Monthly Archives: April 2013

Graduation Day for the International Culinary Center

International Culinary Center 2013 graduation program

Yesterday afternoon, several hundred recent graduates of the International Culinary Center, including me and my classmates gathered at Carnegie Hall to celebrate finishing up our culinary studies program.  This was also a chance to recognize those chef-instructors who helped guide us in our education and to hear some words of wisdom from one of America’s leading chefs, Thomas Keller.  It was definitely the one of the most lively and jubilant graduation ceremonies I’ve ever attended, which includes three of my own plus numerous ones I’ve been to for my siblings.

Graduates hanging out before the ceremony

From the minute I walked up to Carnegie Hall and ran into several of my classmates getting ready for the day’s events, you could feel that there was a hint of excitement in the air.  We all had to arrive at the backstage entrance, most of us pausing just to hang out for a bit, enjoying the sunny weather while getting our uniform jackets on and taking a last drag on cigarettes before going inside.  Several of our instructors passed by, shaking our hands and offering congratulations.  I saw Chef Jacques Pépin, one of the deans of the school, slip into the entrance unobserved so that he could be ready for the ceremony on time, too.

Waiting to file into the auditorium

After months and months of a hard slog of lessons, exams, practical evaluations, internships, part-time jobs, and personal sacrifice, it was time to enjoy having finished and to share some of that positive energy with our families and fellow former students.  It was also a chance to re-connect with students who had been in other classes with whom we’d become friends and are now professional colleagues.  The pre-ceremony logistics, which included herding us into a holding room before we could file into the auditorium, was like a giant reunion.  There were class photos taken, stories swapped about current work assignments, and lots and lots of hugs, high-fives, back slaps, and big smiles all around, as everyone waited to be seated for the ceremony.

The stage at graduation

Once we had filed into our rows, separated by program of study, we waited for the ceremony to begin.  The collection of culinary talent on that one stage was phenomenal.  The guest speaker was Chef Thomas Keller.  The school deans André Soltner, Jacques Pépin, Alain Sailhac, José Andrés, Cesare Casella, Jacques Torres, Emily Luchetti, Alan Richman, and Scott Carney were all there to celebrate with us and to show their support for our fledgling careers.  To kick off the program, one of them started clapping, rousing the audience to join in the festive air and adding a touch of impishness to the proceedings.

Recognizing our chef-instructors

The day was also about acknowledging our chef-instructors, too, and all of their hard work and commitment to helping us make it through the program.  Through their diligence, encouragement, and discipline, they guided us through the stages of our curriculum, helping us to understand the levels of technique and coaching us towards greater consistency and perfection in our work.  Their experience and advice helped to mold us as student chefs as well as to instill in us the desire to want to achieve more in the kitchen and to strive to attain excellence in our culinary efforts.  Although I learned a tremendous amount from all of my instructors, most of all, I gained a profound sense that this is a profession where you keep on learning each and every day and that all chefs no matter what their range of experience realize that there is always more room for personal growth.

Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop accepting the Outstanding Restaurant Award on behalf of Michael Chernow

Introductory speeches and welcoming remarks were given by the school’s Executive Vice President Christopher Papagni and the Founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton.  Then, we each walked across the stage as our name was called, the best student in each class formally recognized as their name was said.  We filed across by group: Pastry, Culinary, Italian Studies, Sommelier Studies.  Then, the Outstanding Alumni Awards were given out.  It was so fantastic to see Jen King and Liz Gutman of Liddabit Sweets (both pastry program alumnae) receive the Outstanding Entrepreneurship award in recognition for all their hard work (we definitely could also have used some of their caramels to munch on during the ceremony, too).  Another favorite of mine, The Meatball Shop, received the Outstanding Restaurant Management award given to co-founder Michael Chernow, a culinary program alumnus.

Chef Thomas Keller speaking to the graduates

After the alumni awards were given out, the keynote speaker Chef Thomas Keller took the podium.  Here’s some of what he said to us, to inspire us on our paths to our new careers and to impart to us some of his knowledge based upon his amazing experience:

“You’ve all worked hard to get here. I don’t think any of you thinks it will get easier.”

“Be patient and hone your skills. Be patient and enjoy where you are.”

“For me inspiration is the key. For inspiration to strike, we have to be aware of the world around us.”

“Creativity is about awareness. Embrace the inspiration around you.”

“We must teach and mentor the next generation.”

Graduation at Carnegie HallCongratulations to everyone!

Then, after a few more remarks to close the ceremony, it was time for us to leave, to take all that we’d studied and absorbed through the days and evenings behind the stoves in the school’s kitchens and join our families to continue celebrating our achievements.  Congratulations to all my fellow International Culinary Center graduates!  I wish you every success in your careers and look forward to raising a glass to many, many more of our professional achievements!

Buon appetito!

Ramp and Jarlsberg Gougères

Ramps at Union Square Greenmarket

It’s that time of year again – the annual frenzy over Ramps!  I’d heard via Twitter that they’d arrived at the Greenmarkets.  Even one of my culinary school classmates was talking about how he’d just cooked up a pile of them at his job, grilling them a la plancha.  One of my other classmates asked what on earth ramps were.  He was unfamiliar with this rite of spring in the New York area and was mystified as to the hype over these greens that he’d never heard of before coming up here.

Ramp greens

All kidding aside, I really do look forward to the appearance of these wild leeks.  To me, they are like seeing the first crocus buds breaking through the soil, an indication of spring’s impending arrival, followed by all the wonderful berries, tomatoes, vegetables, and greens that will be showing up in the local markets over the course of the next few months.  Last year, I might have gotten a bit carried away with three posts of ramp recipes, but they do add a bright flavor and bring gorgeous, vibrant color to dishes.

Ready to eatBasket of gougères

In search of a new recipe to bring to a cocktail party, I decided to see how ramps would work inside of gougères, the base of which is choux pastry, something that we made several times in culinary school mostly in sweet versions.  The technique for making these Ramp and Jarlsberg Gougères is straightforward, but does take attention to details and keeping an eye on how the dough comes together.  Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can add in any ingredients you like.  They freeze really well and would be perfect to take to those outdoor gatherings that are starting to take place now that the weather is getting warmer.

Ramp and Jarlsberg Gougères

Prep time: 45 minutes

Serving size: about 3 dozen gougères


200 ml Water

1/4 tsp. Salt

100 g Unsalted Butter, cut into cubes

125 g All-purpose Flour

1 tsp. Mustard, dried

1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, ground

3 Eggs, large

1 Egg, large, if needed (it might not be)

100 g Jarlsberg Cheese, shredded

2 Tbsp. Ramp greens, chopped finely (about 5 large leaves)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Butter, water, and salt heated together

In a saucepan, place the butter, water, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat.  Just at the point when the butter has melted completely, pour in the flour and stir it into the liquid. Turn the heat to low as you mix in the flour using a wooden spoon.

It is very important not to let too much of the water-butter mixture evaporate before adding the flour, as that will throw off the proportions that drive this recipe.  This is also why the butter must be cut into cubes, so that it melts quickly and evenly with very little loss of water vapor as it dissolves.

Dough comes together in the pan

Continue stirring the flour mixture until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.  This is the dessécher (or “drying out”) phase of making choux pastry.  Remove the pan from the heat completely.  Add in the dried mustard and ground nutmeg and stir to incorporate.  Let mixture sit to the side for one minute, off of the heat, while cracking open the eggs.

Stirring in the eggs

Add the eggs one at a time and stir vigorously to incorporate them into the flour mixture.  At first, it will seem like the eggs will never combine with the dough, but keep on stirring until it is all blended together.

Dough with eggs mixed together

Continue adding the other eggs.  The dough will be slick and sticky.  One way to test to see if it is done is to scoop up a bunch of it on the wooden spoon, if it curves over in a hook, it is ready.  If not, it might need another egg, but don’t add in the fourth egg all at once.  Beat together the yolk and the white and add about half the beaten egg to the dough, mix together, and then check it again to see if it is done.  In the several times I’ve made these, sometimes all it needed was just one half of an egg to bring it all together.  (Add the extra half a beaten egg to your next omelet.)

Add in cheese and greens

Stir in the Jarlsberg cheese followed by the ramp greens.

Put on baking sheet

Take spoonfuls of dough and place them on the baking sheets.  Place them in the oven and let them bake for 25-30 minutes until they are puffy and golden brown.

Finished gougères

Remove the baked gougères from the oven.  Leave them on the baking sheet for a minute and then place them on a rack to cool.  These are fine served at room temperature or heated up again by placing them in a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for 5-10 minutes.  If making them in advance to keep in the freezer, cool them completely and place in a resealable bag.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – I Passed My Final Exam!

Packed up for one last night at school

It’s been such a sad, disheartening few days in the media.  When I arrived on Monday evening at the International Culinary Center for my last class in Level 6, I found out about the bombings in Boston as I was in the locker room changing for class.  My heart dropped.  My mind went immediately to the friends who live there, hoping that they were all safe (at this point, I think that none of them were even there at the race).  So, I did want to send out some positive news to counterbalance all the bad stuff that has been happening.

DiplomaYes, it is real!  Grande Diplôme in Classic Culinary Arts with Distinction (Honors Class)

On Wednesday evening, I passed my final exams for culinary school!  My fellow classmates did as well, too, which was fabulous, as we’d all been working so hard these past nine months, including taking extra shifts in the kitchen to gain more proficiency with the recipes on which we’d be tested.  Of course, we went out and celebrated, although we’ll also be celebrating again in a couple of weekends at our official graduation ceremony at Carnegie Hall, along with several other classes of graduates from 2012-2013 in the Culinary, Pastry, and Wine programs.  I have so much more to write and to share about my experiences in this program, but for now, I just wanted to post about some good news.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Finishing up

How many do I have to wash to get through my exams?

It’s looming large now, my final exam in culinary school at the International Culinary Center.  It’s so close, that I can count down towards it in terms of loads of laundry that I need to do in order to have at least one clean uniform available for exam day.  I’ve strategized just how much more industrial-strength stain remover I need to have on hand to wash everything and how much money to put on my laundry card to carry me through to the big day.

All this material is in my head someplace

Since taking the Culinary Techniques course there last summer and then making the decision to take the placement exam to pursue the professional Classic Culinary Arts program, it has been a wild ride.  Some of it has been great – like the thrill at passing my mid-term examination with high marks – and some of it has been frustrating – constantly being told I’m too slow by my chefs.  In some ways, it has been more challenging than all of my previous educational endeavors combined.  That includes getting my Master’s Degree from the top school in my field and having to take oral examinations in order to get my M.A. (twenty minutes being quizzed by two examiners to determine passing or failing at the end of two years of study, oh, and a separate language proficiency exam on top of that to boot).

Will I make it through to earn this?

On Wednesday night last week, before we hit the kitchen at L’Ecole for class session, our group assembled with our chef instructors for our official class photo.  It will hang someplace on a wall along with the photos of countless other classes of shiny, new ambitious culinary school graduates from our program.  In touring the school, you can still see pictures of the first graduating class, which included Bobby Flay.  How cool is that?  Who will be the next Bobby Flay, Christina Tosi, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, or Lee Anne Wong among us?  There’s some pretty serious talent among my classmates so I’ll be curious to see how our careers evolve.

This one was kind of a big boo-boo

I have in mind to write a few other posts about what it is like to be in culinary school, really.  It’s complicated, and I have such mixed emotions being almost at the end of it all.  There’s so much to say good, bad, ugly (some of that in the dishes that I plated), happy, sad, really a bit of everything.  Along the way, there have been cuts, burns, mystery scrapes, stained uniforms (how am I going to get that out of my jacket?), and lots and lots of food.  Three evenings a week for five hours each class night plus lots of volunteering and taking on extra kitchen shifts for practice and to refine my skills (and to work on that little timing/speed problem that still haunts me) have meant lots of missed drinks dates, uncelebrated birthdays, canceled plans, and late nights / early mornings.  Would I change it?  Would I do it again?   I’ll let you know when I pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Level 6 Working at L’Ecole

Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice CreamPatissier – Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream, Bourbon Jelly, and Cocoa Meringue

There’s just a little bit over a week left in Level 6 at the International Culinary Center.  Actually, I have just two more classes, and then the last day is when we take our final exam.  In Level 5, we started working in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant run by the school, preparing meals paid for and eaten by the general public.  I’ve fumbled quite a bit in both of these levels, but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount, and not just about restaurant cooking.

Patissier – Pumpkin Soufflé with Eggnog Sauce

Before the beginning of this level (as with Level 5) we were given pages of recipes that we’d be making during the class.  We were also given photos of what each of the completed dishes should look like before they are delivered to the tables.  As I mentioned in my previous post, each plate is given a once-over by our supervising chef before it leaves the kitchen.  The expediting chef (who relays orders from the waitstaff to the cooks) also double-checks them and wipes them clean of any stray sauce stains before they head out to the dining room.  To say there’s a little bit of pressure, even for us a students, to get it exactly perfect would be understating it just a little.

Poissonier – Scallops stuffed with Crayfish-Shrimp Mousseline on a bed of Sautéed Leeks and Sunchoke Purée

There’s the additional component for us in Level 6, as we rotate through the different stations as part of our lessons, that these recipes are the ones that we’ll be called upon to reproduce in our final exam at the end of the level.  Next week, we’ll be drawing slips of paper to see which two of the eight dishes that we’ve been making these past few weeks will be the ones that we have to prepare as we’ve been taught to do and to present before a panel of judges, who are chefs and will be our new peers in the culinary industry.  So the learning process at this stage is even more intense.  It is about honing technique and really absorbing all the information from our previous classes as well as the tips the instructors have been trying to instill in us as a culinary second nature.

Poissonier – Grilled Swordfish with Stir-fried Vegetables, Coconut Risotto Cake, and Ginger Beurre Blanc

This course level, I started off in Garde Manager (appetizers) and worked my way around through Poissonier (fish), Saucier (meat), and am finishing up in Patissier (pastry), which was were I started out in Level 5.  At each stage I feel like I’m really getting better with some aspects of this work, but I’m definitely still messing up on others.  Getting my speed up in this environment is still difficult for me.  I feel like (and I’m sure my instructors would concur) that I still second-guess my abilities and over-think the process.  I’ve been told that with time and with more experience working in kitchens this gets better.

Garde Manger – Fettuccine with Arugula Pesto, Shrimp, and Preserved Lemon

I’m still in awe of how much goes into working in a restaurant kitchen: the drive, the stamina, the reflexes, the massive expenditure of energy.  I keep being reminded of how everyone who has been in the industry for a while talks about how this work is “really a young person’s job.”  Seeing my much-younger classmates (truly, as most were born after I’d finished college) seemingly breeze through prep tasks and service without so much as breaking a sweat or becoming flustered, ever, I can’t help but agree with that assessment.  I watch our chef-instructors who just seem to handle pulling these dishes together as though it was just like breathing.  Sometimes, I feel more like a guppy gasping for air, as I work alongside them and some of my more talented classmates.

Garde Manger – Porcini Consommé with Butternut Squash, Seared Squab Breast, and Sage

At the same time, this experience, as part of the structure of a larger culinary education program, does help to tie together a lot of the various aspects of what we’ve been doing these past few months.  The dishes that we’ve been making build upon lessons that we had as far back as the beginning of the program.  The overall concepts and techniques and standards are reinforced every night we are in the kitchen.  My hope, now, is that I can remember all of what I’ve learned and reproduce these dishes to the standard to pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!

Warm Farro and Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Fried Shallots and Balsamic Dressing

Warm Farro & Roasted Root Vegetable SaladWarm Farro and Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Fried Shallots and Balsamic Dressing

Farro is one of those things I fell in love with when I lived in Italy.  It was many years before I ever found it available in the United States, which I was happy to discover, as it is a tasty and flexible grain, useful in creating all sorts of interesting dishes.  I developed this recipe using farro supplied by Tuscan Fields to have a chance to win a scholarship to this year’s Eat, Write, Retreat conference in Philadelphia in May.  Having been to the two past years’ conferences, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this creation will be good enough to land me a place at the table with my fellow food bloggers.

Farro by Tuscan Fields

Starting with Tuscan Fields Farro ai Funghi (farro with mushrooms), I mulled over what I could come up with that would showcase the beauty of this grain and highlight the flavors of the season.  At the moment, we’re at that awkward in-between stage in the markets.  All of us are craving green things: peas, asparagus, ramps.  We’re also anticipating the start of strawberry-picking season and the arrival of new vegetables – all the things that signal that springtime is here and that summer will soon be on its way.

Farro ai funghi (farro with mushrooms)

In the farmers market last week, however, I still found lots of root vegetables and not much else.  I decide to roast the vegetables as a time-saver to make this an easy, weeknight supper, and also as I think it brings out so much depth and intensity of flavor, especially with these being end-of-season produce.  The herbs and the vinaigrette perk up the dish with their brightness and acidity.  Fried shallots are one of those quick garnishes that adds a delightful crunch to any plate.  This dish would be a great vegetarian or vegan meal but could also be served alongside some roasted chicken or grilled lamb.  I hope that you enjoy this recipe, and that it helps me to go to Eat, Write, Retreat this year.

Recipe ingredients

Warm Farro and Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Fried Shallots and Balsamic Dressing

Prep time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

Serving size: 6 portions as a side dish; 4 portions as a main course


6 large Radishes, cut into cubes

2-3 small Turnips, cut into cubes

3 new Carrots, cut into chunks

2 Parsnips, cut into chunks

2 cloves Garlic, skin left on

2-3 sprigs Thyme

1 tsp. Olive Oil

1/2 tsp. Salt

1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground

One package Tuscan Fields Farro ai Funghi

3 Shallots, cut into rounds

1 tsp. Canola oil

1/4 c. Balsamic Vinegar

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 tsp. Salt

1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground

1 tsp. fresh Thyme, chopped

1 Tbsp. fresh Parsley, chopped


Vegetables ready to roast

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  In a baking pan, place the chopped vegetables, garlic cloves, and thyme.  Toss together with the olive oil, salt and pepper.  Place in the oven to roast for about 25 minutes.

Adding farro to the pan

Place a saucepan on the stovetop to boil water and cook the entire package of farro according to the instructions listed on the back.  It should take about twenty minutes to cook the farro to a nicely chewy but still toothsome texture.

Frying shallots

While the farro is cooking and the vegetables are roasting, fry the shallots and prepare the vinaigrette.  Place a sauté pan on the stove and add the canola oil.  Add the sliced shallots and let them cook until golden brown, stirring them to keep them from burning.  Remove from the heat, drain, and place on paper towels until ready to serve.

Reducing balsamic vinegar

To prepare the vinaigrette, pour the balsamic vinegar in a shallow pan or saucepan.  Cook over medium heat until the vinegar is reduced by about 1/3 to 1/2.  Place the vinegar in a bowl along with the chopped thyme, salt, and pepper.  Whisk in enough extra virgin olive oil until it is a thick sauce-like consistency, about 2-3 times the amount of vinegar.

Roasted root vegetables

Check the vegetables to see if they have finished cooking by inserting a paring knife into the largest ones to see that they have been cooked through.  Remove the thyme sprigs and pour the vegetables into a bowl along with any olive oil that might still be in the pan. Set aside the garlic cloves.

Cooked farro

Taste the farro.  It should be cooked through with very little resistance.  Add it to the bowl with the root vegetables.

Roasted root vegetables with farro and parsley

Take the skins off of the garlic cloves and put them through a press or smoosh them into a sieve until they are very fine.  Toss farro, garlic, and vegetables together with the chopped parsley.

Warm Farro and Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Fried Shallots and Balsamic Dressing

Put a mound of the vegetable mixture in the center of a plate.  Top with the fried shallots and drizzle some of the vinaigrette on the plate.  Eat while still warm.

Buon appetito!

Kitchen Witch Tip:

Seasonings and herbs should be added to a vinaigrette with the vinegar to get the most out of their flavor.  Then, add the olive oil.