OK, technically it was yesterday. Sue me. First, a little background. Last fall I took a course at the French Culinary Institute in lower Manhattan. The FCI is a professional school that trains working chefs, but also offers amatuer classes. It is not as prestigious as the Culinary Institute of America (but then nothing is) and the program is far shorter. Still, it is regarded as one of the best schools in the country, and arguably the second best. I will let kwilk contradict that if I am wrong. The CIA also offers amateur classes, in particular the famous "boot camps." The longest of these is five days. Amateurs cannot enroll in any of the professional classes. This is also true at FCI, but with a twist. They do offer their "Culinary Techniques" course for amateurs. This is the identical course and curriculum that all entering students at the FCI are required to take. The curriculum was desinged by Jacques Pepin (an FCI board member) and closely follows his book La Technique. Indeed, the class used to be called this, but the name was changed. The book is not required (at least not so far as I know) but the instructors do strongly encourage students to get it. The amateur version is 100% populated by amatuer students, but anyone who successfully completes this course and later decides to enroll in the professional program can get course credit and a tuition reduction. I don't know, but I believe that this is the most intensive amatuer course offered in the country. I know that neither CIA nor the California Culinary Academy offers anything like it. Yesterday was my first class. The prior course that I took at the FCI was Knife skills -- at three days (or six evenings) it is the shortest amateur class they offer. As an aside, I will say that they offer an 8 day (or 16 evening) class called "Essentials of Fine Cooking." But I called and asked whether, if I were fairly sure that I would one day want to take the full "Culinary Skills" course, I should bother taking Essentials, or would they be duplicative. The answer was, just go straight to Culinary Skills and skip Essentials. Knife Skills was pretty low key. We had two chef instructors, both of them relatively young Americans, and they treated us very gently. There were 22 of us. We learned all the basic cuts, plus how to truss, butcher, and debone a chicken. We also learned how to butcher and filet flat fish and round fish. The instructor for Culinary Skills is not so low-key. He is older and French. The first thing he told us was that, as he is accustomed to being very hard on students, the administration had never yet allowed him to teach an amateur class; this is his first. He said he was directed to go a little easy on us, and pledged that he would try. I guess he is trying, but he is a lot tougher than the two nice Americans from Knife Skills. Chef Xavier - or "Chef X"; "it's easier," he says - proclaimed himself old school. He first intoned that everyone had to be in uniform at all times. Now, they said this in our last class, and even enforced it. But Chef X took things a step further. I was accustomed to leaving the last (upper right) button on my jacket undone. I felt that it vented a little body heat and also gave the uniform a degage air. But the Chef noticed immediately and called me out on it. Button up, no exceptions. I did. His uniform rule is very strict: if anything is wrong, fix it immediately. If you can't (e.g., if something is just missing), go home. There are nine of us in this class. There were 22 in Knife Skills. We are in the same kitchen. It has 6 islands, with four stations each. We students are, for the moment, paired up. We may get split up if Chef thinks we can work fast enough on our own. We work facing each other, we each have a (very powerful) gas burner, and we share an oven (it opens on both sides of the station) and the flat-top above it. There is also a nifty shelf at about hairline level above the station. In the kitchen, there are also several enormous sinks, four freezers, for fridges, one demonstration station for the Chef, and equipment everywhere. All the pans in the kitchen are All Clad stainless, and there are literally hundreds of them - at least 200 total, I would guess. I did not get a good read on who is in the class, in terms of what everyone does in real life as it were, but one guy works full time in a restaurant and is therefore ahead of the game by a long way. I am not sure if I am the only other one with even a modicum of training, but it is possible, probably likely. Not that I am great by any means, but having taken Knife Skills I was at least aware of a lot of concepts and terminology in advance. Terminology is important to Chef X. He did not hesitate to order us all to memorize the proper French term for the various knife cuts, pieces of equipment, and recipes, etc. He would quiz us on them as we worked today, and be rather brusque if we got something wrong. He also did not hesitate to say that we are expected to do homework. Among other things, a term introduced one day should be known by the next session. Also, we should come prepared, having read through our course binders (sort of like a textbook) in advance. He also wants us to hand-write, on 3x5 cards, all the key definitions and measurements of the recipes we are doing and have them in our jacket breast pocket. The exercise, he says, will help with memorization, and in any case, after today, referring to the binder in class is verboten. Of course, as we are not in the professional program, he really can't do much if we slack off except make us feel dumb; but he is good at that, and it is not a good feeling. Also, should any of us -- for instance, the restaurant guy (I don't want to use students' names) - want real credit for this course applied to the career program, if we do badly, he could flunk us and make that impossible. But whatever the case, he is imposing and makes you want to impress him. At least he has that effect on me. Maybe it is the froggy accent. It certainly helps. We spent about two hours just listening - to lectures about uniforms, sanitation, organizing a station, food handling, and equipment. There is a "correct" way to do everything, and once you are told what it is, you are expected to do it. Some really are matters of safety. Like don't wave your knife around when you carry it to the sink; hold it down at your side, blade facing back. However, other rules seem less important. Such as, they lay out trays with the foods (vegetables mostly) that can hold at room temperature safely throughout the class. When you go to collect them you are supposed to take a bowl, put them in the bowl, and then carry them back in the bowl. You are not supposed to carry vegetables around by hand. If Chef gave the reason for this, I missed it. But several people got rebuked for doing it. I did it once, got away with it, felt bad, and did not do it again. A word about equipment. Your tuition covers a toolkit. So did Knife Skills. But this is a much bigger kit. That one had, as I recall, a chef's, paring, boning, and filet knife and a peeler. I think that was it. This one has something like 30 tools, which I won't list. All those knives and more plus other stuff. Mercer is the brand. Most of the stuff is decent, some rather obviously cheap. But I would not be expecting top of the line equipment in such a kit. I was fine with the Mercer knives in the last class, but less happy with them today. But I will get to that. Chef gave a mini lecture on every single piece of equipment in the kit. Then he showed something that I thought was cool. You know those little thermometers with the light blue plastic stem thingies that look like pens? You stick the thermometer through a hole in the plastic at a right angle? Well, we got one of those. I have had them for years. Chef got a bowl, filled it with ice, then poured in some water, and put the tip of the thermometer in the water. If you look on the back of the dial, you will see a hexagon shaped metal plate. If you look on the plastic faux-pen handle, you will see the outline of a hexagon, the same size. Make sure the metal hex is inside the plastic hex, snugly. Then you can turn the dial and adjust where the needle is. Wait a few minutes with the tip is in the ice water and watch the needle drop. When it stops, simply twist the dial until is at 32 degrees. This is known as "recalibration." I had thought that "recalibrate" was a word invented by Star Trek writers for Geordi La Forge, but it appears to be a real word, meant to describe a real phenomenon. Live and learn. Chef said to do this every couple of weeks or so. I am sure that most or all of you knew this, but I didn't. Then chef began demonstrating cuts while we watched. Julienne turnips, then brunoise. Trim, wash and julienne leeks. Jardinaire carrots, then macedoine. Emencier onions, then shallots, then garlic, then ciseler them all. Then chiffonade Boston lettuce. Then supreme a lemon. (There was a French name that started with a "p" for taking off the rind and pith, but I forgot what it is, and it's not in my binder, so if he asks me that next week I am hosed.) Then, finally, tourne potatoes and carrots. I have done all this before, in Knife Skills, and then practicing at home. I am decent at some of it. I can get through onions, shallots and garlic pretty well. But I am not so good at the cuts that have to be visibly uniform. My julienne and brunoise truly lack style. But my tourne really sucks @$$, to use the technical French culinary term. Anyway, a few things struck me in the demo. First, I was taught in knife skills to make julienne "like matchsticks". That is, very thin, but still thick enough to be somewhat sturdy. The books I have also define julienne in this way. But Chef X wants his julienne to be "like hair" as he put it. He sliced his turnips paper thin - so thin that it reminded me of what in Knife Skills Chef Janet called paysanne. I did paysanne OK, when starting from a batonnet, but doing the whole tranche that thin I found very difficult. Second, he did not cisele the onions the same way I was taught in knife skills. In that class, we were taught to - after the onion was peeled and halved -make a series of cuts, straight down, in the direction of the root, without going through the root. Then make several cuts parallel to the board, also without going through the root. Then slice away. This is also what all my books say. Chef X said to make the cuts like the spokes of a wheel with the center bottom of the flat part as the hub, and then skip the parallel cuts altogether. I found this more difficult and asked if I could continue the other way (I feel I am pretty good at that, especially compared to other cuts). I got permission because, he admitted, my way was the official FCI way, whereas his way was just his preference. Third, he was using his personal knife, a Shun. This gratified me, as the owner of two Shuns, who occasionally hears them derided as "yuppie knives" for people with more money than skill. No doubt I do have more money than skill; and I don't even have that much money. But I love those knives. So it was nice to see a real pro using them. Fourth, I know that the proper technique is to have the flat of the knife more or less always in contact with the middle joint of your fingers. Chef did this masterfully, needless to say. But I have always had a bitch of a time with it. Today, a minor tragedy resulted. But I will get to that. After all the demos it was time for lunch. One of the "perqs" of culinary school is that meals are included when you are in session. This is called "family meal," the same as at most restaurants' staff meal, and the food is really very good. So it was during knife skills, and so it was today. However, we had a little confrontation. Every day during Knife Skills, we ate family meal. We went down to the family kitchen on the first floor, loaded up, and brought our plates back upstairs and chowed down. Which we did today. But today we were opposed. A woman in the family kitchen objected to our being there and got into a heated argument with Chef X. I don't know if he simply pulled rank, or if his superior hauteur carried the day. But we ate. She stalked off, literally cursing. And then, when he left, she stalked back and cursed some more. I felt sort of bad for her. Clearly, she thought that we were in the wrong, and that her authority was being undermined. But I had to follow my general. Plus, I was hungry. And, like I said, the food was good. After lunch it was time, finally, to work. I started with the turnips. I cut tranche after tranche and Chef deemed all of them too thick. I thought they were about right for Knife Skills and "by the book" for my small library of technique books, but Chef X rules here, and he deemed them too thick. Three turnips died in my attempt to do a proper (for Chef X) julienne and brunoise, but I got there. Not without blood, however. I was upbraided several times for not keeping my fingers close enough to the flat of the blade. I had trimmed my turnip properly, had my thumb properly positioned behind the vegetable, and had my fingertips properly curled - all this Chef X conceded. But he wanted to see the flat of that knife run flush against the flesh of the middle joints of my fingers. And I was cutting "standoffish." So I tried, with real concentration. But, alas, the best laid plans of wannabes and hacks ... My knife caught the tip the nail of my left ring finger. Not a terrible wound. Just a small piece of nail gone. Not much blood. Funny thing, at one point, much earlier, Chef gave a caustic lecture about self-inflicted wounds and all the paperwork they entail - for him - if really bad, and urged us not to waste his time. He also said that in every class, some idiot - he might have actually said "moron", I don't remember - always cut himself on the first day. Well, ladies and gentlemen, today I was that idiot. Chef helpfully helped me at the First Aid station. He sprayed the wound with two different anti-bacterial sprays. Both hurt like hell. I don't know if it was the pressure or the contents. Probably both. Then he wrapped a bandage, then some gauze, then a "finger condom," to use Ruhlman's phrase. I had never had one of these before. I am typing with it now. It is a nuisance, but quite good for its purpose. I recollect that both Ruhlman and Buford cut themselves badly on their first day, so I figure, this is like being hazed by them in absentia. Or something. I got right back to work. My third turnip was julienned to Chef's satisfaction. It's hard to make even slices that thin. Many sort of tapered off to nothing. Those I had to compost. One I had enough planks thin enough to satisfy the man, making the juliennes was easy. Making the brunoise from there was especially easy. Cutting those paper thin planks was a pain. Julienning leeks: easy. Brunoise leeks: easy. JardiniÃ¨re carrots: a bit hard to make everything even. I had to go slow. Same with macedoine. Emencier and ciceler onion/shallot/garlic: easy. Chiffonade: easy. Supreme: medium hard. It was easy to get the rind and the pith off. Cutting the slices out while avoiding the membrane took some exactitude. I broke a few, and then in taking out the seeds with the tip of the paring knife, I broke a couple more. Still, I ended up with seven perfect supremes, which was not bad. Tourne was a bitch. I did OK, in that the veggies were roughly the right shape - footballs - but emphasis on "roughly." Interestingly, Chef used his paring knife for this, not a "turning" or "birds beak" knife, which I understand is the traditional knife to use for this cut. Anyway, he was looking for a perfect 7-sided cut. This I did not achieve. He said at one point, "if you work for Alain Ducasse and he asks for tourne and you give him this, you will be fired." Lucky for me, I don't work for Alain Ducasse. Lucky for Ducasse too, I guess. We did three recipes. 1) Turnips a l'anglaise, which is basically boiled in extremely salty water and then shocked in an ice bath to stop the cooking. 2) Carrots a l'etuve; this is cooking them in a little water, not even enough to cover them, with some salt and butter in the water, covered with a parchment lid. 3) carrots glacer, which is much like etuve but with sugar. Chef demonstrated the three "degrees of doneness" as it were of glace: blanc, blonde, and brun. Now, these terms are not literally correct when applied to carrots, which are never white or blonde. However, the idea is simple enough. Blanc means adding no color at all. Blonde means adding a little color. Brun means brown, caramelization. Obviously, with a white vegetable like a turnip or potato the color designations will be more literal. We had to arrange our cuts on a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Every example had to be arranged in neat little piles. Then, at the end of the day, we brought our sheets up one by one for a critique. Which the Chef gave loudly, to make sure everyone could hear. A couple of people really got an earful. No one was chewed out over anything hard, but he was annoyed over what h considered easy cuts not done well. Julienning leeks, he said to more than one person, should not be any trouble since you don't have to tranche them, nature has already done that for you. We were not graded but judging from Chef's comments, I would say that restaurant guy did the best, another guy was second, and I was third. Restaurant guy however did not get effusive praise because chef more or less expected him to do well. The second guy was lathered in praise. With me, Chef acted more surprised, I think because of my lousy initial julienne, my lousy tourne, and the cut. That's pretty much it for Day 1. 21 more to go!