Culinary school, week one (apple tarts, salmon, hollandaise sauce and more!)

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My buddy Vincent in the CFA kitchen

I have big news to share! After fighting through financing red-tape and unwilling employers for the last few months, I finally started a culinary program this past week. It’s a short program that I hope will lead to even more training in the kitchen, and for now I’m just incredibly happy to be learning in the kitchen (and the classroom). I’ll be going to school full time for the next couple of months in a town called Val de Reuil in Normandy. I’ll have three weeks of classes, followed by a one-week internship, then three more weeks and an internship, three more weeks, an internship and voilà! It’s gonna go by incredibly fast but I’ve already learned a lot, and judging by our program in the kitchen, I’m going to continue to come across new techniques and products that will contribute to my culinary knowledge and skills.

In France, culinary skills are acquired at a young age. At 15 or 16, French kids can join a 2 year CAP culinary program that doubles as a high school diploma (or BAC as it’s called here) instead of finishing out their education in a traditional setting. The student becomes an apprentice, with half of their time spent in a classroom or kitchen at school and the other half in a restaurant where they actually work and gain valuable experience. The program that I’m doing is the same type of program, but tailored to adults. For now I’ll only be doing 4 months (the maximum that I was able to get financed) but if I do continue on, I’ll have to take the same exam in order to get my culinary diploma. I get to skip the apprenticeship part and replace that with a few internships but still have to take basic courses like math, science and hygiene. It’s odd being back in a classroom, but amazing being in a real, professional kitchen several times a week.

The best part is that everything we make is eaten by the students of the school. Of course, the basics of our first couple weeks will head to the cafeteria, but once we start making more advanced preparations they will be served to actual paying clients in the school’s pedagogic restaurant. Very cool.

My first week started off slow, but that was to be expected. On Monday, a tour of the campus, lunch in the cafeteria and a course in culinary technology where we learned the technical terms for some everyday kitchen techniques like clarifying, which can refer to separating the fat that burns from butter so it can be heated to a higher temperature or separating an egg yolk from the white. Next was a class on hygiene which is obviously extremely important where we learned some very basic information about how and why we wash our hands and also learned that most restaurants don’t exactly play by the rules, which is why we personally have to be very careful. Food poisoning can come from many different things and not just from bad meat, from veggies that aren’t washed correctly to egg shells. Wednesday and Friday brought more theory with hygiene in the morning and a very practical class in the afternoon that taught us about how to find a job once we leave the program, along with some math and English (really! I couldn’t get out of it).

On Tuesday, things got interesting. Our very first class was technique in the kitchen. After stepping off the bus (yes, there’s a bus!) I walked into our locker room for the first time and quickly changed into my professional digs: navy and white gingham chef pants, a fancy white vest, my steel-toed white shoes and my little white apron. In the kitchen there were baskets full of vegetables waiting for us when we arrived and several different knife techniques written on the white board. We jumped right in and learned to make a julienne (very finely cut strips), jardinière (larger strips) and macédoine (smallish cubes). We also learned how to turn carrots and potatoes (I need a lot of work there!) and cook the vegetables “à l’anglaise” (in boiling salted water) and “à l’étuvée” (sweating the vegetables in butter and then adding a small amount of water and letting them steam). We also blanched tomatoes and diced shallots to make a basic tomato sauce with laurel leaves and garlic.

The three hours went by extremely fast, then it was across the campus to the cafeteria and back in the kitchen in record time for our afternoon of cooking with our second teacher. We revisited some of our knife skills from the morning (jardinière cut) and managed cooking the different vegetables in different pots with different cooking times and then assembled everything inside of a blanched and roasted tomato which is apparently called “tomate jardinière.” Next we made a fabulous apple pie. We learned the secrets to a perfect crust, how to make a quick applesauce and how to line a tart ring correctly. The result was simple and delicious and I’ll try to post the recipe on here soon.

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Apple tart, egg washed and ready for the oven!

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Finished apple tarts, right before glazing with apricot glaze

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Thursday we were back in the kitchen for a much more elaborate day filled with fresh, whole salmon and an infinitely creamy hollandaise sauce. This was by far the highlight of the week. We each got our own salmon and practiced removing the fins (with kitchen shears), de-scaling the fish (who knew there were so many scales! They were everywhere, I even found some stuck to my shoe when I went back to the locker room) and trimming it into steaks and also removing an entire filet. This was incredibly difficult, but I’m sure it’ll get easier. Once the fish was prepared, we marinated the steaks in lemon and olive oil and portioned the filets. The steaks were then cooked on a grill, then in the oven and the filets were fried in olive oil. Somewhere in between all of this we managed to make our first (and my new favorite) sauce, the hollandaise. It’s simple in terms of ingredients (egg yolks, water, salt, lemon juice and clarified butter) but technically difficult. It also takes good, strong arms and all of your attention! But it is so worth it. I never knew something so simple could be so rich and delicious.

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Whole salmon!

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Salmon steaks

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Sautéeing the salmon filets

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Grilling the salmon steaks

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Making clarified butter

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Oh, the beginnings of a hollandaise sauce!

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The hollandaise requires vigorous whisking!

It’s hard to believe that the first week is already over. I’ve never enjoyed anything more than the moments we spent in the kitchen, even when we had to wash dishes or scrub the floors or cut the heads off of salmon. I can’t wait for next week when we’ll be moving on to more complex dishes like veal stew or roasted chicken. I’m so lucky to be doing what I love, even with the addition of silly classes like English ;) I hope to post each week about the highlights of the program and will continue to post recipes as well. If you’d like to hear more about the techniques for any specific dish we’ve made in class, I’ll be happy to oblige by posting about it. Let me know in the comments!

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