Culinary School Confidential– Week 3: Something’s Fishy

Filleting Fish
Insomnia induced crazy eyes.

Sorry for the terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.

If week 2 was my favorite week so far, week 3 was the roughest.  It really kicked my butt, and it happens that we spent most of the week on fish.  I wasn’t the fish's fault my week sucked though.  I just really started to feel the pressure.

Together, Greg and I discovered the secret to happiness a long time ago: eating and sleeping.  When our blood sugar drops, we bicker and when we don’t sleep, we get cranky. In my case, prolonged lack of sleep also has several fun side effects like mood swings and anxiety.  Well, it’s super lucky for me that I have issues with insomnia otherwise things would just be too easy. I’ve had occasional problems with it for years. Sometimes it’s related to stress, but just as often there is no trigger.  However, it definitely limits my ability to deal with stress.  A nice little wave of insomnia happened to hit me last week.

Normally, when I start to feel the pressure of the rigorous new schedule that leaves me physically exhausted; or when I start to get wound up because my knife skills are too slow and inaccurate; or when I get frustrated that I don’t have time to study, type up the recipe cards we have to carry around, practice knife skills, run errands, exercise, spend time writing, editing photos, or even to answer my email; part of my brain is still able to rationalize with the anxious half of my brain.  Rational Brain knows that I tend to start off slow and uncoordinated at things that require physical dexterity, but with practice I start to get better. It’s also able to laugh when Greg teases that I’m not Wonder Woman and I can’t possibly do everything that I’ve assigned myself, and can acknowledge he’s right.

After a few nights of insomnia, Rational Brain kind of checks out, and nobody’s left to talk down Anxious Brain from freaking out when minor setbacks occur. If Anxious Brain goes berserk when keys get lost, she definitely is more susceptible to the stress in the kitchen where I’m trying to keep a million new things straight and get everything right, but still making tons of mistakes, while constantly getting critiqued/criticized for those mistakes, and never doing anything fast enough.  I may have lost it at home a few times over the course of the week.

I’ll admit that during that particular week, I wasn’t able to shake off criticism quite as quickly as usual, but more than anything I felt the full measure of my slowness and lack of hand dexterity.  Anxious Brain took this and ran with it, and rather than telling myself to just keep practicing, I would just psyche myself out A LOT.  On days I had partners that were slower than me, I felt defeated at my inability to compensate and keep on task and on time.  On days I had partners that are faster than me, I felt frustrated at being the weaker link.

The truth of course, is that the situation isn’t that dire. We got evaluations from Chef and most of what I heard sounded a lot like what Rational Me has been saying: Yes, I’m still slow, but I’m not as bad as all that, and I still have some time to practice and get faster. Lucky for me, in the early levels of the program the academic aspects are weighted more heavily than technical skills.  Since I’m kind of a nerd, I naturally rock at academics and test well. I’ve also been studying harder than I might otherwise to make sure that my test scores overcompensate for my knife skills.

The part that’s really sad is that I was so wound up that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy some really interesting stuff.  We had a day on potatoes that should have been pure, delicious goodness, but instead I spent it running around like a chicken without a head.

Pommes Gaufrette

Pommes Sauté a cru

Then we had two days on fish, which I had really been looking forward to. I love fish, but preparing it hasn’t been my strong suit in the past, so I was psyched to learn how to better handle it. I was also oddly excited to learn to butcher and filet fish.  Taking fish apart is completely disgusting—much like in a horror movie, blood and guts run everywhere—but it is also really fascinating. It’s kind of tricky though, because the flesh is so delicate and falls apart easily if you make an incorrect cut with your knife as you separate from the bones, and skinning it is even trickier. I have to say, I think I did a decent job filleting the round fish I was given. (Round fish include salmon, trout, and tuna. In class we used bass.) However, I made a total mess of my flatfish (sole, halibut, skate, and in class we used fluke). Chef gave me a leftover fluke to practice on at home, and that one came out a little better. (I found this video on how to filet a flatfish, however, they leave the blood and guts out.)

Poisson en Papillote

Goujonettes with two sauces

Poisson bonne femme

Happily, the week ended on a high note—shellfish! A lot of my favorite foods fall into this category and shellfish day was pretty much one big feast. It started with buttery, garlicky escargots.  As an added bonus, since a lot of people don’t really care for them and we had a lot of unused product leftover, I got to bring home a ton. Greg’s mom was in town, as was his brother who lives in San Francisco, and I made dinner for everyone one night. We all love escargots, so we made good work of the little critters.


Escargots were followed by lobster. I felt some pangs of guilt at killing my lobster, but they’re just so delicious. I couldn’t help but think of Homer Simpson mourning the loss of his pet lobster, Pinchy, while simultaneously stuffing his face. I too decided it was best to honor my lobster’s passing by fully enjoying his sacrifice.

In memory of Pinchy . . .

Lobster Américaine
. . . You were delicious!

Before the end of the day, we had sweet succulent scallops, saucy muscles, and an oyster and clam shucking session.  Having all that delicious shellfish helped ease the pain of the stressful week.

Seared Scallops w Parsley Coulis

I caught up on sleep over the weekend, and this week got a little easier. More on that soon, but now I must sign off to go practice my chopping.


Cut and burn count: 2 new cuts. I grated my hand while slicing potatoes on the mandolin, and have one good sized cut by my index finger that I don’t know how I got. Total cuts - 4, burns - 1.


  1. I'm so enjoying following along on this journey with you. Thanks for sharing!

  2. oh, pinchy! mmm i wish i was having an east coast summer vacation, full of lobster!

  3. Those potatoes look delicious, and the lobster too! I don't even like lobster.