Screw You Bourdain; I’m Going To Culinary School!

I had envisioned this post taking an entirely different direction, but last September I read an excerpt of Anthony Bourdain’s newest book Medium Raw on Michael Ruhlman’s blog post “So You Wanna Be a Chef“. The excerpt basically says if you are 32 (actually, I am 31) and think you are too old to become a chef; Yes! You are too old! Bourdain then goes on to list numerous and I am sure valid reasons why someone in their thirties shouldn’t follow their dreams because well, they are just dreams. No one is going to hire the “elderly” and even if they do, your tired an aching bones won’t be able to handle the stress like those 18 year old whippersnappers!  Plus, for me, I have that personal baggage i.e husband and kids… geez, I am fucked! 

When I graduated from college in 2003, did I envision my life leading me to culinary school 10 years later?  No, but I have no other choice, I know that this is the next step that I have to take.  As it is when anyone embarks on a life changing adventure there are always doubts about whether or not you are making the right choice.  For some reason, I couldn’t get Bourdain’s words out of my head.  They kept surfacing, in the dark of the night as I lay staring at the ceiling, while my mind raced about all the possible implications of my decision.

The idea of attending culinary school emerged about 2 years ago. I was disheartened with the direction and career options that were available in the Bulgarian film industry.  I had been messing around in the kitchen and garden, since I moved to Bulgaria in 2006, but that was all I was doing. Then I started the blog in 2008, but at the time I wasn’t sure exactly what roll I wanted EGL to play.  Slowly but surely things started to come together and then I thought… culinary school!  The proceeding thought was “crap”, how is this even a possibility?  How can I move from Bulgaria to go to culinary school?  What will my husband and kids do?  How will I pay for it?  These were just some of the questions!

I started reading books for some preliminary research about people who had, at various periods of their lives attended culinary school or culinary programs.  I found an article that listed quite a few title to start my search..  Initially, since I am based in Europe, I thought about Le Cordon Bleu and that led me to Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry, which drove me insane.  Aside from the fact that I am a Francophile and have a desire to attend culinary school, this book was something that I couldn’t relate to, as I am not the recipient of a fat severance package from an IT company. While her story sounded great, it is not a realistic option, plus her description of the school itself was not the serious institution I was looking for.  The next book was The Saucier’s Apprentice by Bob Spitz, which was a thrilling vagabond tale about a writer traipsing through Europe and using his connections to have fabulous cooking adventures and maybe one day fortune will smile on me and I will have a publisher who affords me such luxury, but currently that is not my lot! Then I came to The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman‘s book which made me fall in love with The Culinary Institute of America.  I knew after reading his book that if I was ever going to attend culinary school, this would be where I would go… if they would have me!

I did some research and decided to apply to the CIA for shits and giggles!  Just to see if I would even get in.  I marked off the latest possible enrollment date, for the off chance I manage to get accepted and some financial aid.  Then six weeks later, I got an acceptance letter!  This was amazing and awful simultaneously because I know I couldn’t actually go, but I now knew that this other possibility existed for me and I was stuck wandering about aimlessly in Bulgaria.  Then I got my financial aid letter, and as luck would have it I got a fair amount of scholarships and grants from the school, plus some New York State aid, so my coffers were filling up, but then the larger question of how to incorporate my husband and kids into this equation.

My husband and kids couldn’t follow me back to the US for 22 months.  Our lives are established in Bulgaria, but I could never get the training and education I was looking for in Bulgaria. Yes, maybe I could apprentice in France (since I speak some French), but logistically that would require more capital to accomplish, so if I was going to do this than the CIA was it.  Finally, after long hours of conversations and arguing, my husband and I came up with a plan.  I would move to Hyde Park in the spring to start my freshman term of the AOS program in Culinary Arts and they would follow behind me in May after the girls finished school in Bulgaria.  The plan would only keep me away from my family for a total of 12 weeks, 6 at the beginning and 6 at the end.  I would fly back to Bulgaria after the completion of my Freshman term. Then came one final twist, I received a Winter Advantage grant from the school that was too good to resist, so I changed my start date to January 4th, 3 weeks away!  As it stands now, I leave Bulgaria on New Year’s Eve and will move into my dorm on January 3rd.  The fact that I am going to be living in a dorm is well, a whole blog unto itself!  Stay tuned! The family will join me for 2 weeks in March, then again in May and remain in the US for the whole summer and we will all fly back to Bulgaria together in September. While, not the ideal situation, this was our best option, unless we come into some financial windfall.

As for Bourdain, I harbor no ill will against him, I’ve found some of his books enjoyable.  All his words have done was to highlight the uphill battle that I am facing, but I am the type of person doesn’t like to be told that I can’t do something.  I will graduate from The Culinary Institute of America at the top of my class, land an amazing externship and become successful in whatever direction my culinary career takes me, despite my culinary AARP membership!
The journey of a thirty-something braving culinary school to become a professional chef.

So, here it is, as of January 1st 2011, my blog is going to undergo a significant transformation.  I will no longer be document the trial and error process of learning to cook, grow and live and Bulgaria, I will now be chronically the journey of a thirty-something, against the odds, battling her way through culinary school to become a professional chef. I will however still be Eating, Gardening & Living, but now in Hyde Park!

If you are interested in purchasing any of the books I mentioned in this post please consider buying them from my Amazon store… I have an expensive culinary bill to foot… every cent counts!
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CIA Greystone Cooking Demonstration

It had been 5 years since I had been in California, the last time was in Los Angeles, when Angel and I decided to move to Bulgaria. I had added additional days to my visit to incorporate the Foodbuzz Festival and a trip to wine country; Napa and Sonoma.  About a month before my trip, I reserved a space for a cooking demo at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus.  I had not previously had the opportunity to visit any of the CIA’s campuses and I was quite excited about being surrounded by culinary greatness; to my surprise, I was about the one of the few who attended the demo that felt that way.

This was the second time in my life that I had crossed over the Golden Gate bridge, the first being with my husband on our honeymoon in 2000. The weather was less than stellar on my most recent crossing, but that didn’t stop me from commemorating the event, which was bittersweet without my hubby! The drive through the Napa Valley towards St. Helena was gorgeous.  Route 29 was lined with vineyards and estates, which I was informed you could visit and taste for anywhere from $10 – 30 USD, which would be put toward a bottle should you happen to purchase one. Being that I was on a budget that portion of the tour would need to be saved for the next trip.

We arrived at the Greystone campus early.  My friend Ross Cobb winemaker from Cobb Wines ended up joining me demo, which was nice.  I had originally anticipated going it alone.  The demo was supposed to start at 1:30, but because 44 of the 48 seats were reserved by a team building retreat for Bank of America, they changed the time till 2:00 and we still needed to wait for the tour bus to arrive.  
While waiting, I had an opportunity to speak with the chef, Harold Imbrunetti.  I asked him the most important question, which was where was the best spot to sit and he suggested second row center.  You don’t get to have the first taste, but the best vantage point for the action.  When I told him that I was a blogger, he had asked if I had written to him about getting some gourmet organic rubs and marinades from his company Wine Country Chef for a giveaway.  Maybe he will provide me with some after this post.

Our recipe for the day was Frittata with Crispy Potatoes, Spinach and Truffle Essence.  Chef Imbrunetti provided us with a recipe, but he said that he has never made the same one twice and then proceeded to make changes to the printed recipe we were given.

Frittata with Crispy Potatoes, Spinach and Truffle Essence: 
by CIA Chef Harold Imbrunetti

2 sm russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4″(.63cm) thick
3 tbsp olive oil (he used a hot/spicy Spanish variety)
1 white onion (sweeter in contrast to the leek)
1 lg leek, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
20 eggs
2 oz (59ml) water
1 sm bunch of spinach leaves, washed and stemmed
1/4 cup finely grated Vella Dry Jack & parmesan reggiano (any hard cheese)
3 – 4 tbsp (60g) unsalted butter, cold (I think he used more… a lot more)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 oz (29ml) white truffle oil

Method:

  1. Preheat an oven to 350F (180C)
  2. Place potatoes in a pot with 1 qt (950ml) cold water and 1 tbsp kosher salt.Bring the pot to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes, or until the potatoes are just done through, fork tender.  Drain the potatoes carefully, towel dry excess water and set aside.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium burner, make sure the pan is hot before adding the oil.  Add the onion and leek, and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Remove from the pan from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.
  4. Beat the eggs and water together in a bowl.  Add the cooled onion and leek, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  5. Heat a 9-inch nonstick skillet with an oven-safe handle over a medium burner. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil and arrange the potato slices in the pan in a single layer.  Season the potatoes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook for three minutes, or until golden brown at the edges.
  6. Add chunks of cold butter to the egg mixture, then carefully pour half it over the potatoes.  Arrange the spinach leaves over the eggs.  Cover the spinach with the remaining egg mixture, and sprinkle the surface with the grated cheese.
  7. Transfer the pant to the oven, and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, or until the eggs have set completely.  Remove the pan from the oven, and turn the frittata out onto a large plate.
  8. Cut the frittata into eighths, and drizzle with white truffle oil just before serving. Serve either hot or at room temperature.

The tour bus arrived and our missing audience filled into their seats… only problem, this was the 4th stop on their wine tasting tour and some of them were a little past tipsy.  I knew this was going to be an interesting demo when someone in the back of the room yelled “Bam” as Chef Imbrunetti seasoned the potatoes with salt, to which Chef Imbrunetti replied, even Emeril doesn’t even use that anymore! The lively audience didn’t stop there.
This was a difficult post for me to write because I feel like a bit of a food snob.  Now I understand that not everyone shares the same passion for food and cooking as I do, but I think people should be respectful of the craft.  I happened to be sitting next to one of the most infuriating people in the audience.  She was aghast at the number of eggs in the dish, the amount of butter and cheese and she was quite vocal about it…  “How many calories is in that?” “How healthy is that for you?””I’m not eating that?” and then the icing on the cake… when the chef was layering the spinach into the dish she shouts “That a lot of spinach!”  Needless to say, she and her friends refused to try the dish.  This gave her more time to finish her game of hangman, the answer was GET CRUNK!

Some other choice audience quotes: “Is that frozen?”, “What’s leek?”,”Not a green onion?”, “Is their a secret to cracking and egg?” Chef: “In half.”
Overall the demo was good.  My only grievance was the camera work.  There were two television monitors on either side of the kitchen to give close up details of the action. There were two people controlling the cameras and they were awful.  Their timing was off and they were unable to capture the action on screen.  If the Chef was chopping something the camera was stuck on a potato or an empty dish. Good thing we had good seats! I did however learn some new tricks like:
  • drying to potatoes to help with the browning
  • add the butter cold to the egg mixture, so it slowly dispersers through out the dish and helps give the eggs a better texture
  • don’t add the potatoes raw because then you have no control over them
  • kosher salt helps to bring out the brightness in a dish not saltiness
  • when the oil becomes wavy, before it starts smoking, that is the right temperature to crisp the potatoes.
Thank you Chef Imbrunetti! If you are going to be in the Napa area and would like to schedule a demo please call (707) 967-2320 or visit www.ciachef.edu/california
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Turkey Moussaka: Top Turkey Scholarship

My favorite time of the year is drawing near, Thanksgiving, and it got me thinking about all of the different places that I’ve celebrated this holiday through out my life.  One place in particular was the house that I grew up in, in Brooklyn.  We had a formal dining room with a large wooden table and eight chairs.  I knew that the holidays were near when my father brought up the extra leaves for our drop leaf table.  This act signified the start of the season filled with the trifecta of family, food and friends.

Now, I am a wife and a mother hosting my own Thanksgivings, albeit very far from the homes of my youth, which I think is why I put such emphasis on having my annual grandiose Thanksgiving in Bulgaria.  The first thing I do is research recipes. I start by gathering some of my favorite recipe books, old November issues of culinary magazines and my printed out Thanksgiving recipe file. My goal is to find a theme or common idea to bind the dinner together, one year my theme was Provençal flavors. This year will be no different, except for the fact, I will be visiting the US 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, so I will be able to stock up on research materials and if need be smuggle a few bags of Ocean Spray cranberries in my luggage (FYI – they travel well!)
While I am not certain what recipes I will be preparing for the actually Thanksgiving holiday, I do know what I am planning to do with the leftovers.  Like last year, I am entering The Culinary Institute of America’s Top Turkey Scholarship competition.  The only difference is that this year I need to win… Why you ask?… Well, I will make the formal announcement soon.  Stay tuned!
The premise of the competition is to come up with a fantastic recipe to make use of your leftover turkey meat.  Last year, I made Turkey and Cranberry Raviolis with Gravy but this year, I wanted to find a harmonious collaboration between my American heritage and my adopted homeland Bulgaria.  One dish in particular came to mind and that was Mousakka.  The dish would lend itself well to a day after Thanksgiving meal because of its simple preparation.  Now, before a cultural war breaks out between the Eastern European nations, this is not only a Greek dish, but Bulgarian as well.  All of the neighboring countries Eastern Europe or former Ottoman Empire share many similarities with their cuisines.  That being said, I first experienced Mousakka in August 2001, during my inaugural trip to my husband’s homeland. I finally learned how to make Mousakka when my mother-in-law lived with us in New York after my daughter Maya was born in 2003.  The recipe she shared with me was not exact, nor could we communicate in the same language, so in order to explain the dish to me she prepared the dish and I made notes and observations about her ingredients and technique. It was quite a interesting experience.

I adapted her original recipe to use turkey meat and thyme instead of ground pork and summer savory to capture the essence of Thanksgiving. I also added some dried cranberries because I love the way the tart sweetness blends nicely with the other savory elements.
18 oz (500g) ground turkey
18 oz (500g) potatoes, cut into ½” pieces
7 oz (200g) sweet potatoes, cut into ½” pieces
3.5 oz (100g) or 2 lg carrots, cut into ½” pieces
3.5 (100g) tomatoes, peeled and seeded, roughly chopped
1 large onion chopped
½ cup dried cranberries (optional)
1 tbsp thyme
1 cup chicken or turkey stock
4 eggs
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste.

Pre heat the oven to 350F (180C)

In a large pot, heat up 2 tbsp of olive oil on medium heat.  When hot add the onions and carrots cook till onions are soft about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat; add the turkey meat to the pot along with the cranberries and herbs.  Season with salt and pepper then pour into a 9 x 13 inch dish. Bake in the oven for about 50 minutes till the potatoes are soft.  Remove from oven.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together with the milk, season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the dish and return to oven for an additional 10 – 15 minutes or till the egg mixture has set and has a golden hue.
Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 – 15 mintues before slicing and serving.
I would love to hear from my readers about some of your favorite Thanksgiving recipes, menus and memories.  Thanks for sharing!

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