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So you want to be a Test Kitchen intern: Meet Amanda Burrill

Amanda Blog Photo

In the Test Kitchen, we like to work hard. We also like to play hard. And we like a little old-time rock 'n' roll, too.

At the L.A. Times, we not only test (and routinely retest) every recipe that runs in the paper, but we also then re-create and style those recipes for food shoots to appear both online and in print, coordinate and shoot step-by-step demonstrations and videos of various cooking techniques, and prepare for recipe demonstrations that air weekly on KTLA-TV's afternoon news. When we're not actually working with food, we're tracking down reader email requests for the Food section's popular Culinary SOS column.

In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development. The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.

Over the last few months, I've introduced some of our recent Test Kitchen interns, including Jonathan Wing and Annie Rouleau Dean, on loan from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles; Stephanie Luu, on loan from the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College's professional baking program; and Steve Braslaw, on loan from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. Here I introduce Amanda Burrill, also from Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles. -- Noelle Carter

When Thomas Keller's sous-vide recipes ran in the Food section the other week, they looked so simple. But they’d been tested and patiently retested over and over again in the Test Kitchen, the details ironed out so the reader would have no trouble at home. They say patience is a virtue; so, having often been accused of utter impatience, I wondered, "Did I come to the right place?"  Yes.  The L.A. Times Test Kitchen was a place for me to put a damper on my innate sense of urgency.  Here, it's about doing it right, not doing it fast.

I was a military officer for eight years -- the only professional career I have ever known.  No cooking involved, only rare culinary adventures in back alleys of the Middle East. I turned 23 while I was deployed and some of the culinary specialists (CS) pulled together a cake for me, one of the best days of that deployment. Though I was the only female at the "party," we laughed that I was the last one who'd ever be making a cake from scratch.

When I wasn't deployed, long before I had any knowledge of internal cooking temperatures, I'd bake off five to 10 chicken breasts on Sunday night so I'd have "dinner" when I got home from work and my workout (I race marathons and triathlons) during the week. If I wanted good food, I'd go out; if it was a rough or busy week, I would come home, douse that thing in ketchup and call it a night. Besides, it was only fuel and there was no real need for me to enjoy it. 

I left active duty and moved to Los Angeles. After an involved foot surgery, I found myself in a "boot," unable to run or do much of anything for months, so I started cooking three times a day. I started working on a cookbook, reading every food magazine in existence and, of course, holding on to each L.A. Times Food section. I never indulged myself with the thought that I was allowed to love something this much and actually turn it into a job.  Food television would play all day and I'd find myself fantasizing about hosting a show that encompasses cooking, eating, travel or any combination of the three. Last December, I considered going to culinary school and scheduled an appointment; two weeks later I started class.

Before I knew it, I was at the L.A. Times fulfilling the last chapter of my culinary education.  At Le Cordon Bleu we were groomed for working the line in a restaurant, fast-pace. I am very competitive and loved the pressure; finishing each dish quickly and beautifully was almost like winning a race for me. I sprinted through school and when I hit the L.A. Times I had to slow to a walk. I wasn't drowning in sweat. No time limits? What's a speed demon to do?  The answer: Take a deep breath, mise out the ingredients carefully, and execute perfectly. Rinse and repeat. There are tens of thousands of readers that count on us to give them accurate information.

Surprisingly, my favorite project at the Test Kitchen has also been the most trying on my patience.  My first day in the Kitchen, a tenured intern who was ready to leave to go back to school was working on a Thomas Keller "cooler sous-vide" project in conjunction with our "Master Class" series. I wanted to work on this project. What attracted me the most is that Keller is the epitome of fine dining, yet this technique has the reader cooking out of an inexpensive cooler. I marveled at the idea of a cooler doing something more than holding beer at a tailgate.

Although the concept seems simple, proper execution took discipline. We had to cook four kinds of meat, three of which had to be meticulously wrapped in plastic with no air trapped inside. Keller, in true form, provided a two-page instruction on wrapping the protein in plastic! The strip went into a Ziploc that we literally had to suck every last cubic millimeter of air out of; after all, sous-vide is French for "under vacuum."  

The most difficult part of the project was maintaining the exact temperature of the 28-quart cooler while the meats were immersed and their internal temperatures slowly raised to meet the temperature of the surrounding water. I would stand by the stovetop, where I had several pots of water going, and every few minutes take the water temperature and add the smallest amounts of  simmering water to maintain a perfect temperature. Too warm by a tenth of a degree?  Add a single ice cube. Each meat had a very specific water temperature. Each trial of the four meats in succession was a full-day affair. We'd work with his team to iron out any kinks. After several run-throughs, we started to see perfect results. Every day was a meat party. "Duck breast and strip steak for lunch again?"  Poor babies.

The morning the piece ran I excitedly retrieved the paper from my front door and snatched out the Food section. There was my baby, my labor of love, the story I'd put more time into than anything else over the last few weeks. It felt good!

From charred chicken breasts to five-course meals from scratch. The good news is that I can now cook the latter with ease. The great news is that I love doing it. I love working with my small company and keeping my website and blog; I love teaching others about food. And I hope it’s just the beginning.

I'm thankful for the time I had here to learn at the L.A. Times. I have become more attentive in the kitchen and have a deeper appreciation of patience and what it takes to ensure an accurate user-friendly recipe. I felt like my military service, at times difficult and challenging, touched a lot of people. I think my adventures in the culinary world will touch many more.  

-- Amanda Burrill

Photo credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

 
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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.