Oui, Chef

Our first cooking lesson involves a lot of chopping and a lot of “Oui Chefs.”  Chef Samuel was a head chef at several four-star hotels in France and doesn’t put up with any shit de bull.  When the bell rings after three hours, I realize all we’ve accomplished among 28 students is blanching about 80 tomatoes for tomates confites and finely dicing three cups of lemon zest for a lemon peppercorn sauce.   But fundamentals are the linchpin of French cooking:  If you can’t properly hold a chef’s knife, you won’t get very far.  

Chef Samuel explains that gastronomic cooking is very wasteful.  Fine gastronomic restaurants use an entire lobster to make a pot of stock, and then chuck the lobster. Our second recipe is pesto soup, for which we must perfectly cube a zucchini.  From the whole zucchini, I get about sixteen dices and have to throw most of it away because one side has a slight curve from the zucchini’s natural shape.  But the soup won’t taste quite right if the zucchini isn’t in symmetrical little squares, so it’s a sacrifice in the name of fine, gastronomic food.  We also make a vegetable confit with more commensurately diced vegetables, but glazed in a balsamic reduction and served with a slow-cooked egg.  

Our only meat dish of the week is a pork pâté, which includes pork belly, pork liver (which we must liquefy by hand), and pork shoulder.  We wrap this mixture in a fatty, lacey piece of pork intestine that will melt away in the oven, leaving the pâté in small dumpling-like shapes.  The liquefied liver acts like glue, binding all the meat.  Some of my classmates are a bit squeamish, but after butchering the geese and tasting raw liver, this feels like child’s play.  Chef comes over to judge my tiny pork dices.  They’re about the size of an earring stud, but he wants them even smaller.  Oui, Chef. 

Each week we must spend about an entire day hand-washing dishes, and cleaning and polishing the kitchen.  Because many of the students will go on to run their own kitchens, it’s important they understand how to do a deep clean and organize their sous chefs.

Today I was double-timing the kitchen clean-up with an impromptu workout as I squeegeed the floor dry.  It felt all too familiar, but this time I welcomed cleaning up powdered sugar and flour instead of the goose blood I had pushed down the drains at the foie gras farm.  

Chef’s assistant can see the vigilance with which I’m scrubbing the floor and exclaims, “Don’t worry about losing weight!  I’ll make sure you gain it back before you leave.”  Why, merci beaucoup.  My aggressive floor scrubbing wouldn’t dent the calorie count of this week’s delicious pastry lessons.  

On Friday we each take home a big white pastry box full of chausson pastries stuffed with apricot and frangipane, Funny Buns, a braid and a loaf of brioche, sugar tarts glazed with extra butter, cream, and sugar, and mini baguettes studded with nuts, seeds, and chopped olives. 

On Saturday morning my roommate and I host a brunch party with French toast made from our brioche loaves, raspberry puree instead of maple syrup, and grapefruit mimosas.  The stray kittens near our apartment are the lucky beneficiaries of our leftovers, though we’ll still need wheelbarrows to roll each other down the quarter-mile stretch to the Mediterranean for a little post-brunch sun.