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Thoughts on staging in Paris

I haven’t written in the longest time and many things have happened since my last post about school. First of all- I’ve graduated :). LCB was an amazing experience and being in Paris, learning the art and technique of french cuisine in France itself, and meeting all of my fellow foodie friends, is something I would never trade for anything. But we’ve all moved on, and pretty quick at that. Everyone has returned home and is making progress with their lives, moving forward. I spent 2 weeks back in Singapore catching up with the family and friends that I haven’t seen in the past 10 months. Then spent another 2 weeks traveling around Berlin, Copenhagen, and Gothenburg, gaining a new perspective on the food scene in different countries and a new perspective on life, living and culture (not as deep as it sounds, actually). But more about that in another post.

What is really on my mind right now (and actually, occupying most of my time) is my stage in Paris. I’ve spent about 90% of my 5 weeks in Paris staging in a pretty amazing 2-michelin star restaurant. I’ve witnessed how a big kitchen brigade (and I do mean big) is run, how the whole traditional hierachical kitchen ranking system thingamajig works, seen and worked with some amazing ingredients and learnt some really cool, traditional techniques that are slowly being phased out simply because cuisine like that is too time-consuming to make, or just no longer in demand now (what with all the nouveau-bistro and molecular gastronomy trends).

One of the chef-de-parties asked me that day, whether or not I was enjoying myself and what I thought of my stage at Taillevent. Up until then, I hadn’t given it much thought- I hadn’t had much time either considering that working hours were 8am to 3pm, then 5pm to 11pm (at least) from Monday to Friday. Yes, I was enjoying myself, but without much conscious thought– I enjoyed being at work, being able to handle food everyday and just be in the mere presence of all the preparation, the energy, the cooking, the smells and aromas, made me look forward to being in the kitchen everyday.

But the more thought I give it, the more “flaws” I find with the stage I’m doing, and although it might not be anything too damaging or too negative, I think it stems from my initial desire to use these 2 months to get as much experience and learn as much as I can, instead of just being able to put a good restaurant name on my resume without any real substance or backing.

Mainly, I wish there was more of a teaching culture in the kitchen. While there are a couple of chefs that are willing and really open to sharing whatever they know, most of them are more concerned with getting their work done and rightly so for that matter! All it really takes to get to know how something is done is a question actually, but I sometimes feel out of place being so “nosy” when it’s so busy in the kitchen. I don’t expect to be cooking on the line or doing anything too major as a stagiere who is only there for 2 weeks, but there are some tasks that I could be entrusted to do (I know this sense of entitlement might be misplaced but I’ve worked in a couple of kitchens previously, so this really isn’t my first stage and I am no idiot, if I do say so myself) like toasting hazelnuts or frying some chips. But I guess this is what happens in a big kitchen like ours- everyone has a set list of tasks to do and take care of, and it’s the same every single day. You fall into such a rhythm with what you do, and the chefs probably do the task better and faster than I could. I get it, I understand the system and the fact that I will not be as fast or as good as the chefs now, but given that November is such a slow period for french restaurants (I heard it’s vacation time for the french now, as it is with every other month), it would be nice to be taught and shown more things.

Otherwise, I’ve fallen into some sort of a rhythm with the kitchen life too! Mornings are filled with bulk prep work- shallots, onions, carrots, garnishes, etc. One of the chefs at the poisson station has entrusted me with finishing up “his work” during service time, going through tourteau meat to find shells, cleaning, separating and packing the boudins, breaking up lobster carcasses, etc that I don’t even have to ask anymore when I see ingredients come in the morning, or when I see bowls of prep work in his fridge. I really like this feeling of being entrusted, and he does trust me. He used to be really skeptical when I first arrived, rightly so- he would go through all my garnishes and inspect my brunoise so closely, but trust is earned and over time, I guess I showed him that I was worthy of being entrusted with more and more work! 🙂

 

Overall, I still wouldn’t have given up this opportunity. Spending 2 months in Paris working in a huge restaurant like this is a pretty incredible experience. I’ve learnt to work faster, more efficiently, to think ahead and plan before beginning on a task, learnt how to organize myself well, how to clean clean clean and CLEAN (a pretty important habit in the kitchen and something that we do to a really really crazy extreme here) and gotten used to working the long hours that are so required in the kitchen. If anything, this might have been a try out or a test to see if this was what I was really cut out for, and at the end of the day, all I can say is that this has only fueled the fire in me to pursue what I’ve always wanted to do- to cook 🙂

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Home and work worries

I decided to head home for a much needed 2 week break, after graduation (yes, i did graduate hoorah!), to get over that huuuge feeling of home sickness that I was constantly harboring, and to catch up a little with the Singaporean dining scene and scope out potential restaurants I wanted to work at after coming home, but mainly just to see my family and friends that I haven’t seen in almost a year (or more).

The first significant change that I felt was that EVERYONE WAS WORKING. Everyone had a job. We aren’t talking like summer internships anymore, my friends all had proper paying jobs, working proper hours, were busy and occupied and were made responsible for very important things. So while I spent most of the earlier parts of the day lazing around, reading, working out, having a holiday basically, most of my friends were off doing far more important things. It really hit me one day when I had lunch with a friend (yes, he is currently employed) and he mentioned that he wanted to save $XXXX every month, so that by the time he’s done with this job, he would have enough savings to do ______ or just invest in something more worthwhile in general. And the whole time in my head, i kept thinking of my unemployment, or my lack of pay for the next few months at least, of my life as a stagiere, of my future career path in the F&B industry, and how I will probably never get paid the same way he does.

People always say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life and that’s cool and true, but sometimes, I wish that I loved paid well too, or at least paid enough so I could live my life the way I want to. My dad always taught us about managing and investing our money, making it grow, but how am I supposed to do any of that if I don’t even have savings or when I’m expected to live paycheck to paycheck almost. I know I’m speaking very generally right now, but I think it’s no lie that kitchen jobs don’t pay as well, not for the hours you are expected to put in at least. I want the best of both worlds, I want to do what I love, but also have enough to make smart investment decisions about my money and grow it like my parents did and have some sort of financial security that way.

Anyhow, not giving up this dream of becoming a chef and one day owning my own restaurant. You never know where live takes you, but for now, I am fully focused on this. 🙂

I checked out a couple of new restaurants that popped up- Plain Vanilla for cupcakes and coffee (absolutely love their shophouse space although, I think it a lot of the space could have definitely put to better use), 8 East for NY inspired tapas and watermelon soju (always a good choice), Binomio along Craig Road for some delicious spanish tapas and wines, and Moosehead for a really long and just plain tasty lunch with some of my foodie friends. All of these establishments are NEW, popped up in the past year or so.. which just means the Singapore dining scene has only become more saturated since I left :(. It’s exciting for the eating out and dining prospects, but for someone who wants to join in the rat race, it’s a lot scary to be honest. I don’t know how I’m going to come into the scene with a specialty, or some niche, or something that makes me stand out- what price point, what cuisine, what design, what location location location?? I guess stress like that isn’t always a bad thing- at least it got me thinking, instead of just assuming whatever I want to do will work in Singapore. But I’ve really got to find an “ethel-shaped” hole in the industry, someway somehow.

I’ve spoken to a lot of friends from LCB paris who have stayed on after graduation to start their stage almost immediately, and while some are thoroughly enjoying it, most of them are really homesick. I’m glad I made the decision to go home, albeit for only two weeks, because it helped me get that homesickness out of my system, and now I’m back in Paris feeling refreshed, and able to focus on why I’m in Paris without the constant feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. I start my stage tomorrow- so many feelings right now, mainly nervousness because I really hate being in new environments, but that will go away with time I believe. For now, I am all in to learn whatever I can and get as much out of this valuable experience 🙂

Bon courage, Ethel 🙂

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I’m slightly more than halfway through the my last semester in Le Cordon Bleu- 5 weeks have completely flown by and I haven’t taken the time to truly reflect on my entire time here in Paris, hence, the purpose of this post.

The superior exams are different from the basic and intermediate level. Rather than recreating a dish that we have already done previously, the goal now is to create and compose your own dish, working within a list of ingredients, which should be a culmination of all that one has learnt in the past 7 months. Leading up to the exam, we were given two workshops (aka ateliers) where we were given a different set of ingredients, and had to prepare a plat and an entree with 5 hours. Initially, I was 100% excited about being able to do something of my own, showcasing what I have taken away from my time in school. But as I started planning my dishes (within the constraints of having to use certain ingredients and only certain amounts of it, and having to create specific garnishes like a flan, gratin, turned vegetables, etc..), I couldn’t make up my mind on what was best to do. My initial ideas were not at all french, or what was my understanding of french food at least. I wanted to do so many things, on top of what was already expected, just to show case what I could do. I wanted a salad atop my fish atop the fried garnish that I already had, with a jus and a puree and a mash and a sauce…

How do you come to a final decision when I personally had so many criterias; create a sophisticated dish, that would still be manageable to execute, that was balanced at the same time, had all the components required, and most importantly, would be something I personally enjoyed eating.

My first atelier:

Overall, I was satisfied with my dishes. Throughout the practical, I kept trying to add more components to the dish (for no reason) and only realized at the end that they did not complement the dish, did nothing other than take up more space on the plate and masking other components at the same time. I wasn’t late to serve, but I wasn’t as organized as I imagined myself to be. I had 20 different bowls in the fridge, 7 different pots on the stove and on the racks above the stove, trays everywhere, spoons and knives in different bowls everywhere. Basically, a big fat mess. I keep telling myself to be more disciplined with my cleaning and my organization, take something, put it back to the original place after using, etc etc. But it’s so easy to fall back into the habit of juuuust concentrating on your food and your dish and the cooking, that you neglect the rest and end up cooking in an area that looks like a tornado had just come through, which really does not reflect well on you as a cook.

Chicken farcie torchon, chicken oysters, avocado puree, melon and pepper brunoise

Chicken farcie torchon, chicken oysters, avocado puree, melon and pepper brunoise

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Pan fried sea bream, sauteed shrimp, potato straws, parsley salad, zuchinni flan, eggplant with herb gratin

Pan fried sea bream, sauteed shrimp, potato straws, parsley salad, zuchinni flan, carot tagliatelles (hidden), turned carrots, aubergine with herb gratin

What exactly is french food, though? I’ve been a little cynical about french food recently, ironic because I am in a culinary school that specializes on french cuisine. My initial reasons for choosing LCB over any other culinary school was precisely the focus on french cuisine. The techniques, the discipline, the sophistication. But along the way, I became slightly disillusioned with the idea of french food, mainly because my development of the concept of french cuisine came directly from the recipes we were working on in school. Some of which were not good to eat, or were overly complicated for no reason, or seemed to focus too much on the aesthetics rather than the flavors. When the recent trend in the F&B scene seems to be a focus on fresh, simple foods, not overly played or toyed with, french cuisine seems to be just the opposite of that, and hence, not as appealing.
But after really giving it some good thought, I’ve come to a personal epiphany of sorts. Food trends come and go, but the base techniques of french cuisine is far superior to any other cuisine I can think of, IMHO. When the techniques are executed with enough respect, discipline and finesse, the results can be pretty mindblowing. School has given me a whole range of techniques and exposure to different dishes that are not commonly or no longer served, because they are either too time consuming to make (i.e the potato scaled red mullet dish from Paul Bocuse), or they just don’t hold the same appeal as they used to 50 years ago. It is my responsibility to take away the important lessons from each recipe. One can’t expect the chef to spell out exactly what you are to learn from each dish, or each practical. Each practical is a practice, to better filet a fish, to better cook a piece of meat, to better turn a vegetable, etc. And instead of just going through it mindlessly, only looking towards the end, I need to really hone in my focus and concentrate on that task at hand, give it enough respect and time that each component of the dish so deserves. A dish treated with respect in the kitchen will definitely show itself visually on the plate, and also on the palate.

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Stagiere

My time in Paris seems to coming to a close too quickly. We’re already into the last of our three semesters here, and I’ve barely done half the things I set out to do (e.g. visit Lens and the new louvre museum, visit the art galleries in Paris, travel all of France, etc..). One thing I can strike off my list is staging at a restaurant in Paris, and a helluva sick restaurant at that.

I spent my two week break between intermediate and superior cuisine doing a stage at Bones, the restaurant I wished I had opened. If you’ve talked to me recently about my eating experiences in Paris, you would have heard me rave about Bones, a restaurant opened early this year by australian chef James Henry (previous chef at Au Passage) that focuses on fresh, locally sourced ingredients without sticking to any particular cuisine per se. (Although I would argue, it is definitely quite australian, considering that they have an indoor bbq aka the big green egg). They make their own butter, ricotta cheese, charcuterie and breads amongst all their other delicious and delectable dishes, which is very impressive considering that it is only a 4-person team in the kitchen. They also have a sick standing bar area, about half the size of the restaurant, serving seafoods and shellfish, and an amazing suckling pork sandwich! They proudly display the entire suckling pork on the bar in a hotel pan eveyr Thursday and Saturday night, which is pretty damn genius if you ask me. 

Anyhow, I was lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to stage there for 2 weeks. Learnt about a whole new philosophy on cooking- without being bound to a specific cuisine, the team at Bones are not bound to strict rules about cooking or any of their dishes. They have a rather clean and ‘simplistic’ look on cooking, as in they don’t throw 10 different ingredients in a pot and try to build a heavy or overly sophisticated dish. They treat each ingredient on the plate as it should be and how it should naturally taste (with the occasional smoke treatment), dress it up with simple garnishes that complement the visuals or the entire flavor profile of the dish, and then finish off with the freshest and most beautiful herbs ever! Unpretentiously delicious is what I would call the food, with a subtle punch or attitude.

Hours were long, of course. But I enjoyed every moment of it. Everyone was so willing to impart some knowledge or share some information and to just teach, while they had the time of course. And I have so much respect for the entire team at Bones- they work tirelessly and without any complains (I almost never heard “omg I’m so tired today” or “I just want to sleep” or anything of the like) even though they got in earlier and left later than me on most days.

I don’t know if it was confirmation for me that being in the kitchen was something I wanted to do for life, but I definitely was super excited to be there every day. Then again, it was only a 2 week period, you never know if that excitement will last after a year in the kitchen with those hours. I have a long way to go in terms of building and gaining experience in the kitchen, but I’m glad I managed to get my start at Bones 🙂

 

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Thoughts on school so far

It’s kind of crazy how fast time has passed- this week marked the mid-way point of intermediate cuisine which also means the mid-way point for my entire culinary school journey. As cliche as this sounds, it seemed like yesterday that I was walking into Le Cordon Bleu for the first time and sitting in the demo room waiting to receive my set of knives, uniforms, schedule, etc. 

Intermediate cuisine has been an interesting experience to say the least. We’ve been learning about french cuisine through the different regions in France like Basque, Burgundy, Normandy, Bourdeaux and most recently Alsace. I don’t know how representative each of the regional dishes we’ve been learning are of that particular region’s cuisine, but there have been a few things that have been quite memorable.

The first was the Basque region. Because of it’s proximity to Spain, there are many distinctive ingredients and flavors used that you wouldn’t otherwise find in “regular french cuisine” like red peppers and espelette spice. We made a basque style chicken with saffron rice that definitely had more traditional and distinctive spanish flavors than what you would think of as French- a refreshing change, in my opinion 🙂

Another region that stuck particularly well in my mind was Alsace, particularly so because I  visited the place recently with my family. Dishes that remind you more of German cuisine (sauerkraut which they call choucroute for example, and pretzel and kugelhopf) can be explained by their proximity to Germany and also because of the long historical power struggles for the region between the French and the Germans. We made a trout stuffed with morel mushroom duxelle and braised in riesling wine– personally not a fan of this dish mainly because of the morels. I know morels are prized mushrooms and because I’ve never had the privilege to savour fresh morels (as of yet), I was really looking forward to this dish! Disappointingly, the ones we used in school were frozen then rehydrated in water, and tasted slightly bitter and tangy which could have been attributed to the riesling wine used rather than the mushrooms itself- but the morels didn’t evoke any umami, earthy flavors that you would expect from mushrooms. We could have just as well used button mushrooms (cheaper and more accessible and more easily prepared) and it wouldn’t have made a difference in my opinion! I’ve heard they are absolutely delicious just simply sauteed with butter and seasoned with salt. Takeaway lesson: either use really fresh  morels for this dish to evoke any flavor whatsoever, or maybe just don’t overcomplicate things and enjoy the ingredients for what they are.

Intermediate cuisine has definitely been teaching me a lot of things with regards to time management and organization. There are 2 students in the group that work extremely fast and well; usually by the time they are done and packed up to go, everyone else in the group has just started to cook their proteins or strain their sauce with at least 20 to 30 mins more to go before all components of the dish are ready to be plated. But it’s a good kind of pressure to have- I used to get quite flustered because I like being one of the first few to finish in class, and trying to keep up initially was so stressful. But I’ve learnt from some very careless mistakes made because I was rushing; I now know how to work a more efficient way and I’ve found a pace and rhythm that allows me to come up with a good and well-prepared dish.

I remember the chef from Taillevent telling students to “form good habits” in the kitchen, start now and it’ll be ingrained in you forever. I’ve definitely come a long way from being a messy, careless and disorganized cook to one that has more attention to detail (although I still have a long way to go in that regard), more patience but also one that works efficiently and cleanly. I remember my mom used to hate when I cooked in her kitchen, she couldn’t stand to be around the mess I made in the process of cooking. I think I can safely say now, Mom, I think you would be proud of how I would cook in your kitchen now 🙂

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Paris, Restaurants, Uncategorized

Pierre Sang in Oberkampf

I had a few friends plan a pretty amazing get together in Paris last week- 3 flew in from New York, 1 from Florence (Italy) and another that took the train from London. They stayed for 7 days, the equivalent of “21 meals!’ according to Huimin. We obviously managed to fit in about 35 meals in total, I believe- I wouldn’t have settled for anything less when I have foodie friends visiting.

One of the first places we hit up for dinner was Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. Trending in restaurants in Paris is the “no choice prix fixe menu”, where you literally do not get to choose anything other than your choice of wine for a meal. I actually really love this idea because everything you eat is a surprise, and most of the time, seasonal and fresh and just so goddamn tasty.
At Pierre Sang, they don’t even hand you a menu of any sort  and only explain the dish to you after you have eaten it. Definitely an interesting way to have dinner- we spent most of the time deconstructing our dishes and guessing at ingredients.

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Started off our meal with a sparkling vouvray (chenin blanc) that had no sugar or yeast added, as explained by our waiter. Still wondering if this was forced carbonation of some sort, how else do you get a wine to be sparkling without yeast? Still, a not too dry sparkling (relatively ‘sweet’ even without any additional sugar) wine to start our meal with!

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The first dish we had was little pieces of razor clams (not whole) with peas, asparagus, carrot foam. I completely forgot to take down what that little white powder was, but it was almost like shaved cheese ice of some sort. Cheese snow, I want to call it 🙂

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The next was artichoke braised in some sort of ginger infused reduction of octopus and artichoke, octopus (the word for octopus in french is PULPO, gotta love the french for that 🙂 ), beet root shoots, and rice cracker crumbles.

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Tempura battered andouilletes, albacore tuna, bearnaise sauce. A really cool play in textures.

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Braised lamb with confit potatoes, mandolin sliced radish, with a lamb (and garlic infused) reduction

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The infamous mont d’or

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Dessert: Opera cake, almond butter cake, avocado macaroon, white chocolate sauce.

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My dinner dates for that night, and my foodie buddies for the entire week! We only paid 35 euros per person for our dinner, excluding wine, which I thought was really reasonable for the dishes we got. This is what is awesome about Paris and this new anti-fine-dining sentiment with all the young chefs here. People are tired of fussy expensive food- all we want is to eat a tasty, delicious, innovative and interesting dish and not burn a whole in our pockets while doing so. It might have been too much to ask about 5 years ago, but now thankfully, it’s becoming more the norm 🙂

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tenth

We had the day off school today since it’s easter monday. I made the effort to leave the comforts of my very tiny studio in the 6eme arrondissement and traipsed over to the very hip 10eme arrondissement with the intention of grabbing a cup of coffee at 10 Belles- a cafe that has recently been generating a lot of hype for it’s amazing coffee (that I will have you know, is very hard to find in Paris)- and then settling into a cosy corner to read.

I did manage to snag a cappuccino, but the tiny cafe was full (mainly with expats, judging from the accents and lack of french spoken whilst I was there). I took my coffee “emporter” and decided to walk around the area since the weather was so amazing today. And I’m glad I did 🙂

After seeing all the locals sitting by canal st martin and soaking in the sun, I decided to follow suit. I found a spot in the sun and finished up the last of my super smooth cappuccino (dare I say that i probably is the best coffee I’ve had in Paris yet!) and read for about an hour. All this while, people were coming and going, sitting down on by the canal, finishing up bottles of wine and casual sandwiches, chatting, playing music, reading, looking cool in their vintage jackets and sunglasses and dr. marten boots, writing poetry and all those other things that cool hipsters do outdoors when the sun is out.

All this while, I was slowly falling more and more in love with Paris. I was beginning to understand why people had such an attachment to this wonderful place, why people have come here with the intention of visiting and ended up building a life here. This is the kind of place I love, not the 6eme district I live in with all the women in their branded outfits and channel/hermes/fill-in-the-blank-with-expensive-designer handbags or shoes, or along champs elyssees, or even in the marais but here in the 10eme where life is so much more tangible and palatable and casual and within reach. Where it feels more “real”, albeit the hipster front is always slightly pretentious, but I love it nonetheless- there were no hoards of tourists, just Parisians (or expats but still, non-tourists). Maybe one day, I’ll be back in Paris to stay for a few years and when I do, this is the district I want to build my “Parisian” life in 🙂

 

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