Boot Camp Day 5: Enlightenment


           The day started with Chef Phil Crispo inquiring about our dinner the previous night at the Escoffier. I could see relief in his eyes as he was met with positive reviews. I wanted to point out that I still have not had a dessert that “rocked my world” at any of the CIA’s public restaurants. But in fairness to the school, the desserts that were handed out during lunch at the CE dining room, a production of the pastry classes that day, were pretty phenomenal.

           Maybe we had a bad shift that week of pastry students assigned to the restaurants. Or maybe culinary education just teaches you the foundation skills you need to succeed in the food business. You develop your own style, individuality and creativity when you start working in actual restaurants – when you are exposed to the reality of it all.

There are three types of cooks: a craftsman, an artist and one who is both. A craftsman is one who has the knife skills and efficiency in working kitchen implements but his dishes do not take your breath away. An artist has the palate and intuition to make a meal unforgettable, but the price to that bliss is chaos in the kitchen. Finally, the few who are gifted enough to be both are the ones who become the Thomas Kellers, Patrick O’ Connells or Mario Batalis of this world.

Anyway,I digress.

The topic of the day was Classical French cuisine which a lot of people associate with the work of Augustus Escoffier. It is said though that what we know now as French Cuisine had its roots in Italian cooking when an Italian girl, Catherine de Medici came to France in 1553, to marry the Duke of Orleans who later became King Henri II. Appalled by the condition of the eating habits of the French, she brought an army of Italian cooks to produce a delicate cuisine that is reflective of Renaissance Italy.

Augustus Escoffier was the leading French figure in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was known as “the king of chefs and the chefs of kings.” He proposed that less food be served and that dishes be made lighter. With the advent of refrigeration, thick sauces need not be made anymore to disguise the flavor of rotting meat (yuck!) and the sauces like what another culinary figure, Careme, introduced — espagnole, bechamel, velloute and allemande — were further refined into what they are known to be today. If you see the names of dishes repeated over different French menus, chances are they are Classic French.

Since our strategy yesterday worked, our team decided to do the same today – each member taking responsibility for a certain dish. The “Hungry” hubby took charge of Salade de Roquefort, Noix, et Endives (Endive Salad with Roquefort and Walnuts) and the Sauce Tomate (tomato sauce). Wyatt took care of the Cote de Porc a la Milanaise (Pork Cutlet Milanese –style) and Garnish a la Milanaise (Milanese Garnish). I was left with the Beignets de Pommes (Apple Fritters). Fritters again! This time they were to be deep-fried.

We stepped up our game a little. Before the first mis en place was set, we outlined our plated dish on a piece of paper. That way we wouldn’t be scrambling at the last minute for required service ware. It greatly helped to have a clear vision of the end goal –- how our menu was going to play out.

As I prepped for the fritters, I encountered a slight problem. The kitchen was out of butter. We had two new Kitchen Assistants (KA) that day: Alan and Lis. Alan was compiling a list of needed items before he went to the stock room. I told him I needed apricot sauce and an apple corer. The apricot sauce was not on the menu, but one thing I have learned from these past days of boot camp was to think outside the menu. I envisioned my apple fritters to be served with apricot sauce, vanilla ice cream and some cinnamon-covered toasted walnuts.

But events were working against me. The butter did not arrive till an hour and a half later into production. None of the pastry kitchens would lend the KA an apple corer so I was forced to cut the apples into crescents which ended my aspirations of presenting my dish with the ice cream sitting in the middle of a cored apple piece. These beignets were more trouble than I thought! I hated paring apples (thank goodness I had a peeler), taking their core out and slicing them into pieces. I missed that nifty tool I had at home that did the coring and cutting in one stroke. The apple slices need to macerate in Kirsch for an hour. Then you dip them into a beer batter before dropping them in a deep fryer. And that’s not the end of it. You have to dredge them in confectioner’s sugar and put them in a 450°F oven or broiler so they can form a glaze.

Talk about high-heat cooking. I liked this experience though because I got to work with a commercial deep fryer, complete with all those big frying baskets. I did miss the demo of Chef Crispo on filleting a Red Snapper but I made sure HH was there to witness it.

Of course the experience wouldn’t be complete without some participant making things harder for you – like cluttering your station. I really hate that because I’ve been priding myself lately on keeping my area orderly. First I found a hot baking sheet on my cutting board – I asked the offender nicely if I could put it in the dirty dish sink. Then HH found the same person’s bowl of grated cheese teetering precariously on a small bin that was on our station.

I told HH to “…let it fall to the floor.” Hah. That would teach them. Obviously the hubby was nicer than I was so he informed the group that he nearly “dropped” their cheese.

The last straw that had me seeing red was when someone from the opposite kitchen moved our pot of tomato sauce from the front burner to the backburner without asking permission.

I took a deep breath. Mastering the heat in the kitchen also meant working with certain characters without losing your cool. Everything was under control, as I glanced over at Wyatt basically getting ready to pan fry his pork cutlets and Chef Crispo showing HH how to present his salad. If there was anyone who could do the salad right, it would be HH. Not that he was my darling “Hungry” Hubby but because he was the salad master, even at our house. I heard Chef telling HH that his creation tasted “Perfect!” No wasted dressing (when you lift the salad no dressing remains at the bottom) and the seasoning was just right. Chef also told the hubby to throw in some finishing salt so you get that punch of flavor when you initially bite into the salad.

And the wife, the future benefactor of this new salad, was pleased.

When we assembled at the CE dining room for the last lunch of Boot Camp, there was joy as well as sadness in my heart. Joy that I was able to make it through boot camp with no major disasters and sadness that it was over. Bianca brought some Champagne to celebrate; she proposed a toast to Chef and to everyone at the table. Jason, a veteran of past boot camps, said that we were the most normal group he had ever had. Apparently there were some participants who were on golf vacations and thought that culinary boot camps were a great way to pass time.

The Chef was seated directly across from HH and me. I noticed he had a lot of HH’s salad on his plate. Man! He must really like it. For my part, I enjoyed the depth of flavor of the Chicken Consommé Royale and the refreshing Vichyssoise which was a cold potato and leek soup served in shot glass and garnished with manchego cheese straw. It was pretty fancy and one to definitely try at home.


            During the final critiquing segment, the Chef congratulated us for being a group that showed a lot of enthusiasm as well as talent in the culinary arena. He said that what he had seen in the final day was very impressive; a lot of dishes were well-executed and could very well be served in a restaurant. After that speech he handed us our certificates and wished us good luck, hoping to see us in future boot camp offerings.

            There was some poignancy in the air as the hubby and I departed campus. We were feeling the same. We did not want to leave.


            2 months later…

            The boot camp has indeed challenged me to improve my craft in the kitchen. I continue to improve in my knife skills, taking care to sharpen my knives briefly before each use – it really does make a difference! Pan-frying and sautéing come easier to me now too; it doesn’t matter if I have to cook chicken breasts, scallops or duck breasts – fear of oil splatters are now a thing of the past! I have not mastered the “tossing of the pan” yet, I need to find me some M&Ms to practice with. Best of all, I use kitchen towels 90% of the time now in handling hot items in the kitchen. It really isn’t that much harder than an oven mitt and it is more professional as that is what you see in restaurant kitchens.

            I leave you now with a simple recipe of the refreshing salad HH made at boot camp. We have made this over and over in the past few weeks. The lemon zest in the candied walnuts blends so well with the lemon juice in the dressing. The unique flavor of hazelnut oil also makes it a great alternative to olive oil.

Salade de Roquefort, Noix et Endives

Endive Salad with Roquefort and Walnuts

·         1 fl. oz lemon juice

·         1 fl. oz Hazelnut oil

·         1 ½ tsp Tarragon, chopped

·         Salt to taste

·         Ground black pepper to taste

·         2 lb.  curly endive or frissee lettuce

·         2 ½ wt. oz Walnuts, toasted, chopped roughly

·         4 wt. oz Roquefort Cheese, crumbled ( we have also used Gorgonzola)


1.      Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, and tarragon in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Let dressing stand for 30 minutes.

2.      Chop the frisee and wash. Pat dry and transfer them to a large salad bowl. Add the walnuts and cheese.

3.      Add the dressing and toss until the endive is thoroughly coated. Serve immediately.

Preparing the candied walnuts

Toss the nuts in some watered-down egg whites then coat with lemon zest and sugar. Toast until brown.

Boot Camp Day 4:Recovery and the Making of a Chef


            Chef Phil Crispo was already at the lecture room when we arrived. He appeared to be working intently on the computer, but I was sure he was eavesdropping on the animated discussion in the room about our awful service at the Bounty the night before. I was right.

“So I gather that there were problems with service last night?” He asked tentatively. The whole room burst into renewed chatter.

“We waited for an hour for food!”

“ I was served the wrong dish!”

“ No one came to our table to explain to us what was taking so long.”

Poor Chef looked taken aback by all these complaints he was receiving. Shaking his head, he got busy scribbling all of our comments down.

“These students graduate in three weeks!” He said, quite perplexed at what he was gathering from our experience. “These mistakes are unacceptable!”

“Is it because we have pre-paid dinners; is that why they treated us like second-rate customers?” Ryan, the guy who nearly walked out last night, interjected.

“Boot Camp participants are very important to the school,” Chef Crispo assured him. “Most of you have a genuine passion for food even more than the average student. You give up precious vacation time to attend these classes, not to mention spending your hard-earned cash to be here. We want you to have the best experience possible, work with the best ingredients possible. There are 15 of you. If each of you tell 20 other people of your bad experience that will add up to 300 bad opinions of the restaurant and the school.”

“To tell you frankly, not all of our students deserve to be in this program. A lot of them are just in it for the esteem of being in the Culinary Institute. Not all of them have the talent or the passion. They do not understand that it takes a lot of hard work to be successful in a restaurant kitchen…and there is lot of pressure. That is when students start dropping out of the culinary program.” Chef Crispo added, “I cannot not tell you how embarrassed I am about the experience you had at American Bounty but I can assure you that this will be addressed.”

He went on to say that there was a lesson in this too. “Mistakes happen in the kitchen but how well you recover will define what kind of cook or establishment you are going to be.” To describe what he meant by recovery, he gave an example of a returned dish that was undercooked. To simply put the same one back on the grill is not an option. You must start a new one and be more mindful that it is cooked to the right temperature.  The front of the house, meaning the host, must also be quick to acknowledge this mistake and apologize for the delay.

Our topic for this day was Southwest France, the land of foie gras and duck confit! Our menu, though, was a big let down. We did not have any of the duck courses assigned to us. We had Garbure – a cabbage stew. Some other team was making cassoulet, which was what I had always wanted to make since reading Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. But, alas, that will just have to wait till I get home.

One thing I noticed about my team was that we seemed to be working more cohesively. We changed tactics for the fourth day. Instead of helping each other out with every single dish, which tends to create confusion, one was assigned responsibility for a certain course. I let the guys pick what they wanted to do because I was pretty comfortable with making any of dishes. Wyatt wanted to make the Garbure, “Hungry” hubby wanted to make the Filet de Rouget a la Bordelaise (filet of Red Snapper with Bordeux wine), while I was left with the Beignets de Mais (Corn Fritters).

Ouf! Mine was easy. I could prepare the batter ahead of time and just fry them at the last minute. I tested one fritter and judged the seasoning.  When I was satisfied, I kept the batter in the refrigerator. The one thing I noted with the corn fritters is that you must be able to tell when they are cooked through without drying them out (much like a pancake). A tablespoon of batter yields an ideal size for pan-frying. It cooks evenly this way. I used an index finger to press down on its center to test for doneness; if it feels firm then it is done.

Meanwhile, Chef Crispo brought in a bottle of expensive balsamic vinegar for tasting. I’m guessing that small bottle cost over $100.00. The syrup was jammy – it was the perfect combination of sweet and sour. You could just drink it !

After that I proceeded to help Wyatt and HH whenever they needed me : chopping vegetables, making the croutes (croutons) for the garbure – I forgot to mention that oven mitts were unheard of here so I had to learn how to use a kitchen towel fast to take pans out of a hot oven as I did when I made the croutes. You have no idea how hard my heart was beating as I reached into the hot oven with just a folded kitchen towel; I thought I was surely going to embarrass myself by dropping the hot pan of croutes, but somehow I managed to get through this. 


My favorite demo of the day was the fabrication or preparation of a duck leg. First, you loosen the meat from the thigh bone by using your knife to scrape it off, then you cut off excess fat from around the skin flaps, chop the knee knuckles off, and cut a slit at the edge of the skin flap and slip the bone in. The leg looks like a breast after this. You may also tie it up with a piece of kitchen twine.

            Like the third day, I did not feel too tired or pressured in the kitchen at all. I think it was because the team was more organized and we knew exactly what we needed in terms of utensils and gadgets the moment we stepped into the kitchen this morning. Looking back, the first day was confusing because we were in a new environment. Once we had gotten used to where things were, I began to enjoy the atmosphere in the kitchen more and more.

The meal was again phenomenal. The cassoulet was pretty good, and the duck confit used in it was properly salted – though I still l prefer the version I made at home. HH’s seafood dish was cooked to perfection; the topping he used on the fillets complemented the mahi-mahi and trout he used. Amazingly enough, I did like the broth of Wyatt’ garbure; I may not discount cabbage totally in my cooking adventures, after all. Like the tapenade of the previous day which I missed tasting, everyone was raving about the flavor of the Perigord stuffed eggs. Now I guess I’ll just have to make them.

The chef was very generous with his compliments. He said that the taste of my corn fritters and the way they were cooked was spot on. He also said that HH’s provencal topping for one of his fillets was delicious. In fact I remembered the Chef stopping by HH’s station to admire his prep work for the fish. “Beautiful!” is what the Chef said. But his biggest enthusiasm was reserved for the deviled Perigord eggs. He said they were neatly scooped in and were “The tastiest deviled eggs I have ever had!” Now I really want to try them.


That afternoon, Chef was going to do a discussion of the Mother Sauces. Although he said that contemporary sauce making does not follow the same method anymore, it is still included as a cornerstone of the CIA’s curriculum. He started with the making of a roux – a combination of equal parts butter and flour and heated to a desired color. The color of the roux and its application depends upon how long you cook the roux. A white roux is used for the classic Bechamel sauce, a brown roux, which is darker because it is cooked longer, is used for Espagnole sauce. HH and I were so perplexed at how efficiently Chef Crispo taught the class. As I have said before, there was no wasted movement – every action had a purpose.  Chef was stirring that nearly full pot of hot sauce without looking at it and talking at the same time. Ah-mazing! He also made a funny –looking aromatic for the sauce that he said resembled his mother-in-law . For a lecture that I thought was going to take the entire afternoon, Chef was done in half an hour. This man definitely deserved the title of Master Chef!


An Evening at the Escoffier

            This was our last evening at the Culinary Institute’s public restaurants. So far, the only place for dinner I had truly enjoyed was Caterina de Medici. I think our group’s reputation preceded us for the host of the Escoffier was very solicitous of Ryan. In fact, the entire wait staff seemed to be very attentive to our every need. I remembered having a very good mushroom appetizer and the wine – the wine kept on flowing. Obviously they were making up for the debacle at American Bounty. My dinner of rack of lamb was cooked to my preference and it was very tender – it was the best of all my entrées at the Culinary Institute Restaurants.

The deflating thing was this dinner was very anti-climatic. The food that we prepared at lunch was every bit as good as this dinner fare, I thought, though not as elegantly presented, nor as nicely garnished. All I could think of as I sampled another disappointing dessert was the prep we had to do for the last day of Boot Camp: Classical French Cuisine.

What I learned today:

1.      How to work better in a team.

2.      How to fabricate duck legs.

3.      How to tie a roast.

4.      How to use a towel instead of an oven mitt.

What I want to make from this region:

1.      Cassoulet

2.      Perigord stuffed eggs (deviled eggs)

3.      Basque Chicken


Boot Camp Day 3: Hubby needs a psychiatrist


Pancakes. I had been dreaming of a lovely stack of them all the way from the hotel this morning. My dream though was fast becoming a nightmare as I stared at the CIA student struggling to make these ubiquitous breakfast items. When we arrived at the breakfast kitchen 20 minutes ago, there was no line at all. But then, the chef-in-charge stepped out. And that’s when all hell broke loose. The order-taker seemed more content chatting than making sure orders were being filled. The pancake griddle seemed to have lost its heat (or maybe it was user error).  The line to the breakfast kitchen had grown to 12 people – all looking like their patience was about to run out – but I could just be projecting my own feelings here. I watched as other people behind me got their orders and when mine finally arrived, I was presented with anemic soggy-looking pancakes.

            No amount of syrup could salvage this mess. “The chef really needs to get in there,” I told HH. As if on cue I heard a loud voice in the kitchen berating what seemed like every single station. I shook my head in partial disbelief “Are these kids really here to learn anything? This is the third day I had a sub-standard breakfast!” Little did I know that my words carried some truth to them as we would find out in the coming days.

            When we got to the lecture room Chef Crispo informed us that our lobsters had arrived.

“If you need anything else, just tell me and I’ll get it for you.” Then addressing the entire class he said “If you guys want to taste $200 balsamic vinegar, I can get that arranged too.” My eyes lit up “I wonder if he can get us black truffles?” HH told me not to push it.

            Then Chef launched into our topic of the day:Southeast France.

            This was the region closest to Italy so there were a lot of Italian influences in its cuisine. The region of Burgundy, known for its wine, was also home to the famous Coq Au Vin and Beef Bourgignon. The Powerpoint presentation showed a picture of a plate of escargots with one snail, complete with antennae, moving away from the plate on a scooter. Everyone started giggling. The Chef, in mock indignation, said “This is what happens when you get California (CIA Napa Valley) involved in making the curriculum.”

Do I detect an undercurrent of competition between the two campuses?

He went on to talk about Provence which was famous for Bouillabaisse, a fish stew that originated in Marseilles. Talk of this locale could never be complete without mentioning the famous “Herbs de Provence”, an herb combination of thyme, rosemary, savory marjoram, hyssop, lavender and basil; this mixture was frequently used on grilled items. “A la Provencale” meant olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs.

Our menu for the day was long: the Country-style forcemeat from the previous day, Homard a la Armoricaine redux (Breton-style lobster), Escargots en Beurre a l’Ail (snails in garlic butter), Coq au Vin (chicken in red wine), tartiflettes (potatoes with bacon and Reblochon cheese).

Before I headed down to the kitchen, I made a stop by the Apple Pie Bakery. I thought it was a good idea to get a soda to keep the caffeine and sugar running as I went about the business of this day. When I did arrive in the kitchen, there seemed to be more drama again unfolding about station assignments. Seriously! This better not be a regular occurrence since we have three more days to go, I thought. Someone from the other team was almost throwing a tantrum. 

I started cutting up the chicken for the Coq Au Vin. Then I heard more annoying   comments in the background about “people” stealing stations. I turned around and said in a very calm voice addressing the KAs who were trying to figure out a solution: “You tell me where to go and I’ll go”. HH approached me and said quietly through gritted teeth “Please stop me before I strangle someone.” “Need a rope?” I replied wryly.

Bianca, trying to be a peacemaker told me “Veronica, I would love for you and HH to  work beside me. I love chatting with you all.”

In the end, the KAs put their foot down and let us maintain our current stations.

Great! I really needed to get this Coq au Vin going. The longer it simmered the better. Wyatt started preparing the veggies and the other components for the chicken stew while I browned the chicken in a large pot. There was no lid for the pot so I just used an aluminum foil to cover it after I poured the wine in.

The lobsters came, alive and kicking with all their appendages.  Their beady little eyes were popping out in a curious manner. I named one of them Wilma. Big mistake, right — because she was about to be sent to the guillotine. I should have just named her Marie Antoinette instead. Chef Crispo asked for a French knife which was longer than the 8-inch chef’s knife. He spread Wilma’s claws out on the cutting board and stroked her head which was supposed to make a lobster drowsy. Then he positioned the blade between Wilma’s eyes and in one swift stroke, split the shell open. Briny fluid gushed forward and filled the grooved edge of the board. I thought I was ready for this but I just said “Oh” then I turned around, I was feeling sad and numb for some reason. After a few minutes, HH came by and asked if I wanted to do the third one. I said “Let Wyatt try it, at least one of us (meaning HH) already knows how. You can show me later at home.”

With all the stovetops taken nearby I went to the other room to start the potatoes. I was taught never to leave a boiling pot unattended so I stood there waiting for my potatoes to be done. Chef came by and said “What are you doing? Watching the potatoes boil?” What was I going to say to that — it was exactly was I was doing. I said I was afraid that they would boil over since my station was so far away. Chef said they’d be fine, so I scurried back to my area.

Fabrication means to prepare an ingredient for cooking. To “fabricate” a fish may mean to cut fish into fillets. Fabricating a lobster was what HH was doing right now as he separated the shell from the meat. He had to use a mallet to pound the claws to get the flesh out. A small scissor was useful to cut through the length of the lobster tail and release the meat from there.

Lunch service was at 12:30 pm. It was only 10:30 am right now and the Coq Au Vin was humming along. Since Wyatt wanted to do the sauce, I guessed he was going to do the finishing touches too. I volunteered for escargot duty which was pretty simple: sauté garlic in butter, add escargot, squeeze lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley. Done. I could do this at the very last minute.

            That was when I saw HH, looking dazed (and pale?) standing with his uniform full of red stains on it.

“Did you cut yourself?” I rushed to him, a bit alarmed.

             “I thought I did too,” He replied in a bland voice,” But it’s lobster blood. I just committed lobster murder…I killed a lobster.” I think the idea had finally sunk into his consciousness that he actually had to kill a live animal in order to cook it. “I don’t want to do this again. I need to see a psychiatrist.”

            One had to understand. Wilma really looked very cute. HH and I were the biggest hypocrites. We loved animals –- but we loved meat too.

            I contemplated ways to get HH out of his apparent “shell-shock”. I did have visions of Cher giving Nicolas Cage a slap in Moonstruck as she said “Snap out of it!” Somehow I didn’t think that would work the same way with HH right now but we both really needed to get over this.

            Anyway, his lobster dish was looking really scrumptious what with all that tomalley (the soft green substance in the body cavity of the lobster) that was mixed into the sauce.

           To get his mind off the lobster, I asked HH to help me finish the tartiflettes. I had him grate the cheese over the dish. We can go ahead and finish the presentation plate since it did not matter if it was cold anyway.

            At 11:30 am, I suddenly remembered the Country-style forcemeat. I needed to slice it up and put some mustard on it. The Chef saw me transferring it to a dish that was just as long as the forcemeat. He stopped me and went looking for another platter. He came back with a big white plate. What?!  All that space for a little old meat? Then I understood why. He rigged a string diagonally across the plate as a guide. Then he cut a 3/8-inch thick slice of forcemeat and laid it flat at one edge of the plate; then he propped another piece letting it stand diagonally on that first piece. The rest followed and he relinquished the arrangement, recommending that I space the slices evenly. After I was done, I put two bowls of different mustards, one Dijon and one plain on either side of the plate.

            Another chef, Chef De Saultier, came by, stopped to look at my forcemeat, and with an approving “hmm,” moved on. It was later that I found out that making forcemeat was a revered art and is a prized skill among chefs. No wonder Chef Crispo wanted it served properly.

            I looked at the time and noticed it was almost noon. Sh*t! The escargots! Good thing they did not take long to prepare. I quickly whipped it up and Ugh! they tasted nasty ! The snails had no flavor by themselves but I had no time to fix them because I heard Chef Crispo hollering in his Scottish brogue for us to get moving with our fare.

            We did a final sampling of our dishes. HH and Wyatt worked on plating the lobster. The Coq au Vin was served with the tartiflettes, which were to die for by the way. As for the escargots, I wanted to just throw them out, but hey –someone might be crazy enough to like them. And of course the forcemeat was positioned in an honorable place at the table.

            As each team’s preparations made their way to the communal table, I noticed a difference in the way the offerings looked. They appeared more professional, maybe? Was that it? There was an abundance of must-try dishes, I couldn’t help but pile my plate with one thing after another.

            When we all sat down to partake of the meal, I did not feel tired at all, I felt elated with a sense of accomplishment.  The Coq au Vin tasted of the wine that it was simmered in. Wyatt finished it with cream which gave the stew more body in the sauce. The lobster was succulent and the sauce was so complex it teemed with an amazing blend of herbs, spices, — and the savory taste that only a lobster’s tomalley can offer. “Wilma, you offered us a good meal, girl. Thanks!” I murmured solemnly. The Bouillabaise that Melanie prepared had a very robust briny flavor. She had used some of the leftover shells that HH had from the lobster fabrication. The gougeres made by Brandon had the required cheesy nature but the crust was too thick and felt heavy. Cheese Choux Pastry should be so light it should feel like air in your mouth. They could have been overcooked, squeezing the air out of the little cheese puffs. And the list went on: Cheese Fondue, baked ham steaks in cream, shrimp in garlic-tomato sauce, etc. One dish that I did not taste but everyone seemed to be raving about was the tapenade, or olive spread.

            During the critiquing segment, Chef Crispo praised the tartiflettes that our team made. He said that the combination of the bacon, cheese and potatoes went so well together and was cooked and seasoned perfectly. Regarding the Coq au Vin, he said to remove the skin in the future but I did not agree with him (not to his face of course). I would rather skim the excess fat off than mess with the skin – personally I think this is what gives the initial browning of the chicken a good flavor. Maybe Chef did not like chicken skin. But he congratulated the class on a job well done and paid us a huge complement by saying “You all have done fabulous work here. Now ask yourself if you would pay for any of these dishes here in a restaurant. I would!” He did remind us that we still need to work on keeping stations clean.

            That afternoon was the French wine class. Our instructor, John Fischer, was a huge French wine aficionado. I can tell that he had nothing but disdain for California wine. “Wine was created to complement the food that you eat. Americans are fond of big wines that simply overpower the food.” By big he meant the full-flavored cabernets that almost have a jammy taste. He droned on about the different regions of France; he had HH’s rapt attention. As for me I zoned out by the time we got to Burgundy wines. Hey, I loved my Cabernets and I do have an open mind, but my taste buds just crave deep flavor. He told us to judge the body of a wine by comparing the mouth-feel to the consistency of water, skim milk, 2% milk, whole milk and cream. We got familiar with some wine terms like flavor profiles: dry means sour, fruity means sweet. If you feel saliva starting to form under the tongue, chances are the wine is sour. I remembered the Riesling which had the viscosity of water tasting very dry. In fact, Fischer said that Riesling was the best white wine for food because drier wines wake up the flavor of food. At the end of the wine tasting, HH and I both developed sour stomachs like we always did when we drank French Wines. We finally found out why. They were meant to be had with food. If that was the case, we reasoned, they should have offered us some cheese during the tasting.

Mutiny at the Bounty

            American Bounty was one of two restaurants (the other being the Escoffier) at the CIA that served refined cuisine. Its menu was typically based on the availability of the freshest local ingredients. This was also the final training arena for the CIA students who would be graduating in three weeks.

Joining us at our table tonight was Gerald and Jacob. Bianca had her family with her at another table and the third table was where Wyatt sat with the rest of the class.

Our server was pretty timid; we could barely hear him speak. Anyway, I managed to order the Peking duck appetizer and the grilled pork chop, which I ordered well-done. I noticed that the food was taking longer than usual to come out of the kitchen. I looked around and it did not seem to be a busy night for the restaurant so I thought that was strange. When my duck appetizer arrived, I was disappointed. It was seasoned very well but I thought the name did not represent the dish at all. When you say Peking duck, it usually means “crispified” skin. All that was on the plate was a tiny sliver of crispy skin on top of pulled duck meat.

While waiting for the main course, we had a lively conversation around the table. I found out that Gerald and Jacob were avid meat-smokers. It was so entertaining to listen to Gerald talk about the time he smoked 60 lbs of pork butt for his church. Very knowledgeable – that man. When my pork chop was served I tried to slice into it with the regular force I would use if wielding a steak knife. My knife felt like it was not denting the meat at all. What the h*ll ?! Taking a deep breath I tried again this time with more strength. With laborious strokes I cut around the pork chop and tried to chew the tough meat.  It tasted like rubber. I forked the entire pork chop and held it to the light. It was freaking raw! I did order it well-done and this chop looked like it could crawl off the table.

            Totally disgusted, I just gave up on my entrée and decided to wait for dessert. Jacob said that what I had was even less than medium-rare – I did not bother having it re-cooked since I had totally lost my appetite. The rest of my table had finished their dinner when I noticed that Wyatt’s table still had not received theirs. Ryan, a guy in our class who was probably in his 60s stood up and was ready to walk out the door. The mait’re d finally showed up (after Gerald went to get him!) and tried to calm Ryan down. The funny thing was when the orders arrived, they placed the wrong plate in front of Ryan. I felt I was watching a comedy of errors. Needless to say, some heads were going to roll the next day. I remembered Chef Crispo told us this morning that he could not wait to hear about what we thought about American Bounty. I suspected he was going to get an earful tomorrow.

            Gerald said the maitre d should have showed up sooner. Instead the maitre d said that we wouldn’t have had this issue if we were served a prixe fixed menu. Oh now it was our fault? The large table that got served last started leaving immediately after finishing their entrée. They did not bother with dessert. They did not miss much. I ordered a dessert of flourless chocolate cake and again it was not worth the calories.

             I’m seriously having second thoughts about taking the Pastry Boot Camp.

What I learned today:

1.      How to kill a lobster. Okay, I watched but, that counts, right?

2.      How to serve forcemeat properly.

3.      How escargot is actually cooked. Or in this case re-heated ( I had a phenomenal one at Balthazar  and they used a broiler and compound butter.)

4.      How to taste wine.

What I want to make from this region

1.      Tapenade. I want to know what the fuss is all about

2.      Coq au Vin. I want to try this with white wine and brown the skin after the cooking.

3.      Tartiflettes.

4.   Gougeres.


Boot Camp Day 2 – Hell’s Kitchen

I think I fell asleep even before my head hit the pillow last night and had slept straight through to morning. Those are the most restful slumbers, deep and uninterrupted. HH, meanwhile, did not sleep too well (too much booze). He was feeling as I was yesterday.

We had reviewed our tasks for today, last night. It was easier because we already knew what our menu was going to be having been given the course manual. It looked pretty simple. The only involved dish on our menu was Country-style forcemeat. Great! I’ve always wanted to make some kind of pate or sausage, I thought and this would be a great opportunity.

           The forecast was for a hot one today. It felt really sticky this morning as we made our way to Roth Hall which housed the Farquharson Hall and the two fine dining restaurants of the CIA : American Bounty and Escoffier. For breakfast this morning we decided to skip the stage and go to the main breakfast kitchen. At the entrance was an order taker. Inside were different breakfast stations. There was an egg station, a pancake station, a breakfast meat station, etc. I decided to just order some sausages. What I got was a plate of grotesquely-formed meat patties. Okay, I reasoned, these were handmade, maybe this was how they were supposed to look. I went back to Farquharson hall to find a table. It was quite occupied to capacity this morning. I saw a lone pastry student at a large round table. She did not look too friendly although her plate of pancakes did (mental note to order pancakes tomorrow). I sat down and started to eat. HH soon arrived with my requisite cup of coffee. And then Wyatt showed up as well as Melanie –a cute, vivacious fiftyish lady who was doing this boot camp solo.

I noticed my sausage was kind of pinkish in the middle so I ate around it — must be the preservative, after all some preservatives cast a pinkish hue on meat. I was almost done when Wyatt said he was going to tell the breakfast kitchen that they needed to cook their sausages more. Great! Am I going to get food poisoning today? My appetite all gone, I announced to the hubby that I was heading into the lecture room. Oh God, I guess these students do have a lot to learn before you release them into the real world.

The topic today was Northeast France; that was the region closest to Germany, so expect a lot of sausages and sauerkraut.

            There was some small talk going on as we waited for all the boot campers to arrive in the lecture room. Chef Crispo was already there and he regaled us with his current predicament of his ex-wife flying in unannounced from Scotland to discuss some “details” with him. We listened in rapt attention as he told us self-deprecating jokes about his current marital circumstances. They were probably embellished and dramatized for effect. He really should be a stand-up comedian, what with his mother-in-law references.

            Oh, about Northeast France.

            For some reason I knew straight away that this would be my least favorite area although it did include Ile de France whose capital is Paris so pastries like the éclair and madeleines came to mind. One pot casserole dishes are popular in the Champagne section as well as champagne (ofcourse) and beer. “A la Alsacienne” usually refers to preparations of meat braised with sauerkraut, potatoes and sausages. Spaeztles and the famous Quiche Lorraine are also from this vicinity.

            Chef Crispo also lauded the usefulness of two books for the serious foodie. One was Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and La Repertoire de la Cuisine by Lewis Saulnier. I am proud to say that I have both of these books. The first book is an ingenious resource for different ingredients and the elements (or ingredients) that would go well with them. The second book is a master reference of French Cuisine. It does not give you the recipe per se but a listing of ingredients and garnishments for a particular preparation.

           Our Menu for the day was Champagne or Country-Style Forcemeat, Carbonade of Beef Allemande and Spaetzle (Alsatian Egg Dumplings)

           The kitchen was probably about 90 degrees already when we got there. The KA changed our stations. The problem with this was that another team was not too pleased about it. So there was a bit of “discussion” about our taking over part of their area.  HH and Wyatt tried to explain that we were told where to position ourselves. I tried to be oblivious. I think you should be able to cook no matter where you are assigned.

            HH wanted to do the Carbonade beef (now why am I not surprised as this was cooked with beer) while Wyatt and I decided to work on the forcemeat.  I volunteered to cut up the meat while he chopped up the vegetables. Call me weird but I love working with protein and especially fat — as in fatback. It was unfortunate that the pork liver was not available, so I had to substitute more pork butt in the recipe; I think the liver would have added another dimension to the overall taste.

             After I mixed the diced meat, fatback, brandy, cooked onion and garlic, pate spice, salt, TCM (pink salt), and pepper in a mixing bowl,  I asked the Chef where the meat grinder was and he in turn asked the KA to  have the grinder parts ready and submerged in ice water. He also advised me to keep the meat mixture cold – an important principle of forcemeat. If the mixture gets warm it can soften and melt, and your forcemeat will lose its emulsification, much like a broken hollandaise sauce.

             Chef took out his enameled cast-iron terrine and lined it with saran wrap allowing for generous overhang along the long edges. Then we got strips of bacon and very gently, laid it inside the terrine horizontally, letting the ends of the strips hang over the sides. It was very important that the plastic be positioned all the way to the sides and not be suspended partially from the bottom of the terrine because this would cause the forcemeat to have an uneven look when it gets unmolded. The vessel needed to be chilled until the mixture was ready. There was almost a somewhat fanatical aura about keeping everything cold. 


                When I got my forcemeat ingredients together, Chef showed me the meat grinder parts and how to assemble them. Seriously, if you ask me now how to put the parts together, I would have no clue. The meat was forced through the grinder; I guessed this is why it was called forcemeat. The mixture ground beautifully. We were supposed to pass a third of it through a smaller plate but Chef said what we had now was fine because we were doing a more rustic rendition of the forcemeat anyway. To this we added chopped parsley and an egg to further bind the mixture.

              A "Quenelle" test was needed to evaluate for proper seasoning. This procedure required encasing a sample of your finished concoction in plastic and gently poaching it in simmering water.  However when Chef performed this test, the meat tasted very salty. Chef said that you should expect hot forcemeat to taste a tad oversalted because it had to be served chilled. But judging by the grimace on his face when he sampled it, it was not just a “tad” oversalted. I was pretty sure I measured the ingredients correctly, so I blame the recipe. Chef suggested serving mustard as a garnish to tone down the saltiness.

             After that he arranged the ground-up meat carefully in the chilled terrine. He compacted it carefully, folded the bacon gingerly to enclose it and further sealing it with the overhanging saran wrap. The terrine was then covered with its lid, a meat thermometer was inserted into the meat under the terrine lid and the vessel put in a water bath into the oven.

            By this time, another class had started in the adjacent kitchen. The grills located in the center of the room dividing the two kitchens were fired up for that class. I could feel my face burning. It must be over a 100 °F in the kitchen by now and here we were steaming in our chef’s jacket!

             I mixed up the spaetzle batter and showed it to the KAs. Harry said that the batter looked too thick to be spaetzle and Luke concurred.  Well, I did follow the recipe! The Chef inspected it. He looked at the recipe and declared it faulty (again!). He asked me to get some milk which he added to the batter and — in an amazing pumping motion with his hand — worked the mixture into a smooth consistency. I just loved watching Chef Crispy — er I mean Crispo — in action. I’ve never, ever met such a chef like him. He was always so precise and quick – he was actually preparing for the Certified Master Chef exam – which I hear was the most revered title a chef can attain.

           He spooned the spaetzle batter and swirled it in a simmering pot of salted water and looked satisfied with the results. He handed me the batter and instructed me to keep it chilled. All I needed now was to wait for the right time to finish it off for service, which by the way, was at 12 noon today. I checked in on HH to see how his “beer beef” was going. He said that he did not like how it was turning out. I took a tasting spoon to it to sample the stew and thought it tasted as it should, considering the ingredients in it.

              In the mean time, the terrine was taking its own sweet time getting done. By 11 am, at a temperature of 145 °F (it had to reach 160 °F), we knew we would not be ready for 12:00 pm service. Chef said, probably also to console us that it usually takes three days to make a terrine anyway. First day you season your ingredients, second day you cook the terrine and chill it overnight. Therefore, only on the third day would it  develop the right flavors.

In short we only had two dishes to serve.

              I took my spaetzle batter out and started to swirl it into the simmering water. Plunk. A whole blob fell from my spoon into the water. Oh no! Where was the swirling motion ?! I pulled HH and Wyatt to the stove, gave the spoon to HH and had him swirl it. Plunk. Another blob hit the water. Maybe they were supposed to look that way?  They do look like dumplings, I thought.

            The chef-instructor from the other room started nosing around. He asked what we were making and I replied “Spaetzle”. “That“ he paused for effect “ is not how spaetzle looks like.” With that he went to the other kitchen and came back with what looked like smashed frozen peas. “This is the shape and texture of what a spaetzle should be.”

           At that moment, Chef Crispo showed up on the scene; the other chef retreated to his side of the kitchen. “Chef! ” I wailed “It wouldn’t swirl!” I think Chef was not too pleased with the other chef minding our business, because he said “This is an Alsatian spaetzle and looks different from the regular one.”  He suspected that the reason the batter was too stiff was because the gluten had developed too much from the way the whole batter was mixed. Okay was that my fault or his?

            Anyway, his solution was to chop up the poached spaetzles and then proceed with the recipe, which was to pan-fry them.

             Because of this dumpling debacle our timing was off again. Temperatures started to rise, both in the kitchen and between HH and myself. Service time was fast approaching and we started to get snippy with each other. Poor Wyatt, I hope he did not notice this. There’s nothing worse than getting caught in a couple’s crossfire. He was busy making the fruit salad zabaione, which was an optional dish for anyone to make and I hope he was having better luck than I was.

             I sighed and realized that this experience was supposed to be fun. So I told HH, that our team’s offering hinged on his beef Carbonade, which I thought was the only truly successfully executed recipe from our original menu.

             I looked around the kitchen and noticed everyone’s face was flushed and shiny. I couldn’t wait for this service to be over and to rip my jacket off. If there was a Hell’s Kitchen, this was it. Then I remembered that there was a class picture at 1:45 pm and a tableside service lecture at 3:30 pm. The day was far from over.

              The rest of the morning was a blur. I do remember taking out the terrine at 11:30 am. Wyatt put it in the refrigerator with a brick on top of it. I don’t remember lunch service. It was so hot I quickly took whatever I could from the communal table and left for the CE dining room. I remembered tasting the “beer beef” and the spaetzle. Both tasted okay but not spectacular. Now Wyatt’s fruit salad zabaione was a welcome ending to the meal. It was served warm, the creamy silky texture of the custard went so well with the fruits. There were some cabbage dishes which I was indifferent to. This was not because of the recipe itself but because I was not too fond of cabbage. I faintly recollected some pork braised in sauerkraut and thought that was also good.  Besides that, my memory had blanked out.

            The kitchen temperature was still steaming when we returned for the critique. Chef said our beef dish was “right on” with the taste. As for the spaetzle, he blamed the recipe. I later re-read the instructions and it said to run the batter through a spaetzle maker…oops! He also commented that the Quiche Lorraine had a very authentic flavor.  After that I spaced out again.


Of all days to have our picture taken, this was the worst day of all. Keith Ferris, the boot camp photographer, was lively despite the overbearing heat. We marched outside to the CE courtyard and everyone fell into place. He rearranged some attendees and told us to smile. Yeah, in this heat mine was probably more of a squint. Anyway, here is the boot camp picture. Now no snickering…that toque looks silly on me and gave me a bad hair day afterward.

            The tableside service lecture and demo was held in the kitchen adjacent to the one we were using for bootcamp. There were no chairs, and the kitchen was quite unbearable from the combined hot weather and heat from this morning’s cooking. Our tableside instructor, Mr. Dee was pretty perky and, shall I say, flamboyant?  He deplored the slow demise of tableside service in the restaurant world. Whether it was flambéing for Crepes Suzette or filleting a fish at the table, he said that this “front –of-the house service is a valuable art and must not be lost.”  Apparently this was not just a demo as I found myself and HH behind a single standalone copper burner. We were making a shrimp dish and the first step was to flambé them with brandy. I have never done this before (HH had). What was the worst I can do, burn the brow off Mr. Dee? So I bravely volunteered. The technique was to add the alcohol off the flame, tilt the pan as you return it to the flame, shake it (this activates the vapors) and watch the alcohol ignite! Cool! I then added the shallots and the shrimp and using a spoon and fork as tongs, turned the shrimp over to let it finish cooking on the other side. After that we served it to the whole group. Each attendee took turns with the next dishes. What followed next was Caesar’s salad. The best I’ve ever tasted! It was important to crush the anchovies and garlic together. To pasteurize the yolk that would be used as an emulsifier, you had to put the egg in boiling water and take it out after 45 seconds. After that came Bananas Foster and then Steak Diane. By the time we finished eating everything, it was almost 5 p.m. and our appetites were sated.

             Dinner reservation was at 6:30 p.m. How could we eat dinner after eating all these food so late in the afternoon?

St. Andrews Café

            We were not even remotely hungry as we stepped into the CIA’s casual-style restaurant. Gerald and Bianca never showed up. I guess their 30-minute drive back to the bed and breakfast made it not a worthy dinner, especially if one had been served almost a complete meal at mid-afternoon. The average weight a boot camper gained at the end of the program was five pounds — I wonder why?. HH ordered a salad and decided to forego the main course. I ordered the chicken yakitori sticks appetizer and braised Korean Short-ribs. I just had two bites of the skewered chicken. I fully intended just to have three bites of the ribs but I ended up almost finishing the entire dish because it was so good. The rice that came with it tasted like it was steamed with too much water, but the ribs were very tender and hit all the right flavor points of salty, sweet and spicy. I forgot what I had for dessert which meant it was probably so-so.

What I plan to make from this region

            Different types of sausages and forcemeat. But first I need a terrine. I already have a great reference for a more in depth method, Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

What I learned today

1.         How to make forcemeat.

2.         How not to make spaetzle.

3.         How to prepare mis en place and keep a clean station. Because we read the recipe ahead of time and noted what ingredients and utensils were needed, there was less running around in the kitchen this time. This also enabled us to knock-off prep one by one and keep a cleaner station (although not perfect yet).


* My thanks to Wyatt for granting me permission to use some of his pictures (Chef showing me the grinder and Mr. Dee’s flambe).

Boot Camp Day 1 – In the Weeds

*Names of boot camp participants have been changed to protect their privacy. Most names of the CIA personnel remain the same except the Kitchen Assistants, who will figure both positively and negatively in our kitchen adventures.

The “hungry hubby” (from now on referred to as HH) and I awoke at 4:30 am on Monday morning, June 18th. I did not get to sleep until 1:30 am, tossing and turning and kicking myself for guzzling Coca-cola all day on Sunday. Or maybe it was just anxiety. Will I be sent home for being an absolute moron in the kitchen — or worse, set the whole kitchen on fire?! All these thoughts were racing through my mind and, try as I would to quell them, they just would not go away.

            Just as I fell into a deep slumber, that earth-shattering wake-up call came. It was so hard to get up but HH and I were both excited. Our orientation was at 6:00 am. We were almost at our parked car at the hotel when we realized we had forgotten our back pack full of  kitchen utensils (knives, whisks, tongs, etc.), so HH went back to get them. Imagine a warrior heading out without his weapons! I could think of several words to describe us, but I’ll just attribute the “forgetfulness” to first day jitters. Yeah, right.

            We got to the CE Dining room at the J.W. Marriot Continuing Education Center. We were the first ones to arrive, and our orientation person, Jennifer Doran handed us our parking pass. She also made coffee, bless her heart! The other participants began trickling in. I was surprised when a man in a wheelchair, Jacob, came in.  Love of food knows no bounds and Jacob just proved it.  We were given a quick rundown of the rules, especially the ones concerning parking. We were asked to park at the lower level of the Anton Plaza, which was no big deal really.

            We were then shown our lecture room and quickly escorted to breakfast at Farquharson hall. For some reason, it reminded me of the dining halls at Hogwarts. I guess it used to be a church. The high, domed ceilings were impressive and so were the stained glass windows. And where the altar used to be were now omelet and crepe stations on a stage manned by CIA students. I got excited. Crepes with apple compote! What a great breakfast this would be. The HH rushed off to get us more coffee as I got up to the crepe station and placed my order. The crepe guy was very courteous but I caught a hint of nervousness in his voice. My suspicions were confirmed when he fumbled the first crepe and had to dump it. Uh-oh…we had to get to class in 20 minutes. I tried so hard not to look at him and make him more nervous…but I was really hungry! Finally he served me a neatly rolled up crepe pocket. I stared down at the small serving and knew I would wolf this down in no time and still be hungry. HH was smart enough to get an extra bagel, so I sequestered the other half and gobbled that up too.

            When we got to class, a gym bag, with CIA boot camp imprinted on it, awaited each participant. I got my uniform out only to realize that it was way too big. I guess I’ll have to go to the admin office to get a smaller size after the lecture, I thought. I was already in a daze.

            Our instructor walked in. He was quite tall and dark skinned. His name was Phil Crispo. He was a Scotsman and boy did he have a great accent! We all took turns introducing ourselves and giving a reason why we wanted to take this class. Some were sent by their spouses but most of us just wanted to learn about French food. There was a mother and daughter team, two friends, and solo attendees. HH and I were the only couple in the group.

            After that we went straight to a Powerpoint presentation as the Chef went down the list of what identifies Northwest France cuisine.

Butter,cream, and more butter.Apples.Calvados – you guess it – apple brandy !A la Normande – normally refers to fish with sauce made from cream, apple cider, butter and calvados.

Northwest France is comprised of Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley. Their signature dishes are Friture de La Loire (deep fried fish), buerre blanc sauce, tarte tatin.

It was a brief lecture because we also needed to form our groups. The class needed to break up into 5 groups of three.  HH and I agreed to be on the same team (we were on a vacation after all, and it would not make sense to be separated from each other). A guy in the group, Wyatt, who was a Skills Boot Camp veteran, joined our team. Together, we formed team three. On our team’s menu were the following:

·         Grenouilles (frogs’ legs)

·         Homard a la Armoricaine (Breton-style lobster)

·         Haricots Verts (Green Beans)


So off we went to the kitchen. Everyone needed to be in uniform, so I had to take care of that business first. HH was fine in his uniform but he accompanied me to the admin office to get mine changed. The uniform swallowed me up…I really felt like Bozo the clown. I think they designed the chef’s jacket for men…hmmph no wonder there were not a lot of renowned female chefs.  Well, I did not come to Boot Camp to make a fashion statement, so I marched out of the ladies room in my ill-fitting uniform.

            There were two kitchen assistants (KA) waiting to assign us our station, Harry and Luke. Chef Crispo laid down some rules in the kitchen. Keep your stations as clean as possible. No hot dishes in the dirty dish rack. Washing your hands was a “given”. But any time you handled food that was not to be cooked any further, you had to wear gloves.

              The first thing Wyatt showed us was how to tie our aprons properly so the strings didn’t get in the way. Next we had to get those little plastic containers to set up mis en place. We also needed to get a list together to the KA for some ingredients that were not readily available like the brandy, etc. Why do I feel like I’m already running around in circles?  Okay,  that punk kid Harry was not very nice. He was lazy and was dragging his feet on some of our requests. “Why did he even sign up to be a KA if he was going to make some snide remarks every time you ask him for something”, I wondered. Now Luke was the total opposite. He was very helpful and respectful to seemingly kitchen-challenged ladies like me.

            Well, we got the frog legs and green beans oops – I mean “haricots verts” – but no sign of lobster. The chef said seafood was usually hard to procure on Mondays. (So Tony Bourdain was right in his book Kitchen Confidential: do not order fish in restaurants on Mondays; chances are they are leftovers from the weekend). The Chef offered the alternative of shrimp but said he would still order the lobster which would probably get in on Wednesday. Great! I still wanted to see how to humanely kill a lobster. Knife between the eyes is what I heard but I still want to witness it.

            Service was at 12:30 p.m. The Chef wanted plates warm for hot dishes. Everything needed to come together at the same time.

            Our group’s menu looked pretty easy. We just had to sauté the frog legs at the end. I noticed the boys, HH and Wyatt already coated the frog legs in flour. I was dubious about this because I know the moisture was just going to gunk up the flour. Well, HH was on sauté duty so that was his call.  The haricots verts were boiled and ready for final prep. HH had to cover the beans because a passer-by, like Chef Crispo would snatch one up and pop it in his mouth. The shrimp could be done ahead of time. Following the instructions for the lobster we had to sauté scallions, onion and garlic in butter for 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and sauté for probably 2 minutes more and then take the shrimp out, add the brandy and flambé. Then add tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley and tarragon. Stir in wine, clam juice and water. Simmer for 15 minutes until it thickens. Turn it off and wait till it is time to serve to add the shrimp to finish cooking it through. While waiting we needed to refrigerate the half-cooked shrimp.

            At 11:30 am, I told HH to fire up the frog legs. They were starting to burn too quickly. I suspect it was because they were pre-floured. He had to take them off the sauté pan before they were cooked through. I transferred them to a hotel pan to finish up in the oven at 400 °F. We were not used to this high-BTU burners either. Industrial strength burners can easily burn the skin off your hands if you’re not careful. After the frog legs were done, we made the sauce for them which was basically adding the  vermouth, chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley, lemon juice and capers to the fonde (crusting) that had formed on the sauté pan.

            Then came plating time. We were to prepare a presentation plate and a family plate. Wyatt had already warmed the plates in the oven. As I plated the shrimp and the frog legs I sprinkled some chopped parsley, much to Wyatt’s dismay. He said that they (meaning CIA instructors) do not like all that fancy-smancy useless garnish stuff. I argued “- But it looks appealing!” So we left it at that.

            At 12:20 pm, the chef was hollering “ Let’s go!”  (which sounded like “Lez go!” … did I mention how I loved his accent?)

           Oh boy, where did the time go?

I was not sure why I was running around the kitchen again – and who put their mess on my station?! HH replied that it was me and I just had amnesia. “In the weeds” is what they call it. When your station is so messy and the pressure of service is upon you, your brain is probably in the same shape.

Finally, all our dishes were on the communal table. I was so tired I almost forgot to take pictures. Here’s the hubby looking good in his chef uniform.


We ate at the CE dining room. I was still feeling fatigued. I could barely eat. My feet WERE KILLING ME.

My favorite dish from this region was the Leek and Camembert tart. I nearly did not sample it because it looked quite plain …but the flavors just hit you. It’s the cheese. The chicken braised in apple cider and finished with cream also had a very good flavor. As for my frog legs, the sauce that went with them was good but I prefer this amphibion’s legs deep-fried. The shrimp… was perfectly cooked I thought; it was so tender and the sauce was so rich I can’t wait to make this with lobster!

After lunch we headed back into the kitchen in order for Chef to critique our dishes. I was clasping my hands on my chest as he picked up the shrimp dish with all the parsley garnish. He methodically swept up the parsley. Wyatt was right. Chef Crispo said “ I want to see functional garnish. If I can’t eat it, I don’t want it on my plate.” Chef said if we wanted more parsley we were to mix it in the sauce. He also told us to think vertically in terms of building the plate. Regarding the frog legs, he said it would have been better if we separated them in two. As it stood right now, they look like a piece of a*s. We all cracked up laughing at that remark because the HH had made a similar comment earlier. Also, the Chef confirmed my misgivings about  pre-flouring a sauté dish. You always want to do this right before you cook it because the moisture of the protein will coagulate the flour and allow the hot pan to burn your food quickly.

We weren’t the only team with non-functional garnish. It seemed every other team had that issue.

After that we reconvened at the classroom. The Chef announced a tour. HH and I decided to skip that and just head back to the hotel. I wanted to put my feet up or just collapse on the couch.

But first…some shopping was in order. We went to the CIA bookstore to peruse some goodies. There were a ton of cookbooks, every title I could imagine. HH and I ended up with some iron-on patches for our chef’s jackets, some t-shirts, a license plate holder and some other goodies.

Caterina de Medici

            I thought I was not going to make it to dinner. After taking a warm shower I just wanted to sleep. In fact, I felt like I was sleepwalking all day! We were told earlier to be nice to the wait staff at the Italian restaurant since it was their first day. Great! Guinea pigs were we? Our waiter did pretty well in taking our orders although it was obvious he was shaking in his shoes. And when it was time to open our bottle of wine, he broke the cork! I felt so sorry for him. He got assistance somewhere else. Then he returned to pour the wine. His hand was shaking so badly, he spilled the wine on the table cloth.  The table got so quiet, all of us were dreading more wine being spilt… but our waiter managed to get through pouring five glasses with only one casualty…mostly on HH’s wine.

Otherwise the meal was pretty okay. My appetizer of mixed charcuterie was fantastic, my seared duck breast was cooked properly and the sauce was so glossy and well-bodied. Still I felt it needed more seasoning to complement the strong taste of the duck. The dessert of coffee caramel was so-so…

The best part of the night was getting to know the other participants in the group. Gerald was an anesthesiologist (he said he passes gas for a living … ha ha)  and he was at the boot camp with a friend Bianca who operated a bed and breakfast  in the Hudson Valley. Brandon was a computer guy and was sent to boot camp by his wife. Apparently he does most of the cooking at home. All of them share the same passion for food that we do. I felt like we spoke the same language. I think a true sign of a foodie is that he can still talk about food even after he is stuffed full of it.   

I had to be the designated driver that night. HH was plastered after he and Gerald became the main consumers of two bottles of wine at our table. This was in addition to our allowance of two pours of selected wine.

It mattered not. I survived the first day of Boot Camp!

What I intend to make from this region:

Homard a la Armoricaine

            Breton style Lobster

Poulet Valee

            Chicken Sauteed with Apple Cider and Cream

Tarte aux Porrezux et Camembert

                        Leek and Camembert Tart

What I learned today :

1.      Use a functional garnish, not a decorative one

2.      Revisit knife skills.

3.      Hot food on warm plates. Putting hot food on cold plates is a big “no-no”.

4.      When arranging plate for service, think vertically.

5.      Use the best ingredients.

6.      Obsessive attention to detail is a hallmark of French cuisine.

What I need to work on:

1.      Timing for service. Getting everything ready at the same time. I need to get my head out of the weeds and keep a clean station in order to do this. I realize that this is not like a home kitchen where I can take my own sweet time and sip some wine. As the HH said : we need to hustle!

Boot Camping at the CIA…

No…not the super-secret spy agency but the Culinary Institute of America. I am pretty worn out right now but I promise to give a report of the day to day activities of the French Cuisine Boot Camp that I am enrolled in. We’re up pretty bright and early. Lecture starts at 7 a.m. – yes 7 a.m. ! (Actually orientation was at 6 a.m. this morning).


Our topics include :

Day 1: Northwest  France

Day 2: Northeast  France

Day 3: Southeast France

Day 4: SouthWest France (my favorite)

Day 5: Classical French Cuisine

It’ll probably take me a few weeks to get it all together so stay tuned….!