Whenever I think of backyard grilling, two simultaneous and contradictory scenes comes to mind. One is the lazy summer BBQ near the pool, where the guests relax with a glass of wine while the grill master lazily flips the meat, then brings it out on a platter of lovely summer fare garnished with a sprig of something or other, as the guests ooh and ahh. The other is the smoky burger-flipper feverishly tending the meat and trying to deliver an edible version of the hamburger. We all start off with visions of being the grill master, but how many times do we become the burger-flipper, trying to scrape up the remains of charcoal from the grill?
Today we will be grilling salmon on indoor metal griddles. Although these cast-iron griddles are portable, they are heavy–about 8 pounds–and take a bit of time to pre-heat on the stovetop.
Chef warns us it will get quite smoky, and to mop off any grease from the salmon as it can easily catch on fire. But we’re grilling a delicate salmon that takes a mere three minutes per side, so it should be something we can finish quickly.
In the demonstration, Chef is none other than the confident and relaxed grill master. He takes the beautifully-seasoned salmon and marks the flesh on the grill with a dark quadrille (not the dance, but perfect little criss-crossed squares). Six minutes later he removes the outer skin and inner cartilage like it’s scotch tapeperfection!
And now it is our turn. After seeing how confidently Chef performed, we arrive expectant and relaxed. We too will be the carefree grill masters, at one with the outdoors and culinary world.
When we pick up our salmon it is already filleted and cut into beautiful darnes:
No boning or cleaning is required today! Most of our time in the practical won’t be spent on the fish, but on making the beautiful Potato Byrons (twice-baked potatoes filled with béchamel sauce) and a beurre blanc sauce for the salmon. It’s only in the last 20 minutes that we will be grilling.
The practical seems to be going very well. The kitchen is singing with the rhythmic sounds of chopping, washing and cooking. We are composed and self-possessed, ready for the summer season. But then, in the last 20 minutes, magically or maniacally, our kitchen starts to transform. As the griddles are placed on the burners to heat, the temperature seems to be rising quickly, and with it our stress, tension and anxiety. Harmonious sounds are replaced with the discord of banging pots and oven doors that seemed to be closing a little too strongly. The steel brushes cleaning the grills, which should be inaudible, now sound overpowering.
By the time all 12 griddles are ready, the kitchen is a sauna. I hear the first salmon go on a griddle with the lovely sizzle of the BBQ. And then another one, and another one. But still, the tension is there. To my left, I hear a sharp sound followed by a loud crackle and a gasp. Someone forgot to mop the grease off the salmon and it ignited the grill. My heart is pounding and adrenaline is flying through my veins. From the corner of my eye, I see another grill ignite and hear Chef firmly saying “CHAUD” (HOT).
I glance up – are my eyes deceiving me? Is Chef carrying a flaming grill the length of the kitchen to the sink? Moments ago, it looked so simple. Now we have all turned into the failed burger flippers.
I try to calm myself by counting to 90, which is how long it takes before I need to move my own salmon a quarter turn to make my perfect quadrille. Another 90 seconds and I can flip it over. After six minutes on the grill, I’m ready to plate. My hands are shaking as I remove the skin and the center cartilage. And it is a success! The salmon skin peels off like scotch tape and the fish is cooked perfectly. Another flood of adrenaline, but this time relief, as I take a deep breath and exhale with success and satisfaction.
Before I bring my plate to Chef, summon up my image of the relaxed grill master hosting a backyard BBQ and delivering salmon to her quests. I try to focus on the joy of presenting such a beautiful fish, skillfully prepared with newly-acquired French techniques. And I try to savor a moment of success in the Le Cordon Bleu kitchen. I also try to ignore the sweat running down my back, the smell of smoke in my hair, and my hands that won’t quit shaking. I suppose in time I’ll get used to the sounds and heat of a professional kitchen. But will I ever get used to seeing a flaming griddle being delivered to the sink?