The upperclassmen give us a look of empathy when we file past them into the kitchen. "first day? this module is a rough one. you don't really get to make anything to eat for awhile."
ice divides the professional culinary course into six modules spaced somewhat evenly over the time. the first three are culinary, the fourth is a pastry course, the fifth is culinary and preparation for our senior buffet service, and the sixth is our externship. ice is particularly notable in that, instead of having an in-house restaurant where we practice firing orders to tickets, we instead each are placed in an actual new york city restaurant to receive real life, hands-on experience. they start talking to us about our externships from day one and i feel a thrill at the concept of someday cooking for a restaurant like atera or aquavit.
"start thinking about where you might want to extern and what would be a good fit for you. do you want to work for a female chef? for a place that focuses on farm-to-table? for high-end, fine dining?"
don't worry, ice, my mind is already racing.
we aren't cooking for the first or second lesson. instead we receive our knife rolls, which is a little bit like fucking christmas. we go around the stainless-steel table with our folding chairs and cups of coffee and talk about who we are, how did we each get to this point? there's a wide range of ages in my class, from freshly out of school to late thirties and looking for a change in career. i half-expected, at twenty-eight, to be seen as too old to be making this major of a switch. however, the class averages in their late-twenties and early-thirties.
our next lesson covers sanitation. this is another non-cooking lesson, an extreme rarity. concepts are covered on cleanliness and how to store and transport food properly. we cover temperatures and parasites. there's a lot of pride involved in keeping a meticulous kitchen, abiding by all standards, maintaining that A rating from the NYDOH.
saturday marks the beginning of the actual program. saturdays, in the hybrid program, are actually two lessons split over a long day. we have our first lesson beginning at 9:00 am (sharp) and continuing to 1 pm. After a short 15-minute break, we begin our next lesson, which finishes at 5:00 pm (or, more accurately, when the last dish is cleaned and the kitchen is immaculate).
wake up at 7.30 am. leave the house by 7.50 to catch the 6 train to 23rd street, which invariably has some kind of delay and i stare bleary-eyed into a cup of 7-11 coffee. i listen to the dead weather on the train. i get to school around 8.20 and slip into our changing room, cheerily tiled in yellow and orange. this is where we take the outside world off and become something different. i tuck all of my hair under the short white commis cap and slip on my billowy black and white checkered chef's pants (that i'm certain three of me could fit into). i button up my chef's jacket completely, put a sharpie in my shoulder pocket and a notebook in my back pocket.
this saturday is a double lesson of knife skills. we still haven't sullied our knife kit that was given to us on wednesday, the array of blades looking sharp and deadly in the black knife roll. we come in around 8:15 and 8:30 am. although class starts at 9, there's a pile of prep work needed to ensure that the classroom and your station is set up for the day. your mise en place. each table is set up with paper towels, tasting spoons, and a pile of salt. each of the eight stoves gets canola oil, white and red wine, tasting spoons, and another pile of salt. we run water for the dish sinks. we review the pull lists, printed sheets with a list of the ingredients brought up to the kitchens by the stewarding department, to make sure that everything we need for the day is ready and accounted for.
and once that's all done, I set up my own station. make a knife tray, by using a half-sheet pan and a piece of parchment paper with my name and table number written on it. on this, i stage my tools for this particular lesson, usually my 10" chef's knife, peeler, and shears. i grab a cutting board and slip a wet piece of paper towel underneath, to make sure it won't slip around.
our first lesson is on medium dice. chef chris demos the cut on each of the vegetables we will be using - carrots, onion, and celery. the three of these come together to form mirepoix, the basic vegetable building blocks of most stocks and soups in classic cuisine. we'll be using it later that day, in fact, to create a basic all-purpose vegetable stock.
mirepoix was created in france in the mid-18th century. although we used a 3:2:1 ratio (3 parts carrots, 2 parts celery, 1 part onion), there's no standardized ratio and can be adjusted based upon your personal preferences. it imparts a subtle flavor to the stock, nothing overpowering, nothing identifiable as any of their singular components - just flavor.
"don't hold your body flat against the table. hold it like you're shooting a bow and arrow. don't slice down, slide the knife forward. use the entire length of the blade to make your cut."
chef chris makes the rounds and inspects each of our finished vegetable cuts.
"you see this here? it's a little crooked. i can tell you were standing flat against the table, your arm wants to slide to the left, that's where you get the angle."
to finish, we sweat our vegetables in a large stockpot with a little bit of oil and a heavy dose of salt. we add our sachet d'espices, a square of cheesecloth filled with thyme, parsley, bay leaf, and peppercorns, to our saucepots as well as a gallon of water. it simmers. the room slowly begins to warm and smell like food. we jostle around the burners to ensure that we're keeping the stocks at a simmer, not letting them boil. stirring. adjusting. tasting.
we bring our stocks to chef for inspection. we've just made our first thing in culinary school - basic vegetable stock. chef says 'not bad' and we each feel like we can take on anything.
as i'm packing up my things for the day, i'm reflecting on how glad i am to have not cut myself throughout the long day of chopping. as i'm shoving my kitchen scale into the huge blue bag, i nick the side of my middle finger on the sharp scale.