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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Heat of the Grill ... and celebrity.

Because lecturing about grilling and broiling was non-sensical to chef John today, we ended up talking about various questions we'd accummulated over the past few days and we all discuss one particular article in the Sunday Boston Globe Magazine about the price of food relative to the price of a menu item.

It was an interesting discussion and one where it was clear that each person in the class had their own opinion on the matter. Jenny, the ex-food writer, thought it was a substandard piece of writing and disagreed with the piece. I was called upon as the ex-public relations person. I have to say that as a PR person I would have body tackled my client before I let them do an interview like that saying what they were eventually quoted as saying. I couldn't believe it! It's hard for me to understand how people can let themselves say such abrasive comments without a second thought. Jody Adams and some of the other local chefs came off as incredibly arrogant and almost delusional in their self-love. I really couldn't believe that these chefs took this interview without some prep or idea of how interrogative the reporter would like be on this subject.

I personally am of two minds over the matter. While I don't think it's right to charge that much for a steak ($43) in Boston, I do believe that restauranteurs have a right to charge whatever they please in their own establishment. If it fails at that price, the market will have taught them a lesson. If, conversely, it does well, then, clearly the public needs to be taught a lesson.

I think food in Boston (and this is coming from someone who has only just moved back) is experiencing some growing pains as it tries to compete on a world-level. It's simply isn't there yet. That's not to say there isn't so quality food out there, nor does that say there aren't great chefs in the region, all I'm saying is they don't have the creativity, sophistication and necessary breeding to take their food to the next level... yet. But I also think that Boston, as in all other aspects of it's culture, has a bit of a chip on its shoulder and chooses to take the "I'm staying where I am because I like it here, I don't care about that high-end stuff" approach to the topic. It's the kid sibling argument, but a valid one. Something can only be second-best if they choose to compete with the top.

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When we got into the kitchen today, we has a short discussion on how to prepare our mise-en-place for the day. We needed to filet a salmon (very complicated), create a burger, get our steak ready, prepare our flounder, chicken breast and tomato. It was a simple prep list but one that, for some reason, took the class a bit of time to accomplish. I think it just came down to us (1) not being in the kitchen for a few days and (2) working on our own for the first time and realizing we couldn't get someone else to do one of the preps.

The chicken proved to be a pain to pound thin. I was constantly worried I was applying too much weight while pounding thin and then I became worried that it was getting unevenly thin in certain parts. Eventually, I had to just put the mallet down and walk away from it. The flounder and salmon were very easy to prepare after we had cut filets.

Creating the burger was something new for me, as was the technique that chef showed us for putting the steak on the grill. We compressed the burger together into a tight ball and simply pressed it down. In the past I'd favored keep the burger light, but seeing as how juicy and delicious the burger turned out this time, I'm inclined to say that the compacting of the meat really helped. What was most strange for me was when chef explained that we should push together the steak to try and replicate the muscular structure that it likely had when it was back in the cow. He said it would make for a more visually appealing steak. I don't know how true that is, but we did it anyway. I still don't feel like I noticed a perceptible difference and if it doesn't do much in terms of flavor, I'll likely skip the step in future. Maybe next time I'll not reshape it and compare the two steaks. Maybe there will be a clear winner.

When it came to me to grill, I was nervously excited. I don't know why. I think grilling is the one thing everyone thinks they do well but no one actually does right.


Grilling the chicken was easy, and I was really taken aback by how juicy it still was. I generally have very low hopes for grilled chicken breast, it's so often dry and flavorless. I still think it wasn't the of the group, particularly after it cooled down, the chicken was still dry.

I also wasn't a huge fan of the salmon, although that might have come down to personal preference. It was amazing to see the salmon remain so well intact during grilling though. I think I prefer a broiled marinated salmon filet. The flounder on the other hand was great, buttery and creamy and not at all what I expected to come out of the broiler. (I think the copious amounts of butter I put on it helped too.)

I was totally blown away by the burger though. Oh holy goodness, it was amazing. I'd be craving a good burger for weeks and 'lo there it was and cooked by me! I think compacting the meat helped it cook evenly and even helped distribute the juices well. I could believe all it had was a little salt and pepper on top-not even in the meat, just on top! Shocking! So easy and so good, but so few people get it right. I'll never make burgers any other way again.

The steak was alright. I feel like it would have been a better steak if we'd had thicker cuts of meat. Of course, I could be bias since I rarely eat steaks. I think, though, if we'd had slightly larger steaks it would have been easier to cook it to the various degrees of done-ness. I will still try the same techniques next time though.

I can't imagine how the grill station cooks can handle the heat night after night. It's just a high-pressure situations made worse by the awful conditions. Chef told us that for years he'd a sinus problem his doctor just couldn't figure out. Once he stopped standing above a grill for a year, however, it simply went away. He thinks he just kept burning his sinuses with the heat from the grill. What a frightening thought! That's one occupational hazard I don't think many people would think of when considering the dangers of professional cooking.
Wonder how grill station cooks handle it.

The rest of the day, the class practiced their dice and cuts. We were to do a brunoise, a 1/4 inch dice and a julienne. I really struggled with this part of the day. Most of my carrots ended up rectangular and never perfectly square and they were always too small or too big. I need to work on my ability to estimate sizes, I couldn't guess at what a 1/4 inch of anything would look like. Paul suggested I just stare at a ruler for a while. I think it'd be best if I just carried one around for now and took it out occasionally to compare to things. By doing this, I can get an idea of what things in my natural environment are sized as and be able to judge more accurately in future.

In the meantime, I should go buy a ten pound bag of carrots to practice on.

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