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.