what is a garlic clove? (and other downfalls of a long commute to culinary school)

 so…how do i begin? well, let’s just say that i had some other posts planned to come before this one, but after last night’s debacle i felt i needed to divulge the darker side of commuting to culinary school (from Philadelphia to New York). in the summer, while still living in the garden state (in Princeton), i took the NJ transit train into the city. it took about 1.5 hours, with 10 minutes to walk to school once in manhattan. sometimes, after class, i would have to wait around a while for the next train, but in general the commute was fine. nothing to write home about. (actually the only part to write home about was getting to decompress and talk food and life with ann marie… that part was good.) sometimes i felt there were too many stops along the northeast corridor. and there was no wi-fi. and not so comfy seats. and sometimes crowded trains. but overall, i got to class on time and that was what mattered.

jump to living in Philly: i start taking the (Bolt) bus. i love it. the seats are comfy. there is wi-fi. the walk from the drop-off in NYC to school is more or less the same (about 2 blocks more actually), but it usually gets in earlier than anticipated, which always feels good. but then, in the last few weeks, i start noticing changes – the honeymoon period was ending. the wi-fi started getting spotty. the bus no longer arriving ahead of schedule. until finally…. last night happened.

i arrive for a 3 o’clock departure and there is no sign of the bus. i stand around with restless passengers. 15 minutes go by. then 30. finally a bus appears. we don’t push off until 35 minutes behind schedule. then, no wi-fi, so my productivity immediately diminishes (and the risk of overloading my data plan increases). we start hitting traffic far too early in the commute – not even out of Philly yet – and i panic. the bus driver must be panicking, too. he knows he has already blown it by being late to work (although technically, even with his delay, i could have still arrived on time for class). so, being concerned about traffic, the driver takes us on a route i’ve never seen before. and i’ve been through the Lincoln tunnel many times. but the driver goes his unusual way, and instead of avoiding traffic, he drives right into even more congestion.

long story short, what should have been a 2 hour bus ride (or less) becomes a 3 hour 40 minute disaster. and at this point, i’m already late enough for class that i am considered “absent.” fortunately, i arrive in time to partake in all the cooking (and i have the option of making up the class if i want), but i’m so frazzled and disappointed to be arriving late for the first time, and for one of my favorite chef instructors. [while on the bus in traffic, contacting classmates about my late arrival, my face literally fell when i heard the news of who was teaching and knew that i would be late. ann marie and susan (my classmates) knew my disappointment before i even said anything.]

and then, this is where the really painful part happens… i enter the classroom. frazzled. ready to work. ready to make up for my late entrance. i realize that my neon pink shirt is completely visible through my white chef’s jacket and i didn’t have time to change it. ugh… fail. and i don’t even say “fail” but seriously… fail. i start working with my team to figure out who is making which sauce, and as i read my ingredient list and go up to grab the produce, i pick up a bunch of scallions and in a befuddled way start to say, “this is…” and, before i finish, the chef says “scallions.” right. of course. i knew that. “so….. what are…..[my eyes scan the bowls of produce]…..garlic cloves?” i can’t believe the words have come out of my mouth. she picks up the garlic and starts to point to a clove, most likely as confused as i am about the question, but generously she doesn’t reveal what is running through her mind. i’m so ridiculously embarrassed and baffled by my own question – i think i even touched the chef’s hand apologetically as i explained that, of course, i’m completely and totally 100% clear on what garlic cloves are and that she needn’t worry about my garlic competency. i slink away to my table with my garlic.

i later asked my teammate if “any other onions were being used” when i meant to say “ovens” – so clearly something was going on with my brain. [i mean… i don’t remember ever playing on a football team… and i don’t think i was concussed on the bus ride… ?] all that to say, the night definitely could have gone better. but many of the sauces turned out really well. and i enjoyed working with my group (thanks lee, jennifer, trinette!), and really appreciated their patience. i noticed ann marie and susan going out of their way to make me feel better, too. (thanks for cleaning the blender and for covertly snagging me some burn cream!) oh yeah, i burned my hand a bit. that happened, too. but all that to say, there will be bad nights with anything. just like there will be bad dishes or meals or social situations, and you always have to make the most of them. and in this case, i still got to enjoy three hours of cooking with a chef that i admire, and with classmates whom i am grateful for and really respect. thanks guys. NGI wouldn’t be the same without CTP 215.

until next week… and here’s hoping for better bus fortune from now on. [and the pictures above are from some nicer moments on my commute: sunrise over Philly from the Bolt bus; and morning light on the US Postal Service building in NYC.]


kitchen shift

this past month has been so nuts (moving to Philly, chef-ing, teaching, celebrating the last moments of summer), but to get myself back into the blogging rhythm, here are a few shots from the kitchen last night at NGI.

working the appetizer line at my second friday night dinner, with Ann Marie (on the right). she had the task of plating the stir-fried bok choy, and i topped it with spiced peanuts. my job was to keep the peanuts from wandering all over the plate. and to make it even more of a challenge, i tried keeping them in a neat little row, intersecting the bok choy right down the middle. i think that was just my little secret, though – by the time it reached the guests’ forks, it probably looked rather freeform. but still a fun way to pass the time.

more updates on what i’ve been doing this past month to come…

last friday night

my classmate, ann marie: where’s the sorbet?
me: it’s in the freezer… the freezer under the British girl.
(5 minutes later)
ann marie: the British girl moved. and i didn’t know who she was. she wasn’t talking.

that was last friday night, during my first floor shift at Friday Night Dinner. (translation: we have to serve people food two different times over the course of this next year… And that was friday 1 of 2.) when i was in kindergarten, i said i wanted to be a waitress when i grew up because that’s what my friend said and i wanted to be cool; but somehow i never got a chance to try out food service, so i’m pleased to say that is now checked off the bucket list (sort of).


this week, however, is my first foray into kitchen shifts for NGI’s dinners. it is exhausting and at times tedious (um… oh hello there, shipping container full of kale! how about I do nothing but wash, season, and bake you for six hours?), but exciting and rewarding nonetheless. the fact alone that i spent the better half of the train ride home trying to decipher the exact pronunciation of “timbale” (as in the little stack of food, not the latino-american drum) shows that i must be passionate about this culinary gig.

and with that, i’m off to another night of chef-ing and kale-prepping. huzzah.

on the menu.


on last night’s menu: lots of grains. classic tabouli (bulgur wheat) with parsley, mint and lemon; a variation on the traditional Jewish dish kasha varnishkes; curried couscous with carrots, raisins, and caramelized onions (NB: couscous is actually a pasta not a grain); wild rice salad with radish and celery (another misnomer: wild rice is a grain but is not actually rice); buckwheat soba noodle stir fry with jalapeño and bok choy; and finally the amazing kasha-potato loaf, served with delicious vinaigrette. i’m relatively new to some of the grains that we experimented with (ryeberries, kasha, and millet, for example), but i will definitely be revisiting them soon, as it is always nice to expand my meal options and squeeze in more whole grains. i’ll also be revisiting them soon because i took home a tote bag full of food last night. “no grain left behind.”

and that kasha loaf, man… it was amazing! it had potatoes, onions, celery – it reminded me of stuffing, and Thanksgiving, and comfort. if you’re not familiar with the incredible buckwheat groats also known as kasha… well, get familiar. they are cool little dudes. (and if i’m allowed to post the recipe here, i will definitely do that ASAP, too.)

on uniforms

one comparison that has emerged since starting culinary school is that of the school uniform and the chef uniform. the experience of adhering to a school uniform and that of wearing chef’s whites are fairly similar, particularly in the way that – with both – there is an innate desire to adjust/tweak/modify the uniforms in order to make them look as cool as humanly possible… and/or to make it look like you know what you’re doing. for school uniforms, it seems there was always a set of unspoken rules about how you were supposed to wear it. some things were so basic… like, for example, not wearing your formal uniform (with all the matching pieces that the school provides)…EVER. not ever. not even on the first day of school. (i didn’t get that memo and had an embarrassing first day of 8th grade, but fortunately found some amazing friends who overlooked my faux-pas.) later, i learned about other rules: always roll your pleated skirt, wear socks as low-cut as possible without actually breaking the “visible socks” rule; make sure your hair looks great but like you rolled out of bed and weren’t trying at all; and, wear boxers underneath your skirt, too. i failed at a lot of these rules. i rolled my skirt but never quite achieved the look i think i was aiming for; it came out looking more like a tutu and less like a stylish skirt, and the boxers just gave a diaper-like quality to the whole thing. i’m not sure where my classmates were getting theirs, but mine didn’t cut it. and my hair was almost always, without fail pulled up into a wet bun, because i really had just rolled out of bed, but never had enough time after a shower to make it look great… in the winter, my hair even froze sometimes on my four-block walk to school. the one thing i did do well was wearing stylish low-riding socks (because it was so uncool to wear ones over your ankle), but… i sometimes got called out for it. alas, my school uniform days were numbered – it was only three years until i moved to a high school without them. but they were informative (and invaluable) years nonetheless.

but now, at culinary school, i find myself wearing uniforms once again and learning how to tweak them for that optimal cool/”yes, i know what i’m doing” factor. i’m not claiming that i look oh so very awesome in my chef’s whites; i’m sure there’s room for improvement. but i can’t help but be completely enamored of them. there’s something so classic and mesmerizing about the whole tradition of the chef’s uniform. it just makes me want to watch Mostly Martha, and the American remake No Reservations (which yes, i actually love even more), and of course, Ratatouille. seriously, sometimes i watch our chef instructor demo a technique or dish for us in class, and in the background i hear French music and imagine a little rat chef. (yes, i know how old i am… no, i’m not embarrassed that Ratatouille is in my top five films.) and so as i learn to adjust and tweak my uniform – fold the apron here, tuck my bar towels there, and continue to play around with my hat until i finally…hopefully…find the sweet spot – i daydream about all the chefs who have come before me, and all the ones yet to come, and i’m excited to see how i fit into that story and tradition. i’m sure the desire to tweak uniforms says something about human nature: individuality, or rather conformity, vanity, comfort… there is probably some big sociological commentary to be made… but for now, i’m just grateful to be wearing one.

food hoarding

not long ago, i mentioned an epidemic sweeping culinary schools everywhere: food hoarding. actually, i have absolutely no idea whether this condition is present anywhere except at the Natural Gourmet, but i do know that i find myself having succumbed to it, and i’ve seen the symptoms in fellow classmates, too.

it’s not all that extraordinary, really. we see food. we want food. the food is free. we take it home. win-win-win. it just makes sense, right?

often i will joke with my fellow classmates about our tendency to bring home massive containers and bags of food, making remarks about how it feels like the Great Depression and i’m coming in from the “fields” as the family oohs and aaahs at my spoils (or maybe i’m the only one oohing?). still, we make jokes – “look at this onion! we shall share it amongst ourselves!” as my chef friend Ann Marie put it – but it is, quite frankly, awesome. i really like bringing home food from culinary school. no, not just because it is free and saves on the grocery bill, but because a) it saves the food from going into the compost and, more significantly, b) it gives me this constant little reminder throughout the week of the fun i had while chopping and cooking in class. it tides me over until i can start the process all over again the next weekend. learn, chop, cook… bring food home. repeat.


see? food hoarding. win-win-win.

[top row photos: produce from basic cook tech and a sampling of our dishes including braised leeks and fennel, tofu-vegetable stir fry, and butternut squash & carrot stew; bottom row: some acquired goods on a particularly plentiful night, and one of many meals made with food brought home. p.s. i really like braised fennel.]

today…we cooked.

just some of the many things that we cooked today (steamed artichokes with lemon-garlic oil and poached pears with a vanilla-cinnamon apple reduction).

*big thank you to my classmate Trinette for sending me this photo*