Adventures in Culinary School, Part 3
As of a few weeks ago, I have officially completed kosher culinary school. I’m not a chef, and certainly not professional, but I’d like to think that I’ve come away with a few tricks and techniques not to be found in the average home kitchen.
When I first started culinary school, I was excited and curious, and especially interested to answer a burning question: Can kosher food ever be considered gourmet? With all the ingredients missing from our repertoire (shellfish, bacon, etc.), certainly we could never measure up to the kitchen of some treyf chefs, I thought.
As the weeks progressed in culinary school and I learned how to concasse tomatoes, roast a rack of lamb, and whip up pate-a-choux swans, I found myself marveling at the sheer amount of knowledge a chef must have.
The day we learned to make Hollandaise sauce is the perfect example of this. For a sauce which is essentially just egg yolks and butter (with maybe some lemon juice and white pepper), Hollandaise can be tear-your-hair-out frustrating. For one thing, it requires a lot of muscle-work. In order to prevent breaking or curdling, you must whisk the sauce constantly and it must stay at a very specific, very difficult to maintain temperature.
My first experience with this high-pitched car alarm of a sauce looked as if it was going well. After I had whisked for ten minutes, my arm was about to fall off and my Hollandaise was stunning. Perfect. Airy, light yellow, and smooth as cream. Chef took a look at it and said, “Now blanch some asparagus and get it on a plate.”
Easy. I dashed to the stove, blanched that asparagus, and had it out on the plate fast. I topped it with the beautiful Hollandaise, and then brought the plate across the room to show Chef. By the time it got there, the sauce had separated into an oily mess. That’s right. Thirty seconds from perfection to beyond repair. Don’t tell me a kosher chef who can produce hundreds of perfect Hollandaise dishes a day can’t be a gourmet.
So if technique wasn’t the difference, did it all boil down to the ingredients? I was skeptical about this. After all, a bacon cheeseburger is out of our reach, but I wouldn’t call that a classy dish. As I discussed in my last post, Chef told me that one of the keys to a gourmet meal was fresh, flavorful ingredients. That meant fruit in season, fish freshly caught, and (wherever possible) no fake ingredients (non-dairy creamer, be gone!).
However, some Jewish chefs around the country have attempted to “dress up” kosher classics by purposely making them treyf. For instance: Bacon-wrapped matzo balls, or seared foie gras with ham.
I read about these adaptations and my mind stuck on them. That’s all it took to elevate a dish, to get rave reviews from critics, to be called a gourmet? Just stick a pig on it and call it done? That didn’t make sense to me. Bacon didn’t just make something gourmet. If it did, McDonald’s would be the be-all of haute cuisine. So it had to be something else, something beyond a few rules and types of cheese and meat we can’t use.
Was it the idea? The creativity? The fact that it was an update (or character assassination) of an old classic? If that was it, then certainly there’s nothing to stop us kosher-keepers from being truly gourmet, albeit limited in our palate. I just refuse to accept that a few missing ingredients means we’re any less skilled or classy, or that our food is less delicious.
For Pesach this year, my family Seder featured the French classic steak au-vin-rouge alongside our ginger-spiced matzo ball soup. And I would never have the courage to attempt such a dish without the training I received at culinary school. Clearly, there’s plenty we can do. Maybe all I needed to come to that conclusion was a few strained muscles from a twenty-minute egg-beating, a mutilated filet of striped bass and a broken sauce. In other words: the exposure to technique and the experience.
Obviously I’ve got a long way to go. A three-month crash course does not a gourmet chef make. But at least with the knowledge gained, I’ve built up enough confidence to assert that even though we may have our doubters, there’s nothing that can stop a creative, talented, kosher chef from producing food on par with the rest of them.
Aliza Donath is a culinary/art student in New York City. She currently writes for and illustrates the Jewish lifestyle blog Arbitribe.