For the past 10 weeks I have been immersed in cooking, developing and learning a whole lot along the way! I’ve been honing skills in culinary school at the International Culinary Center. This week marks the completion of 100 hours in a professional kitchen where I focused on improving my knife skills, developing flavors through stocks and sauces, breaking down proteins and learning a whole slew of cooking techniques from poaching to braising to baking.
I have yearned to go to culinary school for many years, but knowing I would never work in a professional restaurant kitchen prohibited me from forking over a rather hefty tuition. That said, on December 23rd I signed a deal for my very first cookbook. It’s a dream I’ve quietly dreamt for many, many years, and one I floated out into the universe a year ago. That idea was heard and embraced by Abrams with a two-book deal – one food, the other design. For me, this was cause to finally register for culinary school! It was indeed a reason to invest in myself and develop my skills further, and most of all, it was cause to give myself a boost of confidence. I’m not just bursting with excitement over here – I am TRULY overjoyed, and well, perhaps a bit scared, too!
I have been learning SO much about the publishing world and about the book process — of putting a proposal and book together, what sells, what does not and who specifically my reader is. I’m thinking about what it is I want to say that is different from the rest – what will set me apart? So aside from cooking school, that brings me to the second reason I’ve been in the kitchen so much as of the late — the recipe development! While I am in school two nights a week, I am also spending three days a week in my home kitchen developing recipes for the book. Usually I develop three to five recipes per day, depending how laborious they are…and how successful they are. Because they are not always successful, I’ll admit!
These days have been equally as fascinating to me as school. I’m taking hyper-specific notes as I cook, pausing to weigh and measure every ingredient, down to the minute ounce, and really becoming aware of how to bring some of my cooking intuition to life on a page. After I develop a dish, there is the additional step of transcribing my notes and considering how to actually write the recipe. How do I give visual indicators to let people know, say, when to flip your fish, along with the approximate time on each side? And for that matter, do I want to say “about” or “approximate”? Do I want to say “until crisp” or “until golden brown”? And am I being consistent so each set of instructions reads cohesively throughout the book? I also have to reflect on my own point of view. I need to nail down my style of writing. I need to make sure the recipes are varied but still true to my style of cooking. I have also been noticing where there is repetition in my cooking style, where I need to expand my horizons and when I need to exhibit restraint. Coco Chanel has that brilliant quote about looking in the mirror before you leave a room and taking one thing off. Well, cooking and developing is not so different!
I love to learn, I love to grow, I need to expand my capabilities, always. And this process — culinary school, writing a book and recipe developing is pushing me further than I ever imagined possible! I have been overwhelmed and confused at times – questioning myself, struggling to make a decision or feeling like I have bitten off more than I can chew. And sadly, I’m not spending as much time with my husband and son as I’d like. But, this is my moment and I am going to grasp it. Even though I am admittedly really nervous, I would not have it any other way — it is part of my process and will make for a better book, a better cook and a better person, I imagine. I also love every minute of it! I cannot wait to share all I have learned with you all.
Today, as the colder winter months begin to dwindle, before we embrace the crisp flavors of spring and the season’s bright green produce that pushes its way through the earth, I share a cozy and warming braise of chicken and dumplings. It’s a dish I developed together with recipe developer Jenny Huang this month, and it’s one so swoony and delicious I just had to share it. It also happens to combine many of the techniques I learned in culinary school. This dish is deeply developed in its flavors (my instructor, chef Nick would be proud!), swirling with a beautiful variety of trumpet mushrooms and sherry vinegar, and cooked for hours so the stock is velvety and rich. The yummiest final touch to this swoonified recipe is the inclusion of polenta dumplings. They steam directly in the cooking liquid and are like little pillow puffs, creating the most decadent bite. This is one to simmer on your stove on a Sunday afternoon, filling the home with the aroma of comforting goodness. Wish me luck on my journey…I promise to deliver something delicious – a feast for both your stomach and eyes!