Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chef Viverito

Somewhere in the basement of Roth Hall at the Culinary Institute of America, 11 students fidgeted in their slightly too small chairs and narrow bench tables. The room was filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement--this was the first class that they would be required to use their brand new school-issued kitchen knives.

Chef Viverito finally strode in to class. He looked relatively young: I guessed somewhere in his early 30s. He had short black, wavy hair that matched his jet-black eyes. His nose was quite pointed in a nearly triangular way that complemented his angular chin. He took a seat on the stool at the front of the room, leaned back, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and sized us up.

"So how was your first day of cutting fish?" he finally asked in a sharp, stern voice. It was more of a rhetorical question than anything as we had just a couple hours before at 530am scaled, cleaned, and fabricated nearly a 100 fish--for some of us it was the first time they had done it.

We all mumbled something inaudible.

"Good. Because that's what you're going to be doing every morning for the next seven days. Today was a bit crazy because it was the long weekend and we had to do extra work, but you're going to increase your speed and intensity." He paused, turned away to look at something, and then looked at us again.

"Ok. Welcome to Fish Identification and Fabrication!" he said as if we were going to regret it.

"And congratulations! Of all the fish instructors you could have gotten, you got the hardest one!" he malevolently smiled. "My class is THE most difficult and you will have to earn your grade here. None of this 'everyone starts with a 100 or an A' crap. All of you start with a zero, and all of you will earn every single point. Just coming to class and doing your homework will not get you an A. All of that is already expected of you. Why should that be anything special?"

"I'm not gonna give you a pat on the back and say 'Ooo, you came to class and did your homework--Good job!?" He made a face and mock-applauded. Then, before we had time to laugh, he became serious, "If you want an A in this class, you have to go above and beyond that. This isn't high school anymore."

In reality, the majority of us were post-college students in their twenties. We just sat silently. He stood up and looked down at us.

"Although I am the most difficult fish instructor, you should actually be thanking your lucky stars. Because you are going to learn the most about fish and you're going to be the best fish cutters at this entire school for the 7 days. I'll be damned if the other class after us is going to be better than you. And I'll be damned if you fail this class" He jammed his finger on his desk for emphasis as he delivered that impassioned statement.

"Actually, scratch that," he suddenly said to himself. He changed back to his I-don't-give-shit tone of voice. "I couldn't care less if you fail. It's your money. You can do what you want with it. Just paying for this education doesn't mean you'll get a good grade or even a good education. I mean, I'll give you the resources, but you have to use it."

"Wait. You know what? It's not even your money. It's your parents money. Go ahead and waste their money. And if they call me and start complaining, I really don't give a damn," he paused here and defiantly looked at us, as if waiting for someone to breakdown and cry and run out of the room.

At this moment, I excitedly thought to myself: Man, what a BADASS!

"Alright, let's learn about some fish."

And learn we did.


Some of my favorite endearing quotes from Chef Viverito.

"Did you take kindergarten? Because for some reason, you can't seem to count the number of fish we need."

"Wow, you seriously do not want to listen to me do you?"

"You've got two seconds to ask me "Chef, what am I doing wrong?"

"I like you all as people, but when it comes to following directions...Jesus!"

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I See Dead Animals

It's been two months since I first came to the CIA and an entire month since I last updated. Apparently the second three weeks of school was much more time intensive than the first three weeks, which we call blocks here at the CIA. Since many of you may be curious as to what the curriculum is like here, I might as well describe it now:

The degree I am pursuing is an Associate’s degree. This degree takes four semesters of 15 weeks each in addition to a 18-21 week internship at a restaurant of my choice, for a grand total of approximately 80 weeks. The school runs on a progressive block system, where every three weeks a block is completed and a new block begins. It goes from Block A to Block U.

Right now, I’m in Block D, with 16 more blocks to go. This means that every three weeks a class graduates and a new class enters. This also means that things repeat themselves every three weeks in some kind of perpetual déjà vu. Teachers start to lose track of what day it is or what students are in their class or feel like they said something before to the present class when they actually haven’t or repeat the same story they told yesterday thinking that we haven’t heard it before. So we don't think in terms of dates or days of the week--it's simply Day 1,2,3,4,5...all the way to day 15 (5 school days in a week). This three week block system also means that the meals repeat themselves every 21 days.

Since this is a culinary school, we make food. This food is then served to the rest of the campus. The CIA is unique in the sense that the students and the food staff are the same people. We are actually paying the school to be a part of the food service staff for the entire campus. We also pay for the food they buy to feed us. In essence, we pay the CIA to cook and serve ourselves food they buy with our money. Kudos CIA, you’ve found a great way to legally exploit student labor!

But I’m not complaining. The food here is like an 8 out of 10. Some days I’ll get burgers and fries, but other days I’ll get sea scallops and chorizo-stuffed squid or braised beef short ribs or shrimp and lobster etouffee, replete with a variety of pastries, cakes, and other desserts freshly made that morning. It’s damn good food over here.

Anyway, I just started my 4th block for a total of 10 weeks, and I have stories from each one (which I’ll share at a later date) that will rock your world. Well, maybe not rock, but at the very least tickle your fancy.

I’ll share one today:

So one of the main reasons for my absence from updating my blog was Block C. Block C was like the anatomy lab of medical school, the very first class we take at medical school and the foundation of medical knowledge. If you ever went to certain medical school in Texas, you may remember the days where we would wake up at 7am and trudge on over to a building full of dead people. Then we would cut dead people for like 4-6 hours straight. Then we would spend another 2-4 hours just studying and looking at dead people and name every single obscure muscle or fact about them. Anatomy lab would be so intense that we pretty much had no life--the irony was that anatomy would be the easiest class we would take…

At the CIA, Block C is Seafood, Fish, and Meat Identification and Fabrication, one of the very first classes we take and the foundation of culinary knowledge. As part of the AM shift, I would get up at the god awful hour of 4:30 in the morning. If you ever heard of the phrase “getting up at the asscrack of dawn” referring to starting the day at 600 in the morning during the winter, then starting at 430am in winter is “getting up at the hairy butthole of dawn.” I mean, who else gets up at 4:30 in the morning? Apparently only rainstorms and worms because every morning for a week I trudged over to school soaked on wet sidewalks infested with worms.

We’d then get to class and that smelled like Chinese seafood markets and oxidized blood. Then we’d cut dead fish, lambs, cows, veal, etc. (if you can eat it, we’ll cut it) for 5 hours. Then we’d have lecture for another 4 hours about all the different cuts and species of animals that we were responsible for. At the end of the day we’d smell like we crawled over a pile of a fish bones or a slaughterhouse floor. You didn’t even have to smell us to know that we were cutting dead animals all day--you could tell us apart simply by looking at the amount of blood that was splattered all over our clothes, the crazed, exhausted look in our eyes, and our slow abnormal gait as if the Zombie Apocalypse had just occurred.

Block C took over my life. But the story doesn't end there. Just before Block C started, I talked to a classmate who was about to finish Block C. I asked him what the chef for Fish ID and Fabrication was like (we had a different chef for Meat), and then he looked me dead in the eye with a mock-serious tone: “Chef Viverito will own you." I simply brushed this off with nervous laughter thinking, “Surely Chef Viverito can't be that bad…”

Well, I was wrong.

To be continued...

Next entry: Chef “I-Will-Tear-You-A-New-Asshole-If-You-Don’t-Do-As-I-Say” Viverito