Monday, January 04, 2010

The Grit and Wisdom of Chef Candy

Chef Candy Argondizza was my Chef Instructor at the French Culinary Institute in 2005

When the going gets tough and temperatures rise, my thoughts turn to Chef Candy Argondizza, my Chef Instructor at the French Culinary Institute during my La Technique sequence in 2005. Chef Candy had a bullet-proof exterior, Teflon hands and a heart of pure edible gold.

I think of Chef Candy every time I tackle a kitchen project.

The first morning I arrived at FCI, I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Twenty-two sessions in as many weeks, La Technique course taught the fundamentals of French cooking and was designed for talented amateurs. Well, the first thing I learned was that I wasn’t as talented as I thought, and I was definitely an amateur.

There were more than twenty students, and we were each issued a professional chef uniform, a portable portfolio of chef’s knives and our very own instant-read thermometer and wire whisk. Once outfitted, we were introduced to Chef Candy. She was petite, athletic and wiry with salt and pepper hair and a piercing gaze. I was absolutely terrified.

The first few classes were comparable to boot camp. We set up our stations and began to focus on chopping and knife skills. Chef Candy would stroll past my work station and scrutinize my technique. Immediately, she noticed that I was handling the chef knife too delicately, as if it were a magic wand. She showed me how to “choke” the knife at the base of the handle, and it instantly became an effective tool. Soon, I was learning how to surgically remove the gills from a fish. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still see that fish staring up at me from the chopping block.

Early on, I developed some interesting psychological afflictions in the kitchen. I was craving the approval of Chef Candy. Whenever someone else’s entrée was trumpeted as an example of perfection, I was wracked with jealously and was determined to try even harder to get Chef Candy to notice my work.

After several weeks, I got my wish. I still shamefully refer to this as the “pea soup incident.” The topic was “Preserved Foods” and we were simmering split green peas with bacon, stock and bouquet garni for a recipe of Potage St. Germain aux croutons, or Split Pea Soup with Croutons. My soup pot had been simmering on the stove for some time. It was then that it happened. Chef Candy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Bring your pot to the front of the class. We’re going to demo how to puree the soup.”

I was ecstatic. Finally, my food would be headlining a class demo! I grabbed my side towel and grasped the pot, falling into step behind Chef Candy as she headed towards the industrial strength blender. In my zeal, I lost my grip on the pot and it tumbled to the floor. Green slime went everywhere and it looked like the set of a Nickelodeon game show.

Chef Candy stood there with her hands on her hips, staring at the expanding soup puddle on the floor and shaking her head. Finally, she said slowly, “Get a mop. I guess we can still get one bowl out of what’s left in the pot.”

It was many weeks after that before I was once again chosen to do the class demo, and I never again picked up a heavy pot without a hand towel and one hand supporting it underneath.

Several of us chefs-in-training quickly banded together and became a cooking team. Lars was a lawyer, Carol was a mom and Serap was an engineer. We learned to understand each other’s strengths and rhythms. Serap was highly organized, Carol was meticulous and precise with a paring knife, Lars was fearless and gamely took on acts of kitchen bravery like flambéing and I seemed to excel at plating and presentation.

My fellow chefs at the French Culinary Institute

Over time, we became a highly efficient team and were so well-tuned that we were often able to produce more food under deadline than the other cooking teams. And, our team often earned the praise of Chef Candy. Well into our studies I was also thrilled and flattered when she took special note of my pastry skills.

There were certain slogans she would call out as we cooked, that I still hear today.

“Taste your food!”

“Season your food!”

“Clean as you go!”

“Hot plates for hot food, cold plates for cold food!”
“Listen to your food!”

She constantly reminded us that cooking is a total physical experience that demands use of all the sense. Proper technique was critical, meeting deadlines was expected, and food needed to look appealing on the plate. But, Chef Candy always took time to talk about the history of a recipe or share her personal favorites. She enjoyed simple, traditional dishes like Brandade de Morue (Puree of Salt Cod and Garlic) and confessed a great love for the grand Canard Roti a l'Orange (Duck with Orange Sauce).

Chef Candy celebrated failures and said that there was always something to learn from a culinary disaster. We would scrutinize flattened layer cakes, wilted sauces and scorched cuts of meat to learn how to do it better next time.

Chef Candy maintained that you will get cut and you will get burned, but you’ll know why. It’s usually because you didn’t handle a knife correctly, or you didn’t use a towel to pick up a hot pot. I quickly learned that nicks, cuts and burns are preventable, if you make a concerted effort to focus on your technique.

Classes were rigorous, but there was an underlying sense that you should always take time to savor what you’d created. In the end, that’s what cooking is all about. And, even when your Hollandaise sauce breaks, if you look it over and taste it, you’ll learn how to do it right the next time.
Our final La Technique class with Chef Candy was August 6, 2005. We were tasked with preparing an elaborate seafood feast of lobster, oysters, seas scallops, mussels and other delicacies. There were no recipes to follow. We were to use the knowledge and techniques we had amassed over the past 22 weeks.
Our team was assigned to scrub the oysters. Carol asked – only somewhat in jest – “Why is Chef Candy punishing us?” But, in fact, the less-than-sexy assignment was indicative of exactly the kind of teamwork that we had learned to embrace in the professional kitchen.

The feast was exhilarating. It remains one of the best days of my life, for the exquisite flavors, the camaraderie, the accomplishment and the celebration of all that we had learned from Chef Candy over many grueling weeks.

The final La Technique Class - August 6, 2005

I returned to the French Culinary Institute several times after for additional intensive course work with other instructors. Despite the fact that she worked with hundreds of students, Chef Candy always remembered me and greeted me warmly in the halls.

It’s been nearly five years since I spent time in Chef Candy’s kitchen, but I still think of her often and hear her wise counsel in my head, whether I’m preparing a simple supper, a layer cake or an elaborate dinner for eight. In my opinion, Chef Candy is the Top Chef of all time.
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Kathy said...

What a wonderful experience you had! I enjoyed reading about it. When you've mentioned the classes in the past, I hadn't realized that the course was so lengthy. It's apparent from some of the lovely dishes you've prepared and shared with us that you retained a great deal of what you learned there.

Fresh Local and Best said...

This post highlights the meticulous precision that can make a good cook into a great one. I've often thought there are no bad cooks only bad recipes, but this post reflects aptly the other side of the equation. The proper techniques of preparation and judgment that takes a good cook to great can take years to master, and that's not necessarily something that can be learned from a book.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

It's always true that the teachers who seemed to be toughest were the ones whose wisdom we retain, from grade school on up. Chef Candy sounds like one in a million.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a fabulous experience, one I know my husband and I would enjoy. I love how you wrote about your memories and how everything relates to your cooking today. Chef Candy sounds like a gem.

Have you read "The Sharper Your Knife" by Kathleen Finn? It's about her training at Le Cordon Bleu. Her experience parallels yours. I gave the book to two people for Christmas.

Liz said...

I just love this post! Evokes your experience at French Culinary so vividly. and inspires me to break out and try some new things! Bravo and bon appetit!

Chef Shaya Klechevsky said...

This was such a wonderful article and it brought back personal memories of the full Classic French Culinary course I took. Chef Candy was definitely one of the most feared chef instructors, and one of my personal favorites. I felt that under her discipline and scrutiny was where I would learn so much. And I did! I even remember she taught a class that was working family meal how to make orecchiette pasta from scratch just because! *sigh* those were the days.. :D

~~louise~~ said...

I'm speechless.

What a thought provoking post T.W. The sense of balance is an inspirational goal for the new year.

As exquisite as all those delicacies appear, I have a feeling, Chef Candy was the one glowing in the dark:)

Thank you so much for sharing your ups and downs; with us.

A big ol' pot of peas soup sure is deliciously heavy!!!

I run for ? said...

Chef Candy is the best!

Kalyn said...

How fun! I had no idea you went to Culinary School! More evidence of how multi-talented you are!

Cakespy said...

I loved living vicariously through this fantastic post!! It sounds like it was an experience full of wit, wisdom, maybe a tear or two, but ultimately a delicious experience not to be missed!

veron said...

Thanks for sharing this. You know how I love cooking classes. I had to laugh at teflon I wish mine was....and choke the knife, haha...
I really wish there was a way I could go to a program like this in Richmond, I'm sure I'll have a "pea soup incident" to tell. :)

Big Boys Oven said...

wow this must be awesome! :)

Jann said...

I loved this! Oh, when you dropped the pea soup.....All I could say was, oh no....oh no....I felt so bad for you. I think you recovered quickly! I learned a few things from reading your desparately we want to succeed and when we do,we don't even know it.....she had you pegged from the beginning...she knew you had the right do....and it shows in so many of the foods you prepare and share with all of the bloggers.You,my friend, have the right stuff.Drop as many pots as you will always keep right on going ! Your love and talent for foods inspires many of us! Thanks for sharing this story

A Feast for the Eyes said...

I loved every word in this story. You lived my dream, and I'm a little green! I would love to spend 22 weeks with Chef Candy, learning (or should I say "un-learning") kitchen skills. It's interesting how sometimes, the strictest instructors turn out to be the ones we most remember.

Lori Lynn said...

Oh how lovely. You are very fortunate. And she sounds like an amazing woman. Excellent post.

Mary said...

Just stopped by to say hello and stayed far longer than I had expected. You have a wonderful blog. I'll be back often.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Kathy - I revised the statement to be clear - 22 Saturdays in a row, which is still a substantial commitment. It was like a 6th (and almost 7th) day of work but I was always so excited to go!

Christine - I think you nailed it!

Lydia - darn right!

Sam - I'm going to look for that book.

Liz - keep me posted!

Chef Shaya - thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. She's the best!

Louise, I run, Kalyn - I was really honored to be able to learn from Chef Candy.

Cakespy - tears and sore muscles. There were days I couldn't move when class was done.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Veron - you'll just have to come to NYC for a while!

Big Boys Oven - Awesome, indeed!

Jann, Debby and Lori - I would go back again, in a second - I'm sure there is much more I could learn from Chef Candy.

Mary - Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to visiting your blog!

The Chef In My Head said...

I just found your blog from One Perfect Bite. It looks like your blog is a great place for me to come to learn as much as I can. I will be back again and again! -LeslieMichele

Anonymous said...

Great article! I didn't particularly like my cooking instructor while i was in school but good feelings developed after i was done with my program. Now i go and visit him when i go back to France.

Looks like Chef Candy is quite a character. Thanks for sharing!

Ben said...

I am currently attending the French Culinary Institute, Classic Culinary course, and just completed my first two levels with Chef Candy. She is wonderful. She whipped us into shape and hammered in the fundementals. I feel like we have such an advantage over the other students that weren't as fortunate to have had her. Seriously, she has had a profound impact on my cooking prowess. I am now diciplined and fine tuned, programmed to destroy any kitchen challenge presented to me. I feel like the Jason Borne of the cooking world. All because of her. Props to Chef Candy!! On a sad note though, we were her official last class she will be teaching. She's been promoted to oversee the entire faculty in more of an administrative way. Too bad, but good for her.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Ben - Thanks for writing. It's been great to hear from so many people who work with Chef Candy. I am surprise to hear that she will not be handling classes directly in the future (but happy for her promotion), and feel even more lucky to have had the experience in her kitchen.