Many of the students who begin studying with Chef Pat Coyle at Bakersfield College are so new to the culinary world they've never sampled a decadent French sauce, aren't sure what to make of goat cheese and need a few minutes to find Morocco on a map. Even more astonishing, most have never been to a Basque restaurant.
But fried chicken? That, they know.
And they'll draw on their connoisseurship of the crunchy American staple next Thursday when they prepare a menu of Southern food favorites as part of the community-wide celebration called "Harlem and Beyond" in observance of Black History Month.
Reservations are strongly recommended for the buffet, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the campus Renegade Room, which seats 80.
Though Coyle had yet to finalize the Tour of the South menu when contacted late last week, he knows it will feature an assortment of salads and delicacies like grits, pork chops, chicken gumbo creole, black-eyed peas, collard greens and peach cobbler. The food is prepared entirely by the 20 to 30 students in Coyle's buffet class. With one minor exception.
"I will season," Coyle said.
"Students get a little heavyhanded on the cayenne and black pepper."
The Southern menu is a departure for Coyle and his advanced students, who usually focus on more traditional culinary school cuisines like French and Mediterranean.
"It's a home-style, comfort food kind of concept," he said. "We try to give (the students) as much different cuisines as we can, so when they become a chef and a newspaper lady calls and asks what Southern or soul food is like, they'll know."
What to expect
Fried chicken: Apparently there's a great debate raging in our country. Not the election. Not health care. Not same-sex marriage.
No, according to Coyle, the question keeping chefs up at night is whether to use buttermilk while preparing chicken to fry.
"I like buttermilk myself. You marinate it overnight in buttermilk and put it in seasoned flour.
"Some people like to double-dip it."
Southern smothered pork chops: Do not get Coyle started on pork. An innocent though ill-advised question about the safety of undercooking it provoked a pained sigh and a mini-tutorial:
"Don't overcook the pork chops. People cook it well-done and it's too tough to eat. Today's pork is really, really good. It's got to have just a little pink to it. When you pull it out, it's still cooking."
Juicy or not, pork can only get better swimming in gravy, which Coyle's students start after making their own chicken stock.
"Usually a roux is made with butter and flour. In this case, if we have some bacon fat running around, we'll use it for our roux, or maybe some duck fat."
Candied yams: Coyle is hoping to get them fresh. He'll have his students steam, peel, cut them up and candy them with brown sugar and butter. He hasn't made up his mind on adding nuts. What about toasted marshmallows on top? Not in Coyle's kitchen.
Grits: "The students probably have no experience with grits. Most haven't taken breakfast cookery yet. I'll show them how to do it. I've lived in Texas and Alabama, and you get grits breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"I'm not overly fond of them, but then I'm not overly fond of oatmeal either."
Collard greens: "We fix a good collard green here. We cook 'em slow. It's not a 10-minute job."
Cornbread: "There are many, many ways to make cornbread. We might add some jalapenos, just to spice it up."
Peach cobbler: "We did some research on it. We're going to put butter right into the peaches. Lots of cinnamon, lots of sugar. It's a concoction of two or three recipes, and we'll take the crust from the textbook."
Sweet potato pie: "I haven't made that in awhile, but I have a couple of students in the class who will be very, very helpful because they're from the South."