Time for your French culinary vocab word of the day! Ready? Repeat after me: Chinois. Pronounced shin-wah.
A chinois is a conical metal strainer with a fine mesh used for straining stocks and sauces, or anything needed a smooth, blob-free finish.
I bring up this fancy tool because today was ‘Stocks and Sauces’ day in my Culinary Foundations class, and our veloute needed straining. Today was also my day to play sous chef, or assistant to our chef instructor, Chef Klaus. And no one on earth is as strict about his chinois than Chef Klaus.
“You touch my tools,” he said, looking us each in the eye. “I kill you.”
This was in reference to all of his tools, held in a specific bains marie on the counter. But he lifted his chinois protectively and told us in no uncertain terms, touch this tool and you will have made a grave mistake. This tool, this irreplaceable kitchen object, has served him over thirty years, purchased long ago in a market in Asia.
In my head, I had sworn alongside the rest of my class to never touch the tools for fear of igniting the hellish fury of the chef.
So it was a bit of a surprise when the chef handed me the chinois–his precious little treasure, the one he had just warned us to never ever touch– and a wooden spoon and told me to strain the sauce by banging on its side. In fact, the whole class uttered a low ‘Ooooooohhhhhh…” as it was handed to me, the sound a mixture of awe and ‘you’re in trouble now!’
“Chef!” one smart aleck piped up from the back. “She touched it!”
Now I’ve handled many a kitchen object, but never before have I held something so delicately. This was the strainer. The holy grail of Chef Klaus’s toolkit. I was in charge of cleaning it after it had been used and I rinsed it over and over again in hot water, wondering whether or not it had been cleaned satisfactorily, afraid of leaving a speck of nutmeg stuck in the mesh.
Luckily I didn’t cause any upsets in class due to my incompetency as sous chef. There were a few lightly scalding comments, but I managed to take them in stride, although I did feel the strawberry red shade of shame enflame my cheeks a few times. I’m aware of the fact that it’s all part of the culinary school experience. As the chef said himself, “Sometimes I like to humiliate you about things so that you know never to do them again.”
A slightly harsh theory, perhaps, but one that works. I was lucky today to be the first example of a girl sous chef in the class, invited to call on the men for help lifting the twenty pound bags of onions and heavy containers of stock.
“All of you girls are welcome to ask for help from the men,” Chef Klaus said. “Even you, little guy.” This was directed at the shortest male student in the class who by now is used to constantly being called out on his height. “I see,” Chef Klaus said as this student ladled out some sauce. “Small portions for a small guy, huh?”
To his credit, the student hasn’t said anything back yet. He’s taking it well.
Today was also a quiz on measurements and conversion factors, something I’d forgotten about entirely due to my concern over being sous chef. Luckily I had most things memorized: 16 cups in a gallon, 8 ounces in a cup, 2 pints in a quart, 4 quarts in a gallon….
And I aced it!
To celebrate this long week coming to an end my roommate and I are hitting the Disney Boardwalk tonight. Stay tuned for pictures of our adventures!