The Best of Hells

Today concludes week 1 of my culinary externship.

Damn, what a week.

With class work completed, I must now log 300 hours – with a maximum of 30 per week credited-of externship in order to graduate.  That can occur via a number of scenarios.

My classmates have a marginally sane approach to this process.  Find a kitchen job, have a supervisor sign off for paid working hours.  No problem.

I, alternately, said “I WANNA GO TO THE FARMS, AND A RESTAURANT, AND HELP PREP FOR A SUICIDE MISSION OF AN EVENT! THIS WILL BE GREAT!!”   (Without the yelling, my little-kid-enthusiasm just won’t come through – )

To translate: I opted to be part of a group helping a premiere Texas chef prepare for and operate a food booth at Austin City Limits Music Festival, as well as work on a local farm and in their kitchen, and log hours in a restaurant. 

I am officially a crazy person.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday I logged a total of 27 hours helping unload, prep, cook, process, package and reload for storage nearly 2700 pounds of chicken and 3000 pounds of pork. 

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Other students also helped make sauces and dressings.  We seasoned, roasted, sliced, chopped, vacuum sealed, and cleaned in 8 to 12 hour shifts.  It was insanity personified.  But we were so badass further prep was unnecessary and so cancelled.  The next 2 weekends I will work the festival booth in 8 hour shifts. 

 

Monday and Tuesday I returned to Bernhardt’s Fruit and Veggie farm. There, I helped make kim chi, sauerkraut and kale chips,mail (689) then picked, sorted, washed and packaged produce of all kinds to ready them for today’s farmer’s markets.  Next week, we make jellies.   Again I say, consider the long hours of hard physical labor that go into every piece of produce you buy at a local market, into every dish on every quality menu you see.  I assure you, your dollars are well spent.

 

Though not yet assless, I have worked enough to be well on my way.   I am bruised, cut, blistered, and moving like an octogenarian in the mornings.  Week 1 is behind me.  And you know what?  THIS IS GREAT!

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My Farm to Table Education – Part 2

Dear 2 readers,

Well, BALLS.

I am officially a horrible, neglectful blogger.

This was supposed to be done 4 days after my last post.  Sigh…

I make no excuses. It is what it is.

 

Week 2 of off-campus Farm to Table took me back to Elgin, first stop – RRR Farm.

RRR is adjacent to the expanded Green Gate Farm land, but brought a very different experience.

Not only do they grow and sell seasonal produce and have pigs and goats, but also cows, more farm dogs, and kittens. (Oh my goodness, the kittens… be impressed, friends.  Though tempted, I did not bring a single furry friend home. A classmate, however, did). While there, we spent plenty of play time with the domesticated lot, helped load a stubborn pig for processing, dug holes, erected fence posts, and planted fruit trees.  In 5 years, we’ll be able to return to see them bearing as a result of our labor.

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Bernhardt’s Fruit and Veggie Farm was our 3rd/5th day of the week exposure.  It is a well oiled machine, having been established over 30 years ago and kept in the family.  Their organization is impressive, as is their on site commercial kitchen, in which they concoct a myriad of wonders to sell at farmer’s markets, including sauerkraut, kim chi and melon sorbets.  Those of us who spent time with the Bernhardts were lucky enough to get the best of both worlds.  We harvested, weeded and planted on the farm, and then helped prepare for market in the kitchen.  It was a joy both days. 

Worth mentioning – it was here I saw my first live scorpion, clear and tiny, lurking in holes I’d already dug and seeded bare-handed.  I am not generally squeamish about much, but can I just say EEK!

I have since arranged to spend some of my externship on this farm as well.

  

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I rounded out the week at Yegua Creek Pecan Orchard.  The scenery was breath taking and heart breaking in turns, as they recently lost 1500 trees and have planted 200 new ones.   This was the most diversified business of the bunch.  They not only harvest and sell pecans, but also market pecan oil, pecan coffee, wood and wood work items (cutting boards, wall hangings, etc), and a host of pecan food stuffs.  A minimal amount of limb clearing occurred, but most of my time there was concentrated in their kitchen, making champagne pecans, pecan cookies and experimental recipes.  I learned to sort pecan halves, which is easier than it sounds, but done by hand for quality control.  Think about that next time you price local pecans…

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After we returned to campus, we hosted a Round Table luncheon, the menu for which we composed and prepared from an assortment of food generously supplied by the farmers.  Over lunch, we talked about our experiences, the pros, the cons.  We got feedback from those farmers who were able to attend, and gave it to the people at school who coordinate the block.

For me, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, on which I plan to build over the years.   The relationships between farmers and cooks directly impacts the quality of the food at some of your local restaurants.  I encourage all of you to contribute a little forethought and research to your next food outing.  Consider trying somewhere that uses locally grown ingredients.  Compare their wares to the usual, convenient chains.  Maybe you’ll be able to tell the difference – especially at peak season, in which we are sadly NOT currently.  Maybe you won’t.   Either way,  the purposefulness matters, if only to know you tried.  And report back!  Comment!  Let me know!

 

For now, tell me, where and what are you eating lately?

 

 

 

My Farm to Table Education – Part 1

My decision making when it came to culinary school hinged widely on our current educational block.

 

The farm to table experience is built into our curriculum with intent to provide first hand knowledge of how our food is (and should be) grown and produced through local sources.  We spend time in small groups visiting and working on several farms and with other growers and providers for three weeks in order to gain said information.

Our first three days were spent on campus in the school’s garden, doing maintenance work, and also field tripping to a nursery to learn more about seasonal planting.  After that, a few of us helped cater a tasting event at Fall Creek Winery – where some of the finest grapes and wines in Texas originate. 

 

 

 

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Last week, I was first assigned to Coyote Creek Farm, where the focus is on chicken egg production and organic farm feed. The last trait I previously associated with chickens was – well – being chilled out. But these are some seriously chill foul. Wouldn’t we all be if our houses were cleaned and our every need met (including misters for the houses) daily?
While there, we helped feed and water chickens, gather eggs, and then clean and package them. It was an interesting process, to say the least.
Fun fact: Chickens sunbathe.
Let me just say YES free range, organically pastured eggs truly are the best. Next time you buy that 1.99 carton at Walmart, think about how robbed you are, though you may not know it. (My commercial vs organic egg experiment may be a future post).
I’m not sure we ever met Lala the Llama’s approval…
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Our next stop was Skinny Lane Farm, a small, young operation where they are still learning daily how to best practice organic, seasonal farming. It is currently the end-of-season for everyone, so our time was spent harvesting the remains of summer and readying the land for fall and winter. We weeded, seeded, tilled (OK, I personally didn’t till…) and planted, sprayed and cleared, and started seedlings after playing in prepared dirt. It was a fun time both days.
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To round out the week, we spent a day on Green Gate Farms, planting seedlings and playing with the pigs. The farm is located on what we were informed used to be a "hippy compound." They have farm dogs, chickens, goats, a horse, and lots of pigs. Babies, wild pigs, big gigantic breeding and larding pigs. I fell in love with one, but my classmates wouldn't help me put her in the car.

Bessie:
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So far, it’s been an education no classroom could ever provide. Another edition when all is said and done –
Have a great week out there, everyone.

AWOL

It’s been a while, my 2 semi-interested readers. 

Shame on me.

When last I blogged in earnest, I was sussing through my educational decisions and dilemmas.  I have also done a lot of existential dusting and sorting in the last month and have come out a  more enlightened and satisfied person. So there’s that.

As far as school is concerned, it seems our ever dwindling class of (for now) 6 is a bona fide bunch of culinary badasses. Who knew?   We knocked out a kickin’ spread for our grand buffet day this week

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and are pushing our way through the sustainable block.  From here on, it’s all about doing what we now know we can.  The one drawback we seem to have?  Baking.  As evidenced in a previous blog, I am well aware baking will never be my strong point.  As it happened, our decorating day in the last baking block fell on my birthday.  I frosted myself a Dr Suess inspired monstrosity (sad and laughable – but I’m ok with that)

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then went on to plate some fairly passable desserts.

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Outside school, I’ve indulged in several noteworthy live music experiences lately. They include the Will Callers at Waterloo, The Wheeler Brothers and Whiskey Sisters at Blues on the Green,[loved the music, fought the crowd and heat]  Symphony In the Park on the Long Center lawn,

 

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 The Taming of the Shrew [hilariously well done with period music] and my favorite of the bunch – and birthday present to myself – The Tedeschi Trucks Band at Austin City Limits. A friend came along, and I managed to control my impulses well enough to keep my panties on all evening.  The band was exhausting, dancing at every possible opportunity, throwing one big, musically miraculous stage party.  I love Derek Trucks… sigh… He is the great guitar god of my generation.

 

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My parents were back in town after the melee, visiting for a quick post-birthday weekend, during which my air conditioning was on the fritz and I was suffering from overheated crankiness. (Hello, Walley World). Nevertheless, it was, as always, great to actually see them and visit, and we managed to squeeze in some shopping, art perusal, a museum, and good food.

The Austin Art Garage is exactly what it advertises – a warehouse style housing of local art.  But they are pleasantly displayed and the artists up when we visited were all appealing in different ways.

mail (335)The Natural History Museum had super cool information and thematic floors. Some of my favorites included

Dinoturtles

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Meteorites

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And this guy

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Now that the AC is once again functional, I’m thinking of things to cook and to do the next time I am lucky enough to entertain guests.  Any suggestions out there?  Throw them my way! And tell me, friends, family, bloggers, what’s shakin’ in your world lately?

 

 

 

 

The Trials and Tribulations of Adult Education

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It’s been some time since I posted anything about school. 

There are many reasons for that.  Mostly, the busyness and (minor) stress of the latest block.  And resistance to broadcasting the voice of an aging, frustrated crazy person who yet again questions life in general and her path along it.  But hell, that just makes me exactly like most other people.

So here I am, bringing you the good, bad and tangential on school as I presently know it.

I had a zero sum day in the kitchen today.

I experienced my very first total fail, by burning the ever living shit out of what were supposed to be linzer tortes.  (Pictured).   I screwed up some weird bread by underbaking and somehow making it even weirder.  But my chicken paprishka – though lacking in as much paprika as expected – was pretty rockin’. 

We survived our second kitchen practical with Chef Dragon Lady, though this time she was actually our instructor. 2-person teams, 5 courses, 3 hours.  And my 4.0 GPA is still intact.  But grades certainly aren’t everything.

 

Let’s get the bad that’s been clouding my head out of the way first, shall we? Clear the air.

*As an adult returning to a nontraditional classroom, the academic in me sometimes struggles against the hands-on pragmatist. As in, “Why am I not learning more _______?(fill in the blank)” versus “Why is so-and-so hung up on _____? (fill in the blank) You just have to DO it.”

* The entire class has been pissed and worn down, with a great loss of joy for the whole process.  These times are to be expected, but the lackluster of our everyday kitchen has been in response to instructional overbearance, in different ways.

* Chef Dragon Lady does not often swallow or eat our food.  This could be understandable if we all tasted or ate large amounts of any given dish daily… no one wants to gain 50 pounds.  But that is not the case.  She tastes, spits, and often offers very little feedback at all.  I question how this can possibly be teaching me anything, save how I process intimidation.

* The functional attitude of the school doesn’t seem to be one which fosters any real hope of success in the industry.  I don’t want to be the next Iron Chef.  I just want to pay the bills while working my ass off like everyone else.

*A member of the office staff (whose job, in large part is to place students with kitchens) has blatantly ignored my requests for stage opportunities before externship and job hunting.   Classrooms are one thing, but I know until I do legitimate time in a restaurant, I won’t know what I’m really getting into. I haven’t had time to straighten that out yet, but it’s shitty that no one in this tiny school’s administration knows your name until you have a problem.  Oh wait – that’s every school.

*They took away our kitchen garbage cans and replaced them with tiny damned office trash cans we are now required to keep under the work station tables.  Who would DO such a thing?

OK, that last one seems especially petty, but it’s a pretty big deal.

Overall, I’ve found myself wondering if I am learning another perfectly usable skill I won’t be able to use profitably.  Not just monetarily, though the concern that I’ve paid thousands of dollars to get a barely-over-minimum-wage job I’ll have to supplement is a real one. But satisfactorily, being able to get my foot in the door, being hirable out of school, working for decent chefs.  If my eventuality as a small business owner in the industry will be just another crash and burn. 

Realism is important. 

Enough of my whining. On to the good!

* Our class is down from 16 to 7 members.  Most people would view this as a negative. I see it as natural selection.  Besides, we knock out the same production every other class does in the same amount of time. We rock!

* Our class time has been restructured, and we split into teams where each makes the entire menu as a (very) small group every day.  The pressure is on us.  We race the clock.  But time flies, and we get the satisfaction of knowing we busted hump with (usually) good results on a daily basis.  It feels great, when all is said and done, to be dog tired and happy about it.

* I’ve learned about, cooked and eaten so much fantastic food. And I find myself looking forward to every challenge as a great culinary adventure.

* Chef, who I really don’t find to be a Dragon Lady at all, actually asked me how things were going with class, and what I wanted to do after I graduate.  It caught me off guard, but I told her what I don’t know I learn, what I mess up I learn from, and for me it’s mostly a matter of what a person chooses to take personally.  As a professional, as an adult, I don’t take a lot personally. 

* The above answer, the knowledge of my work ethic and confidence, and the recognition that I don’t know everything remind me that I can do this, and eventually do it well.  And have a helluva good time failing and succeeding and doing it all over again.

 

What’s so wrong with just taking life day to day where you can anyway?

The world is big.

I have a plan.

 

Sort of.

If you’ve stuck with this post, thanks for your tolerance.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

Gravity and Inertia, As They Pertain to My Week (Plus some other stuff)

2013-04-28 20.48.43I have, for as long as I remember, been an insomniac, while secondarily suffering from sleep inertia.  It takes a long time to fall asleep, but when I do, I am in the tight clutches of slumber to such an extent it is nearly impossible to disturb me.  In recent years, waking has been an earlier and earlier occurrence, but this week has found me a returning victim of dreaded bed gravity, wherein no escape seems possible.  

I have rushed out the door for class five days straight.  Time is a tricky thing, indeed.

 

School has moved us to the food of the Americas, and a more confident classroom. It’s interesting to have excuse to ponder the wide variances of cuisine across the U. S. alone. And, in my southern reversion, to be reminded how important the reign of food is over the demeanors of its consumers.  Every region has some good offerings, but some just can’t compete with the simple, grandma’s garden, or out of the boat meals I’m used to.

  I am spoiled, having grown up in a passionately food-centric part of the country, where nothing can happen that isn’t culinarily associative. Weddings, funerals, holidays, sure.  New neighbors? Make them a pie.  Fifth Sunday?  Potluck. Quitting your job? Let’s hit the local BBQ joint.  Your kid is potty trained?  I’ll drink to that!  And when we’re all stuffed to the gills, we’ll STILL be talking about food.

 

My excitement this week was attending the Lumineers concert at the new amphitheater in town. 

2013-04-26 19.22.13 Jack Wilson, an Austin native with serious 70s influence, and the Tumbleweeds – a swampy New Orleans based band complete with triangle, keg drum and mouth harp – opened the absolutely packed venue. Between the Tumbleweeds covering Woody Guthrie and the Lumineers paying homage to Bob Dylan, along with all their cool, simple, skillful originals, it was a flawless musical experience. 

Along the way, I sighted some mondo mustaches and fringed tshirts, circa 1986.  Dear cultural universe: It’s ok to let some things die.

It only took 2 hours to get out of the parking lot, after 1am, and the town still raged on.  This truly is a city that never sleeps.

 

One last thing –

I am not a tactless person, by any means, but somewhat unedited in my commentary and responses. For me, it is mostly because I don’t like not knowing where people stand, and I have no intention of leaving the question of my take for others on things affecting them.  (Also, it’s my defective internal monologue at work, with which a lot of you are familiar. I make no excuses). This week, someone commented to me that they had never been able to do that.  It led me to wonder, what would life be, if we all just said what we really meant? Manners exist in order to provide comfort in social situations, to be understood guidelines for conduct. Some are silly, outdated, baffling.  Some are useful. Still, I question whether so much self censorship is counterintuitive in some contexts. In others, it is not as well enforced as it needs to be. Those lines are drawn so differently in individual minds, in cultural practice, in private self rule.  It’s something I think on from time to time, but rarely does it dictate in me regret for my choices.  I am a believer in saying what needs to be said rather than what I think someone else wants me to say. Nevertheless, I am not deluded into thinking my opinions and feelings are the only valid ones. We all have our own inertia to weigh, our own gravity to consider.

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Tell me your thoughts.

 

 

 

Moon Over Austin

2013-04-03 17.44.53Perspective is a tricky thing.

I’ve been exploring art lately.

I think it is generally accepted (as far as society is concerned, for what it’s worth) an artist’s job is not only to reflect himself or herself through any given piece, but also to allow the viewers to see themselves, whether differently or in the familiar.  That is an artist’s gift to us, in part.

Given this, my questions crop:  What, in turn, do the pieces with which I identify say about me?

The ones I choose to display in my home or office?  The ones I don’t, because someone might get the “wrong impression”?  OK, you’re right. I don’t have any of those…  But other people do.

I’ve been weeding out prints that no longer fit my outlook or the home I wish to substantiate.  I’ve had some happy run ins with pieces and people which are aiding my artistic evolution. I’ve been more thoughtful about the things I display because I genuinely enjoy them.

How important is this?  I don’t really know.

 

On the school front ~    The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of steak, bourgonnione, veal piccata, sweetbreads, leg of lamb, farro, pork ribs, fish and shellfish.

Turns out I am a pro at slapping flesh in a pan and sautéing it appropriately.  Fish fileting by school standards…mmm… it’s hit or miss.  Gravlax brought a Green Eggs and Ham moment for me over salmon, which I have never loved.  Cured, I find it perfectly palatable.  Flounder was magical, but my favorite dish so far, with flavors of home:

 

 

Image( I made the mignonette and shucked some myself).

Friday was a challenge, leaving me wondering, once again, why it is I’ve chosen to pursue this line of education.  Some of us went out for beers, asses handed to us by a rough day in the kitchen, and I realized how much I appreciate being surrounded by people who love and think about food in so many of the ways I do. We have different experiences and approaches, different goals, but the value of being a part of this group isn’t lost on me.

 

Extracurriculars ~ I found a mediocre sports bar that promises to always broadcast the Braves for me.  With their record at 5-1 I want to see all I can!  The team is off to a dynamic start, and I for one haven’t missed a single trade or retiree.  (Wait, did I just say that?  YEAH I did).

 

I caught the Sons of Fathers appearance at Waterloo Records this week.  Their take on the roots movement is fresh, and I found some of their live performances more impressive than their recorded counterparts.  {We all know I bought the album}.  I also saw Liz Morphis’s jazz session at Evangeline. She sang exactly what she should have, and sang it simply and well.  What more could I ask?

 

Midweek I hit The Bakehouse just to get out of the house.  I love their small bar, which is constantly packed with regulars.  But can somebody please tell me what’s wrong with this picture?

 

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That’s right.   Highchairs.  In a bar.  It makes me chortle to myself every time… 

 

Side note ~  I had friends in for the weekend.  I subjected them to my cooking, but also took them down South Congress, and stayed up later than anyone should catching up on life. The only thing I have to relate from the weekend to you is, sometimes the moon just needs howling.

 

One last laugh ~ My first tax return in over a decade came in the mail this week:

 

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Now please, tell me all your thoughts on art, taxes, and howling at the crescent moon.