18 February 2012

Culinary Foundations III in Review: The Laws of Cooks?

Pancake-flipping robot. Not one of Asimov's.
Isaac Asimov's science-fiction work is famous for the Three Laws of Robotics, rules of behavior that the robot characters would inevitably interpret in different ways. After completing the third of Le Cordon Bleu's three "foundations" classes, it seems to me that cooks should have something similar in place to help us operate. (By the way, Asimov wrote the Foundation series. Coincidence? Er... yes.)

We actually already do. If you consume enough food media, you've probably heard a few operational bon mots from different chefs. One of my chef-instructors paraphrased an oft-held belief in restaurant kitchens: being fast is better than being good. He only had the caveat that a good cook should be both fast and good. A recent Top Chef episode featured one chef saying "fast is slow and slow is smooth" -- in other words, do it right the first time. (Hugh Acheson, however, thought this made zero sense whatsoever.)

I wrote briefly of kitchen multitasking when I was in Foundations II, but in hindsight, those were all simple items. By comparison, Foundations III was a decathlon. Production days typically featured dishes with multiple preparations and techniques. Some days had more than one dish. My most successful days were the ones where I was prepared and efficient. I eventually started timing elements of my chef-instructor's demos so I'd know that, for example, sauteeing mushrooms takes about four minutes, so I shouldn't step away from the stove for six minutes to mince some shallots. I did that. Burned the mushrooms. Had to redo them.

Which brings me back to the Laws of Cooks, which exist but not really. If I had to put them down in stone, they'd probably be something like...

Be Prepared. Know what you need to do before you have to do it. Know when to do it. If something takes 40 minutes to braise, do that first, then go on to chopping stuff. (Thanks, Boy Scouts of America!)

Be Clean. Because shit piles up real fast. I've had a few days where I had to stop and figure out which saute pan at my station was clean and which wasn't. Not a good idea.

Be Organized. I suppose this is the lovechild of being prepared and clean, but it's worth throwing out there. I've had to stop to dig a knife out of my kit because I didn't have them all out together. Not a good idea, though it might make a fun spectator sport.

Be Efficient. I learned real fast never to make one trip for one spice when I could grab all five I'd eventually use. By the same token, don't waste nice knife cuts on something that's going to be removed or strained. Wasted motion is a killer.

Be Fast. It's a carrot, just fucking chop it already.

Food is Done When It's Done. A lot of the chef-instructors love saying this in reply to students asking, "Chef, how long do we cook it?" Mostly because it's true. You can crank up the heat or chop things smaller or whatever, but water boils when it boils, steak sears when it sears, and polenta finishes when it finishes (or doesn't).

Okay, that's a lot of stuff, and not nearly as elegantly tied together as Asimov. Organization is inferred, and efficiency and speed go hand-in-hand, so how about...

Be Prepared.
Work Clean.
Work Smart.
It's Done When It's Done.

I guess I'll see if those work for me moving forward.

Here's a selection of dishes we made in class.

Pan-roasted duck with turnips
Tea-smoked duck breast with ginger-carrot puree (I seared the skin a little much)
Salmon steak with beurre blanc, plus fennel mousseline
Veal blanquette with rice pilaf
Breaded veal escalope (aka veal scallopini)
Sweetbread fritters with tomato sauce, fried parsley

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