Stop, Cook and Listen

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

This is a test. The students will each prepare half an onion, half a zucchini and one carrot in ten minutes. As the course progresses, their knife skills increase and the chopping speeds up.

Later, Chef Jason shows them how to bone a chicken. These are Rocky Junior chickens, he says, free-range birds, humanely raised. He trims a wing tip. "Now Rocky and I are dancing," he says.

"You should be hearing something," says Chef James. "Scraping versus the sound of cutting into meat. The food is talking to you." This will evolve into a kind of mantra. A cook should take his or her cue from the food itself -- its smell and look, the sound it makes being simmered or sautéed. "The food is talking to you," he repeats.

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

Most of the students are sawing at their chickens, but Don works with surgical precision, his hands sure and fast.

The chicken breasts are placed on a sheet pan; the wings and carcasses go on another pan to be roasted for stock.

"We had three students go down yesterday," says Chef Jason in the gravelly, serious voice that tends to slide into a chuckle by the end of a sentence. He mimes a student with a hangdog look hunching forward to hide a cut finger and scuttling toward the sink for a Band-Aid.

Chef James points out the students' lack of economy in movement. He tells them always to call a warning when they're carrying anything hot or heavy. He has two students putting the pan of chicken parts into the oven, one to open and shut the door, the other to shove in the food. "Open. In. Close," he chants.

Chef James can be arbitrary, short-tempered, peremptory, waving his hands, chivvying the group, exclaiming, "Vite, vite, vite."

"Don't ever tell me that," he responds, after a student says a dish will be done in two hours. "Don't ever tell me time." But he's also gentle and reassuring. "There's absolutely nothing to be afraid of here," he says, encouraging someone to attempt a vinaigrette. "If it breaks, I'll show you how to put it back together."

The work is surprisingly physical, and everyone has been working several hours without a break. Of the students, Elizabeth and Don seem most at home with their tasks, taking up less space than the others, indulging in fewer extraneous movements. The kitchen is full of good smells, and Chef Jason is singing "Rocky Raccoon."

By August, Chef Andy has returned from his honeymoon and is working with Chef James. A tall, imposing man with an impressive knowledge of technique, Chef Andy tends to keep himself somewhat in the background, allowing Chef James to do the explaining while he quietly gives individual students advice or corrections. They've been told he's a fanatic about order and cleanliness. Now he stands beside a board that holds a huge, pale, glistening duck liver. Forty dollars' worth of pure foie gras. He demonstrates how to cut it, heating the knife between each cut.

He turns to Don: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get sixteen slices out of this thing." Don accepts. The slices need to be about 3/4 inch thick, so that the outsides will be crisp, the insides tender.

Today the emphasis is on regional French cooking, from Dordogne and Gascony. The complexity of the lunch menu has risen markedly. "We are pushing up the ante," says Chef James, "increasing the number of dishes while the time for preparation and cooking remains the same."

Ethel has been trimming and scoring duck breasts for most of the morning, her movements slow, listless. A week into classes, she began wondering if the course was really for her, if it might be possible to get her money back. After interviewing at the school but before beginning the program, she'd had a dream: "I am sitting on a chair. I have a beautiful ruffled dress, legs crossed, incredibly poised. I see an old boyfriend. He says, 'Pose. I'm going to take your picture. Listen to the song. When a certain word comes up, smile.' In walks Chef James and all these people behind him. My boyfriend says, 'Listen to the song. Listen for the word. Here it comes. The word is confidence.' I smile. Click!"

Today she says, "Since the day I walked into class, I have been fighting with confidence. I work at Dillard's in FlatIron Crossing. Every time I come to work, it's 'Here's Ethel. What do you think, Ethel?' There I have confidence and knowledge."

Ethel is not the only student feeling overwhelmed. Karen, too, is floundering. And Cody, homesick, will go back to Michigan one weekend, planning not to return. Twenty-year-old Tanner has barely spoken to anyone, though a few days into the program he began singing Phish songs to himself while he worked.

Dave, who has wandered in late more than once, will eventually describe how hard it was for everyone to come together as a team: "It takes a while to get to know me."

Now the group sits down to lunch. Several of them have never tasted foie gras. "It's too slimy," says Cody. "It's like partially cooked fish."

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