Read Under the Table Online

Authors: Katherine Darling

Under the Table


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Copyright © 2009 by Katherine Darling

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Darling, Katherine.

Under the table: saucy tales from culinary school / Katherine Darling.
      p. cm.
   1. Darling, Katherine—Anecdotes. 2. French Culinary Institute (New York, N.Y.). 3. Cookery. 4. Cooks—Anecdotes. I. Title.
TX652.D332 2009
641.5—dc22 2008053566

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6619-9
ISBN-10: 1-4165-6619-8

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ou certainly do not need to have any special equipment or expertise to conquer the recipes in this book. A few basic pots and pans, a mixing bowl or two, a whisk, and a good knife and wooden spoon will see you through almost everything. Where special equipment is mentioned, I have also given a substitute method or explained the absolute necessity of it to the recipe. Really, all you need is a desire to make, and eat, good food.

Unless otherwise indicated, all the eggs should be large and as fresh as possible. Organic ingredients really do make better food, in my opinion, so do try to use them whenever possible. I prefer to use coarse kosher salt for savory dishes and fine sea salt for baking, but feel free to use whatever tastes better to you. Likewise, I prefer freshly ground black pepper in general, unless the flecks of pepper will look unsightly in the final product, like mayonnaise. Use white pepper if you like, but the difference is purely aesthetic. All the butter should be unsalted, and like the eggs, organic and as fresh as possible.




he night before chef school began, I dreamt I ate Jacques Pépin. I woke in a sweat. He didn't taste very good. Like a slice of liver, well done. Somehow I was expecting seared foie gras.

Everyone is anxious before the first day of school. However, most people do not dream about eating the teacher. I put it down to nerves. I was giving up a promising career in the publishing industry to pursue my dreams of glory as a chef. I wasn't sure I was making the right decision, but it was too late to back out now. I was due at orientation in a little under five hours.

I had tried to ready myself for my plunge into the culinary underbelly. I really thought that I was finished with life in my fishbowl cubicle, and ready to surrender the neat piles of paper fortifying my in-tray for a set of razor-sharp chef 's knives. While I loved my job working at a literary agency, book publishing hadn't turned out to be quite as glamorous as I thought. I realized that I was spending more and more of my time browsing recipe Web sites and fantasizing about what to make for dinner than reading through the mountains of manuscripts that came in the mail every day. I needed to do something more with my life, but what was it?

I come from a long line of women who can cook. My mother, in the long-ago mists of time before she had children, had taken classes at L'Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C. While she had not become a professional chef, she had made, from scratch, almost every single meal I ate in childhood. Not for her family would there be frozen dinners or Pizza Hut delivery. We ate real food, from omelets to
fricassée aux champignons,
calf 's liver (yuck!) to
Châteaubriand (my birthday request, every year). It was a wonderful way to live and eat, and as soon as I was old enough to stand on a chair and wield a wooden spoon, I was my mother's eager assistant, graduating from bottle washer to vegetable peeler to sous chef.

The memories of the meals that had sustained my childhood—from the piles of warm doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar and herbes de Provence that Mom made on snow days, to the taste of tomatoes from my grandmother's garden, still warm from the heat of a July afternoon, sprinkled with crunchy gray sea salt and a few coarse grinds of pepper, to the airy richness of my first taste of cheese soufflé, made by my father to soothe a sore throat—these were the memories of love, of home, of a place where I belonged. As I left my cramped apartment each morning, joining the endless throng of commuters on the crowded subway platform to jam myself into a cramped, sweaty subway car, I felt alone, disconnected from this tidal wave of humanity. At work, I wrestled with the piles of paper flooding my desk every day, an endless stream of manuscripts that would never be published. With every sad rejection letter I would type in response, I knew, deep down, I wanted to do something else, something that held all the comfort of those memories, something that would give that comfort to other people. As I struggled to make my place in the city, to make a life I loved with people I loved, I knew that food was the key.

What if I went to chef school? At first the idea seemed silly—is this really what I was going to do with all that education? But gradually, it seemed to make more and more sense, a natural progression from passionate amateur to professional. I would be doing something I loved—how many people could say the same? I was at home in Virginia, cooking Easter dinner and bossing everyone around the kitchen, when I decided to take the plunge and see what my family thought. I cooked all the time, and had held down a job at a winery in summers home from college, preparing plates of runny, creamy Camembert and snowy white goat cheese with spicy
pâté maison
fat, juicy rounds of venison sausage, toasting crusty baguettes to go with the cold, crisp glasses of seyval and robust cabernet franc wines made from the vines that trailed down the purple slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had the desire, the drive, the ambition. As I rubbed racks of lamb with a wonderfully pungent paste of lemons, garlic cloves, rosemary, olive oil, and coarse sea salt, I thought again about the possibilities. Could I chuck my nice, steady job for a future behind the stove? I pressed chilled pastry dough into a deep tart pan and covered it in a shaggy layer of grated Gruyère cheese before tipping a panful of sweetly caramelized onions on top. As I slipped the heavy copper roasting pan filled with new potatoes, spears of baby carrots, and branches of fresh herbs into the oven, I thought about what to say.

Hours later, as plates full of food were passed back and forth across the vast expanse of tablecloth and family silver, and the usual Darling family banter went on around me, I was still thinking. Judging by the clean plates coming back for seconds of the rack of lamb and three-onion tart, I had a little talent (inherited from my mother, no doubt). I couldn't love cooking any more if I tried—I thought about it all the time, doodling plating ideas in the margins of manuscripts at work, dreaming about new flavor combinations at night. Apparently, I had even woken up my boyfriend, Michael, several times to tell him about some new food idea I had, only to drift back to sleep again, leaving him awake, and hungry, for hours.

Still, I wasn't sure if I was ready to leave the security of my job at the literary agency to go back to school. And then what? I dreamed about owning my own little bistro: a tiny place full of fresh flowers, old silver, and mismatched Wedgwood china, cooking a simple (but spectacular, of course!) menu for a handful of rabidly devoted regulars. Even more scintillating, I fantasized about landing a job in front of the cameras at the Food Network, suddenly able to coach millions of foodie followers through my delicious recipes, maybe even endorsing a special line of cookware Le Creuset made just for
me. So my daydreams about chef school were a little pie-in-the-sky. But, I thought, if I can't have champagne wishes and caviar dreams about my future in food, why take the risk?

I was still undecided, but as the long meal drew to a close over one more crispy stalk of oven-roasted asparagus and a final morsel of my mother's heavenly homemade bread rolls smeared with butter, I told my family what I was thinking. Holiday dinners in my family are always a no-holds-barred, lively forum of ideas, and everyone always has an opinion. I think of them as good-natured discussions, but after his first encounter with a Darling family dinner, Michael had asked me plaintively, “Why do you guys fight all the time?” As I served the lemon génoise roulade cake with lemon curd and raspberry coulis, I brought up my idea. For once, there was total silence at the table. I couldn't tell if it was because the cake was a hit or because everyone was too appalled to speak. Michael knew that I had been thinking about doing something different for a little while, but to leave a nine-to-five job and plunge myself (deeply) into debt to go into food full-time? It was lunacy, surely.

My older brother, Eben, looked surprised but was probably relieved that at least I wouldn't be going to grad school with him. We had both gotten undergraduate degrees in history (he from Dartmouth, me from Williams a year later), and I knew he hadn't forgiven me for getting a degree in English as well, one-upping him. Eben and I had spent our entire childhood competing with each other in school, on the swim team, everywhere. Eb had never figured out that I wanted to do everything he did because I considered him the coolest person on earth. Recently he had decided to go to graduate school at Georgetown University to get a master's degree in business. Cool my big brother undoubtedly was, but I drew the line at endlessly crunching numbers; I would far rather dice carrots.

My grandfather was the first one to speak, though he kept sneaking pieces of cake as he talked, popping in a raspberry or two in between sentences. “Well,” he said, pausing for a morsel of whipped
cream, “I think it is a wonderful idea. I know we were all worried about you moving to New York, although I'm sure it's gotten better than when I was there.” Pop-Pop had worked as a proofreader for Condé Nast for forty years. He could do the
New York Times
crossword puzzle backward and forward, and could pick out a misspelling in a thousand words of text in a split second. It was generally agreed in the family that this was where I had gotten my love of words. “After all, you've managed to find yourself a nice young man…” Here again Pop-Pop paused for another quick bite of cake and to cast a big, sunny smile at Michael. Everyone in the family loved Michael. “And if going to school will make your wonderful cooking any better, watch out, Rachael Ray, here comes Katydid!” Pop-Pop had obviously been watching the Food Network, too. I smiled at the use of my family's long-standing pet name for me, though I secretly shuddered at the thought that my future classmates might one day find out about my dorky nickname.

With my family firmly behind me, I decided to research my options. I looked at chef schools across the country and beyond. After a brutal assessment of my financial situation (grim, verging on dire), I reluctantly put aside thoughts of going to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It would be the chance of a lifetime, but I wasn't positive my French was up to it. (All I could remember from four years of high school French was watching
with subtitles. A French movie poking fun at cannibalism didn't seem like the best preparation for French chef school.) So I confined my search to the States, looking for schools with great reputations and good financial aid programs. I found both at the Culinary Institute of America. Unfortunately, the CIA is located near Poughkeepsie, the armpit of upstate New York. I applied, telling myself that I could take the train every morning and evening, shuttling back and forth from SoHo, capital of hipsters and Eurotrash, to Hyde Park, capital of white trash. Not so much. The train fare alone would cost more than my monthly paycheck, and the commute would leave me no time to study, see Michael, or
work a part-time job—a necessity even with financial aid. I started looking at schools in Manhattan, programs that would fit the life that I was carving out for myself.

I found it at The French Culinary Institute. Their culinary arts program consisted of nine hundred hours of work in the kitchens spread out over six months (nine if you enrolled in the night program) with small class sizes and a comprehensive and challenging curriculum. We would gradually build up our skills and repertoire of recipes through four levels, going from utter beginners in Level 1, learning how to chop and dice, to making the classic dishes of the
cuisine bourgeoise
for the chef-instructors in Level 2, to actually cooking for the school's reputable restaurant, L'Ecole, in Levels 3 and 4. Their roster of chef-instructors and deans read like a who's who of culinary titans—everyone from Alain Sailhac to Jacques Torres to André Soltner to Jacques Pépin was on the list. The Institute was also housed in a beautiful facility five blocks away from my apartment. As I went on a tour of the school, I took in the spacious kitchens—one each for Levels 1 and 2, and a huge combined kitchen for Levels 3 and 4, in addition to a gorgeous bread kitchen and a separate set of kitchens for the pastry students—all the shiny appliances on hand, and the blur of white uniforms as students prepared for the lunch rush. I felt like I was at home. This was the life I had been looking for, the excitement and activity that was missing from my usual routine of faxing and filing. And all the students were busy creating, making something delicious for someone else to enjoy. I was hooked. One month after taking the plunge and applying, I was accepted for the class beginning in June.

It was harder than I thought to quit my job at the agency—not only was I leaving my friends and coworkers, but I was also leaving the safety of the office environment. I was trading chats by the coffee machine and office birthday parties and getting off early on Fridays in the summer, not to mention the constant comfort and distraction of the Internet and e-mail, for something completely

Still, the night before orientation, as I lay wide awake after my dream about Jacques Pépin, listening to the night noises of Manhattan, I couldn't help but wonder if I was making the right decision. I was taking a pretty big leap of faith. I loved to cook, but did I have what it took to become one of the best? There was only one way to find out.


Later that morning, as the commuters began their daily spill from the subways and filtered through SoHo's cobbled streets to spacious loft offices, I stood at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street, looking at the plate glass windows of L'Ecole, The Institute's restaurant. For the next six months of my life, I would be making my way from the small apartment I shared with Michael and our cat, Spankie, through the streets of SoHo, to work in the kitchens of The Institute. One day soon, the diners I had watched many times enjoying their lunches would be eating something I made. I tried not to let that thought terrify me.

I pushed through the double doors etched with The Institute's tasteful logo and wound my way through a series of hallways until I found myself standing outside a small but immaculately appointed auditorium, complete with a chef 's demonstration station: a Vulcan range, a bank of wall ovens, even a marble-topped pastry station. It was more like a television studio than a school auditorium, and some of the top chefs from all over the world had demonstrated their signature dishes on that stage. We would be having our orientation inside in a few minutes.

I was so nervous I could barely keep my hands from shaking as I pinned my name tag to my dress. I had agonized over what I should wear to orientation, wanting to strike just the right note with my future classmates and the chef-instructors I would be meeting for the very first time. I ransacked the tiny closet I shared with Michael, creating a blizzard of clothes all over the bed, the nightstand,
and the floor. Michael had laughed as I tried on first one outfit and then another, demanding his opinion of each one. No matter what he said, I tore off the outfit and began rooting through the piles of clothes for something else. My entire wardrobe was made up of things I could wear to work at the literary agency. Skirts, dresses, sweaters, blouses, jackets: nothing too revealing or casual, but nothing too dressy, either. When did my fashion sense shrink to business casual? In defeat I finally put on my old interview outfit, the one I had bought in college to wear to my job interviews in the city. Even though it was a few years old and made from some sort of fabric guaranteed not to show sweat, the black knee-length dress looked passable, and I jazzed it up by exchanging the jacket (too structured, too desperate, too polyester) with a tissue-thin gray sweater flung over my shoulders and a pair of jazzy red strappy sandals. I grabbed my oversize red bag and headed off to school. As I stood outside the auditorium, shifting my weight from foot to foot to keep those three-inch heels from cutting into my tender flesh, I could catch an occasional glimpse of one of the imposing chef-instructors as he stalked across the stage. It made me so nervous I wanted to throw up. I tried to calm myself down by picturing what I would make for dinner. The thought of chopping vegetables and sautéing immediately made me feel more calm. At last we were invited in to sit down; I took a seat and began to case my future classmates.

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