Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pam Shortt's broken both her legs...

During one of the less tense moments of my day today, I turned to my co-worker and asked him, "What makes this chef special? What can he show us how to do that we couldn't learn from someone else, possibly better?"


I had come up with the same answer a few hours before.

I don't know why I haven't been asking this question. I have been trying to define what I want. And while it is important to be able to answer the question, "What DO you want?" when you're sitting there screeching, "I don't want THIS!", sometimes you need to rephrase the question to actually get the right answer.

I have been dithering about trying to come up with a vision of salvation. Duh, there isn't one. No chef is going to come sweep me off my feet. Ain't happening. But you know what is happening? Not a whole hell of a lot. And I am furious about that.

I haven't learned a new recipe in ages. I haven't learned new techniques other than what I have taught myself. And what I can learn, those valuable pearls that may still linger? I could learn them just as well somewhere else.

So now comes the hard part... I have to let go of the trappings that keep me here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Educated Guesses

I have a theory about rhubarb. It goes something along the lines of soon, there will be a serious rhubarb fad. Rhubarb will be the next pomegranate, goji berry, there will be BarbWonderful and I will have this soup, and smile. And then, as quickly as the next issues of all of those magazines appear, rhubarb will fade away and I will smile again.

Rhubarb went through a bad phase. Around the World Wars it was considered a good thing to plant because it grows just about everywhere and it was a good vegetable substitute. What the propaganda neglected to mention was what part of the rhubarb to eat; since the leaves are toxic and the roots a laxative, well, a lot of people were turned off.

Happily, that memory is fading. And also, people are finding more ways to use rhubarb than just pie. (It is really good in pie, tho.) For example, rhubarb syrah soup with honey yogurt sauce is a really good use of rhubarb. I am convinced that most people who like tart things but claim to not like rhubarb would like this soup, at least until you told them it was rhubarb.

Rhubarb, for me, is spring. I never buy it frozen and so I only think of it at this time of year, like Shamrock Shakes. I have a long term taste memory for it, unlike anything else I can think of. I made the soup and thought, "The rhubarb is tart this year." We homogenize so much in our world, to try and maintain that same flavor each year, each season. Wine is a happy exception, but our food should have their peaks and eddies, as well. Strawberries, grapefruit, even our meat should have flavor that varies from season to season, place to place, year to year.

Why do humans prefer mediocre food just because it is unsurprising? Don't we realize that delight is found at the moment of discovery?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dangerous Times in Food Photography

I confess to a certain degree of perfectionism. I'm not a neatnik, I don't compulsively wash dishes or take tweezers to my arm hair, but I am aware of details. For example, when I put pictures up for public viewing, while I may not be the most skilled photographer, I want them to look decent.
I tend to take pictures of food on my porch. Natural light is better than the nasty apartment lights in my kitchen, leafy trees make better backgrounds and overall, it makes me happy. But well, there are occasionally issues.

See, I made this lemon berry dessert. Lemon mousse, a berry gelee, almond crumble, and a nice joconde with a pink abstract pattern. I really like the joconde. Came out awesome. And the whole thing tastes pretty good. The plan was to plate, garnish, snap a shot, write something about it. I got it in my head that I would rather do a sugar curl than a tuile. So I made one with the leftover nearly dead isomalt I have lying around for practice. This is a neat trick because 1. I was warming up the sugar in my toaster over 2. This sugar is really crystalised and dead. Inevitably, I hated it. And the next one. The next one as well. Then I broke a few.... you get the idea. I get one that is passable and now it's time to plate. I have an image in my head of what I want the plate to look like, so the sauce goes on easily. Dessert on the plate, almost perfect temperature now because it has been out of the freezer for a while. On to the garnish!

Strawberry, ok, blackberry maybe... oh hey, I have raspberries! Oh, they've gone moldy inside. Skip the raspberries, we'll make do with strawberry and blackberry. Ok, half a strawberry, yes, blackberry ok, sugar curl and...

No. Plate itself looks kinda empty and I don't like the balance of the fruit (Even as I am sitting here now I have another idea that would have been better. Oh well.) Try fruit on the plate. Nope. What if I move that strawberry? Oh, well, I guess the mousse isn't frozen anymore, will have to cover that and whoops!


Adult that I am, I duck in the house so the kid who just got a mousse covered strawberry on his head can't see me.

Anyway I have another strawberry and you know I think I'll use one of those raspberries that's just moldy inside; it's just for the picture. Rearrange, no no no, ah screw it, I'll just cut this one open and get an inside shot. Decision made, I decisively pop the garnish fruit in my mouth. Including the moldy raspberry.

So here's the inside of this dessert, crumbs on the plate and all. I have to go drink something.

A little knowledge in the wrong hands...

It was suggested that the kitchen really needed to jump on this whole local/seasonal/organic trend and put together a menu reflecting a deeper understanding of where our food comes from in service to our clients.

My personal favorite item was the grass fed tomato.

Grass. Fed. Tomato.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thousands of chefs can't be wrong, right?

My sister has ideas that often have merit. Case in point, the brown butter panna cotta was her suggestion, and while I still think it will make a killer flan and I need to tweak the actual process for this just slightly, the original idea was worth investigating. Many of her ideas of late have been focused around manager roles in a creative workplace in a digital/modern/changing world. I've been thinking about her ideas and if they would work in a kitchen. They are very mentor-driven ideas, full of facilitation and communication. How credit and praise get assigned. Less regimentation, more fluidity.

I'm not sure how many of them could work, and I'm not sure how much of that is me having bought into "the way things are done" in most professional kitchens.

Here it is, in plain English. I don't like the way my boss does things. I think some of his work is good, more of his work is outdated and the rest is at best half-assed. His style of mentoring doesn't teach us much of anything because most of the time his answers are the "because that's how its done" type. More than once I've asked about why something works the way it does and gotten an "I don't know". And then there are those other issues so common in an industry like this one. I'm not delving into those. But as I'm being screamed at for some trivial detail about how to plastic wrap a sheet pan that was perfectly legitimate yesterday there is a little part of me that says, "Ah, yes, this must be a real kitchen, he must be a good chef, because that's what they do." I sat in a meeting once in which we were told to suck up the abuse because one day we would be in charge and would abuse people because that is how things get done. Lots of kitchens follow this axiom.

I'm not sure it really has to be that way. Does it? What parts of the system do we keep, what parts to get rid of?

Escoffier is credited with the brigade system in most kitchens, specialized roles that define who does what where and when. And now there are kitchens where every cook learns every place, where they rotate out to the front of house and act as servers, even. But, as a specialized cook who would have a really hard time boning out a chicken, I kinda like that brigade. There is a tradition of cooking less and less as you move further up the scale, and I really don't like that one. I'd rather stay low, for now, and get my fingernails dirty. As for the screaming, the psychological damage, well, this industry is a pressure cooker and something has to weed out the bad veg. So what replaces that so that when you really need it, when it is your 23rd day in a row and tomorrow you feed a four course plated dinner to 600, you turn around and you have a staff there ready to go?

How do you get the passionate ones? And if you get them, is this how you keep them? Where is the line between practical, inspirational necessity and just stupid egotistical habit? I'm not sure what the answer is to that. I am scared of what such an answer would say about me and where I am right now. See, I've stayed with someone who may be on the wrong side of that line. Probably when I shouldn't have. Has that ruined me for the good kitchens? Will I even be able to recognize them or am I going to look for the wrong signs?

Rather than spend my weekend thinking about it, I'll just cook.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I figured out the disconnect

We work a lot in this business. I hear it with my friends when we do manage to find a moment to catch up each other - ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days - but it's not a oneupsmanship game. More a statement of, "Yes, I'm still here, doing this."

It's a statement that means more than you think.

There are statistics everywhere about the terrible parts of this business. There are the numbers about how many restaurants flat out fail in their first year of business. Numbers about alcohol and drug abuse among those in the industry. Appalling pay scales. Injury reports (and you know those numbers are higher than the statistics.) My company has an HR person, and there are things like sick and vacation days for those of a level to have been offered such things. Our chef asks us to not get sick when it is busy. He doesn't even say please, and we're surprised at his need to even vocalize such a thing. Who would allow themselves to get sick when we're serving 2000 people this weekend in three places at all the same time? I know, on a certain level that all of my coworkers are scarred, slightly damaged, or else they would not do this. Then I smile and wonder what they might imagine my damage to be, if they thought about such things.

My damage? I love this work. It's my curse, my albatross and anyone who recognizes it in me, however subconsciously, has totally got my number and I'm screwed. It is so easy to take advantage of me because I will think about each detail that I didn't get right, and it bothers me when I have to work at a level below what I think is good. I have a crappy day and I want to come home and cook. When I'm too exhausted to cook, I'm thinking about food anyway, reading about it. I want to travel to eat. I want to call up people and bore them with food talks at odd hours, as my sister will attest. Sure, I have other hobby things I do but I mean, I have been known to crochet cakes. I am a seriously damaged individual.

And I can possibly think of one person, of all the prep cooks, event cooks (there are over a hundred) and other culinary staff besides me in my workplace who may get that. That one person is not one of the management team. My own supervisor doesn't bake at home because it is too messy. In a word, I have no idea what their motivation is. They make similar money, work in the same environment, for the same hours and they don't flat out love this stuff? They don't want to taste everything and find out what a dragonfruit is, and contemplate new pairings for watermelon? The mind boggles.

I was showing some pictures posted by a friend of mine of her Easter buffet and my boss, in astonishment, verified that yes, she was a classmate of mine, same level of experience and all he could say was, "Well, what happened to you?"

I didn't reply with, "I'm working in the wrong kitchen."

As for the watermelon, there are so many taste memories with this sorbetto from David Lebovitz's book and Friendly's watermelon sherbet coolers that I want to leave it alone. But watermelon and black pepper is pretty kicking. And cubes of watermelon with really good balsamic. Or some of those strawberries that are starting to come in. Or with tapioca pearls as a shot drink... I can keep going...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Start with the inspiration.

One of those spring days. It's grey and dreary from rain, making the green of the leaves brighter, the wet tree bark black. From this came thoughts of green, pistachio, pandan, what was I looking for? Green tea! And chocolate, and cherry. How should it go together? Have to try the ladyfinger batter with matcha idea. It comes out lovely, but dark, dark. How to brighten the look? I opt for a green tea buttercream even though I hate buttercream and find a gazillion other ideas after the fact - I even find an almost identical opera cake made with scientific precision on another site, with microthin layers of perfect cake and an absolutely smooth ganache top. Well, at least hers didn't have cherry. The cherry is a really good idea, so I add a whole one. Not bad for a first run, and I still have half a sheet of the matcha biscuit left...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Territorial marking among guest chefs.

Here's a thing I wasn't aware of until I became industry entrenched - there's a status thing among chefs. Not within an individual workplace, that is a hierarchy of which I was aware. I mean between the kind of work you do: caterers vs. hotel vs restaurant and that kind of nonsense. Each can have its own kind of disdain for the other among a certain caliber of chef. For some, your numbers mean everything - if you can't do a party for 1000 in one night without breaking a sweat, what good are you? Others will scoff, and say 1000 is right dandy a number but what does that say about your food? And a blessed few ignore both sides and just do the work. I like those kinds.

I don't know if it is guest chef season right now or what. I do know that we've had our menus prepared for us by someone who has never ventured near our kitchens numerous times in the last week. It's kind of fascinating. The way it works for the events we do is fairly straightforward. Our Executive gets the menu from the guest chef. That statement makes it seem simple, but it's kind of like that string tied to a doorknob method of tooth extraction, from what I've seen. We order the products, sometimes with perplexity, we do the prep. The guest chef may or may not appear with direction and tweaking. We put the thing together, go to the event. Once again, possibly we get direction on plating, last minute changes and the like from the guest chef now that we are on site. We cook the food, we plate the food, we serve the food, and then the guest chef takes a bow. Success!

Now this is not true for every event or every guest chef. I've seen both ends of the spectrum - chefs who were so grateful and sincere in their work that they were a joy to have in the space. We made room for those chefs, gave up the line, shared secrets. The ones that only came in to criticize our work, scoff at our prep team as "mere" caterers and basically gum up the works? Well, of course they saw us at our worst - it was all they expected to see.

If I ever have the opportunity to be a guest chef somewhere I hope I can remember this time and be the good kind of guest chef. I hope I will have a recipe that works as well for 800 as it does for 4; even better if I have the math done for 800 already. I hope I will communicate early and often with my needs and then stop making changes unless I have to well before the event takes place. I hope I consider the season when my menu is being served. And mostly, I hope I remember to thank everyone who helps me.

And if I don't remember those things, then I will not have become the chef I hope to be.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And then a little something I did at home...

So this is not the kind of mini dessert we do at work. It wouldn't work for 800 people very well. But this is closer to the look I like, the aesthetic of what I want to make, and, indeed, what I want to eat.

What is it? In the cup is berry curd and a sliver of fresh berry. The pearls are guava (nice, but I could have punched up the flavor more with a better puree). The fresh berry made it, flavor wise, and I ended up not liking the chocolate cup as distracting. Some of the leftover guava gelee got sliced and layered with the curd and berry for some mutant fraisier action and it was distinctly better without the chocolate.

Something along this line has been puttering around my brain for days now, glad to get this first rendition out.

In other so I remember notes, it was suggested I make melon-based pearls very very soon. I can do that.

My contribution to today

Everything I don't like about this cake was not my idea, so I think it's a nice little sample for a tasting. Entire cake is less than three inches wide and four inches high, to give you an idea of the size of the roses. Chocolate cake, ganache filling, wrapped in marzipan, coated in chocolate.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Absolutely appropriate

I noticed yesterday in the bathroom that I have a zit on my nose.

Let me back up. The first restaurant I ever worked in had a sous chef named Rob. Actually come to think of it, I have worked at three places that had sous chefs named Rob. Weird. Anyway, as it was my first restaurant job, I was green as grass. As a career changer I was old enough to actually know this. The sous chef, Rob, kinda scared the bejeesus out of me.

It wasn't anything that he said or did in particular. It was just that he was always there. I felt like everything that he asked me was a test. Some tests were easy, to me; when he offered to let me leave at the end of my first shift without needing to clean up, I said I'd stay. They didn't offer me the chance to stay on until after I mopped. Like I said, that one was an easy test. He'd also ask questions about methods and plans and what exactly I was doing and those were trickier.

At the end of every shift he came around and thanked everyone on the line including me.

But it got easier for me. I kept up a bit more, I contributed. I always stayed to clean. Towards the end of my tenure (I was working for free on the weekends while I was in school, so we all knew when I was leaving.) he came around at the end of the night to say thanks after he had changed into street clothes. We had worked the last nine hours together, he had pushed, I kept up, and still stood in awe of his position.

I noticed as he thanked me a rather spectaular zit on his nose. Nine hours, I hadn't noticed it. I noticed the smooth actions on the line, the being everywhere he needed to be, the good questions, the good food. It was a fascinating thing, that zit. Humanizing, yes, but I knew that if it was there the next week, I still wouldn't see it until he was in street clothes.

So when I went to the bathroom yesterday after they promoted me, the face that looked back in the mirror seemed to reflect history accurately.

Time to go to work...