This Week in Culinary School: Week 5

fry line.jpg

That’s me in the back.  I’m not sure why I’m so giddy about deep frying!

Top Three Things I Learned This Week

We had our first midterm this week, both a cumulative written and practical exam.  It was a good opportunity to review the great deal that we’ve learned in the first month of culinary school.  The practical exam was more difficult than I expected, especially as someone who has been cooking at home for decades. The basic format of the practical might be familiar to you if you’ve watched Chopped (and who hasn’t?)—we were presented with a tray of ingredients, and instructions to make three specific dishes out of them in a fixed amount of time, all while being observed by our instructor.  But unlike on Chopped, the goal was to make the prescribed recipes properly, not to go crazy with creativity.  We were graded on taste, presentation, organization.  I learned that I have a lot of room for improvement, mainly on organizing and multitasking, which would surprise anyone who knows me, since those are two of my strengths!

scallops beurre blanc

Scallops in Beurre Blanc

That said, all of our nervous energy stepping it up for the exam made us turn some magical corner, so that now we are suddenly capable of making restaurant-quality food. We made many French classics this week, including coq au vin, duck confit, and several soufflés. These are the highlights:

1. Organization is Everything. Not just the concept of mise en place, which means getting all the ingredients and utensils ready before you cook a dish, but prioritizing items which need to be prepared first.  This is easy enough when you’re making one dish, but when you are making say, three dishes, that might have three different sauces, and three different garnishes, all of which need to be finished around the same time, this can get tricky.  There’s always something that can be done while something is simmering on the stove.  Also, everything takes longer than you might anticipate.  I think the takeaway point is to work smarter, not harder.  (Applies to more than cooking!)

lemon souffle

Lemon Soufflé

2.  Myth-Busting Soufflés– I think most people think, as I used to, that soufflés are complicated to make and fragile (as in “don’t make too much noise or the soufflé will fall!”) Turns out neither of these are true. Soufflés are actually extremely easy to make, and even after folding in your perfectly whisked egg whites, they can even sit for a while before baking.  Trust me, a commercial kitchen is not a silent place, and we had no trouble with fallen soufflés.  Added bonus: two of the soufflés we made this week are gluten-free: chocolate and lemon.  In the case of the first, chocolate is the starch which holds together the soufflé, and for the lemon, we cooked the lemon-sugar-yolk mixture before adding in the egg whites, and the cooking of the yolks provides the structure for that one.  Good to know when you’re making dessert for a gluten-free guest!

3.  Gastrique– I wish this were named otherwise, but this somewhat offputting name (especially to people working in medicine) is basically the French version of sweet and sour sauce.  It’s caramel deglazed with vinegar, and works on its own on, for example, vegetables, and can be added to lend a bit of sweet acidity to a pan sauce, as we did with this duck breast:

duck breast gastrique.jpg

To make a basic gastrique,

-heat a frying or saucepan

-gradually add in a cup of white sugar, swirling frequently, until you have liquid caramel

-once the caramel has formed and is no darker than an amber or honey color, add in an equal amount of the vinegar of your choice and simmer until the caramel is fully dissolved and the sauce has reduced enough to coat the back of a spoon

Other things that can be thrown in are fruit, infused herbs, aromatics (garlic, onion, shallots) and wine, depending on what flavor you’re aiming for.  Looks and tastes fancy, but incredibly easy!


Thanks for coming by! If you’re curious what it’s like to be in culinary school, check out my previous posts and also come back weekly for my latest updates.  I’ll be sharing tips, ingredients, and recipe ideas straight from the classroom.  And for more healthy cooking and eating tips, join my community on Facebook at The Doctor’s Spicebox.  To your health!

6 responses

  1. I’m enjoying these posts so much! Do you read Lucky Peach? Shall I give you a subscription? One chef said that culinary school is a waste of time, to just get in there as an apprentice. I’ll bet your children enjoy that you’re having exams!

    • Hi Marcie! I love Lucky Peach and would gratefully accept your offer of a subscription! Pls don’t give me 2nd thoughts about culinary school though, I’m committed! The children find my exam prep amusing; hopefully I’m setting a good example for them!

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