hard cooking, eating and living a life well-done
Mod 5: The Chef Chris Show
Image courtesy of Institute of Culinary Education
So much to report, dear readers, I hardly know where to begin (which is probably why one week off from blogging turned to
four five in a flash).
By the end of Module 4, our class had garnered such a reputation for chaos—due squarely to the shenanigans of Big Bird and Bubba Gump, that ICE decided to send in the big guns. Chef Chris Gesualdi started poking around in our classroom toward the end of Mod 4, having us clean out the supply cage or underneath the tables, to begin giving us a taste for what lay in store. Chef Chris is, far as I can tell, ICE’s most commanding and formidable instructor. Prior to arriving at ICE, he was the longtime chef at Montrachet. He created what was to become the now-shuttered Tribeca French spot’s signature dish, Truffle-Crusted Salmon. In the 1980s, he worked with Thomas Keller at Restaurant Raphael and then at the first restaurant Keller owned, Rakel, all before Keller moved out West to make a big name for himself at The French Laundry.
Here’s what Ruth Reichl said about Montrachet, and Chef Chris’ salmon, in her 1994 review:
The kitchen is also well run: when Debra Ponzek, the talented young woman who had been chef since 1986, relinquished the range to her sous-chef, Chris Gesualdi, a few months ago, the transition was so smooth that few patrons were aware of the change.
This is probably because Montrachet has always had a style of its own, and each chef falls under the restaurant’s spell. The food is refined yet aggressive. Its strength lies less in technique than in the quality of ingredients and the finesse with which they are combined. The food, like the service, seems effortless.
Consider the salmon. It looks like an ordinary piece of salmon that has been beautifully cooked. But the top is dusted with a truffle crust that puts such a spin on the fish it does not taste like salmon with truffles but like some entirely new and utterly delicious creature. Pairing the fish with grilled fennel and artichokes encourages this new-flavor sensation.
You get the idea. He’s serious.
We were all a bit nervous, if excited, to finally have a chef who would bring up the level of play. Turns out, while he is indeed demanding, he is not withering, Gordon Ramsay-style. His mantra, which he says repeatedly every class is “Keep it clean; make it beautiful.”
He engages us to do our best work—this is more important to him than our speed or any culinary pyrotechnics.
To that latter point, his favorite cautionary wag to us whenever we are given creative license is this:
"I may be a guinea, but I’m not a guinea pig."
Under Chef Chris’ tutelage, we have had some of our most fun and edifying classes: cooking master chef dishes (Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless…would have done Thomas Keller but instead Chef tasked us with a 4-hour class devoted to improving our knife skills), hors d’oeuvres, sausage-making, terrines, pates, mousselines, gallantines roulades, smoked meats and fish.
We have also been charged with bringing our A game, every class. This, as you might imagine, is harder for some of us than others (more on that).
It feels like yesterday when I began this journey, which has turned out to be bigger than culinary trade training, but next Saturday is my graduation ceremony from ICE.
I’m sure you have many questions and curiosities. A look back, and ahead, to follow.
A week in 5 acts. Act 5: Dinner, finally!
Before work, I stop at the Union Square Farmer’s market to pick up 4 batches of swiss chard. I only wish I had taken a picture of the greens I bought. Bring me these in place of flowers any day (not that anyone brings me flowers, either, but that’s another story). That’s how lush and verdant they were.
Scored a ride home from work. My friend, Geri (also my doctor) and/or her husband Eric, are supposed to pick me up and drive me to their place with the food, but they’re both stuck late at work. I’m sooo tired at this point, full schedule and lack of sleep be damned! Keep moving, I tell myself, stripping the chard greens from the white stem, chopping and bagging them like a gangsta.
I’m making this dinner as a friendly barter with Eric, a fashion photographer, who took the photo of me that I used in my Eatocracy feature. I was kinda hoping he wouldn’t ask to redeem the favor while I was still in school, but he did. It gives me some insight into what it must be like to be a professional chef. It’s not that you don’t want to cook when you get out of the pro kitchen, it’s just that it sucks so damn much of your time, all you want to be able to do is have time to enjoy the leisurely experience of it again.
I had tried to make dinner a simple proposition, given my schedule, but therein lies another catch about being a chef in training. Simple and good is no longer enough. There must be a wow factor to my culinary efforts or there will be disappointment. I had told Geri I was thinking of making a Shepherd’s Pie (thought I could do a practice run before the food editor’s meeting, the Sunday prior).
Have you ever made that before?
The subtext of this question was not “Are you sure you know how to make it?” but rather, “That sounds kinda ordinary and I was expecting impressive.”
Which is not where this very, very long week (actually a month ago now, in real time) began, but it is how it wound up, better than expected.