Tag Archives: food

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

Inspiration – An Introduction to Matcha Bunny

Brace yourselves, this is a long post I’ve been meaning to write. It outlines my background in food and why I want to pursue cooking as a career. Put simply: I love food. There, now you can skip the 1,000-word dissertation that follows. But please, if you would, read it anyway…

First, a photo of good food to whet your appetite (cioppino from Catch - Santa Monica)

First, a photo of good food to whet your appetite (cioppino from Catch – Santa Monica)

From a very young age, I favored faux cooking sets over dolls. Once my parents felt confident I wasn’t one of those kids that eat toys (you know, the reason why they have those minimum age requirements and choking hazard notices), I graduated from the plastic fruit held together with velcro and packaged with small plastic knives. Anyone remember Kitchen Little? I had the whole set of miniaturized-to-scale kitchen pieces, down to the stove with “real” oven that would “roast” a mini plastic turkey, the double-door refrigerator that even had a “working” ice maker, and the kitchen island as if I did not have enough cabinets and counter space already to store my set of All-Clad-like pots and teeny tiny dinner service for 8 (seriously, the forks and spoons were no bigger than 1 inch long).

I grew up watching cooking shows on Food Network. Martin Yan was (and still is) my hero because after all, if Yan can cook, so can you! He brought to life many of the foods so common to our dinner table. Asian connection aside, I also hurried home from elementary school in time to catch Jacques and Julia, a show on PBS that featured two of the food world’s most well-known and respected personalities – Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Little 8-year-old me would grab a snack and plant myself in front of the TV, clutching my favorite stuffed animal and trying to understand why one would blanch and shock English peas.

When my mom and I went on our shopping trips to the mall, I would spend hours in the book store, often paging through themed cookbooks with titles like “All About Pasta” or simply “Cupcakes.” I was fascinated by the dishes in these books, often quick and easy recipes geared toward working families. Chili con carne. Toad in a hole. Beef stroganoff made with canned cream of mushroom soup. To this day I haven’t actually made any of these recipes but I remember studiously reading through the ingredient lists and directions with fervor.

My duties in the kitchen started small. I was a latchkey kid of the 90s so that meant I was usually home to get a pot of rice going before my parents came home from work. Measure out the rice using the little clear plastic cup. Swirl in cold running water and drain carefully so as not to lose any grains. Repeat three times until the starches wash away and the water is somewhat clear. Add water and use a fingertip as a guide (it wasn’t until college that I realized what those numbered notches are for). Plug in the rice cooker and DON’T FORGET TO HIT THE COOK BUTTON.

Eventually I was given a plastic knife to help slice easy things like bananas, cucumbers, bagels. Most of my prep duties were relegated to tasks like picking the roots off bean sprouts. Periodically, I would have control of the ladle with stirring privileges while my mom cooked another dish to accompany the soup I was now in charge of. Handling of raw meats, chopping onions, and anything to do with fire were still off-limits.

When I moved out for college, I finally learned how to fend for myself. Luckily, I was armed with the technical knowledge — it just was a matter of application and experimentation. When I decided to try pescatarianism, I ended up staying in and cooking more often. Shrimp scampi pasta, yakisoba with tofu and spinach, and potato croquette sandwiches made regular appearances on my meal rotation. It was around this time when i started making recipe substitutions and tweaks — my favorite (to this day) being apple sauce for oil (1:1) for boxed cake mixes.

Though my childhood inclination toward food provided a solid foundation, I think it was moving to Los Angeles and being surrounded by the culture and amazing restaurants that really kicked the inspiration into high gear. Eating good food inspires me and I’d venture to say that LA is one of the best food cities in the nation.

About 2 years ago, my Honey Bunny and I decided to start our own food blog. By having an audience (however small) to hold me accountable, I found myself cooking more often and being more mindful of the food I eat when dining out (so I’ll be able to write thoughtfully about it later). Even though we had recently graduated and were making meager entry-level incomes, we squirreled away a good amount of money to splurge on tasting menus, wine pairings, and kitchen equipment.

Last Valentine’s Day, the thought crossed my mind that I would make something for my Honey Bunny. Something challenging, something rewarding, something we always order when given the opportunity but never dared to make ourselves. The perfect dessert — the souffle. A stunning chocolate souffle. I carefully nursed the custardy sabayon over a double-boiler. I chopped the dark Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate into fine shards. I painstakingly hand-beat the egg whites until they formed stiff peaks. And I anxiously, nervously, eagerly sat beside the oven watching like a hawk through the glass door. As the minutes ticked past, I decided to try practicing my Jedi mind tricks, willing the souffle to rise. Ding! went the timer. I remember gingerly opening the oven door and squealing with glee at the amazing height they had achieved. We dug into those souffles (after drizzling in a bit of homemade creme anglaise of course) right there in the kitchen. As I mulled over the pride and joy that I felt, I realized that that souffle brought me more personal satisfaction than anything else I had done in a very long time.

That was the turning point. From then on, I wrote blog posts with renewed passion, gained the confidence to experiment with recipes, sought out opportunities to eat exciting food (the dinner at Clio in Boston being among the top of that list), and for the first time in my life, seriously considered a career in food. I was looking back at older blog entries recently and since around that time (coupled with moving to our new place with a stunning kitchen) the quality of photos and writing have markedly improved.

Recently, I spoke with my closest friends about my ambitions. They recommended that I speak to friends who were in the industry. I learned about the challenges I would face, the stressful schedules and labor, the low pay, the repetition of mundane tasks during prep. But they also spoke of the skills and techniques they learned and the passion they have about working with food. I might be really bad at it. I might hate it. But most importantly, I know that I would always regret not trying.

So that’s what this blog is all about. I am determined to do my best and see where it takes me. I know I will find my place in the food world, and if it turns out to not be in the kitchen, I will find another way. But the kitchen is where I hope to start…