Well, the trip to Tokyo was a smashing success but work and other tasks got in the way of posting anything. Yes, the stories of risotto finished in a giant wheel of parmesan, the night of two, back-to-back salaryman-stylee dinners, and Nagoya’s Yabaton with it’s unique take on tonkatsu and an equally cool sumo wrestler pig logo will all be posted here in the next few weeks. Promise.
But there’s something a bit more urgent going on now though. Today, I found myself an actual “enrolled” student (more on that in a minute) at the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) at Greystone in St. Helena up in California’s wine country.
Although it has been a definite in my plans for a few months, the truth is that it has been pretty close to a decade that I have wanted to attend the CIA. The truth being that I have been cooking in some form or another since I was about 15 and could follow instructions in a cookbook (thanks, Mom for teaching me so long ago!). It is one of my true loves.
But now, I’m actually here and spent my first day in a week-long “boot camp” in Baking and Pastry Arts. Even though it is only a week, I am treated like a real student right down to the uniform and having to follow a relatively stringent set of rules when in the kitchens and classrooms. Hierarchy here is a real key and once you’re actually in the mix, it isvital to your survival, for both you and your classmates.
I have worked to some extent in similar environs with my friend Tom Dowdy at the incredible parties he put on twice a year for 10 years. Much of what I experienced today looks exactly like those times. And this first day was as fun, frustrating, exhilarating, tiring, and fulfilling as that first December dinner party where I worked for Tom. Driving back to my hotel this afternoon had me in (happy) tears because of the sheer emotion of just this one day.
In the production portion of today’s session, my chef partner and I (a recent graduate from UC Berkeley named Daniel) set out to create a sour cream pound cake, roughly eight pounds of pie dough (for tomorrow’s production), and misé en place for both scones and coconut cream pies (also for tomorrow) starting at roughly 9:30 am this morning.
In the baking corner of the kitchens, all ten students hurried around – everyone looking a bit out of place and dazed by the intensity of it all. Weighing, measuring, fetching, and toting all manner of ingredients made the time fly by. Daniel and I were on our way to finishing mixing and getting our pound cake batter into rectangular forms when I noticed an errant bowl of sugar sitting on the counter.
I slumped a little inside because it was at that moment that Chef Brown, our instructor for the week, was over to check the consistency of our cake batter. I sheepishly said that I had forgotten to cream the sugar with the butter. Argh! Since everything else was already mixed, we had no way out. “It’s ok and you’re here to learn but you need to start again,” said Chef Brown. “Get going, it’s getting close to lunch.”
As with many team activities, making mistakes is normal and dwelling on it doesn’t make it any better but it is pretty damn humbling. Daniel and I set about to re-measure, re-mix and get to the ovens as quickly as possible. Glancing at the clock showed it was 11:35 am and we needed to get the bread in the oven before lunch at noon.
We eventually got everything finished and into the oven at around 12:25 pm which left about 5 minutes to grab lunch and get back to our stations for the pie dough and misé en place activity. While that was going on, we walked quickly back and forth between the work spaces and the convection ovens every 5-10 minutes checking our somewhat late bread, and we must have looked as worried as expectant fathers. About 15 minutes before the evaluation session (for all of the product the five teams made), we pulled our pound cake out to let it cool.
The most thrilling and nerve-wracking part of the day was when Chef Brown cut into each item giving critique and praise (where warranted, of course!) for each item. Another team was assigned the same pound cake and they received their critique first. Their bread looked gorgeous on the outside and was deemed “pretty good” but with some incomplete marbling in the final product. (The cake featured a dry streusel that was sandwiched between two portions of batter. It was then “cut” with a knife – drawing the knife through the batter to give a “marbled” look when baked.)
Our cake wasn’t nearly as pretty but was nicely coloured. Cutting into the cake showed real great marbling (Daniel was responsible for that!) and got a “this is really good” comment from Chef Brown. So for our first miscue (with about 10 pounds of ruined cake batter) and then rushing around like madmen to finish and not having (very much) lunch, we did very well under pressure. Daniel and I exchanged wide smiles and subtle high-fives and we got some nice compliments from other students tasting our product.
That was Day One. I’m exhausted. I’m happy. I feel like I really and truly accomplished something. And it’s just Day One. And now I’m wondering why it took me this long to get myself up here.