Crudité, Lomi Lomi, and Gondolas Learning how to cook in the communal kitchen
By Jennifer Albinson 05
The kitchen in Dodge-Osborn Hall is small
and windowless. If the exterior door is propped open too long, an
alarm goes off The smell of cooking quickly permeates, and then
saturates, the stagnant air in the room. However, the stove and
oven are new, the pots and pans of good quality, and the knives
On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights,
students take over this kitchen for a supplementary cooking class,
as if normal course loads (organic chemistry, calculus, East Asian
history) weren't enough. They gather around the counter and chop,
using techniques they have been carefully taught. They sauté
vegetables, they flip crepes, they knead bread. At the end, they
all sit at a table, in the uncomfortably warm kitchen and moan in
ecstasy the food they create is that good.
The Wilson College Culinary Group (W.C.C.G.)
was the brainchild of Randy Setlock, the Wilson College administrator,
who has used the class to combine his role as a facilitator of student
life with his impressive history as a chef. He trained at the Culinary
Institute of America and has experience in both private and restaurant
kitchens around the world. Started in 2001, the class has become
so popular that three weekly sessions, each of about a dozen students,
are now offered. On these nights, Setlock stays on campus until
almost 9 p.m. to teach the class.
His students are predominately from Wilson,
although non-Wilson students with a deep desire to cook can sometimes
finagle their way in. The class is free, with the caveat that students
must be dedicated. Setlock does not look fondly on absences and
looks even less fondly on repeated absences.
And so on a Wednesday night in early April,
the 10 students of the Wednesday class find themselves leaning against
a counter in the Dodge-Osborn kitchen. They listen to Setlock describe
what they will cook, and more important, how.
"Think of yourselves as workers in a
big kitchen," he advises. "You are all in the salad department.
You're preparing for a big night. You're going to be making lomi
lomi salmon salad, gondola of melon with tuna fish salad, gondola
of melon with egg salad, and seared vegetable crudité.
He gives background information on the dishes,
explaining the Hawaiian origin of lomi lomi salmon salad and defining
the term "crudité," which, as most students don't
know, merely means vegetables cut down to finger-food size. On the
topic of the crudité, he asks, "We've all sautéed
before, right? Well, we're all going to sauté tonight. Hot.
Do the vegetables in sequence, starting with the cauliflower because
it takes the longest to cook. Then the broccoli, and so on."
Setlock moves to the salmon, the glistening pinkish-orange fillet
that has captivated the students. He strokes the edge of the salmon
with a knife, pointing out a streak of fat.
"Not bad. This is the good kind of fat.
Salmon is really good for you. He grabs the tail end and begins
slicing at a 45-degree angle to remove the skin. "You grab
the skin," he instructs the students. "Shimmy the knife
across the skin. It looks very hard, but it's very easy." As
he shimmies his knife and tugs on the skin, the class watches in
silence. Suddenly, the skin snaps free from under the muscle. Setlock
holds up the silver sheet, which has no flecks of salmon meat on
it, no evidence that it was once firmly connected to the swimming
fish. He sharpens his knife dramatically and hands it to one of
"Here, Chris, now you cut the fillet."
He delegates other jobs to the rest. Soon,
the counter is ringed by stations one student chops onions
and peppers for the crudité, another dices scallions for
the lomi lomi salmon salad, and a third mashes eggs for the egg
salad gondolas. After Setlock has demonstrated some decorative cuts
for cantaloupe, students begin experimenting on their own, slicing
wide boats of the melon and carving out designs. It is almost 8
p.m., and they are approaching ravenousness. They nibble on slivers
of cantaloupe but leave the melons decoratively scalloped and the
students' stomachs aching for more.
A girl, not affiliated with the cooking class,
enters the communal kitchen. She looks surprised at the sight of
her classmates cutting and chopping as if she's stumbled
into something totally unexpected. Because students' lives are so
busy, most snarf food at the dining halls as quickly as possible.
But the students in the W.C.C.G. take a different
approach to eating; food is not merely sustenance to survive a late
night in the library, but something to relish. Setlock believes
that food should look as good as it tastes, and so the students
talk about color combinations, ways to maximize the natural beauty
of produce ("go with the architecture of the vegetable,"
he advises), and, of course, decorative garnishes. Tonight he shows
everyone a favorite "1960s-style garnish," an arrangement
of a red pepper and a carrot that he calls "The Palm Tree."
To make The Palm Tree, he nips away tiny slices of the carrot to
give it the texture of a tree trunk. He lays it down, and then cuts
half of a red pepper in a jagged shape to represent the fronds.
Placing the pepper on top of the carrot's slender end, he has indeed
created a palm tree. One student immediately grabs another carrot
to mimic his creation.
Throughout the evening, the pitch of conversations
rises and falls. Talk about the housing lottery, demanding professors,
and roommate problems are tempered with moments of silence as the
students focus on their cutting boards and sauté pans. Although
these 10 students were not particular friends before the class,
Setlock's policy of keeping kitchen talk in the kitchen creates
a sense of trust among the students, a sense of trust that develops
across the semester into real camaraderie. Together they have suffered
through burnt risotto, combinations of spices that just didn't seem
right (nutmeg in marinara sauce?), and stacks of dirty dishes.
By 8:30, a small feast begins to amass on
the table. First a platter of decoratively cut melons, then a sautéed
pepper stuffed with julienned vegetables. Two of the melons are
transferred to smaller plates and topped with scoops of egg salad
and tuna salad. Setlock pulls the lomi lomi salmon salad from the
refrigerator, where it has been chilling, and gently remixes the
salmon, tomatoes, chives, and other vegetables. He pleased with
his students' work on the salad he says it looks just as
it should. With so much importance placed on the appearance of the
food, each dish gets some form of accent: a rose-cut radish with
several petals accidentally sliced off, a splayed scallion, one
student's attempt at the palm tree.
At the stove, two people prepare the final
vegetables for the crudité, while everyone else waits impatiently.
Finally, they finish. Red peppers, broccoli, onions, cauliflower,
green peppers, carrots, and asparagus all quickly seared,
salted, and peppered create such a rainbow of colors when
assembled that a garnish is unnecessary. As soon as the crudité
platter lands, paper plates are pulled from the cupboard and handed
out. The students pile the food high and eat their most satisfying
meal of the week.
While many of the young chefs share the onetime
sentiment of Courtney Goodwin 05 who originally signed up
because, as she said, "I had to eat anyway, so it may as well
have been good food," most of the students have realized that
W.C.C.G. is one of their most rewarding activities. Devon Edwards
05 summed it up when he said, I would rather drop one of my
academic classes than the W.C.C.G. cooking class. It's the only
class with immediate tangible results.