Small Potatoes

If you go to culinary school, you'll probably shape cocotte potatoes. If you go to the FCI, you will definitely shape cocotte potatoes. And while you are cutting whole potatoes into 5 cm-long footballs, you will surely wonder why you are shaping cocotte potatoes.

I've been to many restaurants in my life, and have yet to see the cocotte potato – a traditional French cut that specifies a vegetable be formed into a 7-sided, 5 cm-long oval. I suspect they made an appearance at the Michelin restaurants I was dragged to as a kid in France, but I was too busy longing for a burger to notice. Their obscurity doesn't mean that shaping a vegetable in this way is useless. As the FCI Level 1 textbook informs, cocotte "creates a uniform product that ensures even cooking and enhances aesthetic presentation." Still, as one student in my class astutely observed, "if we paid our kitchen to cocotte potatoes, we'd go out of business!" In other words, it's a time consuming task with which very few restaurants bother.

Despite their rarity outside basic skills classes, we spent many hours in Levels 1-3 cutting cocottes (or at least curved little sticks reminiscent of cocottes). The primary reason given by our instructors was that this enhanced our knife skills and comfort. There's no cutting board involved in the "turning" process. It's just your knife, hands and the vegetable. As a result, your knife and fingers get very close, and you spend much time trying to keep your fingertips. The more you cocotte, the more comfortable you get with a knife in, and perilously near, your hands.

But, in the end, I suspect the emphasis on cutting cocotte potatoes is about more than knife skills. I think it's about standards. The FCI tries to convey the classic French kitchen mantras of repetitious uniformity and perfection. It's what makes a restaurant successful: turning out delicious dishes, the same every order. If anything is going to teach you that, it's spending a chunk of time creating identical footballs of perfection. It can be repetitive and tiring, but hey, the same can be said about working in a kitchen. As some are surprised to find, it's not all innovative work and Top Chef-esque challenges. Like it or not, it's a lot about the small potatoes.

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