Friday, August 28, 2009

Spy School, Part 1
What’s cooking? Smoked Trout Canapé

Have I mentioned that I signed up for four days at the CIA? Of course, it’s not really spy school, but that sounds so much more exotic than cooking school. On the other hand, I did feel a bit like a spy, uncovering at least a few of the secrets of the fraternal order of chefs. The CIA in question is the Culinary Institute of America. In anticipation of my move to Austin (I feel sure they were thinking of me), they opened a new branch at the former home of the Pearl Brewery, on the fringe of downtown San Antonio. Against what should have been my better judgment, I took back-to-back two-day courses: the first in Basics, the second in Hors d’Oeuvres. (Trust me, four days in a row of cooking is a lot.)

I arrived late for the first day, as is unfortunately my style. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Mostly, I tend to schedule several more tasks than there’s really time for, in some vague notion that everything will go like clockwork. Then I read recently that people who are On Time as a rule actually plan to be early. Imagine. So I’m working on redesigning my internal clock, and have had some success, but my problems with packing for these four days (see 7/31 post) put more than the usual stress on my efforts.

I needn’t have worried. About the packing, that is. All I wore for the four days was the standard chef’s uniform (black-and-white houndstooth checked pants; white, double-breasted long-sleeved jacket; and the tall white toque) and my jammies. PJs at night, chef’s uniform during the day. By the time I got back to my hotel at night, I had barely enough energy for a glass of wine (ok, maybe two glasses of wine) and then bed.

And now a word about those uniforms. They’re unisex, which means made for a straight-up-and-down physique, which mine is not. The woman on the phone when I signed up had assured me that the uniforms are huge – “Made for men” – and given my dress size, she suggested a Small. So that’s what they handed me as I crept – late, remember – past the classroom and into the Ladies’ Room, figuring it would only take a minute to change. The pants fit fine, and then I put on the jacket. Couldn’t button it, so I changed back into the shirt I’d had on, tiptoed out to the front desk and asked quietly for a Medium. Back to the Ladies’ Room, where the Medium fit except for the part around my, um, hips. (The Medium is, of course, longer in the torso.) Back to the front desk, waving cheerfully to the other students as I passed, I retrieved a Large, which fit my hips but had sleeves down practically to my knees. But I was out of options, so I rolled the sleeves up and slipped into class, where I noticed that almost all the other women had their sleeves rolled back. The short ones also had the pants rolled up. No wonder there are more men than women as professional chefs.

Meet the teacher: a 6'8" blonde with a heavy German accent. I’d guess early 40s. In the lecture portion of the class, we called him by his first name. In the kitchen, he was Chef – no first name, no last name – much like Your Highness. Definitely intimidating. And no matter how nice he tried to be there – and I know he was trying to be nice – his standards are naturally higher than we were used to. As he roamed the kitchen, where he had divided the 13 students into four teams, he would periodically stop at a station and announce, “Anyone who’s interested in learning how to chop an onion/shape a dumpling/...whatever.., look here.” It happened as I was cutting carrots. “What is this?” he asks. “I’m julienning carrots,...sort of.” I replied. Whereupon he announced, “If you’d like to see how to julienne carrots, look over here.” Then he picked up the pieces I had cut and with a look like he had just smelled something very bad, dumped them into the garbage. So I learned that in a professional kitchen, ego must take a seat waaay in the back of the bus, unless you are Chef.

I know, it sounds brutal. It turns out that cooking school is not for sissies. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself (if in a sadomasochistic sort of way), and I learned an enormous amount in each two-day class. And while I was briefly embarrassed, the other students sympathized immediately, and we all moved quickly on to the lesson. Later that night, with my jammies and my wine, I thought about those carrots, and realized how much more efficient the professional methods are than the homespun style.

More on the CIA with my next post; but for now, a simple but wonderful canapé.

Smoked Trout Canapé (yields about 30 pieces)

15 ounces hot-smoked trout
1 loaf rye bread, cut into 1½-2-inch rounds or squares and toasted
1 cup horseradish butter (see recipe below)
10-12 large pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced
6 or so cherry tomatoes, cut into 4 or 8 wedges, depending on size of the tomatoes

Separate the trout (following natural seams) into pieces ¾-1 inch square. Spread each toast thickly with horseradish butter. Top with a piece of trout. Garnish first with a slice of olive, then with a wedge of tomato. Arrange neatly on a platter.

Horseradish Butter (yields 1 cup)

3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, excess liquid squeezed out
1 cup softened butter
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix until thoroughly combined (butter will expand and fluff, but do not allow it to melt). Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and roll into a 1-inch cylinder. Store in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Soften at room temperature to use.


  1. Now. If I can just get somebody to catch some trout and smoke it, we'll be in business. Great post!

  2. I bought some yesterday at Whole Foods. They were out of the house variety at the fish counter (naturally, Whole Foods smokes their own), but found some very nice pre-packaged -- 3 different flavors. I went with the plainest, and it worked really well.

  3. Great account of the experience! If it helps -- I don't remember who it was that he used for demo/corrections on any of the incidents. I really enjoyed learning with you.

    I tried several of the recipes from class for a small dinner party last Saturday. The crab cakes were a big hit, but then we switched out the canned crab for fresh dungeness so...

    I'm enjoying your blog.