Damn It Feels Good To Be A Chef

(First, a slight tangent: I still can’t listen to “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” without imagining the printer destruction scene from Office Space in my head. Is that just me?)

On Friday, I got a call from the executive chef – my new boss – to get my schedule for my first day. “Come in on Monday bright and early at 8am,” he said. “Bring your knives but leave your tweezers at home.” I kept my composure until we hung up, but as soon as the call was over, I just about died laughing. It was the perfect complement to the shit-talking I got from a few fine dining peers about my switch to a more casual restaurant. Apparently the chefs on this side like to take jabs at the tweezer-wielding fine dining chefs too.

So yesterday was my first day at the new gig. The first hour or two was spent meeting with the Training Director to do the formal, corporate-y “onboarding” type stuff. They also gave me some cool company swag, including black t-shirts and fancy denim aprons for my uniform (only managers get black shirts and denim aprons, so I feel pretty legit!). I got an overview of what my job will look like for the first few months: five weeks training BOH here, three weeks training FOH at another location, and then finally permanently working at the location I’d originally wanted to work at (since it’s only 2 miles from home!). Woot! The training manual was very thorough, and as they explained it, since I am getting “fast tracked” into a manager position, I’ll be cycling through every position in the restaurant to get an in-depth understanding of the entire operation.

So I started at the very beginning — I spent the first hour in the kitchen learning the ins and outs of the dish pit. Everyone was really friendly, especially after they found out I speak Spanish. It came in handy when Chef pulled me to work on prep with a woman who spoke very little English. She was thrilled that we were still able to converse, even though I had to enlist the help of others who were more bilingual to help me translate things from time to time. For example, a favorite question of these friendly older ladies is “Tienes novio o esposo?” (do you have a boyfriend or husband?) to which I had to ask my dishwasher buddy, “Como se dice ‘engaged’?” (it’s comprometida, in case you were wondering).

Break time is weird here because we don’t have family meal. You’re entitled to a meal during your shift, so you just order from the cashier and it’s on the house. We also get a large table in the dining room set aside for employees to sit and hang out. No separate employee cafeteria? No sitting on plastic crates in the back alley?? I felt so weird sitting in the same dining room as the guests during my break. I think the feeling will pass eventually as I get used to it.

Sous Chef K was coming in for her closing shift as I came back from break, so I got to help her with prepping the dinner special — agnolotti. Glad to see some of my pasta making experience at the ol’ gastropub put to good use. Chef let me head out early around 4 and I was thrilled to be driving home from work at the same time that I used to be driving TO work to start my shifts at my last job.

This morning I came in again, bright and early at 8am, and Chef was nowhere to be found. I hate standing around idle (especially in the kitchen, where there’s ALWAYS something to do), so I asked one of the prep guys if he needed a hand. He seemed reluctant to accept help, but 50 pounds of carrots and 2 cases of brussels sprouts argued otherwise. I was happy to get my day started with simple, mindless work — it’s pretty meditative. Finally Chef came in around 9 and announced that he’s “not worried about [my] BOH skills” and that he wants me to start training on the FOH positions immediately. I appreciated the vote of confidence… I was less excited about the prospect of having to interface with customers on only my second day on the job. Ha! Smiling? Being polite? Not cursing? I’ve been working as a rogue kitchen pirate for too long.

Luckily we had about an hour before the store opened for me to get briefed by a girl who had been working on the Ordering station for over a year. She’s well versed on our menu and common customer inquiries, and she’s lightning speed on the POS system. She’s also a great teacher so I felt confident that I’d be able to learn the ropes from her.

At 10:45am we all gathered for the pre-shift meeting. I guess we were in the weeds with prep yesterday so we had to skip it. Today, Chef introduced me as “Chef [Matcha Bunny]” and I was pretty stoked. He went over menu changes (we’re transitioning from winter vegetables to spring ones this week!) and daily specials, and his eyes seemed to glimmer at the prospect of getting cool new produce in now that the seasons are changing. We had to wrap up quickly, though, as it soon turned 11am and customers were already waiting outside to be the first to place their orders.

As I took my place behind the POS, I felt nervous, especially after seeing how fast my trainer was, but I hit the ground running. Entering modifications is the worst part, though explaining our (admittedly complicated) menu for the umpteenth time is a close second. Right at noon, though, the line wove out the door and around the corner so I switched back with her so she could dig us out of the weeds. I was reassured that it wasn’t because of my speed but rather because a large rush of people arrived all at once. I took over again once she cleared the line like a beast and worked until about 1:30 when I finally got my lunch break. Nope — still not used to sitting out in the dining room and eating alongside customers.

When I came back, Chef grabbed me and had me work with him on the components for the daily special. I was relieved to be back in my comfort zone, behind a cutting board focusing on food. I found that he likes to rattle off ingredients without mentioning quantities unless asked. That was a bit peculiar. I mean, sure I can go get you shallots… but what are you using them for and how large of a batch are you making? Or just simply, how many do you need? Thankfully he doesn’t seem to be bothered by questions, so I was able to eventually get clarification and start the vinegar reduction that he wanted for a sauce. Meanwhile I got on some knife cuts alongside Sous Chef K. Apparently she used to play on a rugby team in college and we bonded over both having been yelled at by angry British men. I completely lost track of time and before I knew it, it was almost 5 o’clock (my shift ended at 4:30). Still, when I got out I was thrilled to see the sun barely setting. Less thrilled about sharing the evening commute with countless 9-5’ers in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Can’t win them all, I guess.

Oh, the best news so far? I’m working M-F, so Honey Bunny and I will actually get to spend a real, normal weekend together! WOOOOOOO!

Advertisements

New Chapter

Hello friends!

I know my posts have been few and far between, especially compared to when I first started. I guess it just goes to show that this has truly become my career and not just a hobby. (Sometimes work is just a grind!)

Saturday was my last dinner service. I still feel a little bit bad for my station partners because I was hardly able to get any work done. Even with a pitifully short prep list (we planned it that way, just in case), I kept having to step away from my cutting board because of a barrage of piquillo puree, luster dust (edible gold glitter), ice water, clam juice, concentrated red food dye, and (the good part) a perfume of truffle oil. I had already changed chef’s coats twice by 4pm.

At the pre-shift meeting, Chef announced my departure from the kitchen. She teased that if I took back my resignation, all of the hazing will stop. Otherwise, she continued, she strongly encouraged the team to keep hazing me. We managed to pull together our station, glitter bomb be damned, and worked the first few hours of dinner service largely undisturbed… aside from the occasional squirt of squid ink, sprinkling of sugar, splash of butternut squash puree, pulse of yogurt espuma…  all down the back of my coat.

The worst hit around 9pm when one of the sous chefs hit me with this magenta colored powder that, apparently, turns blue and orange and red and green when it hits water. I think patisserie uses it for their chocolate bon bons. Anyway, I thought I could just brush it off and keep working, but every time I leaned over or tried to plate a dish, the powder would flake off and turn everything bright blue. Great. I tried cleaning off in the bathroom sink but it just wasn’t happening. I found more powder in my ear, in my hair, all over my hat… I went down to the locker room and thankfully ran into a housekeeping steward who took pity on me and provided me with a fresh towel and a set of the soaps we keep in the guest rooms. After a quick shower, I came back to work the rest of dinner service.

Or so I thought. We had a lull in service around 10pm so…. the fun and games were over. They busted out the good stuff. The fermented stuff. The gnarly smelling stuff. I got hit with beet puree, savora mustard dressing, and… worst of all… fermented octopus juice and eel scraps. SO FUCKING FOUL. OMG. It made me and everyone around want to vomit. It was horrible. Apparently Chef was going to come over with her contribution until she saw me and others starting to gag and immediately turned around. I hurried out of there and made my Walk of Shame down to the locker room. As I took off my apron, I heard this loud, comical splat as whole pieces of eel and octopus hit the floor. YUCK. I showered twice it was so bad. And I threw away the clothes I was wearing because I didn’t want to deal with washing them at home. When all was said and done, I had gone through 8 chef’s coats. Some say that I got it among the worst of anyone ever — meaning they all just love me THAT much.

Finally, I cleaned out my locker, said my goodbyes, and went home for a proper shower before meeting up with the guys after their shift for drinks at a nearby bar. At the bar, Chef bought me way too many whiskey-cokes, but it was a great opportunity to hang out with my kitchen friends for one last hurrah (Honey Bunny and two of our friends even came out to celebrate! SO THANKFUL for Honey Bunny for taking care of my embarrassingly too-drunk self…). Throughout the night, Chef said the nicest things to me — largely that she’s going to miss me, that she thinks I’m going to do great things, that she learned so much from me, that she had come to rely on me because she knows that my work is high quality, that I can call on her any time I have any questions, that she thinks she can make me a better offer (with a wink). I’m really going to miss this kitchen. Perhaps the most surprising was finding out that R&D Chef was visibly upset to find out I was leaving; I wasn’t even really sure he knew my name.

Most of my peers have been incredibly supportive and happy for my new adventure. A couple of people are upset (dare I say disappointed?) that I would give up fine dining to go into fast casual. And to be honest, I will definitely miss the fancy plating, the exquisite ingredients, the modernist techniques. But I’m also looking forward to learning how to run a kitchen from a management standpoint. And most importantly, I’m excited to have more opening and mid shifts, to have a schedule that somewhat resembles Honey Bunny’s so we can have a more normal life. The title bump doesn’t hurt. I’m moving on up!

This past week I’ve just been enjoying being “fun”employed and having little to no obligations. Taking care of the house, running errands, unwinding and relaxing. My new adventure starts on Monday, on Leap Day, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Anniversary

Wednesday the 10th marked my one year anniversary at the restaurant. 365 days since I left the gastropub and embarked on my adventure in high end fine dining. 525,600 minutes of valuable experience learning new recipes, trying new techniques, and tasting new ingredients.

I felt mostly relieved when my conversations with Chef and the sous chefs to give my two weeks notice went well. It had been a long month of anxiously awaiting my official offer from the fast casual restaurant group and having to stay hush-hush. They completely understood where I was coming from – this is a large kitchen and it is incredibly difficult and competitive to get any upward movement. It would take at least another six months to one year just to get promoted from Line Cook to Lead Cook and even then, they hardly get to learn any of the business training nor get scheduled for the opening/”mid” shifts that I hope to get at my new venture.

Still, I’ve had a bad case of “graduation goggles” this past week or so. I mean, I practically hear Vitamin C’s voice singing “As we go on, we remember…” providing the soundtrack to my life as I walk through the kitchen at the end of yet another dinner service, as I work on some particular projects for the last time, and, especially, as I have conversations with the coworkers who have become my friends and home away from home for the past year. One of the sous chefs really hit the nail on the head when he said that this is a kitchen that I’m going to miss. On the bright side, all of the chefs gave me an open invitation to come back any time.

Eight days left.

Exciting News!

Happy 2016, everyone! (shush – I know I’m… 29 days late… man, has this year already been flying by!)

A few brief updates to catch up from where we last left off. One of the sad realities of working in the kitchen is that you’re pretty much guaranteed to be working holidays. It sucks. They say you get used to it, and every year you convince yourself that you’re OK with it and that it just comes with the territory. But then your family starts asking when you’re free to celebrate over dinner. And you see your friends posting pictures and meaningful statuses all over Facebook. And you think about your poor SO who’s trying to scramble together plans with friends or has just accepted that he’s going to be alone on a day meant to be shared with loved ones. I’ll say it again – it sucks.

Christmas Eve was the worst. Somehow the reservationist screwed up or the servers couldn’t turn tables fast enough or something but come 9 o’clock, we were apparently an hour behind on reservations. (That meant the people who made 8pm ressies were just now sitting down.) We were supposed to close early, at 9:45pm, but ended up in a whirlwind of miscommunication… I didn’t leave until 11:30pm. New Year’s Eve was much better. We had a buyout format and basically held a buffet-style party of champagne and caviar for the rich and famous to ring in the new year. We put out the last bits of food at 11:15, did a super quick champagne toast in the satellite kitchen, and then bolted out the door to ring in the new year with our friends and family. I was home in time to watch a documentary on sriracha with Honey Bunny over a quick late night dinner and got to kiss him at midnight. Luckily the restaurant was closed on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, so we got to spend some time together and be festive.

All this time, however, I had been scouring Craigslist and other job sites for new opportunities and coming up empty. I didn’t want to just be a line cook at a different restaurant (as they say – same shit, different day), I didn’t want to go back to a boring office job, and I couldn’t land a Sous position because they all seemed to somehow require 2-3 years of Sous experience. It felt like I was in college again trying to score that first internship that didn’t require previous work experience.

As soon as the new year hit, I received an unexpected surprise in my inbox. A recruiter had found my profile on LinkedIn and thought I would be perfect for a Junior Sous position with their company. It’s a large fast-casual restaurant group, so I replied to ask for more information. After two successful phone interviews, I was invited in for an in-person interview and tasting. I had never done a tasting before and I was so nervous. They asked me to present a soup, salad, and entree. Honey Bunny, bless his supportive heart, suggested that I invite friends over the night before so I could experiment with my recipes on them. It was nice to practice my dishes (and I always love an excuse for a dinner party), and I was able to confidently execute my menu the next day.

This was all earlier this month and I had been keeping hush about it so I don’t jinx anything. But just today, I received the official offer letter. Guys, this is happening. About 2.5 years after I first set foot in a professional kitchen, I’m about to become a Junior Sous Chef.

So. Excited.

Buyout Season

Wow it’s been a while since my last update. Sorry guys… it’s been hard to find time to blog when I’m also trying to job hunt.

image

Last week a major accounting firm bought out our restaurant for Friday and Saturday night. High rollers for sure. First off those are our two highest grossing nights (and thus the most expensive to book) and secondly, they needed two nights because there was no way we could accommodate all TWO THOUSAND of their employees at one time. We did, however, manage to feed one thousand hungry patrons each night and boy did this group eat! Friday night kicked our butts so badly we thought there was no way that Saturday’s group would be worse… Of course, we spoke too soon. The sheer amount of product we had to stock (and quickly demolished) was astounding… 95 pounds of sashimi grade tuna, 8 tins of caviar, thousands of shrimp, 200 pounds of flank steak, a dozen 5-foot-diameter paellas… and so much more. We were all exhausted by the end of Saturday night but also proud of our success.

The challenges will continue as we head into the holidays. This is buyout season for us, and it’ll culminate in another 1000 covers for New Year’s Eve. Bring it on!