I am not big on recipes. I should rephrase that; I am not big on exactly following recipes. In my opinion, recipes should be used for ideas and inspiration. Recipes make me feel unbelievably restricted and stifled. In fact recipes remind me of science class. The accurate measurements are always going to yield a “perfect” and stable product. What fun is that? I want to create, explore, and be impulsive. I found out early on that science class and I were not a good match, so my dislike for recipes should have come as no surprise. However, by not using recipes you throw yourself into the unknown.
I showed up for catering class at the beginning of this past quarter and our chef instructor said “if you ever want to be a real chef, don’t use recipes.” Finally some praise for not following directions. So for the entire class, we had no recipes, just ingredient lists–we were challenged. Each night we were expected to serve our preparations to 50 hungry culinary students and school chefs. Umm, I was having second thoughts; I wanted some recipes. There was nothing I could do; I had to suit up in my uniform and move with the uncertainty the quarter.
Night one. I was assigned tuna tartare on toasted brioche. I had never made tuna tartare. I had an hour and a half to create my dish and pack up for service. I took my dish seriously and quickly began to chop, season, and taste. Chef walked by and told me that my dish looked beautiful. It gave me the confidence to serve my first “customers.” Everyone liked the appetizer, but there were some other students who created the clear favorites.
INGREDIENTS: sushi-grade tuna, lime juice, cilantro, avocado, s and p, brioche, black olive garnish.
Night two. I scored the skirt steak tacos with tomatillo salsa. I prepared the entree and headed to the wine room to serve. I had the hit dish—I was the only student to “sell-out.”
INGREDIENTS: Skirt steak, rosemary, thyme, garlic, olive oil, onions, cilantro, lime, Mexican cheese, tomatillos, poblano pepper, lime juice, tortillas.
[No Picture Available, busy serving]
Night three. I was assigned to a group. We are making a two-course meal for ten. This time we received a preparation list, not an ingredient list. Chef was kind enough to tutor the group on correct pronunciations.
Appetizer: Salmon and crabmeat bavarios (ba-va-waa) garnished with salmon caviar, crème fraiche and chives served over a mustard vinaigrette dressed mache (lettuce varietal)
Entrée: Roasted pork loin, sage polenta cakes, fig relish, haricots verts (green beans), roasted tomato and thyme jus.
Night four. Mystery basket night. The true test. Each team was given two sheet trays—one with appetizer ingredients and one with entrée ingredients. Each group was expected to use all of the provided items. Our group debated various preparations and finally decided on the menu.
Appetizer: Flageolet beans sautéed with leek, seared sea bass with a lemon sun dried tomato vinaigrette, roasted butternut squash with onion, garnished with caramelized salsify (saul-se-fee (root vegetable)) and fennel.
Entrée: Seared hanger steak, rosemary polenta cake, brandy mushroom sauce, roasted cauliflower and green beans.
Catering class was exhilarating and demanding. Each night felt like a performance—the adrenaline rush, the potential mistakes, the execution, and the relief of accomplishment after service. Perhaps you do not want to be a “real” chef and you like your recipes, but you know what you are going to get night after night. “Real” chef or not, try cooking this week without the recipe, feel the thrill and who knows you might just surprise yourself. And if not, at least it will make for a good story.