Inspired by David Chang

Donna Borooah

by guest student blogger Donna Borooah

This past Wednesday, I had my second try at the role of Student Chef. My group and I prepared a Momofuku menu with dishes from two of David Chang’s New York locations, Ko and Ssam Bar. I felt lucky to have been assigned this menu because I am fascinated by David Chang and his growing empire of restaurants and food media.

Chang is important, especially in our current culture of food and chefs. His influence comes from the thought and intention at the foundation of the food he puts forward. He brought Ramen and his other tasty riffs on Japanese dishes to the mainstream in the past ten years. With his restaurants, especially Noodle Bar, he was not seeking to replace authentic Japanese Ramen Shops, but to bring additional Noodle shops with food made in his style.

What I admire most about Momofuku is their version of Asian-Fusion. This style of cooking often bothered me for the cherry-picking of ingredients and methods that left the context and history behind. Fusion like this is often the work of a European-focused chef who adds Asian ingredients into their dishes, with different plating, and is then celebrated for creating something new and ‘elevated’. While these dishes are often delicious, clever, and creative, I don’t think that they are always respectful of the culture by which they were inspired.

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Marinated hangar steak Ssam

I feel that Chang incorporates the context of Japanese, Korean, and sometimes Chinese foods really nicely, without committing to authenticity and tradition. I like that his odd combinations of Korean Cooking, U.S.A.-made commodities, Japanese staples, and Chinese flavours are driven by his individual upbringing, ancestry, and personal tastes.

The menu we cooked this week wasn’t complicated. We worked with some new or unfamiliar techniques, and ingredients to make a meal of sweet, spicy, tangy, savoury, and smoky tastes inspired by David Chang. With items from both Ko and Ssam Bar, some of what we made was fancy, and other components were as casual as a McDonald’s apple pie. From course to course, you got a sense of what David Chang’s dishes are going for: playful presentations of approachable food using Asian flavours in an exciting way.

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Fried apple pie

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I love Leo (and Kiki)

36-james-toendersBlog post #5 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders

Each year, the school hosts 2 international guests chefs who spend a week at the school curating dinner menus carried out by the students. Last week, we had the pleasure of hosting Leonardo Pereira, the chef at Areias do Seixo in Portugal, and his wife and coworker Kiki Sontiyart, a graduate of the school.

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Leo is a boss; a young man, only 8 years older than me, filled with a ridiculous amount of knowledge and skill regarding every facet of cooking. We first met him in a meeting at The Prune to discuss his background and the week’s menus. He was able to field all our questions with ease and talk about each minute portion of every menu; obviously he was super comfortable with what he was doing. This became especially apparent once we stepped into the kitchen.

Immediately my mind was blown by everything Leo was creating. From octopus toasts, to persimmon and shrimp raviolis, to pigs blood emulsion and even beeswax ice cream. Every menu item was totally enthralling to talk about, prepare, cook and eat. There was obviously some parts of prep that got tedious, like shucking thousands of periwinkles (tiny sea snails) for hours on end, but that’s part of making inspiring food. These foods were things I may not ever see again, and it was a treat to prepare them with such a high caliber chef.

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On our first day with him, Leo said not to call him Chef unless he’s really pissed off. I tried my best not to, but it’s a routine you get into and in the more stressful situations it’s hard not to default to “Chef”. I think he figured this out, and in an explosion of humbleness, Leo started calling each person in the kitchen Chef. Everyone – the instructors, the hotline cooks, the people plating and even the first year dishwashers – was Chef. He is so insanely talented but doesn’t hold himself above a single person in the kitchen.

We finished every service by making a staff meal of the dishes from the night. Leo and Kiki stressed how important it was for us to taste everything we’ve made; because if we don’t, it’s almost as if we didn’t make it at all. I learned a boat-load this week about new ingredients, cooking techniques and general kitchen respect. I couldn’t have been happier with our time spent with Leo, and can’t wait for our next guest chef to arrive in the new year.

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My First Time

36-james-toendersBlog post #4 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders  

This is a recounting of the first time I’ve taken an animal’s life, juxtaposed against Gabrielle Hamilton’s experience of killing her first chicken from her book Blood, Bones & Butter. Portions of Gabrielle’s story appear in italics, with mine in regular text. 

“I said I’d like to kill it. I said I wanted to kill it. I said it was important to confront the death of the animal you had the privilege of eating.” 

I’ve never killed anything before, outside of a handful of bugs, until our recent shellfish-themed cookery class. When split up into groups, we discussed that I’ve never killed, cooked or even eaten, lobster so I was given the responsibility of killing ours. In a way I was excited. I’ve always said I wanted to kill something that I’m going to cook; to honour the animal’s life more fully by being involved in its death.

Buzzing with a strange sense of excitement, I went downstairs to the walk-in fridge to get our lobster. As I opened the Styrofoam shipping container, and saw two living, moving, breathing animals, it dawned on me that I had to kill one of them. Immediately I was scared and my body felt numb.

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“The first blow made a vague dent, barely breaking the skin. I hurried to strike it again but lost a few seconds in my grief and terror.”

Our chef instructor Ryan O’Donnell talked me through the whole process. First, place the lobster on the cutting board and stroke the head to relax it (oh, god). Make sure the claws are out of the way and place the tip of your knife right where the head meets the body (at this point it knew what was going on, and started to struggle against me). In one quick motion, stab straight down through the head (don’t forget to “muck up the brain a bit”, UGH). Flip it around and cut straight down the center of the body. That was it.

“…I was still young and unaccustomed.”

It was such a quick experience, with only a few minutes between taking the lobster from the box to being ready to cook. Even though it was fast, I couldn’t help but dwell on what I had just done. I won’t ever forget killing that lobster, the way it struggled and how I hesitated to plunge my knife into it. It truly made me treat the whole cooking process with a new sense of respect.

I know that as I continue to cook, I’ll be killing more animals, and that it will become a less shocking experience. That being said, I’ll never forget that each animal I cook or eat had to die for my sake and should be treated with the utmost respect.

 

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The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned This Year

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Blog post #3 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders

The third week of school is finally over and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as physically and mentally drained in my life. At the end of October, we transitioned from working busy restaurant jobs (I worked the day before school started, and my dad drove me up to Stratford that night. Thanks Dad!) to essentially working in 2 separate restaurants 3-4 days a week as well as taking on 6 classes. As much as we knew what we were getting in to, and are constantly told that this is the reality of our intensive education and chosen career paths, each of us needs to remember how important the upkeep of our personal health and well being is.

Those working in kitchens often neglect mental health. We are participants in an industry that demands so much of its workers, logging hours that by anyone else would be considered ungodly, for the same wages that a 15-year-old would make at Zehrs. We spend those long hours in hot, dark, loud environments. Many excuses are made for enduring these conditions, the most often being: pursuing one’s passion and gaining the knowledge you can only get through experience. But the pursuit of bettering oneself doesn’t equate to an excuse for degrading your health in any way.

In most kitchens, to bring up issues of mental health is a sign of weakness; “You can’t do this without feeling compromised? Well maybe this isn’t the industry for you?” However, being part of an institution whose main purpose is learning feels like the perfect place to be able to shake off the stigma that exists within most professional kitchens. We are taught through our practical and theoretical classes to look at the world of cooking critically through a contemporary lens; to identify areas for improvement and innovation and to act upon them. I think that mental health in the kitchen should be treated no differently.

My main goal of this post is to open a dialogue about mental health within the school and the broader community; to start a conversation about something that is generally seen as taboo. I feel anxious almost every day as 5 o’clock (service time!) approaches, and have only recently been able to start to confront it by talking to my friends and peers. It’s easy to feel like an idiot, like you’re the only one that feels that way, but I can guarantee that the person with their cutting board set up beside you probably feels the same in some way. I’ve found comfort in being able to talk to my classmates about the way that school and cooking makes me feel and have been continually feeling better about myself and my abilities. Don’t be afraid to talk about it (easier said than done), because as long as it stays inside of us, issues of mental health will remain a stigma instead of a topic that we discuss and work towards overcoming, together.

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Entremet-yay!

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Blog post #2 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders

Heat the pan; drop your pasta (2 portions? No, 4!), add the sauce reduction and get the bowls out of the oven. Drain the pasta and get it into the pan, DON’T LET IT STICK! Add some of the pasta water, but not too much; toss toss toss! Now the egg, toss toss toss toss toss toss toss toss, DON’T LET IT SCRAMBLE! Lots of pepper; TOSS TOSS TOSS TOSS TOSS TOSS TOSS TOSS (DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR WRIST SCREAMING OUT IN PAIN) TOSS TOSS TOSS! Now plate; pick a portion up with your tongs, a quick twist and into the bowl. Last, a little Parmesan on top and… “SERVICE PLEASE”.

Those hundred or so words encompass all of the steps of cooking spaghetti alla carbonara to order, something that I did for 30 guests On November 3rd at the Prune.

The way that we learn at the Stratford Chefs School is primarily by cooking for the public at lunch and dinner “labs”. Each of us rotates through the various positions of the kitchen and service team: from pastry, to sommelier, all the way up to student chef. This Tuesday, the rotation placed me at entremetier in charge of hot appetizers.

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The Prune Kitchen

Service began, as our first guests entered the restaurant at 6:30. Standing silently by the stove, where I had a big pot of boiling water and a stack of pans ready, I watched as the first course was slowly sent out to tables. My time was getting closer and closer, and I was totally ready. The first round of pasta was ordered and Chef Bryan Steele, our chef instructor for the night, came over to my station to show me the cooking process from start to finish. After that it was up to me to finish the other 26 orders. Besides the help from my group-mate and general best-bud Heather with finishing plates, I was able to handle everything on my own!

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Chef Steele instructing

This was the first time I’d worked on the hot line of a real fine-dining restaurant by myself. I was left only with my own skills and the confidence of my chef and it went as well as I could ever hope! Sure, after a few orders there was egg all over the burners, I was drenched in sweat, and my wrist felt like it was going to fall off from tossing the pan, but I couldn’t have felt like more of a boss.

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student at work

One of the hardest things about learning at Stratford is that there really isn’t a huge amount of time to savour the victories of service. There are the obligatory after-service beers and a few awesome hours of mental celebration, but by tomorrow you’ve got to be focused on your next kitchen rotation.

For me, the next huge hurdle is going to be tackling the position of student chef on November 17th when my group cooks the menu I created for dinner at the Prune. If an Italian menu structure influenced by Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese recipes sounds up your alley, make a reservation and see me either succeed or take the school down with me!

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Season Opener a grand success!

  In the words of our 2015-16 guest student bloggers Mel Athulathmudali and Donna Borooah…

Mel Athulathmudali

On Friday October 23rd, students, staff and friends of the Stratford Chefs School came together for the annual season opener. It was a beautiful fall evening, and guests came in from the cool night air to enjoy the warm atmosphere at Rundles restaurant. Supporters and guests of the school had the opportunity to meet the students and share stories, food, and drinks in a friendly and convivial atmosphere. The room was abuzz with talk of summer internships, lab menus and people catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

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The announcement of the highly anticipated Student Chef Lab series of dinners was met with great enthusiasm, and there was even a draw for 2 free Lab packages. The delicious food was supplied by Sirkel Foods. It was matched by fantastic wines from Rosewood Estates and Cave Spring Cellars. Black Swan Brewery, right here in Stratford, supplied the beer. SCS Program Director Meg Westley delivered a welcome address which only added to the excitement with the announcement of this year’s Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer in residence, Gabrielle Hamilton, and two visiting International Guest Chef instructors, Leonardo Peirera from Portugal and Gino Minacapilli, from Italy. It looks to be yet another great season at SCS, and if the season opener was any indication, it’s going to be a popular one, so make your bookings now!

Welcomed and celebrated, the incoming Level 2 class was invited to a community event of hors d’oeuvres, wines, and conversation at Rundles to start off our term. Members of the Stratford community, level 1 students, leaders, my peers, and their families mingled through the kitchen and dining room. We all squeezed in to the end of the steps to hear Meg Westley, our program director, announcing all the exciting things that will fill our near future. She spoke of student menus, guest chefs – national and international – workshops, and special events.

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This fine welcome gave me something: excitement in anticipation. I’m looking forward to the creations of my peers. I’m giddy with nerves for learning under so many great leaders. The stressful fun will be here soon, and it’s all so exciting.

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An Apprentice’s Frustrations

Each year the Stratford Chefs School runs a competition for the position of student blogger. The winner this year was James Toenders  – here is his first post as our 2015-16 student blogger:

36-james-toendersThis is something I started brainstorming at work on a day I was feeling particularly down about my position as an apprentice…

It’s strange to say at the end of October, but a new school year is almost upon us. When asked about how I feel about starting second year, my response all summer has been along the lines of: “too excited” or “it can’t come fast enough”. This is still true, but over the last few months I’ve had a new feeling creeping into my head: doubt.

Instead of sheer excitement, I’ve been thinking more along the lines of: am I good enough? Did I really learn enough this summer to get the most out of my education? Am I going to let my instructors, my friends, my family, my classmates and myself down? It’s a rough mindset to be in while simultaneously working 7 days a week and still struggling to pay tuition.

All summer long I’ve seen my classmates competing in (and winning!) culinary competitions; posting their beautiful plating on Instagram and showing off the stunning wineries and fine-dining havens they work at. I on the other hand kept a pretty low profile; I went to, and continue to go to work every day in the same dark-lit kitchen. I’m even scheduled to work the first day of class. Meanwhile, I use every last ounce of my energy to get a restaurant’s worth of prep done in a few hours, wait at my station for the inevitable crush of service to start, clean up, then do it all over again.

I work garde-manger at Bhima’s Warung in Waterloo, where I largely do vegetable and seafood prep. During service I assemble the salads, desserts, and some appetizers and feature mains. I do A LOT of prep before service, but my job doesn’t entail a lot of “cooking” or physically bringing my prep work to full fruition as some spectacular dish.

IMG_0823I’ve heard it from every person that’s ever worked in the industry: you have to start from the bottom and work your way up; walk before you run; dribble before you can dunk. I understand that, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating or intimidating that in just a few days I’ll be expected to act as the chef of the school restaurant, and work saucier at the French Laundry when really I’ve only baked crème brûlée and deep-fried some quails.

Sorry to sound like an early 2000’s Lindsay Lohan character. In reality I’ve learned a lot of skills and lessons this summer: I can process a pineapple like nobody’s business, I can clean an entire kitchen from top to bottom in the blink of an eye. I’ve learned completely new ways to look at ingredients, and above all else, I’ve begun to develop a unique palette that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my career.

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James Toenders (right) with co-workers

In a few days, we aren’t just staying at our restaurants to continue climbing the ladder of seniority, learning as we go… We’re being thrown into a sea of Michelin Stars, tweezers, and most importantly, lessons. Note to my kitchen group: I’ll see you guys soon, and if your tournedos are burnt, then you and I will both know I have a lot of work to do before March.

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