Everywhere I teach, every time I offer it, this is the class everyone wants to get in on. Whether they’re new to the kitchen, or seasoned pros who are tired of massacring their dishes, there seems to be no shortage of people who want to sharpen their skills with their knife sets in the kitchen. (That pun was both intended and terrible.)
So last night I was in charge of teaching a knife skills class for Fairfax County Adult and Community Education. Being a public school system, their knives were not of the highest quality, but I was still able to run through the basics of knife usage with them.
The real fun of the class for me though came during the purchasing of the ingredients. I swung by Safeway to pick up the food for the night’s class, and was thrilled to see so many of the things I wanted to buy on sale! I have a pretty tight spending budget on these classes, so it was good to see that I could get the vegetables for so cheap!
Pictured: Knife skills class aftermath.
I also threw in the uncut stuff, so don’t think they did that poorly…
After my cart was loaded up with a ton of carrots, onions, garlic, zucchini, celery, potatoes and bell peppers, I pushed it over to the meat section to see if I could pick up some chickens. (I like to teach people how to take apart a chicken in my knife skills classes as well..) But alas, the chickens were not on sale, and thus buying a bunch of them would have been cost prohibitive.
All was not lost though, because the class needed about 7 chickens total for me to be able to give everyone a chance to work on the birds. And as luck would have it, I have a Restaurant Depot card! For those of you who don’t know, Restaurant Depot is a wholesale restaurant supply store which only allows restaurants and associated business to buy from them. But at the same time, don’t go in thinking you’re going to buy 7 chickens. They come by the case.
Upon walking into the cold room, which is basically floor-to-ceiling meat, I knew this was going to be challenging to find what I was looking for. I first had to walk to the chicken section, and once there, I had to start pawing through cases to find the one that was whole chickens and not wings, or thighs or cutlets. I finally came across a pallet of whole chicken cases, but they were 25 birds to a case. A bit more than I was looking for…
All seemed lost for my students and their chance to take apart chickens. Maybe more potatoes would make them happy, and we could work on rosettes instead. At that very moment a kindly Restaurant Depot employee walked by. (It was easy to spot him – he was the one wearing a coat that was appropriate for working in a giant walk-in fridge for 8 hours at a time…)
“Excuse me sir,” I asked trying not to look like a total dolt, “but do you all have chicken cases that are 10-12 birds to the case?”
“Sure, they’re right over here,” he said while guiding me to a section I had thought was clearly labeled ‘Smithfield Ham.’
“Oh, that’s great!”
“They’re Halal,” he said, with a note of trepidation in his voice. This didn’t bother me though. As I knew from a previous job where one of the line cooks was Muslim, Halal chickens are some of the most flavorful and juiciest ones out there, and they are usually quite affordable despite the specifications they have to meet.
Meet your meat.
“They have the heads still on,” he added bluntly.
“Oh.” Now I’m not the kind of person who has trouble removing the heads from dead chickens. Heck, as a chef, you have to learn how to kill mice in a variety of very quickly improvised ways. (I will not mention which restaurants I worked in where I had to learn those skills…) But my mind quickly went to my students. For many of them, past experience had taught me that this would be one of the first whole chickens they would ever try to take apart. Could they do it with the chicken staring back at them?
But what other choice did I have? I figured I could get to the classroom early, remove all the heads, and nobody would be any the wiser.
The best laid plans of mice and men being what they are, the classroom was of course locked when I got there, and I had to wait for the evening building manager to show up so I could get in. By the time he arrived with the keys, two students were already there.
As I was hacking off heads one of my students said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chicken with it’s head on before.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I offered. “But at least removing their heads isn’t part of the class tonight.”
Here’s hoping I still like chicken noodle soup by the end of the winter…
The class went very well. The students chopped the vegetables with reckless abandon, and the end product was great. They tore apart their chickens with skill and speed, and loved every minute of it. At the end of the class, I had to turn in my “grade sheet.” Since some of these classes offered are for continuing education, I’m actually supposed to give out grades. Since I didn’t find any fingers on the floor when I cleaned up, I gave everyone an “A”.
When everyone was gone though, I realized I had a ton of chopped carrots, celery, onions and garlic as well as 10 cleaned chicken carcasses….
Yes, today is chicken stock making day. And by the looks of it, I’ll be set for the rest of winter as far as soups are concerned. Now I just have to figure out what to do with a freezer full of chicken parts…