Written By: Chloe Zale
Chloe Zale is currently a student in ICC’s Culinary Arts + Farm to Table program. She has been chronicling her culinary school experience in depth on her blog Chloe Cooks, sharing her favorite cooking tips and hilarious anecdotes along the way. The following post is about Chloe’s 10 days spent on family meal, which is the production cooking module of Level 3.
A native New Yorker, Chloe is an opera singer, entrepreneur, and former strategy consultant who is now turning her lifelong passion for food into a career in the kitchen and as a food writer. She graduated from Yale magna cum laude with a degree in Cognitive Science, writing her senior thesis on the psychology and neuroscience of food craving. While in college, she worked as an events intern for the Yale Sustainable Food Program, with responsibilities like making pizza for student volunteers on the Yale Farm and executing special dinners for visiting guests such as Rene Redzepi. She also spent a summer as an intern at Murray’s Cheese learning about affinage, retail and wholesale, and assisted in cheese education classes for the public. After graduating, she worked at the Boston Consulting Group as a strategy consultant, and then left to start her own consulting business for food and beverage and health and wellness companies. Starting in March, Chloe will be doing her externship at the three Michelin star restaurant Per Se.
Follow Chloe on Instagram @chloezale for real time updates on her culinary adventures in school and beyond.
Just when I thought we were back to normal, my culinary school world was flipped on its head.
I was flying high after graduating Level 2 with a 98% on my final practical exam, and I was feeling confident about my skills. I had finally shifted into the “I got this” mentality. Then family meal happened.
Family meal is a 10-day rite of passage that involves cooking lunch daily for all 200 of the students and staff on ICC’s campus, with twelve students making incredible quantities of at least 10 different dishes, including their accompanying sauces, dressings, and garnishes. The goal, in addition to feeding everyone, is to teach students about high volume cooking, in case we were to ever cater an event, and to introduce us to the volume of food prep needed to run a restaurant. In short, it’s the real deal, with big recipes, big flavors, and big pressure. Long gone were the leisurely (in retrospect) days of our previous levels, when we had been making a plate or two at a time. It wasn’t a catastrophe if you were a few minutes late presenting your dish to your instructors, as long as you could endure some minor public shaming. But when you’re serving lunch to actual people, who are actually hungry, and actually waiting in line, glaring at you as they wonder when their food will be served, a late and/or poorly executed dish is unacceptable. On Day 1, Chef said to us, “If you ask me whether I want it done well or if I want it done on time, the answer is ‘Yes’” — Point taken.
A few spreads from family meal below.
So to say that there’s a learning curve is an understatement. First, you need to immediately memorize a completely new kitchen that’s triple the size of the ones you’ve worked in so far, with different equipment from what you’re used to. Think: giant steam kettles for making stock, a dedicated deep fryer, three types of ovens stacked higher than your head, mega stand mixers, and unfamiliar contraptions like “tilt skillets” that you suddenly need to operate. It kind of feels like you went to sleep and woke up on the set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but with a Super Mario-esque set of obstacles that could burn, slice, or crush you at every turn.
Even moving the ingredients from one place to another requires different skills: imagine schlepping a deep pan almost as wide as your arm span filled with raw pork from one end of our huge kitchen to the other —it’s your weight lifting and cardio for the day! And that’s not to mention the regular shitshow that ensues when you enter any new kitchen and have no idea where basic things like pots, pans, bowls and cutting boards live. It’s a zoo.
The homework changes, too. Rather than studying recipes or techniques, you put together a “prep sheet” which is just what it sounds like: a sheet of paper you write out to make sure you are prepared to execute all parts of your assigned recipe properly and on time. It’s basically a play-by-play of what needs to happen, when, and by whom, from the minute you arrive and start chopping up the ingredients to the final moments of arranging your platters for service. Like the previous levels, you’re paired up with another person to execute your dishes, but what’s different is that in family meal, you switch off roles: one person is the “chef de partie” — team lead — and one person is the “commis” — line cook. The chef de partie is the one who creates the prep sheet for that day and then runs through it with Chef, making sure to ask any questions and request demonstrations of techniques if needed. Then, he or she directs the team to get it all done. At the end of the day, the full group comes together, and each chef de partie shares some learnings from the day, including what went well with his/her group’s dish and what could have gone better.
In the afternoon after lunch has been served and you’ve cleaned everything up, you do as much prep as possible for the next day so that you can hit the ground running in the morning. This means quartering 40 chickens, julienning 10 pounds of carrots, and the like.
A welcome shift in family meal, and probably my favorite part of it, is that you get a break from cooking classic French cuisine and venture into new culinary territory, with dishes that range from familiar to exotic. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some duck a l’orange. But I also love samosas, southern fried chicken, eggs Florentine, loaded mashed potatoes, and saffron arancini, all of which I had the opportunity to make during family meal. And those were just some of the dishes I personally worked on — the rest of the class was cooking up a storm too! Variety is the spice of life…literally, in this case.
So, for ten days, our creativity flowed as we were encouraged to make every recipe our own. We’d get some guidance from our instructor on the type of recipe that we were supposed to make to next day and the ingredients we’d have access to (e.g., “an Italian white bean dip” or “an apple dessert”), but it was up to us to bring it to life. We could pull inspiration from basically any source, including cookbooks, family recipes, blogs, apps and our own imagination. We’d then scale that recipe up by 10-20x and cook it with our teams, using our prep sheets of course.
The last development that family meal brought was a new sense of closeness among my classmates and even our instructors, who started calling me “Chlo” (clearly we were all getting very comfortable together). When you’re in the weeds of your dish and not even close to done, and service is approaching in 30 minutes, you learn who will rally around you and who you can fall back on in times of need. As someone who thrives on community and connection to others, I felt a lot of joy in this process.
So that’s all to say that while family meal was a tough transition, I loved it and would 100% do it again!
Read on for some of the standout dishes that I made for family meal…
Loaded mashed potatoes, with cheddar, chives, and sour cream
This was the first dish I made, which was a great balance of being quite simple and majorly mouthwatering. The end product was 40 pounds (you read that right) of mashed potatoes, enhanced with cheddar cheese and scallions and enriched with the do-no-wrong dairy trifecta of butter, cream, and sour cream.
We started by putting chopped, unpeeled potatoes in two pots the size of car tires, submerging them in water and bringing it all to a boil, then reducing it to a simmer until they cooked through. It took about an hour because there was so much to heat up in each giant pot! This gave us time to prep the rest of the ingredients – grating the cheese, chopping the scallions, etc. Once the potatoes were cooked, we drained them, threw in some chunks of butter and ran them through a food mill (which caught all the skins and made them easy to remove), and put the mashed mixture back in the pot. At this point, we mixed in the cream, cheese, scallions and sour cream and adjusted the consistency and seasoning before plating them and garnishing them with the same ingredients.
The most challenging part of the dish was avoiding the many ways you could hurt yourself or others in the process of making it. You try carrying two insanely heavy pots of near-boiling water and potatoes to a nearby sink and pouring them into oversized colanders without dropping the pot, burning your face off from the steam (fact: steam is hotter than boiling water), or maiming some unfortunate soul in your path. It’s not a walk in the park. The second most challenging part was coming to terms with the amount of sour cream we used. We’re talking multiple industrial-sized tubs. Sorry not sorry.
Various sandwiches utilizing homemade charcuterie leftovers
I find my best creative output comes from times when I need to work within constraints, and this day was no exception. The other half of our class had just finished their charcuterie module, and there was an enormous excess of cured and smoked meats, condiments and breads that they had made. We were about to go on winter break, and most of this stuff wasn’t going to hold up well during the two weeks off. So we were tasked with making an inventory of what was left and then putting as much of it as possible to use by making sandwiches. My goal in coming up with this menu was to have a lot of contrasts to keep them interesting (and delicious) – this is what we ended up with:
Cured pork butt and pork bologna with jalapeño red pepper jam and pickles on brioche: A lot of people don’t eat pork, so we decided to keep our pork products to one sandwich, but to go big. So we went double pork and then cut that fat with the acidic pickles and the spicy jam.
Cured venison and whipped chicken liver pâté with broccoli rabe pesto, balsamic onions and crunchy lettuce on focaccia: Venison is super lean, so we countered it with generous slathering of whipped chicken liver pâté for richness. The broccoli rabe pesto added a zesty punch, and the onions and lettuce brought the crunch.
Pastrami on rye with yellow mustard, garlic aioli, pickled red cabbage and cheddar: Somewhere between a regular pastrami sandwich and a reuben – this one went quickly!
Duck bologna with dijonnaise, lettuce and tomato on a croissant: The duck bologna was actually quite light, so we treated it like a classic turkey sandwich for those looking for something a bit simpler.
Hot honey fried chicken
This chicken was super moist on the inside and crunchy on the outside – the optimal combination. We brined it in overnight in salt, water and honey, and then the next day locked in that moisture with a coating of flour, then a dip in buttermilk, and then another coating of flour. Frying it at 300 degrees allowed the chicken to cook through without browning the crust too much, and then we did a second fry before service to warm them up and give them that extra crunch. A drizzle of jalapeño honey and we were golden — literally!
I wasn’t super involved with actual cooking of this dish, but I did lend a hand to the team in charge by taking the temperature of each piece as it came out of the fryer to make sure it was safe to eat. It was a lot of pieces!
…With cumin scented black beans, smoky grilled corn, pickled red onion, yellow pepper, tomato, cucumber, spicy watercress and crunchy roasted butternut squash seeds with garlicky jalapeño cilantro lime crema. Oh boy, that’s a mouthful! So was this salad. It had a lot going on, in a really good way. Our instructions the night before were to “make some sort of southwestern salad – you’ll have corn and black beans. Go look up the flavors and see what you come back with tomorrow.” So I did my research and learned that cumin, cilantro, lime, and jalapeño are some of the hallmarks of Tex Mex cuisine. And thus this salad was born.
I thought we had some cashews lying around so I was going to use those to make cashew cream for a dairy-free crema, but we didn’t have enough, so we ended up going with (of course) sour cream. More authentic that way, anyway. However, I was able to utilize some pickled red onions that I found in the fridge which were a great addition to this salad! A general rule of thumb for family meal was to use up what we already had versus making very similar things anew, so the crema ended up on the salad bar for a couple days afterwards as well.
Potato, pea and pomegranate samosas
These were a labor of love – we did our prep the old school way, including making the dough from scratch, extracting the seeds from our pomegranates by cutting them open and smacking a wooden spatula against the rind (which we affectionately called the “spank method”), and toasting the cumin for the filling. It was worth it to be able to achieve the intensity of flavors we were after.
Four of us then set up an assembly line and painstakingly rolled out each piece of dough until it was almost transparent, stuffed it with the filling, sealed it empanada-style and fried each samosa until perfectly crisp. It was a little touch and go, with the assembly line continuing well into service, but we got it done!