Learning Process

I live alone having moved out of my parents’ house years ago. My mother is a great cook and yet a limited resource for culinary knowledge, and to some extent a lost opportunity for learning as a result of my youthful naïveté. Maturity and the hindsight that comes with it are great aren’t they? The  cook in me has emerged through a combination of her influence, necessity and frankly reasons not yet known or fully understood. Her limited accessibility, in the form of my visits home or from her to my apartment, serves as a catalyst for my self-designed course of study involving reading, interviews, practice and hands-on instruction. My journey continues eight months in with even more enthusiasm than when it started.

As I become more immersed in the world of cooking I have been exposed to a myriad of perspectives, experiences and stories. It’s amazing to see how food, a fundamental necessity for life touches all of us in so many ways, some subtle, while others more obvious ranging from those who are either happy or resigned to eat countless plates of overcooked pasta, microwaved processed frozen meals, burnt or dry chicken and steak with repetitive monotony (yes this was me) to the master chef, armed with culinary knowledge and experience that allows for the transformations of simple ingredients into something greater than themselves.

For those who do take an interest in food and in particular an interest in cooking, I have observed and read about the many and varied ways people increase their skill through their continual process of learning. I have also observed that some people appear to be born with an innate ability and/or natural inclination to cook. Others are exposed through family and friends as part of their childhood and upbringing, allowing for cooking to become a part their identity over time. Some families pass down recipes and cook as part of tradition. Some people have an awakening” and discover their passion for food later in life whether that be in their twenties, thirties or much later in life. Whether as a result of an awakening, tradition, a desire to follow one’s dreams, out of necessity or need for change,  some even take the step of enrolling in classes or a formal path of education. We all are different and yet still share some intrinsic common thread that makes us similar and drawn to food and cooking. We love to cook, enjoy making people happy and often strive to make each dish better than the last.

I’m curious about the path others have taken to get where they are or where they plan to go. How did you get into food? What are your aspirations? How did you get to where you are and how do plan to get where you are going?

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Visiting the New England Culinary Institute

NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar
NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar

This weekend I took an extended three day weekend trip with my family to Vermont. We haven’t had the opportunity to take our usual week or longer family trip this year so going up north to visit Burlington, Vermont and the surrounding towns looked like a fun way to kick back and relax before summer’s end.

Forty years ago, my mother came from Honduras to study on an academic scholarship to Vermont College, located in Montpelier. While a student, she met my father a professor at Norwich University and the rest as they say is history. My sister and I of course are evidence of that.

Since we were going to be passing by Montpelier on our way up to Burlington I thought it would be fun to combine a visit to the New England Culinary Institute, also known as NECI for short, while also visiting what was the campus of her college which no longer exists, and how now become part of NECI and other institutions such as the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both of my parents were eager to visit the small town to relive old memories and retell old stories that are part of our family’s history. While touring the Institute we could also eat at the school run restaurant in town and the one on Church Street in Burlington. She was really excited by this and so I called the number on the NECI web site to get information about tours, the school and the restaurant and also to do some research to see if her dorm was still there.

When I called the number I asked the woman on the phone about tours. She politely informed me that there weren’t tours of the school available and that it would best to seek out students on campus to talk to them about their experience. This didn’t seem right to me. What kind of sales pitch was this? I didn’t want to spend a lot of our vacation time on a treasure hunt for buildings and students. She also was unfamiliar with the specific dorm I was looking for, which as it turns out was part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, 100 yards from the New England Culinary Institute admission building. I began to wonder where the call center for the toll free number I had called was located. The school wasn’t that big was it? She also corrected me when I mentioned my intention of wanting to eat at the Institute’s restaurant in Burlington. Apparently that had closed down a couple of years ago too, but she was eager to point out the truly fabulous food at the Main Street Bar & Grill, the restaurant run by the Institute and its students. The loss of their flagship restaurant was not a good sign especially in the fast growing city.

Saturday we arrived and within a few minutes of driving around we found my mother’s old dorm and her room. That was easy. We walked around campus and viewed some of the buildings owned by NECI while also viewing some of the buildings that belonged to other institutions. My mother was excited and happy and we were all getting hungry. It was time to eat.

Mom's College Dorm
Mom's College Dorm

We made the short drive down the hill to the Main Street Bar & Grill. We had been here before many years before to eat and had a pleasurable experience although on that trip we didn’t actually drive around Montpelier as we had this time.

After a short wait for an outside patio seat we sat down and ordered our meal. Our waiter, Joshua, a student was friendly and welcoming and overall did a great job especially given the fact that he was a culinary student and only serving as part of the curriculum rotation. This is pretty much where my praise ends. Overall everyone felt that the food was pretty good but really under-seasoned. I had flashbacks to the basics cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where Chef Angie told us that new cooks generally are afraid of using too much salt and usually under-season their food. Was this day one of the rotation I wondered? The dressing on my salad lacked taste as did the other components of my dishes. The dessert was in fact the best part of the meal which is fortunate because it is the last impression a restaurant gets to make on a customer, but also unfortunate as my aspirations involve the culinary program and not the baking and pastry program.

Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Plating was another thing I noted. While we were only eating lunch, I was expecting more for presentation. My appetizer and main dish appeared as two distinct dishes while the dessert was already melted and lacked color. While not at the heart of culinary training, this is something that is important to me; a well plated dish evokes emotion and clues you into what you are about to taste. As far as showing off technique and skill, this just wasn’t doing it for me.

I asked our server about touring the facilities. He kindly informed us that we could walk to the back of the restaurant and through the back door to view classrooms and the rest of the facility. Once we were back there I was let down again, looking at the small drab classrooms. They just didn’t look inviting, and in contrast to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts they were completely removed from the cooking setting entirely. While having an on site restaurant is a plus for any culinary school the complete separation from the classroom and kitchen didn’t feel appropriate. I also wondered where the rest of the school was. Was that the wrong question to be asking? Was this all there was?

After finishing our meal, we left to walk down the street and get a sense of the town. My parents walked and noted how much things had changed and how the area had grown and modernized. I saw a town only slightly more populated than where I grew up, a stark contrast from living in Boston, a world class city with neighborhoods and numerous cultural culinary influences and establishments. We visited the student run baker, La Brioche and sampled some of their baked goods and pastries. Delicious. Another home run for the baking and pastry program.

NECI, La Brioche
NECI, La Brioche

The New England Culinary Institute was the school were famed Alton Brown matriculated. I had high expectations of what the school had to offer after reading it’s web site contents and given the aptitude and success Alton Brown has attained. I left the school feeling disappointed and yet I don’t think my high expectations were misplaced especially since I have fond memories of eating at NECI restaurants in the past. I wonder what had changed, but left clearly feeling that if I did decide to pursue culinary school, this place wasn’t for me.

I may not have seen all of the buildings, fancy kitchens and labs the school had to offer, but as a someone interested in the school it just seems like I could have gotten more out of my visit with a little friendly guidance and key points of differentiation to focus on. I know when I have guests I do my best to make them feel welcomed and answer all of the questions they have. A school where I could potentially spend a large amount of my hard earned money would do well to have a similar philosophy.

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Bartending Class – Week 2, Day 2

Today was judgment today. Well, perhaps it wasn’t that serious, but our last day of class would consist of a written exam and a live drink making test to determine whether or not we passed the course. I was feeling pretty confident after having reviewed my flash cards extensively and memorizing the drink recipes. I also reviewed our workbook thoroughly to try and pick up as much service and trade knowledge as possible outside of class. The class itself was very good at preparing me and the class for the exam and it was amazing how quickly we as students picked up bartending knowledge throughout this entire experience.
Anthony, another instructor for the school would be the proctor for the exam. We opened up with another round of drink drill to get us loosened up, helping each other along with drink recipes and making last minute service corrections. The pace for the drinks had increased as well as the combinations for and variations of the orders being shouted out. This was starting to feel real. Music was blasting, bottles were pouring and service started to feel like a reflex. I wasn’t struggling for recipes or with marrying the right glass to the drink being ordered and served.
When the drill was over we were given the written portion of our exam, consisting of three pages of detailed questions covering everything we had learned. I was surprised at how familiar all of the information was. Some of the reason for this familiarity would become apparent as I’ll explain shortly. The exam was a breeze and I finished quickly. The live drink exam was next.
When the next portion was set to begin I looked around and realized the class was short many people. Two girls who were there for the first half of the day didn’t come back for the live test. Others were complete no shows for the day. Where were they? Why take the course and not finish it? The reason for this would also become apparent by the end of the day.
With eight students left we were broken up into two groups of four for the evaluation. I was part of the second group and was taken to the back room. Anthony jokingly put on some entertainment for us on the television in the room, and as he left chuckling Coyote Ugly came on during the part where Violet (Piper Perabo) applies for the job. Anyone who has seen this movie knows that all hell breaks looks at this point. What was the message here? This was all too funny. Music started blasting in the other room as the first four students started their evaluation. Before we knew it, our names were called into the room as the other students went into the back room to be subjected to the movie torture we had just experienced. We got behind our respective stations, listened to the instructions Anthony gave us and went to work. He called out drinks and we made them, each person getting assigned different drinks for the test. Looking around the bar was like observing the line at a hectic kitchen. Orders were given out and promptly “fired” and served according to recipe with the appropriate garnish. The test was over in no time at all. The stations were cleaned up and we gathered in the main room. We all awaited the results to see how we did.
We again reviewed some bartending basics as well as tips for applying for a job. We then went over the details of putting together a resume and how to make it sound professional and not like a third grader’s. This was all very elementary stuff, but as I would soon learn, I was the oldest person in the class, or at least of the graduates. There was definitely an experience and maturity gap here. Many were not even 21 yet, and this was one of the first job talks they had experienced. Some didn’t even have resumes, and bartending would be their first or second job. My travel and food experiences made me better equipped for the class as I had learned a lot of the wine information, and I won’t lie, my drink experience in and since college also made me familiar with many brands, types of alcohols and drink combinations. While I never revealed my age to my classmates, it was an interesting revelation.
I passed the exam and was awarded my school certificate. I was so psyched and still am. The culinary school decision is still up in the air and will take considerable more thought, but I feel now I have a better idea of what it’s like to work in the industry under pressure producing consistent results according to a recipe.  The bar has similarities to the kitchen which I continually observed. The bar also to some extent has been de-mystified and I know I will never look at it the same.
Now that I have some bartending training and some recipes under my belt, I don’t want to lose what I have learned. I plan to explore some options which include planning and working some private parties and catering events to gain experience in the operation and execution of them while honing my drink-mixing skills. This is in line with my current thoughts for work after attending culinary school which would add food preparation for these events to my knowledge base and skill set.

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Bartending Class – Week 2, Day 1

Another day down, and another day closer to finishing my bartending class.  Today we were really moving. Jeff was our instructor again along with Chris, who I gather is a potential new instructor and was just observing as she did not interact with the class.

We started with a drink drill again, going over drinks that we had accumulated in our “arsenal” since the class began. I was a bit apprehensive as class started, wondering if I would remember what we had gone over last weekend. I didn’t have much time to study this week and was really surprised with how much stuck with me. The hands on learning in a realistic looking bar setting really helped put everything together. The music was pumping in through the sound system again and everyone got right back into the groove.

After the drill we talked about good bartending techniques and the amazing cash rewards some bartender’s have earned through the trade. A former instructor once made $1,700 in tips during one night of service! Almost $100 dollars of this amazing total came as a result of making one drink. A customer asked the bartender to make his favorite drink, one that many bartenders get wrong. The customer put a hundred dollar bill down and said that if the drink, a Planters Punch, was made correctly the bartender could keep the change. Playing the part of a dumb and clueless bartender in a joking way, the bartender “guessed” the ingredients and made a perfect Planters Punch.  He got to keep the change!

Two key lesson’s learned about bartending where these:

  1. The job of a bartender is to generate repeat business through his/her craft.
  2. When asked during an interview why you want to be a bartender, a good answer is “Because the harder I work, the more money I make”. You are not there for the people or to have fun. If you make money the rest takes care of itself.

The framing of the bartender’s trade through the lens of a business was interesting again and good to re-enforce. After all, despite your reasons for choosing this job, hiring managers are concerned about the bottom line, just like any other business.

After break we went over a new glass type which we would be using, the cocktail or martini glass.  We also went over cutting techniques for limes and lemons creating slice garnishes and twists respectively. Now we were ready to round out our knowledge with Martinis and Manhattans, often measures of bartending skill.

Martinis and Manhattans were surprsingly easy to make given the ingredients, but complex given the show and knowledge that is expected from the bartender. We breezed through variations and worked on some quick shooters before class ended.

As we cleaned up our stations we were reminded that we have a final that we must pass in order to pass the class and get our certificate. Visions of a culinary practicum came to mind. Jeff even made the comparison of cooking and bartending and discussed the necessity of tasting drinks to become familiar with their ingredients and interactions together in the real world.

The exam tomorrow consists of a written portion as well as a demo session where we will be asked to prepare drinks from memory, using the key steps for customer service and preparation. We’ll have to use the correct ingredients, combination method, glass types and garnishes. I’m looking forward to the exam and hope that I have studied enough. I know I will feel proud after passing validating my newly acquired skillset. Stay tuned for the results.

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Bartending Class – Week 1, Day 2

Today’s class was taught by Mark, a self-described sarcastic and mild mannered former bartender with 25 years experience and a strong love for teaching. It started with going through our workbook and the review questions for the sections we had covered during our first session. After a quick review we moved on quickly and opened up with a “bar drill”, quickly creating several drinks that were taught yesterday; everyone was eager to get behind the bar to practice their skills. We were split up again with four behind the bar and four at the counter as customers. Drinks were shouted out, liquor (dyed water) was poured and things were really moving. We alternated with being in front or behind the bar as we practiced new drinks and our pouring technique.
We also focused on quality wine service, margaritas and tips for determining ingredients in a drink based on its name or key ingredients. For example, all cream drinks get Kahlua, all Russian drinks have vodka, any drink with south in its name gets Southern Comfort. The rules of it all are starting to fall into place.
Ever present in the back of my mind throughout the day and now is the comparison of making drinks and working in a kitchen producing food. We learned clever bartending tricks about how to utilize multiple ingredients at one time to make several drinks, how to mix drinks in a particular order based on their ingredients so as not to have to wash out our shaker as many times and how to properly garnish drinks based on clearly defined rules. Our goal was to increase speed and accuracy while minimizing waste all the while being consistent with our products. Time is money in the business and greater output yields more money in your pocket as well as the bars.
I have also observed that idealized bar without surly demanding customers and real money on the line is a great place to hone one’s skills much like the sterile kitchen of a culinary school.  Add in a few drunks, cash, credit cards and the checking of ids and this becomes a whole other ball game. The customer always makes a difference.
Getting comfortable behind a bar is like a kitchen. You learn your surroundings, where everything is kept and over time learn how to be more efficient. This class is way more fun than I was expecting and is really opening my eyes into the subtleties of the business, product, operations and great customer service. I bought the kit they sell, much against my desires knowing that they mark up its contents considerably so I can practice and improve my skills at home with pourers, shakers, mixing spoon and strainer.  Why didn’t I sign up for this course before?

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Bartending Class – Week 1, Day 1

On a whim and a aside from my culinary education I have enrolled in the Drinkmaster Bartending School in Boston and attended my first class today. Sure, we’ve all seen the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise and thought to ourselves, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to be a bartender?”.  Reality probably set in and for many and various reasons we assumed that bartending wasn’t something within our grasps.

While taking such a class may seem unrelated to pursuits in my culinary education, it actually has some pretty clear benefits to me and my desire to learn to cook. I signed up for the class a few months ago while reading through a book, Running a Restaurant for Dummies that I had purchased to learn a bit about the restaurant industry and its inner workings. I signed up with the thought of breaking into the industry and learning a bit about the front of the house operations through bartending or by acquiring the skills necessary to work small private parties or catering events. Bartending is much like cooking in that it involves taking orders, clearly defined recipes with occasional improvisation, fast, efficient production and interaction with a team. The money happens to be pretty decent as well which is an added bonus.

I arrived at the appointed hour and took the elevator to the 5th floor. The doors opened to a small hallway with slightly dim lighting. I walked through the door and was immediately welcomed by Jeff, our instructor for the day. I was given materials, a name tag, and signed in before taking a seat at a full-sized replica bar with bartending stations. The place looked really cool and felt like a real bar.

Once everyone was settled, the owner started talking to us about the school and its aim to teach people the core mechanics of the industry and how to be a great bartender. He introduced us to Jeff and left us in his hands for the day. After introducing ourselves, we were giving a brief overview of the basic bar setup and went right to work. This place apparently was going to be really hands-on, something I immediately became excited about. Music was pumped up to enhance the experience and provide some real life distraction. We were all jammin’ behind the bar with classic rock, raggae and current and familiar bar and club anthems.

All students in the class shared stations, switching back and forth, going over the basics of order taking, customer interaction, pouring, mixing and shaking and presentation. The pace picked up as our comfort level increased with drinks being called out in succession. I imagine this is what being on the line in a kitchen is like, firing plates and plating dishes for servers with consistent and attractive presentation. We were mindful of our workspace, the bar mise en place, putting back our bottles where they came from and keeping our space clean. I was really having a good time now. Everyone made mistakes, but as we kept moving it became easier to get over them. The operational aspects  and good business practices of a bar started to take form, as we honed our skills moving to what hopefully will some day be instinct.

The question on everyone’s mind at the beginning of the class of course was, “How do you remember all of the different drink recipes?”. It was great to know that you don’t need to know how to make every drink there is in the world, but rather the mechanics and the tools to be able to figure them out, along with some clever customer interaction techniques to elicit recipes for your first time. We learned bases and different combinations and substitutions. I started to make parallels with cooking and the differences say between a classic braise, fricassee or blanquette.

I left class feeling more confident than I ever imagined I would be after my first day. The mystery that shrouds bartending has started to break down into simple individual components. Much like what Chef Dowling said at the info session I attended at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, I am sure that when I am done with the class next Sunday I will never look at bartending or the drinks that I order while out the same again just like she said about food after taking the certificate or professional programs.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s class and the challenges and fun that I will experience. In just five hours I learned so much and know another five hours will increase my skills dramatically again.

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Info Session at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

Today was a big an exciting day for me with respect to advancing my culinary skills. I attended an information session at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind about checking out some schools and investigating further how far I want to take my studying and learning about cooking. I could never have imagined just months ago how deeply this interest would take a hold of me.

When I walked up to the school I noticed a different feeling. I approached more confident and at ease since I had already taken a basics class at the school and was familiar with the surroundings. I entered, took my seat and waited for the session to begin. Prospective students filed in, each inspecting every other person as I was, wondering what their story was, reason for being there, perhaps wondering if we would be in the same classes along with a multitude of other questions that ran through our heads.

The session was headed by Executive Director, Chef Roberta Dowling who founded the school 36 years ago. As she started to talk I was eager to learn more about the school. Interestingly enough, the tables were turned and each person had to introduce themselves stating their name, current occupation if any, and desired course of study.

She described the school as a kind of family, different from other larger institutions in the industry. The jovial and high-spirited chef made you instantly feel at home and you could just tell that she loved this school and what it offered its students. She described most student as career changers, those just out of high school atypical and assured us that people graduating from the program don’t go on to be line cooks. This was serious business for people with high aspirations and a love of cooking (which includes the pastry program as well). The program is modeled after traditional European-styled training, offers small classes with a maximum of 15 students per class, and a hands on approach, making everything from scratch; no pre-made dough or worse number 10 cans would be used here except for tomatoes of course when required. Students gained an average of 11 pounds through the program without question provided that you still exercised. Not so bad. Fail to keep up your exercise program and in an extreme case you could gain up to 85 pounds. Yikes!

Another unique advantage of this program is the flexible scheduling, allowing students to enroll in either a certificate program or professional program with flexible class days totaling 19 hours per week. This allows you to keep your full-time job and even take classes on weekends if that is what you choose; you pick your most convenient days and that’s your schedule for the program. Classes usually have 1 instructor and up to 2 assistants allowing for a lot of personal attention. The world was looking pretty rosy now. Everything was sounding great until reality set it.

Anyone choosing this program does so for their love of cooking. You would have to of course given the significant cash outlay and time commitment for any one of the programs. As she went into detail, the obvious differences from the recreational program I was a part of became even more obvious. Yes there would be homework. There would be required uniforms and class materials including a knife kit. The days would be long and tiring, and as any curriculum would have, there would be examinations.

To this point along with my 6 week Basics class and self-prepared meals at home have been studying leisurely reading and acquiring knowledge through books, while even taking notes. The culinary programs would have written tests as well as a required practicum, something I have never been faced with. This was the punchline you weren’t ready for. The gem missing from the catalog, brochures and web site descriptions.

For the practicum, students would be required to have obtained and assimilated all of the knowledge learned in class and through study at home. Then each student would arrive and find a table with cards equaling the number of total students in the class placed face down on the table. At random, they would pick out a card and find their assignment for a food preparation they would have to create with one big surprise (to me anyway); the card would have have the item to make written on it with the ingredients and the measurements, but a key thing would be missing, the recipe! Students would have to write out the recipe and then present it to the instructor. They would be graded and any major errors which would prevent the student from producing the item given would have to be corrected before they even entered into the kitchen. Students are also graded on their choice and use of equipment, mise en place and their final products and presentation. My heart started to pound. For the mid-term (final for the certificate program which is just the first half of the professional program) this is what was required? To make matters worse, as part of the final practicum for the professional program the process for examination is the same except that measurements for the ingredients are left out. You have to know your stuff and you have to know it cold. This is real culinary knowledge. After the initial shock to my system, I became excited again. 37 weeks of education would give me this knowledge.

Many thoughts began to form in my head. I had questions about which program was right for me and how much depth I actually needed to satisfy not only my curiosity, but my new found passion in the culinary world. What level do I need to get to? What are my real goals? Do I want to change careers or just enhance my culinary knowledge as a hobby?

At the end of our session, we were invited to sample some student cakes and to tour the kitchens. I had the brief opportunity to speak with Chef Dowling, a dynamic and warm personality, about her story. Her deep connections to cooking were immediately apparent. Her great grandmother a chef, her mother being a great cook came to mind quickly when asked how she developed a love for food. She was fortunate enough to experience transatlantic travel at a young age where she was exposed to a variety of foods enjoying many sights, tastes, and textures. She studied in Europe and from what I gather and observe seems to have modeled the school’s  program as a way to emulate her experiences with learning the culnary arts to her students.

While touring the kitchens were introduced to some students and got to see their amazing final projects. All were friendly, inviting, and proud of their projects. They had learned so much during their time at the school and felt well equipped to face the challenges of the professional culinary world. I was inspired.

We were also given the change to view student created portfolios, a program requirement. Each student is required to bring a camera to class to capture their progress and detail and show to the world what they are capable of producing and what they have learned. Each page turn of what could be described in some cases as mouth watering food porn further inspired and excited me. All of this is in reach.

As I do some soul searching, visiting other schools and learning about their  programs is probably a good idea even if they only re-enforce what I am not looking for.  I am favorably impressed with the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and feel fortunate to have the possibility of taking part in their unique and flexible program.

Over a decade ago I was making my first educational inquisitions. It’s funny how similar this process is starting to feel and how I am getting closer to a new chapter in my life.

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The Cooking Cousins in Asian Rolls Class

Andrea and Eric: Cooking Cousins
Andrea and Eric: Cooking Cousins

One of the great things about cooking is that it can be done with other people and often is. I’m in Chicago with family and friends to attend the USA vs. Honduras soccer match at Soldier’s Field. My cousin Andrea, from The Hungry Housewife also shares a passion for food and cooking. Last night we by chance had an amazing meal at Vong’s Thai Kitchen in Chicago. As timing would have it, they were hosting a 90 minute cooking demonstration class today on making Asian rolls with the Chef de Cuisine for $50 which included appetizers, food materials, drinks and a take-home bag. We ate breakfast and decided to take it together starting at noon allowing plenty of time to finish before the game.

We arrived, paid for the class and walked to the back of the restaurant where the two tables were set for the class. They setup with all of the ingredients we would need including rice paper, crepes, proteins and vegetables and accompanying sauces. It was quite impressive and we got more excited as the room started to fill up.

Asian Rolls Class: Table Setup
Asian Rolls Class: Table Setup

Chef Luis showed us how to work with our ingredients, by whetting the rice paper or using the “right side” of the crepe for the best color.

Asian Rolls Class: Chef Luis
Asian Rolls Class: Chef Luis

We learned proper rolling technique and were encouraged to try out different flavor combinations to create something new. While we worked on perfecting our techniques and became more familiar with the process, we were served a never ending buffet of menu staples as well as soon to be featured items. Having just eaten dinner this put us in the position of creating rolls to save as savory snacks for later.

Asian Rolls Class: Duck in Rice Paper
Asian Rolls Class: Duck in Rice Paper

This cooking class was fun. While it’s serves as a fun an innovative marketing opportunity for the restaurant it also succeeded at teaching Asian roll basics and while providing familiarity with working with new ingredients. We are by no means experts in Asian roll making now, but are satisfied with the experience we had together and the lasting memory we will have of it. Andrea even bough some rice paper to take home to use as part of her catering and event business in Honduras.

Asian Rolls Class: Chicken in Crepe
Asian Rolls Class: Chicken in Crepe
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One Fish, Two First, Now Eat This

Tilapia with Sautéed Spinach and Tomatoes
Tilapia with Sautéed Spinach and Tomatoes

I have never cooked fish before. It has always seemed so much more complicated than my usual three options of beef, pork or chicken. While I do enjoy eating it and eat it frequently for lunch in the form of sushi or sashimi, it has never made its way into my apartment and was something my mother would rarely cook at home.

On my way home from work I decided to give fish a try.  I have a fish market in my neighborhood that I heard was good and decided that after four years of living here it was finally worth a try. I originally wanted to cook some salmon steaks but they didn’t have any. Undeterred, I noticed they had some tilapia, a fish that have had before and like. I also stopped in the food shop next-door and picked up some spinach to sauté along with some extra tomatoes I had left over from a caprese salad I had recently made. This seemed like an easy dinner I could get going.

Ingredients in hand, I headed home. I put everything out on my counter and thought about what to do with the fish.

Tilapia and Spinach
Tilapia and Spinach

Dredging the fish in flour and cooking it in butter came to mind and so I heated up my pan, melted the butter and put the fish right in.

Tilapia with Flour and Butter
Tilapia with Flour and Butter

I simultaneously added the spinach into a pot and cooked it down until it was almost ready.

Spinach Cooking Down
Spinach Cooking Down

I added halved cherry tomatoes into the spinach and stirred for a few minutes until they became tender adding salt and pepper.

Spinach and Tomatoes
Spinach and Tomatoes

The fish did not take that long to cook. I had no sense of how long it should cook until done, so I cut into it a bit to make sure.

Tilapia Ready for Plating
Tilapia Ready for Plating

While I plated my fish I noticed that the spinach and tomatoes were burned a little bit. Clearly this wasn’t meant to be restaurant quality food, but it tasted pretty good all the same.

My First Fish Meal
My First Fish Meal

With my first fish meal under my belt I feel more confident about cooking with new ingredients.  My meat CSA starts next month and I’ll be getting some lamb as part of my share, another meat I am unfamiliar with.

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Life keeps getting in the way

It was full steam ahead a few weeks ago. My learning curve was steep and yet I felt like I was making progress. The past few weeks have been tough and I feel that I have lacked focus and dedication. Without the “forced” or better said “scheduled” time in the kitchen with a class, I have found it harder to devote time in my own kitchen to continue my learning, falling into old patterns of eating out re-heating leftovers. I can see a hidden benefit of formal training through a set schedule of progressive classes over time.

To compensate for my lack of time in the kitchen I have been reading more often, finishing Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America which I’ll be summarizing and reviewing shortly. In the weeks to come as I reach my goal date for the first part of my education, I’ll be trying the recipes from my classes while also finishing my culinary reading. I am just as excited as I was when I began this learning process and I am confident that I will continue to be so.

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