The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

On The Table

August 22, 2012

Chef in training: Anniversary surprise includes fine-cuisine training

JOPLIN, Mo. — I’m a food nerd.    You know how at restaurants most people ask to be seated away from the kitchen to avoid the noise and traffic?

Well, when I eat out I try to sit as close to the kitchen as possible. I like to watch the cooks scurry back and forth. I like to try to figure out who, in a busy kitchen, is doing what. And, whenever possible I like to actually talk to the chefs.

My food nerdom is why my wife figured it would be nice, as an anniversary present, to surprise me with an afternoon of hanging around some professional food folks in a professional kitchen. This past Friday my wife asked me to leave work a little early so I could run some errands with her. The first stop my wife said was to be Caldone’s Restaurant, 218 S. Main St.

When we got to Caldone’s, Karuleen Bennett, who along with her husband, Donnie, owns and operates the restaurant, was waiting for us. As we chatted, my wife handed me a package. I opened it to find a chef’s jacket with my name monogrammed on the pocket. Also on the pocket were the words “Chef in Training.”

Then my wife turned me over to Karuleen who, in turn, introduced me to Aaron Owen, the head chef at Caldone’s. One thing that I’ve learned over the years being a food nerd is that chefs love to talk about cooking. Aaron was no exception.

Simmering on one of the burners of a large stove was a big pot of red sauce that Aaron had put together earlier in the day. The red sauce would be the base for many of that night’s pasta dishes. I asked Aaron what went into his sauce and he rattled off a few things. Then he shared a secret about his sauce.

“While the sauce is simmering I put in some Parmesan cheese and let it melt into the sauce,” he said.

Later Aaron gave me a lesson in chopping. I’ve always wanted to learn how to chop foods with knives like the cooks on the Food Channel. What I learned is that chopping like a pro takes a lot of practice. I also learned that the key to successful chopping is to keep your fingers as far away from the blade as possible. If you don’t, Aaron told me you will likely lose several fingers.

After my chopping lesson, Karuleen showed me how to light myself on fire. Well, that’s not really what Karuleen showed me. What she showed me was how to make bananas Foster and saganaki. The process, in both dishes, calls for the person making them to light them on fire. I’m sort of a dunce when it comes to some things, so I was pretty sure that given a chance to light something on fire, I would manage to light myself, and the better part of three city blocks on fire.

But Karuleen had faith in me (or she was heavily insured) and after melting some butter in a hot pan over a small gas burner, I added some brown sugar and a sliced banana. Then, with instructions from Karuleen, I poured a small amount of Grand Marnier into the pan. And the next thing I knew my pan was on fire. When the fire burned out, I poured the mixture into a bowl of vanilla ice cream and tasted what I created.

I decided I was a genius. Or maybe it was the recipe. Regardless, my     bananas Foster was very good.

Then it was time for my lesson in saganaki. Basically what you do when you make saganaki is soften a block of cheese over a gas burner. When the cheese is soft, you add a small-amount of brandy, dip the pan so the brandy comes in contact with the flame and then call the fire department.

Ha, I kid. Nope, what happened when the flame came in contact with the brandy was the whole thing caught fire and the flame briefly shot into the air. But then the flames went away and I was left with a soft, delicious cheese I spread onto the pita bread I made earlier

It was a neat deal. I learned a bit about cooking but more importantly I got to hang around a kitchen and talk food with professionals. Later that night, my wife and I returned to Caldone’s. We both had the marinated rib-eye. Later Aaron stopped by the table and we talked about food some more.

All in all it was a great day.

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