Monthly Archives: November 2013

Day 13: More than a Feeling

Garam Masala Spice Blend for Family Meal

Garam Masala Spice Blend for Family Meal

This 70s rock song by Boston is still stuck in my head from last Saturday when Chef and Hot Apps Guy were singing it during prep. Have you ever heard a British guy rock out at the top of his lungs while simultaneously filleting a loin of tuna with the precision of a sushi master? It’s pretty magical. It makes the daily grind at the office seem to pass that much more slowly — I mean, why don’t they sing too?

Of course, after I told Singing Hot Apps Guy about it, he had to belt out the one lyric he knows. More than a FEEELINGGGGGGG! mumble mumble the rest of it because he doesn’t know the words… hahaha. Good times.

But I digress. Today there was a new (to me) guy in the kitchen. He apparently worked here before but left to move out of state for a year or so. Now he’s back and on Hot Apps, meaning one of the Hot Apps guys (the quiet one who shows me how to make pasta) moved on up to the fish station alongside Fish Guy. Perhaps the most important change to the norm today, though, is that there were only three of us on Garde Manger — Station Lead, Dishwasher-Turned-Pantry Guy, and me. Station-mate got the day off. I remember last week when he saw the schedule, he was first excited, and then self-doubting… there’s an unspoken understanding in the kitchen that they only give you the busiest night of the week off (Saturdays) if you suck. Of course, this isn’t true in the case of Station-mate. He just got lucky,

Luckily, the prep list was relatively short today. I got to learn the recipe and make spiced walnuts. They smelled amazing – like a Christmas-y cinnamon and allspice and nutmeg trifecta meets caramel corn. It was too bad I didn’t get to eat any (walnut allergy), but every passerby who nipped a glazed and roasted nut or two off my sheet tray said it tasted good. Yay~! I think we finished around 2pm so at that point, we dispersed to help other stations complete their prep. I went over to Hot Apps Guy Who Loves to Sing and helped him with pasta, filling ravioli and rolling gnocchi. Side note: the gnocchi is SO GOOD. Super soft pillows of potato-based dough swimming in a hearty sauce of lamb ragu. Hot Apps made a few too many on one of their portions during service so we got to sample it.

We reconvened to set up our station and prepare for service. I helped Station Lead make family meal — garam masala chicken curry over rice (you can see how pretty the spice blend is in the photo above). Chef saw me dicing up the chicken and he seemed excited, thinking it was my recipe. But I know better. Everyone complains about family meal. To them, it’s yet another day of chicken and rice (or chicken and pasta). So if I were to feed these guys, and especially Chef, it would definitely not be family meal. haha. But the curry was pretty darn tasty. And again, I overheard one of the guys being impressed at my dining speed (Honey Bunny was quick to point out that I often eat too fast even when it’s just the two of us).

Service this evening was nothing short of hectic, crazy, and intense. I didn’t hear how many we had on the books, but that POS machine that prints our duplicate tickets (“dupes”) was relentless. Our board filled quickly with ticket after ticket. Just when I thought I could catch a breather, I could hear the sound of printing. It’s a haunting sound… the stuff of nightmares (refer to this list, #27).

Add onto that two large parties and we were in for the long haul. At one point, we had to bust out an extra large mixing bowl in order to toss eight salads simultaneously. Working hard to keep up, I felt more and more appreciation for other restaurants where the expediters/chefs also insist on serving the entire table at exactly the same time. But we made it, and about 20 minutes later, we could hear the chaos as the hot line was struggling to push through the entrees. Absolutely insane but what a rush! (Pun intended.)

We didn’t break down and clean up until well after 10pm. Large parties always seem to cause a back-up in all of the stations (I think it especially sucks for Pastry, who was still plating desserts for the two parties when we were putting our mise away.) After our station was scrubbed and spotless, I helped Charcuterie Guy pack away his terrines and jams.

He asked me how much longer I plan to stage here. I replied with the same thing I always do, “Until you guys get sick of me!” He did say that he admires my passion for cooking, that it is evident in my enthusiasm and work ethic (he knows I work a day job and he, apparently, has observed that I never complain in the kitchen). He also told me that he noticed I have adapted to this kitchen well, pointing out a few incidences when he heard me take command of the station and put my station-mates to work when they were goofing off. I told him that I appreciated his sentiments, and I really do; hearing other people tell me about their observations, especially when it’s positive feedback like this, reaffirms that I do belong in the kitchen. I also know that if I take the next step and start doing this full time, I’m inevitably going to need to remember encouraging words like these, which is why I document them here every week. On that note, Station Lead patted me on the back and said “Excellent job tonight.” He is often sarcastic and quick with insults, so a nice and simple statement like that meant a lot.

Thanksgiving is coming up. This year, I am very thankful for the support of my friends (you!) and family (hi mom – I know you’re reading this and will tell dad all about it). I’m thankful for this amazing opportunity and for all of the people I have met on this journey so far. And I’m especially thankful for Honey Bunny for always encouraging me to pursue my dreams, even if that means losing one day of “togetherness time,” as we like to call it, each week. So dear readers, eat lots of turkey, spend quality time with loved ones, and I’ll see ya again next week. ;)

Day 12: The Return of Shrimp Cakes

Late Night Banh Cuon with Boba

Late Night Banh Cuon with Boba

Today was too busy to take any photos, so I decided to post a picture of my victory dinner, courtesy of Honey Bunny. He knows I love banh cuon (steamed rice sheets rolled around meat filling) so he surprised me with a late-night, post-work dinner. Woot! It was perfectly paired with our routine boba. Really, a great way to unwind.

Anywho… the return of Shrimp Cakes. Not the dish, but the nickname. We had a party of 35 tonight that wanted passed hors d’oeuvres, so while our pantry prep list was relatively short, everyone pitched in to prepare the extra goodies. It seems the entire kitchen played a game of “nose goes” because I had to pane (dredge things in bread crumbs). No one wanted to do it. In fact, Chef even said to me, “You’re setting up the pane? Good. I hate pane-ing.” LOL.

Some people, actually just the station lead (who is back after a few Saturdays of not seeing him!), remembered my previous encounter with pane when I had to bang out those 50 shrimp cakes. This time I did blue cheese stuffed olives as well as salmon and dill croquettes. First in flour, then in beaten eggs, and finally in panko bread crumbs. I followed the “proper” technique (one hand for wet, one hand for dry), though it became cumbersome reaching over with my “dry” hand for the final crumb coating while my “wet” hand dripped egg yolk all over my station. Oy. Each time my station lead walked by, he made sure to say “How you doin’, Shrimp Cakes?”

I also made the tricolore skewers, just like last time. Basically a caprese salad on a stick, I really enjoy making these because they’re so pretty. Heirloom cherry tomato, basil, mozzarella, avocado, basil, tomato. I like it when I’ve been around long enough to know how to do something with minimal instruction, so I jumped on the opportunity to handle these for Chef.

The guys love to (metaphorically) whistle while they work, and today they finally stopped apologizing for making dirty comments in my vicinity. Well, except once or twice. The butt of many of today’s jokes was my station-mate, whose lip balm was (apparently) tinted so he looked like he was wearing lipstick. SO hilarious. Statements like “Dude, don’t say things like that – there are TWO ladies on the station today.” They were also mocking one of the guys on Hot Apps because he drinks his coffee out of a mason jar and claims to not be a hipster. Right. But it was okay. We all made up over doughnuts and a few “That’s what she said” jokes.

My station mate tried to show me how to use the meat slicer to make thinly sliced croutons, but I was concerned I would lose a finger or two so I supremed some oranges instead. And before we knew it, it was time for family meal! Family meal today was quite good. Buttery mashed potatoes, though not Thomas Keller buttery, and herb marinated chicken. Yummm. Coupled with two shots of espresso, I was ready to tackle service.

We only had 150 on the books, but it felt like more. Or maybe it was just the pattern that the servers entered orders into the POS. The rush came in waves but when it hit, it was torrential. The board would fill up before our eyes and as soon as each of us started plating something, we were told to prepare two or three more “all day.” I think Dishwasher-turned-Pantry made seven beet salads in a row as I put out three or four hamachi crudo plates. I love the hamachi crudo. The plating (same as last week) is so intricate and colorful and everything tastes delicious.

You would think that having four people working the same station would get hectic and crazy, but we have excellent communication with each other. And if the station lead has to step away to help another station or to go take a break, any of us can step up and run the board to keep the flow going. It’s awesome, especially, I think, between me and my station mate. We have no problem giving or taking direction from each other and it helps us stay on top of everything.

Chef left around 8 or 9, though before he left, he came over to me, gave me a side-hug, and said “Great job today.” What a nice pat on the back that was! It was a small gesture but to me, it meant a lot. I hope he sees potential in my abilities and I really hope to grow here at the restaurant. As I mentioned before, the more time I spend in the kitchen, the more I find that I enjoy The Life. I like spending time with these guys, and most importantly, I love working hard to make delicious and aesthetically-pleasing creations to make customers happy.

I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs from accomplished chefs lately. Two of Bourdain’s books (Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw) and currently working on Grant Achatz’s Life, On the Line. Michael Ruhlman got permission to post an excerpt from Medium Raw that I read and re-read on a fairly regular basis. I find it both inspiring and humbling at the same time. Not everyone is suited to The Life. But despite working a 9-5 Monday through Friday and coming in for a twelve-hour shift (for which I make no money but am “paid” in invaluable experience), I could not be happier. I think that’s a good sign. With Chef expanding his portfolio (read: opening new restaurants within the next year or two), I can see that he’s promoting from within. Many of his sous chefs will be executive chefs or chefs du cuisine in his new restaurants while his line cooks move up to sous. I’m secretly hoping that this will open up another opportunity for me! I’ve been asked hypothetically by friends before, but I can say confidently that if Chef offered me a full time position, I would take it in a heartbeat. Cooks don’t get paid much and benefits are largely unheard of. So why do it? Love. Passion. And just a little bit of insanity.

RIP Chef Charlie Trotter

When the food blogs and news sources exploded with news of the untimely death of Chef Charlie Trotter, I’ll be honest — I didn’t know much about the man himself. I do, however, know that he is one of the single most influential American chefs in recent history. He is widely regarded for his culinary vision that earned his restaurant Charlie Trotter’s two Michelin stars and put Chicago on the map as a culinary destination. Any time we enjoy (and I mean truly savor) a thoughtful, well-planned multi-course tasting menu, we have Chef Trotter to thank. (I even read that some credit him with the creation of the entire micro-greens industry. Satire or not, I’m tempted to believe it.)

He is also infamously remembered for his unwavering high standards for execution; over the past week since the news broke, famous chefs all over the nation who had passed through his kitchen have been recalling the almost frightening sternness with which he demanded perfection. In fact, I coincidentally had just recently read the chapter in Grant Achatz’s memoir Life, On The Line during which he recounted his brief experience working under the man himself (it sounded more than a little horrifying). But they all came out better for it.

The influence of such an acclaimed chef is far-reaching. Through his work and that of his contemporaries, our society and culture has moved from a “food is fuel” mentality to a “food is art” appreciation. I can tell that my Chef was inspired by this culinary revolution as well, and although it is nerve-wracking to deliver any finished product to someone who insists on nothing but the best, I think it builds great strength of character. I find that it forces me to look at my own work with more scrutiny and to truly deliver my best effort every time, regardless of the task. Just one of the many lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen that (I feel) have made me a better person overall.

So thank you, Charlie Trotter. The culinary world is mourning your loss. Rest in peace.

Day 11: Pig’s Eye and Shepherd’s Pie

Roasted Pigs' Heads

The Picked-Clean Remains of Roasted Pigs’ Heads

I ate well today. Pictured above are the picked-clean skulls that the Charcuterie Guy had roasted to make his headcheese terrine. It smelled amazing, like Mom’s banh canh gio heo (a soup made from stewed pork knuckle and feet and served with rice noodles). I was busy halving cherry tomatoes when the Fish Guy walked between us, tapped my shoulder, and offered me an eye. I was wary at first; I once accidentally bit into a fish eye when I was a kid and it was hard as a rock. Almost broke my tooth! He assured me it was fine, though I could tell by the tone of his voice that he didn’t really expect me to eat it. I gingerly took a bite (it had just come out of the oven after all) when he exclaimed, “Oh just eat it already!” Charcuterie Guy came to my defense, confirming that it was indeed hot, but I popped it into my mouth anyway and savored the tender meat clinging to gelatinous center. SO GOOD. Definitely garnered an “EWWWW” from Dishwasher-Turned-Pantry Guy, who refuses to try offal, to which the other guys wanted to say “Don’t be such a girl” but then couldn’t quite figure out how to phrase it since, well, I (a girl) went for it.

We had a relatively light to-do list today, so we were able to pick and choose our tasks. I jumped at the opportunity to supreme (pronounced soo-PREHM) oranges (that is, cut them into clean segments without any white pith or peel). I ended up having to process over a dozen oranges, although I had fun and it was quite satisfying to look at the final product. I was also popular in the kitchen, with people sneaking by occasionally to ask for a piece to snack on; it was a give and take exchange though — Fish Guy dropped off a few scraps of Bosc pears for me to munch on for breakfast. My station-mates patted me on the back for my craftsmanship and asked me to do a few more so they’d have nice ones for the next few days as well. Pretty proud of that!

My next awesome snack of the day came from when my station-mate cracked open one of the 63 degree eggs to make sure it was cooked properly. It was perfect. Dishwasher-Turned-Pantry Guy refused to eat it (another “ewww”) but I gladly sprinkled on a bit of salt and gulped it down, oozy yolk and all. A 63 degree egg is arguably one of the best things to come out of an immersion circulator. It’s a slow cooked soft boiled egg with a barely thickened yolk, similar to a poached or onsen egg. So good! I’m not a big fan of foams and other molecular gastronomy cliches, but an egg out of the immersion circulator is delicious.

The four of us knocked out a few more items on the to-do list until finally we were down to the last 4 tasks and figuratively drew straws. I ended up with the brunoise cucumber. Brunoise is a very small dice (about 3mm or smaller on each side). One English cucumber took me about 20 minutes. It was definitely a labor of love, but I welcomed the opportunity to practice. I’m definitely growing more comfortable with my chef’s knife. The guys let me try theirs too; everyone has their own personal favorites — long knives, heavy knives, light (carbon fiber) knives. But mine is serving me well, for now at least.

We finished early so we started setting up our station early. There was also an addition to the menu that would be prepared by our station — steak tartare. The usual station lead was off today so the Sous Chef from last week took over and plated the special for Chef’s approval. I didn’t even have a chance to admire the presentation before it was whisked away for the meeting with the servers. (They get to sample the dishes and specials so they can make well-informed recommendations to the guests.) No matter. It was time for family meal.

On good days, family meal comprises of components from the regular menu that are still good but a bit beyond their prime for serving to paying customers. Today was one of those days. We had shepherd’s pie made from the usual mince filling, extra ground beef and vegetables to make it more substantial, and a crispy potato topping. Pretty darn tasty! My two station-mates took their breaks first but I like to eat quickly and get back to work. By the time they came back to relieve me of my duties, I had already shoveled down my food, sent the plate to the dish pit, and served up the first salad order that came in. Their words — “You’re a beast!”

The same phrase came up later in the evening as the tickets came rolling in. My station-mate once told me that if you like to plate a certain dish, you sometimes just have to insist on doing it. I enjoyed observing the first hamachi crudo so I volunteered to do the next one myself. At some point, there were three on order all-day. I asked my guys to set up the additional plates with the appropriate amounts of fish, and I would prepare the garnish and plate all three at once. It was almost an out-of-body experience as my hands flew over all three dishes, placing each item with careful artfulness. “You’re a beast!” I heard again. I had just sprinkled on the last flakes on smoked maldon sea salt when all three plates where walked up to the window by the Sous Chef. I love the bright colors and intricacy of this dish (I counted ten components), so I claimed it whenever I could throughout the night. The guys obliged with a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” mentality (since I know how to do it and based on the feedback I received, I do it well, why not just let me go ahead!). By the end of the night, we completely ran out of fish and had to 86 this special. I call that a success!

I never really thought of myself as the creative type, but I guess this works out because it’s the Chef’s job to innovate and my job to replicate and execute with precision. Or as Colette in Ratatouille says, “It is his job to be unexpected. It is our job to follow the recipe.”

Hamachi crudo with avocado, cara cara oranges, chiffonade of shiso leaves, and orange-yuzu vinaigrette.

Hamachi crudo with avocado, cara cara oranges, chiffonade of shiso leaves, and orange-yuzu vinaigrette.

And follow I did! Check out my mad plating skillz ;)

Another success tonight was the reaffirmation that I’m finally becoming accepted as “one of the guys.” Slowly but surely. Some of the guys still apologize around me when they curse or make lewd jokes. Other guys (ahem – Fish Guy) kick in the back of my knee to make my legs buckle under. But most importantly, I think I’ve earned at least some level of respect from these guys. I ask for timing and hear a prompt callback. When there’s a bunch of lollygagging going on next to me, I tell my station-mates to stop screwing around and they stand at attention. I hear them refer to me as one of their own, and, perhaps most importantly, Pastry Girl (the Queen Bee) seems to like me.

I told myself when I first started this journey that I mainly wanted the kitchen experience to increase my credibility as a food writer (or a career in some other aspect of the food industry). But the more opportunities I get to learn, create, and lead, the more I want to run my own kitchen someday. Not just for the leadership role, but because I love spending time with these guys. I feel at home in the “back of the house,” and 3 months in, I’m still really enjoying The Life. Aside from my time spent with Honey Bunny (which ALWAYS comes first!), I look forward to Saturdays at the restaurant the most. WANTING to put in a 12-hour, physically demanding shift after a regular 9-5 work week — that’s love. How does that saying go…?

Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. –Confucius

Day 10: As Seen On TV

Ahi Tuna Tartare - Red Pepper Gelee - Avocado Mousse - Prawn Crackers - Watercress

Ahi Tuna Tartare – Red Pepper Gelee – Avocado Mousse – Prawn Crackers – Watercress

Thinking back to my initial excitement about landing this stagiaire gig, I remember worrying that with Chef’s growing popularity, it would be increasingly difficult to obtain this sort of opportunity. This feeling was reaffirmed today when a filming crew took over our kitchen right in the middle of service when we had an expected 200 covers “on the books.” A night that would have normally been busy enough was made completely topsy-turvy with the addition of camera men, boom microphones, and about a dozen “aspiring young chefs [living in] a house in Los Angeles where they will learn from noted culinary honchos and compete for the apprenticeship of a lifetime.” (Yes, that is the description provided by the television network; I looked up the show.) Sooooo…. I may or may not be on TV in the near future ;)

Anyway, today’s prep was mostly uneventful. I was back on garde manger and spent a lot of quality time with the mandoline to prep our salad ingredients. We do have a new cauliflower soup on the menu, so today was probably the first day I really got to cook. In a very large, very round, and very heavy pan, I sweated onions, garlic, and chopped cauliflower in one pound of butter. ONE POUND. You know those packages you buy from the grocery store with the intention of it lasting at least a few weeks? I used it up all four little sticks in one dish. (In our kitchen, they don’t even come wrapped in quarter sticks; just pounds at a time). Granted it made a few gallons of soup, but still… I could feel my cholesterol levels rising just smelling it. And boy, did it smell delicious. I was proud of my work; it tasted great and I don’t even like cauliflower. (Honey Bunny loves the stuff, so I’ll definitely have to scale down this recipe and make him some one of these days.)

Our usual station lead was working elsewhere today so one of the sous chefs helped us during the prep and later would run the board. At some point during the day, he asked me what I do throughout the other days of the week (my day job). He said that he really likes how I respect the food and the artistry that goes into preparing and plating it. He said that he doesn’t see that in every stage or even in all of the cooks who pass through this kitchen. I just thought it would be ideal to work in a place where I personally love the food. I’m glad it seems to be an asset from their perspective.

Everyone was prepping a lot today, so family meal was an afterthought of reheated hot dogs and french fries. It didn’t matter anyway since we had little time to eat before the film crew started invading the kitchen. The sous chefs were all wired up with microphones and one of the grips walked through and affixed duct tape over any exposed brand names. The director (?) and his crew had only walked through once before I noticed a very strong Us versus Them mentality cropping up. I could see why though, as one of the cameramen obliviously knocked over an entire stack of dishes, sending a few of them crashing to the ground. Pastry Girl was NOT pleased.

Most stations were assigned one of these young hopefuls. Charcuterie and Pizza were the lucky ones who managed to go about their day without a shadow. Ours was genuinely interested in being helpful, staying out of the way, and after observing a few times and with some assistance, was able to plate a complete dish. She was full of good intentions and though the situation was frustrating, none of us could be mad at her. It was quite crowded though, and with extra lighting and plenty of shouting at the pass, the overall ambiance was a bit tense. There were moments when I could tell things were being exaggerated a bit for the benefit of the cameras, but I’ll be honest – when Chef called out a ticket and everyone responded in flawless unison “Yes Chef!”…. it was pretty darn cool. We…. don’t do that all the time. (Although sometimes I wish we did!)

There was definitely an audible sigh of relief throughout the kitchen when the show finally wrapped. Things returned to normal and we were able to finish service like a well-oiled machine. I feel like the learning curve (for this station at least) is finally tapering off. The stand-in station lead mentioned that we had some new plating for a few dishes and after seeing one go out, I was able to replicate not only those dishes but plate up others as needed. We were completely swamped tonight so all of us were plating multiple dishes simultaneously to push out the tickets. “I don’t know how” was not an acceptable excuse for any of us — you just had to learn.

Tonight was another long night — I stayed behind to help the guys break down the mise en place, scrub the counters, and put away the garnishes. We exchanged high-fives all around, and I left feeling great. My aching feet can attest that I put in a hard day’s work doing what I absolutely love and that in itself feels awesome.

You know what else feels awesome? A giant cup of boba and free muffins and bagels (the perks of being regular customers and making friends with local business owners!).

Can’t wait till next Saturday!