By
Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

In ICE’s Chocolate Lab, students get to take part in the bean-to-bar chocolate process, giving them a firsthand education on the importance of ingredient sourcing, refining and selection. Below, I’ve compiled some surprising facts about the different stages of the chocolate making process. These observations may be old hat to professional chocolate makers, but they are rarely — if ever — considered by chefs and consumers.

Raw Chocolate Sorting Beans Chocolate Lab Bean to Bar

Raw Beans
Straight out of the bag, fermented and dried beans present a serious microbiological risk, including E. coli and salmonella. Outbreaks linked to chocolate are rare, but the risk necessitates proper handling and storage. Simply put, I treat raw beans as if they were raw meat. Also, raw beans must be carefully sorted and cleaned of the various debris found in each bag (flat and moldy beans, stones, leaves, sticks, etc.). If that’s not enough, it isn’t uncommon for tropical moth eggs to hitch a ride on the surface of a cocoa bean! All of the beans that arrive at ICE’s lab are immediately bagged, sealed and chilled until roasting — before any of those tiny wings get an opportunity to hatch.

Roasting
In addition to providing the only bacteria and moth “kill step” that renders the beans safe to consume, roasting allows for critical flavor development of the cocoa bean, further developing the precursors created during fermentation. Roasting also reduces the moisture content of the dried bean (chocolatiers always seek to minimize the amount of water in finished chocolate), which upon delivery is around 6-8%. Roasting parameters vary by bean type, origin, quantity and the desired flavor profiles—but typically roasters aim for 30-60 minutes or more at temperatures in the range of 300-350°F. Determining “doneness” is mostly subjective and instinctive. Chocolatiers primarily go by smell and taste, but also closely monitor the temperature of the bean mass throughout the process.

Winnowing
After roasting, the beans must be cracked and winnowed, separating the nibs from the shell. The shell alone can account for almost 15% of the roasted bean by weight and adversely affects the flavor and texture of finished chocolate. What’s more, the shell contains elevated levels of toxic heavy metals. Unsurprisingly, the acceptable industry standard for shell content in processed nibs is less than 1%.

Roasting Winnowing Chocolate Production Bean to Bar

Roasting beans and winnowed cocoa nibs

Grinding
In most cocoa processing systems a “pre-grinding” of the nibs is necessary, to reduce both overall processing time and the eventual wear on refining machines. After grinding, the nibs are reduced to a thick paste referred to as “chocolate liquor,” with a mean particle size around 100 microns. (And yes, the term “liquor” is confusing to many, as there is no actual alcohol involved!)

Pressing Cocoa Butter
A portion of the liquor can be pressed to produce cocoa butter, which makes up roughly 50% of the beans’ weight. In the lab, this process takes one to two hours and nearly 65 tons of force. The remaining byproduct — known as “press cake” — can be further processed into cocoa powder.

Unlike the deodorized cocoa butter most chefs are familiar with, freshly pressed butter reflects the flavor compounds from the original beans. As most fine chocolate has a total fat content of 35-40% by weight, this additional cocoa butter can be added to boost the final percentage. For some single origin enthusiasts, this added butter makes or breaks a product’s bean-to-bar status, depending on whether or not the extra butter and original liquor are extracted from the same batch of beans.

Refining
Refining reduces the particle size of the liquor to an average of 20 microns. The human tongue can begin to detect grittiness at particle sizes larger than 35 microns, but reducing particle size below 20 microns increases the surface area of the cocoa butter, resulting in an unpleasantly thick consistency.

Refining is also the point in the bean-to-bar process at which other ingredients are introduced — sugar, additional cocoa butter, whole milk powder, etc. This process is achieved by an array of different machines, from stone melangeurs to roller refiners. Some systems, like our ball mill, work as a “universal,” allowing for “conching” to occur simultaneously with refining, due to the addition of temperature and airflow control.

Cocoa Butter Sifting Chocolate Refining Bean to Bar

Freshly pressed cocoa butter and sifting chocolate liquor

Conching
Conching — which involves heat, airflow and agitation — is critical for flavor development (removing unwanted volatile compounds), texture (coating the solid particles with cocoa butter) and further moisture reduction. This process can last for hours or days, depending on the desired results. However, conching time alone is not necessarily a measure of quality.

Formulation
The final “recipe” for a batch of chocolate is determined by the addition of other ingredients, and will vary depending on such factors as bean type, desired flavor profile and application. The percentage you see on the label of finished chocolate refers to the total amount of cocoa solids by weight — meaning the nibs or liquor plus any added cocoa butter. This number alone is quantitative, not qualitative — a 70% chocolate may be 70% nibs or any equivalent combination of nibs and cocoa butter. Therefore, these percentages may not offer much insight into flavor, but they can tell us how much sugar was added. The percentage of sugar simply equals 100 minus the cocoa percentage (accounting for less than 1% additional vanilla or stabilizers like lecithin, etc.).

Sifting
Before tempering, it is beneficial to sift or strain the finished chocolate through vibrating screens to remove any large particles that are difficult to refine — notably the “radicle” (or germ stem) that is a part of each bean. This hard stem is very bitter and can produce a gritty texture if left in the chocolate. Integrating a pass by powerful magnets into the sifting process can also eliminate the worry of any remaining hard metals in the chocolate.

Finished Chocolate Bean to Bar Aging

Aging
While the aging process is not well understood or widely researched, both large manufacturers and small-batch artisans agree that several weeks of aging finished chocolate allows for better, rounder flavor. Large companies inherently allow for this process in their distribution network, while artisan producers will hold chocolate batches in reserve for two months or more before tempering, molding and packaging.

Can’t wait to check out ICE’s Chocolate Lab? Learn more about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program. 

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By Carly DeFilippo

In the realm of culinary careers, food styling has historically gotten a bit of a bad rap. From mashed potatoes standing in for ice cream to marbles boosting the hearty look of a soup, it’s a profession that was once better known for trickery than honest beauty. Thankfully, recent trends in food media are pointing toward the less polished look. Among the media outlets popularizing this more natural approach to food styling? The celebrated source for all things cooking, Food52.

Spaghetti with eggplant and brussels sprouts, styled by ICE students.

Spaghetti with eggplant and brussels sprouts, styled by ICE students.

A student practices photographing fresh produce; first attempts at still life food styling.

A student practices photographing fresh produce; first attempts at still life food styling.

Yet, however more appealing it may be, this approach to styling isn’t without its challenges. Narrowing your primary tools to good lighting, beautiful props and high quality ingredients makes a talented food stylist’s skill — and speed — even more valuable. That’s why ICE asked Food52 creative director (and ICE Culinary Arts alum!) Kristen Miglore and freelance food stylist Kristy Mucci to share their top food styling tips in our recreational course Food Styling with Food52. Starting with the premise that every dish must be both beautiful and edible, here’s how the pros style food:

  • Start with great ingredients. This is the time to splurge at the greenmarket. Find the most beautiful products you can, as they’re the base on which you’ll build a beautiful plate.
  • Think about how food will change over time. Whether you’re tossing a salad or icing a cake, think about how your ingredients will transform over the course of the cooking process — and how quickly they’ll wilt, melt or dry up while waiting for their close-up.
  • Go easy on the salt. If you’re looking for a golden-brown crust on your steak, salt is your friend. But if you’re sautéing vegetables, wait to season them until after the shot, as the salt will break down their structure as they cook.
  • Give it a spritz. Recapture that freshly cooked look with a few well-placed drops of olive oil or a light spray of water.
  • The two-part freeze. For objects that melt easily (like ice cream), scoop them into the shape you want, and then put them back in the freezer on a sheet pan. That way, each painstakingly crafted quenelle or spherical scoop will have the longest shelf-life possible. (Added tip: When working under hot artificial lights, professional stylists often sift pellets of dried ice over easily melted objects.)
  • Don’t be afraid of the mess. Gently place your base components on a plate, then reposition any stray bits and add extra ingredients for texture or color. If you try to individually plate every strand of pasta or salad leaf, your plate will never look natural.
  • Clean without chemicals. Don’t use Windex on perfectly edible plates of food. Clean streaks or fingerprints with cotton balls or q-tips dipped in a solution of white vinegar (or vodka) and water.
A student plates lentils in the "brown foods" challenge.

A student plates lentils in the “brown foods” challenge.

Kristen and Kristy also shared a few of their theories on what makes (and how to consistently achieve) a great shot:

  • Focus on the food. If your content is all about cooking (or eating, for that matter), then make the food your focus. Don’t be afraid to keep the styling simple or zoom in for a close-up.
  • Shoot raw ingredients and finished dishes separately. As Kristen and Kristy aptly pointed out, there’s a common trend where food stylists use raw ingredients to decorate a shot of a finished dish. Instead, they suggest preparing two separate photographs: a beautiful “before” shot of the raw ingredients and a plated “after” shot to demonstrate the end goal.
  • Explore the negative space. Have you ever eaten something so delicious that you forgot to grab a photo? That’s the idea here. Sometimes crumbs, a leftover streak of sauce or a rumpled napkin tells as much of a story as a perfect-looking plate.
  • Go through the motions. If there are utensils in your shot, think about where you would most naturally place them. (Additional pro tip: Struggling to prop up your fork at a certain angle? Little balls of wax are a perfect non-toxic tool.)
  • Get a safety shot. Does that roasted chicken look pretty good in the pan? Are your pancakes stacked up perfectly pre-syrup? Take the good shot while you have it, and then consider plating your chicken or attempting to get that coveted syrup-pouring shot. If those efforts fail, at least you have that first shot in the bag.
  • Give yourself more than one option. Always have an extra plate, bowl or utensil or two on hand. Sometimes it takes a few tries to create the perfect shot.
  • Keep your eyes open. Sometimes the best photos aren’t the ones you plan. The more time you spend styling and shooting food, the more you’ll begin to notice the visually stunning moments that are a natural part of the process of cooking.

For more information about food styling and media classes at ICE, click here.  

Kristen and Kristy pose with some of their food styling students.

Kristen and Kristy pose with food styling students during a recreational course at ICE

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By Tessa Thompson, Department of Career Services

If you’re a culinary or pastry student at ICE and haven’t heard the word “trail” yet, you will soon enough! Just as “86,” “mise en place,” and “hot behind!” are all part of the unique and universal kitchen lingo, the concept of the trail is also a defining aspect of the restaurant world.

Imagine going for a job interview that lasts 8-12 hours, where your potential employer poses questions while you casually peel carrots and de-stem thyme. You get a firsthand view of what life on the job would be like…by actually doing the job. In short, it’s unlike any other type of interview.

What Is a Trail - Working Alongside Chef

All ICE students trail as part of their externship selection process, but it doesn’t end there. Restaurant professionals continue to trail throughout their careers, from their first job as garde manger to years later, when they’re vying for an executive chef position.

A trail is a working audition: a chance to show your best work, from knife skills to efficiency to knowledge of ingredients. It’s a chance for an employer to see if you would be a good fit on their team. It’s also an opportunity for you to experience the specific culture and environment of a kitchen and decide if it’s the right place for you—something you’ll never get from an interview for a more traditional job.

What is a Trail - Fast Paced Restaurant

So, now that you know what a trail is, how can you ace the opportunity and land the job? The most important first step is to go in with a positive attitude, an eagerness to work and a willingness to listen and learn. Here are some additional “FAQs” that we frequently get from students at ICE:

What should I wear?  First impressions start at the front door, before you change into your chef whites.  Generally, a nice pair of pants and button-down shirt are appropriate to wear to the restaurant. When you change into your uniform, make sure it is ironed, clean and complete—kitchen shoes, socks, hat, apron, hair tied back, etc. Leave your jewelry at home and go light on any make-up or perfume.

What should I bring?  Your knives — but not every single one! Just bring the five essentials: your chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife, peeler and sharpening steel. For pastry students, add an offset spatula and a thermometer. Also, be sure to have a pen, a sharpie and a small notepad to take notes.

Bread Baking - Baking School - Pastry School - Bread Baking - Baking Student

What NOT to bring?  Valuable items. Wads of cash. Jewelry. iPads and other electronic equipment. And while they don’t expect you to leave your phone at home, be sure it is turned off and out of sight in the kitchen.

When is the best time to contact a chef?  Generally, it’s best to reach a chef before or after service on less busy days in the restaurant (normally Monday to Thursday, between 3-5pm).

How many trails should I go on?  Every student is different, but a minimum of three to five trails is generally a good amount for your first job. Once you’re working in the industry, you can do one-day trails or short “stages” at as many restaurants as you like. The general rule is to see enough different kitchens to compare sites (but not so many that it completely muddles your thinking).

If you keep these simple guidelines in mind, you’ll go into each trail with the confidence to tackle whatever is asked of you.

Click here to learn more about ICE’s career training programs. 

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By Timothy Cooper

This interview originally appeared in ICE’s Main Course newsletter. 

Padma Lakshmi is perhaps best known as host and executive producer of Bravo’s Emmy Award–winning “Top Chef,” currently in its 14th season. But prior to that position, she was also an actress, food expert, model, and award-winning author.

Padma Lakshmi

Photo Credit: Inez & Vinoodh

Born in India, she grew up in America, graduated from Clark University with degrees in theater arts and American literature, and worked as a fashion model in Europe and the United States. Early on, she hosted two cooking shows on Food Network: “Padma’s Passport,” where she cooked dishes from around the world, and the documentary series “Planet Food.” She also wrote the best-selling cookbook “Easy Exotic,” and a second cookbook, “Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet.” In 2016, she published her memoir, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” as well as her new culinary compendium, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”

For her hosting and judging role on “Top Chef,” she was nominated for an Emmy. Her line of culinary products, called Padma’s Easy Exotic, includes frozen organic foods, spice blends, teas, and more.

In 2009, she cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to bring attention to the disease she’d suffered from for years. In addition to helping launch a research facility for the disease, she helped get a bill passed in the New York State Senate to expand teen health initiatives throughout the state.

You’ve already had such a varied career, in areas including acting, modeling, authoring, TV hosting, and more. How did that develop into a focus on food?

Padma Lakshmi: My earliest memories are all about food, actually. They occurred mostly when I was a toddler in India. I still remember being on my grandmother’s cool marble floor in her kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to really cook back then, but I could still shell peas out of their pods or break the ends off of beans. From very early on, I associated cooking with womanhood. All the fun stuff was always happening in the kitchen.

Now you can get everything everywhere, but when I was a child there were certain delicacies that you couldn’t get in the south [of India] that we would have relatives bring us from the north. So just being covetous of different ingredients from different places started very young for me. I have been hunting and gathering ever since. My new spice book is definitely an offshoot of that lifelong passion.

Those ingredients you coveted—were a lot of them spices and herbs, or did they span the gamut?

In the case of coming from north India to south India, I remember my uncle used to always bring us something called aam papad, which is like a slightly thicker version of fruit leather. There’s sour mango, and there’s also sweet. I always liked the spicy, sour kind. So they weren’t necessarily all spices. But a lot of times, we were transporting things from different ends of the country, like dry lotus root from Kerala that was dehydrated and refried to accompany some rice dishes.

The spices that my mother uses—luckily they were all available at Kalustyan’s [in NYC’s Murray Hill neighborhood], but that’s because we lived in a major city. I think a lot of people experienced a sort of culinary homesickness. So what I’m describing is not that uncommon.

It sounds like Kalustyan’s was a major access point for the ingredients you longed for.

Yes, definitely. For several generations of immigrants in New York, Kalustyan’s was a real godsend. When I was growing up, there was only Kalustyan’s; and certainly when my uncle and my mother first came to this country, they didn’t have much else. Kalustyan’s started out as an Armenian shop. It wasn’t even Indian. Then over the years, as the neighborhood changed, the store changed along with it. And because they sold a lot of Eastern ingredients, meaning Armenian or Turkish, a lot of Indian people started going there to buy some overlapping spices. Now it’s become this gourmet ethnic food store that just covers the whole world. Every student should make a trip to Kalustyan’s. It’s very inspiring.

How did the concept develop for your latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World” (HarperCollins)?

It’s actually an encyclopedia. It is an A-to-Z compendium. It’s a reference book. There are some recipes to make teas or tisanes [herbal infusions] or oils. There’s a section on how to roast spices, how to keep them fresh and store them. It’s cataloging every single spice on earth and telling you where it comes from, how it’s traditionally used, what cultures use it, if it has any historical significance, how to use it, what flavor notes are in it, how to store it, how much of it to use—all of that. It’s meant to be a guide that a cook, whether novice or professional, will reach for every day.

I was always curious about spices from other countries and how to change up my cooking and learn about other cultures through how they eat. I wanted one place I could go to. Of course you can go and Google anything these days, but it’s wonderful to have a tactile book in your hand—that pleasure of leafing through the pages, seeing a beautiful, vibrant picture. I was also itching to do something scholarly—something very empirically, scientifically accurate that wasn’t subject to taste or anything else. This book seeks to be that.

At what point did food media, food hosting, and culinary publishing start becoming a career for you?

I always loved to cook. I did a movie that I had to gain weight for, but aside from that, I had never tried to lose weight in my life. I was still in my 20s. So I really discovered how to trim the fat out of the food I ate and make it more healthy, and a book naturally came out of that. Nobody thought the book was going to do very well, but it did do well; it won a prize in Versailles. So I think people were surprised by that. I really fell into it by accident. I went on Food Network as a part of my book tour to publicize the book. After I was on there twice, they asked me again, then they offered me a development deal, which is how I started.

But before we get into food media or food hosting: Everybody wants to be a star these days by the time they’re 25. Sure, that happens to a lot of people, but you have to educate yourself. Whether it’s culinary school or working under a great chef that you admire or traveling with your backpack, going and literally tasting the world—or all of those things, hopefully—that will start to establish in you a point of view that is unique. Ask yourself, “Well, why do I want a career in this?” It’s not good enough to say, “I’m interested in food.” I’m interested in dance, but that doesn’t mean I should be a dancer.

What you want to think about is, what can you add to the food culture that already exists that is different? There are so many cookbooks. There are so many young people out there that say, “Oh, I want to be a chef, or I want a food show.” Well, why? Cooking is actually manual labor. It’s hard work. The hours are horrible. Just ask any chef! But if this is your passion, then I strongly suggest you live a little. Go and eat at great restaurants. Educate yourself. Buy books to gain knowledge. You just have to be hungry for information and experience.

I was recently working with a young person who was assisting me. They were testing a recipe with me, and they made the recipe to see if it worked. Then they said, “Well, I don’t know what this is supposed to taste like.” Of course they don’t—in this case, it was a spice blend, baharat. So they’ve led a particular life, and they haven’t had the chance to go to Turkey. But I think you owe it to yourself to go to a Turkish restaurant, if you can’t fly to Turkey. It’s a wonderful time to be young these days, because you have the Internet. You have mail order. The good news is, of course a rack of lamb is going to cost you a lot of money, but spices, for the most part, are relatively inexpensive and require little effort. It’s a great way to open your horizons.

When I was a kid, there was a guy on TV named Jeff Smith. They had a show on PBS called “The Frugal Gourmet.” Jeff would pick a country every show, and he would make all the dishes from that country. Through those recipes and talking about the ingredients, he would tell you about the history of that country, what grows there, the climate—all this information. You really got to immerse yourself, just within that half-hour, in the culture through the food.

It’s what I tried to do with “Planet Food,” these hour-long documentaries I did over a decade ago. Tell me what somebody eats, and I will tell you who they are.

So I think those young people who want a career in this business—it’s important to set yourself apart. It’s important to develop skills and tastes, and develop a palate, and really challenge yourself; really think about what your unique point of view is. If you were to open a restaurant, why should somebody invest in you? It costs a lot of money to open a restaurant and to keep it going. Most restaurants in New York fold within the first year.

Even if you don’t want to be a chef, if you want to be a writer, now everyone’s blogging about every other thing. You have to sharpen your literary skills, your writing skills, and your food skills, because every person with a computer is your competition now.

Through hosting “Top Chef,” I imagine you’ve seen many examples of people with a distinct culinary point of view. How can chefs start to recognize and develop their own voice?

I think a lot of people who have succeeded have a particular voice and a point of view that is instructive. I think Ina Garten is great because she’s very straightforward and in command of what she’s doing. She believes in common sense. That shows through. It’s simple recipes; but they work, and they’re very crowd-pleasing. They’re very elegant but still approachable. So that is her particular métier.

Somebody like Diana Kennedy, who’s English—she’s not even Mexican—has devoted her life to researching Mexican food, its heritage, its nuances, its regional differences; where things grow, why things grow. So she’s coming at it from a particular point of view. She’s so committed that she moved to Mexico years ago.

Even with Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook “Plenty”: I think the reason that “Plenty” did so well is because there were a lot of people who were eating like that, and there weren’t a lot of vegetarian cookbooks or recipes that were colorful and interesting and that didn’t feel like substitutes for meat and were full of flavor. Where Yotam comes from—I used to live right around the corner from his little gastropub in Notting Hill. So I know how he prepares his food. I’m a big fan of it. It’s got a beautiful point of view. It’s always very herbaceous, always very fresh, always has a lot of pomegranate and za’atar, these beautiful ingredients from the Middle East, but it’s not traditionally Middle Eastern. It’s much more contemporary and cosmopolitan than that, because he’s from London.

So you have to know what audience you’re talking to. For me, my audience is always me. Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a recipe, I’m creating that for me or my friends. I don’t want to create or make anything that I wouldn’t feel really enthusiastic and proud to either use myself or give to someone else. So you can’t phone it in. You have to think about pockets of the culinary landscape that maybe haven’t been explored as much. When I first started, people were saying, “Wow, people aren’t really into global cuisine. Sure, you’ve traveled, but not everybody’s interested in using all those strange spices or whatever.”

But I think now the world has caught up to me. I probably seemed exotic in 1999, but I think everybody eats like me now.

Can you talk a bit more about how what were once considered niche cuisines are now going mainstream, or becoming targets of fusion with American or other cuisines?

The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. The possibilities and opportunities to taste different kinds of foods are much more prevalent today than even 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, because people are traveling, in spite of certain parts of the world that are dangerous, you do get to try more things. With the Internet and Instagram, you get to know about all these funky dishes.

If you have an interest, there is a portal for you to see that interest now where there wasn’t necessarily any before. For somebody like me, social media has been a huge boon, even though it is kind of tiring to always keep it up. But it’s important to remember that there are people out there who share your likes and passions. If you can tap into those people, then you’ve got something. My thing is, I always like to take classic dishes like macaroni and cheese, or chicken pot pie—very classic American comfort food—and then turn them on their heads; make them a little more modern, maybe slightly healthier.

In my last cookbook, there’s a recipe for Mexican macaroni and cheese. Just by adding two or three ingredients, like Mexican oregano, shallots, and pickled jalapenos, it does change the character of a dish. Subtle changes like that are also easier for people to explore certain new flavors with.

What do you personally like to make at home?

Well, I think one thing to do is just pick a handful of spices that are probably already in the spice rack. They kind of came with the kit, so to speak, and there they are, still sitting there. Herbes de provence is a good one, because you can use it in everything from pasta sauce to ratatouille to poultry and fish and roasted potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Curry powder is another—it doesn’t have to be spicy if you don’t want it to be.

I think a nice way to use these spices—and these are just two—is that I would make a compound butter. You just basically let the butter come to room temperature, and you just smash in some salt, some pepper, some curry powder or herbes de provence, and a little bit of pureed garlic or ginger, then just whisk that together and let it set in a ramekin. You can get fancy and make a log to slice.

Once you’ve done those two compound butters, you can take a nice, healthy pat of it, melt it in a frying pan, and toss some shrimp in it or sear off a chicken breast or a duck breast, or do some fish. Something like that you can use as an all- purpose weapon to flavor your food.

Another spice blend is ras el hanout, which is a Moroccan or North African blend that has a lot of different spices in it. And keeping a jar of preserved lemon is great; you can just remove the seeds and cut half a lemon up into small chunks. All you have to do is sauté that with some shallots and some parsley, and you can sauté any vegetable you want, from green beans to zucchini to parsnips and carrots and potatoes. You can do any kind of protein, like veal scaloppini.

I think people get intimidated by spices because they don’t understand them. They don’t want to measure. They don’t know how to mix it or what to use it with. So just pick one spice. Start small so you’re not overwhelmed.

You mentioned traveling and expanding your horizons, especially for young people. Do you have particular recommendations of destinations that changed the course of your life or your palate?

I think we really don’t have any clue about Mexican food. What we get is guacamole, but Mexican food is so layered and so elaborate. The spices are really beautiful. The more you go into the Yucatan and to Oaxaca, you can see how complex the cooking is. It’s quite sophisticated, and there are just so many flavors that never trickle up to us in the north. But you have to get out of the resort towns and go to Merida, places like that.

The regional food of Spain is also quite fascinating. And Turkey—while they’ve had some political unrest, I think Turkish food is really beautiful and delicious. I think it’s going to have its moment soon, because there are a lot of vegetarian dishes that are full of flavor and are not step-downs from meat dishes. They’re just holistically and proudly vegetarian dishes. Also, lentils and pulses and beans—all that kind of peasant food around the world that we haven’t really paid much credence to—deserve a deeper look.

What’s some advice you’d like to leave people with, especially those who are working on expanding their culinary horizons or even exploring a career in hospitality?

When you go to sleep at night, you should know something you didn’t know that morning—whether it’s going on the Internet for 10 minutes, picking up an old cookbook, going to an ethnic market, trying a different culture’s food, or watching a different show than you would normally watch. Whatever it is, you should try to always educate yourself.

My grandfather was hired as a civil engineer when he was 16, but after he retired, he went to law school. I think that thirst for information, that thirst for skill, should never cease. You should always be a lifelong student, because those are the people that not only have interesting lives, but continue to evolve and have stage two and stage three and stage four of their careers.

Ready to follow in Padma’s footsteps and launch your own exciting culinary career? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs. 

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October 2009


By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

“If you cook, you are going to get hurt.” The crowd that gathered for a panel discussion on modernist cooking erupted into laughter, but Wylie Dufresne’s observation was gravely accurate. Extreme heat (and cold — working with liquid nitrogen was the object of Wylie’s remark), sharp knives and heavy equipment are some of the perils that cooks must navigate in their daily workplace environment. Add to the mix a dash of occasional chaos and the pressure to produce at breakneck speed, and it’s a wonder more chefs don’t bear hideous deformities.

Chef Sharpening Knives

Young cooks are instantly identified by the rows of scars running up their forearms: the reminders of brief skin-singeing encounters with blazing hot oven racks and pan handles. A cook’s relative experience is easily judged by his or her fingertip’s tolerance to heat (a seemingly heat-proof layer of skin inevitably forms with time). Another telltale sign of a chef is the tough, raised callous at the base of the index finger: the contact point of skin and the carbon steel blade of a chef’s knife. This callous never fully returns to soft, supple flesh, even after years of retirement from daily slicing and chopping. It’s a calling card of sorts, a silent testament to one’s lifelong métier.

While kitchen scars may fade with time, they rarely disappear completely. My first ghastly kitchen injury dates back to my days as a baker. The shop where I worked focused primarily on bread and cakes, but we also did some light takeout fare and off-site catering. During the mid-December holiday season, we were catering one or two small parties every night. One of those afternoons, the chef/owner executed one event while I simultaneously staged a second party at another location. I could easily handle the responsibility of the arrangement, but I was probably still too green of a cook to entrust with the logistical feats these parties presented.

Hot Kitchen Boiling Over Flames

I was wrapping up my prep list with that menu’s protein: a Cajun-spiced, blackened chicken affair (this was the early 90s). Proper blackening technique — as I knew it, anyway — would dictate exposing the oiled, spice-rubbed meat to a fierce high heat and only a little added cooking fat. In my haste to get everything finished, I ignored the gradual buildup of oil in my smoking cast iron pan. Worse yet, I violated the cardinal rule of adding food to any pan: always place the item so that it falls away from you. This precaution ensures that, in the event any hot cooking oil splashes, it does so away from you.

As I tossed the last chicken breast onto the fire, my face and eyes were stung with a spray of hot and spicy oil. I dropped back from the stove and somehow managed to feel my way to the three-compartment sink for some temporary relief. I splashed my face with cold water, wiped myself off and glanced at the clock. I was running late and I didn’t have time to assess the situation properly.

I managed to arrive at the catering gig fully prepped and on time, but as I worked my chafing dishes I was filled with self-conscious dread. I thought I’d scarred myself for life, that I’d need a shroud to hide my culinary deformity like some modern-day elephant man — all because of one impatiently flung piece of chicken. As it turns out, the burn on my face was minor and fully healed within a couple of weeks. But it could have been far worse. The lesson learned? Always respect the fire. That scar may have faded, but others have been permanent.

Chopping Onions

Another early mishap of mine persists in the form of a long-term, conspicuous reminder. A year or so after the blackened chicken incident, I was working my way through a very large pile of onions. It was a straightforward task: hack the polar ends off of each one, score through the skin, peel that off, then halve the onion lengthwise and perform a simple, uniform julienne. At ICE, our fledgling cooks are taught to tuck the thumb back and under, using the broad surface of the resulting fist to both secure the food and guide the knife while chopping. Of course I knew that then, too. But in my urgency to finish all those onions in time, I either looked up or the heavy chef’s knife slipped…and into the mountain of sliced onions went the tip of my left thumb.

My reaction was swift. I didn’t want to look closely at the damage, nor did I have much time to fret over it. I rinsed my hand in the nearby sink, slapped on two or three Band-Aids, wrapped it with a length of gauze and secured it all with what must have been a foot or two of electrical tape. And then I went on with my prep.

I certainly didn’t forget about it over the course of the night’s work. I was in a sense of denial. I was uninsured and living check-to-check on my cook’s wage. I didn’t want to bother with any workers’ comp benefit I may have been entitled to, so there was no professional medical attention given to the mangled digit. After a day or so, when I realized I might have made an error in judgment, I still didn’t seek help. I feared getting yelled at by some nurse or intern for not going directly to the emergency room. Instead, I kept it clean and wrapped, and it eventually healed. The contour of my left thumb is no longer rounded, but now sloped off at a sharp angle.

Butchery Fish Butchering

I’ve heard many stories over the years—likely mythical legends by the time they got to me. The fish bone that went in one side of someone’s finger and emerged months later on the other side. The arm broken in multiple places by an industrial mixer. The fingers severed on deli slicers. I’ve had close calls throughout my twenty years battling in the kitchen, but in comparison to many colleagues, I’ve survived mostly unscathed. My worst injuries were the result of total rookie moves.

A young cook might boast over a particularly gnarly burn or gash, eager to display it as a badge of honor. It’s part of the bravado, the mandated sense of fearlessness that pervades the kitchen. As I grow older, I’m not proud of my mistakes. With time, one increasingly feels stupid over the tiniest nicks and scratches, embarrassed for even a split second’s lack of control. So a word of advice to those starting out in the industry: the second you sense you’re playing too close to the edge, slow down. You won’t work faster with a half of a finger, a burnt face or a broken arm.

Want to study with Chef Michael? Click here for more information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

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