April 26, 2012
Chef's Vacation Adventure, San Antonio Style
When folks ask me about our recent trip to San Antonio, that’s the first thing that I tell them. Angie and I, along with Lucas and Landon, Angie’s brother and his girlfriend and Angie’s parents all enjoyed our trip to Texas—and the barbeque was the best part. We found a place called ‘Rudy’s Country Store’ that advertises itself as having ‘the worst barbeque in Texas.’ You know if they say that on the sign that it has to be really good—and it was. We tried baby back ribs, smoked turkey breast and brisket but my favorite was the spareribs. One side we really liked was creamed corn. Oh, and the dessert—they sold peach cobbler by the quart. It was one-stop shopping—Rudy’s was also a gas station.
We also tried some Mexican food while we were there. Ask Angie how she liked the margaritas. I enjoyed menudo soup—filled with tripe, habaneros, lemon, cumin seed and raw onions. I ate the best cornmeal tortillas I’ve ever had, so fresh and falling-apart tender. Compared with the ones we can get around here it’s like the difference between good French bread and day-old store brand at the grocery store.
We had some rain—tornadoes were reported in the area, and a couple of us got sick, but we’d definitely recommend a trip to San Antonio—River Walk, the Alamo, and the Aquarium are all well worth seeing. And the eating is really good.
March 1, 2012
Angie and I are so happy that so many of you will be joining us on March 12 to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. We’ll have a lot of fun. Planning this party took me back to a memorable party we had for my father, Fernand when he turned forty, and all the intrigue leading up to it. I was sixteen, a new driver, and I had gone with friends to a Blast game in Baltimore. We decided to drag race on the way home and I was caught going 74 mph in a 45 mph zone. You can imagine how my father felt about that. So, I was only allowed to drive the car to work or school. The thing was, my mother was planning to buy my father a horse for his birthday, and I was tasked with finding the horse and acquiring the feed, saddle, water bucket and everything else you need for a horse. So, I had to sneak out when he wasn’t home. Trouble was, on more than one occasion he came home and found out I was out driving—well, the punishments grew and grew. Finally the day of the party came. It was a Monday, my father’s day off. We planned to sneak the horse and guests in while my father was working in his garden. So of course he decided he needed to go to the seed store—and we didn’t want him to leave. I conveniently ‘lost’ the car keys but that didn’t stop him—he found another set. Then, some construction workers who were working on our house managed to disable the car so he couldn’t start it. I was getting in more and more trouble, being blamed for everything from speeding to vehicle malfunction. My father’s temper was on display when around the corner of the house came our sous chef, Cliff Hughes, riding the horse, followed by forty friends who had parked at the bottom of the lane and walked up. I can still remember my father’s incredulous, slack-jawed expression when he saw that. It was worth all the grief I got just for that moment. Happy Birthday, Papa!
February 20th, 2012
A friend of mine recently visited the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, in the Hudson Valley—my alma mater. When she showed me some of the photos she took it really reminded me of my time there as a student. It’s hard to believe I graduated from there 26 years ago—some days it seems like yesterday and other days it seems like a lifetime ago. Things there have changed a bit since my time. I believe that now you can begin classes relatively quickly after being accepted—in about two to six months. When I applied, it was a 2 ½ year wait to begin. I applied at the beginning of my junior year of high school and started classes there the April after I graduated from high school.
When I started I already had over six years of restaurant experience. I had worked at my family’s restaurants as everything from dishwasher to prep kid, busboy, salad maker, waiter doing table-side cooking—even, at age 12, and as a bouncer and bartender (that’s a long story, for another time.) Most of the people in my class were already well into their 20’s; some had graduated from college, some were career changers and others were veterans in the hospitality field. Only 20% of us were two years or less removed from high school. Now I think those numbers are probably reversed.
At the CIA, there were a total of over 1500 students and staff, with a new class of about 90 students coming in every three weeks. I remember my first day, in April. I guess you can compare it to boot camp—we lined up to get our uniforms, then our knife kits and books. Then they marched us around the school for our introduction. I remember it as a surreal experience. All of the classes were held in the main building on campus, which used to be a Jesuit seminary. It had a religious atmosphere, with the stained glass windows and imposing architecture, all of us in our spotless chef uniforms and hats.
That first day, I recall having about 15 minutes to get to my dorm room to change and put all my belongings away. My new roommates asked if I was ‘cool.’ Very strange. One roommate looked and sounded like a white Mike Tyson. He was from Brooklyn and a little scary, but this guy turned me on to some of the best cheesecake in Brooklyn. The first day began at 7 in the morning and didn’t end until 9:30 that night.
I have fond memories of our first culinary instructor, Chef Lange, who was from Germany. I felt privileged to have him teaching us. In three weeks he taught us all the basic kitchen skills we would build upon for the future. During those weeks we studied sanitation/nutrition from 9 to 1, then skill development from 2 to 9:30. I guess they were getting us ready for the real restaurant world. Every three weeks we would change classes and instructors. Sometimes we would change after 1 ½ weeks for smaller classes like accounting.
Every day we could have breakfast between 7 and 9 am or lunch between 1 and 2 pm and one other meal either in your class if you prepared it or one prepared for you by other students—it depended on which dining room you were assigned to, and again that changed every three weeks. There was a strong black market for certain areas and you tried to avoid certain kitchens and even certain groups of students (usually if they didn’t perform.) Overall the food was excellent even if we all thought it was crap—we all quickly became food and wine critics.
So, every ten to twenty days we had a final to prepare for and then a new class to start. These ranged from cooking to management, dining room service, meat and fish fabricating, purchasing, etc. For me it was the perfect education while for some of the older students it was a little repetitive as they had more experience.
People are always asking me if they would learn more from school or from cooking. My answer is always “both.” Then people ask me which is the best culinary school. I say, “It always depends on you.” The CIA costs a lot of money, takes about 23 months, and requires that you move three times for training during that period to achieve an Associate’s degree. For a Bachelor’s it’s three years and five moves—so you really have to put the rest of your life on hold. You really can’t have anything else going on to do it right. Other schools might be closer and more affordable and for certain students, perfect.
My advice is always—before you start school, work for a year or two in a good restaurant with a history of training people (you might hardly get paid) and then decide: 1) if you want this as a career and 2) if you want to go to school or continue to learn by working with other chefs. At the CIA I was exposed to so much stuff and I was absorbing it all like a sponge, but I was 19 years old and my sponge was pretty empty. Well, now I’ve squeezed some stories out of my sponge with these early memories of the CIA. I will try to keep more posts coming.