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.

image

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!

#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!

Chef School, Day 2: Those Haunting Words

“Is that raw?”

Those haunting words, spoken to me by Claudio Aprile, sneaks out of the fortress that is my subconscious and into my conscious being from time to time — none so more often when I’m cooking chicken. Or breads. Or hell, pretty much anything for that matter when I’m at work. Case in point, today at school.

Baking is NOT and has NEVER been my strongest suit. Anyone who has tasted my baking probably wouldn’t be all that impressed with the look. I’ll be the first to admit that the combination of flour and oven is kinda, sorta my kryptonite.

Of course my day had to begin with…of all things, math. Sure, conversions may LOOK easy. But try remembering formulas. I’ve not done that much math memory since grade school (thank you very much, Mr. Conlin’s Math 30 class…), and let’s be honest, I am a forgetful you-know-what. And that was just the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much more yet to come. So much of the stuff like costing that my sous chef Tino makes it sound so easy, ain’t all dat. That final exam is looming large, too; more things to worry about.

So you can see, my confidence wasn’t all that great already. At least the lunch at the Four Nines was nice, and kinda helped settle my nerves. Nothing cures the hunger quite like salmon with shrimp mousseline, served up by fellow students. But that is only short respite.

Our practical classes consist of a “lecture” portion followed by a “lab” time. While most of the stuff is relatively straightforward in the lecture portion, when the rubber soles of the kitchen clog finally hits the road in the lab, that is when things seem to go a little off the track.

Suddenly, it seemed that I was questioning every step, every move. Even on our opening item, a simple scone — something I had done a thousand times before at work — I kept questioning myself, doubting, worrying…was I going to make a mistake that would make me the Koons of the day? Especially after I had told my classmates that I had experience in not only biscuits, but yeast doughs from naan to steamed bao?

Somehow, though, I didn’t make a mistake — until it came time to bake. Using an unfamiliar commercial rotating oven, shared with 11 others, meant that even the best guesses could be wildly inaccurate. Three times, I looked at my products and thought, “maybe another rotation won’t hurt, just in case it’s still a little raw…”

And three times, that extra rotation meant overcooked baked goods. The biscuits were dry, and the bran muffin slightly too brown on the edge. Sure, there were no tunnels and the mixes were perfect, but that one last bit. That overcooking…it got me. Chef Warden isn’t Gordon Ramsay or Alvin Leung, but inside my mind, I was kicking myself as if she was both of them combined.

In the end, a few of my products were good enough to send to the Marketplace for sale. I gave myself an iota of credit, but deep down I knew I had to not try to screw up again especially come Friday, when our own modified and enhanced creations will be marked. Like the dreaded poli-sci essay in university all over again!

But tomorrow is another day. A clean slate, a fresh start, all that jazz. Fingers crossed I can do better tomorrow. For now, I’ve got some homework to do and modules to read…and perchance a good night’s sleep afterward.

Assuming I can sleep, of course.

Chef School: The Next Frontier

Well, here we are…it’s Monday night, and I’m writing this after my first day of technical training at SAIT. It wasn’t a long one and probably not the most memorable, but it feels like a new beginning nevertheless. It marks a shift from working in kitchens, to a educational kitchen setting.

But before I go on and tell you about my “exciting” first day, I want to clarify one thing about the difference between culinary school and the provincial- and federal government-funded apprenticeship program.

The apprenticeship program (the one that I’m doing now) combines working in your trade of choice (which for me is cooking) with classroom training; 10 months working with 2 months of school, each year for three years. This will culminate with two exams: one for a “journeyman” certificate, and a second for the big prize: the Red Seal, which is like the eighth badge in every Pokémon game, makes sure all bow down to your might ensures that you are recognized as a chef all across Canada, from sea to sea to sea. It’s a pretty cool prize, and plus apprentices get experience on their resume right away.

Plus for an old fart like me, it means actually WORKING and GAINING SKILLS and LEARNING HANDS-ON, not sitting in classrooms for weeks and months on end listening to lectures, labs and whatnot, and taking optional classes that for me seems like a rehash. After going through university AND broadcasting school, I can’t takes no more.

Anyway, enough of my old fart ramblings.

But my first day at SAIT certaininly brought back some memories, of waiting in line at the bookstore waiting to pay for a stack of modules (we didn’t have to get the textbook On Cooking, which was a relief since I picked up the CIA’s Professional Cooking over the holidays, a book that SAIT is going back to anyway), getting my ID card, and finding my way around the maze of buildings. It was like I was that fresh, wide-eyed UofC student, almost 15 years ago. Ah, the memories!

The moment I walked into the kitchen classroom, though, was awesome. The instructors for all three years were there (including the notorious Chef Michael Allemeier, who teaches second year), and surprise! They had cooked us breakfast! Of course, curse my luck that I decided to stop off for a latte at the Odyssey Coffeehouse after stepping off the train. But hey, when master chefs are making breakfast for you, it’s like ole Don Corleone says, “it’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

Walking around, I chatted with some of my soon-to-be classmates. It was a bit nervewracking at first (those of you who know me, know I tend to need a bit of time to find my voice in front of strangers), but what I found was am incredibly diverse group. There were folks working in chain steakhouses, chain pizza joints, and gourmet grocery stores (oh wait, that’s me!), some from the city proper and some from outside of town, with one who came all the way down from a Yellowknife bed and breakfast to do his technical training. Yes, YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES.

The chefs at work told me last week to be on the lookout for the one who doesn’t seem to know what s/he’s doing, and avoid them at all costs when it came to labs. While it’s hard to judge on Day 1, I found a passionate group of chefs who wanted to learn. Maybe they don’t have the experience as some of the second or the third years, or have worked in the calibre of restaurants one would expect (I think I caught a second/third year sporting a CHARCUT t-shirt), but still…we’re all going to be learning, and it will be a process. To borrow from Lady Gaga, “One day someone will be the Koons, but suddenly that Koons could be me.” and no, no one is living for THAT applause.

With breakfast out of the way, we were given a welcome speech from the department head, giving a general 411 on what is happening, and why one should be on time, and so on and so forth. More speeches, and it was finally time to break off into our respective classes. For the other years it meant hitting the ground running, but for us it meant a tour of the facilities with our instructors, Chef Volke and Chef Warden.

I won’t bore you with the minute details of each place just yet, but as we go along I’ll have more on those. Let’s just say the facilities are amazing; it’s any home cook’s dream come true, and a veritable playground for the culinary professional. The range of tools, ovens, stoves and the ingredients available almost brought a tear to my eye!

As for our instructors, all I’ll reveal for now is if you have been to Chop Steakhouse and had the steak bites, the person who created them is one of my chef instructors.

That’s all for now…I still kinda wish I had more photos from today, but I promise that as we go along I will have some so you can come along my journey with me.