Stop, Cook and Listen
The students stand around the steel tables of the Cooking School of the Rockies' professional kitchen. Before them are rows of plates containing the preliminary versions of dishes that will be served at the school's biannual gala -- designed as both a fundraiser for Boulder's Community Food Share and a test of the students' knowledge and skill.
They begin the discussion with the amuses bouche -- little delicacies to be passed among the forty or so guests before dinner begins. The students have prepared shrimp in a shredded phyllo dough called kataifi, and strips of polenta sandwiched with mascarpone and bound with prosciutto. Eventually they will also make thin, crisp yam, beet and potato gaufrettes, each carrying a rosette of salmon gravlax crowned by crème fraîche and a dot of caviar -- but the salmon is still curing.
"The marinade you used for the shrimp is discoloring the kataifi," says Chef Andy Floyd, one of the teachers. "Maybe there shouldn't be a marinade."
"Or a citrus-pepper white marinade," suggests the second teacher, Chef Gallit Sammon.
Chef Andy nods. "We could also skewer them. It'd be a little shrimp Popsicle."
"A shrimpsicle," says one of the students.
They turn their attention to the polenta. The strips could be thinner, they agree, and firmer. They also plan to adjust the taste. "We're going to use one-third chicken stock, one-third water and one-third milk for the polenta next time," says Meg Albers, one of the students who worked on this dish. "These are too chickeny."
For the appetizer, there's a choice of apricot-risotto-filled shepherd's purses or lobster ravioli. Chef Andy asks which the students prefer, given what will be served before the appetizer course and what's coming after. The students are unanimous on the lobster. Then come the questions. How should the ravioli filling be prepared: lobster mixed with ricotta, or lobster mousseline? Should they serve one large ravioli or two smaller ones? Can they garnish each dish with a lobster claw? That's possible, Chef Andy replies; it would only take twenty lobsters. "The claws would have to be put on a sheet pan and brushed with olive oil, maybe a white truffle oil," he adds.
"I'd like to see this served in a bowl, and cutting down the size of the ravioli," says Chef Gallit. "With yellow-and-red-tomato brunoise and a beautiful clear broth on the side. Three different textures. Different flavors. Nice and light."
Then comes the soup course. This is the responsibility of one of the program's most dedicated and meticulous student cooks, Elizabeth Perrault. She has prepared two soups: a butternut squash and a potato-leek. They will be poured into the bowl side by side, so that guests receive bi-colored soup. Both soups must be of similar thickness for this to work.
"I carried one all the way through the other room and it held up," says fellow student Don Bartlett.
Elizabeth laughs. She's been having problems with her potato-leek soup, which she thinks is too dense and clogs the mouth. "That's because one of the soup's paste," she says. "We have some serious work to do on it."
And again the questions. How green should the soup be? Somewhere along the spectrum of the leek, says Don -- whitish-green to deep green. Is the gold-orange squash soup too close in color to the red-pepper sauce they'll be serving with tuna for the fish course? And how should the soup be garnished?
"Is there anything you can use that's representative of the soup?" asks Chef Andy.
They decide on a fine julienne of squash that's been immersed briefly in boiling salted water and shocked in ice water, with a frizzle of deep-fried leeks for the center. Chef Gallit promises to show Elizabeth a way of frying the leek strips that leaves them bright green instead of brown.
As for the fish course, the tuna is cut too large. The pecans in the pecan-almond crust should be more finely ground. There should be less red-pepper sauce on the plate.
And so on through seven courses that include venison chops with red cabbage and bread-and-sausage stuffing, salad with pear slivers and Roquefort croutons, an elaborate dessert, and mignardises -- a cluster of little sweets to go with coffee at the end of the meal. Some kind of bread -- from bread sticks through cheese-filled parmentiers to milk and whole-wheat rolls -- will accompany each course. Champagne will be served at the beginning of the evening and a different wine paired with every course.
There's a great deal of discussion about the dessert -- a cone of cinnamon-flavored Bavarian cream coated with chocolate. Cody Schultz and Brent Whitson, the students in charge of dessert, have come up with several presentations. They all start with crème anglaise and squiggles of chocolate sauce on the plate, along with deep-pink candy swirls and tuiles -- thin, crisp cookies -- in circles and squares. The students begin playing, leaning a tuile against one cone, hanging a second from the point of another. One of the tuiles shatters.
"You guys are big on the cone?" asks Chef Andy.
"I'm not attached to it," says Elizabeth. "To me, it has to have a perfectly pointy tip to look nice."
Eventually, the cones will stay but their chocolate coating will go, along with the fantastical sugar shapes.
Although bread and cold cuts were set out earlier, the students have been working too hard to stop. Now they fall on the presentation plates, picking at the chops, wolfing down milk rolls. Even as they eat, though, there's an undercurrent of concern. What they've achieved seems far from the elegant meal they want to present at Friday's gala. "It's always interesting the first day, just getting a feel for what you're going to do," says Chef Andy, his voice carefully poised between anxiety and reassurance. "Every one of you should go home and write a sheet on where you're going to go tomorrow."
Chef Gallit adds that communication is essential. "There's a person working beside you, and you don't know what that person is doing?" she asks. "Come on. You're creating a dish together."
The students nod. Tomorrow they'll try again. And again the next day.
Months of listening to the chefs, struggling with equipment, chopping and peeling, roasting, steaming, baking and sautéeing, stirring, straining, smelling food, arguing about taste and texture, forgetting what the chefs have said, re-remembering, planning menus and talking to the purchaser are behind the creation of these dishes. There's been an exhilarating stay in France attending wine tastings, market days and classes, and working in bakery or restaurant kitchens. There have been burns and cuts, strained backs and twisted wrists. For some of the students, there's been loneliness and homesickness. Hugely disparate in age and background, having met each other for the first time only five months ago in this same kitchen, the students will now come together as a team and attempt to deliver the meal of a lifetime.
This past July, ten new students assembled for their first Cooking School of the Rockies class, wearing spotless chef's jackets with their names embroidered over the hearts, checked pants and either clogs or sturdy, non-slip shoes. All of them had paid $19,500 for the six-month course of instruction that would prepare and qualify them for jobs in the food industry. Each had invested an additional $600 in a black bag containing several knives -- critical tools for their craft.
The professional kitchen is an efficient place. Along one wall stands a row of freezers and refrigerators; along the opposite wall, several stoves. Near the door is the counter where most of the work on bread and pastries gets done. There are peels, sheet pans and stones for bread and pizza by the stove. Pots and pans gleam on shelves; skimmers, ladles, whisks and spatulas dangle from hooks. The convection oven hums, the ice maker clanks; sporadically, the entire kitchen begins muttering and burbling.
Chef James Moore, who created the program curriculum with Chef Andy Floyd, presides over this session. Chef Andy is in Thailand on his honeymoon (he has sent the students a letter that begins, "Sorry I won't be there to help you with your cuts and burns"), so Chef Jason McHugh is helping out this week. Tall and muscular, with a wild mop of curly hair, he putters in the background, preparing the students' lunch, while Chef James gives them a little of his own background. He describes his Slovak grandmother, who grew vegetables and whom he remembers constantly cooking and humming at the stove, as well as his other grandmother, whose sole culinary practice was the simmering of huge cans of food in saucepans every Thanksgiving. He talks about his cooking experiences and his education at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Chef James's specific interest is sensory awareness; he promises to teach the students how to taste.
There will be other teachers, too. The students will study bread baking with B. Young of Breadworks and pastry with Dan Widmann, consulting chef for the Denver Convention Center.
"Chef Dan has tremendous production skills," says Chef James. "We asked him, 'How are you with croissants?' and he said, 'Do you want six or six thousand?'"
Now it's the students' turn to introduce themselves. The first is Meg Albers, a woman with a warm smile and a soothing manner. She says she has three adult children and that her last profession was teaching preschoolers with special needs. She has attended the Naropa Institute for two years and has also studied massage therapy. She's interested in writing and self-discovery and feels cooking school "will be another opportunity to discover my skills."
Dave Scarbrough is 26, with tousled dark hair, a diffident manner and a pronounced Georgia accent. He studied biology in college with the idea of being a doctor, but knew by the time he graduated that he "wasn't going to make it." He's been interested in food since he was ten or eleven and is encouraged by the fact that "it's not as black-tie as it used to be." He doesn't know what his long-term goals are.
At eighteen, Cody Schultz is the youngest. He grew up in Michigan, has worked in a microbrewery and says he was always interested in cooking. Karen Quinn, in her thirties, has worked in restaurants as a manager and "wants to get into the catering side, where I can do both front and back."
Brent Whitson is tall and stocky, with a quiet, solid demeanor. He's 29. He's been a stockbroker and has worked in pharmaceutical sales, but he always wanted to go to cooking school.
Tanner Meshberger is only two years older than Cody. He keeps his eyes down while he speaks. He worked in construction with his father, he says, and didn't like it. He wants to "paint and be creative. I don't really have any goals." His voice trails into silence.
"I grew up in West Virginia, cooking everything from squirrel to brains," says Don Bartlett, a crop-haired and neatly bearded man in his forties. After four years in the Air Force, Don got a degree in respiratory therapy and had a highly successful hospital career, ultimately running two departments. He's the father of two daughters. "I got rooted," he says. But on weekends, he cooked for his friends and dreamed "of a place of my own that people would flock to."
Later Don explains with a slight smile that his first wife, to whom he'd been married 21 years, left him to follow the Grateful Dead. A few months before the cooking class started, he married Rhonda, a nurse he met at the hospital and the mother of a small son. He described his vision of a restaurant to her. "One evening she said, 'What would it take for you to follow your dream? If I can double my salary, would you quit your job and go to school?'
"She went into computer tech and in eighteen months doubled her salary," Don remembers. "She got the first paycheck, slapped it down and said, 'Now what's your excuse?'"
One of thirteen children growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Ethel Merrigan, now in her fifties, wanted to be a home economics teacher. Instead, she went into sales. For several years, she owned her own clothing store. "I'd like to run a country inn," she says, "a tiny place with a wonderful kitchen." But, she adds, "whatever comes, comes."
Elizabeth Perrault got a degree in hotel and restaurant management and then went to Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer. One of her projects was introducing soybeans as a field crop. "They're so poor, so incredibly malnourished; they couldn't afford protein," she explains. "I lived in a mud hut for a time and then in a small concrete house. I rode my motorcycle to the villages every day and worked with several different women's groups on growing soybeans and then teaching them how to cook with them. I taught them to make soy milk, because a lot of times the women couldn't breastfeed -- they were off working. We also made these things called soumbala, little fried balls. We'd go to the market and sell them." She smiles. "I had a great time with the women."
After that, Elizabeth worked in the high-tech industry, most recently as a recruiter. But her heart wasn't in it. She took some evening classes at the Cooking School of the Rockies, met her partner at the first class she took there, and fell in love with cooking. "I'm interested in food and travel writing," she tells the class, "and perhaps someday having a lodge/ retreat in the mountains where people can go and get nourished. On all levels."
Introductions over, Chef James runs over protocols and procedures. Every week, one student will serve as kitchen manager, coming in early and making sure that everything runs smoothly. The students will learn by being shown dishes and then cooking them, receiving the written recipes only afterward. One student will always be the designated bread baker, a job that at first requires making only a baguette or two but ultimately involves an array of rolls and loaves. In the afternoons there will be wine tastings, planning sessions or lectures: how to cost out a menu, how to use the Internet, the basics of food writing, developments in the industry. Essay assignments and written tests will be given. The students are to keep their white jackets clean and pressed; they are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the kitchen. Almost every day, they will prepare a several-course meal for themselves, the dishwasher and any guests who happen to be present, a group that sometimes includes the school's owner, Joan Brett.
Once a lawyer, Brett made her way to the kitchen over a decade ago. She attended Peter Kump's New York Cooking School in 1990 and founded the Cooking School of the Rockies in Boulder on her return, beginning with classes in the kitchen of her own home in the fall of '91. "I haven't regretted my decision for one second," she says. "What I do now is make people happy instead of unhappy. And the stress of running a business doesn't compare to the stress of being a family lawyer."
In addition to the Cooking School of the Rockies' professional program, which has a strong regional reputation (one graduate is currently in charge of specialty foods, including cheeses and olives, for Boulder's Whole Foods Market; others work at Triana, Full Moon Grill, Maggiano's and the Flagstaff House), the school offers dozens of single classes on topics ranging from chocolate to soup and barbecue to ravioli, as well as week-long technique workshops and a month-long professional pastry class.
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.
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."
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.
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."
"The sauce is really syrupy," muses Dave. "And the inside's like a weird pancake."
But Tanner's eyes are shining. "I've never tasted anything like this," he says. "It's wonderful."
Chef James comes into the classroom accompanied by Joan Brett. For reasons of health, he says, he is leaving the program. He tells the students that his kitchen door is always open to them. The students are devastated. Several of them weep. A couple of days later, Chef James clarifies by letter: He is not leaving voluntarily. He has been fired.
Brett returns to the classroom and explains the situation as best she can without disclosing the reason for Chef James's termination.
Karen and Ethel discuss what has happened. They had been told when they entered the program that they would not be allowed to drop out partway through and then later rejoin, because that would violate the bonding that takes place between students. Yet now they have lost Chef James and face the prospect of adjusting to a replacement -- surely a much larger violation.
"I finally get it, due in large part to him," Karen says of the pleasure of cooking, "and he's not going to be there to say, 'Look, Karen got it.'"
"It's a journey we were taking together," Ethel adds.
Quiet, stolid-seeming Brent had fired to the passion he sensed in Chef James. "They were cooking a dish once, and he was telling how the individual spices came over the Pyrenees from the Moors," Brent says. "I miss his input, all the intangibles he added to the class. I didn't want to just learn how to bake a cake or cook a chicken breast. I wanted the story behind it as well."
"It's exciting to see someone that driven about something you love and to have him right alongside, telling you how to do things," says Dave. "I felt I learned so much from him, and now it seems...I don't want to say wasted, but unfinished, I guess."
Chef Andy has to step forward, take the helm and oversee the hiring of Chef James's replacement. As he does, his own background and proclivities become clearer. His father worked as an agronomist for the Green Revolution. "He wanted to feed the world," he remembers. "He was passionate about doing that."
Andy spent many of his formative years in Morocco. His interest in food emerged when a neighbor was teaching himself to cook with a French book called Cooking Is Child's Play. "I got really excited by that whole thing," Chef Andy says, "mainly because of the reaction my parents had to the food he put out."
His mother bought him the book, and he began going through the recipes. He made his first reduction sauce at the age of seven. "I used to take the heat very high," he recalls, "and then turn it down low, back and forth, watching the bubbles increase and almost come over the side, then letting it simmer down, and finally taking it to where the reduction started to thicken."
He remembers riding his bicycle to the market, the smell of cumin and curry, the man deep-frying beignets. He'd buy croissants and pain au chocolat at the bakery and race home to serve his parents breakfast in bed. Their maid was in love with the baker down the street, and Andy spent many happy hours watching this man prepare bread.
With his father, he visited local farmers, who invited them for dinner. "You'd get started with a large platter of couscous mounded over vegetables and chunks of lamb meat," Chef Andy says. "The poorest people would be the most surprising in their generosity."
He continues: "My parents belonged to this Anglo club called the Churchill Club in Casablanca. Expats from England and the U.S. would go there for dinner and dancing." With some help from his mother, seven-year-old Andy cooked quiche Lorraine, rabbit in mustard sauce and chocolate mousse for a hundred club guests. "I got all kinds of applause for that," he says.
At age fourteen, Andy was back in the States, living in Washington, D.C. Although he'd fantasized about this return, he found himself "a stranger in my own country." After some restless years, his family sent him to a private school in Carbondale, Colorado, where he became interested in art and the outdoors.
In college, Andy studied telecommunications, but a lot of his energy went into cooking for friends. He and Brian Paterson, now executive chef for the American Medical Association, used to prepare Sunday brunches. "We'd have eggs Benedict, watch Bugs Bunny and drink bloody Marys," Andy remembers. "We also used it as a way of attracting women." He laughs. "I couldn't be a rock star. I had to find a different avenue."
After a brief attempt at a career in advertising, Andy decided to attend L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. For his apprenticeship, he worked at the Occidental Grill in Washington, under Chef Jeff Buben. "It was an extremely hostile kitchen," he says. "A bunch of hardcore, trench-war-type people."
On his first night, he found himself working beside Buben. "I learned pretty quickly what that meant," he remembers. "He was screaming at me to get food out: 'What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing that? Where the hell did you go to school?'
"At the end he said, 'You did better than I thought you would.'"
This stint was followed by a stay in France, where Andy cooked for several restaurants, including one with three Michelin stars. Then he worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington -- under Buben, his old mentor and tormenter. When he tired of the city, he moved to a kitchen in Crested Butte. "Crested Butte was heavenly," he says. "The family feeling of the whole town. I went skiing every morning. I was in a continuous state of exhaustion and elation." Three years ago, he learned about a job opening at the Cooking School of the Rockies.
His work with Chef James Moore on the curriculum was "unbelievable," Andy says. They had two and a half months to get it done. "He spent hours and hours going through it, giving it to me for feedback and revision. It was very stressful -- and very exciting."
The two men argued, Chef Andy says, because of the amount of information James wanted to cram in. "He could see all of it at once, way beyond the scope of what you could physically do."
But the result was a solid curriculum. "James's efforts are going to live on as long as I'm around," Chef Andy says.
The trip to France is now only two weeks away. On separate days, three chefs come to audition for Chef James's job by cooking with the class. The shell-shocked students find one of them highly appealing; Joan Brett hires her almost immediately. She is Gallit Sammon, 29, and her credentials are extraordinary. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she apprenticed at the Greenbriar Resort, a five-star restaurant and hotel in West Virginia, eventually becoming sous chef and chef there. She then worked for two years as sous chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Chef Gallit has known almost all her life that she wanted to cook. "In sixth grade, I saw a movie on the Culinary Institute of America in home ec class and decided that was where I was going to school," she remembers. She will join the class on their return from France.
The students leave the country feeling unsettled -- but every one of them will return transformed.
They spend most of their month in Provence, studying at a cooking school, going to wine tastings and visiting artisanal producers (including a goat cheese farm), and each spends a week at a stage -- that is, working in either a bakery or a restaurant. In the past, under the stress of travel, some classes have become difficult or contentious. This one pulls together. "Certain people took on certain roles for me," Cody says later. "Don was kind of like my dad, Brent and Dave like my brothers, Karen my aunt. It felt like I had my whole family there."
The markets alone were a revelation -- the impeccably fresh produce; the variety of meats, including horse and skinned rabbits; the nuts and spices; the sense of how central the market is to daily life.
Don was working at his stage, cleaning lettuce, when a man walked in with a burlap sack, pulled out three rabbits and five pheasants and asked for the chef. This haul was transformed into the next day's specials. "I was in awe," says Don. "Here, I'm not sure a transaction like that would even be legal. We'll never be able to compete with the freshness of the product the French have the opportunity to cook with. Or the passion and seriousness with which people take their food -- and not just people who work in restaurants."
Elizabeth acquired a much deeper understanding of wine in France. She, too, has a restaurant anecdote. The kitchen staff was cleaning porcini mushrooms when the maître d' came in and started talking about how his grandfather had cooked porcinis. Everyone chimed in, describing their family recipes. The maître d' took a couple of the porcinis and returned half an hour later, having sautéed and prepared them, to offer pieces to the staff. "Everybody was so into it," says Elizabeth.
At first she found it difficult to persuade anyone to give her anything to do. "I started floating between stations," she remembers, "seeing where people needed help. One night the boys at the garde manger station were getting hammered. I said, 'I could help do that,' and this guy just said, 'Yeah.'
"The pastry person came up and said in French, 'Oh, she's working.' The garde manger guy said, 'Yeah, and she's working really well.' After that, they let me do stuff."
Karen worked in a pastry shop and communicated with her chef by tossing flour on the counter and drawing stick figures in it. She particularly remembers the group's visit to Paul Bocuse's three-star restaurant, where she was reluctant to try the pigeon because "I was on the New York subway one time and saw a man eating a pigeon he'd caught, plucking the feathers and just biting into it." To her surprise, the pigeon was delicious.
Brent, too, was blown away by the dinner with Paul Bocuse. "Everything was done perfectly, the sauces matched, the way everything progressed from course to course. It's very inspiring to try to work toward that," he says.
Then he adds, "You think of things you would do differently. I mean, who am I to do that? But just for yourself..."
As the group prepared to leave the country, Dave managed to miss the train from Lyons to Paris. The other students surmise that he was simply too much of a Southern gentleman to push his way onto it.
Tanner turned 21 in France; he saw the Mediterranean for the first time that day.
November 17, the day of the gala. The students are focused and working hard, but they don't seem tense. They're at ease in the kitchen; after six months together, they understand each other's rhythms. Ethel, who with Tanner killed twenty lobsters that morning, talks about her brothers on the farm, who used to torture her by waving dead animals in her face. Cody works alone in the pastry section, his apron covered in chocolate. Elizabeth looks sadly at the butternut squash she's cut into tiny squares to garnish the soup. "They're not perfect," she says.
Don puts together his array of mignardises: miniature checkerboard cookies, coconut macaroons, chocolate-almond candies, lemon tartlets with raspberries, madeleines.
Chef Gallit is only five feet tall, but she's a tremendous presence in the kitchen, consulting at the stove or helping to chop, stir, arrange food on a plate, her movements swift and definite. She nibbles constantly -- raw dough, the edge of a tuile, some mascarpone filling -- with her expression inward and judicious as she tastes; if the food pleases her, she breaks into an infectious urchin grin. "I'm in a kitchen," she says at one point. "I'm happy."
She is also very visually oriented. A student comments that he's worrying about the taste and texture of a preparation, and Chef Gallit walks over and says simply, "What a beautiful color." And once, when the tops of Karen's rolls swell inexplicably, Chef Gallit exclaims, "Oh, wow. The rolls look like tulips."
The guests, each of whom has paid $85 for the dinner gala (tables seating ten go for $750), are beginning to arrive. The glasses have been polished, the dishes wiped. Ethel has floated candles in tall glass holders for the tables. The students have been coached on how to serve; there are diagrams taped to the kitchen walls, and they've done a practice run. Dave offers a group of guests a tray of amuses bouche. One of the women exclaims over the shrimp and asks what it's wrapped in. "Something like shredded wheat," he responds, and ambles back to the kitchen.
People settle at the tables, and the courses begin arriving. The bi-colored soup is served; there are exclamations of pleasure as people sip. For three days, Elizabeth and Chef Gallit have experimented with potato varieties; Gallit has also advised Elizabeth to use more stock and never bring the soup above a simmer. Now not a trace of pastiness mars the soup's silky texture. Brent's venison chop is tender, perfectly complemented by Dave's sausage-and-cornbread stuffing. The dish is garnished with a pressed celery leaf, shiny and thin as glass. Everyone at the table tries to figure out how this was done.
After each course, the students whisk away the plates and the cutlery. They pour wine. They keep the water glasses filled. By the time dessert is served, the guests are happy and expansive. Those at one table keep breaking into song.
The students rush in with their cones of Bavarian cream, which are beginning to melt and quiver on the plates. There are shouts of laughter at the singing table and loud calls for Viagra.
"We were back there, Cody and I and Chef Dan [Widmann], plating, and people came back and said, 'Everyone's laughing,'" Brent remembers later. "We felt pretty bad. But when we came out, every plate was cleared."
At the end of the meal, the students are introduced, their contributions identified. The guests stand up and applaud.
The students are taking their last set of tests over two days: At any given time, half of them are working on a written exam, half cooking. Each cook is given a bag of groceries and told to prepare a three-course meal in four hours. Since they've all been learning to temper chocolate, truffles are required for dessert.
The students begin working individually at half-hour intervals. As each student finishes, Chef Andy and Chef Gallit come in with Chef Dan to taste the finished effort -- silently forking up the appetizer, cutting into the meat, holding up a truffle to check its coating. They then retire for a brief discussion and return to render their verdict.
The students work with ferocious concentration. Elizabeth attempts an ambitious menu but is criticized for serving too large a piece of chicken and for generally underseasoning the food. Meg has created a fairly simple main course but executed it perfectly, napping her pork medallion in a rich, heavenly sauce. Dave is told his breaded and stuffed chicken breast tastes good, but he should have challenged himself more. Karen's hollandaise has broken.
The second day of tests: Cody, Brent, Tanner, Don and Ethel are cooking. As he works, Cody seems to almost tremble with concentration. He keeps wiping the tabletop while the chefs taste his food. But their comments visibly relax him. They like his presentation, find the potatoes smooth and the pork chop perfectly cooked.
Brent, uncharacteristically flushed and nervous, wondering if the sauce under his scallops is too intense, receives high praise for all of his dishes, particularly the truffles, which are small miracles of coconut-flavored smoothness in thin, snapping chocolate shells.
Don's meal, too, pleases the chefs, who especially like his appetizer: mussels dressed with warm vinaigrette and garnished with bits of chive and crisp thin curls of red pepper. Later, Don confides that after hearing the chefs commenting to Cody that a warm appetizer might have been more welcome than Cody's cold one on this chilly day, he rapidly heated the mussels.
Ethel has flavored her truffles with an unlikely combination of raspberry and lavender. "I won't tell you the gory details," she says to the chefs. "Not even I want to know them."
Chef Gallit takes a bite of Tanner's shrimp appetizer and her eyebrows lift slightly. "Very good," says Chef Andy. "You're starting to conceptually understand food."
When the chefs have left, Tanner sighs deeply. "I can't believe how tired I am," he says. "I can't believe it's over."
All ten of the original students have survived the cooking intensive.
Chef Gallit is thinking about what it means to be a teacher; her own teachers have had a huge influence on her life. In twenty years, she may have forgotten the last names of these ten students, "but I can bet they won't forget Andy, they won't forget me," she says. "It's a big responsibility."
And one she takes very seriously. "I study every night," she adds. "I have to. I can make a beautiful jus, but to teach it, I have to stop and think about process. I've been tasting, tasting, tasting for years and years and years, and to try to teach someone. They have to develop a palate. That takes a long time. We can only tell them: 'This is a little too salty; you want to bring out the flavor; you're trying to balance the flavor.' Food is as complex as it is simple."
Can she predict which students will become excellent chefs? "It's too early to tell," she responds. "They have to be someplace where they're constantly going to progress. If, say, Tanner goes into a job and his job pushes him, he can become a fine, fine baker. If he goes into a job where they leave him in the back listening to Phish all day and never push or criticize him, he may stay there and work for 25 years. You never know.
"I was upset one day. I was questioning Andy. He said one thing that stuck out in my mind. He had asked me what my first experience of food was, was it a positive one. Of course it was positive -- otherwise, I wouldn't have gone on searching. He's like, 'Make their first experience of food a positive one. You're not going to be able to teach them everything you know. But make their first impression of food a positive one.' That makes sense to me. And I can do that."
On the whole, Chef Andy is pleased with the departing class. Everyone has progressed, and Tanner's eyes seem to have snapped open during the last two weeks. Don "has everything you need to be a really good chef," he says, and Brent "has the potential to do great things." (In fact, Brent is the first in the class to get a job -- at Vail's renowned Sweet Basil -- shortly after their December 18 graduation.)
"Elizabeth is great, also," Andy adds. "She's very disciplined and very perfectionist-driven, which is a good thing to be, but she needs to be a little less hard on herself."
He thinks a moment. "They've learned how to tie their shoelaces," he says. "Now they have to learn how to walk."
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