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What a difference a year makes.

Last summer I was gallivanting about Europe and North Africa; this summer, I am working the line in Winnipeg.

Red River College’s culinary arts program has a co-operative education component, which means I spend two-thirds of the program in the “classroom,” and a final third in the “real world.” During this, my first work placement (the second, next summer), I will be at a golf and country club in the southern end of the city.

It’s an ideal spot to get my sea legs, grow my skills, expand my knowledge, and gain some genuine work experience. Better still, I’ll be required to assist with all kinds of cooking; from short-order breakfasts and lunches, to fine dining dinners and banquets.

Why just the other night, we prepared a 6-course, seafood dinner for 80, including halibut with sweet potato mash and a vanilla bean-infused beurre blanc (top), seafood terrine with dill sauce and micro greens (middle), and wasabi-crusted salmon with a butter-poached rock lobster and a crispy parsnip garnish (bottom).

Granted, it’s early days yet, but so far, I’m loving it — and look forward to a busy summer spent on the line.

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The contrast couldn’t be starker.

One day, I’m trudging across the frozen wasteland that is the parking lot at Red River College’s Notre Dame campus at the inhuman hour of 5:30 a.m., steeling myself for another 8-hour stint in the college’s Hard Drive Café, the next I’m strolling in a leisurely two hours later, sans knives, waistline exploding, stomach moaning in anticipation of another day spent eating countless pies, tarts, pastries, cookies, cakes and custards.

Granted, the transition wasn’t so sudden, nor was it unexpected: after almost 7 weeks on the line frying eggs and making clubhouses at a brisk, albeit sweaty pace, I moved to the next section of the culinary arts program: patisserie. And for the past six weeks I’ve been knee deep in two ingredients I’ve spent the past ten years vigorously avoiding: flour and sugar — a story in and of itself and one very much for another day.

Suffice it to say, my time in the patisserie lab has been carbohydrate-rich. However, despite the frequent bouts of sugar blues, I did enjoy the experience. (What’s not to enjoy about silky panna cotta, buttery bear claws, and gorgeous apple raisin galettes?) Still, when the end came, as it did last week, I must say I, and my gut, breathed a heavy sigh of relief — and learned, belatedly I suppose, you truly can have too much of a good thing.

So, what comes next? Why the yin to patisserie’s yang, of course: butchery!

Yes, for the next month I’ll be learning about the primal, sub-primal and fabricated cuts of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and fish.

Bring on the protein!

New year, new school term, new course: short-order cooking.

Do I aspire to be a short-order cook? No. I do, however, appreciate the virtue of mastering diner-style fare. (And make no mistake, I have far from mastered it!) It requires speed, agility, an ability to multi-task, and, above all else, resilience. To withstand the heat, pressure, stress of the kitchen. No small feat and not for the faint of heart.

I tell myself my years spent toiling in the bowels of Parliament Hill were an ideal, albeit unusual training ground for my current stint at Red River College’s Hard Drive Cafe. I’ve laboured under incredibly stressful (and unrewarding) conditions before; a little heat doesn’t change much.

In all, I’m enjoying it. As I said, I don’t want to make a career of it, but I do find the work rewarding. There’s something simple, yet noble about being able to fry an egg, make an omelette, flip some flapjacks, whip up a waffle.

My one gripe — and of course I have one! — has nothing to do with the heat of the line, or the nature of the cooking; nay, it has to do with the hours we’re keeping.

Because we’re open for breakfast, we’re required to be in the kitchen by 6 a.m., which means I’m waking up not to CBC Radio One’s morning show, but to the BBC World News, which CBC broadcasts at 4:30 in the morning.

Suffice it to say, the college’s parking lot is pretty bleak when I arrive at 5:40.