Lessons from Culinary School

Back at school!

I did it. I survived night #1 in the Culinary Arts program at George Brown College in Toronto.  I’m excited and yet terrified at the same time.  There seem to be some very experienced cooks in this class and I feel a bit like a fish out of water.  First class was all about the supply kit; what was needed/not needed, the uniform (woot!), shoes (ugh), and the small wares kit.  Ah the small wares – this includes knives, spoons, tongs, vegetable peeler, ladles, spatulas, metal spoons (solid and slotted) pot scrubber (hmmm, didn’t know I was allowed to bring Scott with me! he he, kidding!), rubber gloves (for dishes… again, um…. not the glamorous part of the school experience!) and of course…. BANDAIDS!  Seriously.  Bandaids.

I walked over from my office to the College to see how long it would take…. 25 minutes, in biting cold wind last night.  Decided that it was the last time I would do that!  Next week I’ll either drive down and suffer with the expensive parking, or take the subway from my office over… but then it’s still about a ten minute walk from the subway. Not too bad, I suppose.  BUT, I’ll have MY KIT with me next week.  Okay, decision made – I’m driving.

So, as I got closer to the College I started to get a strange sense of excitement and insane nerves at the same time.  What if I can’t cut it? …and I’m not talking about using a knife.  What if I just can’t keep up? What if I fail miserably?  Yikes so many nerves, and yet at the same time so crazy excited.  I passed by the ‘fish bowl’ and stopped to take a picture.  The fish bowl is the lab kitchen where I will spend the next twelve weeks.  Full length windows allow anyone walking past outside to see in and watch!  More nerves! But oh man, was I excited – gleaming pots above every stove, stainless bowls over the work stations, pristine and beautiful.

The fish bowl.
The fish bowl.

I couldn’t capture the entire kitchen on my small iPhone but the long line of gas stoves and the pots above was enough to make me smile and almost cry… I know, but I’m serious!  I was so excited.

Intimidation began the moment I walked in the front door.  The place was buzzing with students all eager to get going!  I found my classroom and dutifully waited outside with the other “chef-wannabe’s” most of whom were already dressed in their uniforms and had their kit boxes with them.  Wait a second – didn’t the notice say not to pick up anything until after the first class?  Was I on the right floor?  Right room?  Yikes.  Panic attack.  I struck up a short conversation with chef-nobody beside me and he told me this was his fourth class, and no we were not in the same class (I don’t think he was talking about the physical classroom here! I think he was judging me! Pfft!) Chef-nobody got up and moved.  Chef-me  was glad!  Jerk!

Our instructor opened her lab door and called everyone inside.  Okay NOW I was with people who were speaking the same language as me – foodie!  She checked my name on her list, handed me the course outline, the supply list,  and my voucher for my uniform.  I sat down  and began to realize that I may be – just may be in over my head!  The smell of roast chicken permeated the room and it gave me some comfort.  I really wanted a bowl of chicken soup – to calm my nerves!  There was no roast chicken!  Only roasting chicken bones!

“Good evening everyone…. ” and off we went on a journey into the world of stock making.  Chef had been roasting chicken bones for flavour, also roasting beef and veal bones for flavour.  She began the stock making experience right away since it takes quite some time to simmer.  Once all that was on the go, she back tracked and did the intro to the class including proper handling of knives, etc.

Three different stocks.  Beef.  Chicken.  Fish.  Three different tastings.  Bland.  Boring.  But I did see the value in making them and learned that I had been doing it wrong for EVER!  Time for a re-learning of Heather.  Thankfully I’m still a little pliable and so I can be bent to learn new ways.  Homework this week – make stock.

What did I learn?  A little French!  I learned that mirepoix means a combination of vegetables used to flavour stock. Oh, you know I’m going to be using that as much as I can.  “I need to buy some vegetables for my mirepoix” I’ll sound so knowledgeable and important! he he.  I’ll fool everyone! 🙂

Next, I learned there are four types of stock, that I already knew… but it was a good refresher:  Brown, White, Fish, and Vegetable. Stock is defined as the liquid (flavourful) derived from bones using added flavouring of vegetables, herbs, spices and water. So the stock is made by the transference of flavours and nutrients of the bones and other ingredients.  Stock should be clear.  Very clear, and neutral in flavour.  No seasonings (i.e. no salt!)  To backtrack a bit – brown and white stock?  Huh?

Brown stock is made from 50% beef/veal bones and 50% water – that’s the usual combination apparently. White stock is made from chicken or turkey bones in the same 50/50 combination. I also learned that you should never let the stock boil, only simmer.  I used to boil the heck out of the bones!  So wrong!  Don’t forget to skim the scum (foam) off the top of the liquid to keep the stock clear.

Fish stock is made from the bones of any lean white fish, preferably from salt water, especially the heads, tails and any larger scraps.  Fish stock works up very quickly and can be ready in about 20-30 minutes. Oh, this was the fun part… I learned all about ‘sweating’ the bones and mirepoix for fish stock.  More on that another time!

Cooling stock quickly after it is ready helps keep it from spoiling.  So again, I learned not to just put it in the fridge! (yikes, I’m such a bad cook!) but rather set the pot in a sink with cold water around it (just a few inches) and ice cubes.  This will cool the stock quickly and safely.  Stirring is important during the cooling period as well, because if the outside is cool and the inside is still very warm there is an increased chance of the stock souring.  So, stir.  Got it.  Man, so much work JUST to make stock!

Why you ask?  Well, I’ll tell you….  these precious stocks (which can be frozen, once cooled) make up the basis for a whole group of sauces like Veloute!  Also, if you are ever in an Iron Chef competition, or  lucky enough (?) to take part on the Food Network’s “Chopped” you can say “I’ll quickly make up… blah blah blah sauce using basic chicken stock and turn that into….”  Yep, Bring on the black box competition, I’m getting ready!

Next week and every week following that we’ll be in the fish bowl. I’ve already staked out my  spot, AWAY from the window!

Well, that’s it for class #1.  I’m off now to buy ugly black safety shoes for class… and maybe I’ll stop at the local meat merchant to pick up some beef and veal soup bones to make stock.  I need to do my homework!

Happy noshing!