Stop, Cook and Listen

Six months and $20,000 later, student chefs prepare the meal of a lifetime.

The six-month intensive includes a one-month trip to France, which Chef James promises will be an eye-opener. He advises the students to learn as much French as possible in advance. The basis of the program is French cuisine, because "all the cooking in the world refers back to that. It's the international language," he says.

As Chef James continues to describe the program, he cautions, "I sometimes lose my temper. But compared to what you'll see in a professional kitchen..." He rolls his eyes. "They do not set expectations. They do not have a suggestion box." The students' answering laughter is muted and cautious.

Chef Jason has joined James at the table. At one restaurant, part of a salmon he was working on "was a little more than golden-brown," he remembers. "The chef screamed, 'This is my reputation on the plate. You're screwing with my life. You're screwing with my livelihood.'" The chef then shoved the fish against Jason's front and punched him, smearing fish all over his jacket.

Jay Bevenour
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.
John Johnston
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.

Chef James laughs. When he was at cooking school, he watched the chef bone a fish, then point the knife at a student and tell him to do the same thing. "The student did a good job," Chef James recalls, "but his hand was shaking, and the knife fell on the floor and into the chef's foot. The chef grabbed it, pulled it out, stuck it in the guy's butt and walked away." Chef James pauses. "We feel there's a better working environment than that."

In fact, Chef James and Chef Andy have constructed this curriculum with great care, taking into account their varied experience in professional kitchens and the best and worst elements of their own culinary educations.

Chef Jason finishes preparing lunch, and the students divide into two groups, one to plate Chef Jason's food, the other to set up the table. Ethel presses the tablecloth; others begin collecting knives and forks. They move uncertainly, unsure of where things are kept. The plating group places potato, chicken, sautéed vegetables and a sprinkling of tarragon on each plate; one student spoons on sauce. Chef James demonstrates how to wipe the edge of the plate and how to hold it so as not to leave fingerprints; he shows them how to fold the napkins so that a diner has only to pick up one corner for the entire napkin to unfurl. He tells them that all of the water glasses must be filled to the same level.

Two jars of daisies are set on the table; someone dims the lights. The students sit down to eat their first meal together. For the most part, they're silent, only speaking to answer Chef James's questions about how the food feels in their mouths and what they think of its look, taste and aroma.

One student says he likes the cooked cucumber. The others keep their eyes on their plates; the chefs say nothing. What's been served is zucchini.

There's something priestly about James Moore's presence: his voice -- urgent, soft, demanding -- his dignified carriage, the eagerness with which he gives instruction, his transparent, almost prayerful joy when he encounters a food that pleases him. In a later class, he will pour balsamic vinegar over raspberries, vinegar he brought back from Italy that costs $200 a can. "Simple and fresh," he murmurs. "Something that's not five days off the vine and something 25 years off the vine. Let's see how they taste together."

In the kitchen, he is a fountain of knowledge. He talks about where specific foods come from, how they're prepared, the ways in which they fit together, the kind of people who eat them. Chef James is a member of the worldwide Slow Food movement, which is dedicated to keeping small producers alive and fostering a profound understanding of the place of food in human life.

Chef Jason is talking about sustainable agriculture, pesticides and the overfishing of swordfish. Chef James nods. "You have to make a decision who you're going to be as a professional chef and what ingredients you'll use," he says. "Chefs should educate the public."

Chef James continues: "Americans are scared of food. They're always wondering if it's poison. They consider certain foods the enemy -- fat, sugar, salt. But ingredients aren't the enemy. The enemy is the amount. The enemy is frozen and prepared foods. The French eat everything in moderation, have wine with every meal. They automatically exercise. When we go to a restaurant over there and say, 'Can I have my food without this or that,' they think we're crazy.

"You need to taste everything," he tells these students, some of whom have never been away from their home states before, some of whom are just beginning to take an interest in cooking. "I ate horse in France. Be open and try it. Frogs' legs. Lambs' eyes. You don't have to like it. You don't have to change your whole diet." He leans back and sighs. "Understanding food takes a lifetime."

A few days later, the students are standing by their cutting boards, completely silent, cutting as if their lives depended on it: thin sticks of carrot, squares of zucchini. Bowls for waste stand in front of them. Brent has a Band-Aid on his finger. "Look at the pieces," Chef Jason says. "Are they more or less the same size? Are the ends of the julienned carrots square? Are you cutting into large, medium or small dice? Move left to right. Keep the floor neat."

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