During my senior year at UC Irvine
, I enrolled in a class called "Engineering Design in Industry
". The whole idea of the course was for us to get real world experience by working on actual engineering problems for different local firms. It's supposed to be a win-win for everyone involved; the students got their feet wet doing real engineering work; the companies got free consulting; and the professors got to look magnanimous.
The culmination of our course happened on finals day. We had to give an oral presentation of our work at the company that sponsored our project.
On that morning, my two teammates and I, dressed in pressed khakis and borrowed dress shirts, stood in the middle of the firm's formidable conference room. With our hearts racing, we held out our clammy palms to shake hands with the people who had arrived to witness our humiliation. They were our professors, the firm's design engineers, and the vice president of R&D. If there was an audience that could have been more intimidating, it would have to include the Pope and Her Majesty, the Queen of England.
As they sat down behind tables which surrounded us in a horseshoe, we took a last gulp of air.
Then we began our presentation as my first teammate took the stage. His voice started off quivering and got weaker the more he spoke. I could see the audience beginning to shift uncomfortably in their seats and break their eye contact with him. He never recovered. Everyone in that room knew he was dying and were embarrased for him.
My second partner was up next. He was better; more confident. His speech was steady and loud, but his heavy Filipino accent prevented him from being fully understood. There were more disapproving stares from the audience.
By the time I took my turn, the conference room was just about ready to give up on us. Our professors had dour looks on their faces. Even though they knew that we had done good work on our design, I could tell that they thought this presentation was not representative of it.
If there was anyone who could save us from this fiasco, it was to be me. Yes. Me. The person who shrivels at the very thought of public speaking.
Luckily that morning, I had an ace up my sleeve that I, at the time, didn't realize I had.
As it turned out, I was too tired to be nervous. Because I had stayed up all night preparing the presentation material, fatigue whittled away my apprehension and erased all traces of stage fright. Apparently, being up for 24 straight hours took the edge off.
So when I took the floor, I was calm and composed; I nailed it.
That was almost a decade ago.
So I was sympathetic when our student server squirmed and fidgeted her way in jotting down our order. Even though I'd never worked in a restaurant, I had once been that twitchy, unconfident student, tasting life in the working world for the first time. I couldn't help but identify with her.
We were having lunch at Orange Coast College's Captain's Table
, where every Thursday
, in the Fall and Spring Quarter, the school's culinary arts program invites the public to dine on a three-course gourmet lunch prepared and served by its students.
Our server was one of these kids. Every week, I'm told, they take turns cooking and serving. This week was her turn to be the one on stage, interacting with us, the customers. And it was immediately obvious to us that she would have much rather been cooking in the kitchen. She was so unsure of herself as a server that you couldn't help but want her to succeed, like the way you root for the underdog at a sports match.
She struggled to repeat what appetizer, entree and dessert we had ordered. Sweat stained her underarms and ruined her once crisply ironed white shirt, which had itself become untucked. Her forehead was damp with perspiration and her hands trembled as she scribbled on her notepad. More than once, during our lunch she apologized for not doing something she thought she should have been doing.
We kept reassuring her with "That's fine! No problem!" I wanted to share my secret of sleep deprivation to calm the nerves.
The rest of the lunch went smoothly and was quite the bargain! Each week the menu reflects the cuisine of the country they've just studied. This particular week was France
. A three-course meal of French cuisine for $9? Monkeys could have served it to me on banana peels and I think we still would have come out ahead. And unlike discounted haircuts at a barber college, we weren't going to be stuck with bad hairdos or a bloody stump for an ear if things went horribly wrong.
We started with the appetizers of Sauteed Scallops (Coquille St. Jacques Bordelaise)
and Seafood Terrine with Saffron (Terrine Fruits de Mer)
The sea scallops were sauteed with shallots and herbs, garnished with a sprig of celery leaf. I would've liked a more prominent sear on the medallions but realized this would've been difficult because these were not diver scallops. It would've broken their budget if it were.
Instead, the students were supplied with the standard frozen variety of scallops which, as everyone knows, is so aggresively treated with chemicals that caramelization is impossible to achieve. Nonetheless, the buttery sweetness of the shallots permeated through the oil drippings and the dish was saved.
The seafood terrine was more successful. A blend of shrimp, mussels, and halibut is packed together with saffron in a dense patty and served with a bell pepper coulis. This seafood "meat loaf", as I'd like to call it, could have been served between a bun as a seafood burger. "Le Burger de La Mer" I think they should dub it.
But the hunk of pressed seafood was good as it is, with pleasantly alternating flavors of the different sea creatures crammed within it. The star of the plate, however, was the coulis. This pool of sauce was as vibrant on the tongue as it was on the eyes. The sweet tang of the red bell pepper puree brought everything to life.
For the entree, we chose the Saute Shrimp with Green Peppercorns (Crevette au Poivre)
and the Pork Loin Saute with Capers and Dijon (Filet de Porc Dijonaise)
The shrimp, sauteed with the tails attached was finished with a sauce of shallots, leeks, anisette, green peppercorns and cream.
A side of buttered green beans and potato gratin accompanied each of the main entrees. Each of these accompaniments were heavily laden with butter and cheese, which made it overwhelmingly rich. So I set them aside as I focused my attention on the entrees themselves.
Although it would have been nice if the tails were excised before the saute, the shrimp was cooked to perfection. The sauce, buttery-smooth and lip-smackingly bold, was unmistakenly French because of the liberal use of cream to thicken it. What made it interesting were the little land mines of green peppercorns which popped with veracity in our mouths.
The medallions of pork loin, sauteed and finished with wine, capers, and Dijon mustard were just as good. But while the pork was not overcooked and benefited from a nice crusty sear, this is no crispy pata
. That is to say, the "other white meat" was devoid of fat and thus, had no real pork flavor. This is just the unfortunate state of most pork dishes in today's health conscious world, not the fault of our student cooks.
But our medallions would not have fared so well if it weren't for the sauce served with it. The sauce's spiciness and bitter edge from the Dijon mustard and white wine saved the cut of porcine flesh from an otherwise banal existence.
Dessert was Poached Pear
and Crepes Suzette
The poached pear was by far the most suprising item we tried from the menu. A sliced pear is cooked in red wine, and surrounded on the plate with a cold, frothy emulsion. This creamy liquid was the highlight of the dish. Like an ethereally light vanilla shake melted down to its essence, it gave the glistening fruit a dimension I wouldn't have expected.
The crepes, nicely chewy and supple were glazed with a warm Gran Marnier sauce and served with juicy orange pieces. The pleasant sting of the alcohol was still faintly present.
Our server, who had by this time worked herself into a ragged state, returned with the bill in one hand and pitchers of cola and ice tea in the other.
I wonder if it she would have felt more at ease had she realized that everyone she was serving that day also probably experienced, in one way or another, the same nerve-racking initiation into the "real" world as she had.Captain's Table
2701 Fairview Road
Costa Mesa, CA 92628