Crème Brûlée at the New York Culinary Experience
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of assisting with several of the classes that were given as part of the New York Culinary Experience held at the International Culinary Center, as sponsored by the school and New York Magazine. Even though I’d finished up in culinary school a few weeks ago, I’d promised one of the event coordinators that I’d be available to help out with the weekend, as I knew from volunteering at the NYC Wine & Food Festival back in October that it would take many extra hands to have it all go smoothly. That, and one of my instructors had also asked if I could assist with one of the classes for which he was the sous chef.
International Culinary Center Deans André Soltner & Alain Sailhac
The participating chefs, each renowned in the culinary field, walked the attendees through a series of recipes that they were to prepare during the course of the two-plus hour class. In each kitchen, there was a chef-instructor from the school plus several “kitchen elves” (i.e., student assistants) helping out, making sure that the equipment and the ingredients were there for the guests to have available to complete the dishes. As part of the program, the participants each received a bag with an apron and a chef’s knife to use during the classes. The recipes they would be working on were handed out in the class itself.
Being one of these assistants meant that I didn’t really get to take many photos of the activities taking place on Saturday and Sunday. I was usually poking into the neighboring kitchens on the floor, looking for extra sauté pans, half-sheet trays, and cooling racks or running upstairs to the storeroom to get supplies like extra side towels to have on hand. I was around, however, for some unique moments, such as on Saturday morning, when Chef Jacques Torres bounded into the classroom where his fellow International Culinary Center deans André Soltner and Alain Sailhac were trying to get ready to show students how to make a Saumon en Croûte (fillet of salmon cooked in puff pastry) and a Roasted Chicken with Spring Vegetables.
Then, in the afternoon, Dean of Italian Studies, Cesare Casella popped on over from the classroom next door to offer Chef Michael Lomonaco a refreshing beverage that he’d whipped up in his class. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of those glasses on hand to offer to the class, which might have been just as well, as they still had to tackle making Ragù alla Bolognese (bolognese-style meat sauce) and meatballs in tomato sauce from a recipe of the chef’s grandmother. First on the stove was the ragù, which needed to simmer away for a couple of hours, then the class tackled the proper way to make meatballs.
The binder for the meatballs, the chef explained, was plain, regular, sliced white bread moistened with a bit of milk. Then, add the meat and combine it all by hand. Breadcrumbs make the meatballs too tough, so he doesn’t use them to hold the mixture together. The power of good home-cooked Italian food, like the kind that Chef Lomonaco was teaching everyone to make was unleashed in the corridors of the school on Saturday afternoon, Several of the black-garbed events staff dropped by, ostensibly to see if we needed any assistance or for them to fetch any needed supplies for us, drawn in the direction of the class by the enticing aromas wafting down the hallway.
Sunday morning started off again bright and early, with the volunteers’ roll call taking place at 8:00 a.m. again in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant of the International Culinary Center. Coffees in hand, we received our assignments and headed upstairs to prepare the kitchens for the day’s lessons. Our job was to set up each of the stations with cutting boards for two people along with all the pots, pans, utensils, and ingredients that each student would need to use during the course of the class. We also did the small things like make sure the burners worked and that the ovens would heat up (where needed).
My morning assignment on Sunday was with Chef April Bloomfield. I was really intrigued to hear her talk about how she approaches cooking and putting together her dishes. It was very interesting to listen to her walk through with the students how she composes each plate, building layers of flavors into every component and then putting them all together to create something that makes your mouth say “WOW!” when you eat it.
Some of these dishes aren’t ones that she serves in her restaurant, she said, but they all show some of her culinary influences and attention to tastes and combining flavors. I saw that some of the students were a little bit skeptical when they started making the Carrot, Avocado, and Orange Salad on the recipe list. Chef Bloomfield explained that orange and carrot really work well together as do citrus and avocado. Then, some toasted spices and fresh cilantro tie all of it together. Once I can get my hands on some of those colorful carrots that they used in the lesson, this dish is first on my list to try to make.
On Sunday afternoon, Chef Michael Anthony, of Gramercy Tavern, walked his class through the de-mystification of the perfect roast chicken. He said that there’s “a bit of a Barbie complex” surrounding The Perfect Roast Chicken, getting the skin all crispy and golden while the breast meat stays plump and moist and the legs and thighs are tender and juicy. By starting the cooking process with a trussed bird placed in a hot sauté pan, coated with a little bit of oil, on the stovetop and then finishing cooking it in the oven, chicken perfection can also be achieved in the home kitchen. After following his step-by-step instructions, all the participants were able to achieve just that.
At the end of the lesson, as with all the previous ones, the other kitchen assistant and I collected all of the items that we’d put out on the stations. We worked with the chefs from the restaurant to round up everything that they were going to take back with them, gave the items that the dishwasher could clean, and started to hand-wash the other, smaller cooking items which we were responsible for returning to the team of organizers. Then, after wiping down and sanitizing all the stations and making sure the burners and ovens were turned off, we were free to head to the locker rooms to change out of our uniforms and into civilian gear. It was a hectic, energetic two days filled with lots of food, amazing chefs, tons of information and cooking tidbits, and some very, very lovely people who took part in this event. I hope that the attendees enjoyed taking part in the weekend’s activities as much as I did in working them.