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Adventures in Culinary School, Part II

Last month I blogged about embarking on a culinary adventure with excitement, anticipation and a bit of anxiety: I started kosher culinary school. I wanted to find out, can kosher food really be gourmet? One month into my training, I haven’t come up with a definitive answer, but I have gained a few insights on the topic, taken my first good look at the competitive food service industry and become a more adept chopper to boot!

When I started the “Kosher Culinary” crash course, I was hoping to find solutions to those common kosher problems, such as finding replacements for dairy in meat dishes while still using natural ingredients. I also wanted to expand my palate and food repertoire. While I can’t say every question has been answered or problem solved, I have definitely picked up some technique.

On my first day, it was clear that virtually every kitchen term I knew before (knife, frying pan, pot) is wrong, or at the very least not nearly specific enough. Ask for a knife in a professional kitchen, and the shouted questions immediately begin: What kind of knife? French? Pairing? Boning? Requesting a frying pan would yield the question: A sloped-sided sauteuse (for flipping crepes or vegetables) or a straight-sided sautoir?

When we started on knife skills, I could not have been more excited. Finally, I would learn how to chop onions, mince garlic, and butterfly chicken like a pro! This was what I had been looking forward to learning the most. Of course, chopping, slicing and dicing are not nearly as easy as they sound. Knife skills involve a lot more than just being able to chop an onion without taking off a finger. A chef must be able to chop his veggies evenly. If a dish calls for a julienne, all those strips had better measure 2” or they won’t cook evenly.

It’s only been four weeks, and so far we’ve learned how to make stocks, salads, soups, and sauces. We’ve learned how not to break a hollandaise and how to butcher poultry. I have learned a lot of technique, but I wouldn’t say that the course has expanded my palate, atleast not yet. A lot of the dishes we prepare are ones I’m familiar with, in taste if not in preparation (grilled barbecue chicken, French onion soup, salade nicoise). I’m looking forward to learning how to cook and recognize fish, which having come from a family of pesca-haters, I’ve never worked with before.

The topic of kosher gourmet has come up a few times. But, I was disappointed to learn that we’d be using margarine in recipes that call for butter, and conveniently leaving cheese out of meat dishes. I had been hoping to learn some combination of flavors to imitate dairy taste without resorting to hydrogenated oils. Perhaps that’s just a fantastic, impossible dream. Worst of all, there is only space and funding for one kitchen, which means that we will not be covering dairy at all. In this regard, my culinary education will remain incomplete, and I feel a twinge of sadness.

Not getting many answers to my questions, I asked Chef directly what he thought about kosher food in the gourmet kitchen. As someone who was educated in European culinary schools, worked in fancy, upscale treyf kitchens as well as kosher ones, he was sure to have some insight. He told me that the answer to whether kosher could ever be called gourmet wasn’t a simple yes or a no. It was a matter of opinion, and one that would require some deeper consideration on his part before he could give me his personal answer.

Well, that wasn’t the answer I had been looking for. So, I asked, what did he consider the key to good cooking. Should I avoid trying to substitute margarine for butter or rich whip for cream altogether and just forget pareve versions of desserts and sauces? His answer was that those things definitely should be avoided, except that they can’t be avoided. It’s not realistic. People want dessert after a meal and sauce on their chicken chasseur.

Until science or health food comes up with some better alternative, you work with what you’ve got. The real key to good cooking — kosher or otherwise — is to get good raw ingredients. The meat and fish should be fresh. The fruit should be just picked. The stock is always better when you boil bones than when you make it from a powder. A real pareve meal from scratch will always trump a dairy one from a box.

There. I had one secret of the kitchen, one insight into the world of kosher gourmet, if we can call it that. I still don’t have an answer to my question. But I have learned a great deal from chopping to how to collaborate in the kitchen with other people on one dish and how to cope with the inevitable clash of egos.

Hopefully, I’ll find more as we move forward in the kitchen. Until then, I’ll put on my white coat, apron, and hat. Beef and lamb are next on the syllabus!

Aliza Donath is a culinary/art student in New York City. She currently writes for and illustrates the Jewish lifestyle blog Arbitribe, where her further adventures in culinary school appear.

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