Sunday, February 12, 2012

Study in Muscle Memory

This is 1/8 of a wheel of grana padano cheese. You know those huge wheels of parmesan they sometimes use in grocery deli displays? Yeah, this comes from a wheel that big. We go through several of these a week at my work.
Next week is Valentine's day, and I'm working expo for the evening. The expeditor, at this restaurant, at least, is in charge of plating each entree, boiling the pasta, getting certain items into the oven, and getting everything out of the oven...before it's burnt. In our predominantly Latino kitchen, "burnt" is called "black," or negro.

It's a lot of stuff to prioritize, and a lot of stuff to remember, in general. My first day of working expo, I was genuinely overwhelmed. I remember coming home with tears streaking down my face. The next day, I went in again, and it was a tiny bit easier. Since I only work 2 expo shifts a week, it took a while to get a feel for the fire times (or cooking times) for each item, and figure out a good rhythm for staging entrees for large tables. But I've been working there for almost 4 months now, and I still mess things up. A lot. I'm doing much better than I was at first...but beyond basic comprehension of The Order of Things, it all just comes down to timing and remembering. And apparently, I'm not very good at either of those things.

In addition to a growing concern about my short-term memory, I'm realizing that line cooking is not for perfectionists and second-guessers like myself. Each time I correct something--like going back into the reach-in fridge to grab something I should have gotten a minute ago when I already had the door open--it adds to the fire time of something. This, in turn could hold back an entire table, because we don't send out plates of food until the entire table's orders are ready. And if it happens to be the middle of the rush, with 10 other tickets in line, it backs everything up, meaning I'll be "in the weeds" until all those tables are fired. Meanwhile, more tickets are coming in as earlier tables leave with full bellies. Therefore, if one is cooking on the line in the middle of the dinner rush...

time > precision > appearance.

In a higher end restaurant, those things are probably equally important, with "time" maybe a little lower on the priority scale, depending on the circumstances. Of course, taste is also a factor in any sauce-making station (which expeditors don't have to worry about, thank god).

I'm having to actively keep myself from adding just a pinch more cheese or a few more noodles to things, even when it will probably go unnoticed if I don't add them. Talk about obsessive-compulsive. I think the problem lies in the way my brain was wired over the course of my life. Appearance and perfection make the top of the priority list, without even taking time into account. I've never been a race-winner. I don't like running, and I don't like to rush things. So when I get a pasta dish in front of me, everything around me disappears, and I'm zeroed in on piling the perfect amount of parmesan with the perfect sprinkle of parsley. Since I don't (yet) have the confident swagger of a lifelong line cook, I add things little by little until it looks right. The best line cooks can garnish evenly every single time with only a quick glance to verify the order. I know this through several years on my resume spent observing practiced pizza cooks, mouth gaped and eyebrows raised.

So last Tuesday, I decided to make it a dress rehearsal, of sorts...a practice for Valentine's Day. Next Tuesday, we're going to have a full dining room, from open to close. If I fuck something up, the whole night will go to shit. So to "rehearse" for the big night, I told myself I would not be able to open the lowboy drawer to grab "just a little more cheese" or to put back an extra handful of pasta. I had one shot for each step of each order, no matter how much I was inclined to edit my actions. Just do it right the first time, Bre, I told myself. And, to my surprise, my hands knew, each time they reached for something, what was the proper amount. Not too much, not too little, just perfect. I guess I've already had 4 months of practice. The first "dress rehearsal" was a breeze.

So why have I been making my brain the back-seat-driver in a job that only requires a good auto-pilot? I've been playing musical instruments by feel since elementary school, yet I've had trouble trusting these same two hands with a different medium. Clearly, this is a good lesson in trusting myself. Pretty soon, I'll be playing systematic sonatinas at work, and indulgent romantic era pieces at home...but with food.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

No Cook Left Behind

Many of the lessons I'm learning at school are transferrable to my restaurant job, and vice versa. Both kitchens have similar ultimate goals: make good food, and get it out fast. Of course, at school, we're much more focused on making sure each student is learning how to do things, and at work we're more focused on just making sure things get done, whoever does them.

Within the school setting, timing is important, but it's not the end of the world if a plate gets sent out half an hour later than it should have. There does tend to be more stress on timing in the two student-run restaurants, but that's to be expected, as we're serving actual customers from the outside world there. I'm in the second quarter of a 5-quarter program, and my class is in charge of making lunch for all of our fellow students from the culinary and pastry programs. There's a big push to have some plates ready by 11am, the beginning of the lunch service. That's when all the students who are working front-of-house in the restaurants have their 15 minute lunch break before the restaurants are opened. While it's sometimes difficult to have plates up right at 11, we've all been in that position before. It's frustrating to have a limited time to eat before service, and to not be able to start eating because the 2nd quarter students don't have anything to offer yet.

Fortunately, this whole program is designed so that everyone gets a taste of each position in the crazy web of interconnected kitchens. We all do shifts in the dish pit; we all do shifts behind the counter at the casual bistro; we all take a few turns serving in the formal dining room. Some people complain that they're here to learn how to cook, not wash dishes or bus tables. But I think working in these different areas helps to build on the camaraderie we get when we're in the kitchens together. Since each of us knows what it's like to unknowingly grab a hot pot from the dish rack, we're all going to look out for our classmates in the dish pit by attaching a paper towel (our signal for "This is HOT! DON'T touch it with your bare hands!") to the next hot dish we discard.

The camaraderie we have with each other helps our kitchen run a little smoother, and a lot happier. Any extra dose of "happy" and "helpful" is welcome at SCA, since there's quite a bit of baptism of fire that goes on. Being on the butcher station last week was a good example of this. Backstory: our chef has given the whole class a few demos of different ways to break down a whole chicken into various cuts (8-piece, half, airline breasts, supremes, bone-in, bone-out, skin-off, ballotine, lollipops, etc). But, in my experience, watching a practiced chef break down a chicken in 2 min or less, and me (an unpracticed student) trying to do the a very different thing. I didn't even know where to start on the first day at the butcher station. And since our chef has a never-ending line of people hovering around him, waiting for him to answer a question or taste a sauce, he couldn't be at the worktable the whole time, showing my two group-mates and I every single step. However, the 2nd quarter butcher station is conveniently located right next to the section of the main kitchen where the 4th- and 5th-quarters work. Their instructor, Chef Sarah, is the go-to chef for anything meat-related. She answered more than one of our many questions over the course of the week, plus she walked us through the sausage-making process on our last day. In addition to her help, several kind upper-classmen stopped on their way past our table to ease the looks of terror (OK, maybe not "terror"...) on our faces and give us some butchery tips.

So, even though things rarely go as smoothly as planned, the food is sometimes late, and some of us just don't know what the hell we're doing, it's all okay in the end. We're all here to learn. So the 1st quarter students are putting the tongs in the wrong place, keeping you from having your food up on time? Don't worry about it. They haven't worked in that kitchen yet, and therefore don't know any better. Just tell them where the tongs go, and make sure you have your mise en place next time. And the veggies served with student lunch today were hardly palatable? You've been there. When something goes wrong in the 2nd quarter kitchen, and the clock is ticking, you just try your best to have something ready at 11. So if the veggies suck, just eat some more salad. Tomorrow's veg dish will be different.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Balsamic Mustard Fish Sauce

This is just a quick little post before I head out the door to buy my knives (!) for school. A full-on school-focused post should be up a bit later...not sure yet if it will be "later" in the tonight sense or the before-class-on-Tuesday sense.

I haven't been making extravagant meals or desserts at home lately. I guess it's because I've been busy with going to school, reading for school, and planning for school. But, of course, with anything I do end up making, I have to make it interesting somehow. No ho-hum food creation is allowed in my kitchen. Or, rather, I'm never satisfied with just ho-hum if I'm the one making and eating it. So when I decided to fry a piece of frozen fish for my late-morning protein needs, of course I had to come up with some sort of tasty thing to go with it. And, thus, Balsamic Mustard Fish Sauce was born.

I was craving something sweet and complex, a little spicy, and a little savory. None of the condiments (pre-packaged or otherwise) in my fridge fit this description. So I took some balsamic reduction I had on hand (sweet & complex), added some whole-grain mustard (spice and texture), and dashed in some fish sauce (savory/umami). The fact that the "fish" in the name of this sauce is a double entendre (fish, referring to the fish sauce ingredient & fish, referring to the thing I put it on) was just a bonus.

Monday, September 26, 2011

And so it begins...

Tomorrow marks the first day of my 'official' culinary journey. It's my first day of cooking school! I'm not fully prepared, technically speaking. I'm still waiting on my books to arrive in the mail, and I haven't purchased my knives yet. But otherwise...I'm so ready. I started planning this a year ago, and amidst all the mind-changing...deciding not to move to NYC after all, then planning to go to Seattle Central starting Fall, then thinking I would have to wait because I didn't have enough money, then finding out with less than a week until classes start that I received a financial aid grant...I've at least known this whole time that I'm going to start this.

Maybe I'll quit halfway through and decide to work my way through the kitchen ranks (as if I won't have to do that anyway), perhaps I'll decide that I don't want to cook for a living, after all...but I'm doing *this* right now. And that small fulfilled commitment to myself is enough to keep me going through this quarter, at least. Anything more than 3 months ahead is too far in the future to plan for, anyway.
So I have this idea that I'll blog about my culinary school experience, for general entertainment and for prospective wannabe-chefs...but I can't guarantee that I'll be doing any sort of regular documentation. My overall online blogger presence has been pretty sporadic, even this last month that I've been unemployed. I can, however, guarantee that I'll write at least once this week...and at least a handful more posts in the future, whenever the urge strikes me. That's the best I can do right now, and I'm ok with it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Sour Cherry Pie Journey, Part One: The Pits

The above photo is documentation of an event which rarely occurs in the greater Seattle area (or, at least, it's rare in my experience).

I've read and heard about sour cherries enough over the last few months that as soon as I saw the first local cherries at the market, I started scouring every fruit hawker's stand for a glimpse of these fine specimen. Before this year, I had no idea that sour cherries were anything notably different than just...cherries...which happened to be kinda sour. But oh, was I wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brandied Cherries

It's cherry season! And actually, it has been for a (proverbial) minute now. The first thing I decided to do with fresh local cherries (besides get some and eat them right away) was preserve them in alcohol for use in cocktails. Though I'm sure I'll find many other tasty uses as I make my way through the jar in my fridge.

This recipe/how-to mentioned a few different kinds of alcohol one could use for a homemade version of maraschino cherries. I thought brandy might be nice. But when I was at the liquor store, I saw only expensive and unappealing bottles on the brandy shelf.

Enter: tuaca. Pax brought it home from the liquor store a little while back, and it's now a staple in our home bar. It's nice and vanilla-y, and not uncomfortably sweet, compared to other liqueurs. Since it's brandy-based AND delicious, I decided to use it.

To make it, I heated a pot on the stove with water, raw cane sugar, a few whole cloves, and some cracked cardamom pods. Once the sugar was dissolved, I took it off the heat, added the liqueur, then poured the solution (spices included) over the cherries I had ready in a mason jar.

And that's it! Yummy boozy cherries for cocktails/desserts/whatever!

Saturday, August 6, 2011