Thursday, September 27, 2007

Italian food (via Greek and Irish ancestry)

We started late today to compensate for the late night we would have working with the chef-owners of Al Forno. It turned out to be a really fun day, working and cooking in a kitchen is more fun when there are real people enjoying the fruits of your labor. It was also a good break from the daily schedule of classes, particularly since we were able to ask them questions about the restaurant business. Johanne and George (and David) were really fun and funny, and they were so patient with us throughout the day.

One of the most interesting (and important) things they really talked about was how different the restaurant industry was from when they started 28 years ago, "we had the grace of starting very small and growing slowly over time." To them, restaurants that open today have to start with a bang and have an immediate devoted clientèle, a wholly unrealistic situation for most restaurants.

One of the topics George focused on the most, however, was how hard the restaurant industry could be. It was almost like a PSA against getting into it; if you want to be in this business... don't have kids! don't get married! don't expect a normal life! don't except money! don't expect anything! Granted, it's always a necessary point for people to understand, but I feel like his attitude was a little too hardcore. I think the essence of his statement was, we do this because we love food and we love to cook, not because we wanted to be on the Food Network, or because we wanted to be rich and famous.

To be fair, they didn't say don't get married, they said, try and have a partner that is in the food business because they'll understand how much time your job demands. But, as I was saying to Kevin later on, I can't imagine being married and running a business together. Wouldn't you drive each other nuts at one point? And, what's left to talk about at the end of the day? I'm sure there's a positive side to it I just can't see right now. I wonder if that's a telling statement about my relationship!


Today's Menu
Crostini with Lemony Split Pea Puree
Summer Chicken Cacciatore
Red Wine-Poached Pears with Poire Mascarpone and Whipped Cream

So, my little group of four ended up doing the pears, which basically meant that we peeled and cored 54 pears in the course of an hour. To be honest, it wasn't that bad and there are far worse things go home smelling like than pears, but it was slow going and we all worked at different speeds. I think we were all at a bit of a loss when first told to peel and core the pears, but watching Johanne do one entire pear gave us a standard to work off. It was also great because she would come around every few minutes to check on our progress and help us or give us tips on efficiency whenever possible. George also gave some words of kitchen wisdom, "don't brake the chain of command" and "do it as fast a possible without doing a bad job."

One thing that was amazing to see was the quantity of food needed for each dish, even though we were only serving 70 people. Fourteen pounds of mushrooms for the pasta and it wasn't even a major ingredient. Nine bottles of wine for the pears to poach in, 11 cups of marscapone cheese for the dessert... the craziest part was once everything was brought together, it never really seemed like enough. Fourteen pounds of sliced mushrooms doesn't amount to much, really.
I'm sure it's something that I'll get used to but in the meantime, it's still a lot to wrap my head around.

Although we had recipes to work off, all of them were adapted and changed while we were cooking. For example, the pears we had were hard and under ripe, which was great for peeling and coring, but meant they weren't as sweet and would need more time in the pot. I rarely cook what I feel like eating, generally I cook whatever looks freshest, but seeing them adjust recipes to compensate for produce that didn't meet their demands was really interesting. Obviously in a commercial kitchen, you don't have the luxury of assuming all your produce will be perfect when you get it. Watching them adjust and fix things to match their food was a helpful reminder of being flexible when you cook, even in a restaurant.

While we let the pears poach in the wine, we moved over the the team working on the chicken and helped them slice mushrooms and do some general clean up/set up before the evening demo and dinner.

(On a side note, today I found out about a local bakery that I'm looking forward to visiting, Clear Flour. I'm especially excited to try their baguettes and sourdough loaves.)

Overall, I thought the demo went well. The guests seemed very receptive to the meal and enjoyed the presentation and wine pairings. I would have liked to see more of the demo, but staying behind in the kitchen was helpful for us because we got to see how David timed his meal between courses, and how we was keeping track of things going on around him, even if he couldn't necessarily be apart of it. I only wish I could have heard why the wine lady chose the wines she did for the meal pairings, I always think that wine parings are such a personal choice but hearing her rationale would have been very educational for us.

(To be honest, I didn't think any of the wines were particularly great. They weren't particularly memorable for me and I don't remember, but I didn't see an outstanding pairing at any point.)

Of the dishes made, I liked the split pea puree best. It had a great crisp, clean flavor and was a great alternative, I think, to hummus or another type of antipasti. Even though it's not in the recipe, I think what made it great was the mint garnish, otherwise, it would have been too heavy and bland for me.

The pasta was cooked perfectly, of course, and when tossed with the mushrooms and chicken sauce, made a light, almost seafood-esque dish. Something akin to mussels in white wine. The chicken wasn't my favorite of the night, the only thing I really noticed was the acidity of the jalapenos and the flatness of the sauce (I guess the mushrooms in the pasta really helped make it more dynamic and earthy). But then we got to the pears...

Oh, the pears. After all the peeling and poaching, you'd think they'd turn out better. To me, the dessert tasted like sugary prune juice with a heavy pulp. Maybe it was the less-than-stellar choice of wine (damn you Charles Shaw!) but the pears were just... ugh. I could barely bring myself to take a second bite, even with the Poire marscapone cheese and the whipped cream. Overall it was just too sweet (probably our fault, we might have added in too much sugar in the whipped cream) and too prune-y.

But I learnt a lot today and had a good reminder about how tough the industry can be. I've never wanted to work in a professional kitchen, I don't think I could take it, but part of me hopes I'll at least get to try it for a little while.