Saturday, 28 February 2015

Aaaand ... Here We Go Again!

Here it is ... the end of February ... and our semester has started up with a whole new brigade in the kitchen. The time has just flown by as the speed of work and learning has been utterly frenetic.

We always start our semesters with a first day of going through the paperwork and sharing a little understanding of what this course will entail. This is boring but completely necessary. I always ask my students "Is anyone taking this course because they have heard it is easy?" Not a hand is raised, not a movement. A few awkward glances. "Good", I always tell everyone, "because this course will be the most challenging thing you have most likely ever done. I hope you will enjoy it. You will have a chance to learn LOTS about food, nutrition, yourself, discipline and teamwork. You will gain confidence like never before in your own abilities and, based on our history, you WILL be very successful."

More awkward glances and a little shuffling.

On the very next day I gather everyone around and tell them "You have an entire commercial kitchen at your disposal. Everything you will need is here to make excellent food very, very well. Now here is a recipe. Explore this place. Work in teams you crerate. You have 2 1/2 hours. Make Me Cookies!" (An oatmeal-raisin cookie)

Comedy, drama, tragedy and farce ensue. This semester, after almost 90 minutes, one group was standing in front of the ovens arguing about if it was on or not, and how hot it might be, or should be. Two groups had sort-of-half-decent cookies, and one group has a collection of burnt offerings.

This is all highly predictable and happens each semester on the first day of class. Our fabulous community volunteer, Ruby, stands aside with me, and she and I have to bite our tongues as the show unfolds in front of us. We DO point and giggle a bit. she constantly reminds me to keep quiet.

We ate the OK ones, threw out the hockey pucks and dripped the oozing mess of the last group directly into the organic recycling.

And had coffee together.

The next day ... showtime!

The students come in and ask "What are we doin' today, Chef?" They are polite but a little wary still. I tell them that they will be making cookies. They all protest, politely. "Chef, we did that yesterday!" "No", I reply, "You mostly didn't. You mostly made one huge mess, and then squawked about cleaning up. Today you will receive a demonstration, and then you will do it MY way."

I tell them about the differences in a recipe written for home use and for the professional kitchen, and demonstrate it with several examples. From now on they will use only professional recipes.

I warn them that I am a bit of a dictator in the kitchen. That's what "Chef" means.

A professional recipe will be used for the demo and the test.

Test !!!??

I warn them that there will be a test after the demo. I can feel the anxiety rise in the kitchen, instantly. A test? It is the second day! A test? Yes, I tell them, a test. And I predict you will all do very well. Now ... watch and learn!

Students are each shown how to actually wash their hands properly. Then they are issued their chef jackets and toques (chef high hats) which will be theirs all semester. This is followed by a timed demonstration, of yesterday's recipe. It takes me exactly 25 minutes from cold start to them eating cookies. This is done TV-show style, with running commentaries and diversionary mentions of food history and culture. Everything is washed up and put away while the cookies are in the ovens. Espresso is offered to everyone. Cookies are shared.

We have a 10 minute break.

The brigade reassembles. There are a couple of stragglers with sorry excuses. I remind them that in a kitchen there is no room for lateness or being sorry ... the expectation is you are rock-reliable for your team and yourself. Always. No client or customer is interested in any excuse. There are no distractions (radio, internet, cellphones), so turn off your phones and prepare for your test! There is no replacement for lost time.

Anxious glances.

I make up teams of three students each. One student is appointed as team chef (in-charge) for the day. Each chef is given the recipe and a part of the kitchen to work in.

The whole class is carefully timed and the students are given 40 minutes to do what I demonstrated in 25. There is a countdown ... then ... GO!

They go like blazes. It is organized but looks like mayhem. At one point one of our V-Ps drops in to see a student and stands, mouth open, at the movement, the focus, the intensity and the communication and teamwork. On our second day. She asks to see the student later. She stands and watches for a while.

After 40 minutes ... well, I am a happy Chef. EVERY student has been successful, every team has done well, the kitchen is spotless and they are very relieved, happy and satisfied. "So", I ask everyone, "How did your test go?" Everyone talks. They know they have done well. Big check-mark ... test PASSED!

See you tomorrow!


I am writing this on the last day of February, 2015. My students have had almost a month now of intense work, fast accretive learning and time out for some really weird discussions and history lessons about food and medicine.

They have learnt to make pasta and serve it 4 ways.
They have made thousands of cookies (with many more to come).
They have learnt to make 3 kinds of bread.
They have learn to work with phylo (mille-feuille) pastry.
They have made spanikopita and somosas.
They have learnt how to make hummus and tzatziki...and next week how to make tamarind sauces.
They have learnt to make outstanding biscotti (Cantucci di Prato).
They have cooked for their first outside clients.

They have learnt how to use a huge selection of professional kitchen tools, and learnt how to choose the right tool for the result they want to achieve.

They have been introduced to basic and some more advanced knife skills, with a particular focus on safety and knife care.
They have had their first field trip (to Nella) and start understanding the huge costs of setting up a restaurant and running our kitchen. The next field trip is next Tuesday, heading to Fiesta Farms on Christie.

They have learnt that, some days, you just have to get up early and show up to get the work done. There is no substitute for time!

As a semester-starter, this brigade is doing VERY well.

Congratulations, all!