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!

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#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…

Why I Chose To Be A Chef’s Apprentice

There is an old Chinese saying, roughly translated, that says, “It’s better to have traveled a thousand miles than to have read a thousand books.”

Not to knock on all you book readers out there, but there is a certain truth to that old statement. And when you apply it to cooking, is it better to have read a thousand recipe books or is it better to have cooked (and learned) from those same books? Surely you’d agree that the latter is probably much more rewarding, and a lot tastier.

While many of my fellow MasterChef Canada contestants have returned to their everyday lives, some have plunged head-long into their culinary dreams. While I have joined the latter group, I’m taking a different route.

I am not afraid to say it: I am not ready for prime time. While folks like Danny have opened his own food truck, Dora opening up her new restaurant, Josh and Carly burning up the Vancouver food scene, they are ready for it. I however, am not.

In my life, I’ve been known to speed through things. From the time I was in elementary school all the way to now, I’ve prided myself on being speedy. Sometimes, that is great. Other times, it’s caused me nothing but grief from teachers, my parents and even friends. Based on that, I knew that jumping headlong into the culinary world would be a disaster of epic proportions. (Plus being broke doesn’t help matters much, either.)

Above all, I have far too much learning, and too much tasting and experimenting left to do. The first thing I needed to do was to learn never to make the same mistake that got me sent home from MasterChef Canada: undercooking chicken. On the plane ride home, I vowed that the next time either of the three judges would taste my food, they will not get a pink piece of chicken (or undercooked anything for that matter). The question then popped up — where would I learn it, if I wanted to be a pro?

And that is where one Chef Troy Raugust stepped in.

When I first met him, he was the Head Chef at the newly built Fresh-to-Go Kitchen inside the Calgary Co-op in Crowfoot. By the time I met him, I was still looking for my way in the door. He hired me on the spot after talking to him, and within a few days was working in a kitchen. It’s not a completely full-fledged restaurant one, but the work involved in running it is no less intense. From preparing a fresh salad bar, to serving the line, cooking rotisserie chickens to the perfect doneness, and finally to preparing the various dishes being served, it was a lot to take in each day at work.

And somehow, after a few months of working there, I impressed him and the other Chefs enough to have him offer me the chance to be his apprentice. But truth be told, I had misgivings at first. It would mean more schooling (having graduated with a university degree and a broadcasting diploma) — but with my broadcasting career going nowhere fast, it was pretty much a no-brainer. For the second time in my life, I enjoyed what I did for work. Broadcasting is great, but it simply didn’t give me the ways to pay the bills. Cooking had always been a passion of mine, and for the first time it offered a way out of the rut.

Spurred on by my friends, I took the chance. And as they say, the rest is history.

And as I near a year working there, I’ve been blessed to have so many teachers that have been incredibly patient with me and my foibles. My time working as an apprentice showed me not just what I still needed to learn to be the culinary star that I will be, but also of what I am capable of. I’ve made mistakes seasoned chefs would consider amateurish, but on the other hands I have also dazzled those same chefs as well with the skills I do have.

But most of all, I am doing things that as recently as two years ago would never have dreamed of being able to do; like stand in front of a crowd at Stampede Park doing a demo with our new Head Chef, go back to my old alma mater William Aberhart High School and teach not one, not two but three Foods Studies classes, and wow crowds with newly acquired noodle-pulling skills at various markets around Calgary (But those are stories best left for another day.)

So in a nutshell, that is why I chose to be an apprentice. To learn, to grow and to evolve into the best chef and human being that I can be. It might sound clichéd, but it is the truth…and I’m sure as hell sticking by it!

Then, and now...the evolution continues.

Then, and now…the evolution continues.