Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery." -- Mark Van Doren

I’ve never been more disappointed in the program than I was today. I’m fairly certain I don’t feel alone in this either because a few of us talked about why we were so disappointed.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the morning session about food writing, I thought that was pretty interesting and thought Ms. Copps to be a very energetic and animated person, so this morning was a lot of fun.

The afternoon session, however, was market basket with Michael Leviton and I don’t think this class was used to its full teaching potential and am really disappointed with that. I really like the idea of market basket because it gives us a chance to really integrate the recipes we’ve learnt in with our own modifications and helps us fully process what we’re learning and using with each recipe. I also think Mike had a great point when he said that market basket should be done once a month so that we have a chance to put our knowledge to use, rather than having just a rush of it at the very end. I think we’d all learn more and I think we’d more fully synthesize what we’re learning and why each aspect of the techniques and cuisines we’ve learnt has value to our overall skills. The one addition I would add to Mike’s suggestion is that I think we should be allowed to bring in recipes, obviously not with the intention of copying one word for word, but I think because then we can pull different things we liked from different days/chefs and really make something our own.

For example, today, I wanted to make a caramel apple dish and was inspired by the caramel sauce we’d made with Jody Adams of Rialto last week. I was going to use a portion of her recipe to make the caramel, but leave out the rest and make it my own. Isn’t that what creating is about? Having a base and using that as a launching point for your own ideas? I completely understand why we need to learn not to rely on recipes, but as many of us are still starting out, few of us have had the opportunity to repeat these recipes and know them from memory.

I really think Mike is right with his suggestion. Each month, to be able to do this would really enhance the learning and I think make us better and faster thinking cooks when we come out. I hope it’s something that is considered for the future.

Anyway, back to this afternoon. We all had to include in our dish, a small chunk of halibut fillet, a small piece of pork tenderloin, an apple, onion, carrot and celery, other than that we had free run of the kitchen (which, today, wasn’t much). After some thought, I created a fast puff paste dough (from JJ’s recipe last week) and planned on making either an apple tart or an apple tarte tatin. I started on that right away so that the dough could rest in the fridge.

While I did that, I thought about what to do with the remaining ingredients. I often make pork tenderloin at home either stuffed and rolled like a ballantine, or cut into medallions, breaded and pan-fried with a with sauce. I considered doing these dishes again, but I felt like it was important to take advantage of the time and space available and do something different and a little further out of my comfort range. After all, what would be the value of doing something I already knew well how to do before started this class? Shouldn’t I be experimenting with techniques and flavors and trying to expand my horizons?

I contemplated doing the entire loin with a herb and spice crust, then roasting it until done, but I’ve never liked over-thought or over-complicated dishes that took away from the actual food. I wanted to keep it really simple and comfortable with familiar flavors, so I chose to roast the tenderloin with a thick, spicy mustard coating so that the pork would be well supported with a simple flavor profile. To balance the heat of the mustard, I added caramelized onions to add sweetness, and then a little whipped potatoes for starch and creaminess.

With my main and dessert courses planned, I had to figure out what to do with the halibut. I originally wanted to do a soup, but decided against it after Michael gave me a look of sheer “what the hell is wrong with you?” when I ran the idea past him, but mentioned I’d never really made soup before. Apparently, not making soup was another strike on the long list of Michael’s why-you’ll-never-be-as-good-as-me list. I’m climbing the charts on that list, and how!

So I reconsidered and thought that poaching the fish would be a nice change for me and something I have never done before or after the class with JJ. I decided I would poach the fish in a flavored white wine (carrots, celery, butter, water, white wine, lemon juice and zest) a technique that would take a matter of moments and be a nice and light start to the roast pork. Under the fish, I added a warm fennel and celery slaw, which I hoped would help brighten up the fish with the crisp, clean flavors.

My final product was certainly not the best I’d ever done, but it was done exactly on time, plated on hot plates (a little too hot, actually) and a stretch from my comfort-zone. I knew I’d made mistakes, but I also thought I’d made a pretty good effort of (1) staying seasonal, (2) having an overall theme for the menu, and (3) trying to apply new techniques to the project. I was trying my best to adapt and create within the boundaries. But (and I think this goes for everyone, but I can’t be certain) I knew it wasn’t perfect and wanted to hear feedback about what worked, what didn’t, what was missing and how it could be tightened up as a complete dish and/or menu.

Of course, doing it was a learning experience and I certainly took a lot away from today’s cooking, but I wanted feedback. Was my menu seasonal to others? I knew it was to me, but did everyone else see that? How was my seasoning? Did the mustard and the pepper on the pork make it too strong, or was that ok? Things like this are things that only others can tell you and why being in a class with others that obsess and think about food as much as you is so great.

Once everything was presented, Michael asked everyone what we learnt today from the experience and we responded with the moments of self-realizations we’d all had (also known as mistakes). And after a quick conversation about cooking styles and garnishing, we went down the table and each person explained what they had created. It was great to see the variety of food and flavorings that each person brought to the ingredients, there were certainly 12 different pork dishes, 12 different fish dishes and almost 12 different desserts (we had two pairs do apple tarts and apple tarte tatin). While I didn’t think that my dish represented me as a cook at all (I don’t like fennel and I’d never cook anything at home that took that much time) it did represent my personal cooking style: simple, clean, direct. When I look at a recipe and the list of ingredients is more than ten items, my mind starts to wander a bit.

While we all tasted each others’ food, it was good to hear feedback, but everyone was talking about what they did wrong or how their cooking went that day that I don’t think a lot of people got feedback about their dishes, specifically. And Michael didn’t really seem to have a lot of helpful feedback. There were some obvious criticisms that didn’t need further explanation, like ‘that’s overcooked’, well we know how to fix that, but I was hoping to hear about seasoning. Did my mustard crust work? Was the pepper too strong? What could I have done better with my fish?

Michael’s strength has never been constructive criticism, it’s been closer to smug judgment. I KNOW I don’t know everything, that’s why I’m here. Tell me what I can do to make it better, teach me. Teach Me.

I’m just really frustrated with the day. Maybe we ran out of time, I probably would have taken too long to go through everyone’s menus and dishes, but then, we could have done one less course and/or had a little less time. But the worst part of the day was when Michael said that we shouldn’t “overreach, do things that you’ve done before because you’re less likely to fuck it up.” What does that mean? Don’t try new things? Don’t try and do something different that you’re not familiar with? Doesn’t that defeat the whole idea of going to school, learning and just improving… in general?

Maybe he's just talking about next week's final project. But, for today, I wanted to try to do something different that was out of my cooking comfort level and for me it was a critical aspect of my learning experience here. I can say with total confidence, I’ll never forget how to poach something ever again. And, in retrospect, I can say that I should have sliced my pork for plating. I also know now that plates can get too hot and I need to keep a closer eye on that in the future.

What I can’t say with total confidence is why my potatoes were so starchy, why its ok to serve pork tenderloin at a medium doneness or why the caramel I did try to make turned out badly, when it had worked so well for Jody the week before.

I’m certain that Michael is a fantastic chef with a great deal of knowledge and training. But, with his attitude towards culinary schools and his less than ‘carpe diem’ approach to today’s teaching opportunity, I wonder why he teaches at all.