'we cut the heads off,' chef says, 'because we don't generally make stock from these fattier fish. can you make stock from it? sure. you can do anything you want. the japanese make stock, dashi, from these types of fish. but we're gonna make a fumet, so take the heads and tails off.'
there's a low murmur when i arrive in class the next day. 'we're doing crustaceans - do you think we'll have to kill the lobsters?' chef mike arrives with a lobster-killing grin on his face.
class always begins with a knife drill, followed by a lecture, in which chef mike demonstrates the techniques of the lesson, then about 2.5 hours of actual cooking time. at 9.30 pm, we clean up, scrub the kitchen from top to bottom and return it better than we had found it. after the skill drill (medium dice potatoes, carrots, celery, minced garlic). we gather around the central hexagonal table for lecture. on the tray, the lobster, now removed from the refrigerator and growing warmer every second, is becoming active. it crawls off the tray. chef grabs it and puts it back, we squirm mildly, aware of the impending fate.
'yes, you'll have to kill it. yes, i will teach you how to do it humanely. no, you're learning how to be chefs now, there's no way to get out of this.'
crustacean and shellfish fabrication involves several components. we start off small, with mollusks. chef grabs a few scallops, some are nearly twice the size of the others. 'these are scallops. the large ones are sea scallops, the smaller ones are bay scallops. there's not much you need to do with these, simply make sure the muscle on the back is removed. not all of the scallops will have it, so don't destroy the scallop looking for it. when you're done, get a half-sheet pan and line it with parchment paper and i will come around and look at them.'
he picks up a clam, firmly shut. 'when you get clams and mussels, they should always be closed. if they're open before you put them in heat, throw them away. if they don't open in heat, throw them away. there are clam and oyster knives up here. i don't think any of you grew up on a boat and shucked these everyday, so i don't trust you to do it directly in your hand. be careful, practice safety. wrap your clam in a clean towel and slowly work your knife in between the lip of the clam. once it's inside, turn your knife like a key to pry it open, then open it the rest of the way. remove your clam and place it on your tray. for the oysters, only remove the top part of the shell, leave the oyster in the bottom, more deeply rounded part.
chef picks up a squid, 'first, pull out the quill from the top part. now, you're going to very carefully slice just below the eye, trying to keep the ink sac intact. this is the squid's defense mechanism and has a great salty, sea flavor. keep these. next, turn your squid's bottom end, with the tentacles, upside down and squeeze. you're going to carefully force the jaw out. on the top part, rub your knife along and remove the skin and the fins. these can be cut into rings and fried or put in soups. for now, just leave it on your tray. we'll add it to a soup later.'
the moment of truth had arrived. the lobster had attempted another (thwarted) escape. chef picked it up and placed it squarely on his white cutting board. with little ceremony, he placed the tip of his chef's knife above the lobster's head, squarely between the eyes and drove the point forward in a clean downward motion. juices ran out.
'and that,' chef mike said, 'is how you dispatch a lobster'.
my hair is peeking out from under my cap and i lug my (packed) blue bag of kitchen equipment into the (packed) locker room and shove the bag into the barely-large-enough locker. off come the billowy pants and the jacket.
'i had no idea what your hair looked like under that hat!' one girl says. i laugh, i'd forgotten that i'd shaved the side of it a few days prior. we all disappear into our uniforms at school, forgetting that any of us have lives outside of the kitchen.
'i'll see you all on saturday, i've gotta go catch the 6!'
'what's the lesson on saturday?' someone asks.
'poultry.' another replied. 'get ready.'