In a recent conversation with chef Alan Wong of Alan Wong’s restaurant and The Pineapple Room, I learned that one of his teaching techniques is to have the kitchen staffs take a twice-yearly test on culinary matters.
Throughout the year, Wong and senior staff expose cooks and younger chefs to new techniques and products, allow them to help develop and taste-test new menu items or dishes for other projects (such as his new book, “The Blue Tomato”). Crews go with Wong to special events, on farm tours and on an annual Big Island excursion during which they visit farms and cook a thank-you meal for farm workers. All of these events are learning opportunities and staff are expected to retain what they’ve discovered.
I couldn’t resist: I had to ask for copies of the tests and see how I did. (They are, by the way, closed book — and closed Internet — tests.) The first test was just 25 questions, the second a full 100. Neither was easy. Both required an intimacy with Alan Wong restaurant menu
(including beverage menus) that I lacked. And both include the kinds of questions that only a chef-school graduate is likely to know. Didn’t do too well on those, either. (I’m a writer who fell into food, not a chef who feel into writing.) It did help to have closely read “The Blue Tomato” a few days before. And to have spent the last few years writing about local food and agriculture.
Here are the kinds of questions I encountered:
• What are the five Mother Sauces? (These are the classic French sauces on which a world of recipes are based.) They are — not in proper order, I’m sure — Bechamel (white sauce), Veloute (stock-based sauce), Tomate (tomato), Espagnole (brown) and, Hollandaise (egg yolk and oil emulson).
• In Fahrenheit, at what temperature do egg whites and egg yolks coagulate. No clue.
• What does “locavore” mean? Focusing one’s diet on locally raised foods, generally those grown within 100 miles of one’s home.
Mizuna: A notch-leafed, lacy seasonal Japanese green
Yuzu: A Japanese citrus fruit
• What is consomme? A much-reduced, clarified beef or chicken broth.
• Define coulis. A silky textured puree, often of fruit.
• Define garde manger. The preparation of cold foods.
• What is the range of butterfat in half and half. Huh?
• What is tsunomono? In Japanese cuisine, pickled foods.
• What is the literal definition of terrine? Trick question; I know what a terrine is (a smooth, generally cold molded mousse, often made with proteins and vegetables). But he’s asking for the literal meaning of the word. Smooth? Paste?
• We buy local beef from two ranches. Name them. Kuahiwi on the Big Island, owned by the Galinda family. Maui Cattle Co., a Valley Isle ranch consortium.
• What is another name for shiso? Darnit, I should know this.
• What does the MA’O in MA’O Farms stand fore? Darnit, I should REALLY know this.
• What is the definition of HRC? Hawaii Regional Cuisine: Fresh, local ingredients prepare diwth both classic and contemporary techniques, rooted in the indigenous and “local” dishes of these multicultural Islands.
• What is the difference between a granita and shaved ice? A granita is made from juice or flavored water, frozen and broken into granules, usually larger than those in shave ice. Shave ice is plain water made into ice, shaved into fine granules, then flavored with various syrups.
There was a lot more. If a passing grade is 85 out of 100, and if all my answers were correct, I flunked miserably with 56 answers and possibly a few half points if Alan was feeling sympathetic.
My respect for anyone who works a kitchen of any caliber, let alone one as exalted as Alan’s, is already high. But, as happens every time I get to walk in a chef’s shoes in some way, taking this test humbled me yet more.