To the Letter

“Are you hearing me?  I’m just saying. Alright?  Okay,” Chef said repeatedly in a tough city accent as she winked at us. She is fiery, unapologetic, slightly outrageous, and very warm. We are her baby dolls. We are her students, and in her class it is okay to learn by both success and mistake. I sighed without even noticing and began to open my usually guarded self. Cooking, according to Chef, involves a series of analytical questions that you must ask yourself every time you approach the stove, and an understanding of ratios that then becomes intuitive. This brilliant point of view affected the familiar the way the addition of a letter or two can transform a word. Said becoming staid – one small t and the meaning is completely altered. 

This weekend we practiced four dry-heat cooking methods – sautéing, pan frying, deep frying, and grilling, and next week, we will finish with roasting. The analytical questions that needed to be answered in this context – Is the food tender or tough? Is it portion-cut or large in size? Is it breaded, battered, or marinated?  What fat can withstand the temperature of the heat and what is its flavor? Is the heat source direct like a flame, or radiant like a boiler, and is it above the food or below it? The answers to these questions inform the method of preparation.  While I had been in the program for nearly two months, this new perspective marked the beginning of my transition from cook to chef.  

We cooked for more than 16 hours over the course of two days with roughly 12 minutes of downtime throughout. We seared lamb, fried oysters, and cooked heaps of crab cakes. Steaks sizzled, batters were blended, and dipping sauces were puréed. During each step, we practiced our analytical thinking. 

At the end of the day on Sunday, I traded once-crispy french fries and chicken for photos of my son and sister ice-skating and at museums. Traffic planted us in the city longer than expected and we had to run to our flight. My son chatted excitedly about his new souvenirs that are now among his most beloved and then from one sentence to the next, his head tilted on its side and he was asleep soundly. In the morning, I got him off to school and flew back to New York for a work meeting just blocks away from school – my two lives crammed into an inch of space across less than three city blocks. 

Identifying the questions to be answered was like a pathway needing to be cleared of rocks and stones. In the kitchen, was just one road. And I thought to myself, “Are you hearing me?” I’m just saying. 

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