The next article in Jason Zenobia’s series on his cooking school experience; he puts out yet another fire and gets some “yummy” feedback. Plus, Jason’s recipe for almond crusted tuna.
While the breakfast kitchen (that I almost burned down) had been a small, mostly quiet, self-contained space, the à la carte kitchen was a different beast entirely.
There was fire everywhere, but this time it was on purpose. Three or four students jostled each other as they worked behind the stove, grill and burners on the line at the front of the kitchen. Our chef-instructor was often to be found here, barking at the chefs-in-training as student waiters filed in from the front of the house class and placed their orders.
“Get that steak off the grill! Well-done is for idiots!”
“Keep your pan hot and ready!”
“Don’t wait for the order! Keep the vegetables coming!”
Tonight, I was grateful to be further back in the kitchen at one of the many cook stations where the other dozen-or-so students did prep work, practiced, and took timed tests. The noise was constant. The banging of pans on stovetops mingled with the creak of oven doors opening and closing. Always the dull, fast thud of knives on cutting boards and the sizzling flare of hot oil, searing meat and vegetables. Murmuring students, bumping into each other, excusing themselves for reaching and grabbing what they needed; alerting each other when passing through a blind spot.
“Behind!” was almost constantly heard or, if you carried a boiling pot or roasting pan fresh out of the oven, “Hot behind!” which always made me smile.
Tonight, amidst all the hubbub, Nina and I were taking our black box exams. We had each been given covered bus tubs with unknown contents. Inside was always some sort of protein, a vegetable, and a starch. We had forty minutes each to produce two identical plates for the instructor to evaluate. I marveled at her skill. She was tiny, swift, and graceful. She opened her box and started searing her lamb steaks, preparing water to simmer her green beans, and got oil on the stove to fry her fingerling potatoes.
All while I was still staring at my tuna.
She, like me and every student, had two kitchen towels tucked into her apron for use as hot mitts or to dry a wet hand. A stray lock of blond hair escaped from her ponytail and she brushed it back out of her face as she leaned into the stove to flip her lamb steaks and plunge her green beans into boiling, salted water. When she pulled away from the stove, I noticed that one of her towels was smoldering.
“Um—” was all I managed to say before the towel was in flames.
Cool as a cucumber, she swiftly pulled the towel from her waist and tossed it at my feet where the flames leapt on the greasy floor.
“Stomp on that,” she said.
I was vaguely aware of my high-pitched, hooty shrieks as I did my best impression of Tinkerbell doing the Mexican hat dance.
The flames went out, the class was staring, and our instructor was standing in front of me. He had heard about my attempt to burn down the breakfast kitchen.
“What is it with you and fire?”
We were all too busy to dwell on my performance and, after a moment or two, everyone returned to their tasks.
I handed Nina her charred towel. She must have noticed that I was discouraged.
“Sorry about that,” she said, tasting her sauce and plating her chops. Having more than 20 minutes to spare, she slid her plates into a warming oven and turned her attention to me. “How’s your tuna coming?”
I had dredged my fish in almond meal and managed a tomato cream sauce for my pasta. My fire dance had drained my confidence and filled me with doubt. Not just my tuna, but cooking school itself. I wasn’t sure what I was doing there.
We weren’t supposed to help each other with black box tests, but she and I chatted as I seared the almond crust on my tuna steaks.
“This is all a big mistake,” I muttered.
“You’re wrong,” she said, “that tuna is going to be delicious.”
Nina was a beautiful young woman full of talent in a macho environment. I saw myself as an awkward, nelly gay guy who couldn’t get his act together, much less fit in. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t hear the words “fag!” or “gay,” not directed at me, just used as general insults. It was all wearing me down.
“I don’t belong here,” I told her as I blanched my broccoli.
“Are you kidding me?” I was surprised to hear her shout. “Look at your plates! Look at them!”
I turned to my tuna. Two identical plates. The tuna steaks had golden, crispy almond crusts, offset by my cutting them in half, exposing the ruby jewel-like center of raw, ahi-grade fish. Drizzled over each was a golden beurre blanc. Adding a spoonful of concasse tomato to my pasta sauce, the color turned to warm persimmon with bright green olives popping to life. My broccoli was like emeralds.
“They are beautiful,” I admitted.
“And you did that while putting out a fire.” She paused. “That I started.”
We shared a short laugh, stifling it as our instructor arrived to admire Nina’s lamb chops and sides before he turned to me.
“And how’s my little fire starter doing tonight?”
The almond crust of my tuna made a perfect crunching sound as his fork sank into it. He dabbed the fish into the tart beurre blanc and took a bite.
“Damn,” he said. “That is yummy.” I’d never heard him use the word “yummy.” He stabbed into my plate for seconds. He never took seconds.
“Hey!” he shouted. Then, louder, “Hey, class!” The noise died down.
“If you want to try something yummy, try Jason’s tuna. It’s good.”
I stepped back as the class crowded in, sampling my work.
It was nice to hear.
JASON’S RECIPE FOR …
Almond Crusted Tuna
2 large tuna steaks
finely ground almond meal
1 finely minced shallot
cold, unsalted butter
rice or white vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
IMPORTANT: You must use sashimi grade fish for this dish, since it is essentially raw.
Dredge your tuna steaks in egg, then almond meal.
Sear in a small amount of olive oil in a very hot pan, just long enough to toast the almonds and barely cook the outer edges of the fish. This only takes a few moments, so keep your eyes on it.
Place the cooked steaks on warm plates in a warm oven (not too hot, you don’t want to cook the fish any further).
Working quickly, sauté a tablespoon of minced shallot in hot olive oil for about thirty seconds. Deglaze the pan with a splash of rice vinegar or white vinegar and several tablespoons of dry vermouth. When the pan is au sec (almost dry) remove it from the heat and toss in several pats of cold, unsalted butter. Swirl the butter in the pan off the heat, allowing it to melt. The vinegar and wine will help keep the butter creamy without separating.
Pour the sauce over your fish and serve with a green vegetable and starch of your choice.