In an effort to improve my food-magazine career prospects, I have recently enrolled in the culinary arts program at a local community college. (Go Pioneers!) I’m focusing in baking and pastry, if that wasn’t already obvious. Every Monday and Wednesday night through the summer, I’ll be learning Basic Food Preparation from Chef Jackson.
The first three classes were about food safety, sanitation, and showing us how to use the commercial kitchen equipment, then came knife skills, and then stock-making last Wednesday. We loaded 50 pounds of roasted veal bones into a giant steam kettle (you know those enormous cauldrons movie witches are always making potions in? Imagine one of those, only stainless steel and attached to an electric heat source), and set somewhere in the region of 20 gallons of water to simmer. Since the stuff takes 8 hours to cook, the professor shut off the heat and strained it the next morning.
Monday, class number six, marked the first time we actually cooked something start to finish. The class was on mise en place, which essentially means making everything you need to make before you can actually start cooking. We learned how to clarify butter (tedious), blanch tomatoes (easy, and useful), and set up a breading station. We made the tomatoes into a simple salsa and breaded and deep-fried some zucchini (it’s not called Basic Light Food Preparation).
This class is not going to cover anything I don’t know how to make (hamburgers, rice pilaf, and mashed potatoes is about as advanced as it gets), but it is teaching a completely different style of cooking. Where I’d use a quarter cup at home, we’re using pounds. Where I just chop vegetables willy-nilly, we have to create uniform, perfect 1/4-inch cubes for small dice. But what’s most foreign to me is how clean everything has to be kept.
I’m a messy cook. Always have been. Stuff spatters out of my pots and pans onto the stove (thank goodness for my tempered-glass cooktop). Discarded scraps cover the counter (and often the floor). After making bread, I have a shirt covered with flour. In class, none of this is allowed. Only one item on the cutting board at a time. Tools and uniform must be scrupulously clean. Can I make it? I don’t know, but I like it so far.