Even before I started my food blog, I have always had a passion for food and cooking. In the beginning, I tried over and over to perfect old family recipes, but somehow they just never seemed to come out right. As I tried to teach myself to cook, I became obsessed with all things culinary; and stacks of cookbooks and food magazines piled up in every room of the house, on every shelf and under every table. While living abroad I fell in love with international cuisine, and made the most of the opportunity to experience the food in local village restaurants where Chefs often visited the table to ask if we enjoyed our meal. I have always dreamt of going to culinary school, but worried if it would be a mistake to invest the money and years of my life, without ever having set foot in a professional kitchen. What if I didn’t like it?
Fortunately for those who, like me, would like to explore their interest in becoming a chef, or merely improve their skills in the kitchen, there is The Chopping Block. Located in Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart, The Chopping Block offers demonstration and hands-on classes in fundamental skills such as knife work, cast iron and crockery cooking, wine pairing, to multi-week, professional-level courses focused on real restaurant cooking tailored to beginner, intermediate, and advanced students.
Recently, through my affiliation with the Chicago Food Bloggers Association, I had the pleasure of attending Culinary Boot Camp, a 5-day, 40-hour crash course in professional restaurant kitchen technique. Throughout the week, I worked alongside trained professional Chefs who introduced new skills and guided me to improve those I thought I had mastered.
As my alarm buzzed every morning at 5am, I was already wide-awake with anticipation of spending the day cooking in a real professional kitchen. Every morning I dropped my husband off at his office 2 hours early in order to be there at 8:30 with my apron on, ready to get cooking!
Each day starts with breakfast prepared by the Chef, which we enjoy while discussing the lesson plan for the day. Then we would receive hands-on training in preparing our ingredients for the first dishes we would be cooking. Afterwards we try the food we prepared while discussing the skills and techniques we had learned, and what dishes we would be cooking in the afternoon. We made up to 10 dishes per day, every day, and on one day we managed 14! At the end of every day we served a finished meal at a cooking round table, where we would discuss the day with the Chef and fellow students what we had learned.
Below is a brief description of each day and what we covered.
Day One: Knife Skills, Fish Butchery, Emulsions, and Fish Cookery
I joined the rest of the ladies at the large wooden table. We introduced ourselves to one another, studied our binders and talked about the reasons why each of us is there. Some want to take their cooking to the next level, others want to master professional techniques and others grew up with home-cooked meals and want to provide the same for their families. Chef Trevor sat down with us and briefly explained what we’re going to learn throughout the day. After our introductions were done, we quickly put our aprons on and headed to our stations, ready to start cooking. We started with a lecture on knives; how to properly sharpen and take care of them, and then trained us in the critical techniques of cutting, chopping, and dicing. We then reviewed the recipes on the list for the day and started prepping to make stocks and our lunch, a Thai Beef Salad.
After lunch, we learned how to fillet an Arctic Char, which would become part of our fish stock later. Once we had finished filleting and de-boning, we used the heads and carcasses to make fish stock. Then we moved on to emulsions. We made aioli, one-pot hollandaise, and a beurre blanc sauce to pair with our fish, asparagus, and potatoes later on. Once our fish stock had developed, we poached half of our char in fish stock and white wine, and sautéed the rest in butter. Finally, we all sat down to dinner and talked about what we learned, and how much we enjoyed it. Chef Trevor told us that by Wednesday, we would need to choose dishes for our final meal on Friday, which could include any recipe, ingredients, and techniques we want to learn. I brought my class binder home every night to study the syllabus, eager to begin the next day.
Day Two: Beef, Pork, and Chicken Butchery, Stocks, and Meat Cookery
Butter. That’s what I smelled when I walked into class this morning as Chef was making French omelets filled with Camembert cheese. A French omelet is made by adding two eggs, tablespoon of cream, and two tablespoons of butter to a hot pan, then allowing the mixture to cook without flipping by pushing off the uncooked egg to the edges of the pan. Then you fold one side, and fold again to form an omelet. We ate our omelets while listening to the Chef explain how to make a stock while roasting veal bones, which are allowed to simmer throughout the day and skimmed frequently. Then we studied cow and pig primal charts to learn where various cuts come from before moving on to learning butchery. First on the list was how to clean a whole beef tenderloin, cutting and dividing the sections of the tenderloin, saving scraps for stock, then preparing a compound herb butter to top freshly-seared filet mignon.
Next, we butchered pork loin, and made it into a roulade filled with prunes, olives, and pine nuts. Lastly, we learned how to break down a whole chicken, and how to properly debone one, which we used to prepare coq au vin, five-spice roast chicken, and chicken piccata. We braised, pan-seared, and roasted various cuts of meat throughout the day, really getting a feel for how to do perform each correctly. Tomorrow we need to tell the Chef which protein we will select for our last meal; I am really having a hard time choosing.
Day Three: Soups and Sauces
When I walked into the kitchen I was greeted by the scent of citrus scones! We enjoyed them while listening to Chef Brian’s introduction of today’s lesson plan. Today we would cover the basics of sauce making; how to thicken a sauce, how to prepare the mother sauces and their variations, and how to layer ingredients to make flavorful sauces. We learned how to prepare a Béchamel and then how to transform it into mornay and alfredo sauce. We also made tomato sauce, sauce espagnole (a brown sauce), cold emulsions such as mayonnaise, aioli, tartar sauce, remoulade and rouille; and hot emulsions such as hollandaise, bearnaise and maltaise.
Next on our list were soups. We discussed the different styles of soups: bisques, chowders, purees, and broth-based. Today’s prep was a bit different than the first two days; rather than having our tools and utensils laid out waiting for us, we got to explore the kitchen and gather our tools ourselves, which I enjoyed immensely. We started prepping for our soups which included preparing a veloute to thicken gumbo, caramelizing onions for French onion soup, and learned how to handle shellfish to prepare a cioppino. One very interesting technique we discussed was how to prepare a consommé, which involves the use of egg whites to clarify and remove fat by bringing it to the surface and skimming it away, which is repeated several times resulting in a perfectly cloud-free liquid, which is the goal in preparing any stock. We made avgolemono which is a Mediterranean rice soup thickened with egg and lemon juice. Finally, we discussed building a well-balanced vinaigrette starting with how to select the right vinegar and oil. We then prepared poached eggs, which paired nicely with our bistro salad of frisée and warm bacon vinaigrette. This was an excellent dish to end another great day!
Before we left, we had to select our protein for our final dish on Friday; after much thought I chose lobster, a protein that has always intrigued and terrified me.
Day Four: Eggs, Vegetables, and Grains
We’ve been reminded all week that today was the day we would be the busiest day and we would most likely go home exhausted. With two cups of coffee in my system and my apron tied tightly around my waist, I was ready to get started! Chef Melissa had made a pumpkin yogurt mousse with fresh-baked granola, which we ate while listening to a lecture on the important role that eggs play in the kitchen, to prepare desserts, soufflés, sauces, emulsions, and batters. We started out by learning how to make omelets with various fillings, how to flip an egg over-easy without a utensil (which I did!) to top a home fry skillet, which we ate while listening to a lecture on whipping egg whites to soft peaks and made chocolate soufflé. The three key steps preparing a perfect soufflé are creating soft peaks, gently folding in the ingredients, and baking in a water bath.
In the afternoon we discussed prep and cooking techniques for various vegetables and beans. Since we had a lot of dishes to prepare this afternoon, we worked as a team, helping one another and assigning tasks, bringing everyone’s work together successfully just like a real restaurant line. The first element was preparing and chilling white beans, oven roasting broccoli and fire roasting red peppers to complete a white bean bruschetta, then we blanched and sautéed green beans with bacon, cranberries, and walnuts. Then we grilled eggplant and Portobello mushrooms to serve on top of purple sticky rice that was to die for!
Next we moved on to potatoes and grains. We discussed the various types of potato to suit different dishes, and their appropriate cooking methods. We prepared potatoes anna, a classic French dish of slice, layered potatoes, which we marvelously cooked in a sea of butter. We then discussed the different varieties of rice and how to cook them. You should know that rice is my least favorite starch, but that has all changed since I learned how to properly cook it, and the many variations based on plain white rice. We moved on to risotto, which is legendary for its difficulty, and made a delicious risotto with shrimp, peas, and saffron. Then we made quinoa pilaf, and creamy goat cheese and herb polenta, including a lesson on various grinds and styles of polenta meal available, and the interesting variety of unusual grains and how to incorporate them into our daily diets. We finally sat down to enjoy our afternoon dishes and the chocolate soufflés we had made earlier in the day. We had accomplished so much together as a team, and although I was exhausted, this would be the best day of the week for me. I finally had a glimpse of what it would be like to work in a professional kitchen, and I am totally hooked. I think I might be cut out for this, and although I am exhausted, the excitement of this revelation makes it hard to sleep. I know now that I will one day be a chef. It is going to happen.
Day Five: Tastebud Tutorial, Plating, and Honing Your Skills
Today we met with Chef Mario and discussed taste vs. flavor and the five basic tastes which are salt, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. While learning about whole vs. ground spices and how to cook with them, we also discussed delicate vs. resinous herbs and when to use which. One of the most eye-opening moments of the whole week was a little experiment we did in class. If you’d like to try it yourself, take a raisin or jellybean, and pinch your nose before placing it in your mouth. Start chewing for a few seconds and try to notice the flavor, then let go of your nose and experience the burst of sensation as your taste buds explode with the taste. Pretty cool, huh? This is why you can’t taste anything when you’re sick with a stuffy nose. Next, we opened a fortune cookie that Lori brought in for us. Today was Chinese new year and we opened a fortune before we started cooking and at the end of the day. This fortune was the perfect fit for my dish today (given to me by Lori)!
Today was the day that we will prepare our chosen protein/dish, an opportunity to prepare whatever we would like to learn how to make, under the guidance of professionals, honing the skills we had learnt throughout the week. Each of us worked on our own individual dish, and I was especially anxious about mine.
Earlier in the week, I was intimidated by butchering a char, then breaking down large pieces of cow, pig, and chicken; if I have a weakness in the kitchen it is being a bit squeamish with butchery. I decided to face this fear head-on, and go for the gold, killing and butchering a lobster before cooking and eating it. I want to master the entire process, and move past my fears and anxiety. My chosen recipe is lobster truffle risotto and a lobster napoleon. Now I’ve never made lobster anything before, for fear of wasting this rare and expensive ingredient, but today with two live lobsters nervously awaiting their fate in a large white tub, I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get down to business. I had spent several hours in the evening researching the various methods of lobster murder, each having their advantages and drawbacks. I wanted to do it the most humane way possible, but I also wanted to choose a foolproof method, so that in case I made a mistake the poor things wouldn’t suffer. I had discussed the method with every professional chef I know, and most do it by submerging it in boiling water. An advanced method demonstrated on youtube by Chef Eric Ripert (which I watched about 50 times) involves inserting a knife vertically through the head and splitting in in half between the eyes, but I wonder if I have the nerve to do this. Another involves twisting/tearing the poor thing in two, separating tail from body then twisting off the claws, which also seemed less than polite. Chef Mario met with each of us one-on-one to discuss our planned dishes, and he asked me how I planned to kill my dear lobsters. I replied that I wanted to choose the most humane method, the quickest of which was splitting it between the eyes with a large knife, then breaking off the tail and twisting off each claw. He smiled and said he would gladly teach this method if I really wanted to learn it, but he recommended just plopping them in boiling water. He explained that, as a hunter, even when you shoot something through the heart it runs for a bit purely on reflex, and that dying takes time. So with all respect for his advice I decided on a dip in the boiling sauna of death. I mean water. Sometimes the easy way out isn’t easy at all, especially if you are a lobster. So with a large pot of water in a roaring boil, I picked up the first lobster and swiftly placed him in the water and put the lid on the pot. No screaming, no thrashing about, nothing. Gulp. Time to move on to the rest of my dishes.
I started prepping my ingredients for the risotto and napoleon; today everyone worked independently on their dishes, and at the end of the day we will bring them together, to taste. It was time to pull the lobsters out of the boiling water and plunge them in a ice bath to stop them cooking. Once they were cooled I broke them down, breaking off the tail, next the claws, and finally splitting the tail in half to remove the meat. I’m happy I decided on the boiling water method, because splitting the tail in half even with a very sharp chefs knife, required my full force, and I doubt weather I could have done it swiftly and cleanly while they were alive and moving. After separating the mead from the shells, I used the shells to make a stock for risotto. Next I prepped potatoes for the napoleon and made a leek vinaigrette to top it with, before toasting the rice for my risotto, measuring out all of the components, and ladled some of the lobster/mirepoix, stirring gently while adding stock. I learned the proper way to make risotto, which requires gently stirring it constantly, not rushing it, showing it plenty of attention and love for 45 minutes, and only in this way will it come out right.
My potatoes for the napoleon were in the oven roasting while I focused on the risotto. Next it was time to butter poach the lobster. Is there anything better than lobster poached in butter? It took everything I had to resist sneaking a bite. Lastly, everything came together nicely and it was time to start plating. Chef Mario taught us how to plate our dishes and with both the lobster napoleon and lobster risotto plated, I decided to take photos of my classmate’s dishes. They looked beautiful, and with a couple of bottles of wine on the table, we sat down to enjoy our full plates as we talked about the entire experience, how far we had come, and how much fun we had had.
Pictured below are classmates and their dishes
Candace – Roasted & seared venison with potato and celeriac gratin, pan roasted Brussels sprouts with blackberry buerre blanc sauce.
Vesna – Asian inspired short ribs with roasted bok choy, sesame noodles, and pickled vegetables
Susan – Osso buco
Our last plate with everyone’s dishes. A lot of hard work went into each of these dishes.
(Pictured above from L to R: Candace, Chef Mario, Lori, Me, Susan, Vesna, and our Assistant Chef)
I went into Culinary Boot Camp with an open mind and no expectations. I really wanted to pick up what the Chefs were laying down and make the most of this opportunity, as everything I knew about cooking up to this point had come from reading books and practicing on my own.
Looking back, I have come a loooong way in one week, conquering fears I have always had, and doing thing I never thought I could do. I have an entirely new appreciation for the skills and knowledge that it takes to work in a professional kitchen, how to maneuver in that space, how to use equipment effectively, and work not only by myself, but as part of a team. I can see now, for the first time, how far I have to go, and exactly what it will take, to make my dreams come true.
I left on the fifth day with new skills, experience, and confidence, and I now know that really do want to take the next step, to jump into the world of professional cooking, and work toward reaching my goal of becoming a real professional Chef.
The Chopping Block
The Merchandise Mart Plaza, Suite 107 | Chicago, IL 60654
What is Culinary Boot Camp?
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