We huddled over the mess of branches and leaves in search of jewels. “There’s a whole bunch over here!” one student exclaimed, and the others followed his direction. Each orange sphere that we plucked shimmered in the sunlight. The jewels, of course, were baby tomatoes. We also sought out luminous eggplants. Later that Friday evening, we would cook up the vegetables for dinner.
The occasion? Occidental College’s “Cooking with Joe” class, a chance for12 students to learn to create a simple meal – beginning with plucking produce – from Joe Parks, a cafeteria chef with 20 years of experience, picking up basic techniques and skills in the process.
We gathered in the Rangeview Residence Hall kitchen to make the meal – dal lentils, basmati rice, vegetable curry, and baked chicken.After placing the dal and rice to cook in water on the big industrial stove top (separate pots), Joe taught us how to use a knife. “It should work as an extension of your hand,” he said. “You want to move it up and down like a rocking chair.” First, we chopped garlic cloves. To mash the garlic slices, Joe instructed us to sprinkle on kosher salt, then rub the side of the knife in a circular motion over the garlic as a grinder. “The kosher salt acts like sandpaper,” Joe noted.
“What happens if the dish gets too salty?” I asked. “The trick is to add ingredients slowly, and taste often,” Joe responded. “If it really gets oversalted, the only thing to do is add potatoes.””
Then it was on to other vegetables – onions, eggplant, zucchini, and carrots. For each, we learned a specific cutting technique, resulting in all sorts of geometrical forms – hexagons, rectangles, rhombuses, and mezzalunas. Joe threw the onions into a pan already smoking hot with oil. Then, we learned the true meaning of “saute” – to jump. The onions hopped in the pan as Joe flicked the pot up and down.
“When you saute onions, it’s called carmelization,” he said. “It brings out the natural sweetness.” He pointed out that we should always add onions first, so as to not burn the other ingredients. The mashed garlic went in next. Finally, we added a pinch of coriander, and a pinch of cumin. The whole pot was mixed with the dal, to which we added our prized homegrown baby tomatoes.
We created the curry next – three cans of coconut milk mixed with the “c” spices – cinnamon, cardamon, cayenne, coriander and cumin – plus tumeric. Extra water went in too, then the rest of the vegetables.
To prepare the chicken, Joe slathered boneless chicken breasts in oil, then coated them in tandoori spice. Into the oven they went, at 300 degrees. “Low and slow is the way I do it, ” Joe said. “The chicken should be at 150 degrees – a thermometer is the cook’s best friend.”
The meal appeared complete, but there was one last thing to prepare – a sweet fruit sauce to drizzle over angel food cake for desert. “To make simple syrup, use a 60:40 ratio of water to sugar. Add a little balsamic vinegar, then throw in the fruit.” We used blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.
As it cooked, we checked on other dishes, and chatted. Joe got his start in the industry as a bus boy at age 15. He gradually worked his way through the restaurant positions, ending up in the kitchen. He later decided to go to culinary school. Afterwards, he ended up at City, the gourmet world cuisine restaurant run by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milken. He hadn’t yet worked in fine dining. But Susan Feniger was looking for passion over experience. “Why do you want to work here?” she asked in his interview. “Because I love food!” Joe responded, and promptly got the job.
Cooking at City may have been a cool deal, but Joe says his favorite job has been working at Occidental, where, in addition to coordinating Marketplace (cafeteria) offerings, he also plans catering for weddings. “It’s the students that make me energized and excited to be here,” he said.
I wanted to ask Joe more questions. What’s the difference between cooking for a cafeteria, and cooking for a restaurant? And how does it compare to cooking at home? How do the Occidental chefs plan the Marketplace menus? What considerations are important? Where does the food come from? Could Joe trace the origin of each ingredient we were about to eat, such as the chicken? Many students get the bulk of their meals at the Marketplace. How does the cafeteria ensure healthy options? How does an industrial kitchen work? How does the college store the 500 chicken breasts it serves each week? Who comprises the kitchen staff? Where did they train, and what are their ambitions? So many questions, but it was impossible to ask all just then. We needed to focus again on the food.
“You can add cilantro and parsley to the dal,” Joe said, “but make sure to do it last so it doesn’t turn black. We eat with our eyes first – everything needs to be beautiful.”
And it was. The students spooned their own helpings straight out of the pots on to paper plates, and headed to the Rangeview patio just outside to eat. No one bothered to remove the white aprons or paper hats. We dug in, savoring the tastes of our own creations. “It all tastes better when you’ve cooked it yourself, doesn’t it?” I asked rhetorically, and everyone murmured in agreement.
Slideshow photo credits: Daina Beth Solomon