Week 32: Final Reflections

This is the end of one journey but the beginning of another.  My time here at the farm has felt brief but as I consider my final reflections the experience seems profound.

The nature of Pepperfield effortlessly introduced me to a new collection of connections.  As a result, I met local producers, food and hospitality providers, community leaders and countless others.  Each one, touching on my journey and – knowingly or unknowingly – leaving a lasting impression; each new connection fostering the growth and development that I sought for so long.  Decorah was, and still is, a receptive, welcoming community that took me into the fold without hesitation. This last 32 weeks threw me into the active social scene in Decorah. I attended more parties and social gatherings than ever before.  Likewise, the people of Decorah have created something special: a progressive, loving community aware of each other and their surroundings. Similarly, it was this same community that acted as the conduit for so many unique culinary adventures.  But it wasn’t just food centered experiences that occupied my time.

During my time here I encountered work (and play) so fantastic that it’s hard to recall all of it.  But I do remember how fast it all started. Within months of arriving I had already secured a few jobs around town.  And soon after, even more. I saw the whole gamut from weddings to parties – and trust me everything possible in between.  Meanwhile at the farm, I was busy working away. Nearly 150 varieties were represented in our grow out this year and I had a hand in each one.  Farming isn’t an easy job and by the end of this season I had amassed some pretty impressive figures. In a two acre garden I managed to haul over 8300 pounds of manure, transplant 2577 times, plant over 4139 seeds and mulch 2863 square feet of ground.  This was exclusively the work I completed; these values would be much higher if tallied for the entire farm. My point is, I was quite busy. Simultaneously, I was still able to enjoy the nature around me. I took on foreign tasks like foraging for mushrooms, slaughtering a chicken and eviscerating animals to be used for eating.  The combination of experiences were truly rewarding as a person but also as a chef. (I can’t nearly cover everything from this season, but you can check out the happenings of all 32 weeks here!) Moving forward I will cherish these experiences but also everything that I learned in the process.

At its roots, coming to Pepperfield was always about learning.  From the beginning, my purpose was to learn how to grow food from the ground up.  Likewise, I hoped to take some time to myself and readjust my mindset. As I look back at what I learned at Pepperfield, it’s hard to imagine that I managed to learn all that I did.  Each day brought lectures from botany to esoteric philosophies challenging me on all fronts to observe, learn and retain. As a result I made one of the most profound discoveries of my life: food is a means of connection.  Not only does it unify us as people, but it brings us closer – physically, mentally and spiritually – in one way or another, no matter how abstract. And, as I explored these possibilities of food, I began to feel awake, alive and almost transcended.  

What started as a quest to slow down evolved into something even greater; changes to my body, mind and spirit, began to materialize.  Then, I began to achieve a more relaxed lifestyle. The tension, built from so many years of pain, anger and frustration began to melt into a serenity within that I can only describe as internal compassion.  I became aware of my choices and their consequences; I found peace with my mistakes and shortcomings. Similarly, I began the process of forgiveness with myself and began to reach out to share this with others in my life.  I felt an immense amount of liberation as I began to identify the origins of my problems and charted a new course to resolve them. I may be leaving Pepperfield, but I hope to continue feeling as creative, relaxed and motivated as I had previously.

Don’t forget, we’re on the road for the next week touring various BBQ shops across the nation.  More info on that tomorrow from the road. Stay posted, stay hungry (but not for to long)!

Chef Dellarose Analysis

As I mentioned in a previous installment high volume production, HVP, is broken down into two sections. You can find the first part of this analysis here. The second portion of HVP was lunch class. Our kitchen fed over 100 students during our lunch service. Plates ranged from salads to sandwiches and we even prepared specials. At this point in the program we only had a week and a half remaining until we all departed for externship.

The chef instructor, Chef Dellarose, greeted my class with relaxed gentle tone. He gave us his expectations, which were simple. He wanted us to cook the right way. Each day we were expected to complete our responsibilities on time and to the best of our ability. Each class day commenced with a short lecture with a pre-game talk about the dish our station was preparing. Chef would frequently ask us questions to ensure we were both paying attention and prepared.

Our menu was preplanned and each dish was composed of a protein or entrée item, two vegetables, a starch and a sauce. This is the class where we used the techniques we had been taught in fundies and practiced during the program on a much larger scale. Rather than making 1 gallon of soup we were expected to produce 5.

Chef was very relaxed. He treated us more like responsible employees rather than students. Chef would patrol the class looking for students making mistakes. Anytime he found or saw something wrong he’d correct the issue and move on. There never was much yelling when something went wrong. Chef would calmly ask that the issue be corrected and then explain a solution if the student didn’t know how.

This was the first class where demo plates became significant. Each day chef blocked time so that students could craft one plate before service. Chef would then have us critique our own dish asking us about seasoning and doneness. He forced us to think as independent people so that we could use these tools on the future.

I honestly don’t remember that much about Chef Dellarose. His class always was fairly quiet and unfortunately he never smashed any muffins. Chef was always focused on us and a constantly gave feedback on everything.

He was relaxed, quiet and calm.

Chef Ward Analysis

The high volume production, HVP, class was split into two segments. It featured two chef instructors, one for the breakfast portion and one for lunch or dinner depending on scheduling. Now the class is broken into three parts and students get a mix of all three categories. HVP is the final class before externship. It helps students gear up for larger scale food production such as large restaurants, hotels or catering.

The breakfast chef was a combination of two instructors. One of them was shadowing so that he could learn the class procedures and take over the breakfast portion of the class later down the road. Chef Ward, was the main instructor. He was a thin, energetic chef who, regardless of the 2.00am meeting time and his silver hair, came into class with a smile and 100% energy. It was like he mainlined espresso shots before class. He was always running around giving instructions to other students all while getting the class set-up for service. He gave students his all, answering any questions that they had and showing the proper techniques for things as simple as making pancake batter. Each day he would call for demos so he could show us something new. And each day was always full of surprises.

Chef did have a drive for doing things consistently, which he should. Looking back to an early morning of class, my partner for the day had just finished baking muffins.   As she was un-moulding them and lining them up on a cooling rack, chef waltzed by and glanced down. He stopped and out of my peripherals I noticed him putting two muffins on the table. They were two completely different sizes. He called our attention and as we looked up it began. In a serious tone he quietly asked “Hey, which one of these would you rather eat?” he paused waiting intently for a response. “That one” my partner said quietly in her thick New York accent as she sheepishly gestured to the larger muffin. “Then why aren’t they all like that?” At this point he was in a full rage as he slammed he hands down, crushing the two hot muffins on the table as they exploded like rocks blown away in a quarry.

To this day I still think this was one of the funniest things I saw at CIA. Due to the nature of the class consistency is key. Large amounts of food have to go out to the customer in a consistent manner. I appreciated Chef Ward’s teaching style. It was a very hands on approach and it seemed like he had a genuine concern for students and their education. He was always energetic and it translated as a passion for what he does. It was refreshing to have him just after Chef Johnson, whose approach was the polar opposite. I thoroughly enjoyed Chef Ward and everything he had to teach.

His 3 word description. Energetic. Enthusiastic. Consistent.

Chef DiPerri Analysis

On the days where I have nothing major to report I have chosen to go back and write about some of my experiences at CIA. The focus will be on chef analyses but will also include small vignettes about exploits with friends.

The start of the program at CIA begins with a class called culinary fundamentals, we call it fundies. This class teaches the basics that are used throughout the programme. The chef instructor varies depending on start date and time block and I was given the esteemed honor to have Chef Joseph DiPerri. Day one commenced with a tour of the kitchen. Chef moved around the kitchen showing us where equipment was located as well as the general procedure for his kitchen. One of our daily tasks as a class was to produce 50-80 gallons of chicken and beef stock. Most fundies class are only required to practice making stock for the first quarter of the class, 7 instructional days. But our Chef was a genius. Each bag of stock that we produced was given a value that could be redeemed by selling the stock back to the storeroom. By constantly maintaining this flow of production Chef always had stock in inventory but also never ran over budget for his kitchen.

Chef was always stern with us. He wanted things done one way, the right way. From day 1 the quote “pros not schmos” was something that rang throughout our kitchen. Chef was adamant about properly cooking food and using the correct techniques. Every demonstration he showed us was interactive. Chef asked us questions about the science of the food as well as the history. Topics like Millard Reaction would transition into later topics about protein coagulation all while chef seared meat in a hot sauté pan or crafted a beautiful Consommé. When our class had rough days he would scream across the tables “You guys make me want to go jump off the Mid-Hudson bridge!”. He never was rude or disrespectful, but he would often make light of common student mistakes, of course he had seen it time and time again.

Chef would often address the class with “Say the word”, after points of enlightenment, common mistakes or realizations such as burning a pot of rice or breaking a buerre blanc. These of course were things we had been taught to avoid and they had been explained and re-explained multiple times. Every time we heard this echo through the class room our response was always, as you might imagine, “Oh…”. He would frequently jest about these mistakes by asking our group leader, as if he knew, why the vegetables hadn’t been washed or there was plastic wrap in the compost bin. “Group leader, why the man who…” he’d shout in a terrible French accent, followed by the grievous offence.

Chef has over 20 years’ experience in the industry as well as over 20 years of tenure at the CIA. He continues to teach fundies because I believe it is something he loves. He is a genuine chef that wants to give you all of his knowledge. He wants things done the right way and he has no tolerance for laziness or apathy. He always explained why, which was frequently helpful when trying to understand and learn the techniques used in the kitchen. He was very critical, not afraid to lay into a student if they made a blatant error like under seasoning or over cooking. He allowed no short cuts and wanted everyone to perform at their best. He kept us focused and attentive by constantly asking us questions and reiterating information. “Don’t bobble head me!”, he would remark after giving us a valuable piece of information making sure we weren’t just nodding our head to appease him.

Chef DiPerri is my mentor at CIA and he has provided me with insight that I couldn’t hope to gather from anywhere else. His class and teachings were truly unique and I consider everything he taught me each and every day. He was a great guide for the start of my CIA career and no amount of words could possibly do him justice.

“Group leader, why the man who put ketchup in his Consommé? Six page paper on how to make Consommé!”

-Chef DiPerri’s imitation of one of his former instructors.

The real reason onions make you cry.

During a lecture today we discussed the use of the pestle and mortar. One of the teams in our class was making a salsa that was ground rather than chopped. We were using tomatoes, jalapenos and Anaheim chilies, onions, lemon juice and cilantro. This process of grind gives the salsa a slightly more unique mouth feel as well as flavor imparted from the stone that composes the pestle and mortar. This particular version was made of volcanic rock from the Mexico. It was a rustic looking bowl on a three small pegs. The mortar was short and resembled an inverted snow cone with a rounded tip.
The discussion changed directions when Chef presented the class with a question. Why do we not add the onion in immediately to the mix and grind it. Onions belong to the brassica family. This is a family of vegetables that contain sulfur. These gases are released when an onion is cut. When using a sharp knife, the cells are sliced rather than crushed or popped. This prevents the mists of sulfur gases. When this gas mixes with our tears it actually creates an hydrochloric acid (HCl)
This was significant because processing the onions with all of the other ingredients causes more of the gases to get released. They overwhelm the salsa rather than enhance the flavor. The concept was, the more that an onion is processed, whether that be chopped, minced or ground, it will release more and more flavor. Some other bulbs such as shallots also share these same properties. Mincing shallots by hand will yield a more gentle flavor than if they are chopped.

Chef Johnson Analysis

Chef Johnson is easily the toughest chef at the CIA.  Not because he yells, screams or throws food across the kitchen.  But rather the way he teaches and grades.  Lets start with grading.  Chef has a fondness for timing and in an industry that focuses so much on being quick and timely I can understand why. The grading for class was very simple. You have a deadline for all prep work to be completed.  this was typically 10.30am. But for each minute late that team lost 4 points up to a cap of 50 points.  This was one of the reasons I have not written in sometime.  The first 3 days my group and I failed for the day.  This was based sole poor timing. The reason that this was so damn frustrating was the fact that our group, who is quite competent and proficient, would prep very well but then lose all of our points in the last six minutes.  This became quite annoying and it really made us rethink our timing.  The real reason Chef stressed finishing on time was because of the practical exam. 

For those of you who don’t know, the practical is a two part exam that tests students on one of six basic cooking competencies, as well as knowledge of 100 facts pulled from a 300 question bank.  The questions range from fundies go gastronomy to nutrition.  The grading is done on a pass fail basis, nut each student is still given a grade out of 100.  I passed with lower numbers then I care to admit. 

But back to Chef. The performance or cooking practical gives students 2.5 hours to cook and serve an entrée and soup that has been randomly selected. Chef mimicked this situation each day in class. Chef was the only person in school to take off 4 points for each minute late. Other chefs took 1 point just like you would get penalized on the actual practical. Chef forced us to work fast and quick.

The other thing that made Chef such a tough instructor was his methods. He was very hands off but he wanted us to know our material. He gave us no answers and expected us to do our research.

So how did I feel about Chef?  I honestly hated each and every second of his class.  I blamed my poor daily grade and performance solely on him and I struggled to learn much.  I found that his hands off approach was lazy and not helpful.  I frequently complained to others about how he ran class and how I thought he should teach class.  But I never really appreciated the value of working with him.  He worked me hard and gave no free handouts.  He was a surprisingly tough chef with a unique teaching style.

In three words: tough, quiet, strict,

At least the consomme’ was clear…

Today was the worst day I have had at the school.  My team and I earned a 50% for our daily grade meaning that we failed the day.  Now I want to preface this by saying that we are a team of three.  Now I am don’t want to seem like I am making excuses but it seems difficult to work with such a small team.   Chef said that during extern we would be working one station making double the prep.  So I guess I just have to get used to it.

The day started of alright.  We got into class and I had the consomme on around 8.00 am.  After completing that I jumped on some of the various prep work we had to complete for that day.  About 30 minutes before final inspection, this is where chef comes around and checks our prep work to make sure we are all set for service, shit hit the fan.  Sorry for the foul language, but that is the best way to describe this next series of events.

I had to finish cleaning the stock kettle because our team was assigned to make stock for the day.  As I was wrapping up my team had someone else jump on the kettle so that I could finish our prep. We had decided on vegetarian chili with cornbread for the day.  I began to make cornbread but shortly after measuring out the cornmeal chef came by and told me that it was to coarse and that it wouldn’t properly cook.  This was only a minor setback, so instead of cornbread I decided on making polenta.  Within minutes of me informing my team of the change I discovered that our chili, the body of our dish, had been scorched because someone had turned up our burner.  Chances are it was a mistake and we should have been watching it, but it still was frustrating.  So as it stands, no cornbread and now no veg entree.  In the midst of this confusion Laura remembered that we had not made our consomme garnish.  We were already 5 minutes late and had little to no prep work done.  The last few hours of work had been for nothing.

It gets better.  We knew we had lost all of our prep points for the day so we decided to be creative and use the polenta as our vegetarian option.  We spiced it up with cheese to give it a creamier and richer flavor and then we decided, after what seemed like and eternity that we would top it with tomato ragu and fried shallots.  “We played chopped in the kitchen…” This was Laura’s evaluation of our days performance and she couldn’t have been more spot on.  We made our entire dish from miscellaneous items we found in the kitchen.

We were nearing family meal and we still weren’t ready.  Service was going to be starting in 45 minutes.  Chef came by our station and told us that we needed a side for the poleta as well.  At this point we really had no more ideas, we used carrots that we cut and blanched.  As we presented our demo plate chef made a comment about how we needed something else.  He told us to make small garlic crostinis.  We were about 10 minutes out from service before we started these.  We cut french bread, made a garlic butter compound and then spread it and toasted them.  If only to make matters worse the first batch burned.  We had no more bread in teh kitchen so I had to run up to Bakeshop 1.  The chef was kind enough to give me a baguette to use for service.  About 5 minutes before service we were just getting the second batch in only to find out that they burned within seconds of being placed under the salamander.  Poor procedure but it was the best we could do with our time constraints.  Service itself went smoothly but our prep left about 2,000,000 things to be desired.

In the end what did we do.  We had a decent consomme and a “F” for the day.  The real reason why I think I am writing about this is not to vent and beat myself up.  But rather show that our team had commitment and perseverance.  After failing the day, we could of just left.  Leaving the kitchen short on hands and one less menu option.  I know that my group had the same though as we were stumbling to get ready for service.  In our chaos, I ran to Chef Riley’s room to see if he had extra baguettes.  As soon as he saw me he knew.  “What do you need Nathan?”  I explained that we were in the weeds and he said just a few words, “Keep going.”

I think that we resolved our issues and tomorrow we plan to have a much better day.  The first and second day of A La Carte actually went well.  Our timing was a little off but it wasn’t nearly as bad as today.  I will keep everyone posted.


A champion can win on anyone’s grass. (Chef Reilly Analysis)

This is a quote I frequently heard from Chef Reilly.  He made sure to push everyone in class everyday.  From the start of day one until now, my second to last day of Modern Banquets, I have enjoyed every second of class.

Day one I was greeted by a drill sergeant.   A baritone voiced chef who shouted simple commands and watched us scurry around the kitchen.

-Nathan Buckley

He led with very few words and refused to answer any of our simple questions.  “Chef, where is the cilantro?” , a student would ask, “I don’t know.” , chef would respond.

Chef Reilly started as tough chef but as our class began to work, it seemed that he started to loosen up.  It started with a joke here and there, and after the first week, I think chef knew what our class was really about.  Nearly 3 days into class chef called my team over.  “Alright folks, you are going to be having a potato peeling contest.  There can only be one winner.”  We went through the motions and after a few rounds he said, “Alright, Liz, step forward.  Everyone walk to the left one station and setup. ”  This was were I first heard those words. “I have seen you work with your tools, but a true champion can win on anyone’s grass.”  What chef had done was have us jump over one station and he had us using our neighbors peeler.  The contest went on and Liz was crowned as champion.  I had only acquired one win and I was placed in the final round where I had a DQ.  Chef really showed us who we was and how much he liked teaching.

About half way into the block chef dropped a huge class compliment.  We were sitting down for lecture and he said “You guys really know your stuff, you make me happy to teach again.”  The fact that chef had bestowed this compliment meant so much more then the words.  He had said that our class was one of the best he’s taught in some time.

Chef treated us like young chefs.  We were not afforded the convenience of pity nor help.  We were trained to work on our own and Chef made sure that we stayed on that course.  He made nothing easy and would bluntly let you know if you had failed.  He did not mask how he felt about the work we did.  He watched us cook with great pride.

I was pleasantly surprised in class today when chef took about 5 minutes to speak to me privately.  It wasn’t like my class couldn’t hear us but as I emptied a 2.5 gallon jug of oil into the fry-o-later we had a brief chat.  “So why do you want to be a cook?”  Chef asked me.  My reply was simple “I want to be a food critic, but I want to get as much experience as possible.”  Chef looked at me for only a second.  “You know whats good?”  He paused waiting for any response, but before I could get anything out he said “Many people who like food and think they can write become food critics.  It nice to see that someone who knows how to cook and wants to learn how to become better actually want to write. You seem to know what you’re doing.”  I was very pleased but I knew that I wanted to get any information I could.  “Do you have any tips,”  I asked.  His repose will forever be helpful, “Well you have to think of how to springboard, you know, where will this job help me get to in 10 years, 5 years.” He paused and then continued “You have to think about how to get their yourself.”  He went on to tell me how I needed to make an initiative to develop a network.  I had to be the one that went and met other food writers and learn how they got to where they were.  He even made the suggestion that while in Ireland, which I will discuss in a later post, that I try to find someone there who I can talk to.

Chef gave me a wealth of information because he knew that I could use it.  I really enjoyed modern banquets, even though I was often told to smile.  Chef taught me how to think on my own and really pointed me towards the first point in my career.

Thanks Chef,

Nathan J. Buckley

The great knife skills race.

Now that we have moved into the banquet portion of modern banquets the format of the class has changed somewhat.  The old itinerary was prep, service and then family meal and lecture.   Now with the new changes the class switches and we have our lecture around 7.00am and then family meal at 10.00am.  What this does is give us more time to break down and clean up after we do buffet service at lunch.  We also do not need as much time because we are not cooking items to order but rather for an entire buffet.

Now that we have all this extra time after we complete service, Chef has us practice our knife skills with the use of some friendly competition.  Each student is given one onion and then is asked to mince it.  Now mincing is something we do each day at this school so you would assume everyone would be pretty proficient at it.  When we first began this race I did just as poorly as everyone else.

Chef’s definition for mince is small inconsistent shaped cuts that are snowflake sized.  Now the procedure for mincing and onion is the same procedure we use for mincing shallots.  The only difference is that the food item we are cutting is larger.

The first day myself and a classmate of mine, Josh, were picked as finalist.  The preliminary round consists of the whole class and then chef picks the best two people to face off in a final round.  The only downside is that chef has the students switch knives.  Neither Josh nor I did well with this change.  Chef made only one comment, “A champion can win on anyone’s grass.”   I will be writing a post about this sometime in the near future.  It was considered a loss for both of us.

The next two days of this competition were taken by two other classmates of mine, Austin and Jason.  Both Austin and Jason have one win under their belt.  Friday Chef chose Jason as the winner based more on a technicality and today Austin won based on performance.

I spoke to chef briefly today and asked him what his grading criteria were.  The only two things he is checking for is good size and speed.  This is something that anyone in our class can win.  I feel that these competitions is one of the finest ways to have students practice their skills.  As chef says “There can only be one!” (winner)


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