Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Competition, an Internship, and a Graduation

I’ve left you sitting on the edges of your seats, I know. Tales of my pre-competition preparations and jitters were a promise to reveal what became of it all, a promise that you might think I have broken. I haven’t, though: I have lots to tell. The past two months have been eventful for me.

First, the competition: great success, or embarrassing failure? Neither, really. I would describe the experience as a great personal success, although I did not place in the competition. To be honest, I was just happy I finished. Those three hours of cooking were more challenging than I had imagined, mainly because of what the mystery boxes contained. As you know, I practiced for this competition, but I wasn’t prepared for this:

-A live Dungeness crab
-A whole, bone-in lamb shoulder
-Two quail
-1 lb. sweetbreads
-A fennel bulb
-1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes

As you can see, there is no chicken on that list. You also might notice that there are not four or five ingredients: there are six … and four of them are proteins. Keep in mind that we were only to make three courses using these ingredients, and one of those courses was dessert. They’re not simple proteins, either. Two of them, some would argue, take more than three hours of cooking to prepare properly (the lamb shoulder and the sweetbreads), but I suppose that was just part of the challenge. I had never worked with sweetbreads before, and only had a vague idea of how to prepare them. It turned out, I wasn’t the only one—the competitor who came in first was the only one who really knew what to do with them. The black box was full of curve balls, to say the least, but we each made the most of it. I made a composed salad of crab, quail, and tomato for my appetizer, seared lamb au jus, with fennel and Yukon gold purée and braised sweetbreads for my main, and individual berry tarts with a berry reduction for dessert.
Curve balls or no, I am glad that I competed. I am proud of myself for finishing, and for having three complete courses to present on time at the end of the three hours. If I had to do the competition again, I would do some things differently, but that was the point of taking the plunge and doing this: to learn. I learned about time-management, sweetbreads and butchering lamb shoulder. I also learned more about what judges are looking for in culinary competitions, and what is important to them, and what is not.

In other news, I completed my culinary school internship. I was lucky enough to get to work at one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle, Chef Holly Smith’s Café Juanita. The restaurant features Northern Italian cuisine and uses almost entirely local, organic, and seasonal product. Interning there was my first venture into being in a fine dining restaurant’s kitchen, and it was an eye-opening experience. Holly is obsessively committed to quality; each item that leaves her kitchen must meet her high standards. Thanks to this, she has an excellent, award-winning, nationally recognized restaurant.

As an intern, I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I worked four days a week, ten or more hours a day, doing basic prep: stemming thyme, dicing turnips, cleaning greens, shelling crab, and so on. I got to do a few more interesting things, like making some of the basic sauces and curing guanciale and pancetta, but the highlight of the stage was from observing and talking to people. I learned a lot just from watching the line during service, asking questions, and trying to soak in as much information as possible. I was only there for about a month, but it was a month I won’t soon forget.
And, oh, yeah, I finished culinary school. I am now finally, officially, a culinary school graduate, ready to venture out into the big, scary world. Yay! It’s a good feeling to be done. What I will do next is still up for debate, but I hope good things are to come. The future looks delicious.

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