Culinary school, week seven (1st lunch service, bavarois, lamb ragout and more!)

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I think this was our best week yet at the CFA. We got to do a real lunch service! Even though I’ve already lived through services during my internship, being in the heat of the moment at school was a new experience altogether, because we made and prepared everything ourselves instead of just reheating and plating. The day’s menu was kept simple: to-die-for scrambled eggs with chives, parsley and chervil, sautéed rumpsteak with a super flavorful red wine sauce and sautéed potatoes. The dessert was fromage blanc, a kind of thick greek yogurt, and it was prepared by the waitstaff.

We arrived in the kitchen around 9:30 in the morning and had to start our preparations right away. We began with the sauce, adding red wine, vinegar and shallots to a small saucepan and letting it reduce until it was almost dry (this is a glaze, or demi-glaze). To this we added some beef stock and let it boil down again. In another pan, we reduced red wine until it was in a mirror state, meaning dry and glossy. We added our sauce to the mirror, let it boil some more, strained it, then slowly swirled in some butter until it was at the perfect consistency. Ours was a little sour, so we added one square of dark chocolate (!) to even out the flavors. It was perfect and full of flavor.

The potatoes had to be trimmed into round cylinders, then sliced with the mandolin into thin coins. We pre-cooked them in some olive oil until they were crispy and cooked through, then seasoned with salt and pepper. The next step was the preparation of all the herbs (parsley, chives and chervil). We washed them, removed the stems, pressed and minced them as fine as humanly possible. The parsley was served with the potatoes at the last minute, when we sautéed them in hot, foamy butter right before the service, and the other herbs were used for our perfect scrambled eggs.

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I definitely learned a thing or two about scrambled eggs. These were divine, and every attempt that I’d ever made at scrambled eggs was just good. What I learned is that the dairy should be added to the eggs at the last possible minute, just to add to their creamy consistency. I used to whip my eggs together with milk and cream and then cook them with a spatula, pushing the cooked eggs from the edge of my pan to the middle. This resulted in light, fluffy, eggs, but not in perfectly creamy, melt-in-your-mouth eggs. The secret is to thoroughly whisk your eggs together and cook them in a pot (!), whisking constantly so that the consistency is as creamy as possible, rather than chunky. Once the eggs are just cooked, at your heavy cream and herbs, season, and that’s it!

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We did most of these preparations before going to eat lunch around 11:30. We were back in the kitchen by 12:10 and that’s when the real fun began. The chef came around to each of the teams and announced which tables we’d be serving. They kept the reservations to a minimum since this was our first service, but Florence and I were entrusted with a table of six that had a couple of special requests. A vegetarian and a vegan were sitting at our table, and we only had a few minutes to think of a solution for them before our service began!

The chef told us that since we didn’t know in advance, there wouldn’t be much we could do. The scrambled eggs were replaced by a mâche salad with tomatoes, shallots and julienned celery root for the vegan, and they both got sautéed button mushrooms in the place of their steaks. I was disappointed that we had to serve something so boring and unfulfilling, but we did our best to make both dishes as tasty as possible (the shallots and celery root were my idea, otherwise we would’ve served mâche and tomatoes!). I sautéed the mushrooms until they were perfectly browned and prepared the salad. We were ready, except for those steaks!

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We heated our cast iron pans and coated them with olive oil. We seasoned all of the meat and then seared it in the olive oil until it was nice and brown on both sides, and blue in the middle. Then we let the meat rest until we were ready for service. During the service, the steaks were cooked in the oven: one minute for a rare steak, 2-3 minutes more for medium, and 5-6 minutes for well done. Now all we could do was wait for the waitstaff to announce our table’s order!

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When the order finally came for our table of six, Florence and I began slowly reheating our scrambled eggs and prepared the little egg dishes that they would be served in right in front of the stovetop to keep them warm. Once the eggs were ready, we tasted and seasoned, then carefully spooned them into the dishes, topped them with a little sprig of chervil and sent them to the “passe-plats” to be taken away by the servers. We didn’t forget our little salad, which was dressed with vinaigrette at the last minute.

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Once the appetizers were sent, we started heating up our potatoes and mushrooms. We heated a huge chunk of butter in a frying pan until it was hot and foamy, then added our potatoes and mushrooms and let them cook gently while we waited for the green light. We threw three of our steaks that needed to be cooked to medium in the oven and waited until the order arrived to take our plates out of their hot storage place and start plating. The last steak, rare, went into the oven at the last minute, just to warm it through without cooking it any more.

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Luckily the plating was simple, but we did have to use an emporte-pièce, or little round mould, for the potatoes. We started with that, making little mountains of sautéed potatoes with parsley, then added our steaks and spooned the warm wine sauce right over them. The vegetarian and the vegan got a mountain of potatoes and a little mix of mushrooms and potatoes with herbs. We ran them to the passe-plats and handed them over the the waitress that was waiting for them, and our service was over! We had a short break and then we were right back in the kitchen for our second session of the week.

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The adrenaline was still working its magic when the chef announced the afternoon menu: leek tarts and a three-layered bavarois. We set to work right away making the dough for our tarts, something that I can pretty much do in my sleep by now. Once that was in the fridge to rest and get rid of its elasticity, we finely sliced the leek and let it simmer in some butter, covered, until it was basically a compote. We blanched some lardons that we cut ourselves and then sautéed them until they were nice and browned. We rolled out our crust and moulded it into the pastry rings, made a nice little border and spread the cooked leeks and lardons in the bottom. The last step was a crème prise salée, which just means a mixture of eggs, milk, cream, salt and nutmeg that we spooned over the rest.

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The dessert was a fun and easy one. A bavarois is a light, creamy dessert that can be made with gelatin and served alone, like this one, or used as a filling for a cake or other dessert. Ours was split into three parts and flavored with vanilla, chocolate and coffee, making for a very visually pleasing end to a meal. The base of a bavarois is a crème anglaise, which is made nearly the same way as pastry cream, but without the flour. Bring milk and vanilla to a boil and in a bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar until light, creamy and pale. Add a small amount of boiling milk to the eggs and whisk to temper. Add the rest of the milk, whisk to incorporate and return to the pot over very low heat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon until the sauce is finished, when the foam from the milk has disappeared. We added gelatin that had been soaked in cold water to ours so that it would be nice and firm.

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While the crème anglaise was cooling, we made some neutral (without sugar) whipped cream and then combined the two (folding gently) to make our appareil à bavarois. We divided the bavarois into three portions and flavored one with coffee extract, one with cocoa and left the other as is, vanilla. We then took little aluminum moulds and carefully spooned a layer of vanilla bavarois cream into the bottom. It then went into the fridge to firm up for about 15 minutes before we added the coffee layer, then back to the fridge, and finally the chocolate layer. We were able to unmould them with hot water and then tip them right onto a plate. They were served with… more whipped cream!

Our last kitchen session before our internships was fully loaded, and took place on Thursday morning. The only element that we had beforehand was something that everyone was very excited about: a navarin d’agneau, or lamb ragout with a tomato-based sauce. I personally had never cooked with lamb before, but it’s one of my favorite meats to order in restaurants. The navarin is a very simple ragout that consists of searing the lamb, fat removed, in hot olive oil. Once the meat is seared, it is removed and left to rest while the sauce base is created. We were careful not to burn the tasty sugars left behind when searing the meat and once we poured out the excess oil, we added our mirepoix of carrots and onions, then some tomato paste, garlic and fresh rosemary and thyme. To this mixture we added our lamb, then dusted it with flour and cooked it uncovered in the oven for about five minutes, making a beautiful crust on the meat and getting rid of that starchy flour taste. Then we added stock and fresh tomatoes, let it come to a boil, and cooked covered in the oven for one hour. After an hour, we removed the lamb from our stew and then filtered the sauce, discarding the herbs and bits of veggies and then put the lamb back in the sauce. We added some turned, blanched potatoes and let the stew cook in the oven for a couple more hours, until the lamb was absolutely falling apart and tender. It was amazing, and as soon as I can find some lamb shoulder at the grocery store I’ll recreate it at home!

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While we were working on the lamb, we also had three (!) different side dishes to make. We made fennel compote, braised cabbage and celery root purée! They were all simple, but coordinating the different cooking times and elements was not! The fennel was sliced thinly and cooked in olive oil with thyme, rosemary and garlic, carrots, onions and fish stock. The cabbage was blanched, pressed and cooked in butter with carrots, onions, lardons and chicken stock. Both were equally simple and delicious! The celery root purée was a classic: celery root and potato cooked in milk and water, then mashed with cream and butter. I think this would have gone exceptionally well with the lamb stew!

My internship starts today. Actually, as you’re reading this I’ll probably be finishing up my first day. I’m very, very excited about this one because of all the doors it could open for me in the future. I can’t believe I’m already 2/3 of the way done with this program, and even though sitting through three hours of basic math each week and being surrounded by squealing teenage girls had been difficult, I’m so glad to have this opportunity and I can’t even begin to list all of the valuable knowledge that I’ve picked up over the course of the last two months. More to come, hopefully with lots of mouth-watering photos from my next internship!

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