Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

June 4, 2002:

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 sharp.

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 the students.

"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.”