Monthly Archives: May 2014

My First Braise

The Garden at the Restaurant

The Garden at the Restaurant

Yesterday (Thursday) was another cleaning-heavy day. We all, Chef included, pitched in to scrub down the kitchen from floor to ceiling. I even hopped onto the 6 ft ladder to clean the ventilation fan and the tiles over the doorway. Lots of soap and grout spray all around, and about nearly two hours of our day before we finally started actually working with food.

Today I set up my pig head braise for the headcheese terrine. It’s my first one, though I had seen the Hot-Apps guys doing similar braises before. First I sweated the braising vegetables (leeks, carrots, onions, celery) down with some aromatics (orange peels, peppercorns, coriander, thyme, rosemary) in a giant rondeau. I turned the heat down low and let it do its thing for nearly an hour, coming back periodically to stir. When it was ready, I deglazed with white wine and white wine vinegar and cooked off the alcohol before transferring the veg to the walk-in for later. Meanwhile, my brined pigs heads were rinsing under cool water for about an hour or two before I nestled them over the bed of vegetables.

After service, which was slower than the day before but not nearly as bad as Tuesday, I topped off my 600 pan of vegetables and pig’s head with water and brought it to a boil. Carefully moving the very heavy, very hot pan to a borrowed corner of Pastry Girl’s table, I covered the pan in 20 layers of plastic wrap followed by one layer of aluminum foil. This whole arrangement goes into the oven at 225 degrees overnight.

We use the same method for lamb and pork shanks and other cuts of meat that benefit from low and slow cooking. I can’t wait to see how my braise turns out when I come in today!

Service was unremarkable aside from a visit from my dear friend H! She was here on a girls’ night with friends and even though she was dining with pescatarians, she made sure to order something from my station (the one thing they could eat — the smoked salmon terrine!). I sent out a dessert for them and got to say hi before they left. It was really nice to see her and to hear about how happy they were with their meal :) YAY!

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Raise-in in the Sun

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Sous Chef J's "just because" project: a dessert terrine

After a week (and today’s torturous morning) of havering, I finally worked up the courage to ask Chef for that raise. (Havering, as I learned from the song 500 Miles by The Proclaimers, is a British colloquial term for hemming and hawwing.) Today was his first day back in the kitchen since his hand incident, and he seemed to be in good spirits despite undoubtedly getting word of last night’s dreadfully slow service. I had a few opportunities to confront him in the walk-in, but, either due to the cold or to my lack of guts, I chickened out each time.

Instead, I went back to my prep list, which was pleasantly light. I like having extra time to help other stations, like back when I used to help Singing Hot-Apps Guy make pasta and pinch raviolis. Today I portioned out braised octopus for Pizza Guy J who was alone on Hot-Apps. My work area was soon covered in pint cups each holding 3 ounces of tender, purple cephalopod, three or four adorable pee wee potatoes, and a small handful of bright green shishito peppers. Good times.

Anyway,  just before service, I saw Chef step out for a cigarette break. Usually Sous Chef J joins him but this time he was alone. It’s now or never, I thought to myself. I went outside and asked him if he had a moment. In retrospect, I don’t think I sounded very confident… something along the lines of, “I wanted to ask about the possibility of my getting a raise.” I started to make my case, indicating that I am still making the “starting wage” and so forth, when he interrupted me and said, “You absolutely deserve a raise.” I was so excited that I just thanked him and went back inside.

When I returned to my station, I realized that I didn’t know what the raise was exactly. Knowing my window to continue the discussion was quickly closing, I scurried back outside and asked him what “the number” would be. His reply was, “What would you like?” I told him my number, the higher end as Fish Guy suggested so I would have room for negotiation. He readily accepted, which now makes me wonder whether I hit the nail on the head (with the exact same number he had in mind) or whether I under-shot and he just jumped on a good deal. Based on his character and on the intel I’ve gathered on typical wages, I think it is the former. I would be making the most that someone on the Cold Line (minus Pastry) could earn. Mo’ money would require time on the Hot Line.

But the point is, I got the raise I wanted! Woohoo! It made me feel better that it really is just business. Chef was not just going to offer me more money out of the blue because it directly affects his bottom line, and if I worked hard and earned it, I still have to proactively ask for it. It’s nothing personal.

I was so nervous for most of the day and then excited for the rest of the evening after receiving the positive response that I still have butterflies in my stomach. Chef had said that they wanted to make sure that I was a good fit and that I was also doing something that I would enjoy… I think he agrees that I add value to his kitchen and that, because I had to give up a lot to do this, I am more passionate about this than some other cooks he has or will hire.

The other highlights of the day include Dishwasher G starting his first day on Pizza, though because of his minimal English speaking skills, Sous Chef J and I stepped in to help him coordinate tickets from time to time. I also got to spend a good amount of my Late Night shift talking with Sous Chef S to plan out my head cheese terrine.

Tomorrow is pig head braising day and I am so freaking excited.

Post-Memorial Day Weekend Anti-Rush

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This week’s schedule looks strange with the word “OFF” all the way down the column for Monday. With the restaurant closed yesterday, most of us were still left with plenty of mise en place. Meat Guy left me a modest to-do list, so I was able to take my time and ease into the new week. It also gave me the opportunity to slice plenty of salumi for the week (Sous Chef S has been busy curing a variety of salumi in various sizes; I hope to someday take over the salumi program as my station was originally designed).

Others had even less to do, and Pizza Guy J decided to pick up making family meal – a seasoned rice of sorts with chicken and sausage. I had so much leftover scrap from slicing the giant loaf of country bread for my toast that I decided to save it all and make a quick bread pudding. It’s a shame how much goes to waste —¬†I was able to make a full 200 pan of dessert for family meal, and everyone seemed excited as sweet treats are rare. I was definitely judged for asking whether we had any vanilla extract in-house though… (I ended up splitting a vanilla bean pod and whisking the seeds into the custard mixture.)

Chef stopped by briefly, as though to simply assure us that he is indeed alive. He is expected to return to work tomorrow… hopefully I will find an appropriate opportunity to ask him for that raise.

It seems like I’ll be waiting for at least a few more days though. Tonight’s dinner service was terribly, painfully slow. It was a joke; we had 4 on the books. FOUR. By the end of the night, we couldn’t have done more than 50 covers.

We all found creative ways to fill the void. I prepped out my mise for tomorrow; I know I’ll be cooking a full recipe batch of chicken liver mousse terrines so I weighed out the livers, liquor, and salts in advance to save time. Some people cleaned, others started prepping, though most of the guys just enjoyed the opportunity to browse Facebook on their phones. I was reminded of what Station-mate had once said, “Slow nights make me nervous because that’s when Chef starts thinking about firing people.” Let’s hope that this was just a fluke caused by the holiday weekend and not the new normal.

By 9pm, we switched to the Late Night menu and broke down early. I was home by 9:45 which was nice; more time with Honey Bunny and more time for cleaning the house without staying awake until obscene hours of the night.

We get to come in at 12:30pm tomorrow, though I might go a bit earlier to claim an oven. This week is off to a weird start.

Week 19: Time for a Vacation!

Why, hello Mr. Pig.

Why, hello Mr. Pig.

Ahh… the end of another successful week. Every week has its challenges and achievements and this was certainly no exception. I received a surprising amount of encouraging and “Go get ’em!” messages from friends and readers regarding my prospective request for a raise. I arrived at the restaurant ready to defend my case on Friday morning when Chef came rushing down the stairs, blood spurting everywhere, the flesh on his hand severed to the bone. And when I saw to the bone, I am NOT kidding. He saw my reaction to the gore and teased me by waving his hand in my direction. But between the thick chasm created by his handiwork on the roof (I think he was fixing one of the air conditioning units), I swear I saw white… clearly identifiable as the bone beneath his right index finger knuckle. GROSS.

He was hemming and hawing about whether or not to go to the hospital. “It needs stitches!” we behooved him. Finally he relented. Holding a piece of paper towel to his war wound as a compress, he had Pastry Girl wrap it in blue tape (the painter’s tape we use to label deli containers). Satisfied at the binding, he flexed his hand and decided it was sufficient; he announced that he would have a cigarette, get dressed, and get to work. WHAT? Midway through his smoke break though, we realized he (and his car) had disappeared. I guess he changed his mind.

He did come back after his visit to proudly show off his internal AND external stitches. Though he wanted to stay for service, he was eventually convinced to leave us in the hands of his capable sous chefs. He needed to get home and rest up. (He showed up briefly today, Saturday, as well before wishing us a happy Memorial Day and reluctantly retreating home again.)

So. That happened. Needless to say, I didn’t find it appropriate to ask him for a raise.

The kitchen is less stressful without Chef’s watchful eye. Though some of the guys treated as a “when the cat’s away the mice will play” sort of situation, it actually helped me focus better and work harder without that added nervousness. Friday was mainly geared toward planning and working out my next projects with the sous chefs, although Friday night service was INSANE. We had 120 on the books but ended up doing about 380. Despite rounding out the evening with about 5 or 6 charc boards myself, I ended up floating for everyone. On Fridays and Saturdays, Chef tries to have at least two of his three sous chefs present so that he could have one of them assigned to partner up on a station and the other floating to bail out anyone in need of help. Throughout the night, I had to go to Hot-Apps to help Singing Hot-Apps Guy plate pork ravioli, bailed out the Pantry Boys who had lost control of their board (I almost lost my voice that night from all the shouting and callbacks), pulled and tossed pizza dough for Pizza Guy K, ran to the walk-in to fetch chicken stock and other mise items for the Fish and Meat stations, and gave Pastry Girl a hand with desserts. I was literally everywhere, but I love nights like that. The more different things I get to try, the more familiar I will be with the entire kitchen’s methods, critical for an aspiring sous chef. (I think it takes a certain kind of intuition to be able to glance at someone else’s station in the walk-in and within seconds, select which pint cup contains the eggplant puree he had asked for.)

Today (Saturday) was the opposite in the sense that I had a prep-heavy day while service was slow overall. As we had suspected, everyone seems to have gone out of town for the holiday weekend. Our meat delivery was late, throwing off my original plan of banging out the chicken mousse first thing. I had to revamp my game plan though I was not nearly as productive in those first two hours of my day as I had hoped. At 1pm, the brown boxes arrived and I kicked it into high gear. I made a full recipe (1 kilo) each of the chicken liver mousse for happy hour and for the terrine and charc board jars. That’s two kilos of chicken livers, leaving me with exactly one pound leftover for a spiced French-Vietnamese pate, my next experiment.

Split Pig's Head. Mmm BRAINS.

Split Pig’s Head. Mmm BRAINS.

Unexpectedly, a whole pig’s head had also arrived. I wanted to do headcheese as the next terrine (I even watched a 20 minute YouTube video for making gio thu, completely in Vietnamese) but Sous Chef S warned that Chef might hesitate. I guess it freaks people out so it does not sell quite as well as, say, a pork liver and truffle pate. But there it was, a whole head in all its glory. We had to saw it in half in order to brine it properly, and it would have to brine for at least five days before I could use it. It being my station, of course, I held the head tightly while Sous Chef S busted out the industrial bone saw and got to work. The sawing action was making my hand numb and I grew increasingly nervous that my hand would slip. I had zero fear of the raw pig’s head. I did have great concerns of a saw capable of slicing through a skull like a knife through butter.¬†Luckily we had no such casualties.

French-Vietnamese Spiced Pate (Before)

French-Vietnamese Spiced Pate (Before)

Finally, I ground the meat and spices for that new pate in record time, right at 4pm, squeezing in one last task before setting up my station for service. I took a Before picture, though I was not able to cook it off today since Pastry Girl was baking a TON of bread and needed both convection ovens. The guys will take care of it for me tomorrow and we’ll see how it tastes come Tuesday.

Do Chua (Vietnamese Pickled Daikon and Carrots, banh mi style)

Do Chua (Vietnamese Pickled Daikon and Carrots, banh mi style)

During and after service I managed to get some more prep done: I pickled some daikon radish and carrot julienne and batons (I did two sizes, the more traditional baton and a more “refined” thinner julienne, at Fish Guy’s suggestion) using my dad’s recipe for pickling liquid. It tasted a bit different since I had to use seasoned rice wine vinegar, the closest thing to coconut vin that we had in the kitchen. Still, I sneaked a taste before I went home, and even though it had only pickled for a few hours, it was tasting pretty close to a good banh mi style garnish. I made sure to take a picture because I know my dad will enjoy seeing a dish like that in a real professional kitchen.

Gigantic Daikon Radish

Gigantic Daikon Radish

And funny story — the night before when I was ordering the daikon, I asked Sous Chef S if he thought our produce purveyor could send just one. He said he would ask. When I went to the back fridge to retrieve it, I found that they had sent us one nearly two feet long. Talk about making the “one” really count! This picture was taken with my 11-inch chef’s knife for scale. It reminded me of the Japanese farmer who grew a peculiarly shaped daikon that became internet-famous.

I also capped the 24 happy hour jars, 15 board jars, and 1 chicken liver mousse terrine with butter, and right after service, I poached off slices of potato for Meat Guy to build a salmon terrine for me the next day. He saw my potato slices simmering on the stove and a wave of relief came over him. “I thought I’d have to do the whole process from start to finish in one day!” he remarked. I replied that I wouldn’t do that to him, though his surprise made me think that other people running the charcuterie station did (or would have). With three full sheet trays of poached potato slices safely stored on the speed racks in the walk-in, I bid my goodbyes and headed home, exhausted but happy.

Our restaurant is closed on Monday for the holiday, although I feel a bit cheated since Mondays are my usual days off anyway. The perk is that Honey Bunny has the day off as well so we are taking advantage of our “real” weekend to spend quality time together. Time for a vacation!

Wishing you all a very happy (and safe!) Memorial Day Weekend!

Channeling Positive Energy

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I was pretty upset by the time I got home today but then I spent a solid three hours poring over recipe websites, YouTube videos, and my Charcuterie book/bible frantic with inspiration. The story unfolds…

See, the Pantry Boys got totally reamed by Chef again today during service. They were taking so long to push out some of their tickets that Chef, in his impatience, left the pass and personally started plating some salads. He enlisted my assistance, having me gather the ingredients he would need while he worked at my station. Eventually though, I had a few tickets to work on, so he had to fetch the final garnishes himself.  Upon closer inspection of their station and its disorganized mess, he completely lost it. “This is a joke!” he shouted. “You two are not fit to run your own station! At this rate, you’ll be spending the next two years on Pantry at LEAST!”

I felt bad for them; Musician Stage especially seemed to be taking it pretty hard. But at the same time, it made me think again about asking Chef for a raise. After all, things like that don’t happen under my watch. I work hard, I am focused, and I care a great deal (certainly more than these kids who don’t seem to give a flying you-know-what).

I approached Fish Guy for advice since I know I can trust him. I told him that I felt it was time I moved up from the starting rate, especially when I see how the new kids are under-performing. He confided that he knows how much everyone makes and he told me that, actually, the Pantry Boys had managed to negotiate higher day rates than mine. WHAT THE HELL. I felt more than a little slighted, and Fish Guy reminded me that Chef is first and foremost a businessman — in the interest of keeping costs down, he’s not just going to offer me a raise out of the blue even if I deserve one. I’d have to ask for it and present my case. So, I reminded myself, it’s nothing personal.

Honey Bunny was kind enough to let me rant to him, and after I got the anger out of my system, I channeled my energy into researching my next charcuterie project. (I’m generally a positive person, so I was grateful for a distraction to put me in a better mood.)

I’ve been wanting to bring in a whole pig’s head and make a coppa di testa salumi, a delicious Italian cured meat that Honey Bunny and I tracked down at a tiny hole-in-the-wall salumeria in Boston. Browsing through recipes, however, I stumbled across a related forgotten favorite — Vietnamese gio thu, head cheese that is essentially the same thing as coppa but with a different spice palate. I take for granted that charcuterie is a part of every cuisine and culture; until now, I only thought of fancy French pates and Italian salumis. For example, I was mind blown when I realized that Chinese sausage (lap xuong or lap chong) is, too, charcuterie. Anyway, I am finally caught up on my mise (and well-stocked with terrines, garnishes, and pickles) so I can make time to take on new projects or start learning salumis. These are just a few ideas I’ve been considering. I think this forum for creativity is why just about everyone who has worked this station loved it.

Money is just money. Even if Chef says no (assuming I work up the courage to ask), this learning opportunity is incredibly unique. There are not many restaurants that do their own charcuterie and even fewer willing to teach. You can bet that I will be honing these skills for the rest of my culinary career.

Life is too short to be angry, so for now, I’m going to continue working my ass off and practicing the new techniques I’m learning. After all, everything works out in the end, right?

PS: I don’t think I mentioned it, but Honey Bunny and I went to see the movie Chef the other night. It’s a hilarious movie, enjoyable for anyone but especially relatable for those of us committed to Kitchen Life. I really liked it, although I did not find it quite as life-changing as Fish Guy had hyped it up to be. For those who have seen the movie (or even just the trailer), I leave you with this:

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