Monday, March 17, 2014

On being a chef today, after you buy your local, seasonal produce

Not too long ago Tony Bourdain did a guest bit on Michael Ruhlman's blog.  I was excited to see the first question he was asked was "What issues do you see facing chefs today?" I wasn't happy with his answer.

Not because it was wrong; the points he made were fine.  I just feel there is a whole massive area that was completely ignored.  The question I wanted to see answered was "What staff related issues do you see facing chefs today?"  I wanted to see how those of us who wrangle the next generation of cooks, bakers, servers, dishwashers, minor criminals and pirates are seeing the shape of the future.

Since I didn't get his answer, I wanted to share some of my own observations.  These are the things I see, the things I try to handle as best I can, the things that I cope with to varying degrees of success.

First off, my staff doesn't expect to make a lot of money right away.  Contrary to the stories people tell about kids these days, these are cooks who even if they did go to culinary school aren't expecting to be the cock of the walk right out the door - there just hasn't been the employment market for that for years now.  They are happy to have a job. And, while they are making or just barely above minimum wage, they hope they have a chef that remembers what it is like to live on that kind of paycheck, when $600 equals two weeks pay, or when that Christmas bonus meant you could pay your bills and buy a few presents.  This matters. A lot. It's why they will scrabble for hours, take extra shifts, hope for a sliver of OT, get that second or third job. Luckily for them, there are plenty of us out there that do remember, because it wasn't so long ago when we were doing the exact same thing.  And as a manager who remembers that feeling, there comes the desire, especially with your best staff members, to wish you could change that, really pay a "living wage" whatever the hell that's supposed to be.  There's a big issue right there, and it doesn't even start to cover things like health care, paid time off or, the crucial one, where the money comes from to do these things.

OK, fine, the staff doesn't expect a lot of money - hopes for it, but doesn't expect it.  So what do they expect from their chefs?  Inspiration in one form or another.  To be taught, and have the chance to learn.  To be given the chance to try new things, to have their ideas taken seriously and with open mindedness.  In a perfect situation, to have the mentor that they will remember long after they have left the place.  Notice, I didn't say they "hope for" all of this, they EXPECT it.  This part is hard.  Every chef I know has days where all they want is a team that works with robotic precision exactly to their specifications day in and day out. Those are the days where baking powder gets used instead of baking soda in the brownies, where the tray of wineglasses gets dropped, and then, at the worst possible time, someone looks up and says, "But WHY do we do it this way?".  There was a time (and some kitchens still work this way, just none that I want to be in) where just looking up could get you fired, berated, a sheet pan thrown at you, all three.  Now, chefs need to anticipate that question.  To answer it before it comes at the worst possible time.  That's the only way to get the real hustle handled with the next generation - to equip your staff with everything they need to know, including the knowledge of when to ask, and when to put your head down and do the job.   And if they learn that, and do that for you, you need to make sure it gets acknowledged. Like I said, this is hard, but more and more, it's expected.

I'm sure some lament the loss of a military like obedience in the kitchen.  But really, I think the biggest issue facing chefs today is one that has always been there - how do we get done what needs doing?  That hasn't changed.  What has changed is the definition of what it means to be a chef from the perspective of your staff.  It doesn't matter what you think it means that someone slapped a four letter word next to your name on a menu. It matters what the people you hire, the people you train, and ultimately, the people you rely on to represent you think it means.

Sorry, chef, but without them, there's only so much you can get done, and we all know there's a lot that needs doing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A healthy appetite

I am sick.  Nothing major, just one of those times when that little tickle in the back of your throat wins.  I was on cup of tea and bad television hour number 17 or so when my appetite started to make a comeback. You know what I didn't want?  A bacon wrapped cheese dog. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard of someone just getting over the flu wanting a bacon wrapped cheese dog. There was no desire for a 7 topping pizza, or anything with a slab of foie.  I didn't want a cupcake, or an assortment of fruits and snacks to dip in warm salted caramel.

That last one may be starting to sound okay, though.

The point is, I wanted vegetables, broth, bread.  Maybe a little cheese or perhaps an egg.  Rice would be ok.  Pasta would be fine, as long as the vegetables and the broth were there, too.  How much better would I feel, all the time, if I ate like I was just starting to feel better?  How much better would we all be if we ate like we were trying to get the vitamins in, where food was sustaining and a tonic and a reminder that we'd feel better, and with any luck we'd feel better soon?  Sometimes I wonder if we've all just played a giant trick on ourselves with our cravings.

The thing is, next week, I may be having that bacon cheese dog.  I don't know all the answers to the best way to eat food, even when I know a lot of really excellent answers on how to prepare it.  It is continually surprising to me just how vast, varied, and individual our needs for food are, and how lost each and every one of us is when it comes to the best way to eat to feel good in our own skin.

For now, I think it's good if I stick with soup.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On the invisibility of bakers

revel in the glamour
I made a joke not to long ago about how bakers are invisible until they try and take a day off.  This was my barely clever attempt to comment at my own shortsightedness while providing national commentary about how most people feel about bread. Like many barely clever things I didn't think about it until after I said it, and then I couldn't stop thinking about it - at least the second half.

Bakers tend to get lumped together with pastry chefs, and when compared with delicate sugar showpieces and towering wedding cakes, beautiful bread seems, well, like a whole lot of brown.  Nancy Silverton, who with her ex-husband Mark Peel,  helped pave the way for a revitalization of small bakeries in the US, was honored with a James Beard award for best Pastry Chef in 1990. Pastry chef.  I don't know how well she can quenelle sorbet, pull a perfect sugar curl, compose a plated dessert that follows the vision of the savory side.  I do know she can make amazing sourdoughs, killer pizza, and yes, pastries that sell in her bakery. She is a Baker! Huzzah! Her cookbooks have received James Beard awards for Baking, because unlike the chef categories, baking gets its own place in print. Why do we acknowledge the books in a distinct category but not the craftsmen who created them?

I think it's something like this: The stories say your Foremothers made bread at home.  Therefore it is 1. women's work and 2. best acknowledged in a home setting, like a cookbook.  The problem is the initial faulty hypothesis - all the baking happens by women at home.  That wasn't true in Egypt, or Rome, where men ran the bakeries.  In feudal France it was illegal to even have a personal oven - minimizing the risk of fire while reinforcing the power of the feudal lord. The baking guilds in history often specified male members only (although family was usually exempted in the name of all hands on deck). Hell, even now you are more likely to find men baking your bread, because of that whole crazy hours and ladies have babies thing.  Yes, there is the pioneer/farm/idyllic media image wife at home baking for the family - but there are still bakeries in town.  Were the people baking for the community somehow less valuable?  Or maybe you just didn't see them, because they were having dinner when you had breakfast, and in bed when you were up and about on your day.

Then there is the bread itself.  A basic, a staple.  It's the thing everyone is supposed to have (even though not everyone does) and because everyone is supposed to have it, no one should have to pay very much for it.  A talented chef makes national news when he explains why rice shouldn't be free at Asian restaurants. Yet, the American public still expects free bread at restaurants. Guess what? That hunk o' baguette you didn't eat actually required as much if not more labor than the free rice.  Ever have a good sandwich on bad bread? Was it still a good sandwich, or did you think "This would have been a good sandwich if..."?  Ever have a soup that was made just that much better because of the crackers, croutons, or hunk of bread on the side? We see these elements as garnishes, an afterthought, not a foundation you don't pay attention to until it cracks.

The truth is, we don't do much scratch baking at home. It takes time most people don't have. I find more and more that my building blocks like bread flour are available in only small quantities at the store, replaced by instant mixes and ever more freezer space for microwaveable ready to eat items.  So why don't we begin to celebrate the people who take the time to make beautiful breads where we can't?  I know this will seem like blasphemy here in the US, but how about being willing to pay more for bread that is actually worth buying?

How about simply learning the names of a few bakers? Not the shops, the people. That shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gee, that was beautiful! What did I do?

Pistachio ice cream, made into a biscuit, used for strawberry shortcake.

Yes, in my family we use biscuits not cake for shortcakes.  And now I will forever use ice cream biscuits.

In case you were wondering.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

One more time, from the beginning

Sometimes, you have to start with a dumb idea.

There's a whole Zen thing - and I am not even remotely well versed on the subject so don't yell at me if I am slightly off in my interpretation - about having a beginner's mind, Shoshin.  You come to an activity with a willingness to try everything, no preconceived notion of what can and cannot be done - no idea that something is a dumb idea.  From there, you allow yourself to explore possibilities that wouldn't occur to the expert, rigid in thought and process.

The idea that mixing ice cream and flour could make bread, for example.

I find weird ideas like this exciting. Of course I had to try it.  To me, the batter immediately suggested biscuits, rather than bread, so that's what I made - butter pecan biscuits, topped with raw sugar.  The only bad parts were my hands got really cold mixing the dough, and now I have to keep a supply of self rising flour around the house.  Because I don't already have enough flours around the house.

The good parts?  I have been inspired to play more with my baking. Not just with this recipe (although I really want to try using a good pistachio ice cream next. Or maybe beer and chocolate ice cream), but with bread in general.  What makes bread? Most bread doughs are variations on the theme of 5 parts flour, 3 parts liquid, plus leavening and flavoring.  But what does that mean?  If the liquid is water, I can develop a passable baguette, but what if I use the liquid I strain off yogurt? What if I just use yogurt?  How do different fats affect things? Different flours? So many possibilities.

There's a trick here, though.  It wasn't hard to get excited about an idea that involved two ingredients, little time and intuitively seemed like it would work.  Also, there was cheating involved on my part - someone else had already tried the idea and presented it to the world as something that works.  But when there isn't someone else showing you the silly, weird, odd ideas that shouldn't work but maybe they could work, where do they come from?  Being open to all possibilities means being open to bad ideas, as well; how can you recognize those ideas, and do you try them anyway?  Crazy Brain Me says yes, you should try them anyway, because you still get answers from failure.  You just need to not let those failures and successes stop you from trying more ideas.

Good thing I have biscuits to sustain me through the process.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Deliberately avoiding authenticity

It's five days before Fat Tuesday and the Paczki police are after me already.

Really, after more than a few months in the bagel business I should be used to this.  The internet has made this sort of commentary inevitable.  I should be jaded, steadfast, above this sort of thing.  I should just accept that I am wrong.  Acceptance is the first step in the healing process, right?

I am wrong.  There, I admit it.  My bagels, while New York style, are not the exact ones that Mr Expert #4 had on May 15th, 1982 at H&H. Nor are they the ones that Ms Professional Opinion #26 lyrically remembers from her childhood ramblings in which she accidentally while chasing a ball happened upon a 3rd generation bagel making family's one tiny storefront.  They aren't even the ones that you could get from any other bagel place right now.  They are too small, too large, too malty, not malty enough, not topped enough, topped too much, too different and sometimes not different enough. I did not grow up Jewish in New York City. Also, the water is different.  Despite all this, they are good bagels.

Paczki are a Polish pre-Lent celebration, a way to use up all your naughty ingredients, a damn tasty variation of the doughnut.  Thanks to immigration patterns, I discovered them in Chicago.  They are rich, with a supple dough, filled with custard or fruit, and I have missed them.  They just aren't found much in the neighborhoods of Portland, and each year I have seen other transplants seek them out, and end up disappointed. Really, what's the point of having a bakery if you can't fill a pastry void? So I asked. I made samples. And then a few more samples. They were well received. Now, for one single day we will celebrate one more puzzle piece of where we came from.

We post pictures, tell a story, and get the word out.  Then, it begins.  Those are too round, not round enough, not big enough, too big, probably don't have lard, aren't glazed, shouldn't be glazed, should be fruit filled, should never have chocolate.  Not the Real Thing. Also, they have never been eaten by any of these people.  It's even possible that they never will be eaten by some of them.

It's ok.  You are all correct.  I am not making something you may consider authentic. What I am making is a recipe passed on to me through who knows how many hands and minds.  I have adapted it to my own purposes.  And yes, I am daring to call these Paczki in full knowledge of this fact.  But my Paczki is made with a sincerity of purpose. It is true and genuine to what I know Paczki can be.  It also tastes really, really good.

What does authentic mean again?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Going Kosher

It was 1 in the morning and I was madly etching a letter B on every sheet pan. I'd already been through a long production shift and behind me the overnight bake was in full swing, but there I was, discovering my lack of Dremmel tool skills, and there I would be for a good hour. I had to be, there was no other time.

The rabbi was coming at 6 am, and he was bringing his blowtorch.

I think I had been at my job for a week when people had first started asking, "Are you going to be Kosher?"  Well, now, that was a good question.  There's a sizeable Jewish community in town.  There's a local organization dedicated to helping people make that happen. Oh yeah, and I'm making bagels.  The first problem, though, was where I was making them. A kitchen space that enjoys a wide range of clients including some serious pork people? Yeah, not so kosher.

But then we started planning out our own space - we were already getting too big to comfortably share the freezer, the walk-in and if we wanted to continue that growth, our best option was to get the space next to the kitchen and build a bakery. If we were going to do that, then, sure, why not go kosher?

So what did that mean, exactly? Well, first it meant that our Kosher certification representative came to visit the kitchen on the inevitable day there was a big pork photo shoot going on. Seriously. We're talking sides of pig laid out across three tables in all their glory. Because that's the way my life goes.  I respectfully did not offer to shake hands (Thank you, Dan, for teaching me this etiquette tidbit years ago!) we snagged my boss and went to sit somewhere pork-free.  Then, we learned what we needed to do.

One part was paperwork.  We'd already done quite a bit, chasing down Ks and circled Us on labels and considering substitutes where there were no symbols.  I heard about disreputable merchants who use false symbols and very reputable ones that don't see a need to go through the process. I learned why spice blends are more suspect than the spices themselves and how an initially Kosher product that gets repackaged by a food distributor means we better make sure the distributor is certified.  Better to go to the source. Also, all those crazy Asian ingredients in our Miso Soy Ginger bagel? Mostly not Kosher. We would have to make, boil and bake those in the other kitchen. We had to track down actual certificates for all of those products, and submit our formulas.  I wondered, briefly, if this meant that some rabbinical council had the formula for Kosher Coke somewhere. I bet they had to sign something.

Then there was equipment.  We have an advantage in having a separate kitchen, in that we can still make things for the shop with bacon and sausage (only the bagels are certified), but it meant we had to have absolute separation between all of our equipment - bowls, sheetpans, knives, bench scrapers - and the kitchen's tools. So I dremmeled my way through the wee hours.  In the morning the rabbi brought his blowtorch to cleanse the items that had been used before, and to get a complete list of all of our equipment to keep on record. They count the sheetpans. Seriously.

So, beginning just before the High Holidays, we became a Kosher bakery.  We get weekly inspections, usually during the wee hours.  I consider it a compliment that after the inspection they often ask for bagels.  I've had great conversations with some of my farmer's market friends who produce Kosher items. "Oh, did you work with Tuvia? Tuvia's great!" "Oh, we worked with Tuvia, too!"  We can't control for where knives in the shop have been, so our qualifying bagels are only certified kosher in their whole, uncut state which has caused some giggles from our customers.

In the end, was it worth the time, the expense? The little rules that we have to keep an eye on, the paperwork we need to process every time we buy bowls or want to add a new flavor?  For me it's not about their religion, or my lack of religion.  It's about wanting to bring this great stuff we make to as many people as possible.  We didn't have to change our recipes, just substitute one product for another and now there's a whole community of people who can try one of my pumpernickel bagels.  That makes it worth it for me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The allure of shortbread

What is the perfect cookie? Simple, yes, but not dull. Adaptable. Something you would reach for again and again. A treat, in the truest sense of the word.

There we are, me and Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, I haven't been accused of plots to assassinate Elizabeth I (I'm pretty sure), and I haven't spent any time in exile recently but we totally could bond over cookies. Specifically the delicate, buttery, infinitely versatile shortbread.  Probably the easiest and most useful cookie dough on the planet. It's 3 am and I need a cookie? I'm making shortbread. I need a crust for a cream tart or cheesecake? Ground shortbread. Something different to top my cobbler? Bring on the shortbread dough. Just a little something crunchy to go with my scoop of sorbet? Something I can smear with ganache, or jam, or peanut butter, flavor with nuts or cocoa, or dip in whiskey? How about a recipe that is easily adaptable to things like adding oatmeal powder or rice flour? Endless variation from a simple ratio?

Shortbread. You know that's right.

That's the thing about recipes that stand the test of time - they tend to be easy, with ingredients that are often just lying around, and they also tend to be good. If shortbread sucked, we would have stopped making them in the 12th century. Mary would have to have had something else sprinkled with caraway seeds (which, as it happens, I haven't tried yet but will have by the end of today) and I would be one of those people constantly searching for something but having no idea what that thing was.

The basic ratio for shortbread is simple: 3 parts of flours, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. I say flours because I like to use all purpose with a bit of cornstarch for crunch, but I have worked with rice flour, buckwheat, and my grandmother loved to make oatmeal shortbread. The butter is your key flavor so for the love of Sweet Potato, use good stuff. Some folks like to use salted butter, but I like to control the salt more, and go unsalted and add to my taste. If you want to play with sugars, try brown sugar (my favorite) or vanilla sugar. Add spice if you like, vanilla if you like.

As far as baking goes, I like to get good color on my shortbread, so I slice my cookies a little thinner, and let them bake a little longer, but once the edges are golden, pull them whenever they look good to you. Just make it the cookie you want exactly at that moment. And if you just want a recipe, here's my 3 am batch:

I Just Need a Cookie Shortbread:

125 g flour
10 g cornstarch
4 g salt
90 g cool unsalted butter, cut in small chunks
45 g brown sugar
white or raw sugar

Cram all the ingredients together with your hands in a bowl. It's three am, you really want to wash anything extra? Roll into a log, and press the white or raw sugar on the outside of the log. Slice into as many cookies as you need right now, plus two, just because. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet, and bake at 350 at least until the edges are golden brown. Wrap any remaining dough in plastic and freeze for the next cookie emergency. Try not to eat all the cookies until they have cooled a bit. Will store for a week in an airtight container if you aren't me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Demon's Farts and Other Legacies

So, I have a new job. Actually I've had this job for a smidge over a month now, but I'm just starting to get a finger and toe hold of an idea of what my life will be like on this train I am currently riding. It's been a fun, crazy, breathless time, and somehow in there I managed to learn something about pumpernickel.

 Me and pumpernickel, we go way back. I know it appeared for sandwiches (pastrami was probably my gateway to pumpernickel) but mostly I remember the bread dip. It was a recipe from my aunt, and it was creamy and full of dill and always served in a bowl of pumpernickel bread. On such occasions as this dip would appear, I would happily eat what was left of the bowl, with its thin layer of remaining dip, delighting in the flavors and textures. Those loaves even had the occasional raisin in them. I have no idea what made that baker put raisins in the pumpernickel, but it's probably the reason I like raisins, especially in savory items.

When faced with the prospect of making my own pumpernickel, it was that pumpernickel of my memories I wanted to recreate. Like so many other cooks before me, I found the task daunting, frustrating and perplexing. True pumpernickel is not what most Americans eat. The name refers to a sourdough rye bread that was baked low and long to get its dark color and was considered so indigestible that the name describes what the consumer was to experience later as a result of eating it. I'm not quite sure what demon's farts are supposed to be like, but it sounds really awful. So I'm mostly glad that the recipe in America was lightened up and enhanced, even if the name stuck. My sticking point was the enhancements. Pumpernickel color makes a nice dark loaf, but it is really just food coloring. Bleh. Pumpernickel flour, when checking the label, turns out to be dark rye flour with a variation that existed only on the price tag. Phooey. And everyone who loves pumpernickel has their own absolute list of what can and cannot appear: caraway or no, onions or no, coffee, chocolate, etc, etc, etc.

So I made my own list, and did what anyone experimenting with food should do - I played until it tasted right. I know without a shadow of a doubt that there are those who will tell me how wrong I am doing it, but this is mine. Yes, dammit, there is caraway.  And despite the naysayers, there are those out there who have told me, "Hey, this is really good pumpernickel." I'm glad they like my memories.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A love letter to my kitchen

I went to fill the bird feeder yesterday and somehow, an hour later, I was standing in front of my stove with a toothpick cleaning out crevices and muttering darkly about ill fitting drip pans. I'm not quite sure how that came to happen, but the bird feeder did get filled. Eventually.

What I realized while I was doing this mad cleaning was that I spend more time cleaning my kitchen than any other room in my house. More time wiping, soaping, sweeping and clearing space in a room that has the same footprint as one armchair from the living room.

If I had to describe the kitchen, I would say small. My sweetheart goes to get a drink from the fridge and I stop moving because otherwise something will go horribly awry. I would then add comments about cabinet doors that don't close true anymore, especially in the rain. The single cabinet wide enough to hold my pans. Burner coils that only half work, and don't stay level. The fridge light has never worked properly. Two oddly placed outlets, total.

And yet, that tiny space is home. When I need comfort, I go there. When I want to celebrate, I go there. To bring together friends and neighbors, to find peace in solitude, that is the part of our house where I can make the world, for a little while, be what I wish it to be.

And really, that is why I cook for a living. Not because I love the craft of it, which I do. Not because I love the result, which without question is true. It's because that world that exists in my kitchen is a good world. If I move to a larger kitchen, then that good world I've created becomes larger, as well. If the people in that larger kitchen share their good world with mine, that good world becomes even larger. "Trying to make the world a better place" is trite and cliche to me. There is no try. When I cook, the world is better to me. I just want to get everyone else in on the action.