Thursday, December 22, 2011

First Prize Pies

By Alexa Magarian

With the holidays just around the corner, anyone hosting a party stresses over that familiar dilemma: What should I make for dessert? You want to make something different and impress everyone at the end of the meal. But keeping the guests in mind and making something that appeals to everyone is key to successful entertaining. Tell your aunt to forget about bringing the same old trifle to your holiday gathering and opt for something you know friends and family will be raving about till next year: a perfect homemade pie.

I joined Allison Kave, founder of First Prize Pies, at an afternoon demo, where she shared helpful tips and techniques for baking pies. She featured three of her specialties: apple cranberry, Shaker lemon, and spicy hot chocolate. The concept is updating a classic comfort treat with modern flair and whimsical combinations of flavors. As soon as she mentioned her Root Beer Float Pie, I practically had one foot out the door, ready to place my order.

The spicy hot chocolate was incredible! The chocolate filling had just the right amount of heat and was topped with whipped cream, sprinkled with red pepper flakes, and held together by a gingersnap cookie crust.

Allison demonstrated her secrets to the perfect pie crust (she always makes her dough on a flat surface in order to have room to spread everything out and mix evenly). She made lattice-cuts and crimped edges look like a breeze.

She finds that using European-style butter, which is higher in butterfat, results in a richer flavor. And instead of buying buttermilk, she makes her own simply by adding apple cider vinegar to some whole milk. Those who use buttermilk in any recipe know how annoying it is to buy a whole container and have so much leftover after using just a small amount.

Allison won the Best Overall Prize in 2009 at the Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off. Encouraged by her boyfriend to enter the contest, Allison stuck with a personal favorite, her Bourbon Ginger Pecan Pie, something she has been baking since she was fifteen. Though she admitted to a bit of hesitancy about entering and feeling as though she had no chance of winning, she surprised herself and certainly delighted others with her delicious contest entry.

I always enjoy hearing personal stories about how one starts a small business, often from turning a hobby into a new career. Allison’s story was one I could especially relate to, as she told her personal journey of re-thinking what she really wanted to do during the economic crisis. The day of the contest was meaningful, as she shared her success with family and friends who came out to support her. What makes her work so enjoyable, Allison said, is that there is something about pie that always fosters a sense of community.

First Prize Pies are a great solution to a holiday party, or any event, when you want an actual homemade dessert and don’t have the time to make one. All you have to do is decide which one (or two) you want, and order!

Alexa Magarian is a student in the Classic Pastry Arts program. Originally from Boston, she hopes to combine her background in public relations and writing with her love for cooking and baking. Her greatest joy in life is spending time with her family around the kitchen table, eating dinner together. When she is not tempering chocolate and creating desserts in class, she enjoys traveling for inspiration, and meeting people who are just as passionate about food as she is.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Pastry Student Lives Here

By Alicia Valverde

I'm officially on my 4th week here at The International Culinary Center. We've gone through almost 2 units already we just finished tarts, time is seriously flying! I already feel like I've learned so much and I'm still only in my first level. My habits have also slowly started changing as well. I thought that I would never call myself an early riser but here I am, up at 7 in the morning almost every day. I've also never been too much of a neat freak, however, you can catch me every day organizing my desk/tables/etc. as if they're being set up as mise en place.

Some would call that OCD but I'd like to think it's just part of being in this industry. Even my roommate has gotten used to my newly found eccentricities like pounding Play-doh with a rolling pin on the kitchen table the night before a practical to practice my rolling technique or perhaps the trail of flour I leave behind on almost everything. Even though all of this is new, I can genuinely say that my life has easily transitioned to my new position as a student. I think I really did luck out with a patient roommate (and neighbors, sorry for the loud clanking of my KitchenAid), a supporting group of fellow students that never fail to make me laugh, as well as amazing chef-instructors that tolerate (as well as celebrate) my new ways of thinking. To say that I am happy would be an understatement. Catch me in the kitchen smiling covered in a nice thick layer of sweat and flour any time, any day.

Alicia Valverde is a culinary and literary aficionado. She is currently enrolled in the Classic Pastry Arts program.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Afternoon of Desserts

By Alexa Magarian

To finally have the opportunity to apply the skills learned in class and present your very own creation to the public is just one more stepping stone towards a rewarding career in the pastry arts. A level 3 pastry class invited guests on a recent afternoon to a special tasting where students designed a menu featuring an array of plated desserts. With the rainy weather, it was the sweetest mid-day break.

The tasting began with an amuse bouche as a way to prepare the palate and introduce the desserts. Guests had a choice of a plum brandy cider or spiced apple cider-both drinks were a huge hit. The whimsical sugar-rimmed glasses opened conversation among guests and perhaps gave them a glimpse of what was to follow.

I saw so many great things on the menu, but unfortunately could only pick one so I went with the white chocolate hazelnut semifreddo. It was everything I want in a dessert: smooth, creamy, and refreshing. I adored the way the raspberry and chocolate sauce was incorporated: perfectly-sized dots in a row, from small to large. This technique seemed to give the whole plate more depth but it was just enough to keep the main dessert in the spotlight.

If I had known that extra desserts would be brought out for guests to share towards the end of the tasting, I wouldn’t have finished my entire plate down to the last crumb! I also sampled the Tiramisu, a favorite of mine, but the espresso granite made it so much more appealing. It was the perfect accompaniment to a traditional dessert, especially when served in the mini chocolate box. The hazelnut crisp cookie, shaped like a spoon, was another charming touch that the guests seemed to enjoy.

The Petite Bomboloni Trio was another popular choice among guests. Brioche doughnuts filled with spiced pumpkin, candied bacon, and chocolate cream, served with a harvest apple butter and caramel sauce-what a perfect treat on a cold and rainy day.

Seeing what the students in level 3 have accomplished makes me excited for the challenges that lay ahead for my class. The desserts they created truly impressed me-each item was so well done and professional. I came to FCI because I love to make pastries, and even though some days are long and hard, I know that bringing people together for dessert and making someone’s day that much sweeter is totally worth it.

Alexa Magarian is a student in the Classic Pastry Arts program. Originally from Boston, she hopes to combine her background in public relations and writing with her love for cooking and baking. Her greatest joy in life is spending time with her family around the kitchen table, eating dinner together. When she is not tempering chocolate and creating desserts in class, she enjoys traveling for inspiration, and meeting people who are just as passionate about food as she is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dessert Critique

By Alexa Magarian

Dessert is the culminating point of a meal-it really does make or break an entire experience of dining out. Imagine finishing a mediocre meal: you may throw down your napkin, ask for the check, and run home to vent on Yelp. Or, you reluctantly order dessert and soon find yourself with a smile on your face, sitting in front of a beautiful presentation of something sweet, something perfect to end your day.

In my Pastry Level 2 course we are close to finishing the first unit of plated desserts. We had covered a range of plating techniques, crème brulees, and ice creams, and know that a well-plated dessert always has some kind of sauce and a decorative cookie, like a tuille. My personal favorite was the banana macadamia nut financier. For a recent class assignment, our chef instructor asked us to visit a restaurant of our choice, order a dessert, and critique it.

I went to a popular Japanese dessert bar. The dining area was small and cozy, seating about 30. You can even catch a glimpse of the pastry kitchen in action through a large glass window. Sharing with customers how the food is created always makes the restaurant feel more inviting and intimate.

Tired of ordering something I already know, I picked the most unusual-sounding item from the seasonal menu: pear and cranberry hibiscus agar, yude azuki, matcha shiratama, and kuromitsu ice cream.

The Autumn Anmitsu came in a simple bowl filled with ice cream covered in a red bean paste. The pear and hibiscus agar, in the shapes of tiny cubes, sat along the edge of the ice cream. What initially caught my eye was something small and bright green nestled under the ice cream and agar, which I later learned was a green tea dumpling. A caramel decoration (which we learned to make in class just days before) topped off the dessert. The ice cream had a sort of grainy texture and earthy flavor. Everything else was just very chewy and gelatinous. I personally dislike that kind of texture, especially in desserts, but it’s still important to try something in order to understand it and appreciate how it is incorporated in a unique dish like this. It certainly was not the most mouth-watering dessert I’ve ever had. The presentation was not very enticing for me. But what definitely worked was the color combination: light caramel, maroon, and bright green, colors that certainly highlight autumn, just in a new and unusual way. I can certainly appreciate the unique ingredients and the thought that went into pairing them together. I would love to try this restaurant again, especially for dinner, and perhaps a different dessert.

Alexa Magarian is a student in the Classic Pastry Arts program. Originally from Boston, she hopes to combine her background in public relations and writing with her love for cooking and baking. Her greatest joy in life is spending time with her family around the kitchen table, eating dinner together. When she is not tempering chocolate and creating desserts in class, she enjoys traveling for inspiration, and meeting people who are just as passionate about food as she is.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Hungry & the Hungrier

By Emma DeSantis

3pm sharp: I reach the entrance of the Metropolitan Pavilion for a volunteer opportunity – The City Harvest “Bid Against Hunger” event. I found this volunteer opportunity on the school's student intranet, where there are loads of interesting culinary events to sign up for. Guests have brought tickets for an evening of fine food, drinks, and the opportunity to spend outrageous amounts of money towards items in which proceeds go to help New York City’s hungry.

I approach one of the organizers of the event, tell her my name and she lets me know that I will be helping Sushi Samba for the evening.

“If they’re not there yet you can leave your things by their table and help out in the loading area,” she informs me.

They were not there, which didn’t surprise me as the event wasn’t starting until 5:30pm, when the VIP guests arrived.

I made my way to the loading area and started helping chefs from various restaurants around the city carry their boxes or load them on carts and escort them to their chefs’ tables – back and forth and back again.

I thought to myself how great it is to be surrounded by chefs from incredible New York City restaurants who are so highly regarded and well-established in the industry. Restaurants participating included the likes of Porter House New York, Tribeca Grill, Le Bernardin, Magnolia Bakery, Murray’s Cheese, and The Darby.

It was just less then half an hour until the event and the rush of incoming chefs started dying down. I was starting to wonder if I would have a chef's table to assist.

“Well,” said one of the event coordinators. “If you end up not having someone to volunteer for, you can be a floater.”

“A floater?” I asked.

“Yes, you can just go around offering help to different chefs’ tables. But we also need to make sure you can actually help with something and avoid getting in the way.”

Over two hours of carrying boxes and pushing carts and it looks like all I’m going to be for the evening is an inconvenient floater. Splendid!
Five minutes before the start of the event, Sushi Samba arrived and I was excited and relieved that I had a secure spot for the evening. Setting up took no time at all and the first round of food was ready within 5 minutes, just as the initial guests started trickling in. They served glazed pork belly on a bed of lettuce, topped with frisée salad and hearts of palm, then finished with an olive oil and vinegar mixture and a sprinkling of sea salt. The head chef insisted I try one. Well, twist my arm! The sweetness of the glaze, saltiness of the pork, and tanginess of the toppings worked perfectly together.

I looked around for a mere moment. Is that Eric Ripert and Cesare Casella having a good old chin-wag? Yes, yes, it is! My first ever celebrity chef sighting, yet it’s surprising how non-celebrity and very down-to-earth these guys appear. Just another reason why I love this industry.

We continue the plating—lettuce, pork, frisée, hearts of palm, dressing, salt and so this pattern continued. The bidding begins, with guests paying in the thousands for various food experiences such as cooking classes. The final bid of the evening was a dinner with Le Bernardin executive chef, Eric Ripert, which went for $40,000!

The chef’s table next to us was serving tuna belly tacos with sweet onion salsa, and they were kind enough to give us some to try. This was one of my favorite foods of the night. Throughout the course of the evening I also got to try fluke crudo and some of the best foie gras I have ever had. I would carry a thousand boxes for food this fantastic.

With the bidding completed and the food running low, the evening came to a close.

It was wonderful assisting such a great restaurant that is dedicated to providing fine food, as are all the restaurants and chefs that took part. But more importantly, every person at the Metropolitan Pavilion that evening was not there just for the exquisite foods or their chance to outbid another, but to help feed the hungry of New York City.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Change in Food Perception

By Ron Yan

Before coming to culinary school, I considered myself to be an "experienced" foodie, to the point of becoming snobbish, among my circle of friends. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? I just have higher expectations to how my food should come out of the kitchen and served in front of me. Aren’t all foodies a little snobbish? I know how most dishes were supposed to taste, to look, to smell, to feel, and to sound by appealing to our five senses. You’re probably wondering about the "sound" sense—have you had Chinese sizzling platters (铁板烧) or teppanyaki? They are supposed to be sizzling when served to you; that same sound you hear every time Hell's Kitchen goes to commercial break.

I've been in school for a month and I noticed that my food perceptions have changed whenever I dine in. I really nitpick at everything on my plate—from the presentation to all the elements on the plate or bowl. Does everything on the plate have a purpose? Do all the ingredients complement each other? My instructor, Chef Phil, says the way to really test a restaurant’s chefs is to order a salad dish and a fish entrée.

For salads, we learned that there are three types—simple, mixed, and composed. A Caesar Salad is a simple salad—one main ingredient that is dressed simply in a dressing. A mixed salad has several ingredients and they are seasoned together, e.g. macédoine de légumes (cooked vegetable salad). A composed salad has a mixture of several ingredients seasoned separately and then presented together on one plate. The classical French salade Niçoise is such an example of a composed salad. When preparing the salad, the salad greens should be healthy, dry, and not be bruised. For the dressing, too many elements can cause it to become overpowering and it may cancel out flavors in the salad. It is important to select ingredients in the salad greens and in the dressing to complement each other. The flavor of the main salad ingredient should be enhanced by the salad dressing, not masked by the dressing.

I had lunch at a well-known hotel in Midtown last week and I had a Manhattan clam chowder soup, a beet and goat cheese salad, and a ham and Swiss sandwich on ciabatta bread. I ordered the beet and goat cheese salad because we had already made it in class so I knew how it was supposed to taste/look/smell/feel. If I had made the salad, I wouldn’t have drowned it in dressing. In school, we learned to take a spoonful and slide it around the edge of a stainless mixing bowl and then toss it with the salad greens. The beets were not tender in the center so that told me that they should have been cooked in the oven a little longer. Also, I would have liked the vinaigrette to be a little less acidic. The sharp tang wasn’t too pleasing. However, I did enjoy the clam chowder and sandwich.

Ron has lived in Beijing, Toronto, Hong Kong, and the state of Texas (Plano and Austin) before coming to The International Culinary Center to study in The French Culinary Institute's Classic Culinary Arts program. He is inspired by the cuisines from different cultures and loves to travel. When Ron is not Yelping or passionately learning new skills and techniques in class, he is updating his food blog, Cooking with Strawberry Tsunami.

Monday, October 24, 2011

'Nuff with the Puff

By Jax Hubbard

It's no secret that the majority of the students in the Culinary Arts program are not particularly apt in the pastry department. It is not to say that we cooks are incompetent or incapable of rolling dough or making caramel. We'd just rather break bread than bake it. Part of the culinary curriculum, however, incorporates pastry lessons in an effort to expose us to as many aspects of the kitchen as possible; whether we like it or not, we have to do it, and do it well.

For six lessons in Level Two, we endured numerous demands from the curriculum, from crèmes and custards to crepes and fritters. I experienced firsthand the heavy feeling of defeat as I watched crème anglaise go from a creamy, slightly thickened (known as nappant in the kitchen) conglomerate to watery scrambled eggs. I witnessed caramel’s rapid transformation from dark golden brown perfection to burnt, bitter molasses. I grumbled over doughy worktops that had to be scrubbed down several times throughout the evening. I sniffled as particles of flour puffed from my hands, floated into my nostrils. I felt the devastation upon discovering that my puff pastry fruit tart hadn’t survived the commute home.

Contrary to how it seems, it wasn't all bad—and we even picked up on a few things along the way. We whirled up frozen fruit soufflé that tasted a lot like a Push Pop. Buttercream from a generic bakery tastes like Styrofoam when compared to fresh frosting. Chantilly sounds fancy, but it’s just a decorative word for whipped cream. There are three types of meringues, and the Italian one is the best (right, Marc?). Génoise is a base cake that is flavored in a variety of ways to make little génoise offspring. Crème anglaise tastes almost as good as the ice cream it makes.

With our pastry tolerance maxed out and our chops just barely developed, we underwent the Level Two practical. In addition to manhandling meat, we delivered on the pastry requirements, granting us the ability to move on to Level Three. (It’s like leaving Neverland—you're excited to grow up, but you'll miss all the fun you had as a kid.)

The most important thing I learned during the two weeks of pastry is that, though I am able to prepare simple desserts and not completely screw them up, and I can impress others with my persistence in whipping cream by hand, I'd much rather have someone do it for me. I turned dough to make puff pastry, but I've had enough with the stuff. For now.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and student at The French Culinary Institute. She is also the founder of Hubbard aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition and live to write about it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cake Techniques and Design Inaugural Graduation

We're very proud to announce that our first class of students graduated from the inaugural Cake Techniques and Design program earlier this month at our New York City campus. In class, students learned all aspects of cake making, from the fundamentals of construction to hands-on practice of both classical and contemporary decorating techniques.

After completing many cakes throughout the program, our students' final challenge was to design and create an elaborate enchanted themed cake. Here are some photos from behind-the-scenes in the kitchen, the final cakes on display, and the graduating students, with pastry chef-instructors and Ron Ben-Israel, preeminent cake designer, looking on.

We'd like to congratulate our students and wish them the best as they embark on their new careers!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jacques Pépin's Ultimate Test of a Chef

By Jen Benyamine

Chef Jacques Pépin is one of the world's most renowned chefs and also dean of special programs here at The International Culinary Center. Dean Pépin recently visited the amphitheater to demonstrate the basic techniques he feels every professional chef—and home cook—should know in order to strengthen their culinary skills.
Whether he was carving and shaping a flower from a brick of butter or trimming and dicing a leek with exact precision, it was like watching a magician at work. His magic was on full display when he fixed a horribly broken handmade mayonnaise with a bit of vinegar slowly drizzled into the base (a trick I know will come in handy throughout my culinary education)!
Dean Pépin then told us that when he really wants to judge a chef's techniques, he asks them to prepare an omelet. Lucky for us, he gave a first-hand step-by-step guide to creating the perfect French omelet.
  1. Use a wide pan with sloping sides, preferably non-stick.
  2. Whisk the eggs well with a fork and really break them up so there are no long pieces of egg white.
  3. Heat the pan very well and place butter in it. It is ready once the butter starts bubbling.
  4. Pour the beaten eggs into the hot pan and vigorously shake the pan while using the fork to stir the center of the eggs to break up the curds and make them as small as possible. You want a lot of movement at this point.
  5. Once the eggs are cooked to the doneness you prefer (traditionally a bit wet in the center), angle the pan so that most of the mixture is at the bottom, with a thin layer on top. Run your fork around the edges to loosen the eggs from the pan. Then fold the thin, cooked eggs down into a half-moon shape.
  6. Run your fork under the thickest part of the eggs to loosen them from the pan and hit the pan at the base where the handle meets with the back of your hand to scoot it up, and begin to bring that part up and out of the pan. Push that part down over the center of the omelet to seal it.
  7. Bang the pan on your workspace a bit to move the omelet to the center of the pan and with an inverted hand, flip the omelet onto your plate. There should be no color (it should be white or pale yellow) and just pointed at the ends. It should have a very creamy and soft interior.
His demo was a peek into what can be seen in Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques, his latest book that encompasses all that he has learned in the past 40 years. Included is a DVD with over three hours worth of Chef Pépin's techniques. As he said during the demo, he felt it was important to have a visual of some techniques because even the best written directions can be difficult to follow sometimes. We can attest to that, especially after having a front row seat to his craft in action.

Jen Benyamine is a student in the Classic Culinary Arts program.

Monday, October 03, 2011


By Ron Yan

I survived my first week at culinary school.

It’s been absolutely amazing. Tiring, but I look forward to each 5-hour class. I am very confident in my cooking skills, so I have no problem with the pace of the class and the new information. But I have to stand up for the entirety, including the break, so buying good quality black non-slip shoes was very important. I have class every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night... which also means, I can’t go out on Saturday nights because by the time I finish class, it’s 10:45pm. Then it takes me 15 minutes to pack my stuff and change from my uniform back into my street clothes, and I don’t get back to my apartment on Roosevelt Island until 11:45pm to midnight, depending on how long I have to wait for the F train.

The most important thing that I’ve learned this past week was taillage, methods of cutting. Learning to cut vegetables the French way is challenging. In the French system, there are certain sizes and shapes reserved for each kind of vegetable (carrots, turnips, potatoes). For instance, carrots are commonly julienned. Julienne carrots are very thin sticks with a measurement of 1-2 mm (width) by 5-7 cm (length). Jardinière are similar to julienne except that they are thicker and shorter, 5mm by 4-5 cm. There are others that we practiced: macédoine, brunoise, émincer, ciseler, paysanne, and chiffonade. When I first read about it in my textbook, I didn’t think that much and the importance of it.

There are three purposes for taillage:

1. To ensure that food will cook evenly at the same rate

2. To enhance the visual appeal of dishes

3. To allow more than one person to prepare items for a specific recipe

I could see the aesthetic part of the cutting but I didn’t really think about reason number 3. Duh. It’s not just me anymore in the kitchen when I start working in a restaurant.

Anyway, before my education at The FCI, whenever I made bisques and chowders at home, I did chop my squash and potatoes into small dice but their sizes weren’t completely uniform. When I made New England Clam Chowder (view the recipe) the first time, cooking took kind of a long time. And last night, it only took 30 minutes. I was impressed.

Ron has lived in Beijing, Toronto, Hong Kong, and the state of Texas (Plano and Austin) before coming to The International Culinary Center to study in The French Culinary Institute's Classic Culinary Arts program. He is inspired by the cuisines from different cultures and loves to travel. When Ron is not Yelping or passionately learning new skills and techniques in class, he is updating his food blog, Cooking with Strawberry Tsunami.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chef Robert Bleifer gets "Chopped"

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Former contestants of Chopped can rest assured that they were granted a little karmic revenge when the Food Network’s Executive Chef, Robert Bleifer, was put to the test at an ICC demo last week. The tables were turned on Chef Bleifer, who is one of the people responsible for putting together the dreaded combinations for the show’s mystery baskets, when he was forced to confront three mystery baskets of his own. On Chopped, the mystery baskets hold a selection of ingredients from which contestants must create a dish. Essentially, they hold the contestants' fate in the competition.
These were not easy baskets either. Basket number one had a Japanese theme with Japanese eggplants, peppitas, yakult yogurt drink, and shiso leaves. Basket number two included octopus, cocoa nibs, piquillo peppers, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs. Finally, for dessert Chef Bleifer was given mango, dried chilies, sweet rice flour, and Pocky sticks. He had a total of 90 minutes to create three dishes and could also draw basic ingredients from a pantry of selected items. I think we can all agree that no punches were pulled just because the Chef is an alumnus.

While Chef Bleifer mulled over what the heck he was going to do with the ingredients, he revealed secrets from behind the scenes of the Food Network kitchens. He certainly has access to all the dirt as he oversees the kitchens of fifteen shows at the channel including Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and of course, Chopped, among many others. Here’s a little dish from the Iron Chef kitchens: Despite the fact that the chefs are given a $500 allotment they can use to request items for their pantry, certain chefs have occasionally tried to sneak in gourmet ingredients that have exceed their budget. (Sorry, not going to tell you who.) Another fun fact is that the day before an Iron Chef season begins, the test kitchen staff has a test run in Kitchen Stadium. The ingredients the teams are given are pretty goofy, but the competition is deadly serious, and it’s always everyone’s favorite day at work.

As far as coming up with the mystery baskets, it’s not as easy as you might think. A lot of factors go into the process and creating new combinations gets more difficult with every season because the ingredients can’t be repeated. They also don’t want the combinations to be too impossibly difficult, so particular care is taken to make sure that there are at least two ‘outs’ or possibilities for each basket. At the same time, things would get boring if every contestant were to come back with the same dish, so they try to include a variety of colors and textures in each basket. Ideas initially come from the entire kitchen staff, but slowly they get whittled down by smaller and smaller committees, until ultimately the final decisions are made by Chef Bleifer and his partner. Of course the producers and the ad department occasionally get a say as well.

In his role at Executive Chef, Chef Bleifer oversees food production for fifteen shows, as well as Food Network events. He is also involved in coordinating production teams, photographers, and food stylists. His background made him uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities that eventually led him to his current position. Prior to attending FCI, he had experience as a photographer. Afterward, he spent time working at Park Avenue Cafe. Eventually an opportunity presented itself to freelance at the then fledgling Food Network. He took the work never thinking or intending that it would lead to a long-term career; however that is exactly what happened. And it would appear that he learned a thing or two from the hosts and chefs on his shows about stage presence, because Chef Bleifer kept smiling and chatting even when it seemed that he’d be stumped by the mystery baskets he had to work with.

So what did he do with all of those crazy ingredients? For his first dish, he borrowed a technique picked up from Chef Michael Psilakis to prepare the octopus. He first seared the octopus on the grill, then put the whole thing in a Dutch oven at 325° F for 55 min to cook in its own juices. After he pulled it out of the oven, he seared the octopus on the grill again to bring char back. He served the octopus with a sauce inspired by romesco and mole, made with pequillo peppers, cocoa nibs, a bit of the ancho chilies from the dessert basket, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs, all processed together in a vita prep.

Figuring out what to create for the second course wasn’t so easy. For this one he cooked down the Japanese eggplant, combined with a yakult yogurt drink reduction with some onions, sake, and the dried shitake mushrooms which he pulverized into a powder. It did not look appetizing at this point. He processed this through the vita prep as well to create a pureed soup, which he garnished with the peppitas and shiso leaves. I think the whole audience and Chef Bleifer doubted this one would come together, but he pulled it together in the end.
For dessert, Chef Bleifer used the sticky rice powder to create basic mochi casings that he stuffed with two different fillings. The first had a combination of mango, sake, and chilli. The second had chocolate, pulverized Pocky sticks, and cream.
But how did the food taste? Any competition needs judges and sitting on this panel were—Melissa Salt, Chef/Owner of Saltbar; Ed McFarland, Chef/Owner of Ed's Lobster Bar and Caravelli's; and Chef André Soltner, Dean of Classic Studies at FCI. (By the way, both Chef Salt and Chef McFarland are FCI grads.) Unfortunately, the panel was not so keen on the dessert course. Chef Soltner offered humble apologies, but said the mochi was not so good as the panel found the mochi to be a little bit gummy. However, the first two courses got rounds of shocked praise. Chef Soltner said the octopus was “Surprisingly Good!” I got the chance to try the octopus and it was indeed very tasty. Given what Chef Bleifer was given to work with, I think we can count this as a culinary triumph.

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Friday, September 23, 2011

FCI Dinner at BonChon

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Recently, a group of FCI students headed to BonChon for a Korean fried chicken feast. It was the perfect excuse to kick back, relax, and gab away for a couple of hours with fellow students and friends.

The chicken did take a while to come out, but apparently this is because every chicken is made to order. No worries though. Since we all headed over right after day classes let out, happy hour was still in full swing. It was a hot summer day out, so most of us indulged in a pint to refresh ourselves and prime us for the meal ahead.

We also ordered a slate of sides and appetizers to munch on while we waited. The tteokbokki, a large plate of rice and fish cakes in a hot sauce, was probably my favorite side. The sauce had kick, but not an overwhelming amount, and the different elements tossed in the sauce along with noodles and sesame seeds provided a wonderful variety of textures in one dish. The radish side was a hit with everyone at the table, and it and the seaweed salad were refreshing counters to the rich flavors of the chicken that were soon to arrive.

The sides were pretty good, but the chicken was definitely the main event and the reason to head in. The skin is super crispy and crackles as you bite into it, and the meat is moist and juicy. Despite being double-fried (per info on their website) the chicken really does not taste greasy and is covered with just enough sauce to provide a pop of flavor as you bite into to your wing or drumstick. You get your choice of lightly sweet soy garlic or hot sauce to be glazed on your chicken. Both are very tasty, but beware that the hot sauce is not for the faint of heart – or mouth. I’ll admit that a few tears welled up when I first bit into a spicy drum stick. I recommend having radish, seaweed salad, water, and beer all on hand when diving into the spicy chicken.

The chicken plates range from six pieces to twenty, but don’t hesitate to order more than you plan to have in the restaurant. It reheats beautifully and crisps right back up in an oven or toaster oven for a perfect late night snack.

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Culinary Colombia

By Emma DeSantis

As I touched down in Colombia, the waves of heart-pounding excitement came upon me. I was looking forward to the wedding that brought me to this foreign land, yes, but it was more the prospect of another opportunity for culinary exploration that had me on the edge of my cattle-class seat.

The fresh food market I visited in Bogota will make any foodie feel like a kid in a candy store. The array of different fruits, vegetables and spices are mind-blowing and it’s easy to lose yourself in a world where senses are heightened on every level.

A fruit I came to love within my brief yet busy visit to Colombia was guanabana. This fruit is like a creamy combination of various tropical fruit flavors, all packed into one rather precariously spiky looking green shell. This fruit would be the perfect complement to the vanilla ice cream we are going to make in Level 2 of the Classic Culinary Arts program. There are many fabulous fruits native to, or available in Colombia. These include lulo, feijoas (a childhood favorite of mine), and pitahaya. Something that they love to do with all of these fruits is transform them into deliciously decadent fruit smoothies… and I tried my fair share of them.

Just across the lot from the fruit and vegetable market was a small ocean market. The first thing I noticed was how much they love to preserve food using the vacuum sealing method, something I also saw a lot of at the local supermarket. Our class learned about food preservation in Level 1. Vacuum sealing involves drawing out oxygen in the package so that food stays fresh, without altering the texture or flavor like other methods of preservation might. They are onto something.

Then I saw the lobsters and it brought me right back to shellfish lesson. Despite the fact that the recipes in this lesson have become some of my favorites, the method of killing the lobster still disturbs me to this day. Although I had never killed a lobster, I had no qualms about getting to class and throwing this tasty crustacean into a pot of boiling water. Hey, I could have even quite happily stabbed a knife through its googly-eyed head. However, this was not to be.

It turns out that a traditional French technique for killing lobsters is to numb them in ice-water for 20 minutes and twist off its tail-end at the abdomen. Since the tail end is essentially all muscle for swimming, the lobster remained quite alive as we were instructed to tear off its squirming legs until it finally died properly when we picked out its brains. I somehow managed to get through, but there were moments when I just wasn’t sure. Okay, to be fair, lobsters don’t have much of a nervous system, but I still felt like a sadist. The lobster did not die in vain—the end result was delicious.

Back to the foods of Colombia. A very traditional soup in Colombia is ajiaco. This is a bound soup (something I learned in soup lesson, as the broth is bound by the starch in the potato). This rich and creamy textured soup is served with cilantro, chicken usually on the bone, rice, capers, avocado, corn, and heavy cream. That’s what I call a hearty meal! There is nothing about any of those ingredients that I don’t love and they work wonderfully together.

Surprisingly to me, Persian food is very popular in Colombia. Over the years, many Persian people had migrated to the coast of Colombia and as a result it has become a large part of their cuisine. At a family member's home we were served hummus, fried kebbeh, and grape leaves to name a few.

From rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves to fish wrapped in paper. One of my favorite recipes I have made in class is fish en papillote. This dish includes cutting out a heart shaped piece of parchment paper, putting tomato fondue and mushroom duxelles on one side and laying the fresh fish on top. You then top the fish with the a’langlaised julienned vegetables (celery, carrot, and leeks), add a sprig of thyme and a splash of white wine, before sealing the parchment paper together. It then goes in the oven and expands into a glorious encasement of steam, that once punctured releases the full aroma of what’s inside. Are you salivating yet?

One of the fish dishes I had in Bogata was Bagre river fish with a corn salsa. Although not traditional, I would like to experiment and try making fish en papillote with the corn salsa in place of the tomato fondue, as I think it would work amazingly as the sweet aspect of the dish.
Amongst the other delicious and traditional foods I had much of during my stay in Colombia was coconut rice, beef with a prune-based gravy, the vegetable yucca (yucca pont-neuf anyone?), and of course lots of plantain.

As I headed towards the airport, I finally understood the expression when people say they are in a “food coma”. Through the haze of my food coma, I can describe the way I feel about this trip in one word—inspired.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The King of Chocolate Demos Dough

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
2011-09-13 11-52-46 - DSC_0308
Imagine a bakery in the early morning hours. A baker goes to work rolling out dough. The smell of the raw dough begins to waft. As the dough is put in the oven, the aroma fills the room. It is quiet and calm and the smells are intoxicating.

Renowned chocolatier and Dean of Pastry Arts at The ICC, Jacques Torres, painted this picture of his favorite time of day in the bakeries he worked his way up in. The work can often be repetitive, but somewhere in there is also beauty. It was clear from the enthusiasm with which he spoke about the process of making fermented dough for croissants, pain au chocolat, and countless other treats that he has a deep respect for the process of creating them. It almost made me want to get up at 4:00 a.m. to make croissants too . . . almost.
 Years of repetition making countless batches of croissants forges an easy intimacy between chef and ingredients, and Chef Torres’ insight and expertise is inspiring. Chef Torres discussed that while doughs really all have the same basic ingredients—salt, fat, sugar, liquid, and maybe yeast—within those limits there is still room for the baker to play. Change the proportions of the ingredients a few grams one way or the other and you tweak the texture. If you mix your flour, you can create just the right amount of gluten to suit your tastes. Understand how doughs react under different weather conditions and you can adjust your methods. Within these nuances is the genius.

On the other hand, Chef Torres said, with dough as fickle as croissant dough, there are countless factors on which you blame a failed batch. To prevent such failures, however, Chef Torres did share a few of his secrets:
  • For croissant dough, he prefers to use flour with high gluten content, so he likes to use bread flour, which might be cut with a little cake flour.
  • If you plan to let your dough rest, use a little more sugar as it will develop into gas, creating a better fermentation. If you don’t have time to let it rest, use less sugar.
  • A long, slow fermentation will create a more intense flavor.
  • Drop ingredients individually into separate areas of the bowl to make it easier to double-check that everything has been properly added.
  • Periodically check digital scales for accuracy. A quick way to do this is to put a one-pound package of butter on the scale and check that the reading matches.
  • Save scraps of leftover dough, they will act as a starter to help develop flavor in the new dough. Scraps can be stored in the freezer and thawed in the fridge the day before you intend to use them.

While Chef Torres’ expertise was evident, his ebullient personality and clear love of the subject matter was infectious. He entertained the audience with stories from his career and had the audience laughing throughout. There was a generally good vibe in the room during the entire lecture which was only augmented by a brief visit from chefs Jacques Pépin and Andre Soltner. The excitement in the room at getting to see these three great chefs together was palpable.

The cherry to top off this wonderful demo was the slew of delicious samples those of us lucky enough to be in the audience got to try. The warm croissant was beautifully flaky and had the perfect amount of chew, the pain au chocolat was oozing with chocolate, and as a final treat Chef Torres also made large, puffy bomboloni tossed in sugar and filled with pastry cream. My only regret is that I ate mine too quickly!

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Letters to Chef

by Jax Hubbard

Dear Chef Scott,

You’ll be surprised to know that since you left The Big City to teach at The French Culinary Institute's campus in California, we have been surviving without you. This is not to say that we are happy about it, nor had we intended on having any sort of fun or semblance of success while you’ve been away. But we did. So this is not necessarily a love letter.

It behooves you to know that our timing has improved. Only once have we cooked into family meal. Or twice. Okay, so maybe just three times. I’ve stopped keeping track. Don’t give me that look.

Our knife skills have become more sophisticated, accurate, and just plain pretty. We have managed to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. Though I did inadvertently mix cleaned onion trimmings with raw pork bits in my scrap bowl, a no-no that Chef did not fail to notice.

We have continued to learn from–and about–each other and grow as a class. Examples include Angelo’s ability to simply glance at his mise en place and command it to prep itself (rightly noted by Alex, who has an unwavering love for Subway’s six-foot sandwiches); Meg’s commitment to positivity, humor, and colorful kitchen tools; Aiyana’s shameless interest in ServSafe; Ell’s composure in the face of injury (and subsequent stitches, of which there were three); and Dannie’s generosity, as evidenced by her donations of spare produce and parchment paper halves to needy teams.

If you still care to know, we recently endured the demands of the Level One practical and comprehensive exam. On the fifth floor, we were corralled into an unfamiliar kitchen and forced to execute perfection in an unruly time constraint. While the beginning of the practical was nothing short of torture, the anxiety gradually thinned. My hands, which seemed riddled with tremors during the first 20 minutes of the practical, became steady somewhere in the beginning of Part Three. Maybe, though I hesitate to use the word, we eventually managed to have a little fun.

So while you’re teaching in California, remember that your kids are still here in New York, mounting nappant sauces with beurre, trussing chickens to keep their plump shapes, and watching for the first wisp of smoke in the pan before searing. Sure, we continue to slice into our fingertips while we ciseler and singe our hands on hot pot handles, but I guess you could say we’re learning by doing. And doing. And re-doing. I hope that when you return to our little family you’ll be as proud of our progress as we are.

Till then,
Jax & Co.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition, and live to write about it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

FCI Instructors & Alumni Go to Harvard

Harvard has sought out “world-class chefs and food experts” to speak at its vanguard Science & Cooking Public Lectures series, and a number of thought-leading instructors and alumni from The International Culinary Center’s French Culinary Institute have been selected to participate in these discussions on the convergence of science and food. Their scheduled lectures are are as follows:

Tuesday, September 6
Dave Arnold, FCI's Director of Culinary Technology
Harold McGee, FCI Instructor and author of On Food and Cooking
with Harvard Physics professor David Weitz
Topic: Historical Context and Demos Illustrating the Relationship of Food and Science

Monday, October 24, 2011
Wylie Dufresne (Classic Culinary Arts '93), chef-owner of wd~50
Topic: Proteins & Enzymes: Transglutaminase

Monday, November 7, 2011
Dan Barber (Classic Culinary Arts '94), executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Topic: Molecular Differences between Production Methods

Monday, November 14, 2011
David Chang (Classic Culinary Arts ‘01), chef-owner of Momofuku
Topic: Food Microbiology: An Overlooked Frontier

For more information about the series and how to attend, visit

Monday, August 22, 2011

Not-So-Simple Salads

By Emma DeSantis

Salads, not simple? Who’d have thought? Prior to Lesson 10, when I thought of making salads, the word “complex” wasn’t usually something that sprung to mind. However, this was a word that stuck with me during this lesson and long after. I had visions of Salad Lesson being a leisurely session where we would mix various vinaigrettes, dress some lettuce, and after praising ourselves and our teammates for how perfectly we seasoned the dressing, we would have a few minutes at the end to practice tournage. Not so.

Thankfully, following Soup Day which was deceptively difficult and completely kicked our butts, our chef instructor pre-warned us that this lesson was another one that was not as easy as it sounded.

The first salad we made was a classic–Niçoise Salad, which is known as a composed salad as it is, (who would have thought), composed of a mixture of several different ingredients put together. Each component was separately dressed with a vinaigrette of olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper. The components consisted of a base of lettuce, string beans, tomato, egg, bell pepper, olives, tuna, and anchovies (yum).The final presentation of this salad was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it tasted even better than it looked. So far, so good.

Then it was on to the Sweet and Bitter Greens with Tomato and Herbs. This salad consists of several different bitter greens, coated in a vinaigrette and surrounded by wedges of tomato, also lightly coated in the vinaigrette, and fresh herbs, topped with thin slices of toasted baguette. After presenting this to Chef, there came a moment of testing my patience (not a strength, but something I am working on). As much as I wanted to scoff the salad like a ravenous herbivore, as I so often do, Chef suggested we wait for dinner break to add duck confit on top. The duck confit was prepared the last lesson and had been preserving in its own fat for several days—oh yeah! It truly was the pièce de résistance of the dish, or dare I say, the entire lesson. (Sorry, salads.) The classroom was a little more quiet than usual for dinner break—always a good sign that people are totally immersed in their food experience.

I never thought I would ever make a salad that consists of about 20 ingredients, but the Cooked Vegetable Salad did it. It was the ultimate recipe for students to practice different techniques and included cutting macedoine (a cut that transforms your vegetables into 1/2-by-1/2 centimeter cubes) and cooking l’anglaise for the vegetable component. It also required us to create an emulsification for the basil mayonnaise and I can always use more practice in all of these things!

For the final presentation of this dish we made very fine slices of cucumber using the mandolin. I confess I had images of sliced fingertips, but I am happy to say everyone’s fingers are still intact—for now at least. Once we combined the veggies with the mayo and placed this mixture in a timbale mold (along with the tomato fondue, another component of the recipe that’s simple but SO GOOD), we were ready to present.

The moment of truth is presenting to Chef. Is all of your love, blood, sweat and tears that went into making this dish going to be enough? Perhaps that is a little dramatic, but sometimes not far off...

“A little more salt on the vegetables, otherwise good.” Hey, I’ll take it! Besides allowing my potatoes to come to a rolling boil (busted), this was about as chaotic as Salad Lesson got.

As lessons are getting busier and yes, more difficult, I am enjoying them even more. I have learned so much after just a few weeks of the program and despite having a long way to go, what makes the difference is that I actually love learning this stuff. I know that with some passion, practice and persistence I’ll be able to take on any salad that is thrown at me… so to speak.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yankee Stadium Kitchen Tour

by Nicole Ruiz Hudson

I might as well fess up right now—this writer is not a sports fan. When I go to a game, it’s really just an excuse to load up on all the ballpark snacks. Therefore, the kitchen stadium tour that a small group of us students got to take recently was the perfect way for me to see Yankee stadium.

Hot dog and nacho assembly lines were nowhere to be seen on this visit. As much as I love concessions, the kitchens we saw are producing food in a completely different league. Chef Nichole Sutton, of the Legends Club, led us on rare behind-the-scenes tour of the elite clubs and luxury suites that are providing elevated dinning experiences to Yankee fans. However, these kitchens aren’t trying to completely undo themselves of their ballpark concession roots either. According to Chef Nichole, the goal is more to kick it up a few notches, so rather than getting your average hamburger, here you might be served a short rib slider topped with foie gras. You can also expect to find classics like seafood cocktail. They’re taking high-end ingredients and presenting them in accessible and familiar ways.

The surroundings are also just a little more luxe than your average bleacher seats. Fans with deep pockets can buy suites, which are basically like a baseball fan’s dream apartment. They include indoor and outdoor seating from which to view the game, big screen TVs, and individual kitchens. However, you’ll never have to lift a finger in this kitchen as the suites receive full-service catering.

The Yankee Clubs have a more social ambiance at which fans can enjoy restaurant-style dinning within the ballpark. Chef Nichole’s club, Legends, has the look of a chic, modernist cafeteria with a lot of dark woods, black leather, and steel chairs. The bright, airy space is organized around three buffet stations at the center of the club themed around air, land, and sea. Each club has a different vibe, but no matter where you go, you’re surrounded by Yankee history as photographs of team members hang on just about every wall. A lot of these clubs also have amazing views of the field to enjoy as you savor your meal. Most of the clubs require membership; however, the Audi Club does provide reservations on a per game basis.

These club areas are quite large and have multiple areas, and Chef Nichole made it clear that to serve so many people each game the kitchens really have to hustle. (Legends alone serves approximately 1,200 people on average.) Moreover, sometimes conditions aren’t exactly ideal as some of the kitchens are rather small given the large production scale. The pastry kitchen in particular felt pretty tight with just our small group and the few staff members that were working during our visit. Every game is a make-it-work situation, and they get it done.

Product selection is also given a lot of consideration, as one would assume. As much as possible, the clubs try to source locally and sustainably with an eye on social and environmental responsibility. However, there is a bit of a balancing act that has to happen given the sheer quantities of product required. Additionally, certain items are provided by sponsors, which also factor into purchasing decisions.

Besides getting a very different look at stadium eating, our group also got the rare privilege of getting within a few feet of the green. I have to admit that getting a taste of what it might feel like to emerge out of the dugout and step onto the field was pretty cool.

When I next return to the stadium, back under the constraints of a student budget, I’ll probably opt once again for my usual concessions. I’ll still enjoy my hot dog as always, but I will definitely be thinking longingly about those sparerib sliders.

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Visit with Harold McGee

by Melanie Lopez

He does not have a favorite restaurant because he has been to too many to even decide. That is living the dream for anyone who loves food and it is reality for author and food science savant, Harold McGee.

McGee has been present in the food circuit since the 1984 release of his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. On Food and Cooking bridged the gap between food and the science behind it, during a time when food science was only of interest in a commercial setting. The book brought practicality to curious kitchen chefs and allowed them to understand their cooking on a higher level. After several books and an increasing interest in food science within the food community, he then published a revised version of the book in 2004. On Food and Cooking is a testament of the power of desire and interest. Not coming from a food science background, but rather one based in literature and astronomy, McGee wrote his book following sheer interest and passion for the subject. He was interested in the ideas that were behind science and the science of everyday life. McGee’s interested mind created a new occupation for himself following a teaching position at Yale University. Now McGee has several books under his belt, a book regarding taste in the making, and is a columnist for the New York Times.

A few weeks ago, Harold McGee graced the halls of The International Culinary Center of California. Alumni, current students, and a few lucky open house guests were able to meet McGee during a signing for his books. Following the signing, McGee was accompanied by Paolo Luchessi of the San Francisco Chronicle for a question and answer forum. Questions regarding the Spanish and Nordic movements of cooking to the intricacies of sous vide cooking were asked.

McGee may not have come from the same kind of background as many students of The International Culinary Center, considering he has never gone to culinary school, nor even studied food during his formal education. However, McGee’s writings on food science have helped to create diversified interests among chefs. Unlike before, chefs now are knowledgeable not only about the tradition of cooking, but the science behind it as well.

McGee’s knowledge and career are highly envied and admired. Being as such, McGee was able to leave The International Culinary Center with words of advice and wisdom for those beginning careers. For writers, he stressed to write about what you like. He also noted that writing in the sciences is not heavily written about. For aspiring cooks, he said find a good place to work at and cook a lot. Great advice from a highly acclaimed food writer. Surely, students will be able to take his words to their own hearts and cooking.

Melanie Lopez graduated from the culinary arts program in June 2010. Like McGee, she traded in her scientific scholarly pursuits for other interests that explained the ideas behind everyday life. She is now pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Community and Regional Development at the University of California Davis and expects to graduate in June 2012.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Soup Day

by Jax Hubbard

It’s lesson eight of Level 1 and, though barely visible, there is an ember of confidence present in the kitchen. We just finished exam number one and we are ready to take on soups. Though their French designations sound unusual, the recipes’ English names are familiar and comforting: split pea, vegetable, French onion. Consommé is the more intimidating of the four, but come on—it’s just soup, right?

Wrong. So very wrong.

Consommé is first up and things are going smoothly. Step one requires that I mash and mangle together a mixture of meat, egg whites, and vegetables to a consistency, which, I imagine, resembles stomach contents. My left hand is resting on my hip while I stir; I ooze tranquility and control. While our broths are clarifying, we are told to prepare the vegetables and aromatics for the next dish: potage cultivateur, or “farmer-style” vegetable soup. The name conjures a visual of produce, chunked in rustic glory, the product of a blue-collar worker with dirt under his fingernails. Instead, the soup requires meticulous attention to knife skills. Precision reigns in this dish, and nothing is gone about haphazardly—at least not intentionally. Before I can even contemplate my mise en place, we are expected to have moved on to preparing the split pea soup.

Great. Just great.

It’s here where the lesson unravels, as does my mind. Things are boiling that should be simmering, the consommé is being neglected, bowls are accumulating for no good reason, I’m scrambling for the bacon, the butter, the scale, the peppercorns. My plan is taken hostage by a frenzied attempt at organization. I feel my cheeks pool with blood, my hands become shaky, and my heart is thumping underneath my uniform.

And chef is calling for the consommé.

“Almost done, chef.”
“Come on, guys. Pick up the pace. Consommés, now!”
“Yes, chef. One minute, chef.”

I scatter hastily taillaged vegetables into a bowl and dump in my soup. The broth is frothy and I don’t have the capacity to devise a remedy so I bring it to chef and, just as his lips touch the spoon, I feel a wave of nausea as I realize: salt. I forgot the salt. He tries to find something positive to say, but, being there is zero seasoning, he quickly dismisses me.

Back to the split pea soup. The peas are not fully cooked through but I don’t have the time to allow them to gently soften. I dump the soup into the communal soup bucket where it is blasted by chef, toting an industrial-size immersion blender. My partner and I finish off the vegetable soup, all the while panicking over the size of the bacon lardons, the lack of carrots, and the location of the doilies for plating. We taste and discover: it’s salty. Not a pleasant, puckering brininess, but a burn-the-back-of-your-throat saline solution. With the addition of water, we accomplish balance and present the final product to chef.

He smacks his lips together after slurping the broth, makes a face that tells us he’s carefully analyzing the color, the flavor, the mouthfeel, and then he says, “Perfectly seasoned.” I am elated, elevated, and, above all, exhausted. We scramble to disassemble our work area; slosh sanitation solution on the countertops, toss bowls and pots and cutting boards onto the cleaning station, buff out stains from the burners with vinegar, which scorches my nose and makes my eyes tear. I can’t wait to get home and get the soup smell out of my pores. But I earned the stink on my uniform, the pain in my feet, and the ache in my back. We finish on time and leave, each of us with a quart of freshly prepared and pureed split pea soup and a hunk of crusty French bread.

I enter the subway, squish into a seat, savagely tear into the bread, and dunk it into the soup. The strange looks I receive from surrounding commuters barely penetrate me. I was officially initiated into the culinary world and earned some chops tonight, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get to eat some soup.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition, and live to write about it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why We Love Restaurant Week

A recent article in the New York Post features a handful disgruntled Restaurant Week diners who feel that abbreviated menus and portion sizes have left them holding the short end of the stick.

We're proud to note that L'Ecole serves the same three-course menu to diners during Restaurant Week that we do year round. That means you can choose from our full range of inventive menu selections at full portion sizes—at an even better price of $24.07 for a three-course meal.

Join us for lunch through July 22 to take advantage of the deal. Menu highlights include Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Ricotta Salata, Corn Bisque with Duck Confit, Steelhead Trout with Fresh Pea Risotto, and Fresh Strawberry Tart with Crème Fraiche Ice Cream.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tweet It Like You Mean It

FourSquare, Groupon, Facebook, Google+… The roster of social media platforms just keeps on growing, and the buzz surrounding them has expanded into a steady din. For chefs and small business owners in the food industry, harnessing the power of social media seems like a no-brainer, but dipping your toes in the water can be quite intimidating.

On July 13, we hosted Building Buzz: Restaurants, Foodies & Social Media, a panel discussion with noted chefs and food personalities who are forging their own paths in the social media arena. Sponsored by New York magazine and YourBuzz from American Express OPEN, the talk was moderated by editor, Alan Sytsma.

It was a great opportunity for The ICC to help bring together a group of our contacts and alumni in the industry for a fun and informative conversation, and we picked up some great advice from the panelists that we'd like to pass along to you.

Cesare Casella
Our dean of Italian Studies and chef-owner of Salumeria Rosi
Social media absolutely does present chefs with new opportunities and access to the media. Cesare has gotten press inquiries based on content posted to his network that he would not have received otherwise.

Francis Lam
Features editor at Gilt Taste
Negative criticism from readers (internet road rage), can sting on a very personal level, but there is a positive to addressing comments proactively. Reaching out directly to flamers reminds them that there is an actual person on the other side of a rant and can potentially improve the tone of the conversation.

Paul Liebrandt
Chef-owner of Corton
Content should always come from the client in order to be authentic. This sentiment was echoed by all of the panelists. If you're a publicist, spend time with your chef in order to understand the business from the inside so you can capture its true tone and personality. Chefs who outsource their social media efforts are responsible for providing good content and communicating with their providers to ensure that the message is on target with goals.

Kenny Lao
Co-founder of Rickshaw Dumpling
Many small businesses feel obligated to participate in social media because everyone is doing it. If you're hesitant to join the fray, do so only because you firmly believe it will help you grow your business.

Zak Pelaccio
Chef-owner of Fatty Crab and French Culinary Institute alum
Don't be discouraged by internet road rage. Believe in yourself and your vision, and don't let naysayers get you down.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where Does Bacon Come From? Pork Butchery with Chef Pascal

The mantra to “never stop learning” is meant not only for our students at The International Culinary Center, but for our chef-instructors as well. We are fortunate to have many experts within our four walls who generously share their talents and techniques—both traditional and of the moment.

Today’s popularity in nose-to-tail eating has ignited new interest in the craft of butchery. At The ICC, this leads us to Chef Pascal Béric. Our resident charcuterie and butchering expert, Chef Pascal recently hosted a workshop for chef-instructors on butchering a pig from head to tail.

Watch artistry in motion as Chef Pascal effortlessly creates the primal cuts of pork: picnic, Boston butt, loin, spare ribs, pork belly/bacon and ham.

Monday, June 27, 2011

California's Inaugural Class Meets Jacques Pepin

Jacques Pépin with students in the first FCI culinary class

This spring, in celebration of the launch of our new California campus, the inaugural career program was named for one of our legendary deans Jacques Pépin. Students in the Jacques Pépin Inaugural Class for Classic Culinary Arts receive an exclusive session with the acclaimed chefs.