Last week, I returned to my old cooking school—The Natural Gourmet in Manhattan—as the “guest chef” at one of their legendary Friday Night Dinners, where for just one night of the week, the school opens its doors to the public, turns into a restaurant, and offers a 3-course vegetarian meal for $40.
My role in overseeing the dinner entailed guiding twelve Natural Gourmet students (of varying degrees of experience) in making a multi-faceted, healthy, and beautiful meal. While the students generally have some skills in prepping and cooking, they are decidedly unfamiliar with the process of getting food for 60-100 people to come out of the kitchen at the same time. I knew the experience would require a lot of work and planning, but I was totally unprepared for how much fun it would be.
When we first met on Thursday afternoon to start prepping, the students were already tired from a full day of school or work —many had full–time jobs and were making their way through the program on their days off. Despite their fatigue, everyone jumped into action mode when handed their assignment, and we were quickly working away in separate teams, each producing an element of one of the three courses. (See Menu, above.)
Being back in a bustling kitchen with a full staff was an odd sensation. Although I’d spent years working in restaurants in San Francisco and New York, I’ve been writing and recipe testing in the solitude of my own home for the last year. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by young women and men in tidy chef’s whites, a team of dishwashers, and a big kitchen with loads of equipment. The scene was full of comic interludes, including the moment we realized that the gifted young baker who baked the tuiles for the dessert was herself allergic to gluten and could not even taste her own cookies! Or when I walked in on a gaggle of students singing raunchy R&B songs, and they clammed up guiltily as if the “teacher” had just walked in.
When, at one point, the servers put in an order for a plate with “extra root vegetable mash,” one well-meaning student briskly assembled a plate with two full-figured side-by-side scoops of root vegetables, which looked so much like female anatomy that the rest of us were blushing through the laughter. Oh, and for the first time in my life I had to don a chef’s toque, the comically tall white hats that are worn by every French chef ever depicted in a cartoon.
As was true of my own experience as a fledgling cook, I found that the weakest aspect of the students’ skills was time-management. They had little sense of how quickly tasks needed to be accomplished, as most of them had only ever cooked within a classroom setting, without the added pressure of cooking for actual human beings with high expectations and hurried schedules. It’s precisely why the Friday Night Dinner provides such excellent training, as well as a benefit to the public.
To drive this point home, I found myself cracking the whip, speeding the process along by taking away unnecessary equipment, jumping in to help, and, especially, rearranging each student’s prep station. When under a time constraint, it’s essential to work efficiently, and the most basic method to ensure a proper workflow is to work from left to right. In other words, if you have a bowl of carrots that need to be julienned, the whole carrots should go on the left, the cutting board in the middle, and the bowl for the finished juliennes on the right. (The reverse is true for left-handers.)
A cook should also have a container nearby for composting vegetable scraps, eggshells, and other items, and should use it constantly, so that the cutting board has as much free space as possible for cutting, instead of getting filled up with scraps. I will never forget when my wonderful chef at Aquavit, Nils Noren, came over to me and rearranged my set-up, explaining that to work any other way was “confusing to your brain.” I’ve always followed his advice, and I’ve never forgotten that I too needed to learn this after I finished school.
The students had several things to teach me as well—things I’d forgotten since being in school—including the idea that deep-frying is best done in a wok using unrefined coconut oil. The student whom I dubbed the “fry queen” explained that the coconut oil has a higher flashpoint than either olive or canola oil, and that, surprisingly, there would be no actual coconut flavor to the carrots. She was right, and her many batches of perfectly frizzled carrots were the proof. The carrots were one of the most visually pleasing elements of the meal, and one that will remain in my repertoire.
At any rate, I survived the indignity of covering my tresses with the toque, and when we stepped out of the kitchen to say hello at the end of the night, the diners gave us ringing applause and many compliments. I’m looking forward to cheffing the Friday Night Dinner again, and next time I may just bring a little gift for each student: a timer.
The spice mixture is mainly for boosting the color of the carrots. You may season them with salt alone. Annatto is a spice with a vibrant red color and a mild flavor: it can be found in most stores that sell spices, or online.
Makes approximately 2 cups of carrots
5 large carrots, peeled
Unrefined coconut oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground annatto
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
Using a knife or a mandolin, slice the carrots into juliennes. Spread the carrots on a kitchen towel to soak up extra moisture. Pour coconut oil into a wok to a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over high heat. Test a carrot in the oil: if it sizzles, the oil is hot enough to begin frying.
Add the carrots to the hot oil a handful of at a time. Gently stir the carrots as you fry, moving them around the wok so that they cook evenly. Fry for 3-5 minutes, until they start to turn brown. Remove from the oil with a spider or tongs, and drain the excess oil on a cooling rack or on paper towels. Repeat until all of the carrots have been fried.
When the carrots are cool enough to handle, transfer to a bowl and toss with the spice mixture. Serve immediately, or seal in an airtight container lined with paper towels for up to 2 days.
All photos by Virginia Borelli.