Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chef Counsel...My Own Personal Cooking Revival - Part 1

As a culinary graduate, I had been finding it strange that my cooking skills have remained pretty much dormant for the last five years. Not completely dormant, I still cooked meals for myself and friends, but nothing extraordinary. Nothing that stretched my hand into unfamiliar territory.

So why this sudden change of heart? How did I end up making fritatta for one, when I could be making a Beef Wellington dinner for 10?

It was not until my recent divorce that I realized the reason I have not kept my keen interest in cooking: the person I had cared about for so many years (and who I met at CIA, ironically) stopped taking an interest in what I was making. With that difficult realization out of the way, I had reached a breaking point, and this time it was reached because of being away from the kitchen - rather than the common scenario of a chef reaching their breaking point by being in the kitchen too much.

So, how does a formally trained culinary graduate* step back into the limelight of the kitchen without overdoing it? My answer to this, and one that I am excited about: start back from the beginning. Test yourself in the kitchen, resharpen those knives, practice knife cuts...the bare bones basics. Which leads me to think, why not write about the experience? Doesn't everyone know the basic knife cuts? No. Does the grand majority of the population understand the "mother sauces?" Probably not.

We'll start out with the basics, and when the time comes for more intricacies, the less intimidating it will be. Now to go reintroduce myself with the basics; I will await the challenge!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

writer's block on a food blog = blogstipation?

What better way to introduce myself, than with the title of the first blog? I've been toying with a food blog idea for almost a year now, but I keep freezing up. On my 27th birthday this year (which was about a week ago,) I decided that I finally wanted to share my love of food with friends, family, and whoever else stumbles upon this one of (too many to fathom) food blogs.

When I posted a status update a few days ago about having writer's block, and being slightly insecure about my writing style - the response from friends was supportive, but the one that really caught my eye, and I thought was fitting was what you see above.

I decided to use such an obscurely hilarious title for a blog, because that's how I am; in life, in humor, in the kitchen. As you can see from the pictures, I like to keep it fun! I also like doing things backward...I haven't really even properly introduced myself.

My name is Clayton; a born and raised Texan, and a born and raised lover of food. I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty (that's right, I'm bringing it back) about my life story - just the foodie related details, I suppose.

My first real recollection of a childhood memory was making scrambled eggs in my grandmother's kitchen. I also remember her forcing me to drink powdered milk, which is appropriate for some things in cooking, but keep it away from me otherwise.

I remember watching my mom breading pieces of tenderized bottom round for her chicken fried steak, which I can not replicate to save my life (close, but not the same as mom's.) Watching her add butter to the pan-drippings; slowly, meticulously adding flour and vigorously stirring it, as to not clump up or burn. I did not understand then, the basics of making a roux; all I remember was watching with anticipation because I knew that that step would lead to my favorite part of the meal, the cream gravy.

I was also fortunate to grow up with a food adventurist father. Well, now that I look back, I'm not so sure if it was adventure, as wanting to spend a lot of money at fancy restaurants, but I digress. Regardless, he had a huge impact on my views of food. He's definitely the inspiration as to why I wanted to become a chef. So in part, this blog is in tribute to my father.

When I was younger, we would sit and watch PBS for hours on Saturday mornings, indulging ourselves with The Great Chef's series, Julia Child, and other cooking shows. I liked this better than cartoons, and I wanted to learn how to make everything I saw. The food looked so vibrant and beautiful. The only problem was, I couldn't eat it! It was then that I knew I wanted to learn how to create meals for people to eat, because I wanted to receive the same reaction from someone that I would have when I watched those shows on tv, and when I would go out to eat with my dad.

Alas, I didn't decide to go to culinary school and have food be my sole focus until I was a senior in high school (indecision is a bitch, isn't it?) When I was searching for culinary schools to attend, I entered cooking competitions that involved menu planning and pricing, won a scholarship to one school but I wasn't satisfied with the school to which I had received the scholarship. Don't get me wrong, I was elated at the fact that I was doing something right, but I wanted more.

It was then that I set my sights on The Culinary Institute of America. I had read about their programs, and that's where I wanted to go. I craved that intensity! My only set-back was that I had no professional kitchen experience, only the experience I had from cooking at home. After I graduated high school, I moved to Houston to live with my dad and I began an internship at Masraff's on Post Oak Lane.

For six months (at the time, that was the minimum amount of experience you needed to have per the prerequisites at the college,) I worked the garde manger station at the restaurant, and learned many invaluable lessons about working the line, being creative, the ins-and-outs of how a kitchen operates...and, that I can apparently operate my station with one knife. Eat that! I had the opportunity to test my food creativity with mystery basket type surprises every now and then, and that's still my favorite way to cook, not knowing what product I get to work with until I get into the kitchen.

During my training at The Culinary Institute of America (I'm shortening it to CIA from now on,) I learned that, while I love the craft of cooking and being in the kitchen - I wasn't a fan of having to follow a recipe. I also learned that when I get in the weeds in the kitchen, I have walk-in meltdowns that scare off even the most calm French chef. I learned that my favorite subjects were garde manger, Cuisine's of the Asia's, Advanced Cooking and Professional Food Writing.

When I graduated in 2005, I moved out to Las Vegas. Perfect place for a budding culinary graduate to move to right? Wrong. I think I was so freaked out when I moved to Vegas, that I tried everything in my power not to work in a kitchen. I wanted the freedom to have a social life, which we know most serious chefs do not. I landed a job for a small company in November 2005, and am still working there four years later. Which brings me to present day.

I can't say that I am ecstatic about working a desk job for four years, but at least I work with menus. And, with the economy, I am happy to have some sense of stability. But, I have definitely been feeling restless and miss the kitchen; however, the last few years have not really provided me with much motivation to cook, let alone work in a professional kitchen. I've become rusty on knife skills, basic sauce knowledge, and it saddens me that I have such a love for food, but have not had a reason to utilize my talent.

Fortunately, some friends came to my rescue and have been the source for some much needed refueling of my spirits, which has led to a higher sense of worth in the kitchen. They have me over and provide me with challenges in cooking, and also ask for cooking advice. If something comes out less than what I expect, they provide constructive criticism; their open-mindedness also allows for me to make outlandish creations, and provide feedback on those dishes. I can not thank them enough for making me feel comfortable enough in my abilities in the kitchen.

I'm almost done, but there is one last person I want to thank before setting off, which is my mom. She's always supported me; she's my inspiration for writing, photography and thinking outside the box. Thanks, mom!

Alright, all the sappiness aside, I hope that this blog provides you with some laughs, and whets your appetite. All pictures posted are taken by myself, unless otherwise stated. I do not claim to be a great photographer, but what's a food blog without some photos?!

I am going to close this with a phrase that I uttered after making bacon cupcakes - "Food before figure!"

Ciao ~ Cunning Cupcake =)