The Gillian School of Cooking

Lemon curd. That's what I learned on my first day as a line cook rookie at Cashion's Eat Place in the summer of 1996. Emily, the pastry chef, had set me up with a pot of butter, egg yolks, sugar lemon juice and zest, instructing me to whisk constantly, so that the eggs wouldn't curdle. I was to holler when the mixture was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Because I didn't know any better, I whisked the curd using my entire arm, rather than my wrist, an error that quickly tuckered me out and made me feel faint.

That's when Gillian walked in. She pushed open the kitchen doors and demanded to know who the new girl was, and stupidly I told her I wasn't feeling very well. "Are you pregnant?" she barked.

"Um, I don't think so," I said sheepishly. I better not be, is all I could think. "Does this lemon curd look okay?"

For the next four months, I would be tormented every day that I worked in the kitchen, subjected to pranks, hazing and teasing, the work of one Gillian Clark, erstwhile sauté cook, and now hotshot chef/owner of the popular Brightwood eatery, Colorado Kitchen and author of the forthcoming memoir, "Out of the Frying Pan."

Despite the torture, Gillian, in her inimitable way, took me under her wing and mentored me whether I liked it or not, and shaped me into the cook I am today. "O'Donnel. Buckley," she barked. (She was always barking.) Kate Buckley was the other junior line cook who graduated to the grill station when I came on board. She too had endured the wrath of Gillian. "We're having knife clinic today. Upstairs in the prep kitchen. Be there in five minutes."

I was in a state of constant fear, on eternal pins and needles; as I dressed for work, inevitably a sense of dread and nervous queasiness would take over my body. I had never been in the Marines; is this what it's like? Yet there was something else; I was in awe of this woman and I kinda loved her, too. She was just six years older, like a big sister, but she was my mama, y'all.

The two or three hour window of pre-service prep in a restaurant kitchen usually starts out calm but inevitably transforms into something more frenetic, as cooks frantically assemble their mise en place and bump into each other in the walk-in, fighting over cutting boards, looking for their favorite pans, cursing as the time ticks, ticks ticks closer to show time, when the first customer arrives.

As the most junior person on the line, I was responsible for setting up my cold station, the fryer and being at Gillian's beck and call. But in return, she taught me how to make vinaigrette (with a rolled up towel underneath the bowl to create a rim) and yelled at me when I'd forget to taste the salted acid before adding the oil. She showed me how to season butter with tons of lemon and shallots in preparation for the chunks of fish that would be folded into the creamed mixture to make rillettes. And when she shrieked at the way I chopped chives ('they must be ringlets, young lady!"), she had me practice over and over until we both couldn't take it anymore. It was a tough love that I had never experienced -- and one for which I will forever be grateful. When it was time to leave for cooking school in the fall, I knew I would miss her most of all.

While in New York, we stayed in touch (I still have the letters) and then the following year, when I was hired at washingtonpost.com, she took me in. The single mother of two girls working crazy hours as a chef and struggling to make ends meet, as you'll discover in her book, offered me a roof over my head. And that's when I knew I'd earned my rookie stripes, and I had a friend for life.

For four months, I lived with Gillian, her girls Sian and Magalee and their cat "Maybe." Much of our bonding time was spent in the car. First stop, with coffee in hand, was Mag's elementary school. Then we'd tackle the traffic of Rock Creek Parkway in the morning, with Sian in the back playing with her "selection of Barbies." We'd drop her at day care, then head across the river to Rosslyn, where she'd drop me at my office. Then she'd head over to her new gig as the opening chef for some restaurant in Alexandria called The Evening Star. That was our routine, and they were my family, as I figured out why I was behind a desk and not cooking on the line.

"There were plenty of times I did shout in the kitchen, for the same reason I shouted and punished at home," Gillian writes in her book. "I cared about my crew and wanted them to get better. If they went on to bigger and better things, as I hoped my children would, I wanted them to be ready and to make beautiful food. I told them, 'The food is more important than your feelings.'"

I'd heard the "food is more important than your feelings" speech more than once. What once felt like scolding now feels like a gift. What she taught me, I've taught others.

Last night, I cooked from the book, a carrot soup with sage that "became the most requested soup of the day in the history of my cooking for a living," but strangely one that I had never tried. As I chopped onions and peeled carrots, I could hear her telling me to reduce the heat or the onions will burn and you want them to sweat, not burn. It's advice that I'll always heed no matter how old I get or more experienced I become, because she's right, you know.

The food is definitely more important than your feelings.

Next Friday, Oct. 12, Gillian is hosting a book launch party open to the public at Colorado Kitchen, starting at 5 p.m. For 50 bucks, you get a copy of the book four days before its Oct. 16 release, plus eats and drinks.

Talk to me today at noon for What's Cooking.

Carrot-Sage Soup
From "Out of the Frying Pan" by Gillian Clark

Note: The amounts below are halved from the original recipe, which yields 1/2 gallon of soup. If you're game for a large pot of soup, double the amounts.

Ingredients
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (KOD note: I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil)
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup white wine
3 cups water
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 bunches (about 1/8 pound) fresh sage, tied with kitchen twine
salt and pepper to taste

Method
In a large pot, sweat the onions in the oil. When onions are soft and translucent, add carrots. Cook carrots and onions together, stirring constantly. Do not let carrots brown, but cook them until they glisten -- about 5 minutes. Add white wine and simmer until it is almost gone.

Add water and boil the mixture until you can easily slide a sharp paring knife into the fattest piece of carrot. Do not cook until carrots fall apart; they should be just tender.

Puree mixture in a blender on the highest speed. (KOD note: I used a stick immersion blender, then passed through a food mill.) Return soup to pot and add cream. Tie sage to pot handle so that the sage leaves are immersed in the pot.

Let soup simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper taste. Discard the sage.

Makes about 1 quart of soup.

Carrot-Sage Soup
From "Out of the Frying Pan" by Gillian Clark

Note: The amounts below are halved from the original recipe, which yields 1/2 gallon of soup. If you're game for a large pot of soup, double the amounts.

Ingredients
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (KOD note: I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil)
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup white wine
3 cups water
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 bunches (about 1/8 pound) fresh sage, tied with kitchen twine
salt and pepper to taste

Method
In a large pot, sweat the onions in the oil. When onions are soft and translucent, add carrots. Cook carrots and onions together, stirring constantly. Do not let carrots brown, but cook them until they glisten -- about 5 minutes. Add white wine and simmer until it is almost gone.

Add water and boil the mixture until you can easily slide a sharp paring knife into the fattest piece of carrot. Do not cook until carrots fall apart; they should be just tender.

Puree mixture in a blender on the highest speed. (KOD note: I used a stick immersion blender, then passed through a food mill.) Return soup to pot and add cream. Tie sage to pot handle so that the sage leaves are immersed in the pot.

Let soup simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper taste. Discard the sage.

Makes about 1 quart of soup.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 2, 2007; 9:51 AM ET Cook's Library , Kitchen Musings
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Comments

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That soup sounds delicious, and Gillian sounds like quite a teacher. Thanks for sharing your memories, and her new book info. (I love Cashion's!)

I missed the chat today, but for the writer who wanted a not too sweet b-day cake, I suggest angel food. It's been my birthday favorite ever since I was a kid (so it'll please the young'uns), and you can tinker with the sugar so it's not so sweet. Serve with fruit and/or fresh whipped cream that (again) you can sweeten to your taste, or not at all. Oh, and a little cocoa powder to make chocolate cake/cream is great, too.

Posted by: Birthday Cake | October 2, 2007 1:44 PM

Can't wait to check out Gillian's book. I've not had the pleasure of eating at the Colorado Kitchen. Don't get out of Foggy Bottom much during the week.

For a not too sweet b-day cake, I'd make German chocolate cake with a dark chocolate frosting, cream cheese frosting or simply dusted with powdered sugar.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | October 2, 2007 2:49 PM

This just in from Gillian Clark after a reader asked about the status of her newest restaurant project in Forest Glen, Md:

"We're still working on Forest Glen. The building was so old...built in 1890's. It was pretty much a shell that we had to rebuild inside. Pepco is also putting in a new power pole for us. We're hoping for a late winter opening date."

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 4, 2007 10:59 AM

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