Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 2

When we last left off from the story, our hero had been goaded into a culinary battle. The antagonist himself has chosen to forgo the challenge, leaving our hero to find a weapon to defend himself against the wild.

After much work, the hero has found his sword in ramen — something familiar but also challenging to execute. How will he stack up when the chips are down and the clock is ticking? 

 

The morning was bitterly cold when I arrived at school on the morning of the competition. I had gotten the call to compete the day before, and after having practiced my dish with Chef Volke for two days and getting a good night’s sleep I was feeling rather good.

Stepping off the train, I ran the execution procedure of the plate over and over in my head, while chef’s advice rang through my head. It was nervewracking in a way, but also reassuring as well. The feeling was in stark contrast to the final moments before I hit the MasterChef Canada “fight club” kitchen. I was a ball of nerves going in, the pressure only intensifying its vice-like grip as time ticked down, coming to a head as I met the judges.

I got changed into my uniform, and headed upstairs into the kitchen. Some of the other competitors were already there, some with their partners and families. I was alone. Alone as the only amongst the other competitors who were from the professional cooking program, and alone in an unfamiliar kitchen that bears no resemblance to the kitchen we usually worked out of.

To compound the worries I saw two of the judging panel, and one of them was someone I was told to be extremely wary of, especially since I was making ramen.

Chef Kat Mori. The man the sensei had warned would be the most critical about the Japanese noodle. There he stood, ready to judge. Somehow my instincts told me this would happen — and there he was.

Shit, I thought to myself, I’d better not screw up. 

Once all the contestants arrived, the debriefing was given. Two hours, one dish featuring chicken with three vegetables and a starch along with a sauce. On top of this, we would not only be judged on the presentation and taste of our dish, but also on our work in the kitchen, including cleanliness and following kitchen protocol (a special judge was brought in just to evaluate that aspect alone) — And in the case of a tie, overall impression would decide the winner. It was a tall order, not only to execute a dish but also to be able to stay on-game in the kitchen.

We were allowed 30 minutes after the debrief to gather our ingredients, and prepare all the tools we needed. I had brought most of the ingredients I would need, such as the katsuobushi, kombu, bok choy and enoki mushrooms — but other vegetables I had left a little to chance, hoping that it would be in the fridges. And therein lay my first major mistake.

In my practice round, I had used blanched snap peas (mange-tout) tossed in red Hawaiian sea salt as one of my vegetables. I searched in vain in the fridges for those peas to no avail…and immediately I panicked. One of my three vegetables would not be possible as it wasn’t available. What was to do?

Lucky for me, during my search I had located some fresh shiitake mushrooms. Then, I remembered that the ramen sensei makes a mirin-and-soy soaked shiitake mushroom that went well with many of the noodle dishes he served. However, in a pinch I had to rapidly deduce the production method — it would be a gamble I had to take.

Once the clock struck 9AM, the cooking started. Many of the other competitors began by seasoning their chicken or preparing their vegetables, and meanwhile I was beginning the process of rolling out ramen dough with semolina. Mix the kansui powder with water, add it to the semolina. Knead, rest, knead and then rest before rolling on a pasta rolling machine that a fellow food blogger had loaned me after I had forgotten to mention to Chef Volke I needed to loan his. That right there could have easily been a fatal mistake — but somehow, Misty came to the rescue after I posted an SOS on Facebook.

As the dough rested, I set out to begin making the double soup: a clarified chicken stock paired with a fragrant umami-loaded dashi. I had messed up on the chicken stock clarification on my first attempt at rafting (egg whites mixed with mirepoix and other herbs and spices) during a practice run, so I aas determimed not to do it again — there were no room for errors. I soaked the kombu, and once it was thoroughly soaked turned up the heat and added the katsobushi to the heating stock. The soups bubbled away, as I began to try to recreate the mirin mushrooms.

Slicing a few mushrooms, I soaked them in a soy-mirin mixture with some seasonings and let it boil. Thinking it was safe to walk away to knead my noodle dough for a second time, I encountered Mori-sensei as I kneaded the dough.

“What are you making?” He asked.

“I’m making ramen with roasted chicken and double soup,” I responded, rather matter of factly.

I didn’t get a good look of his face, but judging from the tone I could hear it piqued his curiousity. Here was a Chinese kid trying to make ramen from start to finish in two hours. Surely he must have thought it impossible?

With the dough finished its second knead, I returned to the mushrooms…the heat was on high, and it was burnt. I cursed my luck, and continued on with trying the mushrooms again. I started the stove at a medium heat, and let the new batch cook while I prepared my other vegetables: blanched broccoli, enoki mushrooms, grilled bok choy and a red pepper garnish.

I had left a pot of water boiling for just such a task, but when I returned to it, I found a pan of creamy peas in the place where I had left my pot of boiling water. This would be a common sight for the next hour, as the contestants tried to get their dishes done — it may have been understandable, but annoying nevertheless.

With an hour to go, I was feeling good. Most of the vegetables were complete, the mushrooms were ready and the chicken had been seasoned. The dough by that time had been resting for about half an hour — my worst fears about the noodle dough not setting up had been unfounded; I would be able to calmly saunter over the finish line, with all my elements on the plate ready to be judged.

And that is when reality hit me like a million ton of bricks.

I set up Misty’s pasta roller, and took out the dough from the fridge. It was malleable, so I took it out and sliced it into portions for rolling.

And then, as I flattened the first piece and put it into the machine, it began to crumble.

I panicked, and grabbed some more water to hydrate the dough. Once it was wet enough, I rolled again. Still too dry, but at least it was coming out in a single sheet. I continued rolling four portions out, struggling slightly at the crumbliness of the dough as I wasted time adding more water to each piece, and kneading it. When the noodles were rolled, I sliced them into thin strips, tossed them in flour and let them sit for last minute cooking.

Then, it was time for the chicken. My butchery tutor had gone over chicken cookery with me the one time we had together, and it was time for me to not let them down.

I had seasoned the chicken not just with some salt and pepper, but also some sumac and grains of paradise for colour and flavour. I placed the chicken breasts onto the hot pan, and seared them. I brushed on a little bit of a glaze, flipped over the breasts, and put them into the oven to finish. That technically SHOULD leave enough time with about 15 minutes to go to cook to perfection….right?

Again, that would be a resounding no.

The oven, which SAID was set to 350°F, barely cooked my chicken to 135°F — forcing me to switch to a Rationale oven and forgoing the grilled glazed bok choy.

A few minutes later, with a dearth of time, I pulled the chicken out of the oven. I tempted it, clear juices leaking out as I did.

I sliced it open, and gulped loudly.

It was white. Perfectly cooked, moist and juicy. Last time I was in this situation, Claudio Aprile and I both saw pink. This time, I was confident he would have been thrilled to dig in.

However much I wanted to celebrate though, I had no time. The chicken was finished, but leaving me with precious little time to plate before the deadline. I had to cook my ramen, too…something that proved to be another time-eater when I found my water had been moved aside by another contestant. Ah, the joys of sharing stoves — a luxury that I fortunately didn’t have to endure in Toronto.

But somehow, I got it done. The plates were assembled albeit in the most haphazard of ways, and sent to the judges for evaluation.

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Here it is…the plate!

 

I cursed myself under my breath for the messy plating, and joined the rest of the contestants in cleaning our ustations as we sweated out the results. The judges were of high calibre; including Chef Mike Dekker and Chef Kyle Groves. My sensei and I had speculated that former Gold Medal Plates winner Chef Hayato Okamitsu would be amongst them — lucky for me, that wasn’t the case.

It was at this time my best friend in the whole wide world, Christina, arrived with her mom. Her mom was a graduate of SAIT’s culinary program, and was retreading old stomping grounds, and my friend was along for the ride. I was relieved to see friendly faces after having been alone for most of the competition, and certainle helped break a little of the tension building inside of me.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the results came in.

…and the winner was not me.

Another plate was the clear winner, although my plate generated a lot of buzz amongst the judges. Many stood in awe that fresh, cooked-to-order Japanese-style ramen could be pumped out within 120 minutes. In fact, five days later the chefs are still relaying to my instructor how incredulous they are.

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The winner’s plate (Photo courtesy Christina Ho)

 

Some enjoyed the orange-hoisin glazed chicken, while others enjoyed the stock. Some found the stock too weak while others such as Chef Mori found the stock over-rendered (since I had left the katsuobushi boiling, instead of steeping it) — others like Chef Dekker found the wing bone part of the chicken breast awkward to eat, but most, including Chef Groves (whom I didn’t recognize at first) found the plate a bit of a mess, a result of the lack of time left to artistically craft the plate.

Bur none complained of raw or undercooked chicken.

I celebrated that fact, which exorcised a massive ghost from my past. While this victory over a personal demon wasn’t captured by television cameras for viewing by a national audience, it does not diminish the significance of what that did for my psyche! The undercooked chicken was a massive burden on my mind, but in a stunning moment, I have rectified it.

So while I didn’t walk away a winner, I’ve still won a massive victory over the past, and proved to myself that I could compete again.

Watch out, Chopped Canada — I’m coming for you!

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Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 1

It’s been a pretty hectic these past couple of days (my first weekend at Crossroads with Jay and Eats of Asia’s new location being one of the big highlights) and things are about to get even busier these final three weeks of chef school, as our class enters the longest and possibly the most deceptively challenging module: hot foods. Stocks, soups and classic dishes…it’s all here.

But you’re probably not here to hear about my weekend, right?

Oh, you are? Oh yeah…Saturday. For the first time in a year since MasterChef, I actually entered a cooking competition. The challenge? One chicken breast dish, two servings, two hours. Serve it with a starch and three vegetables. Simple task for someone who has served steak and fresh pickled kimchi to a four-Michelin star chef within 65 minutes, right?

Turns out it’s not as simple as it sounds.

As you may recall, a bit of pride goaded me into entering the contest, dubbed the Cast Iron Chef Challenge. It was a way for SAIT to show off its professional cooking program during its winter Open House, which is one of the best in this country. (No, I’m not saying it glibly!)

In the days leading up to the challenge (even before they had given me the call to compete), I pondered what I would make. I scoured my notebooks trying to find an inspiration, all while the ghosts of my past failure with chicken still haunted my mind. But it was during a weekend practice session after my week of butchery classes, that I finally came up with a recipe for the chicken dish, almost like a bolt from the blue. My butchery tutor (he knows who he is) was the first person to taste it, and from his words of encouragement I knew I had hit upon a winner, and the competition provided a platform for it! How fortunate is that?

But the chicken was only one part of the story; there needed to be a starch and three vegetables to go with it. My mind raced again and again, until one night, it struck me.

I would attempt to make fresh ramen from scratch in two hours, and serve an upscale bowl that could feel like home in the high towers of Tokyo’s Roppongi, but could also be appreciated by the salaryman taking a late night snack on Ramen Street in Chiyoda, or a tourist craving an authentic ramen meal in Jimbocho. Lucky for me, I knew someone who makes ramen from scratch and sells it to critical acclaim — so I had a lead. Of course I did my own research, but nothing really spoke to me.

“Why don’t you try to use Lucky Peach’s recipe?” My ramen sensei said.

Of course — Lucky Peach. While I had considered using Ivan Orkin’s rye flour recipe, I felt that the colour of the noodle needed to play its part in the overall presentation — and for that, I needed those noodles to be bright but not unnaturally coloured that you could see it in the dark.

I kept researching, as the days to the competition drew closer. No call came, and both me and Chef Volke got a little nervous. Was I going to get picked?

But undaunted, I kept pressing on. I looked through more recipes, with each calling for different types of flour, and even one that called for vital wheat gluten. Some needed kansui, others needed kansui powder, and some with none at all. Lucky for me though, I had a way to test out my theories on the Thursday before, as it would be pasta day, and we would be making our own pastas. Some of my classmates made ravioli, another made pirogis, but one would attempt to make ramen.

Some classmates were intrigued. Ramen? Isn’t that the stuff that comes in the packs No, I reassured them. This was going to be the good stuff.

The day before, I baked off some baking soda to make kansui powder. Harold McGee, the food writer who popularized the concept, called for it to be dried by a third. Duly doing so, I had kansui powder at the ready, and with vigour charged headfirst into the noodle battle.

And then, I stopped. What flour was I going to use?

I looked at the all-purpose flour, and then eyed the semolina next to it. As I gazed upon its golden beauty, it was as if a lightbulb came on in my mind.

Almost involuntarily, I picked up a container and measured out some semolina. I dissolved some of the kansui into the water, and mixed it into the flour. I kneaded it with all my might, and following the Lucky Peach method, let it rest for a few minutes before sparring with it again. After the second knead, the dough took a time out in the fridge to settle, while I experimented on the other elements of the prospective dish. (Later I would discover McGee had also used semolina…thanks, Harold!)

When all the other parts were done, I came back and checked on the dough. It was firm but not impossibly so. I cut it into portions, flattened a piece, and ran it through the pasta machine.

What came out next is beyond words — a golden sheet of pasta came forth. I rolled the dough a few more times, each time getting it thinner. The magic of fresh ramen was unfolding in front of my eyes!

But as I was being dazzled, I didn’t see what was coming. I rolled the dough to cut it into thin strips. They looked a bit rough on the first go, but hey…practice makes perfect. I popped the first batch of noodles into a pot of boiling water, getting it to the required al dente.

I popped a noodle in my mouth, and all of a sudden there was a party in there!

…and then, it tasted like someone threw up.

Suddenly, a taste of bitterness came through, and while none of my colleagues could taste it, it got to me. I left the class wondering what happened — I had followed the recipe, and it looked fine. Just the taste.

I spoke to the ramen sensei again, and he figured it out. I can’t tell you what it was (trade secret, I guess) — but when the next day came, I was ready for another round of testing. By that time it was the day before, and I had only one day to do a trial run of the entire dish (with Chef’s blessing of course.)

I ran through the elements, closely keeping my eye on that clock. It didn’t tick loudly, but there was a ticking sound in my mind driving me on. The noodles had to be hurried along, and with great resolve I pounded out the dough and anxiously set it down to chill.

But this time, with a few adjustments — there was no bitterness. The dough was a bit drier (I had cut back on the amount of water) and came out crumbly at times in the roller, but it still worked. The noodles were al dente, and came out beautifully yellow, while sitting in a serene pool of double soup along with the roasted chicken and various vegetables.

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Is this a winner?

The class dug in, and my classmates raved. The noodles were gone within a few minutes, and I knew I had a winner on my hands. But would I be able to come out on top when the heat is on?

I’ll leave that to Part 2…tomorrow!

Chef School, Week 4: Bad Moon Rising On The Midpoint

Well folks, I’ve survived four weeks of school. Four more to go!

And yes, I am still super nervous about the ever-ominous axe of failure that hangs over my head. but at least I’m starting to get into a groove now that the worst of the worst (math, bakeshop and surprisingly, butchershop) is over. We’ve entered into the Cold Foods segment, which for me allows me to draw from the experiences I’ve gained so far, as opposed to going into it completely blind — a massive relief!

Plus, for the first time, I feel like I’m learning amazing new things to apply to my cooking, and getting inspired at the same time. The sheer fact that I’ve not had to constantly question my own worth as a chef and feeling deflated about it, really eases a lot of the cramping on my creative outlets. Heck, I’ve been inspired enough to put my hat into the ring for a cooking competition at achool. But more on that later.

Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t know, MasterChef Canada season 2 has had its season premiere bumped up a week to tomorrow right after the Super Bowl on CTV. Call it perfect timing or whatever you like, but I got a neat little writeup in the SAIT school paper The Weal this week. Originally I had planned on keeping my origins a secret (save for one classmate whom I trusted enough after week 1) lest some of my classmates would look down upon me — that ruse certain didn’t last long, as one of my work colleages at Co-op tipped off one of her friends at the Weal about my origins. Call it my diva instinct, but how does one turn down an interview request? Ya don’t.

So anyway, the cat is out of the bag. I had a bad hunch somehow there would be trouble, and shortly after the copies of the paper hit stands across the campus, it found me.

There are a few classmates of mine who work for a certain hotel chain (you know the one) that seemed to have a superiority complex over the entire class, and for the sake of this story I’ll call him Emile. Emile has had a lot of experience in the food business, and has even earned a certification from another province. Since said certification isn’t recognized here in Alberta, he is forced to do the Red Seal course. This seems to annoy him greatly, and it shows in his attitudes to his fellow classmates and even to the instructor as well. Now it’s great to be experienced, but being a dick about it constantly is just crossing that one bridge too far.

This attitude usually gets Emile into a lot of grief from the instructor, which spurs another one of his colleagues from the same hotel chain (we’ll name him Joe), and another guy from another restaurant (let’s call him Len) to do the same thing. Together, Emile, Joe and Len seem to cause endless amounts of headaches for Chef Volke, and that’s not including the massive headaches my inexperience cause him. Lucky for him though, Len has recently been forced to drop out and Joe seems to have settled down. Which leaves Emile, who still hasn’t seen the error of his ways. Most other chefs I’ve talked to chalk it up to the culture of the company that owns said hotel chain, and so far Emile has proven them right.

Which then brings us about a day after the cat came out of the bag, Chef announced that there would be a competition being held for the first year PCK and apprentice students during a SAIT Open House. Naturally, the competitive side of me was piqued by the possibilities, given that most other contests outside of school are usually reserved for folks under the age of 30. And as much as many a liquor store clerk mistake me for under 18, turning 32 in real years in March means I’m largely ineligible. (Although I do harbour dreams of going on Chopped Canada sometime in the near future, in the footsteps of Steve Glavicich, Paul McGreevey, Pierre Lamielle and Dilan Draper — but that’s another post for another time.)

So I thought to myself, why not? There’s not many options for competitions for me, so why not give it a shot? Screw the nerves, I was going to do it. And it looked as though a couple other classmates (Joe being one, plus another…let’s call him Tanner.)

My mind was made up, but what pushed me over the edge was the next little exchange with Emile.

“So, you’re going to cook that chicken fully, right?”

I laughed, covering a direct hit on a sore point in my psyche while ignoring him. It wasn’t worth getting into an argument with a dumbass. As a friend taught me to do, keep calm and find my centre. It’s not worth the energy, or the effort. Zen…

Chef handed out the entry forms, and I filled it in. Emile goes on the offensive again, looking for a killer blow.

“Make sure you cook that chicken!” He laughed derisively.

I can only be nice about being attacked by a dick for so long, and forgetting the whole zen/calm mantra, I snapped.

“Emile, the joke is only funny the first six thousand times. Fuck you.”

Lucky for me the instructor didn’t hear, but I was incensed. Insulted, humiliated. I had bared my own soul on that plate as an amateur, and I’ve largely moved on…mostly. Maybe it was the sniffling at where I work (a grocery store kitchen and a street food booth), or maybe it was the constant distraction he was causing, or maybe it was the derisive way he treated many of us — whatever it was, I boiled over.

After the lecture, I stormed out, form and toolbox in hand, and went to hand in the form. No dillying, no dallying. I put the form into the receptionist’s hands, and walked to the kitchen where our lab was. I’ve never been so incensed about something like this before, but I’ve never been so insulted in my life culinary-wise. You can joke about my failures on national TV only so many goddamed times before I lose my patience, and for someone like Emile to add his two cents just pushed me over the edge.

Actually, you know what? I hope he enters too if his ego actually lets him through. I’d love to see how he cooks that chicken (which yes, is the theme of the challenge) — will I get picked in the random draw for contestants? I certainly hope I will. Because I’ve been working on a dish just for it.

Pierre Trudeau once told a reporter in 1970, “just watch me.”

You should be. Not Trudeau. Me.

#ChefSchool Day 15: Defying Gravity

Today I step back a little from the every day workings of chef school at SAIT (the last three days were fine, thanks for asking — we took apart some ducks, pork ribs and some salmon and I did okay…and no, I’m not trying to be rude) and post a few more cerebral musings. I’m just in that kind of mood righ now,

Ever since broadcasting, I have been going to school with people who are much, much younger than I am. I recall a few of my fellow “newsies” being fresh out of high school, while only three others (a “techie” and a “creative”) being older than I was. I was filled with life experience, and by and large I felt out of place. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate broadcasting school — Quite the opposite, in fact, but I just felt like a fish out of water. It was a feeling that I never shook off.

But this time around, how the tables have turned. Many of my classmates are now much more experienced in the food business — and I am the young (can I even say that?) inexperienced buck. A few of them have worked in kitchens for years, starting out from the very bottom rungs of the restaurant brigade. Some even got their start in high school, where some schools these days have full-on kitchens that not only develop chefs for the future, but also provides food for the school as well (I do dream of getting my alma mater one of those one day, but that’s a whole another blog post.)

It used to be a massive problem, for me: in a sense, I had been (and probably still is) considered “going backwards” — as one ages, one is expected to “grow up”: settle down, 2.4 kids, house in the suburbs with the white picket fences, and all that kind of hullabuloo. I don’t think that expectation varies all that much between cultures, although some are more hard wired into that concept more than others. Maybe that is what has helped contribute to that feeling of being like a fish out of water. It certainly didn’t diminish my enjoyment of broadcasting school, but it was certainly weighing on my mind.

Anyone who has read either L.A. Son by Roy Choi (founder of Kogi in Los Angeles) or Fresh Off The Boat by Eddie Huang (founder of Baohaus in New York) will have an idea of how it feels; to live in a world that you don’t feel like you belong, while life surges by at breakneck pace you’re meandering on the freeway, wondering where the fuck you are, and asking why you aren’t flowing wid it. You’re “crispy” while all the others around you seem to be raking in the green. You try to join in with the crowd, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t resonate. Society certainly doesn’t help, either.

It’s a feeling that is hard to appreciate if one hasn’t gone through those motions, but when I read both their books, it was like, “damn, so both (Choi) and (Huang) went through the same shit I’ve been…”

In a sense, sans the deep addictions and the street styles, I am almost living out a chapter of Choi’s life while he was at the Culinary Institute of America, and the chapter of Huang’s run on Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, except replace those two with me, the show with MasterChef Canada, Guy Fieri with Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile, and the CIA with SAIT. It’s weird, but also incredible at the same time that all our stories could be so different, but could be tied so neatly under a common thread of the culinary arts — even if our cuisines and visions (Korean-Mexican, Taiwanese street and modern Cantonese) aren’t the same. And we certainly don’t sprechen sie the same bloody lingitty!

We all took a leap of faith, to defy a gravity that demanded one stay on the ground, and follow a path well-trodden. Cooking was something that was left to others, and those who had to do it for a living were individuals whom “smart kids” (the grown ups’ words, not mine) like me would be bossing around. In short, for most of society a life choice has pretty much boiled down to a single truth, that it is only “cool” if it has a by-the-book happy ending. But as we all know, life ain’t into following the form book, and enjoys throwng wrenches into plans, and running scripts through industrial shredders so it can throw the fresh confetti back in your face with a hearty “fuck you”.

If I had been following the form book, chances are I wouldn’t even be writing this blog. I probably wouldn’t have gone to broadcasting school. And what’s the fun in that? I’ve done the pencil pushing thing many times, and I know it ain’t me. My life is bound to be in a kitchen, whipping out top-notch modern Cantonese dishes. It ain’t the glamorous life of a doctor or a lawyer, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy doing it a lot more than pushing paper, dotting I’s and crossing the T’s.

So maybe I’m hanging with people younger than I am, and with more experience than I have. Sure, they’re showing me a thing or two…but is that a crime? My mind keeps telling me that it is, but is it really? To quote my favourite part of Elphaba’s signature song from the musical,

“I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!
Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!”

Too long I’ve been afraid of being judged, and too long I’ve been afraid of being seen negatively for what I’ve done and what I will be doing. That’s a love lost that to win back, truly comes at much too high a cost.

Judge me if you want for defying gravity, but at least. for the first time in a long while, I am once again flying free.

#ChefSchool, Days 11 & 12: Two Days in the Little Butchershop

I’m trying to write, but I am fearing tonight will be a short entry; our family suffered the loss of my grandmother earlier this morning, and I’m still in a bit of a haze.

Anyway, chef school continues no matter what. Besides, that’s what you’re here to read about, right?

So with the start of a new week, we finally began a new topic. Gone (for now) is the twin horrors of math and baking, replaced by the ever fun world of meat cutting and butchery! (If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may want to stop reading right now…) Yep, we get into the really fun stuff now.

Or is it?

Our first lab assignment was simple enough on the surface; trim and cut a large side of sirloin into steaks. What trim that can’t be used would be ground or rendered, and errors would be made into stir fry steak strips for the Four Nines’ short order line. Portioning steaks. How hard could it be?

Turns out it’s not as easy as it sounds. First, the sirloin is admittedly one of the hardest cuts to trim. There are three major seams that separate the three chunks of cow, and one wrong slice could mean massive repercussions down the road. Knowing that, I set out on trimming and portioning steaks for the first time.

First, trimming the cap. That is the part that when cut into steaks, looks a bit like a striploin. Easy enough…follow the seams, and cut it off. So far, so good. I cut the cap off, and it gives way. Thump! It hits the hotel pan. I look around, and see most of my classmates were at the same stage. Not bad for a total rookie, I thought to myself.

Next, was what insiders call the “chicken” muscle. I don’t know why it’s called that, but it needed to go. Pulling the entire sirloin, I freed the chicken from its tendon jail, and set it aside in the trimming tray. Still not doing too bad, as I moved on to trimming the sirloin proper, in preparation for dividing and portioning. Think of it almost like shaving…you take the fat, the silverskin and other gristle off, without taking too much of the good meat off.

Slice! goes a piece of silverskin. Oh oops, a couple milimetres of meat went with it.

Slice! Some fat and silverskin go along with some more meat. That yield sheet is going to make for some horrible reading. Lucky for me, this was only a practice loin.

A little more shaving later, the loin was ready to be portioned. Slicing the meat into three chunks, I went ahead to try and portion out some steaks.

Slice! Thump! The first steak falls onto the scale. Under the mark. Off to the stir fry bin.

Slice! Thump! A second steak…it’s marginally over. Okay, I’ll let it go.

Slice! Thump! Another goes on. Over. I frantically trim, trying to make weight. It goes back on…and it meets the mark. It joins the acceptable pile.

And so it went, with the cap meat (now sans most of the fat cap) and the loin. When the result came in, it was grim. The pile of discard and other trim was higher than a mountain, while only 12 steaks made the cut. About 34% yield, on the first go. Not great, but still room for improvement. Not discouraged, I went to grab another vacuum packed sirloin.

Another loin later, and I wasn’t in such a forgiving mood to myself.

The discard pile was higher, the portioned steaks rougher…everything was just BAD: the yield was a paltry 25%.

I stumbled out of class, void of emotion but inside I was tearing myself apart. I failed, and failed spectacularly while I was at it. How could I have let myself slip so badly? (Noticing the chef seemingly turn many, many shades of red watching me work only made me more nervous and angry) How could this have happened?

Throughout the night, I sought anwers. But somehow it just made me more frustrated — until a very strong pep talk from a friend (she knows who she is) via Facebook Messenger that got me back on my feet. I won’t bore you with the details of what transpired, but she taught me one thing that all chefs needed to be: humble, and accepting of mistakes. Also, to challenge oneself, and to keep LEARNING. Plus, also to love what one does.

The next morning, I got a call from another individual — the one man who got me into this whole chef apprentice journey in the first place. He reminded me of what I was capable of, and while he did reiterate a lot of what my friend had said, he added one very important thing that finally turned the proverbial lightbulb on in my head: that at the end of the day, I needed to screw up. If I didn’t, how would I learn anything?

With that mindset, I went into today with fresh resolve. With chicken (my old nemesis) as the meat du jour, I took my time, made a few mistakes (cutting a little too far out from the keel bone when removing the breast, etc.)

But what ended up happening was, even though it took me almost an hour to debone three birds into chicken suprêmes and ballontine thighs, I did them CORRECTLY. Not perfect, but correct nevertheless. Perfection will come with practice, but today, I am relieved, and feeling back on track.

It’s a feeling I have missed. After two bruising weeks, I walked out of class today just a little more confident in myself. Plus, I feel like by conquering chicken butchering, I am that much closer in exorcising a major demon. (To be continued on that one…)

Now, let’s see if tomorrow can bring more. I’ll have to fight off a little bit of the feels, but it IS pork tomorrow.

Chef school. The story continues…

#ChefSchool Week 2: My Love-Hate Affair with Baking & Other Foibles

Well, two weeks down, six weeks to go. But more importantly, the two worst parts of technical training is over.

Are new nightmares on the horizon? I don’t know but without the dreaded twin burdens of math and baking (I can sense the bakers in my readership rolling their eyes in unison already…) on my mind, gnawing away at my deepest innermost fears and whatnot, i am actually excited to find out more! Anything, including the world of butchershop (which starts tomorrow) has to be a cakewalk compared to the super fussy world of baking. Right?

Whatever butchershop throws at me though, I feel I am at least going to be one more iota prepared than I was for bakeshop: I have had meat cutters at Co-op, butchers at Sunworks and even a fish cutter from Calgary’s best known fish shop, Billingsgate, give me some pointers. Heck, even the chefs at work have shown me a thing or two. These are all pros, and I have to say I am grateful for what they have shown me. Now if it will all come up in my mind when I really need it.

Oh yes…last week. Math went surprisingly better than I had originally expected; I think I aced the test, having been one of the first to finish the test even after checking, double checking and even triple checking my calculations,  but until Chef Volke gives us back our exams I am not going to start relaxing. As for baking, that’s a story unto itself.

Baking D-Day, as I like to call it, was two-fold. First up was the theory exam, which again I had no problems. I got the baking terms and how each pie crust and cookie method down pat by and large, but like a triathlon, the transition from theory to practical can make or break you.

Entering the bakery that now feels like home, I unpacked my tools, and immediately got to work. Earlier in the day, my mother (who is a master baker herself) gave me a few pointers to producing the impeccable product to present to Chef Warden. With almost four hours to produce two baguettes, a loaf of white bread, and two beautifully garnished chocolate cream tarts, there was no time left to lose. Luckily, Chef Warden had allowed us some time on the day before to complete some basic scaling and to complete a blind bake of our pies — of which I took full advantage.

My pie crusts ended up just a smidgen on the dark brown side, but since they were usable still (and judging from the dough scraps, and weighing it against both making two new tart crusts or keeping the very beautiful yet slightly too brown tarts), I decided to forge ahead.

Mixing the doughs was easy enough; as they began their first bulk fermentation I got to work on the pastry cream/chocolate cream/chocolate pudding filling. You’d be surprised as to how easy and versatile pastry cream is; but it’s the tempering of the egg yolks is the tricky part. If your scalded milk is too hot, you have scrambled eggs. Too cold, and the starch doesn’t activate. Nervously, I watched the milk warm as I vigourously whisked the egg yolks. I almost gave myself tennis elbow doing it, but finally, as thin wisps of steam began to rise, it was time for the milk and egg yolks to meet. Slowly, they met. So far so good.

Then, it was time for the heating to thicken the cream. Slowly I stirred under the medium low heat. A thick layer of bubbles covered the surface, a machination of my own doing as I had whisked too hard. Desperately trying to stir while trying to get a good view for the custard, I incurred the attention of Chef Warden.

“John, you’re stirring too fast,” She chided. “Slow down.”

Slow down? SLOW DOWN? I was on auto-pilot by then; any slow down could cause massive disasters. But I followed her advice, and slowled the stirring. And sure enough, as heat was allowed to disperse throughout the liquid, the magic of thickening happened. But I still had to be careful — too much, and my pot would be filled with scrambled eggs. I was out of the frying pan, but back into the fire.

Sweat rolled down my forehead; time was ticking away more incessantly than that annoying clock from Chopped. I wasn’t about to allow myself to screw this up, and I didn’t. The custard gained vanilla and chocolate at the correct consistency, and was immediately put into the tart shells and sent to the chiller. Round 1 was complete.

Once that was over, the breads once again took centre stage. By then I was a bit more relaxed. but still fretful. I punched and portioned the doughs, rounded and benched them. The shaping came together quickly, and it was then off to the proofer. For the white bread I proofed the loaf alone; for the baguettes I tied my fate to a classmates’, sharing their tray. Their fate and mine would be intertwined.

Meanwhile, I took up my battle with whipping cream; the tart required perrfectly whipped cream with rosettes piped on. Earlier in the week, the rosettes on my lemon meringue pie looked atrocious, mainly because my hands were shaking like a leaf. I got the whipping cream to the proper consistency (stiff-ish peaks), filled the piping bag, and did a practice rosette.

It was perfect.

I did another. Perfect again.

I pulled out the tarts, which by then had been cooling. I moved onto the first tart, filled the middle with a swirl of cream, and then began the piping.

I don’t know what happened, but for the next three minutes, I executed rosettes. Eight on one tart, then eight on the other. It was complete, and I had somehow done it. I piped rosettes. Properly.

I stood back for a moment. Shock, elation (no, not to the level of exuberance that led to THAT moment) and RELIEF.

The rest of the day passed by without much of a hitch; I followed my mother’s advice on the breads during the proofing phase (“The product is fully proofed when the surface is dry and it slightly spills over the sides.”), and as soon as the doughs’ surfaces were dry and puffy enough I sent them to the ovens. Once the white bread came out of the oven, I took it out of the pan to cool and breathed a massive sigh of relief. All that was left was the tasting and marking.

Wait. Marking? Shit, I had forgotten all about that.

I laid out the products on a metallic platter, sliced a few tranches of bread as per instruction, and took it all for marking. I took a huge gulp of air, and looked on with bated breath as Chef Warden looked over the products, and tasted them. I barely squeaked out my answers as she quizzed me on some of my procedures, and the whole thing felt like an eternity. Then. finally…marks.

The white bread…perfect.

The tarts were a bit overdone on the shells, but the pastry cream was perfect consistency.

And then…she declared the baguettes to be misshapen and barely passable. The inside was slightly moist, which was a sign of underproofing. There were some cracks from the folding, and the colour was under.

But it didn’t matter. I had somehow taken on the baking monster for a second time, and won in a split decision. The verdict on the theory exam? That’s still in the air, too.

All in all, I have to say I have survived baking. There will be more adventures in the future, and I pray that next time we meet I will score a knockout. Here’s hoping, of course.

Compared to that adventure, work has been rather uneventful. Eats of Asia is moving to Crossroads starting in February, so you’ll get to see me in action slinging bao and pulling noodles in Ramsay-Inglewood soon. Oh, and I ran into Nikita Scringer, a MasterChef Canada season 2 finalist. Pretty cool chick. I have a feeling we will meet again…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some studying of meat cuts to do…

#ChefSchool Week 1: The Lightbulb Slowly Illuminates & Other Ironic Happenings

These last few days, frankly, has been hell.

It’s now 2:52am on Saturday morning as I begin to write this, on the first day in almost two weeks I’ve not had to work and/or class…or at least it feels like it. But last night was the first night that I finally got time (and enough lucidity) to do a little homework and go through the self-tests in our module books, and tonight I have time to write a blog post. I’d forgotten what the life of a working student was like; and this past week is a massive re-climatization to say the least.

But things in class are turning for the better — math, while still confusing as hell, is starting to make sense. Things like portion costing and other fun stuff that you wouldn’t normally associate with a chef’s work, is getting to the point where it’s starting to not scare the living daylights out of me. I’m still dreading the point where I will actually have to start remembering the formulas and the applying them in a written exam situation, but that is still a little bit of time away.

As for baking, the one thing that most cooks dread, is starting to come out of the darkness and into the light…and that leads me to today’s Greatest Moment in Irony.

Today was our baking “exam” per se — Chef Warden, for the first time, would be REALLY putting a critical eye to our finished products. In the time we had, we needed to produce an apple pie with a lattice top, a dozen cookies, and a self-created biscuit or scone recipe. Having done biscuits many times before at work, you’d think I’d be okay with biscuits, right?

Not really.

With a lot of caution and a fair bit of patience, what transpired turned out to be an excellent pie with a golden lattice weave top, a perfectly baked dozen of warm, moist chocolate chip cookies and an oversalty, baking soda-instead-of-powder biscuit that ended up falling short of the mark. I still have no clue as to what happened other than the fact that I put far too much salt in the “pinch” that I originally wanted, but still — the one thing I bake regularly, and somehow I mess it up. Now that, kids, is how you spell irony!

And for once, I didn’t overbake anything either. Another irony.

Oh yeah, and I finally started seeing our products from baking class start hitting the bakery case at the SAIT Marketplace. And I have a funny feeling that our pies will on those shelves soon, too — so come and grab one if you want, and see if you can pick out which pie is mine!