27 December 2011

Day 79: Failure Dominoes

The funny thing about the bad days is that they start so well.

During the previous term, I started to write out production schedules for our cooking days to help me multitask.

In Foundations III, we're required to create them. I find them invaluable, since we're now creating complete dishes with multiple elements – protein, vegetable, starch, sauce, garnish – that have to be ready simultaneously. The simple process of writing a schedule helps me organize the tasks I have to do.

The only thing I can't plan for: a complete culinary belly flop.

Today, our dish was roasted rack of lamb with jus, ratatouille, and fried polenta cakes. Individually, pretty straightforward. It went like so:

Three sauce pots go on the burner immediately, two with chicken stock, one with water to blanch a tomato. Cornmeal goes into one of the chicken stock pots. Occasional whisking whilst I also...

Prep all my vegetables. Cube zucchini, cube eggplant, chop bell peppers, mince shallot, mince garlic, mince onion, mince basil. Make a bouquet garni, rough chop some more onion, carrot, celery, and leek for mirepoix. Grate some cheese...

Polenta looks ready. Butter, cheese, salt, whisk, then into plastic wrap, into the reach-in to chill and firm up. Moving along...

The last piece of ratatouille prep is tomato concasser, which means: blanch, shock, skin, core, chop. Then saute zucchini, remove, then the eggplant, remove, then all the minced aromatics and bell peppers. In goes some tomato paste, the tomato concasser, the bouquet, a wee bit of water and to the back burner it goes to stew.

Check the time, clean my station. Still almost 45 minutes until our serving window opens, about 15 until I need to fire the lamb.

Grab my lamb, remove the excess fat and trim off the bones to create that standard rack of lamb look. Start searing the trim for the jus, season the rack with salt and pepper, begin searing it off.

After it's nice and golden, the lamb goes on a roasting rack and into the oven. I allotted 25 minutes to cook the lamb, plus five to rest. I'm right on schedule.

I caramelize the mirepoix with the trim, deglaze, pour in some stock from that third sauce pot and begin to reduce the jus.

Temperature check on the lamb. 95-degrees. I'm aiming for medium-rare, which means take it out at about 130 so it hits 135 or so after resting.

I check and season the ratatouille, strain the solids out of the jus, clean my station some more, feel good. About five minutes later, another temperature check. My digital thermometer shows me...

145... 156... 164!

Way over. Way way over. I yank the thermometer, get the lamb out of the oven, but it's too late. Did I lose track of time? Did I not get the thermometer in all the way? Maybe I screwed up the reading by touching bone? It doesn't matter, I've killed the lamb. No saving it.


I move to the reach-in and grab my polenta, unwrap it... and it's paste. It didn't firm up. I undercooked it and instead of a polenta cake, I have corn glue.


I ask my chef-instructor what to do. He helps me spoon and dredge some loose polenta quenelles in flour, plops one into my frying pan. It flattens and cooks up into a semi-crispy pancake. It'll have to do.

Instead of five minutes crisping up my polenta cake, I spend almost 15 trying to turn the paste into polenta quenelles, then change tack and fry them into thin polenta crisps because they won't even hold that football shape. Probably because I put too much cheese; the parmesan is separating and oozing out into the pan.

That's 15 minutes while the lamb is resting, carry-over cooking bringing the temperature even higher.

I salvage three reasonable looking polenta circles and plate them. The ratatouille comes out splendidly, thank God, and then I cut the lamb. The mildest of mild pink color in the center. At least it's not leather.

I mount the jus with butter... and it breaks. Instead of emulsifying into a nice, thickened sauce, the butter creates an oil slick. I didn't reduce the liquid enough before adding the butter.

Screw it. I slap some on the plate and present.

I try not to fret too much about failure. I'm in school, after all, and that's sometimes the point.

Oh, I also randomly burned my wrist. I don't even know how, I just noticed it throbbing on my way home. Later, I'll think about how I wasn't patient enough with the polenta, and too patient with the lamb, and how I put way too much cheese in the polenta, and how I didn't turn up the heat high enough to reduce the jus, and how do I plan for possible disasters like this that unfold like dominoes?

For now, I eat and move on.

The ratatouille was pretty good.


  1. I came across your blog looking up knife cuts and I am really enjoying it!There is no way I can afford culinary school.So i've decided to take on my on DIY self taught insane culinary curriculum.Looking up top school programs,disecting their outlines,and going nuts on google trying to learn and watch videos on everything.I know it won't be the same..but I can try!There were a few cuts with technical names i couldn't find and found those here.thank you for making this blog!Im sure I will find more here that will help me on this home school adventure!Its very entertaining too!Good luck in culinary school!!and awesome blog!!

  2. Thanks so much! And good luck with the DIY curriculum. They say Tom Colicchio taught himself simply from reading cookbooks, and it seems to have worked out for him.