Hull’s Kitchen
Top Chef or bust

Aug
17

french mac

     So, what are the French people eating for dinner tonight? Odds are pretty good that it’s a Big Mac and fried potatoes that aren’t quite French. Critics who like to point out that the father of modern culinary art has lost his edge in the kitchen often cite the fact that France is now the number two retail market in the world for McDonald’s.

      Not everyone is ready to throw in the towel. Certainly the French don’t eat like they used to, but who does? Butter and cream sauces, the way Julia Child learned to cook, are off the menu just about everywhere these days, although the new movie about Child and copycat blogger Julie Powell might help classic French menus rally for a short time (I had to satisfy a sudden craving to visit French American Brasserie). USA Today asked Le Bernardin chef/owner Eric Ripert and French Culinary Institute founder Dorothy Hamilton and both insisted that French cuisine is not dead, but evolving. Still, according to the 2009 Zagat survey, French cuisine is only the fourth most popular in America, outranked by Italian, Japanese and American, whatever the hell that is. Actually, I read a report in the Independent recently that sales of butter were up nine percent last year in England and are expected to surge another six percent this year. Really?

       One of the reasons often cited for the changes in French eating habits is increasingly tight household budgets. We’re all looking to feed ourselves more cheaply. Germany has boasted Europe’s strongest economy, but fine dining establishments there have been shuttering their doors in staggering numbers, especially the ones that catered to corporate guests. German government statistics indicate restaurant turnover has dropped between three and nine percent per month since the beginning of the year.

       You’d think the economic gods might cut you some slack if you’re a big television star, but lately it’s been a real kitchen nightmare for the Gordon Ramsay empire. Faced with a recommendation that he file for bankruptcy, the devil of Hell’s Kitchen has relinquished control of three of his restaurants, fired 15% of his employees and has blown off the high end cuts of beef for brisket. According to The Wall Street Journal, Ramsay and his father in law have pulled millions of dollars out of savings to keep the entrees moving. Nice job, Gordo. Now take your dozen Michelin stars and piss off. 🙂

       Today’s lesson: Times are tough, and everyone is looking for ways to cut corners. But be careful what you put in your mouth. You might think you’re saving money by eating stuff out of a box or wolfing down a fast food meal. But there’s a good reason many Americans are overweight, and suffering from heart disease, stroke and diabetes in record numbers. Save a few pennies now, pay for it later at the hospital. Look at the larger picture. Some corners are not worth cutting.

Jul
29

paris 1   What do culinary students do when they’re not cooking or eating? Usually, talking about cooking and eating. Popular topics include the latest food trends, the hottest chefs and restaurants, a newly discovered ingredient or the masterpiece they created for dinner the night before. Our chef instructor assigned us to debate the matter of using French on menus. I’ve been trying to generate strong feelings on both sides of the issue just in case.

     We owe a great deal to the French cooking tradition. There are many dishes, which are simply known by their original French names. A great deal of terminology from mis en place to sauté to beurre blanc is not likely to change languages any time soon. But let’s face it. Almost no one likes having to ask a snooty waiter to translate a menu. We all have our horror stories about condescending service and strange ingredients. “French” for many diners has become a synonym for “stuffy and pretentious.” Many Americans developed a serious animosity for the French after the Paris government declined to support U.S. military operations in the Middle East. Remember the move to replace French fries with “freedom” fries?”

paris 2

The British and French have been sniping at each other for centuries, and Gordon Ramsay goes out of his way to point out that he would never use a Dijon mustard in his Beef Wellington.

      The more important issue, and one which has been getting more attention from food writers lately, France’s apparent lack of interest in cooking anymore. Try to come up with the names of more than one or two current French chefs. Very difficult to do. But you could probably rattle off a dozen American names. Such was not the case 15 years ago. For the past four years, according to a leading rating service, the best restaurant in the world has not been in France… it’s Spain’s El Bulli. The French Laundry is in California. When the French Culinary Institute in New York invited top European chefs to help open its new International Culinary Center, not a single French man or woman was included. What’s going on here?

       Let me introduce you to Michael Steinberger, author of the book “Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France.” Steinberger has chronicled the decline of French cookery over the past 20 years, accelerated by modernization, poor government and a worsening national economy. The French people have less money to spend. Restaurants and cafes have been closing by the hundreds. Wine consumption in France has declined by more than half. Steinberger claims the lack of support for dining out coupled with a stodgy and archaic Michelin rating system which stifled creativity has sucked all the romance out of the relationship between the French and their kitchens.

paris 3      The nature of food preparation is changing faster than France can keep up with. We have become more health conscious; the Slow Food movement is gaining momentum. Modern chefs are looking toward farm to table presentations, sourcing their ingredients locally when possible. In those cases where the joy of discovery is important, creative chefs are looking not to France for inspiration but to Asia and Latin America. Hardly anyone is seeking cream sauces and extra loads of butter these days. We’re keeping it simple and we’re keeping it fresh. France is aging and no amount of makeup and eyeliner will make it look young again.

      I am conceding one debate point to the opposition. Score one for the French on artistic interpretation. Recently a new restaurant, and an excellent one, opened in Atlanta called Abattoir. Lovely name, say it a few times out loud. It rolls off the tongue. It means slaughterhouse. Maybe you wouldn’t mind having dinner at a place called Slaughter House. I’m going to Abattoir.

Jul
11

corn    The debate about the definition of “American” cuisine is far from over, but I think I may have discovered the secret. This revelation came to me as my stomach was churning through a recent showing of the movie Food Inc., a thought provoking, often shocking expose of corporate food production. I can’t say the material was surprising; I had spent a week last summer at the beach reading Michael Pollan’s excellent “In Defense of Food” in the face of a great deal of derision from family members who thought I should have been enjoying something by James Patterson. 

    The secret, my friends, is corn. According to the movie it’s in everything we eat that doesn’t come straight out of the ground, and most of the produce comes from using patented seeds, but that’s another story. If your meal comes from a package or a drive-thru, it’s probably corn. Maybe a little soybean, but mostly corn. Even the meat is largely corn, because that’s what we’re force-feeding nearly all of the livestock. In fact I think I may have heard somewhere that the composition of the human body is now 70% water, and 25% percent corn. 2009_food_inc_007

    On the surface, this would not appear to be so horrifying. But, without launching into a long-winded history lesson, over the past 50 years producers in this country have been in business to supply the purveyors of fast and convenient food… your kitchen gets to enjoy what’s left over. The U.S. government has lent its considerable support to this process through farm bills that subsidize three major items: Corn, soybeans and wheat. There are fewer food producers now than there were in 1959, most of the business has been consolidated into the hands of multi-national corporations that are more concerned with shelf life and portability than the actual quality of the food. It’s the primary reason why the rates of obesity and heart disease have skyrocketed in the United States, and why many outside the country look at the American diet and just shake their heads.

     All this happened because we weren’t paying attention. The stores were full of affordable stuff; there were plenty of places to grab cheap eats on the run. We just took for granted that the system was working. It was, but not for us. The producers used their billions of dollars to create the illusion of a healthy bounty, and to manipulate the government to do its bidding. We were fat and happy and not asking questions… until the contamination scares started to multiply and the heart attacks started to multiply and it became increasingly difficult to find a slender person walking down the street anymore. Gradually a few people, like Pollan, and the Slow Food movement have started to speak up.

    Why is it cheaper to buy a whopper and fries than a pound of green beans or broccoli? Because the government, by making it profitable to buy corn products below the cost of production, ensures that THOSE calories will go into our bodies even if they aren’t good for us. Go into your supermarket and take a look at the prices. Imagine the difference if government subsidies were offered to farmers who grow organic, sustainable products. Imagine the difference if salads and vegetables were less expensive for the family on the go than a burger-in-a-box and a soda. Imagine not seeing millions of dollars worth of advertising each and every day trying to sell us fabricated food, while assuring us that the bag of cheesy poofs in our hand is made with all natural ingredients.

 food-inc1    Let’s not get hysterical. There are plenty of radicals who are ready to take up their pitchforks and torches and march on the headquarters of Smithfield and Monsanto. I don’t believe that the large food producers are under the control of Doctor Evil or Lex Luthor. We aren’t being sold soylent green or fattened up to be fed to alien invaders. But the system has burgeoned into a profit machine out of the glare of public scrutiny for the most part. We need to gain that oversight back. See Food Inc. Tell you friends. Ask questions and if necessary refuse to purchase products from companies that refuse to answer. Vote with your wallet. Things won’t change overnight but at least we can take a few steps in the right direction.

Jul
04

coleslaw    The 4th of July always presents something of a challenge to foodies. Depending upon just how seriously one’s friends and neighbors take their sustenance, the holiday can either result in a pleasant surprise adventure or a slog through the never ending parade of scorched meats or their facsimile, horrid baked beans that were probably never baked, grotesque variations of pasta and vegetables casually referred to as a “salad” and coleslaw. Only twice in my life have I ever tasted coleslaw that was fit for anything other than livestock and neither time was it delivered at a community cookout. Look at it this way. If you had no idea what it was, and a stranger offered to serve you something called “slaw,” would you try it? How about anything called “whiz?”

    This particular holiday weekend also raises the question: Is there really any such thing as American cuisine in the first place? If you take a quick look around, you won’t have any trouble locating a plethora of international themed restaurants… Mexican, Italian, Indian, Thai, Ethiopian… the list is quite extensive. But travel to Japan or Germany and ask for directions to the nearest “American” place, and odds are they’ll point you toward a McDonalds or Burger King.

    Even within the United States, it’s pretty difficult to come up with a definition of our national cuisine that rises above the level of convenience food, although professional chefs and writers have been twisting themselves into cork screws debating the matter for quite some time. The slow food movement wants to keep things local, but in so doing almost guarantees that American cuisine will be a collection of regional specialties. The food that is served in Boston is not likely to resemble what diners have come to expect in New Orleans, or Portland or Wichita. So are inventive chefs just wasting their time trying to define “American” and serve it to the rest of the world?

    Let’s focus for a minute on the reason we observe this occasion: independence, and dwell for a minute on that word “inventive.” Perhaps finding the key to American food lies not so much in the ingredients but the technique. Maybe the real answer is that there IS no answer; that American cuisine is more about the grand voyage of discovery. We have the luxury in this country of access to ingredients from all over the world, and a battalion of chefs eager to make clever use of them. Another popular trend is deconstructing classics like Coq Au Vin into their component parts, and rebuilding the dish into something innovative. There are the mad scientists like Dufresne and Blais busy in their laboratories concocting new ways to prepare familiar products as well as gadgets to deliver the unexpected. American food? It’s whatever we say it is at the moment we say it.

    Certainly we will all return to our comfort food from time to time. But the spirit of America is to lead, not to sit back and let anyone else call the shots. Even some snooty European chefs are willing to acknowledge that the most creative culinary ideas are coming from this side of the pond. For those of us who prefer our parades not take the same route every time, for those of us who, despite all those warnings from Mom, love to play with our food, this is a good thing.

cochon     What does a culinary student do during the break from classes? What else? He looks for some place to eat. Did I really drive to New Orleans just to enjoy dinner? Sort of. I was on the Gulf coast for a little R & R but did get in the car for a 90 minute journey to dine at Cochon. It was off the scale outstanding! It couldn’t have been easy opening a new restaurant in a devastated city in the current economy given the legendary level of competition, but Chefs Link and Stryjewski have exceeded my most lofty expectations. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

     Apparently anyone can be a celebrity these days. A few years ago the Cooking Club of America held an event in Atlanta, and my wife and I attended. They have used our photograph in the magazine several times and now we’re on the website. Look out Food Network!club photo

Jun
23

microscope     It’s been a long time since I’ve written a paper. A few of my culinary classmates might suggest my most recent project probably predated writing itself, most likely accomplished through the skillful use of a chisel and stone tablet, or perhaps a cave painting. Fine, make your jokes. My grades are probably higher than yours. But most certainly there was nothing called MLA format, no doubt another attempt by godless academians to impose a torturous right of passage on innocent students. It has taken me twice as long to ensure that all the punctuation and resource citations are properly placed as it did to research and write the paper. I am thinking I can persuade the beer and wine professor to use me as an example of natural fermentation. Maybe I can get a break on the tuition.

     Age has its advantages if you’ve been paying attention. Several times one of my professors has cited me for having the most brightly polished shoes. My uniform, which must be fresh every day, always is. I have learned, over the course of several decades, not to do things the hard way if it’s not necessary. I still retain information well enough to get high scores on the written exams. But crunch time is on the horizon. Unfortunately, that same age and experience has deteriorated my physical skills. Slowly, over the years, my field of vision has shrunk to a ribbon about six to seven feet in front of me. Anything closer or farther away is a blur without glasses.

      Regardless of the state of my vision, there has been little of any significance in my life under an eighth of an inch. The occasional insect, but only for the few seconds required to exterminate it. During all the years I’ve been in the kitchen, I can’t recall inspecting solitary granules of salt or pepper or dried whatever. It has been enough to simply scatter the required amounts necessary for seasoning. So you can imagine my dismay when culinary school introduced me to the fine julienne and the microscopic dice that it produces. One sixteenth of an inch? Are they serious? How would anyone know it was even there? This has to be another one of Escoffier’s evil plots to confound students and frighten away the faint hearted… or sighted.

      One of the requirements for moving past the introductory course is successful completion of an exam called the “knife practical.” It has been the eight hundred pound gorilla since classes started since it represents thirty percent of our final grade. We have to demonstrate our proficiency in several knife cuts we have learned. We don’t know which ones will be on the exam, but I’m betting that fine julienne will be there right along with that ridiculous potato tourne. I’m not overly confident. I’ll be happy if I don’t leave half my thumb on the cutting board along with the vegetables. We have a little over an hour. I have every reason to believe the time-space continuum will be playing some wicked tricks.

      On the other hand, my reputation as a chef appears to be expanding. Even the local wildlife is stopping by the house for Sunday brunch. Eat fresh.

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Jun
14
Michelin 3 star chef Anne-Sophie Pic

Michelin 3 star chef Anne-Sophie Pic

      I wear the apron around here. I own the chef’s jacket, the impossible to tie cravat, the funny hat and I carry towels and an impressive assortment of knives and trinkets. Big deal. My wife gets the cookbook credit. At most homes in America, Mom is still in charge of feeding the family when Dad isn’t fiddling with the grill. In professional kitchens, it’s still primarily a man’s world. Some women are making names for themselves as chefs, but eighty percent of my culinary class is male.

     We’ve been fighting gender battles for decades, it seems. Now that the early politicization of women’s rights has settled down, many of us on both sides of the gap are willing to concede that there are a few differences between the sexes. But is it possible to determine, based on the taste and presentation of a dish, the gender of the cook? Recently in Manhattan, several experts including chef Grant Achatz formed a panel to discuss whether men and women do things differently in the kitchen.

      The panelists admitted bringing a few biases to the table with them. Most believed that women are more precise in their technique and follow instructions more closely. It is widely held that men spice their dishes more boldly, prefer red meat, gadgets, and more flamboyant presentation. Girl food, we are often told, comes out more subtle and sophisticated, often accompanied by edible flowers. After an evening of tasting and lively discussion, many myths were shattered. The panelists concluded that, while gender may have some effect on style, the most important factors were experience, personality, and the influence of an individual’s mentor. (check out seriouseats.com for a more detailed account)

assortment1      No… celebrity chefs are not the world’s biggest food snobs. They may be responsible for preparing incredible meals, but that doesn’t mean they always have time to consume. And, if you look behind the curtain, you’ll often find some amazing comfort food cravings. Many of the best known chefs spend more time these days traveling and performing than running a restaurant, so eating on the move goes with the territory. Rocco DiSpirito acknowledges a weakness for Cinnabons; Ted Allen admits you can feed a family of four with fast food cheaper than buying a bag of carrots (but he wouldn’t recommend it). Airline food? Mostly forgettable, but Allen and reality star Bethenny Frankelmiley junk point to Virgin America as setting higher standards.

      We all have our weaknesses, whether it’s Moon Pies or Cheesy Poofs. That includes the people under the toque. Sfist recently surveyed Bay area chefs about their junk food preferences. Alice Waters didn’t respond, but most of the others did. There were plenty of votes for kettle chips and movie popcorn, gummy worms, peanut M & M’s and even Egg McMuffins and hash browns. Fried chicken showed up several times along with hot dogs and In-N-Out burgers. One top food critic goes for Atomic Fire Balls; another shares my personal passion for extra crunchy peanut butter. But you can definitely own me with a handful of Reese’s cups. OK, so much for high standards.

Jun
07

     Cooking is an acquired taste. I wasn’t born a culinary prodigy; in fact, family members like to remind me that the first time I tried to cook something as a teenager I nearly burned down the kitchen. There were no chefs in the clan; the women were largely traditional home cooks. I remember my grandmother’s kitchen always smelled like bacon. I had a couple of aunts who put more food into jars than onto the table. But nobody went hungry. My mom was organized if not adventurous. The weekly menu was always posted inside a cabinet door; it didn’t change much. My dad liked to grill steaks and burgers on weekends. And watch Bonanza and Jackie Gleason.

     So, I didn’t really have to feed myself at all growing up. And as long as I ate at home, everything was just fine. I had my first gastro-awakening at about age 16 when I was invited to dinner by a friend. He was Jewish. His mom looked like everyone else’s mom, except that she served lamb and some things they called kosher. At that point the breadth and depth of the larger Earth began to invade my personal space. I started to crave things my mother had barely heard of. By the time I arrived in Germany just a few years later, I fully realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. And that eating like the average American wasn’t going to be good enough.

     There were complications. The women I was meeting and dating did not appear to be particularly eager to feed me. Many didn’t seem to be terribly interested in ranges, refrigerators or their various uses. This violated my limited world view. What good was a lady who could not cook? I learned early on to shun picky eaters; I found through extensive research that a woman who was reluctant to put an oyster in her mouth was not likely to share my enjoyment of other earthly delights. Order a salad at my favorite restaurant and I’m probably not calling you again. Still, as time passed, the “keepers” habitually became women who were blessed with intelligence and wit, but who had little inclination toward domestication. My wife Francine is everything I could want in a partner; we have similar interests, she has a style and personality that are the envy of everyone we know. She loves to eat and try new things… as long as someone else prepares them. So, guess whose name appears on the cover of a cookbook?

dyer front-cover     The Dyer sisters (and one brother) represent an impressive array of talents. But what a cosmic sarcasm this has turned out to be. Not only did the sisters publish a cookbook; they did it without much input from their spouses, several of whom can actually use a skillet without poisoning anyone. In fairness, I have to concede that the girls have been clever. Over years they used their sense of style to impress party guests without actually having to admit that they were cheating. And the recipes are actually very good; time tested crowd pleasers and favorites that can be prepared (or assembled) with a minimum of time taken away from the more important decisions about clothing and make-up.

     Not that seeing your name in lights guarantees taste or quality. We now live in the age of the celebrity chef; the hospitality industry is still booming even in a slow economy. Television and the internet have made cooking more popular than ever. Chefs seem to be springing out from under every loose rock. Not all of them are geniuses. I recently read a newspaper article from one our largest cities about a “rising culinary star” whose favorite ingredient is mustard, eats loads of pizza and peanut butter by the spoonful, doesn’t care for chocolate, and admits he gets his inspiration chiefly from eating in other restaurants. The Food Network surveyed its fans not long ago for their television chefs’ favorite tips. It turns out that Rachel Ray is most revered for her garbage bowl.

     The things we eat do inspire strong opinions. People who are normally pleasant company have been known to become shrieking monstrosities if their steak is overcooked. We talk ABOUT food; we exchange ideas as we share food. It’s a proud tradition that has flourished in taverns around the world for hundreds of years. Opinions inhabit our minds and souls like so many oddly mutated bacteria shaping our behavior. Some of us, aided by a rigorous daily program of sound mental health and self-control, are able to parent the little troublemakers into maturity. For the rest of us, the demons must be cast out, given space to breathe and emote. There is no safe haven. This will not be one of those sanctuaries. Occasionally, it will become necessary to link our regular search for sustenance to real world policy decisions. Politicians, when they are not consuming each other, are making many of the same dietary decisions as the rest of us. They should be judged not only by the seeds that they sow, but also by the seeds they put into their bellies. You can learn a lot by watching them feed. Do I expect you all to see things my way? Of course. Why else would I be doing this? But feel free to contribute.

May
31

      tourne1 Escoffier was a bastard, okay? I’m not saying that was necessarily a bad thing back in the day. It was his mission to bring law and order to cooking which was either ridiculously ornate, completely chaotic or both. Military discipline can be very effective in certain settings. Preparing quality food for picky customers leaves little room for sloppy performance. Especially when those customers are all clamoring for their dinner at the same time, and they outnumber the kitchen staff. History favors the considerable contributions of Escoffier. Preparation stations, smaller courses, common sense. Merci, Auguste! But there are limits, for crying out loud.

      The number seven has a distinguished position in our folklore. Literature is riddled with it… temples, sisters, gables, dwarves. The number is revered in nearly every casino on the planet. Johnny Rivers had a hit with “Seventh Son.” But aside from the Pythagorean notion that seven is the perfect number, it actually has little real value in the physical world. Almost nothing is seven sided. Not the Pentagon, not Stonehenge, no baseball or basketball team, not a single craps table. It defies symmetry. So why would Escoffier decide to cut a seven sided potato? And one that’s shaped like a football? They didn’t even have football when he was in school. But here we have the tourne.

      I’ve eaten plenty of potatoes. I don’t recall ever being served one that looked like a football, even in a sports bar. Certainly none of them was ever dyed pigskin color. I have learned that one of the advantages of cutting veggies into uniform shapes is to ensure even cooking… and to make them look nice on the plate. But the only reason I can come up with for turning a seven sided potato is to weed out the weak from the profession. A potato would be just as good in a perfect oval. But that would not strike fear into the hearts of beginning culinary students. There must be a wall that not everyone can climb. Remember the quote from Ruhlman about working in service to the potato? Meet Escoffier’s bastard cousin.

machine      Modern technology has enabled a lot of changes in professional cookery. So you’d think with all the advances in Lasik, someone by now would have developed a pocket laser device for carving vegetables. Tourne that spud, flute that mushroom, julienne that carrot; where the hell is Ron Popeil when you really need him? Somewhere, there must be some frustrated former student with a penchant for invention determined to beat the system and get even with those prissy tall hats who drummed him out of the corps. And sure enough, the U.S. Patent Office coughed up exactly what I was looking for. At this point I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to make use of this device. I’m sure no one will ever need it beyond Culinary Foundations I. But if I can just get the instructor to turn his attention elsewhere just for a couple of minutes when we take the knife practical…

 

escoffier2

May
26

carrotmad

      Carrots. My family doesn’t like them much; oh, they’ll eat them raw occasionally, but I’ve yet to come up with a recipe for cooked carrots that makes them happy. I don’t like them raw. I usually pick around them in salads. So imagine my demeanor when the instructors at my new culinary arts school handed me a carrot to play with right off the bat.

     Had the creator been a chef, no doubt changes would have been made in the basic design of the carrot, if for no other reason than to satisfy the human need to tinker. We call it making improvements. So naturally, we reject the basic curvature of the carrot in favor of squaring it off. The technique is essential to the knife cut the professionals call julienne… the creation of little matchstick shapes precisely one eighth of an inch wide and about two inches long. I have never before performed such surgery on a carrot; I’ve never had to. I don’t recall being served a carrot altered in such a way. Round? Oval? Sure. Apparently one or two chefs learned after graduation to respect the wishes of the deity who came up with the product. An eighth of an inch is very narrow. I did not find a scalpel in my equipment bag. So the carrot has become my tormentor for the moment. I am left to wonder if there really is such a thing as a killer tomato.

     It gives me no comfort to learn, as we begin to practice our knife cuts, that more than sixty thousand food industry professionals are injured seriously enough each year to miss work. Why did anyone find it necessary to publish these statistics at this particular point in time? There is no information regarding injuries suffered by culinary arts students. I think they may be hiding something.

     I do understand that, while some of the techniques we are learning may seem stodgy and outdated, they are necessary to acquiring a proper discipline in the kitchen. So I was surprised when I received an e-mail advertising an education in culinary arts containing this picture. It’s obvious the model has never stepped foot inside an instructional kitchen. Can you spot the presentation errors?

cook mistake

      Where did the term “julienne” come from? Nobody really knows for sure. My guess is some prehistoric cook decided to name it after one of his kids, or more likely, a star struck young kitchen stud prepared a dish with fancy cut vegetables for the object of his unrequited affection. Julienne, Julienne. Wherefore art thou?

May
20

     I have to admit:  my decision to give professional cooking a spin was probably the result of watching too much television. It’s one of the unfortunate byproducts of having extra time on your hands. The attraction is not hard to understand. The “celebrity” chefs seem to be enjoying a good life… lots of travel, lots of attention, plenty to eat. And some of the contestants on the cooking shows are so inept, you wonder how they ever got on those programs to begin with. Yes, I know. Hell’s Kitchen is probably the least realistic of the bunch. If Gordon Ramsay was as abusive in his real restaurants as he is on television, he would either have no one working for him, or more likely, some female line cook he called a “fat cow” would have sued his empire away from him. Like most amateurs, I play along with the “Chopped” contestants in deciding what I might prepare with the ingredients in the mystery basket; in that respect,  I’m probably in the same category as the thousands of people who line up for American Idol auditions without being able to sing a lick. Often our self image fails to match up with reality. Still, I’ve begun a nightly motivational ritual; I watch at least one old episode of Kitchen Nightmares. On those days when I’m feeling terribly hamfisted, I figure I can’t be any worse than some of those losers Ramsay has to deal with.

wgst 01

     The popularity of the Food Network has certainly focused a lot more attention on what we eat and who cooks it. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many upscale restaurants. Only in rare instances did we have any idea who was in the kitchen. There may have been an occasional PBS feature on food, but not much on the mainstream networks unless someone was throwing it. Of course, with the increased popularity comes extra scrutiny, and it appears the television chefs are getting a little heat from the food police. I read an article in one of the New York papers recently complaining that the chefs are setting bad hygiene examples. You almost never see them wash their hands, or wear gloves. Ramsay often throws trays of unacceptable food on the floor or against the wall. Expect to see a little more political correctness in future episodes as the weenies in the network front offices feel more pressure from the advocacy groups. 

     Student orientation is good time to size up the people you’ll be spending the next several months with. We’re not exactly competing one on one. This is a school and not a new season of Top Chef. But there are fairly exacting standards for practical skills here, and you just know there are one or two classmates who are going to make you look bad. Almost as soon as the session started, a studious looking fellow asked about the honors program. The man sitting next to me, a military veteran, nudged me with his elbow and whispered, “I already don’t like that guy.” On the whole, it appears to be an older, more mature crowd than I expected for day classes. My tour of one of the other schools was like spending the morning at PS 142. Two thirds of the sixty at the meeting would be attending morning classes. But just as I was beginning to get comfortable with my surroundings, in pranced the RINGER… a dark tanned, slender, exotic looking woman in a semi-blouse, Dukes of Hazzard shorts and high heels. Every eye in the room followed her until she plopped down in the seat right in front of me. All I could see was pony tail. At some point during the discussion, she let it drop that she would be attending night classes. I thought I heard several sighs from the back of the room, and I wondered how many of the men would be racing back to the registrar’s office to change their schedules. Don’t cocktail waitresses make more than line cooks? “It was an interesting appetizer,” I thought, but as soon as we get our uniforms she’ll look just like the rest of us. And she’d better be able to chop an onion.