19 October 2012

Behind the Scenes at L'École Culinaire

My latest SeriousEats.com article is about a Beer and Bacon Dinner at the nearby L'École Culinaire cooking college. In that post, you can see all of the photos and descriptions of those delicious dishes. And for those that are interested, I've added a little link in the left column of this site to direct you to my previous articles for them. It's been a lot of fun so far and I look forward to more work with them in the future.

There were three stories that I could have intertwined for a longer piece (the food, the beer, and the cooking school), but the editors were looking for a focus just on the food. My notes on the beers are minor (though I enjoyed them), but I did want to use my blog to go into some more depth on the school, as well as a little behind-the-scenes look at writing a food article.

When you're doing a restaurant review, the ethical thing is to be as anonymous as possible. When you're covering a dinner event and you're working as both writer and photographer, it's a little different situation. My main goal was not to get in the way, and the students were pretty excited that someone was covering it. I got a table to myself near the host with decent lighting, and got to take pictures of all the beer labels before dinner was served.

The Presentation Room is the student-run restaurant on campus. Students taking this class are studying different aspects of the restaurant business, so your waiter might be a line cook and your sous chef might be an aspiring restaurant manager. The room is run by Chef Julie, who will take the dinner service as an opportunity for a real life teaching moment. She would gently swoop in and make little corrections, or have a student re-do a table setting. Little hints like moving fast when serving ice cream. Cards on the table request patience with the students, though I never experienced any problems or delays while 30-odd people were served five courses and five different beers.

I was a little spoiled in that Chef Julie would intercept a tray and pick out the best looking plate for me, but I can attest that the differences were miniscule. The students were enthusiastic and all planning big things in the restaurant career. That energy is infectious and creates a different atmosphere than a traditional restaurant setting. I found myself really enjoying it, and a lot of the students wanted to pose for photos (not allowed due to media restrictions, I'm afraid).

A week later I arranged a tour of the school with the Campus Director, and I happened to show up on a day of final exams. Each lab contained a flurry of activity as students were making cakes, braising beef, shaping the garnish, etc., all racing the clock until having to deliver the final plate to the instructor.

In addition to the Presentation Room (which is open to the public), there is a deli on campus run by and for the students who cycle through lunch duty. The idea is to give them a low cost option that also keeps them close to school. I found wondering when that concept is going to filter into modern companies. Right now it's your day to make the coffee or buy the donuts, but at some point you might be making sandwiches and soup one day a month. I once worked for a bank headquarters that was far enough away from civilization to warrant a really good cafeteria, and I thought it would have been more interesting work than making credit cards and debit cards while locked in a vault for eight hours a day.

While I was there, lunch was just getting started in the Presentation Room with their first customer of the day. I got to hang out in the kitchen while his pork shank was finished and plated. The prices are great for the kind of food you're getting. This pressure-cooked shank with anise-pork jus and Vietnamese style pickled vegetables is only $12. There's also a very reasonable prix-fixe menu at $10 for two courses and $15 for three. They've just gotten their liquor license and will be opening for dinner soon, which should draw a lot more traffic. Because it's so close to my house, I can see myself stopping there for dinner on the way home.

The school also offers a wide range of one-day cooking classes for the public, as well as various themed dinner events in collaboration with local companies. For instance, this dinner was hosted by Steve Barzizza of Southwestern Beverage Distributing to promote some great beers that have more depth than Coors Light. (We have a lot of mutual friends and I got to talk with him quite a bit during the meal.)
Both the meal and the tour were a great experience, and I'm glad to have had the chance to write about them. I was listening to an interview with the actor Andrew McCarthy recently. Most know him as part of the Brat Pack, but he's got an entire second life as a travel writer for magazines. In reference to his recent book The Longest Way Home, he mentioned that with any published article, there's the story you read, and then there's a much longer story about how it happened and what got left out. Look for more details in my 2025 memoir Decant Me: Confessions of a Wineblogger.

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