Monthly Archives: October 2013

Day 9: Running the Board

Kale Caesar Salad with Egg Yolk, Cauliflower, White Anchovies, and Kale Chips

Kale Caesar Salad with Egg Yolk, Cauliflower, White Anchovies, and Kale Chips

Today was an awesome day. I came home with the same adrenaline rush I had on my very first day staging, even though today’s shift ran longer than usual. Today reaffirmed (as my time in the kitchen often does) that this was one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself. I had two major successes: prepping for another station and running the board.

I know chopping garlic for a station other than Pantry doesn’t sound like such a huge accomplishment, but let me take you back to my very first day. I hadn’t quite settled in to Pantry yet, so when I arrived, the Chef and sous chefs asked around to see if any stations needed my help. Just about every station had politely declined, probably (rightly) deciding that teaching me how to do a task would be more hassle than my well-intended assistance would be worth. But today was different. Today, there were FOUR guys working Pantry — the station lead, the station-mate I’d been working with recently, the station-mate who gave his two weeks’ notice (today was his second-to-last day), and a new guy… a dishwasher who had constantly expressed his desire to get on the line and start cooking. I was very happy to see that he was finally getting his big break. I know he’d been wanting to do this at LEAST since I started staging, so that’s over two months. Probably longer. Anyway, there was no room for me and there was not (as) much to be done. One of the sous chefs offered up my availability and I was quickly snatched up by the two guys on Hot Appetizers. How things have changed!

So I found the new “petite herb salad” of tasks: chopping garlic. Tedious but not particularly difficult, and a task that I do as quickly as I can but it still seems to take longer than it should. In my defense though, a quart of garlic cloves is a LOT of freakin’ garlic. I think it literally took me half an hour, although that did include some time spent with the guys passing by my station and giving me refreshers on my knife skills. Guide with your knuckles. Form your fingers like an eagle claw. Tuck your thumb behind your knuckle. The garlic was coarsely chopped since it would be sweated down anyway, but the next task, dicing butternut squash, needed to be more “pretty.” You can bet I’ll be practicing more at home.

There was a party of 20 and over 200 reservations “on the books” so with an expected 300-400 covers, we had a lot of pasta to make. I missed out on the capellini making as I had to halve fingerling potatoes to steam with herbs, but I got to help with the ravioli and agnolotti, both fun and interesting pastas. As I was deftly shaping the filled pasta (thankfully not an entirely new task in my repertoire), I knew I would not be working the Hot Apps station during service, since that corner is very tight and very very hot (it’s the very end of the prestigious hot line). So instead, I was pondering where I would end up. That’s when the Pantry station lead came by and said he would be working the fish station and the new guy is back to the dishes. That meant it would be me and the two station-mates, and I was to “run the board.” WHAT? Um… okay. I’m game!

Running the board is similar to running the pass, except for a particular station. This meant that in addition to plating dishes as usual, I would also call out new tickets, keep track of subsequent courses, assign dishes to my station-mates, ensure that the orders make it from station to window in a timely manner, and coordinate our timing with other stations. I felt overwhelmed just thinking about it, but I learned something about my work style today. I work well under pressure. In fact, I thrive under pressure. Aided by some strong coffee and a huge adrenaline rush, we plowed through the tickets and even handled that party of 20 like no other. My sharpie came in handy to notate second and third course dishes and their table numbers. I found my voice, calling out dishes and asking for times. Between the organization part of it, I also received positive feedback on my salad plating (pictured above is one of my many kale caesar salads). According to the guys, I “totally rocked it” on one of the busiest nights this season. I felt really really proud of myself.

One of the best compliments I received was from the station-mate who was leaving. He said he sincerely hoped I would keep at this, especially after my performance tonight. He spoke with confidence that I have what it takes to make it in this industry and really succeed, saying that he hopes to someday cook side by side with me as bonafide chefs. He also shared a bit of water cooler gossip. Remember the new pastry girl I had seen the last time I staged? Apparently she quit after three days. I think the day I met her was her first day, and she didn’t return after that Monday. Just couldn’t handle it, I suppose. I found out later that she had previously staged on Pantry like I am doing now. The guys did not have good things to say about that period of time…

I also have a newfound respect for the Pastry Girl. Yes, I do still find it stereotypical that the only girl in many professional kitchens are often relegated to Pastry. However, this Pastry Girl arguably runs the kitchen. She’s tough, and the guys truly respect her. They even referred to her as their Queen Bee. Get on her good side and you’ll be fine. Catch yourself on her bad side, however… well I don’t want to know how that sentence might end. Luckily, she seems to like me just fine and I try to stay out of her cute-bandana-covered hair. She has become almost like a role model, a more relatable figure that I can aspire to emulate, at least in earning respect as a female in a male-dominated industry.

But anyway, today was a good day. I wish I could make more time to spend here in the kitchen, but with a regular day job and only one day off per week as it is, I just can’t feasibly stretch my time any further (and expect to remain sane). So my progress shall continue to be slow and steady, one day a week, for as long as it takes or as long as they’ll have me.

Last update – I did not slap Charcuterie Guy on the booty today in retaliation. We did laugh about it, and both admitted to having told our friends about the hilarious incident. Ha!

Till next time!

(PS: I’m still figuring out how I should reference these guys. Maybe I’ll give them pseudonyms. Or maybe I’ll continue referring to them by their station. Please keep in mind that I am using the station that they work on Saturdays. In our kitchen, many of the guys are familiar with at least a few stations and rotate throughout the week. Luckily, Saturdays have been quite consistent so far…)

Update: my fingers ache from all the knife work I did today. I guess typing this update isn’t helping matters. A friend recommended that I look into a pain relief cream for the inflammation. I hadn’t run into this issue before (other than sore feet, which has sadly become a simple fact of life) but I guess it’s a good sign that I put in a hard day’s work. :)

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Day of Rest

Bourbon Glazed Doughnuts

Bourbon Glazed Doughnuts

As I mentioned last week, this Saturday was my first Saturday off in nine weeks. Insane! But of course, even on my day of rest, I could not tear myself away from the restaurant. In fact, Honey Bunny and I invited twelve of our nearest and dearest to join us for a celebratory dinner. It was a lot of fun and a huge relief to be on the “other side” so to speak, but it also felt strange not being in the kitchen.

We had planned a three-course prix fixe menu in advance and decided to supplement it with a few orders of truffle frites to share as a starter. What we hadn’t expected was a surprise course from the guys — four orders of truffle capellini to share. As usual, they shaved the truffles table-side, and it was absolutely decadent. You could hear an audible gasp ripple across the table, followed by the sounds of camera shutters and then hushed silence as we all devoted our complete focus to devouring our treat. So. Awesome.

It was awesome seeing friends whom I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, and even years. It was a mish-mash of friend circles, and I was so excited to see them all. I had been anticipating this evening for over a month, so I was glowing with happiness (or maybe it was the dark & stormy). I was also excited to show off the amazing food — even though I only prep and plate for the pantry station one day a week, I’m so proud of the whole menu. Seeing the food making others happy made me feel great!

At the end of the night, I headed back to the pass to say hi to Chef and the guys. It was the first time a lot of them had seen me when I wasn’t wearing my apron and cook’s shirt, so I got a double-take and a “Woah!” in response. ;) They wished me a happy birthday and hoped my friends enjoyed the meal (they did, of course!). They sent me off on my way with the promise that I return to the kitchen next week. I’m already looking forward to it!

One Saturday a week is a small price to pay for this incredible opportunity. I’ve already learned so much about cooking in large quantities and developing a creative eye for plating. I’m also grateful for the people I’ve met who have been so graciously teaching me along the way. Excited to see where this adventure takes me next!

Day 8: Part of the Team

Quail Appetizer

Quail Appetizer

As I packed my knives to go home today (and not in the bad way like when Padma announces it on Top Chef), I felt a slight tinge of sadness knowing that I would not be staging next Saturday. Putting in my twelve hours here has quickly become the highlight of my week!

But first things first. Today was the first day I did not see herb salad on the prep list. It has (finally) been rotated out. On the other hand, it meant my easy go-to first task of the day is now gone. So I decided to tackle a challenge that (I feel) bested me last week — shaved cauliflower. Thin slices that resemble a two-dimensional image of a tree with bushy branches, these require pushing florets of cauliflower gently over the mandoline. It makes a huge mess and yields little success, but this time, I was able to create a good amount of presentable, I’d even dare say perfect, slices. Matcha Bunny: 1. Cauliflower… 1. (Last week’s weren’t so pretty.)

Did I mention that these guys love to sing? It’s fascinating. Cooks come from many walks of life, but when you give them repetitive tasks to work on for hours on end, the songs of Backstreet Boys start to fill the room. Imagine five or six guys belting out, “EVERYBODYYYYYY! (Yeah) ROCK YOUR BODYYYYY…” Hilarious. It’s not always so rowdy though. Occasionally it’ll just be one or two guys humming the tune of “Build Me Up Buttercup” or a lone vocalist singing under his breath, “What the world needs now… is love, sweet love…” Definitely lifts spirits and helps the time pass.

Today’s “cool task” was making cucumber gelee, sheets of pale green jello that would later encase the tuna tartare torchon-like rolls. Luckily, since I had made that concord grape jelly a few weeks ago, I had some idea on how this process would go. Gelatin bloomed in ice water, cucumbers pureed in the Vitamix and strained to yield a clear, bright green juice. Once the gelatin is mixed in, we had to work quickly as it would start to set in minutes. After pouring it out in a thin sheet (seriously, it was millimeters thick), we sprinkled it with a confetti of fresh mint and transferred it to the walk-in to chill and set. Mission accomplished.

We knocked out another dozen or so items on the prep list before it was time to set up for service. Family meal was an ethnic mash-up affectionately nicknamed Mexican Curry Jambalaya. Surprisingly delicious and awesomely spicy. It paired nicely with the limeade my “station-mate” made for us using a found lime. Before service got too crazy, he stepped out to get some coffees for us as well. I thanked him for it, and his reply was¬†“No worries – you’re part of the team now!” Not gonna lie, that gave me warm fuzzies.

Speaking of being part of the team… funny story happened today. So last week, the charcuterie guy had briefly brushed past our station and later admitted to me that he was close to slapping my booty (like the baseball players do) thinking that I was my station-mate. My station-mate and I do have similar figures after all. I thought it was hilarious and he said he would be so embarrassed. Well, today I was reaching down to grab a slice of parmesan for my arugula salad when I felt a whack. I knew it was him so I laughed and said “Nice one!” He turned toward me, face completely ashen. That’s when I realized (and exclaimed) “YOU THOUGHT I WAS THE OTHER GUY, DIDN’T YOU?!” I nearly died of laughter much to his chagrin while he kept apologizing profusely, looking absolutely mortified. One of the guys indeed… hahaha!

Service was intense though — the POS just kept printing more and more tickets. Since it was just the three of us again, I had many opportunities to plate the dishes. I got many proverbial pats on the back for my plating, which I’m quite proud of since that’s one of the skills I really wanted to refine. The only criticism was that I often “over-thought” the presentation, taking too much time, but by the end of the night, I worked quickly while maintaining the quality. It feels great when I hear “woah – that looks awesome!” or “nice plating!” or even just a knowing thumbs-up.

My station lead wasn’t feeling well today, so right at 10pm, we packed up our mise en place at lightning speed. I handled a last minute order of tuna tartare before helping them scrub down and clean up our station. I bid my goodbyes and told everyone I would see them next week… on the other side. ;)¬†Although I won’t be staging, I will still be at the restaurant (it’s like I can’t get away!) but I’ll be in the dining room, showing off the amazing menu with some of my nearest and dearest to celebrate my 25th birthday. And most importantly, eating instead of cooking.

I’m excited for my first Saturday off in nine weeks, but I couldn’t help but feel the teeniest bit wistful seeing the weekly schedule without my name on it… A good sign that this adventure has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, right?

(Getting out early meant that Honey Bunny and I were able to go get boba at a decent hour. The guys there definitely recognize us now. No free cheesecake this week though :P)

Update 10/13 8:30pm:

I totally forgot to mention another interesting event of the day. There’s a new girl in the kitchen. I asked my station-mate about her and apparently she’s being trained on pastry. He also added that I “shouldn’t worry” and that “she’s got nothin’ on me.” Haha! To be honest, the thought did briefly cross my mind that maybe there was a new stage moving in on my turf, but either way, I found his comments reassuring. It also made me all the more determined to stick it out and someday make it on the hot line. I want to be the girl who makes it and holds her own against the guys. It took some time for them to accept me as one of their own, and now that I’ve earned that place, I am all the more determined to do well.

Day 7: Excel

Beet Salad - our newest seasonal dish

Beet Salad – our newest seasonal dish

“Keep your station clean and people will like you just fine,” someone told me on my first day. I’ve noticed that this holds very true, in our kitchen and just about any professional kitchen (from my readings on online forums and frequent viewings of Ratatouille, anyway). I’ve finally reached the point where I can walk into the kitchen knowing exactly what the first steps are. Fetching a clean shirt (luckily there has always been a Small available for me when I arrive), donning a black apron, slipping on my skid-resistant shoes (which I now keep in the office upstairs because they smell rank like everyone else’s), grabbing an armful of towels, and heading back downstairs to thoroughly wipe down our station with soap and sanitizing solution. Usually my station lead and fellow pantry guys will arrive while I’m folding the tenth or eleventh towel. If they’re running late, I’ll sneak a glance at the clipboard that holds our prep list and see if there’s anything I can go ahead and start.

That’s my morning in a nutshell.

Today there didn’t seem to be too many items on the prep list, which is always a good thing. I chose to do the herb salad because a lot of the other items involved using the hot hot ovens, of which, to be honest, I’m still a little wary. Pick pick pick. My station lead also requested that I pick half a case of frisee, which I did not mind too much knowing that he’s mostly asking because he prefers the way I do it. After spinning everything in the salad spinner, I moved on to my new favorite kitchen toy — the mandoline.

The shaved cucumbers were easy enough, but shaving cauliflower is a PAIN. Little bits fly everywhere and the brittle crowns fall apart with no warning, threatening to force my fingertips into the mandoline’s blade each time. Sigh. But I managed, unscathed, and cleaned up all of the stray bits. Again, a clean station is a happy station!

After prepping a few more items to help out my station, my station lead asked me a peculiar question — you work in an office, are you any good at Excel? I said yes and asked him what he needed. He wanted to reformat our prep list because the current one has a weird organization method. He showed me the communal computer upstairs and left me to my work. I had no idea I would ever use my day job’s skill set here in the kitchen, but lo and behold, there I was staring at a blank spreadsheet on Chef’s shiny Dell laptop. He left me to my work and returned only a few minutes later. Luckily, I’m used to people wanting things done yesterday, so I was prepared to show him my finished product when he came back. I didn’t think it was anything special, but I received a lot of praise for it :) He was SO freaking excited. He immediately clipped it to his clipboard and showed it off to anyone who would listen. He got smiles & nods; I got thumbs up. One guy pretended to be offended (What – you don’t like the way I made them?) and a few others said they wouldn’t mind if I made theirs too. haha.

Before I knew it, service had started and the first Happy Hour orders started trickling in. After we sent out our first ticket, I was able to sneak away and grab family meal for me and the other pantry guy (there was only one today, plus my station lead and me). Spanish rice, some type of carnitas-style (braised, spiced, and saucy) chicken, and housemade salsa verde. Not bad, but it’s hard to top last week’s chicken tikka masala. Another flurry of tickets came in so our food grew cold while we handled those before shoveling it down and getting back to work.

Tonight was a busy night, and not just by my standards! Others were remarking that it was pretty intense. I was quite proud of myself today — I got into the rhythm, focused hard, and was able to churn out a lot of the dishes alongside my stationmate (… that’s not a word, but you know what I mean). My favorites, of course, were definitely the tartares. The salmon tartare has changed its plating to one of my personal favorites — “potted” in a jar over marinated beets with a wasabi horseradish mousse. The jar rests atop a coaster on a stone slab and garnished with an herb salad topped with scratching (dehydrated salmon skin) and served with toast. The sous chef complimented me on my “beautiful plating”… not gonna lie, I was pretty pleased.

The evening just flew by with very little downtime. I managed to stay composed under pressure, even though at times it felt like my stationmate was kind of freaking out. Today I finally felt confident in the kitchen. I was vocal, calling out tickets, making sure our timing was on point, coordinating with other stations that contributed components to our dishes. Remembering to say “behind” and “sharp” and “hot” while walking around. “Yes Chef” when getting a direct order. Estimating times out to the window. In the midst of the chaos, I had a moment when I felt like I was outside of my body observing myself and it really was just like the shows on TV. Everything was orchestrated like clockwork, and at the end of the night, one of the sous chefs approached me and said, “Good job today. You really held your own.”

So today’s theme is Excel. Yes, like Microsoft Excel, but also because I’ve found my stride and can finally feel tangible progress in my learning and experience. Like I have the potential to excel in this industry (get it, get it??). Maybe I can handle this after all…? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy my free cheesecake. That’s right folks. I picked up Honey Bunny after work and per our new tradition, we went to get boba. The guy behind the counter seemed to recognize us (we’d seen him at almost every visit since we used to live at our old apartment!) and after Honey Bunny mentioned that we come here every week after I get off work at the restaurant, he smiled and we had a bonding moment over the awesomeness of their Oreo cheesecake (I had ordered it to-go last week). When we brought out our drinks, he had a paper bag in his hand. “This is for you guys. It’s our lemon cheesecake — it’s really good. People really like it. Enjoy!” I was ecstatic.

As if we weren’t already loyal customers before….