Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blame it on the snow...

Wednesday was the first day of France, and a horrible one at that. From start to finish, nothing went right. We had been lulled into a sense of security by the first two and a half weeks, and then a cruel twist of fate took us down.... The day started off as usual, though it was snowing – heavily and worsening by the minute - and so the school decided to close everything down at noon. This meant we would have to be out of class 90 minutes earlier than normal, and subsequently service would start at 10:30 instead of noon. It’s not easy making food appear in an instant.

Jason and I were on the scallop station: seared scallops with beurre blanc and fines herbs, sautéed brussel sprout leaves and gratin dauphinois (potato gratin). Delicious food, yet a pain in the butt to make! The scallops are seared to order – five each – in a super hot pan with clarified butter. When the pan is just right, they develop that wonderful crust and silky, barely-opaque middle. The pan is deglazed, then swirled with a ladleful of beurre blanc. This “white butter” sauce is simple in theory, onerous to execute, but so good to slurp down with scallops. White wine, champagne vinegar, shallots and peppercorns are cooked down to a syrup, then butter – pounds of it, cubed and cold – are whisked in one-by-one. The butter is emulsified into the liquid, producing a thick, luscious sauce that’s acidic and flavorful and so buttery that I wish I could live off it - if only it weren’t so tricky to make. If the sauce gets too hot or too cold, it separates. Too much butter, or added too fast, and oil puddles on top. Too much liquid, and it loses all body. I made at least ten batches of beurre blanc over the three days due to separation and other ailments.

The brussel sprout leaves were also sautéed to order, but were a little more forgiving than the scallops. At least the potatoes were already cooked and ready to go at service – just scoop and serve.

This is definitely the most challenging dish I’ve made in school (when service is taken into account). On Wednesday and Thursday we sold about one dish per minute. On Friday, the last day, we sold 26 in fifteen minutes.

I honestly don’t know how we served that first day, considering that at 10:20 we were standing around like idiots with nothing set up, our scallops still in a big bowl (they needed to be blotted dry, then laid out in rows of five on trays), no demo plate up, and no clue as to how we would work during service. I fleetingly hoped that because of the snow, no one would show up. Quite the contrary. Students love to stock up on food when there is no foreseeable dinner on the horizon. So the doors opened and the hoards descended … on the scallops. Jason plated while I seared and sautéed as fast as I could. We had an embarrassingly long line waiting for our food (we hadn’t started cooking the first round far enough in advance before the doors opened). I would have one or two pans going with brussel sprouts – tossing and seasoning them, dumping them in a bowl to pass to Jason – seasoning scallops and placing them down in screaming hot oil (which splattered and painfully tickled my hands), starting with the largest ones and ending with the smallest so they all finish at the same time, flipping them with my bare hands and a fish spatula, then transferring them to the resting rack and passing them to Jason, pouring out the excess oil and deglazing with a ladle of water, then pouring in beurre blanc and a few pieces of butter, swirling it to emulsify, then finishing with a pinch of minced fines herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil). When I got it right, everything was perfectly in synch. Just when Jason finished plating one round I would pass him the components for the next, and I would already have another batch working. For a split second I wickedly thought how fun it was – when my scallops looked beautiful and the sauce was cooperating and I was keeping up with Jason – and of course the next moment I looked up and saw the line and choked. But we made it, and the next two days were much better. Actually, our last day was just great, and the (perfect!!!) score on my final quiz was the ultimate morale booster.

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