Saturday, June 27, 2015

midnight mise

Before starting culinary school, it was typical for me to spend sleepless nights dabbling in new recipes.  After a day at the office, I would decide it was urgent that I learn choux pastry, attempt the perfect lattice pie design, find a recipe utilizing beet tops so the greens wouldn't go to waste, or figure out what made the filling in Indian samosas taste so good.  I produced all of these curiosities in a tiny but well equipped studio apartment kitchen in Santa Monica, California.

My galley-style kitchen, roughly 57 inches by 17 feet, sat separate from the bedroom but close enough for the smell of freshly baked cookies (or whatever was in the oven) to permeate every square inch of space whether you wanted it to or not.  Vertical storage solutions were key, and strategic hooks and shelves lined the walls. Meanwhile, the bar sink made washing dishes and equipment a struggle, and the oven and refrigerator were smaller than typical American household appliances. While the average apartment dweller might decide this was too small a space to ambitiously cook in, I was an avid cook with serious determination.  Plus, I decided that there was a certain romance to it. During my studio apartment residency, the New York Times posted an article about Mark Bittman's famously bad New York kitchen.  Bittman's visibility as a food writer certainly fueled my motivation and my midnight mise en place habits: if he could produce so much content and develop so much knowledge in a less than perfect kitchen, why should I hold back? Like Bittman's well known book, I wanted to know how to cook everything and often used his recipes as a reference.  Through these apartment cooking adventures, I was joining the ranks of food writers in overcrowded yet desirable culinary cities, which felt like good company to be in.

A little snapshot of my old bookshelf and the beginnings of my cookbook collection, a collection which has rapidly expanded each year

So it was in this kitchen that I started experimenting with bread doughs and spices and many weekly impulse produce purchases from the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  Looking back, I think it was fate that one of the best farmers markets in the country was just a stone's throw from my office door.  It is still one of my favorite produce destinations, with artichokes the size of your head, colorful squash blossoms, juicy blood oranges, and culinary inspiration wherever you turn.

No wonder I could get lost for hours exploring new dishes and cooking methods. I learned a lot about different ingredients during this time of experimentation.  I also learned the valuable lesson that you will never have the perfect kitchen or all of the right equipment that a recipe demands.  What's important is to spend time practicing in the kitchen regardless of perceived obstacles.

Now that the culinary world is my main professional focus, my late night experiments are more rare. I spend more time wearing aprons than regular clothes, and I'm a different cook now than I was in the days of that studio apartment.  I still have a lot to learn, but now I am lucky to have so many more tools at my fingertips.  And while I may never have an ideal dream kitchen, the stuff of cookbook spreads and architectural magazines, I'll always have my determination.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A quiet moment

Somehow it's finals week of my third semester of culinary school. At the same time, it seems like it was just yesterday when I returned to school to embark on this exciting, humbling, and rewarding culinary adventure.

I haven't written a lot about my time at school yet.  In truth, I've been holding on for dear life as I race from one commitment to the next and navigate the journey of a big career switch.  Blogging may have taken a backseat to these endeavors for now, as I search for quiet moments in between six classes, restaurant work, volunteer opportunities, and general to-dos. But I'd like to think that late night hours practicing the perfect buttercream for a test or executing plated dessert components for a project are ultimately in service of the blog.  

While I wish I had more time for blogging, I've calmed the antsy writer in me by reflecting each day in the form of many scribbled notes in various Moleskin notebooks. To me, having a Moleskin in my pocket in the kitchen is as essential as having a sharp chef's knife.  I've amassed quite a collection of them during my studies, full of recipes, methods, and advice from my chef instructors: ("Hollandaise is tricky.  You can be comfortable with it for years.  Then one day, when you need it the most, it breaks on you.")   It's true that I may have a bit of a writer's Moleskin addiction, but I'm also making it a priority to look up, put the pen down, and enjoy the ride.  I spent my fair share of time daydreaming about attending culinary school, and now that I'm finally here I feel very lucky.  

Learning this trade is a lifelong process, but school is providing me with an excellent foundation. I've learned a lot of "secrets" of the industry that will be of practical use, the behind the scenes nuts and bolts that will help me go into any kitchen with confidence. And luckily for the blog, since chefs are not like magicians, we're actually allowed to reveal at least some of our secrets.

The pictures above are from a la carte dessert day in our Baking 2 class: devil's food cake with balsamic soaked strawberries, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, and a tuile garnish.  The secret trick is to scoop the ice cream in the freezer and leave it there on a parchment lined sheet pan until it's ready to plate so it doesn't start melting on your dinner guests.