Tag Archives: Kitchen Assisting

New York Culinary Experience 2013 at the International Culinary Center

Creme Brulee at NYCECrème 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.

Day 1

Deans-Sailhac-Soultner-making-Saumon-en-CrouteInternational 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.

Chef Alain DeCoster taking sauces with participantsChef-instructor Alain DeCoster talks about making a sauce with the chicken drippings

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.

Chef Michael Lomonaco demonstrating Ragu BologneseChef Michael Lomonaco demonstrating making Ragù alla Bolognese

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.

Meatballs in Sauce at NYCEMeatballs cooking in Homemade tomato sauce

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.

Day 2

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).

April Bloomfield - Green Pean & Ham SoupGreen Pea and Ham Soup with Mint and Crème Fraîche

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.

April Bloomfield - Carrot, Avocado & Orange SaladCarrot, Avocado, and Orange Salad

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.

Chef Michael Anthony talking chickenChef Michael Anthony talks about chicken

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.

A quiet kitchenA quiet kitchen

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.

Buon appetito!

Mamma Agata Cooking School at the International Culinary Center

Along the Amalfi Coast

It’s a bit unfair, I know, to start off a post with a photo depicting a place as lovely and serene as the Amalfi Coast in Italy just as another winter storm is set to hit our area.  It really is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to in my travels.  This isn’t just because of the gorgeous, colorful scenery.  The food of this area is also incredibly delicious.  While the dishes might seem to be simple to make, the key is the amazing quality of the ingredients and the artistry with which they are put together.  This was all brought back to me during the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I was able to assist Chiara and Gennaro Lima of Mamma Agata’s Cooking School “The Hidden Treasure” during their culinary demonstrations at the International Culinary Center.

Adding in the green olives to the sauce

As a culinary student, I sometimes volunteer to help out when there are guest chefs cooking at the school.  Depending upon the program, we prepare the food in one of the kitchens that isn’t being used for a class or in the one to the side of the auditorium.  When I arrived to start my shift, another student was also there prepping for the evening’s demonstration.  I introduced myself to Chiara and Gennaro in Italian and asked how I could help out.  Chiara was so excited that I spoke their language (Her English is fluent, but it is easier for Gennaro to communicate culinary instructions in Italian.), that she set me to work right away working with her husband to get everything ready for the evening’s event.

Sauce for the Farmers’ Spaghetti

From the minute I first stepped into the kitchen, it was evident how much passion this couple has for the food of Italy and of the flavors of Amalfi Coast.  The aromas coming from the pots simmering away on the stovetop were rich and intoxicating.  The tart-tangy fragrance of the tomato sauce layered with the briny-meaty smell of the olives and capers combined with the earthy perfume of oregano enveloped the kitchen and the surrounding hallways in a warm, sunny Mediterranean hug.  More than a few staff members and chef instructors passed by our door, peeking in to see what was going on, drawn in by the enticing odors.

Plate of Farmers’ Spaghetti (Spaghetti del Contadino)

During the demonstration, Chiara and Gennaro talked about their cooking school, named after her mother, who was a well-known chef cooking for many celebrities and film personalities who vacationed along the Amalfi Coast.  They also gave out to the audience plates of this deep, intensely-flavored sauce wrapped around ribbons of artisan-made spaghetti from Italy, topped with a little fresh arugula for a peppery snap, and dressed with some of the olive oil that is made from the harvest of their own groves.

Gennaro making Eggplant ParmesanGennaro making the Eggplant Parmesan

Another of the dishes that the attendees of the demonstrations sampled was the Eggplant Parmesan that we put together in advance of the presentation.  The eggplants they prefer to use are the thin, Japanese-style ones, but really the key is to make this recipe when the vegetable is in season, otherwise they are more bitter and take extra care to prepare them.  As Chiara cautioned me, “Mai usare queste fuori stagione,” (“Don’t use them out of season.”).  This conversation was held as we were standing over a sink, squeezing out the brown-tinged bitter liquid from the thinly-sliced eggplants, which had been heavily salted to exude their water, so I could definitely see her point.

Making Eggplant Parmesan

The eggplants were then tossed in a light coating of double zero flour and then fried in grapeseed oil.  As both Chiara and Gennaro explained, it is less heavy than olive oil and makes a lighter coating on the eggplant than other oils.  My task was as “fry girl,” and I worked in tandem with Gennaro preparing the vegetables for the dish.  While frying up the eggplant at the stove, he and I also talked about Italian cooking in general and about the approach that the Italians use in working with ingredients, especially about how much more intuitive and instinct-led their recipes seem to be compared to the more closely structured French culinary methodology.

Eggplant Parmesan ready to serve

Once the eggplant was fried, Gennaro layered it with the tomato sauce that they’d made earlier that day.  He then added fresh basil leaves, mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese, and, what was a surprise to me, a smoked scamorza, which gives the dish an extra depth of flavor.  The whole pan went into the oven, dressed with a few cherry tomatoes, to bake until the top layer was melted and bubbly.

Portion of Eggplant Parmesan

We served up portions of this creamy, hearty creation for the demonstration attendees to sample while they watched Chiara and Gennaro explain how they put it together and how each component works in harmony to create the tastes of this classic dish.  Frying the eggplant allows it to retain its shape and to keep it from getting soggy while soaking up the tomato sauce.  The cheese gives the dish its richness and makes it a substantial offering for the table, where in Italy it is served as a second (meat) course.

Cooking the meatballs in tomato sauce

Plates of pork meatballs, cooked in a tangy tomato sauce were also served during the demonstration.  Gennaro explained to me that their usual recipe calls for using only ground pork as the fat to make the meatballs tender and delicate.  I could see what he meant after sampling a few unsauced meatballs that he had me try to check the seasoning.  They just melted in my mouth the fatty richness coating my tongue.  For those who don’t eat pork, they also have a recipe that uses beef and veal, however, to those they add some milk so that the meatballs stay moist in order to replicate some of the texture and mouthfeel that the pork fat gives them.

Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

For this dish, I was also on the frying station.  The meatballs were dusted with a little bit of double zero flour before being flash fried (again using grapeseed oil) to give the outside a bit of crust and color.  Then, the meatballs were nestled into a baking dish and covered in the tomato sauce to cook, soaking in its sweet-tangy flavor.  They came out of the oven, juicy and mouth-wateringly delicious.  I could have eaten several platefuls of them.


To end the day’s presentation, Chiara and Gennaro whipped up a batch of their special lemon-scented, sweet coccoli (fritters).  The fritters were consumed faster than I could get a photo of them, coming out of the frying oil and then being rolled in sugar.  They served them along with a small glass of limoncello (lemon liqueur) that is also a specialty of the region where their cooking school is located.  After inhaling its sweet, citrusy bouquet, I realized that I’m long overdue for a trip to Italy and soaking in its sunshine and amazing cuisine.  On my next visit, I hope to stop by the Amalfi Coast to see Chiara and Gennaro to experience some more of their hospitality and maybe even pick up a few more Italian cooking tips.

View of the Bay of Naples

Buon appetito!

For a schedule of the upcoming events at the International Culinary Center, please see their website.  They also have a series of one-off courses as well, like this one.

Some of the recipes that were showcased in the demonstrations can be found in the Mamma Agata cookbook.

Meatopia 2012

Meatopia signage

This year, for the first time, I took part in Meatopia, the annual celebration of all things meat.  Unlike other events, where I either pay my own way or am fortunate enough to get a press pass so that I can write about it for this website, this time I was a volunteer.  As a Culinary Arts student at the International Culinary Center, I had a chance to help out several days before the event, assisting a couple of different chefs who participated in Saturday’s carnivore-oriented festival.

Volunteer t-shirt

When the call for volunteers was posted on the internal school website, I knew I was going to want to help out with this event.  I signed up to pitch in to assist for just a couple of the days prior to the festival, plus helping out on site on the actual day.  Among the chefs who were in town last week for this event were Jonathon Sawyer and his team from The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio.  Working alongside of them in the prep kitchen at the school, I caught sight of the heaping piles of butter that they were going to use for their dish.

Prep for The Greenhouse Tavern team

In advance of heading to Randall’s Island to cook up their dish, Jonathon Sawyer and his team also cleaned brains and sweetbreads, then packed them up to be transported on Saturday morning.  I’m not sure where all that butter disappeared to, but the photo above shows the results.  Crispy sweetbreads served alongside scrambled brains and eggs.  When I saw them at the event, there were many eager offal-lovers were on line waiting to try it.

“Brains and Bread” by Jonathon Sawyer

Another chef whom I briefly met last week was Siggi Hall from Iceland.  Having had Icelandic lamb at another event last year, I knew that this was a dish not to be missed.  Delicately-perfumed, slightly smoke-scented, grilled lamb was rich and almost buttery.  The coleslaw served alongside of it gave the lamb a creamy, tangy, crunch foil to contrast it.

Icelandic Free Range, Grass Fed, Boneless Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Creamy Coleslaw by Siggi Hall

There were two dishes with which I helped out in the days leading up to the event.  One was on the first day of my kitchen shift, where I picked through huge, massive piles of thyme and parsley, separating the herbs from their stems, that went into the fragrant and spicy chimichurri sauce that accompanied Chef Santiago Garat‘s whole Uruguayan-style lamb.  Other students worked beside me to tackle the mounds of basil and mint or to peel the boiled potatoes and slice the onions that went into making the vinegary salad that went really well with the smokey, rich meat.

Uruguayan-style Lamb with Chimichurri Sauce by Santiago Garat

On the second day of my kitchen volunteer shift, I worked with Chef Franklin Becker.  He served up tender, velvety Danish Meatballs with a Creamy Dill Sauce.  I was part of the meatball rolling crew.  In total, I think we made about a couple of thousand meatballs.  There was no way that I was going to miss out on getting to try one of these on Saturday.  They tasted every bit as good as the sample ones we tested out in the prep kitchen.

Danish Meatballs with a Creamy Dill Sauce by Franklin Becker

One of the interesting things about being in the kitchen was watching the process by which the chefs put their dishes together.  As we’ve been urged to do on many occasions by our instructors, the chefs tasted everything at each stage of the process, adding a bit of something here, tweaking an ingredient there.  Watching the journey of the carts filled with raw ingredients being transformed into composed bites for the festival was also an awesome spectacle.  Boxes and boxes of herbs, pounds of raw meat, cases of onions, garlic, jugs of oil and vinegar, and many other assorted food items had been delivered to the school several days in advance of the prep work that chefs carried out with the assistance of many of the culinary school’s students.

Meatopia panorama

I had been told by a few folks that about 4,000 people were expected for this event.  With the rain that morning and the threat of storms that afternoon, I’m not sure if all of those folks showed up.  The chefs with whom I worked said that they were preparing a few thousand plates apiece.  I wish I had had a chance to eat more of what was available on Saturday, but it was almost just as interesting working behind the scenes as it was to cover the event the way that I usually do.  It gave me a chance to interact with some of the people who work so hard to make these events happen and who stick through the day despite rain, scorching heat, and blustery winds to keep the crowds of folks well-fed.  I also heard some great feedback about the dishes with which I helped out from other attendees which made me feel really happy that in a small way my efforts in the kitchen were able to contribute to their enjoying the day.

View of the storm from the ferry landing, where I was working

For more of my photos from Meatopia 2012, please see this slideshow:

Buon appetito!