Monthly Archives: March 2004

Cooking School Journal: Week Two

So, I’ve already received two calls looking for the latest update.

Last night’s class was a real challenge, in more ways than one.

The topic was chicken.

I’ve already begun and erased too many updates with an allegory about rooster becoming chicken.

Let’s just say that I arrived home at midnight  looking and smelling like a greasy dead bird.


More tomorrow.

Cooking School Journal: Food Safety

fightbacjpgThe lecture began with “Food Safety”.

All fridges should be set to 41 degrees or less. That is the safe temp for all perishable foods. Your freezer should be at 0 degrees.

Chicken needs to be cooked to 165 degrees, the same temp is safe for any foods in steamers or kept warm. That can last for 4 hours. After 4 hours they are in the “danger zone”. Bacteria invades. Then they need to be 86’d (apparently the cooking term for the round file).

Botulism (improper canning), Strep (sick workers handling your food), salmonella (uncooked poultry, eggs, milk, custards and mayo) and of course, e. coli (we know where he lurks) are the bacteria most commonly among us.

Parasites…. well let’s just say that after last night’s lecture, I will never again order swordfish prepared in any style (Chef had a lovely once-at-the-fishmonger’s-I-saw story).

Part Two of the lecture we talked about the “Brigade” or the hierarchy in a kitchen.

At the Top:

  • Chef (his coat has covered buttons)  the manager of the kitchen.
  • Sous Chef (his coat has frogs in place of buttons)  in charge of food production.
  • Chefs de partie (plastic buttons) There are many of these, each with a different job  i.e., sauces, fish, pastry, the grill, etc.

Then finally there are the rest of us:

  • Cooks
  • Prep cooks (no fancy French here)

Then she ended by quickly and elegantly demonstrating basic knife skills: see-full-size-image1the julienne, the brunoise, the rondelle, chiffonade, batonet, bias and the dreaded mince. Each uniformly perfect. That’s essential.

I was in awe.

Then it was time to pair off and begin cooking.

The foursome on the right, the giggling gaggle of gourmands (a lot of alliteration from an anxious author writing agonizingly long anecdotes), immediately paired off and chose two “easy” recipes.

I was stuck with Mr. Forty-something.

He is nice. Lance (not gay) is about to retire from a 26-year career in the military (still not gay).

He and his wife want to open a restaurant much in the fashion of those he enjoyed while he was stationed for 12 years in Spain.

brown-derby-hollywood-lucyjpgWe were assigned the Cobb Salad. It’s a recipe which was created at the Brown Derby restaurant in L.A.  The Derby was a landmark restaurant made even more famous in the hilarious William Holden episode of I Love Lucy.

When I was in my twenties,the Los Feliz outpost of The Brown Derby became a nightclub. My friends would be more than happy to tell you about the one time I went there. I was accidentally so rude to actress Juliette Lewis that her entourage scurried her out the door. Oops.


The Cobb. So easy to order, so easy to eat… but a bi#%h to make.

Gently poached chicken, browned diced bacon, diced eggs which must be perfectly hard-boiled, diced avocado, tomato concasse (kon-kah-SAY) — which means blanched, peeled and roughly chopped, and 4 types of lettuce washed, spun and chopped. All topped with crumbled roquefort,  minced chives and a basic vinaigrette a la moutard. It’s an Atkins-lover’s dream.

It was a lot of work, and this is where I really began to get uncomfortable. It’s one thing to cook  in your home kitchen and serve up a meal that,  although not perfect, is still delicious. It is another to prep and cook and plate a dish with a teacher watching your every other move, and on top of that, partnered with someone else whose cooking style may be completely different. We were working  against the clock and knowing it was going to be critiqued at the end. It made me tense.

We did pretty well, though.

The bacon was the toughest part. It’s hard to uniformly dice raw bacon. But, I tried really, really hard. That is until Chef noted on my last slice, that uniformity is not THAT important in dicing bacon since it fries up into its own shape anyway.

Side note… great tip I learned from Layla the TA (definitely gay): drain the fat as you cook bacon. It caramelizes more quickly and evenly instead of boiling in its own fat.

After what seemed an eternity, but was really 71 minutes, it was time to plate up.

  • 1 point off: I didn’t pre-chill the platter.
  • 1 point off: The recipe called for a bed of lettuce with the toppings placed upon it in narrow strips… I chose to line them up in this order: egg, bacon (a natural pair), tomato, chicken, avocado, roquefort. I was instructed that tomato then bacon was a bad call. Red and brown next to each other draw the eye. It’s better to put something white – the chicken or egg in between. Grr.

But, as Lance poured on the dressing and tossed the salad to taste, I exalted “Mmmmm. Salty Fat!”

Chef laughed and praised, “We are going to love Jules!”

So, I guess, maybe it was a success.

Cooking School Journal: The First Class

I spent 35 minutes in front of the school, in the parking lot, with engine running.

Did I mention that I adopted a new dog? I picked him up that afternoon, and he was still “adjusting” to a new home, new dog and kids.cujojpg

So basically, it was, “Hey Mom here’s this stray and my three kids and my high-strung poodle. There’s a lasagna in the oven. Bye.”


I sat in my car thinking about how selfish I am to do this, and how tired I am. I was silently repeating my new mantra: ” Please God, don’t make me meet new friends.”

Let’s face it. I’m 33, I already have the coolest friends, and I’m too busy to make new ones. I’ve made two major moves in three years. If I have to tell “my story” to one more person, I think I might move again.

But, I decided to persevere. I gingerly grabbed one Listerine breath strip and tucked it in my mouth. (I remember my friend Tim noting  how awful it is to accidentally slide six breath strips instead of one from the container, and stick them on your tongue, only to helplessly stand there in agony as the inside of your mouth disintegrates.) Then I gently sprayed Tiffany perfume on me.

All of this was in a futile attempt to mask the odor of the Hebrew National 97% Reduced Fat Hot Dog I ate on the Low Cal bun. And the slice of Kraft 2% American cheese that I had draped over the limp and oddly-colored dog. Definitely a dinner worthy of an aspiring chef. Don’t you think?

I marched into class, confidently pulled out my latest and greatest Visa and spent the money I was going to use for new windows on the tuition instead.  I walked into the class and surveyed the scene.

On the right side of the room,  four lovely women were taking their seats.  They introduced themselves to each other,  instantly engaged in charming stories of self-disclosure and were genuinely giddy.

I chose the seat on the far left side of the room.

Three seats down sat a man in his mid-forties. My only thought being, “He’ll never talk to me.”

Plus we all know what  the first day of any class is like. The teacher introduces him/herself and writes their name on the board.  Then he immediately turns to the closest person on the right side of the room and says, “Okay. I’ve told you something about myself. Now I want to hear from you. Ummm. Let’s start with you, Juan-Miguel. Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you are interested in the Feminist Interpretations of Elizabethan Art.”

So anyway, the teacher (whom everyone seems to be calling “Chef”) walked in. She was a petite woman, but carried herself with tremendous authority. She definitely had a do-not-mess-with-me attitude, but a soft buttery voice. She began her lecture as three TA’s busily buzzed around in their chef’s coats prepping and chopping.

They were getting everything  “mise en place”  [MEEZ ahn plahs]. This is the culinary term for  having all the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready to combine– up to the point of cooking. And apparently it’s super important.

Chef explained that she was trained at a very high-end restaurant in L.A. after obtaining a B.S. in Food Science, and she is still good friends with Wolfgang Puck (like, who isn’t in this town). wolfgang_puckjpg-wolfgang-upchuck-image-by-nipplequeenShe’s now a 26-year veteran of the food industry.

We are lucky, she added. Our class (of six) is very small against the average size of 15-20. The good news is that we will have the opportunity to be more hands-on. The bad news is that we will be much more hands-on.

Then she ended that lovely introduction and said, “So that’s enough about me. Tell me about who you are, your experience in the food industry and your aspirations in the food industry. Let’s start with…ummm. Jules! Tell us.”

What?!?! Can’t she see that I’m on the left side of the room?! She’s not supposed to start with me! I’m not prepared at all.

“Well, uh, I’ve spent the last seven to ten years raising my children and I am, uh, beginning to prepare myself for re-entry into the working world. Cooking is my hobby and a true passion, so I want to enter into the food industry in some capacity, but I’m not sure how. (At this point I’m completely babbling.)  My background is in journalism, so I’m thinking I might even be interested in doing some food writing.” (I am?)

“Oh! Who are your favorite food writers?” she asked excitedly.

Like a deer in headlights I stared blankly back at her. Now she’s asking follow-up questions? Geez! The only food writer that I could think of on the spot was M.F.K. Fisher. What a cop out!  That’s like telling your professor that your favorite American novelist of the 20th century is F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s too easy!

“Uhhh. I read Bon Appetit,” I replied lamely.

Chef obviously sensed my pain and tried to help.

“Do you read Jeffrey Steingartner?”

“Uhhh. The name rings a bell.” I replied meekly.

“Oh, of course there is Ruth Reichl,” she replied.

Oh Yeah. Ruth Reichl. She’s the editor of Gourmet or something. Isn’t she the woman that my friend Ellen dumped won ton soup all over,  in an informational interview her dad had arranged?

Those were the only thoughts dancing on my brain.

Chef looked blankly at me looking blankly at her. “Well, you at least know of M.F.K. Fisher? Right?”

It was going to be a long night.

Cooking School Journal – Enrolled

see-full-size-imageTomorrow is day one at cooking school.

My approach-avoidance was so severe that after three months of reminding my mother that she would be watching the kids on Wednesdays so I could attend class, I had not applied, gone to orientation, nor enrolled.

I was lying on the couch paralyzed while my mom chirped into the phone, “Well, am I coming on Wednesday or not?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What do you mean?”  (Always a difficult question to answer when your mom’s a shrink.)

“I’ll call you back.”  Click. Brief pause.


Joe shuffled to the den begrudgingly. “What?”

“Please call the cooking school. Please. Please. Please?!?!?!” I couldn’t make the call myself.

“Gimme the number,” he said with an almost audible roll of the eyes.

The  Wednesday class was full, but he enrolled me in the Monday night class. Mom was sure to be annoyed. 6-10pm on Monday nights with three kids, and Joe’s at MBA class that night?  When will she have time to drink?

“Mom’s going to hate that.”

“Hello, Ali? The Wednesday class is full. She’s enrolled Monday nights. It starts tomorrow. Is that doable? Yeah. I’ve got class. Uh-huh. Mmmm. I know. Okay. Cool. Thanks. Why me? She’s having approach-avoidance. Yeah. Ha ha ha. Yeah, I know. Thanks. Bye”

I was in.