Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Day One of CIA Boot Camp

N.B. Obviously, I'm a bit delayed in posting this entry. I was more wiped out at the end of the days in the kitchen than I expected, and am just getting around to putting these up. Have no fear though, I will. I promise!

It started really early.

You'd think that knowing I had to check in at 6am this morning would have motivated me to go to sleep early last night, but that would have been too easy. Despite my late night, however, my eyes popped open at 5:07 and there was no turning back.

C and I are staying at a little motel that is literally two minutes away from campus, so I lounged around in bed for a while trying to convince my racing mind to relax for another few minutes of sleep. By the time I finally realized that sleep was no longer and option, I barely had time to brush my teeth and throw on some clothes before heading out into the unseasonable cold of the uncivilized morning hours. It was so weird.

There were people. Walking around. Like it was daytime.

I mean, I get that it's light outside and some people are early risers, but walking your black labs at 5:45am is just sick. There are no excuses.

C and I were both a bit giddy. I babbled and cracked stupid jokes the whole two minute ride over. We made our way to the first classroom with a bit of an unplanned detour thanks to our wonderful map-reading skills.

We all congregated, in ones and twos, in a small dining room just off a hallway lined with big windows looking into industrial kitchens. It had pleasant but sterile decor, industrial carpeting and a few big round tables scattered around, not unlike a hotel conference room. Chatting amongst ourselves, we determined that there are two classes going on this week: mine - Healthy Cooking - and the class sharing the other half of our kitchen, Italian Cooking.

Somehow this seems unfair.

Our class is pretty evenly divided between girls and boys, although I am by far (well, C and I) the youngest in the class. It makes sense, I guess. Four mid-week days of expensive cooking lessons with no certification at the end - maybe this really is more like a vacation than a Boot Camp. They call it "Continuing Education," but I quickly determined there are no professional fooders in my crew.

In our group of 10 we have two surgeons (one maxillofacial and one orthopedic), one retired and one working on setting up an incentivised wellness program for the staff of his hospital. There is one physician from Miami, one mom from Chicago, one CFO who brought her assistant along, one retired nuclear power plant operator, and one retired computer guy who used to work for AT&T.

As we listened to the orientation speil about where to find the nurses office and how to exchange our uniforms if the ones provided don't fit, my stomach started to rumble.

I didn't bring any food along with me to the motel - I mean COME ON I'm visiting a Culinary School. They may not have have a football team, but odds are they have a good food plan.

Gradually the morning ticked away. Our classes divided and we met our teacher for the week. He isn't fat and he doesn't have a foreign accent, but I'm not holding that against him.

By 7:30 I was starving. As in, tummy rumbling, baby kicking, on the verge of breaking into cold sweats HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPO. I started fidgeting. I started complaining to C. Maybe, I thought, I can break through that picture window and steal the dough off of that pasty student's station.

Pie crust is nutritious, right? RIGHT?

By 8:00, and I'd been up far too long without food. Just as the situation was becoming dire, we were all herded toward the dining room.

When I was growing up, my Dad used to wake me up far too early and force me to go on long bike rides through the Texas rural landscape. I hated those bike rides. I reluctantly nibbled the donuts he offered as an olive branch. I whined. I pedaled slowly just to be annoying. I walked my bike up the slightest incline.

Then I passed out cold.

Turns out, I'm sorta allergic to mornings - at least, that's my theory. Left to my own devices I wake up around 9:30, have a leisurely morning which doesn't usually involve toast or eggs, and then break my fast at lunch time with a nice sandwich or something. However, if forced to wake up early I need protein in my tummy almost immediately or someone's gonna die. And it might just be me.

Breakfast this morning was a close call. What met me at the dining room, however, was incredible.

First of all, the dining room is in what used to be the chapel of the Jesuit seminary which built the structures now housing the CIA. The soaring arched ceilings, cheerful yellow and white interior with intricate paintings and stained glass windows gracing the floor to ceiling panels are really a wonderful way to greet the day. Where there once were rows of pews, there now are long narrow dining tables.

On the one hand, the chapel's career-change gives this nice Catholic girl a little case of the creeps. To be stuffing my half-asleep face where devout people once worshiped in peace is disconcerting to say the least. On the other hand, it's a heavenly way to greet the day.

Secondly, I was right about the meal plan. On the menu for this morning was pretty much the most delicious breakfast food you can imagine. Pancakes. Bacon. Omelettes of all kinds. Eggs any style. Fresh fruit. Oatmeal and cream of wheat. Parfaits. Fruit marinated in some kind of alcohol that was delicious. Biscuits and gravy. Belgian waffles. Pastries and bagels...the list goes on.

C got the pancakes and I got a chorizo breakfast burrito, which, while delicious, turned out to be a bad choice. Note to self: eating a heavy breakfast on a sleepy morning and then going in to sit at a lecture for two hours - not a good idea.

The first lecture we had was on basic techniques in the kitchen, most of which was review for me. I already know what a batonette is, and how to blanche a fresh vegetable. Frankly, it seemed a bit elementary.

At that, we were thrown into the kitchen.

Our class of ten was divided into teams of 2, so C and I were naturally grouped together. Each team was assigned a set of recipes, between 3 and 5, and we were supposed to have them ready for consumption by 12:30.

It was chaos. We were lost, and the fact that our recipes were new and foreign didn't help with the discombobulation. C and I were supposed to make a veal medallions with bulgar wheat and swiss chard sides. We managed it, but frankly, they were disgusting. Of all the forty-some dishes that ended up on our banquet table, two were palatable.

It was pathetic, and I'm not going to lie, I was disappointed.

At one point, C turned to me and said, "Do you think this chop is even enough? I mean, I know this is how I would chop at home, but I'm not sure what the standards are here."

"Once you've seen that other team's julienne," I replied,"you'll stop worrying."

What I expected was highly skilled fellow students challenging me to learn new things and step up my game in the kitchen. So far, I'd been tired, hungry and confused and disgusted by the food our class prepared.

But maybe I'm just too tired and cranky to give an accurate assessment of the day. After all, there had been fun parts of the day: heck, just being in the kitchen was a thrill, with all it's huge, shiny, fancy equipment. And I got to wear a chef's hat, ten points for that. The two dishes that were tasty were INCREDIBLY tasty: a tuna carpaccio with wasabi sauce and a shrimp summer roll.

Also I learned how to turn a whole raw shrimp into a shelled, deveined shrimp. Useful.

After class, I came back to the hotel and crashed. After dinner, I have plans to go to sleep early and start tomorrow with a fresh face and new set of expectations:

1. Better breakfast choices
2. Coffee
3. Instead of following the recipe exactly, try to think of how to make it actually *taste* good.
4. Steal Team 3's work station. Theirs is nice and big, strategically placed next to the range, ovens and refrigerators. Ours today was a tiny rolling island off in Timbuktu that was right in the way of heavy traffic. I may be tolerant by nature, but this baby belly can only take so much leaning forward to let people pass with heavy or hot trays.

Their station will be mine!

1 comment:

  1. Ah, memories.....not of food, but of too-early mornings.

    When I was in San Francisco working for MarketWatch, I used to be standing at a bus stop at 5:45 every morning, on my way to work.

    I agree -- it's just sick, and there are no excuses.