Monthly Archives: September 2013

Day 6: Independence

The Prince Charcuterie, featuring house made cured meats and salumi

The Prince Charcuterie, featuring house made cured meats and salumi

Today was a busy day. Or at least, I thought it was. At one point, our rail was completely full of tickets. Good thing I wasn’t responsible for expediting because just looking at all those tickets was making my head spin. One might be inclined to think that salads are no big deal (I certainly did before I started spending time in a professional kitchen) but the ones here are especially intricate and intricacy takes time, gosh darn it! Aside from the dozen or so ingredients that differ with each salad preparation, the primary issue is timing — dress the salad too soon and it will wilt, causing us to start over from scratch. The lingo “dying in the window” comes to mind.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This morning I was greeted by familiar faces when I arrived and got to work cleaning and setting up our station. I felt noticeably more at ease in the kitchen and comfortable with the routine. I got to choose most of my tasks for prep today (lots of mandoline time!) although I did end up having to do the herb salad. Sigh.

I did get a compliment later on though. My station lead asked me to grab a quart of frisee from the walk-in, and I double-checked whether he wanted the newer one or the older one. He said to get the newer one because he prefers the way I pick frisee over the others working the pantry station. Not gonna lie, I definitely patted myself on the back all the way to the walk-in. :)

Today’s family meal was definitely worth mentioning. Some of the guys even remarked that this was the BEST family meal of all time: chicken tikka masala with garlic-onion rice. SO GOOD. OMG. All of the delicious cumin, kashmiri chili, garam masala, cinnamon, ginger, and plenty of other spices I can’t even begin to imagine — the aroma wafted through the entire kitchen. I wish I could have eaten a huge bowlful but as usual, I grabbed a small scoop to expedite eating quickly (and getting back to work).

Apparently there was another event going on tonight, so Chef took a few of his best men, leaving the kitchen a bit short-staffed. I think I held my own though. Despite aching feet (an all-too-common part of kitchen life), I moved quickly to retrieve our plates from the walk-in… that’s right, folks. Chilled plates for salads. We’re fancy like that. I plated tuna tartares during happy hour (aka Happy Tuna), the fairly new kale caesar salad, and lots of arugula salad that would stain my hand with bright red huckleberry juice. The theme of the night was independence and self-sufficiency. Our usual station lead was assiged as a floater tonight, helping out all of the stations. The other pantry guy was determined to succeed without his help, so it was just the two of us plowing through the tickets.

I loved the rush. It was a bit confusing at times, but I kept my head down and focused on whatever dish was assigned to me. Luckily, it did slow down here and there, and it turned out to be a nibbling kind of night. The charcuterie guy tossed a slice of toasted brioche my way. The meat guys on the hot line had grilled up an extra rib-eye and one of them brought a small piece over to me. The hot apps guy (who also works charcuterie during the week) plated up an order of headcheese that was prepared Vietnamese-style (similar to thit nguội) and even topped with pickled julienned carrots and daikon (đô chua). He shared a sample of that, drizzled with sriracha aioli, and it was pretty bomb. The perks of working in a kitchen where I LOVE LOVE LOVE the food.

Before I knew it, 10 o’clock crept upon us and we started to break down, putting away our mise en place and scrubbing down the reach-ins and counters. I’ve gotten pretty pro at wrapping the third pans so that it forms a completely airtight seal (I think they called it a banquet-style?). With a place for everything and everything in its place, my station sent me on my way. As I wandered through the kitchen to say my goodbyes, I was greeted with smiles and guys making me pinky-swear to come back next Saturday. Another successful night.

Honey Bunny and I have a new tradition. For the past few weeks, I’d call him as I approach our home and he’d run down to my car so we could speed off to get boba. A delicious and refreshing tradition indeed. Tonight I splurged on a slice of Oreo cheesecake as well. Yum.

I hereby dub this photo, "Well-Deserved"

I hereby dub this photo, “Well-Deserved”

Oy my feet. Today I tried my new Dr. Scholl’s insoles, but ironically, though my arches and underside of my feet feel better than other days, the height of the insoles caused the tops of my feet to rub against my shoe, creating a whole new pain. Sigh. Someday I will win this battle against my Skechers non-slip shoes. Someday.

Till next time!

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Influence

My Mom's Painting

My Mom’s Painting

I know I’ve already written a really, really long post about my inspiration to venture into the culinary world, but a thought crossed my mind the other day. I haven’t told everyone about this secret double life (otherwise, it wouldn’t be so secret, would it?) but the friends and family I have told have been nothing but supportive. “Good for you!” I hear, “I can’t believe you’re actually doing this!”

Some days, I can’t believe it either. Especially when I’m planning my schedule and realize just how precious Sundays (my one day off) have become. But every Friday night, I pat myself on the back for having made it through another week at the office, and I brace myself for the adventure and learning that awaits me in the kitchen the following day. On my (very short) drive home from the restaurant each Saturday night, I think to myself, Self, you’re actually doing this! This isn’t just some crazy dream.

But then I received an email last week. It was from my mom, and she had forwarded me an email from Michael’s the arts & crafts store. I could hear the excitement in her voice as she wrote that she had signed up for her very first art class because she’s always wanted to learn how to paint her own pictures rather than buying paint-by-number kits. I was so moved by her determination to do something for herself that the onion cutting ninjas brought tears to my eyes. It was a personal reminder that it’s never too late to learn something new and this made me think, Self… this is where you got it from. This is who you have to thank.

Because unlike the stereotypical Asian parents (you know who they are), my parents were and are both unconditionally supportive of me. They always pushed me to do my best, of course, and whether I imagined it or not, it always felt like my best had to be pretty darn good. But still, I was taught from a young age to focus on what i loved, and I think that’s been a huge influence on my adult life, especially now as I’m nearing a crossroads in my career trajectory.

So back to my conversation with the charcuterie guy. I realized I may have brushed it off too hastily because I wanted to bring that discussion to a swift and painless end; maybe I shouldn’t have said that I was just doing this for the experience to better my credentials as a food writer. I know this is a very male dominated industry. I know that not many stages (culinary school graduate or otherwise) make it to survive in a real kitchen. I know that female line cooks and sous chefs are unfortunately rare. I know that there’s been a huge influx of culinary students and hopefuls who have been lured by the fame and fortune of TV celebrity chefs, and that interns and externs and stages are a dime a dozen.

But the truth is, so far I’m loving this life, even if I only get to step into it twelve hours a week. I feel at-ease with the people I’ve met (and let me tell you, there are some INTERESTING people working in the back of the house at even the fanciest restaurants). And most importantly, I just love working with food. I love making it taste good and look pretty before it goes out to wow the customers. I love having the opportunity to work with the freshest meats and produce and a huge selection of spices and herbs and ingredients. And I have to believe that I have what it takes to make it.

So I might never be America’s Next Masterchef. Or be told by Padma to “pack my knives and go” (probably for the best, actually). Or own my own restaurant and have people line up outside my door an hour before opening time just to be seated. But for now, I will learn all I can here for the next year or so. And at that time, you can bet that if Chef won’t ever let me advance from garde manger, I’ll be taking my experience here and finding a place that will. This is only the beginning and I’m okay with this uncertainty of what my future holds. It’s part of the adventure, right?

And even though it’s only the beginning, kitchen life has already taught me so much about efficiency and work ethic… and enough to already know that so many things on this list are very very true. (I especially like #20.)

I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Day 5: Shrimp Cakes

Shrimp Cakes (the work in progress)

Shrimp Cakes (the work in progress)

I am a firm believer in celebrating even small victories, so here goes. Today, I did not have to pick petite herb salad. PROGRESS! I was pretty excited when my station lead broke the news to me, but then he followed up with a more daunting task: we had a party of 50 for which to prepare passed hors d’oeuvres. And this was another case where “we” really means “me.” Before long, the joke had passed throughout the kitchen — by the end of the night, I would be known as “Shrimp Cakes.”

But first, I was ecstatic to get to use my knives. My newly sharpened chef’s knife and paring knife finally got a workout today as we pushed through the extensive prep list. I used the (very sharp) mandoline to slice paper-thin onions and radishes for dinner service; meanwhile, my station lead was mixing the shrimp paste for the infamous shrimp cakes. Then I was tasked with making 60 uniform little discs, using a fancy little mold and everything. I was quite proud of my shrimp cakes. After 9 rows of 7 (to ensure we had a few extra as backup), I pressed the last one and popped the tray into the freezer.

Next I moved on to another passed hors d’oeuvre – the tricolor skewer, basically an antipasto on a stick. Cubes of avocado and fresh mozzarella, halved heirloom cherry tomatoes, and neat squares of basil leaf… all arranged on bamboo skewers. “Have fun with it!” were the instructions I received. But I found I worked quickest with a consistent pattern. Tomato, basil, mozzarella, avocado, basil, tomato. One after the other, until I had sixty of those as well. Work fast but work clean and smart — that’s the unspoken kitchen mantra.

While I was working on the skewers, the shrimp had had plenty of time to freeze solid. Time for dredging! Each disc of shrimp paste was dipped in flour, beaten eggs, and panko, then set back onto a tray, awaiting the deep fryer. I shared a station with Chef and got to chat with him briefly while we worked. I also learned some good tips about pane (breading) that I’ll probably apply to future dinners at home ;)

As we were getting set up for service, one of the sous chefs pulled me aside and asked me to help with family meal. My contribution? An awesome (if I do say so myself) mirepoix for their pseudo-jambalaya. Just as I was handing off the mirepoix to the hot line, my station lead directed me to the walk-in so he could show me how I will be plating the passed hors d’oeuvres, including adorable shot glasses filled with cucumber soup and garnished with a crouton topped with tuna tartare. (Have I mentioned how much I LOVE the tartares here?)

I ended up spending a good chunk of the evening in the walk-in, aside from making a few salads during happy hour before the party of 50 arrived. Occasionally people would come in to grab something they needed but most paused to chat with the sniffling stage pouring soup into a seemingly endless parade of shot glasses. As I pushed out plate after plate of the hors d’oeuvres, I inadvertently ended up having a heart-to-heart with the charcuterie guy who was also working in the walk-in. He asked me what I thought him, honestly. (Truth: he’s kinder than his physical appearance would lead you to believe.) I asked him the same. He told me he thought I was too nice to hack it in the kitchen, especially this one. His insight was that the guys here would treat me well but that it could take years, if ever, for me (as a girl) to move on to the working the hot line. It gave me plenty to think about — things I had already suspected about breaking into a male-dominated industry, things I’ve been considering with where I want this culinary career to take me.

For now, I know one thing is true. In just about every industry, it takes experience to get experience. Even if eight months down the road (to borrow charcuterie guy’s hypothetical timeline) I’m still working the pantry station, at least I will have increased my chances of moving on to another kitchen with that much garde manger experience under my belt. So, I told him half-jokingly, I’m going to keep coming here until they get sick of me. :)

Coincidentally, he invited me to work the charcuterie station for a bit tonight, showing me how to plate the various terrines and teaching me a few tricks for presentation (like making prosciutto “flowers”!). Every Saturday I feel like I learn so much, and every Saturday night, I come home exhausted but so grateful for such an amazing opportunity.

This week, there was no question of my return. My name was posted on the weekly schedule. I was so excited I had to take a picture of it. :D

The Schedule!

The Schedule!

Till next time~!

– MatchaBunny

Day 4: Camaraderie

Homemade Lemon-Ricotta Tortellini... and having a little fun with Photoshop.

Homemade Lemon-Ricotta Tortellini… and having a little fun with Photoshop.

Last night’s entry was delayed by the surprise arrival of my best friend C. Yup – Honey Bunny coordinated an impromptu visit by my bff who had driven 6 hours down the California coastline to arrive just after I had gotten home and showered. It was like clockwork. Considering that we had not lived in the same time zone since high school (until he recently relocated to norcal), it’s always exciting to see him. The three of us hung out for a nightcap and toasted to a good day had by all.

————

Today started off interestingly in that I was largely on my own for the first 15 minutes or so (I usually come in at 10:45, well ahead of my scheduled time, but still – the previous weeks, many of the guys had been there around the same time if not earlier). I made myself useful scrubbing the station and folding towels. Lots of towels.

Again, I was told it had been a busy week, so we were in for a long day of prep ahead. I knew what that meant — more petite herb salad. Five quarts to be exact, plus two additional quarts of frisée. For normal people who don’t think in quarts and pints, just know that this is a pretty daunting amount of herbs and greens. It took me the better part of the morning to finally complete, but I can tell that I’m working faster and more efficiently than when I first started. I’ve gotten also pretty darn good at eyeballing quantities, if I do say so myself. ;)

In case anyone was wondering, this is frisée:

Frisée (source: WiseGeek)

Frisée (source: WiseGeek)

Frisée and I have developed a better relationship over these past four weeks. And that seemed to be the theme for today (developing relationships, that is).

After I finally pulsed the last batch of herb salad through the salad spinner (super high-tech, I know), I was ready to move on to a “cool” project. Today, my station lead was teaching me the ins and outs of romesco — a nut and red pepper based sauce from Spain. For this, we needed to borrow a burner on the hot line. And hot is definitely an understatement. I don’t know if I can physically handle working on the hot line — the smoldering heat reminded me of standing in the middle of Death Valley foolishly searching for a geocache one summer with Honey Bunny.

But I digress. First, we roasted an assortment of nuts in olive oil. The hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts released their natural oils as they toasted and made the whole mixture incredibly fragrant. We strained those out, fried off some shallots and garlic, and finally, toasted some cubes of brioche in the nutty-shalloty-garlicky oil to soak up the goodness and brown the edges. I wanted to eat those crunchy cubes right then and there. Those ingredients joined some roasted bell peppers, sun dried tomatoes, and tomato paste in the Vitamix and whizzed up into a thick, hearty sauce. The last step was the fun part — scraping it over a large sifter so that the mesh breaks up the chunks, leaving us with a smooth, luscious romesco.

My next assignment offered me redemption from the failed tuna tartare torchons from last week. I was given a refresher and supervised for a few more attempts before I was left to my own devices in the walk-in. It was a bit discouraging at first; they were either too long or too short for the pan I was storing them in. Until finally, it was like I had reached an “aha!” moment and my finished product fit snugly. It was absolutely perfect, as were the subsequent ones I made. I was so freaking proud of myself. I excitedly showed anyone who would listen, as they came into the walk-in to find me working in there. I was met with high fives, smiles, and the occasional “Do you need a sweater…?”

Just like on my first day, my station lead had me select a dish on the menu to take responsibility for during dinner service. I knew which one I wanted — the tuna tartare. Sadly, it was only ordered once during the entire evening (though you can bet I jumped for joy when the ticket came in!). Instead, I pitched in where I could, plating the peach salad, arugula salad, and the new kale salad. The latter was pretty fun. After observing one, I made a few subsequent orders from start to finish. I welcomed the opportunity to practice my “swooshing,” piping, and garnishing skills, and I think they turned out pretty nice!

According to the guys, dinner service was a bit slow during some points. I, of course, never notice because it always seems crazy-busy to me. But tonight, because of the lulls between tickets, the guys included me in their conversations and banter, and we even had fun cracking some jokes about the (new) charcuterie guy and his love of watermelon and orange soda. Sure, they are probably still being nice because I’m a) the stage, b) a girl, or c) both, but today I really felt like a welcomed part of the team. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

After cleaning up and winding down from service, a few of us hung out in the alley just chatting. And this time, as I got up to leave, they simply turned to me and said “See you next week!” No question about it. :) Another successful day and another affirmation that working with food makes me truly happy.

Day 3: T is for Tartare

Salmon Tartare with Roasted Beets, Wasabi Mousse, and Crispy Salmon Skin Cracklings

Salmon Tartare with Roasted Beets, Wasabi Mousse, and Crispy Salmon Skin Cracklings

Day 3. Working 6 days a week is starting to take its toll on my body, especially since I feel like I’m STILL recovering from the epic Labor Day Grotto Hike Fiasco (how it gets to be 90+ degrees in Malibu and still a good idea to go hiking is beyond me, but hey – we survived and had a great time!). Regardless, I woke up excited to get in the kitchen and learn something new. I always do.

I was told that business was booming this past week and that there would be a lot of prep work to do today. I glanced at the prep list and got started on the task I knew would inevitably be assigned to me — petite herb salad. Luckily, frisee and I have developed a better relationship in our short time together, and my hands are able to pick those pesky little yellow hairs much more deftly and efficiently. It may be a bit of muscle memory developing, or my desire to finish quicker with the promise of being able to pair up with my station lead and work on some “cooler” projects today. I think it was the latter.

My motivation paid off. I finally got to use a knife today. I halved heirloom cherry tomatoes, and I halved them good. Green ones, purple ones, orange ones, yellow ones, and of course, bright red ones. I had a veritable rainbow packed away in those plastic quart containers. And the adventure was just beginning.

My next task was to pick concord grapes off their stems. We were making a gelée — hand-juicing the grapes through a China cap, boiling it down with secret flavorings, blooming strips of gelatin, and pouring the mixture onto trays in thin sheets. I was reminded of why I love the food here — it’s impressive how much intricacy goes into every dish… I mean, look at all this effort for a garnish!

Perhaps the most exciting part of my day was helping to season and mix the fish tartare dishes. The salmon one was my favorite, mostly because I’m partial to the preserved lemons common to Moroccan cuisine. That one had the most complex plating, as you can see in the photo above. All of those greens? Hand placed by tweezers. Not even kidding.

The albacore tartare was to be made into a torchon. Encased in plastic wrap, the finished product resembled a raw fish sausage. I also became privy to just how much oil goes into making a good tartare. As much as I love them, I don’t think I’ll be ordering them anymore…

I generally tried my best to make myself useful. I arranged strips of salmon skin onto a baking sheet to make the cracklings for garnish, I fetched items from the walk-in and back fridge… luckily, my station lead took it upon himself to show me some new tricks today, so I had an opportunity to observe and take mental notes.

Today’s lesson was brought to you by the letter X — xanthan gum! We used it to thicken a dressing that ended up with the viscosity of a mayo without any of the oil or heaviness. It was fluffy like a cloud. Pretty cool. Another noteworthy part of prep was getting to use the Vitamix to make truffle aioli. Yum… I was jealous of all the tickets that came in with “Fries” on them. Those people were in for a treat!

It was so hot today that some of prep was spent in the walk-in itself. Shortly before service, I helped my station lead cut and prepare a cucumber mint gelée (for the albacore) as well as the grape gelée (for the salmon). We also rolled the tuna torchons (he did most of them though — my failed attempts were, to use his words, “painful to watch”).

Despite the massive prep list, everything was done with plenty of time to set up for service. After scarfing down a quick family meal (which oddly resembled tom kha gai but with a curry-like consistency), I buckled down and prepared for the influx of tickets. Happy Hour went by like a blur. Happy peach, happy tuna, happy arugula salad… I tried to anticipate the guys’ needs, setting out ingredients and bowls, but largely, I was just trying to stay out of their way.

Luckily, I was able to prove my worth with the tartare dishes. Having a personal interest in those dishes (I’ll almost always order a beef or tuna or salmon tartare if it’s on the menu!), I paid close attention to each and every element on the plate and prepared them for the station lead in advance whenever they were fired. He gave me a proverbial gold star (“She’s a rock star,” I think he said) so that helped my confidence level.

After a steady stream of tickets all the way until the end of dinner service, we were finally able to take a deep breath and clean up. Lots of plastic wrap all around! And when everything was put away, I went upstairs to grab my backpack to find a few of the guys chatting with Chef. It was fun listening to them share their “war stories,” so to speak. They gave me advice as well – don’t go to culinary school. Or if I do decide to get a culinary education, try going to Europe. They say the quality of education is much better and the price is comparable if not cheaper than in the US. It gave me a lot to think about as this adventure of mine progresses.

In any case, we parted with familiar words — “See you next Saturday?” “You bet.”

Albacore tuna tartare/torchon wrapped in cucumber gelée

Albacore tuna tartare/torchon wrapped in cucumber gelée