Spencer Kayser was in a zone. In one hand was a paring knife; in another was a turnip. He was going to turn that turnip (the French term for the technique is tournee), and not even the distraction caused by a visiting wine writer was going to stop him.
The Wine Curmudgeon was at the Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio campus last week, part of a media event that allowed me to participate in a 3 1/2-hour skills class. I was teamed up with Kayser, Joe Casias, and Kiali Andrus. (Full disclosure: The CIA paid my plane fare between Dallas and San Antonio.)
Our task: Prepare braised short ribs, polenta, tourneed root vegetables, and haricot verts to chef instructor Michael Katz's satisfaction. And yes, I wore a toque like the students on the left. And no, there are no pictures of me wearing it.
What we did and how we fared -- after the jump.
For our purposes, though, it's enough to note their popularity. It's also worth noting that the Wine Curmudgeon remains a little perplexed by the culinary school process. Yes, I taught at the Dallas Cordon Bleu, and yes, I'm a pretty good home cook (though my knife work isn't what it could be). But the idea of cooking professionally, with its seven-day work weeks, minimum wage-like salaries, carping critics, and surly customers, is an acquired taste.
The students I cooked with had acquired the taste. Kayser, a San Antonio native, had watched The Food Network. And, like so many other culinary students I've met, saw that kind of success as distinctly possible. Casias, a former college baseball player, was about to graduate and open a Neapolitan-style restaurant, using his wife's family's recipes. Andrus, from Salt Lake City, had her eyes on a bakery and cafe after graduation.
Most of all, they were professional and incredibly generous with their time and their patience. I showed up 15 minutes before class started, and they helped me find the necessary equipment and ingredients so I could cook with them. They answered all of my questions, even when I was interrupting something they were doing for a grade. Because, at the end of the class, Katz met with each of the dozen or so students and critiqued their plate. Was it cooked properly? Was it presented correctly? What did it taste like? Trust me. The last thing Kayser, Casias and Andrus needed was me asking them about their future while they were turning vegetables.
And, no, I didn't get a grade. Katz, who had cooked in a variety of Florida restaurants before coming to the CIA, answered my questions and offered good advice (I now know how to salt properly), but took pity on my final effort. It would have been more than satisfactory for dinner at home, and was similar to the short ribs and polenta I do a couple of times a year, but it never would have passed muster with paying customers. The polenta was too thick, the sauce was too thin, and the ribs weren't completely fork tender. I know this because the class ate our finished product after cooking it, sitting together to have dinner. Though the ribs looked good.
Also, I did not turn the vegetables. Katz and I discussed it, and we decided that it would not be good publicity for the school if he had to call 911 because a wine writer had carved up his thumb while trying to turn celeriac. Hearing this, Kayser practically snorted. I had not realized learning to cook was such a manly business.
Turning vegetables, even for something simple like potatoes, isn't easy. And doing it for carrots, turnips, celeriac and the like, is daunting. Though, and I'm embarrassed to admit it, Jennifer McInnis of the Express-News newspaper in San Antonio turned her vegetables and did a fantastic job. And she's mostly a wine writer.
Also worth noting:
• The students were not intimidated by wine. This was good to hear, and we actually had a decent discussion about what they liked to drink and what would go with the short ribs (I suggested a Texas syrah). The CIA is upgrading its certificate program to a two-year associates' degree in San Antonio this summer, and wine -- and especially local wine -- is going to be a key part of the new curriculum.
• One doesn't boil down a sauce. One reduces it. Sorry, chef.
• Casias, who had been a catcher in college, called a good game in the kitchen as well (and knew many of the same 1980s-era ballplayers that I remembered). His grade was 97 out of 100 -- for which I can take almost no credit, though I did hand him various utensils, pots and pans.
• Andrus refused to let me be intimidated. "You'll be fine," she said, "and we'll have fun." And I wasn't intimidated and we did have fun. I guess I need to get out of the house more often.
• Though I asked, and more than once, what needed to be done to clean up my work area when we were finished, Kayser, Casias and Andrus took care of my mess. Talk about making a visitor feel welcome. One of the most difficult things for a culinary student to learn is that washing dishes is just as important as cooking, and my group seems to have learned that lesson well. As they seem to have learned all of their lessons well.