I recently returned from a trip to Athens and Berlin with my family. It was an amazing vacation filled trips to museums, historical sites and of course a true pleasure for the palate. I was pleasantly surprised with the food in Germany in particular. Being so busy with work I didn’t do much research before the trip and was unaware of the variety of hearty and delicious food that I would enjoy on the trip. My food experiences are not the reason for this post believe it or not. Nope, the real inspiration for this post is something quite different and even more surprising.
It was 10 AM and we had just walked out of the hotel in Berlin to start the day’s activities. As we were walking, my phone started ringing. The call ended up being from my neighbor who was calling me urgently to tell me that there was a massive water leak in the building and they were looking for a way into my apartment to see if they could find the source there or on the roof. Long story short, they were able to get into my apartment, found that the source of the leak was a ruptured water heater and turned off the water in my unit. The leak had tripped the fire alarm and after an initial investigation, the fire department and electric company decided to turn of the power to the building until the walls and wiring dried out for safety reasons. This all made sense. Life would carry on.
As the week progressed and I had to deal with various insurance reps and members of my building a terrible realization went through my head. Yes the power was off and yes I was going to lose food in my refrigerator and freezer. The food loss is where my mind started to focus and then I realized I was going to lose 6 boxes of butter! “Oh no, not the butter!” I thought. Then I realized that I had also lost a batch of egg nog that I had been aging for a year and a half. How terrible. This seemed to be the worst outcome of all. I found this very odd and amusing. I don’t know if this is a sign of things to come, but I can say 2 years ago my thoughts would not have been on food. What a strange journey it has been.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.