Friday, September 21, 2012

Mise En Place

French for "everything in its place".  Or as a colleague of mine says... "todo en su lugar".

"Mise en place" is the pre-preparation activity that goes on before the actual baking, cooking, or assembling.  You know, before you make cookies, you get out the flour, the sugar, the butter, the eggs, the chips, etc?  That way, you're not running around the kitchen, grabbing things willy-nilly from the fridge or pantry as you're trying to bake.

This concept of having everything in its place before beginning any kitchen project has been oft-reinforced at school.  And's starting to seep into my behaviors in my home kitchen.  As it should be, right?

But...that's not all.  I'm also enrolled in a Safety and Sanitation course...and much of that info is now rolling around in my mind as I prepare food.  Gads!

This morning, I was preparing a Pizza Casserole Take and Bake dish for a New Mom friend of mine.  Two months ago, I would have slapped the thing together, with not much thought to any of the above notions.  But, today...well, let me break it down for you.

Pizza Casserole

Mise en place then: Boil water for the noodles. Begin browning hamburger.  Remember the onions.  Begin haphazardly chopping onions to throw in with the cooking meat.  Get out cans of pizza sauce and open.  Get noodles out of pantry.  As totally cooked ground beef sits in skillet on stove (cooling), get out mushrooms, open, drain.  Get cheese from fridge.  Get out pan and spray with Pam.  Mix all items together in large bowl and spread in pan.

Mise en place now: Measure out dry noodles, and set water boiling for the noodles.  Get out and open cans of pizza sauce.  Open and drain mushrooms.  Open and unpackage Canadian bacon slices.  Get out mozzarella cheese from freezer. Small dice onions and put in skillet at same time as ground beef.  Get pan out and spray with Pam.  Empty sauce, mushrooms, spices into large metal bowl.  Drain beef and empty into bowl.  Drain noodles and empty into bowl.  Mix and spread in pan.

Honestly, as you read through my mise en place, you might not see much of a difference.  You'll probably notice that I got everything out and prepared everything (dicing, opening, etc.) before I even began cooking and assembling the dish.  I notice, however, that the process was much less helter-skelter than ever.  Much smoother, quicker, more efficient. And I dig it.

Also, earlier in the week, during a lecture on knife care, my instructor mentioned something about running a sink of hot, soapy water for doing dishes as she made a meal.  She described washing as she went, and having little to no dishes to clean up when she was done.  This also, she claimed, was part of her mise en place...simple, efficient ways to cut out unnecessary minutes in food preparation.  So...I did it too.  Washed dishes as I went.  Pretty liberating stuff, I can tell you!

And then, one point, I'd just stirred the boiling noodles with a wooden spoon, and I placed the utensil in the spoon rest on the stovetop.  But, then, a thought occurred to me, I may have just cross-contaminated that spoon!  The spoon rest is caked with all kinds of who-knows-what cooking residue...probably a veritable breeding ground for pathogens.  So, I discarded my old spoon and got a new one.  Two months ago, I would not have thought twice about that.

Knowledge is power.  GI Joe taught me that, and culinary school makes me implement it!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mastering Mushrooms

If nothing else, our instructors are precise about the size of our cuts...for example,

a large dice must be 3/4" x 3/4" x 3/4"
a medium dice must be 1/2" x 1/2" x 1/2"
a small dice must be 1/4" x 1/4" x 1/4"
a brunoise must be 1/8" x 1/8" x 1/8"
a fine brunoise must be 1/16" x 1/16" x 1/16"

and one teacher in particular is able to eyeball whether our large dices are too small and our fine brunoise is too big.

For me, someone who is spatially impaired, this detail to measurement is difficult to visualize.  So, I created a handy-dandy little measuring card to fit in my chef coat pocket...AND I laminated it.  Ha!

Eventually, I will get the mental picture of what a 3/4" cube looks like.  My larger problem? Fluting/turning a mushroom.  Our instructor demonstrated it, quickly, in class one day, and it was beautiful.  The rest of us tried it, and ended up hacking up our poor fungi to death.

With a vengeance I purchased a box of whole button mushrooms.  Mission: to better my turning technique.

This photo comprises my first few tries:

A few minutes, youtube video viewings, and mushrooms later:

And finally, a corner has been turned (har har - pun intended).  Not perfect by any means, but my technique is definitely getting better.  The tell tale spiral is definitely more discernible.

My New French Vocabulary

So.  Three weeks of culinary arts school done.  My French vocabulary is way expanding.  In addition to the names of the many, many French chefs who contributed to modern food services...there are many, many French terms in regards to knife skills. I've practiced these particular skills...and many, many more...(pictures courtesy of Google Images...mostly Wikipedia)

Chiffonade: French for 'to turn into rag-like strips'

A batonnet cut (on left): French for 'little stick'.  That's a small dice on the right.

Tourneed potatoes and mushrooms: French for 'to turn'

The beginning of a tomato concasse: French for 'to crush or grind'

Es tres bien! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Service Don'ts

For one of my classes, we're reading Lessons in Service, which is a guide (of sorts) to excellent restaurant service.  The book revolves around Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago.

I'm two chapters in, and the primary lessons so far are treat people like they're royalty, treat others how you want to be treated, and in the restaurant world, sweat the small stuff.

I'm surprised at how easily the students spit these words out to the instructor, but I wonder if they even know what they're saying.  Honestly, how can I treat my customers like royalty if I really don't know what royalty is treated like?  Also, it's hard to visualize how to treat others based on how I want to be treated...everyone has different thresholds for that.  Personally, I don't want someone being rude to me, but I don't think that necessarily translates into good service.  There's something about servers anticipating my needs and wants, and getting me to have a good time.

This is a question I will continue to ponder, but in the meantime, let me begin to elaborate on what good service isn't.  It's really very interesting...I've been in culinary school a whole two weeks, and already I'm starting to pick up on so many things in the industry I've never noticed before.

On Friday, we ate lunch at a P.F. Chang's.  The hostess was a nice-looking young lady, but she didn't smile when we came in.  She seemed indifferent, bothered maybe, to the fact that we were there.  She then darted off without telling us where she was going, and did not come back for three or four minutes (to put together a table for our party of five, I presume).  We were brought menus, drink orders were taken, as was an appetizer.  Then we were informed that our server would be with us shortly (so...this person wasn't our server??).

We waited five, maybe ten, minutes before we were helped again.  Our appetizer had arrived and we were halfway through it before anyone came back...and it actually was the gal who'd taken our drink and appetizer order (you know, our non-server server).  She took our order, and that was then the last we'd seen of her.  We were waited on for the rest of the meal by a man...I guess the guy who was supposed to be our original server?

The food was good.  The ambiance was nice.  The service?  Meh.  I'm not really in a rush to eat there again.  It would have been great to be more warmly welcomed into the restaurant, and it would have great to have been served in a timely and more efficient manner.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Plain Truth

After two weeks of culinary arts school, here's what I know:

The chipping around I do in my kitchen and write about here is nothing like being in a professional workplace.

My emotions have run the gamut these last several days.  I've been exhilarated, discouraged, distressed, exhausted...and I've second-guessed myself a lot.  I've been asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of self-reflecting.

And it's all been wonderful.  I'm being challenged and I'm meeting some amazingly inspiring people.

Tonight, though, might be the turning moment.  About eight of my classmates (and myself) stayed to help with a function the older Culinary students were putting on.  We started around four-thirty, and I and another student were given Crab-and-Tarragon scone duty.  Then, around six, we went out front to the "party" and manned the hors d'oeuvres station.  There, two other students and myself smiled and answered questions about the food.

It was a blast.  Collaborating with classmates, helping out, working with food, feeding and pleasing people, networking...

It is exactly that sublime feeling I've been looking for!

For the days ahead when I'm tired, worn out, burnt out...tonight will be my beacon, my dream, my impetus for continuing.  I think I'm finally starting to feel in my bones that I could do great things!