The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This week has been full of ups and downs, but I'm the kind of person who would rather end on a high note, so I'm leaving "the good" for the closing of this entry. But first....

The Bad:

Despite what previous posts may have told you about my life here, the day to day routine isn't exactly a cake walk. This no make-up, no perfume, no jewelry routine is getting rather old. And I can't decide what I'm more sick of - washing dishes or scrubbing floors. A mountain of dishes like this can appear out of nowhere, especially when the chef says, "Class, each of you will be required to make a hollandaise for me during your practical, so I want each of you to make your own today." By the time all 17 of us had gathered our equipment and ingredients, I'm surprised there were any sauce pots or bowls left in the room! And you know what that means? All of them will be in the sink eventually which means they must be scrubbed, rinsed and sanitized.

The Ugly:

Our stocks class has been structured down to the minute. We are asked to arrive 5 minutes before class begins so that we have time to put our things away before lining up outside alphabetically for uniform inspection. If our coats aren't ironed, our aprons aren't bleached, or our shoes aren't polished guess what. We go home. After inspections, we take our daily quiz, sit through lecture and enter production. We then clean briefly before heading up to dinner promptly at 5:45, return to class at 7:00 to finish cleaning, and we're supposed to be out the door by 7:30. Yesterday, we worked more efficiently than we ever had, so we were able to do a large amount of the cleaning before heading off to dinner. That meant that we would return from dinner at 7:00 for any last-minute announcements or reminders from the chef and head out the door 30 minutes early. Or so we thought...
Upon returning from dinner, we cleaned the last few pots and began to gather our things to leave. The chef asked, "Have you cleaned the floors?" We were so proud to say, "Yes, chef. We scrubbed them before dinner." He replied, "Well you're doing them again. Floors should ALWAYS be the last thing you clean. And they just look dirty." Great. After scrubbing the floors for the second time, we had to re-wipe down the tables to prevent water marks from forming, and we ended up leaving at 8:00 which was 30 minutes late.

The Good:
Aside from that, this week has been packed with incredible learning opportunities. Johnson and Wales has so many unique organizations that expose students to various aspects of the food industry. This week was particulary exciting because I was able to attend both an ice sculpture club meeting and a beer brewing club meeting.

The ice sculpture club, formally known as The Chippers, meets every 2 weeks in one of the culinary labs. We split up into groups of 2-4, and each group is given a 300 pound block of ice to carve whatever we want. They have templates to choose from, but I suppose a group could free-hand the sculpture if they wanted. I was paired with another freshman who hadn't carved before either, and we thought this design would be fairly simple. We were wrong, but had a great time trying to do it! To begin the sculpture, we had to trace a template on banner paper which we then stuck onto the ice and outlined in the ice using small picks.
We then used chain saws (of which I do not have pictures) to cut off larger chunks of ice around our design. From there, we roughly chipped away the ice which creates a ridged look as shown in the picture below.
Smoothing tools are then used to give the sculpture a cleaner look and to add any detail work. Sadly, I don't have any pictures of that process either. But here's a picture of some of the other students working on their sculptures. A few of the members have been doing this for over a year and carved some very impressive pieces. Hopefully I'll get better with time!


Vichyssoise and lots of Fond

I might as well be taking French here with all of the French we're required to know. Dicing is now known as brunoise, macedoine or parmentier depending on the size of the cubes being cut. Stocks are now Fond. Vegetables are mirepoix. It's a little overwhelming but also exciting at the same time. When I hear someone shout, "Bring me some fond brun d'agneau!" I know instantly that brown lamb stock is needed.

Our soup lab moves much more quickly than baking and pastry did. Since baking is all about precision, most of our lab time was spent scaling out ingredients to the nearest tenth of a gram. In this class, the chef simply says, "Grab some more cream and add it in." Well, how much is "some"? The time that was spent scaling out ingredients in baking is now spent learning to add ingredients by taste rather than by measurement. In the middle of production, it's typical for the classoom to look something like this:
Once the soups are finished, they are sent up to the dining rooms in 2-4 gallon containers, portioned out, and garnished so that they're served to us like this:

We've already covered a wide variety of soup-making techniques to produce dishes like cream of carrot soup, butternut squash bisque, clam chowder, and vichyssoise. It has been interesting to see how all of the culinary labs work together throughout the day. For example, our soup lab is responsible for providing all of the soups for dining room service, and all of the other culinary labs rely on us for stock production.

It's common for famous chefs to perform demos on campus for the culinary students. Thursday, I was lucky enough to be invited to attend one of the first ones of the year. Chef Graham Brown from Pure New Zealand Cuisine came Thursday morning to showcase the secrets of some signature New Zealand dishes. I felt like I was on Emeril Live. This picture is terrible, but it gives you an idea of what the room looked like.
He prepared a variety of dishes in front of us using the New Zealand gold kiwi and my favorite, lamb. As soon as he finished preparing one dish, chefs appeared from the back kitchens carrying trays of individual portions of tempura mussles, steamed mussels with kiwi salsa, roasted venison atop grilled pita with a cauliflower tabouleh, and rack of lamb with kiwi tzatziki for each of us to try. One word - delicious! Not a bad trade off either. I'd sit through that again any day instead of attending my menu planning and cost controls class for 2 hours. Who wouldn't want to have this for brunch?


"It's hot, and it's only going to get hotter."

After two weeks of studying the basics of baking and pastry, I survived my first practical exam. It consisted of a written exam followed by an extensive hands-on test during which we demonstrated what we had learned in the class by preparing chef-selected dishes. For a four hour block of time, the chef monitored our every move and graded our final products on size, shape, technical accuracy, taste, and eye appeal. Though I didn't take any pictures during the actual exam, I do have some pictures from earlier in the week of the items we were asked to reproduce. Below are pictures of baguettes, challah, croissants and scones.

They don't give us much time to rest here. Despite the fact that I had a final exam yesterday, the second round of labs began today. For the next two weeks I will be in Stocks, Sauces and Soups for 6 hours each day. Even though it's new subject matter, my classmates are the same. Today we opened our knife kits (some of us for the first time) to practice knife skills on carrots, onions, potatoes and leeks. Our ignorance showed briefly at the beginning of class when several cut their fingers. We've been told those are just a sampling of the injuries we can expect over the next year and throughout our careers.

"The mark of a great chef --or at least one who works hard-- is a knife callus." That's what our chef told us as he began his knife skills demo today. By the time I was on my second or third carrot, I understood what he meant. My index finger is blistered, and it's only day one. I never thought I'd wish for a callus, but I am now.

We are beginning to feel like real culinary students since we are now cooking in a hot lab (a lab in which hot foods are prepared). What they don't tell you about hot labs is that they are HOT. Room temperature in this lab is around 75 to 77 degrees, and that's before the burners, boilers, and ovens are turned on. Keep in mind, we are also in full uniform. Long pants. Long sleeves. And hats. The chef noticed us sweating and heard a few of us commenting on how warm it was, and his response? "Yes, it's hot, and it's only going to get hotter. Get used to it." I thought by moving to Rhode Island I was escaping the heat. I guess I was wrong.

On the bright side, we are once again served dinner during lab, but this time it's table service. At 5:45 each day we are required to report to dining room 1, a classroom in the culinary arts building, to be seated for a 3 or 4 course French dinner. It's amazing how quickly cream of carrot soup, freshly baked baguettes, and roasted partridge can erase the frustrations of a hard day in the lab.


Life on the Rhode. Rhode Island that is.

As promised, I finally broke down, overcame my writing insecurities and decided to enter the blogosphere. I’m making no promises that this will be a great read, but if you are interested in my life in Rhode Island, feel free to check in and read about it here.

The name of the blog, Lobster and Grits, is supposed to represent this north meets south phase of my life. Grits for me, the southern girl. Lobster for New England, the area in which I now reside. Lobster and grits taken from the classic South Carolinian dish, shrimp and grits. (Even though I only lived in South Carolina for 4 years, I like to think I can still halfway claim it as home.) And of course, since this blog will detail my experiences and life in culinary school, it's only appropriate that my blog have a food-related title. And no, I've never actually prepared lobster and grits, but I plan to. I'll let you know how it turns out.

I can’t believe that I’ve only been living here for a mere three weeks. I’ve spent 60 hours of the last 2 weeks in class, and 48 of those were in the kitchen. Since last Tuesday, my lab class of 17 freshmen culinary arts majors has been furiously baking up pies, muffins, cookies, ├ęclairs, baguettes, croissants, and so many more delicious baked goods that I've lost count. And as culinary students, we are required by the university to taste everything. We even had to taste these raspberry and apple danishes. How unfortunate, right?

Life outside of the classroom is going well. I’m still discovering all that Providence and the surrounding areas have to offer, but with classes running until 8:00 p.m., little time is left for exploring. I’ve made a few trips to the major mall in Providence known as Providence Place (pictured above). Ladies, this mall is ridiculous. Aside from Anthroplogie I’m at a loss to think of a store this mall doesn’t have. And the 4th floor (yes, the mall has 4 floors) is a 16-theater cinema complete with a 3D Imax.

I was expecting a little bit of a culture shock when I moved here because I've been told repeatedly that Northerners are more abrasive and of course lack southern hospitality, but I've been pleasantly suprised. From what I've experienced, Rhode Islanders are very friendly. One of my favorite things to do here is ride the campus bus and strike up conversation with whoever sits down beside me. My friends here get a kick out of it because even when I'm with them on the bus, I always insist on sitting on a separate bench so that I can make a new friend. I like to think I've made a few this way.

One last thought that I'll leave you with is yes, I still do cook for myself. But it has only been 2 weeks. We'll just have to see how long I keep it up.