Thursday, 23 April 2015

Why Cook Tonight? for Tower Hill

You know, every once in a while you get that feeling. That feeling that says "I just don't want to make any effort tonight, but I'm hungry. Let's see ... pizza or Chinese?" And then you dial and dinner arrives on your doorstep.

Well ... WE can do better than that!

At Tower Hill, where Chef used to live, there is a wonderful Tenant's Association which hosts dinners in the lobby, called "Why Cook Tonight?" Tonight was the seventh of these dinners.

My students and I go once each semester and produce a simply fabulous dinner for all the tenants who choose to come and join in a large community feed and soiree in the lobby (or, if the weather is great, out by the pool).
Tonight we did this again at their request. Over the past years the event has become so successful that we're running out of space ... we can seat about 40 people in the lobby, and tonight it was just jammed!

It takes hard work and focus and a lot of planning. Tonight's menu featured:

* Caesar Salad with home made croutons and dressing, bacon bits and extra anchovies
* Breaded, pan-seared and baked Tilapia filets offered with a home-made orange and ginger reduction
* Broccoli in lemon steam with hand-crafted mornay sauce
* Two custom-made breads; Fougasse and Focaccia
* Meyer lemon semifreddo with raspberry coulis and fresh berry garnish

We ran out of everything!

Happy clients!

Outstanding service by the young chefs!

In the background, of course, there are hours of careful planning, sourcing of products, rigorous work, cruel time management, a strong logistics plan and a dictator to oversee it all. My co-op student, Chef Tyler, has been an absolute rock in all of this, and I know will continue to be. Many thanks, Chef! Two months of craziness to go.

Loading our food and gear was done in 10 minutes by all the chef students when they'd finished their afternoon snack (hoovered down while standing in their kitchen in Monarch Park after classes today). We had 15 minutes for all loading AND sharing a fast squat-and-gobble meal. Chef Tamara donated all her free time this afternoon and made the meal for the whole brigade. Thank you, Chef. Before this, at lunchtime, Chef Leslie donated all her time to making bread for the event. Well done, Chef!

I cannot count the number of compliments I received tonight on the quality of the food, its flavours and textures, and the decorum and professionalism of my chef students. I take my toque off to you, dear young chefs! You should be VERY proud and satisfied with how you carried off the event.
Your excellent manners, your strong personal skills, your professional focus and your simply delicious food ... everything combined to make for a grand evening!

Thank you particularly to my friends Joanne and Gordon, who opened their apartment and kitchen to my students to make them welcome and offer a place to work and do final preparations. A special nod of thanks as well to Nancy and Francine who look after the money and the Tower Hill logistics.

For anyone who wants recipes, please just add a comment at the bottom of this entry and I will be glad to oblige.

Buono Appetito!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

At OCEA There Is No 'TRY', There Is Only 'DO'. Teaching the Teachers. Channel Your Inner Yoda!!

Most of the time students and teachers labour far from the public eye. It takes time, patience, perseverance and an internal demand for perfection to build skill that is reliable, consistent and demonstrable.

OK ... that's the 'daily lesson' over with ... you can take off your tinfoil hats and let's get on with the fun stuff!

Learning to make Coq-Au-Vin was fun for us all. Tyler demonstrated beautifully last week,
the students practiced well and we are going to feature the skill while working at the end of May for a large civic charity. Shhh ... can't say who it is now! Stay tuned ...

Chef decided that it was time to show off his great students a little, with purpose. The annual OCEA (Ontario Co-operative Education Association) conference was coming up and he threw his hat, along with a co-op teacher friend, into the ring. Chef volunteered to try and re-create, for other co-op teachers, the experience of being thrown into something you really don't know about, and where you're expected to produce really fast, follow instructions you may not understand fully and do procedures that you're unfamilliar with. This is exactly what our students face when they go out for their early days in their co-op jobs.

Chef volunteered to have his students become the teachers, and teach a whole roomfull of co-op teachers, under time pressure, to make coq-au-vin!

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the long and the short of it is "They Came, They Participated and They Ate!"

Volunteering for this event was completely open ... it took place a long, long way from school or the Monarch Park area of Toronto, so participation by the students was completely and entirely voluntary. It required a lot of parental time and automotive support. Grace managed to talk her Mum into driving her out so she could participate and be our student representative. (Mum came into the demo / show for fun and watched her daughter with proud eyes!) THANK YOU, Grace and Mum!!

Chef's co-presenter was Sandy Mahr, the one-and-only co-op teacher from Vaughan Road Academy. Sandy is normally a very stylish teacher, the very model of professional dress. Chef is ... less so. (To be honest, Chef usually shows up at school dressed like a bit of a mess because he's rather colour-blind, but puts on full whites for all kitchen work, so who can tell?)
Chef 'dressed' Sandy in a Chef's coat and high hat (see photo). Grace, Chef and Mrs Chef all wore full chef whites also. (In the photo, from L -> R we have Chef, 'Mrs Chef', a.k.a. Gail Aller-Stead, student Grace Lott and Sandy Mahr.)

Chef's partner, Ms Gail Aller-Stead, came in from work to spend a day with the students assisting in the demonstration.
("Mrs Chef", as she has been called, works in Regina.) Gail ran the door and the room and acted as support staff to keep the wagon on the rails and us all moving along. Gail is also a superb cook in her own right, focusing on South Indian and Thai foods, while Chef is more Mediterranean in focus.

Before the demo started, Grace and Chef prepared the lardons and reserved them, and cut up most of the chicken breasts.
Our 'volunteers' only had a bit of prep to do. We did this to assist with our time management ... we only had 80 minutes from when the doors opened to the absolute end of our time in the room.

Sandy did introductions and offered the chance to be a participant. Hands just shot up and we quickly chose 4 volunteers from the group.
We had 40 people signed up for the demo/seminar, but ended up with about 55 in the room according to Gail. Gail, Grace and Sandy got our volunteers togged out in high-hats they got to keep and aprons and side towels.

Chef invited everyone in the room to get up off their seats and crowd around the demonstration tables ... get right into the experience, he said, and take advantage of every opportunity to learn. Everyone was encouraged to take pictures. Sandy shared the structure of the lesson in meta terms, and Chef and Grace taught 'the lesson' in micro terms.

Everything smelled absolutely delicious!!!

Chef gave some basic instructions and the cooking began! Fat was heated up, chicken bits braised, then a flambe for each team!
(We had two teams; team black and team white.) Herbs were added, a little flour dredged in, temperature controlled and a sauce started to be built.

Wine and stock were added, then the whole thing, in each pan, allowed to reduce for about 25 minutes while our demonstrators cleaned up.

Sandy kept the larger conversation roaring along, suggesting not only to look at the small things or actions,
but the larger load of learning that was embedded in the lesson, so every teacher could take away a model of useful lesson planning and understanding of what our students experience daily.

The power failed twice ... we had to deal with unexpected changes in equipment. That is all part of being a good co-op student and teacher.

Then ... it was time for samples.

OMG! Yum! Fabulous!

But Chef and Grace heard a lot of "I can't do this at home". Why not? We challenged. Why not? What is REALLY stopping you?

Turned out that the main ingredient lacking was courage. What if it doesn't work? What then? What do I eat? What do I serve?

Chef used to be a biker. There is a rule everywhere in the motorcycle world: "Fall down Seven times, Get up Eight." Do not give up on yourself. Do not quit. Do not beat yourself up and do not let others' sarcasm, doubt or ignorance throw you off your chosen course.

We all fail at times. Failure is a great teacher. Learn from failure.
Chef used to work with a most fabulous co-op teacher, Ms Karen Thompson, who said "there is no try. There is only do." Karen was So right. Be not afraid to attempt ... then you will DO. Karen is a true hero to generations of students at Monarch Park Collegiate, and it was Chef's pleasure to work with her for many years.

In the long run, the only thing that will get in your way is YOU, yourself.
Get out of your own way and DO, said Chef. Just like Yoda said ... there is no 'try', there is only 'do'.

Nurture your inner Yoda.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Leadership and Learning

When I left Italy the chef I was working for, Chef Albini, said to me "Come back any time you can. My kitchen is your kitchen." What a lovely vote of confidence!

This gift of confidence is something I like to pass on to my students in a variety of ways.

Each semester I welcome one of my former chef students back into the kitchen for a full-time co-op education placement. I have been very fortunate through the years with students, and each semester it is a bit of a fight to see who will earn the opportunity. This semester it is Chef Tyler.

I am writing this blog entry on Thursday night. On Sunday my students and I are featured presenters at the annual OCEA conference (Ontario Co-operative Education Association), reminding seasoned teachers what it is actually like to be thrown into something new where everyone else knows what they're doing and you don't. With a large group signed up to join us for our part of the conference, we will find 4 volunteers (or 'voluntolds') and have them make, in a little more than one hour, coq-au-vin for 50 people. My chef students will be their teachers. Imagine! Adults having to learn from youth.

To this end, I challenged Chef Tyler to take over my kitchen and do all the teaching work for this dish. He had to plan the presentation, review his skills, prepare his shopping list (although I did the actual shopping) and arrange all his mis-en-place for the lesson.

We follow the classical Julia Child recipe fairly closely ... I have made a few modifications only ... and Tyler taught the lesson on Tuesday very well.

Tyler prepared the onions and lardons, he prepped the chicken, he did a lovely braise and flambe and formed the dish beautifully.
The garlic was smashed to smithereens after the anima was removed, and the mushrooms went in just near the end of the cooking time so structure would be kept as flavour transferred. My chef students in the class were delighted learning from Chef Tyler.

Today the regular students prepared a dinner of coq-au-vin for about 24 persons, and we will do the same tomorrow, with this recipe and dish. Chef Tyler managed the kitchen instead of me, and he did an excellent job.
Every student will have an opportunity to try their hand at managing a flambe, learning to pull fond and build sauces by managing the development of a flavour profile. Well done everyone!

Congratulations, Chef Tyler, and many thanks. You are developing excellent leadership skills, learning to support actual proficiency and production, and offer precise and careful direction to those who need it. Come back and cook with me any time ... you've earned it.

For a great look at what a year of culinary and leadership development and passionate skill looks like, here is the yearly wrap-up blog from the Stratford Chef School.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Mac-And-Cheese-And-Mac-And-Cheese-And-Mac-And-Cheese-And-Mac-And-Cheese-And ...

OK, so at some point everyone needs comfort food.

Comfort food is the stuff that makes you feel safe and at home and supported. It may be real food, or it may be a memory of a food that does it, and at some point every cook wants to make that dream of comfort and safety and home come true.

In Canada we have KD. I won't tell you that KD is a bad thing ... it is not ... but after reading the list of ingredients, one might just want to make something a bit ... um ... better, with more real food in it and less chemicals. This is not hard to do.

Learn to make roux. Today I did a demonstration on how to make blond roux, which became bechamel sauce, later transformed into mornay sauce. Knowledge, technique and practice are what makes good simple food like home-made Mac-And-Cheese just a whole lot more than delicious.

Learn to make food with techniques that transform the simple into the excellent!

We made roux, then transformed it. While this was on the low heat, elbow macaroni was boiled in good, salty water and drained (but not rinsed!)
and returned to the cooking pot. Another team member was responsible to make the topping of breadcrumbs, cheese, butter and whatever else struck their fancy (could be seared vegetables, bacon bits, a different cheese incorporated into the topping mix).

The results were poured into buttered brownie pans and baked for about 30 minutes at 350 ... and the kitchen was transformed into a calm, quiet place as everyone smelt the odours and flavours coming out of the ovens. "Chef, how much more time?" was the question of the day. Like a car-trip with 6-year-old kids, the only right answer was 'soon'.

Then ... Magic! All that skill with simple ingredients had been made into wonderful food The smell was wonderful, the consistency perfect, the taste delicious, the flavours balanced and the satisfaction immense.

Tomorrow we will have a Mac-And-Cheese race ... timed ... and see which team can make the best-tasting, best-looking, most gooey, cheesiest Mac-And-Cheese in our kitchen

Please, Sir, May I have some more?

Checkin' Out New Whites with Chef Ian Sarfin

Once in a while, it is time for some new threads.

Chef is a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the kitchen, and most days the student chefs dress in full traditional chef whites (high hat, white chef jacket, dark trousers, closed-toe shoes, white apron, one or two side-towels). However, Chef was recently at a CCFCC meeting and had a chat with another chef, Ian Sarfin, who sells top-drawer chef uniform clothing. I invited him into our kitchen for a meeting with the students and a chat, then a try--on.

What a hoot! The pictures say it all. Chef Ian had a lovely long chat with the students, spending almost 45 minutes with them, listening, encouraging, telling stories, sharing a laugh or two. His breadth of experience made a strong impression, and his advice was to be willing to just try, work hard, be adventurous (although not entirely nuts) and give your very best to any situation.

Thanks for joining us, Chef Ian! It was a pleasure welcoming you into our kitchen.