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What I learned in the Culinary Techniques Course at the International Culinary Center

About a month ago, I mentioned that I had started the Culinary Techniques course at the International Culinary Center.  This past Friday, our band of about 20 hearty souls finished up this intensive program to develop our cooking talents.  With apologies to my classmate who said that “someone needs to write an article about what it is really like to be in culinary school,” I’m not sure that I’m putting together a post that is quite what he had in mind.  I can only relay here some of my impressions as well as a few of the many things that stood out for me in taking this course.

Lobster a l’Americaine

Sometimes you just need to add that extra bit of lemon (or some kind of acid) and a pinch of salt to make a dish really come together and sing.

Almost everyone who has taken a hands-on cooking course will have a negative epiphany about how much salt they’ve just used to prepare the dishes for the class.  We all did as well, even though most of us knew it was coming.  Still, many of the more successful plates that I put before the chefs for evaluation had an extra squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt added to them at the last minute just before presentation, as well as a bunch of salt added along the way, like this Lobster a l’Americaine that I made on the last day.  Upon tasting it, the chef’s eyes opened wide, and he said, “That’s really quite good.”  Whew!  He’d been one of the more challenging instructors to please with my efforts, I thought, so I was happy to go out with flying colors on the sauce front.

Filet of Sole Bonne Femme

As a corollary to the above: Season, Rectify, and Correct.  

These instructions were given to us as to how to build layers of flavor into our dishes by one of the guest chefs who taught us on a few days.  He also taught us that if we don’t know what to do with a sauce, we should add some Butter.  If we don’t know what to do with it then, we should add some more Butter.  Needless to say, we went through a lot of butter in this course, including for the dish in the photo above, which he dubbed “Toe-curlingly delicious.” (He actually wanted me to use that phrase in a post on this site.)  It really was that amazing, maybe due in part to all that Butter, and a pinch or two of salt added at the end.

Rendered Duck Fat

It’s amazing how passionate people are about types of fat (and what you post on Facebook).

I let my cooking partners take home most of the daily leftovers from our culinary exploits except the Duck Fat that was rendered by compiling all the trimmings from our efforts at making Duck a l’Orange.  This container is now sitting in my freezer waiting for the weather to get cool enough for the duck confit or duck rillettes project my friends and I have been discussing for a while.  It also generated quite a lot of response when I posted this same photo on my Facebook page; the majority of folks said I should use it for roasting potatoes.

We used at least all of these potatoes in one class

I also realized that being the oldest child in a traditionally-structured, Irish-Catholic family has its comparative advantages.

As the eldest daughter in a large family, I was co-opted into the kitchen at a young age to do things like, oh, peeling potatoes, speaking of those.  So when I walked into class on Potato Day and my cooking partner, elbow-deep in brown peels with a bowl of naked spuds sitting in front of her, said to me, “Chef told us to get started, as we need to peel at least 13 potatoes, including 2-3 for him to use,” all I could think was, “that sounds like Christmas dinner at our house,” and I delved into the fray.  We were done in no time.  I could look around and see folks who were struggling with their peelers, hacking away at this poor innocent vegetable.  In one case, I actually felt pain on the part of the potato, it was being butchered so mercilessly.

Burn from oven

Even the most accomplished, most talented of cooks/chefs can have a bad day.

We all have them from time to time, those days where nothing seems to go right.  Rolled omelettes fail to flip out of the pan correctly (seriously, I really can make those at home), things stick to the bottom of the pots, and dough just doesn’t cooperate.  At times I felt like I wasn’t really keeping up with the rest of the group, but then, as the course progressed, I realized that each team had days where they were in the lead and where they lagged and that we all had times where our dishes flopped or just didn’t turn out as we’d anticipated that they would.  Lots of people cut themselves with the knives, as I did on the first day, and several of us managed to burn ourselves on the blazing ovens, as I did, too.

Crème Caramel

It is really, really cool when you get something you’ve never made before to work on the first time.

The oven injury actually came on the same day as that of one of my personal triumphs, making Crème Caramel.  I’ve never even attempted making it before, nor any other kind of molded custard or panna cotta.  It was kind of awesome to have it turn out pretty close to perfect on the first try, from the dark, almost toffee-like liquid caramel to the silky smooth, vanilla-studded custard.  One of my classmates told me it was one of the best he’s had.  Maybe I really can do this cooking thing, I thought to myself.

Thanks so much to all of the chef instructors, my fellow classmates, and the staff of the International Culinary Center for a wonderful and educational experience.  For a photographic tour of many of the dishes we made during the Culinary Techniques course, please see the photostream below.  Note that these photos are copyright and may not be used without my express written permission.

Buon appetito!

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