May 20, 2010

Cooking For The Cooks

In a restaurant, one cook is often designated or assigned to cook family meal, the name of the meal for the staff - including cooks, managers, servers, etc. It's often a thankless job, and is in addition to the normal duties of setting up the station, prep work, etc. Sometimes it's assigned in rotation, changing from day to day from cook to cook. Often there won't be much to work with, maybe some trimmings from meat butchering, or maybe two whole chickens to feed 15 people. And that cook gets to hear all the complaining: "Can't we have something other than chicken/pasta/eggs/rice?" "Can't we have some fresh vegetables? Why is family meal always deep fried? Isn't this leftovers from the other night? Why is there always bacon in everything?" Some cooks dread it or even hate it.

I guess I'm an oddball, but I actually enjoy making family meal.

It can be a means to gain respect in the kitchen. If you can take a few bits of meat, two links of sausage and a handful of shrimp and make a decent paella, you earn a few points. If you can cook up a nice pasta dish for the staff, it might help you get promoted to working the pasta station.

One of the things I enjoy about the process is that there is a hidden vocabulary in food. Cooks usually understand better than most people how to build flavors and how certain dishes are put together. If you can put together a tasty version of risotto while still setting up your station and not babysitting the risotto, you earn a few points. Or say if you work in a French restaurant, but can make something other than French food, you may earn a few points by demonstrating some versatility. In LA especially, if you can pull off some decent Mexican or other Latin food, you'll earn a few points from the Latino cooks, but also from the staff, who generally know and love Latin food, too. Getting compliments like that from people who really know food is very satisfying to me.

Similar to comedians that rarely laugh at another comedian's act and simply say, "That's funny," cooks are often short with praise, just saying, "That's good." If they come up for a second helping, that's a compliment. If they ask you to describe how you made something, that's probably the highest compliment you'll get.

Sometimes, family meal is actually better than the food that's going out to guests because someone put a little thought into it, paid attention to it, and put some love in it. Some of the best family meals I've ever had: an extra lamb leg made into a Roman-style lamb stew enriched with egg in the sauce, braised beef cheeks in a sweet-sour sauce, chicken in mole negro, couscous with pine nuts, currants, apricots and spices, chilaquiles (tortilla chips tossed with an enchilada type sauce and eggs), and enfrijoladas (corn tortillas dipped in refried black beans).

Here are a few guidelines for impressing the other cooks with your family meal prowess:

-Plan ahead a little. If you know it's your turn to cook family tomorrow, have an idea in mind so that it seems like it was a no-brainer for you. Just like for customers, have a protein, a vegetable of some kind, and a starch. Maybe something crispy or crunchy if it needs textural contrast.

-Think simple preparations, think family style, think comfort food. If possible, choose dishes that can be started and left to cook unattended. Good candidates are rice dishes, pasta dishes, roasted or braised dishes. Or stir-fry dishes, but do it in a way where you don't spend a ton of time cutting vegetables and such.

-Keep the garlic and onions on the side or in minimal amounts. And definitely cooked rather than raw. FOH staff can't deal with guests properly if they have dragon breath.

-Maybe spend a few bucks of your own money to buy a few dozen tortillas or a good curry powder blend. Just something to set it apart. Since most cooks only use what's on hand, all meals start from the same ingredients, and they all start to taste the same. It's like having a secret weapon.

-Use inexpensive ingredients as the core of your family meal. Your chef doesn't want to see the staff eating steak. Plus, part of the ethos is transforming something inexpensive into something tasty.

-Just like for customers, it's worth the 30 seconds it takes to arrange the food a little bit, sprinkle a little parsley on on it, and pretty it up a little. Maybe not to the same degree, but something a little better than dumped out onto a sheet pan.

April 15, 2010

Too Much Is Better Than Not Enough

We've been really busy at the catering company, which definitely says good things because few caterers and restaurants are busy these days. Even with two extra sets of hands last night, it was a 13 hour day - 5pm to 6am. Hopefully some circumstances will change soon and we'll be back to more normal hours.

But compared to January where I didn't really work at all, I'll take this abundance of work while it's here. Although it's showing no signs of slowing for us. Knock on wood.

Also, at this job, there's definitely a relationship between workload and rewards, so it's good to receive a bit more for my efforts. When I've been on salary, it's virtually impossible to keep morale up when there's more to do, more hours needed, and the same paycheck.

February 27, 2010

Prong #1 - Catering

It's a short month, but I'm gonna get two posts in, dang it.

The first prong of the new plan of attack is I'm working for a caterer. I'm learning the catering business because I think my skills and temperament may be better suited to that than restaurants. It's still cooking, it's still a solid days work (when there are catering gigs), but it's more project oriented in approach, organization, and timeline. Quite a bit different than a restaurant, where they goal is to be ready for anything on the menu, and make it 75 times, exactly right and exactly the same, every night. Catering is more like make it exactly right ONCE, for 75 people.

There's an interesting stigma amongst restaurant line cooks that cooks that can't hack the restaurant kitchen do catering. But catering usually is better money, shorter hours, more creativity, and less wear and tear on the body and soul.

I'll take it!

The only downside so far is that it's usually not as steady as a restaurant gig. But I'm cutting down on my monthly overhead, so that should take a little of the pressure off during the occasional slow week. And I definitely can use a little more flexibility in my schedule than when I was working 75-80 hours a week at the restaurant.

So far, so good. Today we had a good chat about how to proceed from here. We're going to push ahead with plans to keep us busy during the gaps. Gotta keep bringing the pain.

February 20, 2010

What A Difference A Year Makes...

It's been too long. Much has happened since my last post. As it turns out, Las Vegas wasn't for me. Or at least for the time being. I didn't much enjoy the corporate/casino work situation. I actually was enjoying living in LV - it snowed while I was there, and I drove through the Asiatown twice a day. I still hadn't found a Mexican restaurant that I loved, but new opportunities came calling.

I moved back to LA almost exactly a year ago. I served as a sous chef at a new cafe and bakery, which was one of the most engrossing, demanding, and challenging things I've ever done. I worked hard, did the best I could, and learned a ton. We were fortunate to be very busy, even during hard times for most restaurants. Most of the time, it was just a race to keep up with all the food we were selling. I had a great team of cooks, we figured out a lot of things as they were happening, and the guests seemed to enjoy it. Good times.

At one point, it seemed like I had found a home where I could be for a long time - indefinitely, even. There were some areas of difference of opinion, difference of style, and difference of priorities. At first, it seemed like those differences could be complementary. Ultimately, I decided, it wasn't the right fit for me. I wish them continued success and every happiness.

I spent most of January sitting in my bedroom thinking about all the things I coulda/woulda/shoulda done, but more importantly, all the things I wanna/hafta/will do next.

One of those things is writing more regularly. Perhaps the cliche'd blogger resolution. But there's a multi-pronged plan in the works. More on that as it develops. Thanks for reading.

February 01, 2009

Today is My Friday

In the restaurant business, it's not always possible for employees to have two days off in a row on a regular basis. Lots of restaurants are closed one day per week, like Monday, so everyone has that day off and another. The people that get Sunday and Monday off, or Monday and Tuesday off have the best schedule, so those are often given to the people with the most senority. Or it may rotate through the staff so everyone gets two days off once in a while.

But in casino restaurants, thanks to unions and big staff, it's expected and required for all employees to get two consecutive days off. Because everyone gets a true "weekend," there's a peculiar turn of phrase, "Today is my Friday" (meaning it's the end of my workweek) or "Today is my Monday" (meaning it's the beginning of my workweek). I often overhear it in the hallway and employee dining areas, in various accents. No matter what the person's native tongue, these specific phrases are what's used to communicate the concept of a personal weekend.

December 18, 2008

Learning or Earning

Now that it's approaching the end of '08, I've been thinking about one of my mottos for the year: Learning or Earning. By that I meant, I knew I wasn't happy, I needed to force myself to change, and the simple test would be I would have to either be learning new things and growing as a cook, or making enough money to make it worthwhile. At my previous job, while there were some great aspects to it, and great people to work with, it wasn't really meeting either standard. I felt a little stagnant and underappreciated.

It's funny how life works. A new opportunity came up, and although wasn't looking for such a drastic change, it seemed to meet both sides of the test. I'm learning a lot, in a new environment, with a new corporate culture, surrounded by new people, and also earning a fair wage with full benefits.

Granted, not all aspects of my new situation are as perfect as I'd like them to be. There are still the daily annoyances, adjustments, and compromises. But between the newness of it all, the work itself, and the upward trend, it seems like the right choice.

Learning or Earning. Or maybe both!!

December 14, 2008

Current Challenges 1

Opening a new restaurant.

Hard water, and consequently, softened water.

Low humidity, and consequently, dry skin and spontaneous nosebleeds.

Finding a new local pub.

Finding a new late night taco joint or taco truck.

Elsewise, so far, so good.

November 14, 2008

What Happens in Vegas...

A few months ago, had someone asked me if I would move to Las Vegas, I probably would have said, "I wouldn't bet on it." I'd already been looking for a new work situation, I was ready for a change, but I was waiting to find the right thing. I would have considered moving, but I hadn't seriously looked anywhere outside of Los Angeles.

But a lot can happen in a couple of months. A friend of mine, with whom I have done lots of catering and teaching, was offered a gig at a plush new hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas. I want to get more experience with opening new restaurants, and in a variety of circumstances. After getting over some hesitations, I am officially bound for Las Vegas.

Although I have a few concerns, it's an amazing situation with lots of resources, lots of upside, good people involved, and sky's the limit potential. Beyond our restaurant, Las Vegas has representation from the best chefs in the world, and there is an audience to support the finest of fine dining - all the way down to $4.99 prime rib. I'll have lots of opportunity to eat and work in some excellent restaurants. There's a lively ethnic food scene as well, with ready access to international ingredients. Although I'll miss being near the ocean, there's apparently lots of recreating do in the foothills surrounding Las Vegas, Lake Mead, etc. For me personally, another draw is the very real possibility of buying a home or a condo, which is completely out of reach in the LA area.

It's so ON!! I've been imagining that clap and wave of empty hands that dealers do in Las Vegas, always accompanied by, "Good Luck."

As per usual, I won't speak about specifics, but I'll continue to post about my experience in Sin City and as a cook. I reserve the right to edit or delete any post or comments that may be too identifiable.

July 18, 2008

Best Quote I've Heard in a While

We were talking about the process of learning from the chef above you, and how some people get chef gigs at a really young age, and they just haven't had enough experience or just time to figure out how flavors work. Or in some cases, they may know a lot, but they might not make good choices about food. One of my co-workers explaining why he left his last job:

"My last chef had a palate where he kinda liked things that tasted like vomit. Really. Kinda acid-ey, and bitter at the same time - like vomit. Sometimes he would make a sauce, and I thought it tasted like vomit. I had to get out of there."

June 13, 2008

Dos Años

It's just past the two year anniversary of when I originally posted An Unabridged Glossary of Mexican Slang for Cooks. In that time, I've moved on to a different restaurant, but I've continued to add words and correct their definitions as they've come up. And I'll continue to do so.

Incidentally, the best book I've found for proper kitchen and restaurant Spanish is Stainless Steel Translations...English to Spanish for Restaurants and Commercial Kitchens. The pronouciation guide is pretty gringo, so use a little imagination to sound more authentic. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it.

The original caveat still applies: "A lot of of it is crude and rude, locker room-type language, so if you are offended by that sort of thing, don't read further. If I have any of the definitions or spellings wrong, please feel free to comment and correct me."

An Unabridged Glossary of Mexican Slang for Cooks

March 16, 2008

What's in a knife kit?

Not that anyone asked, but I thought it might be of some modest value to see what a cook carries around with him/her. Like anything else, a cook gets used to doing things a certain way, and having their preferred knives and tools gets to be fairly important. A good cook can certainly still perform with unfamiliar gear, but sometimes it's the little things that can make it a good shift or a bad shift.

Sharp knives are a good starting point. Most restaurants have "house knives," but they're usually cheap to begin with, no one takes care of them, they're beat up, dull and used for opening cans and all kinds of unintended purposes. Beyond just getting it done, sharp knives in the right hands mean clean, professional looking cuts, rather than a hacked up, raggedy looking mess. Also, the food cut with sharp knives tends to last a bit longer because it's cut instead of mashed.

Of course, what cooks carry can change quite a bit depending on what is needed for the menu, but I usually carry all of this all the time. When I work a particular station at the restaurant, I pull out different things. But I take the same kit to catering gigs, where you never know what the client will or won't have. And being a gadget guy, I'd rather have the right tool than not.

Follow the link for the complete list-

Continue reading "What's in a knife kit?" »

January 22, 2008

You Would Be A Bad Ass Line Cook If…

To be a restaurant line cook is quite an unusual job, with a skills and personality traits to match. The kitchen is a dangerous environment, with it’s own peculiar ethos that varies from restaurant to restaurant. Yet, there are some universals. This list may seem to be generic or even cliché’d good qualities in any employee. But it’s not a job that a good employee in another industry can just step into. I personally have a longlonglong way to go on this list, but if you consistently exhibit these qualities, you would be considered a bad ass line cook.

You Would Be A Bad Ass Line Cook If You…

(list follows after the link)

Continue reading "You Would Be A Bad Ass Line Cook If…" »

August 29, 2007

Plausible Deniability

There always seems to be that one jackass party that comes in at closing time and wants to be served. I don't mean 15 minutes ‘til closing, or 5 minutes ‘til closing (although those aren't my favorite customer either). I mean, at closing or even after that. It always seems to me that those customers are motivated by something beyond hunger. More like getting away with something, or like getting past the velvet rope. Something dumb like that.

Some may recall that there are four factions in a restaurant. When a party comes in near the end of the day, they are already there, they are hungry or thirsty, and they definitely want to be served. Being at least partially biologically based, people aren’t too interested in the logical or rational reasons why you won’t serve them food and drink. To say, “Sorry, we’re closed” is usually not enough for these customers. Therefore, plausible deniability must be established. Steps have to be taken so that it seems believable that the restaurant couldn't possibly serve them food.

Generally, the owners and management will want to take the table, because it’s a little more income, and a restaurant relies to a large degree on goodwill from customers. To deny someone service doesn’t come off as hospitable.

The chef, in his role as manager, would probably want to take the table, too. This is because all his food is prepared, and to sell more of it would make his numbers look better. Waste and food cost are directly related, so to sell more food while it is saleable makes sense. The only time the management or the chef may not want to take a late table is when labor costs are already high, and taking the table would mean overtime in the kitchen.

The server definitely wants to take the table, because they stand to make 18-20% or more of the bill as a tip.

But the cooks… the cooks usually just want to go home. Or go have a beer. It’s not that we’re lazy. The hourly wage for staying another 15 minutes or half an hour won’t even pay for that beer. So we’d rather leave. It’s not really worth it. No, it’s not only about the money. Yes, we do get some satisfaction from our work. Yes, this is the employment we have chosen. But by that time of the evening, the cooks have been hustling and sweating already for several hours, and there’s still the hour or so of cleaning up to do.

An analogy might be if someone is at their office job that ends at 5pm, and their boss comes in with “one last thing that needs to be done tonight,” the first time it happens, maybe it’s not a problem. But the third or fourth time, it’s a minor annoyance. If it happens often, it gets to be quite seriously annoying.

When it comes right down to it, the cooks may complain and be grumpy about it, but most times we’ll just make the food so we can leave. But I have seen cooks put up a big fuss, like they’re putting their foot down and they won’t make it. I understand the frustration of it, but ultimately, it’s a part of the job. It’s just a part of the job that I don’t like.

In my case, I often work as a cook, but in the front of the house, in full view of the customers. So at closing time, it has to look like I’m ready to close up shop for the night while in actuality, still be able to make everything in case they do accept the table. If it looks like I haven’t even started breaking everything down, it won’t seem like any kind of imposition to ask for food.

June 15, 2007

New Verbs

Now that so many cooking shows are on TV, many people have heard cooks use plate as a verb. Cooks might say, "Plate that steak now, please" or "Chef, how should I plate the special?" Or a restaurant review might say that the food was plated very precisely. Even though it's jargon, it's meaning is quite clear.

WIth the popularity of tasting menus, a new usage of "to taste" is making the rounds. In this case, instead of saying, "I included duck on the tasting menu for Bob" or "I gave Bob a taste of the duck," the new phrasing might be, "I tasted Bob on the duck". I have also heard it in the context of wine flights or wine parings, as in, "Bob wanted to try the cabernet, but I tasted him on the grenache first." From the cook or sommelier's perspective, I'm giving that person a taste of ______. Personally, I feel that it's awkward, peculiar, and confusing. First off, the person who is active is not the person who is doing the eating. More importantly, if taken likerally, the speaker could be using his or her tongue on another person and commenting on that. Of course, there's a lot of comedy potential there, like, "I tasted Giada and Rachel on my tongue, but only Giada liked it."

March 15, 2007

The Call and the Callback

In most kitchens, coordinating the timing of food is a fundamental goal, so that the guests eat each course of their meal together. Since a table can easily have their four entrees made by four different stations, and therefore four different cooks, there has to be a system for getting those dishes to the window within seconds of each other. Most kitchens have the chef or the lead cook call out what is currently needed. The call should be confident and authoritative, or it might get ignored.

For instance, a chef might call, "Fire table 100: Steak, Med Rare; Entree Ceasar with chicken; Pasta Primavera; all going with Fish Special." Depending on how the chef likes to run things, he probably wants a callback, which is each person acknowledging what dish they're responsible for. The callbacks would be something like: Grill: Steak, MR. Pantry: Entree Ceasar with Chicken. Pasta: Pasta Primavera. Most likely, the chef is cooking the fish special, so there's no callback for that.

In more traditional kitchens, every phrase must end in, "yes, chef" much like the military requires "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am." Then the callbacks would be something like: Grill: Steak, MR; yes, chef. Pantry: Ceasar with Chicken; yes, chef. Pasta: Pasta Primavera; yes, chef.

Over time, each cook gets to know the pickup times for all dishes, so that if their dish is going with another that takes a while, they shouldn't start it right away. Or conversely if they're already behind because the fish special only takes two minutes, but the pasta usually takes about four minutes - so he or she better do whatever it takes to get it in the window, because the chef already has his fish in the pan.

Not calling back can be seen as, a) disrespect, b) not paying attention, c) bad kitchen ettiquete, or d) not having his or her shit together. None of those are good.

On the other hand, enthusiasm when calling back is good form.

Satirizing the call and the callback can be done as follows: "I need two hot pockets, one toaster strudel, frosting on the side, one soy pig in a blanket, one ham and cheese sandwich, no bread." Response: "Two hot pockets, one toaster strudel, frosting on the side, one soy pig in a blanket, one ham and cheese, no bread; yes chef."

Alternately, the incorrect callback: "Two Steak and Lobster, black and blue and well done, bearnaise and teriyaki on both; yes, chef."

Another variation I like is: "All that stuff you just said; yes, chef."

It's always about the details.

February 05, 2007

Hate is a strong word...

There's a song lyric that goes, "Hate is a strong word, but I really, really, really, don't like you." I don't particularly love the song, but I do think it's a good hook. That line applies to a small number of customers in the restaurant.

Yes, I know it's a service business. Yes, I know it's my job to cook food for people, and their satisfaction is the reason the restaurant exists. Yes, I know I chose this career and can get other work.

That's not the point. My point is that in the small scope of serving someone a meal or a cup of coffee it's surprisingly easy to have someone get under your skin, and yes, to really, really, really not like them just in the limited timespan of that interaction.

Maybe it's just a bad first impression within that context ... that happens everytime they come in.

January 26, 2007

Stocks and Flows

Last week, when it was really busy on Martin Luther King day, and we started to run out of certain menu items, I got to thinking about Stocks and Flows. And I don't mean a stock like a chicken stock, har har har. In this case, a stock is a type of number at any given point in time. It's a snapshot. For instance, the total number of bags of coffee in inventory on Thursday. Or there might be three cases of eggs in the walk-in on Friday.

A flow on the other hand, is a number that represents how a number changes for a given period in time. For instance, a restaurant might use 1 four pound bag of coffee per day. Or a restaurant might sell 2.5 bottles of Jack Daniel's per night. A flow is a number that is attached to a time period.

When monitoring a flow, of course the actual size of the flow is important, but what's even more critical is to notice changes in the rate, or in other words, the accelerations and decelerations. In the context of a restaurant inventory, there are two major flows. The rate of consumption of ingredients (cooking and selling the ingredients), and the rate of replenishment of the ingredients (deliveries).

Continue reading "Stocks and Flows" »

November 02, 2006

The Advocacy System

It may not seem like it, and some people may not tell you that it's the case, but in a restaurant, there are four factions, each with their own interests and motivations: the management and/or owners, the customers, the kitchen, and the waitstaff.

The management and/or owners are looking at making a profit from the sale of food and drink. Like all businesses, they try to minimize cost and increase revenue. Although people open restaurants for lots of reasons, for them to make the most money, owners give as little as possible in exchange for the highest amount possible.

Customers are there to be fed, but also to be attended to, and it's also for the overall experience of the restaurant. Customers are there to get food that satisfies their hunger at a "reasonable" price, in a reasonable amount of time. If customers can get something without paying for it, they're even happier.

I'm biased. As a cook, I most often side with the kitchen. The kitchen prepares and cooks the food, the ostensible product of the restaurant. Also, part of the role of the kitchen is to parse out the food in the proper portions, and as such, are gatekeepers. Generally, everyone in the kitchen is paid hourly. Whether the restaurant is busy or slow, kitchen workers get paid the same amount. Sometimes a small percentage of tips goes to the kitchen, but it's usually not very significant, and not closely tied to how busy the restaurant is. Cooks get their rewards from things other than money - but that's a topic for another day.

Waitstaff are paid a smaller hourly wage, but make the majority of their money in tips, which of course are variable with how busy the restaurant is, how many tables are assigned to them, how much food and drink is ordered per table, whether dessert is ordered, how prompt service is, and how generally satisfied with the experience the customers are: all of these things are reflected in the tip.

As such, the role of service staff is to side with the customer. This is ensured by the fact that tips go to the waiter and not the kitchen. If the customer is happy, they tip well, and the tip goes to the waiter. This is the incentive for the waiter or waitress to keep the customer happy. Since this is the case, the waitstaff becomes their Advocate. Their representative. Their fiduciary. They have the same interests as the customers. The only subtlety to their position is that they want customers' bills to be as high as possible (to drive up the base on which tips are determined), without making the customer angry (where they might reduce the rate at which they tip).

Continue reading "The Advocacy System" »

October 14, 2006

The Mythology of Speed

My friend Kevo, who is a very talented graphic designer and web guy, often refers to this rule of business:

-Quality -Speed -Low Price

Pick Any Two.

Meaning, of course, that there are always tradeoffs - you can get a good price and good quality if you don't need it fast, and you can get it fast and cheap if you don't care how good it is, and you can get both quick turnaround and high quality, but you have to pay a high price.

Amongst line cooks, Speed is the thing that is respected the most. To my mind, disproportionately so.

Continue reading "The Mythology of Speed" »

September 03, 2006

Feast or Ramen

If a cook works at a medium to higher end restaurant, most likely they get one meal a day prepared by someone in the kitchen, with which they feed the whole staff, including the FOH staff. This is usually called family meal. It's usually different from what is served to the guests, more budget oriented, may have some components from the day before, in odd quantities, or that elsewise need to be used up. I've been lucky in that the places I work in actually put real effort and good basic ingredients in their family meal. It's usually a pride thing for the cook who has to make it.

For me, this has become my primary meal of the day. Back when I was a computer guy, I had short periods of trying to save money by bringing my own lunch. But for the most part, I was lazy (and short-sighted), and we'd go out to lunch 5 days a week. Sometimes I'd be too lazy to make dinner, and I'd buy dinner on my way home, too.

I don't have that luxury anymore. I'm still a little bit in the red each month, and although I have a new job that pays more and will be taking more shifts as well, I can't afford to eat out every day.

To save money, I've taken a few steps. I eat a bowl of cereal as one meal a day. As I said, family meal is my main meal of the day. I'm cooking through my well stocked pantry and freezer.

Here are some ideas for instant ramen:

-Don't boil it. Just use hot tap water to soften the noodles, then stir fry them with your other ingredients.
-Don't use the seasoning packet as intended. Instead of making soup, sprinkle about a quarter to a third of it into your stir-fried noodles as a seasoning.
-Mix in fresh ingredients - vegetables, green onions, cilantro, and especially eggs.
-Use the classic economical ingredients. Thinly sliced lup cheong (Chinese sweet sausage), bbq pork, and chicken stock are all at home with noodles.
-Add some variety - a few frozen gyoza, Thai fish balls, or slices of Japanese fish cake will round out the color and texture.
-Check out alternate cuisine ramens. Mi goreng, tom yum, pho and many other classic soups are available in the form of instant noodles.
-Along the same lines, flavor and garnish your ramen appropriately. Limes, bean sprouts, and herbs to cop a pho. Limes, fish sauce, chili paste, and roasted peanuts to push it somewhat toward Thailand. Maybe curry paste, peanut butter, and coconut milk to mimic Malaysia.

August 08, 2006

Lazy Boy! Only got two job, mon!!

Last week, I worked both days off at my new job. I thought I'd give myself a day off, so I asked to only work one of my two days off. Last night chef asked me to work today. So between the two restaurants, it'll be 19 days in a row.

I don't recommend it.

BTW, the title is a reference to an old In Living Color (the TV show) skit where they were joking about Jamaicans having several part-time jobs. "Lazy Boy! Only got two job, mon!! I got 23 job, mon! I'm a cab driver, a pizza delivery man, a mailman, a janitor, a...\."

July 29, 2006

Potatoes are Aces

In poker and blackjack, an ace can be used either high or low - as lower than a 2 or higher than a king. When the guys make the family meal at the restaurant, they think of potatoes in a similar way. Sometimes, potatoes are treated as if it's a vegetable, and sometimes its featured as if it's a protein. But ironically, it's rarely used as a starch. Being that potatoes are a New World food, I find it fascinating that it's used so differently than how it's used in European cooking.

For instance, sometimes they make a pasta with a cream sauce, and potatoes are along with the other vegetables. Or, they'll roast potato slices along with chicken in a spicy marinade, but serve rice along with it. Or one time a guy spent a long time making a roasted tomato salsa, blending it, straining it, and roasting the potatoes in it long enough for the salsa to become a crust on the potatoes. And although they don't make them at work, potato tacos are fairly common antojitos.

Another thing that takes getting used to is that while most times, they are cooked through, sometimes they are left quite firm. Again, almost more like a vegetable texture.

May 27, 2006

An Unabridged Glossary of Mexican Slang for Cooks

When I first started in this kitchen, staffed by all Latinos except for me and another guy, I had just spent the last few months in Asia, trying to learn enough of six different languages to get around and get by. I had taken 2 years of Spanish in high school, but that was many years ago. My Spanish was rusty, to say the least.

A few are fluent in English, but many of the guys speak quite decent broken English, with a strong accent. Between that, the noise of the kitchen, and my terrible hearing, it has sometimes been a struggle to understand what is being said to me, even in English.

But then there's a whole level of discussion that was taking place about me, often right near me. As I had never learned to cuss in Spanish, I was at a complete loss. But most of it is just the culture of ball-busting, rather than actual insults. As an aid for those who might be in a similar situation, what follows is a survival guide to Mexican slang mixed in with key kitchen words that I'll continue to add to as I learn more words. I don't claim to know the definitive meanings of these phrases, just how I hear them used.

Another good reference is's Mexican Spanish page, although there's a lot of stuff on there that I haven't heard - maybe they have included regional slang or something. [Also, Wikipedia's List of Chicano Caló words and expressions and's audio Spanish lesson]

A lot of of it is crude and rude, locker room-type language, so if you are offended by that sort of thing, don't read further. If I have any of the definitions or spellings wrong, please feel free to comment and correct me.

Continue reading "An Unabridged Glossary of Mexican Slang for Cooks" »

May 25, 2006

New Category: Back of House

I just created a new category on the site called Back of House. This comes from the fact that the simplest segments of restaurants are the Front of the House (the dining room) and the Back of the House (the kitchen). The abbreviations for these are naturally enough, FOH and BOH, so it's common to say Back of House without the article "the." As in, "Fredro is a back of house guy - he doesn't do so well with customers."

There'll be a lot of overlap with the Cooking category, but I wanted to be able to separate the entries about restaurant kitchens from those about food and recipes. Some of the entries I have planned for this category are:
An Unabridged Glossary of Mexican Slang for Cooks
The How's and Why's of a Cook's Uniform
Knives, Spoons, and Gadgets - contents of my knife kit

Thanks for reading-

May 23, 2006


Part of growing up in Hawai`i, and Japan I suppose, is the concept of bachi. It's similar to the Western concept of jinx, but there's an additional connotation of "it's your fault, and you deserved it, you were talking big and it happened to you." And maybe a dash of karma payback, but on a very immediate timeframe. On the playground, maybe one kid was making fun of another kid for being clumsy, and he trips and falls down himself. The other kids take great joy in yelling, "Bachi!" Or maybe a child is being stubborn (Me? Never!), and he or she doesn't get to do something fun. "Bachi!" There's a social humilation aspect to it, and it's one of the ways that kids are kept in line - not just by parents, but by their peers as well.

So a few days after my last entry, I burned myself in the palm of my left hand, about the size of a quarter. This is the hand that I used to hold things while cutting them and to move pans around, so it was really inconvenient.


It's not a terrible picture, but if you don't want to see it, stop reading here.

Continue reading "Bachi!" »

April 28, 2006

(Not So) Distant Early Warning


Using all your senses is important in the kitchen. Like when you reach for a pan on the back burner, you may smell your arm hair being singed off. This is Nature's way of warning you that fire is hot, and you should move your arm.

I've learned is that you can touch almost anything hot if you do it fast enough. The hotter it is, the shorter the amount of time you have. And it may still leave a mark. But the body is more tolerant than I might have thought before I worked in a kitchen. Obviously, I don't recommend going around touching hot things. But here are some examples of things that come up in a cook's workday.

Continue reading "(Not So) Distant Early Warning" »

April 18, 2006

Mucho Trabajo, Poco Dinero

If you don't speak Spanish, that means "Lots of work, little money." A close English equivalent might be, "Another day, another dollar." Usually in response to, "?Que honda, huey?" [pronounced kay OHN-dah, way?] or "What's going on, dude?"

But within that seemingly mundane phrase is a crushing reality. These guys (no women in this kitchen) do work hard, and for very little money. Many of them work a breakfast and lunch shift before coming to do a dinner shift. So that's getting up around 5:30am to work the first job from 6:30am 2pm, then the second job from 2:3Opm to 10:30pm or 11pm. Most of these guys get paid somewhere around $7 per hour. (They're quite open about talking about what they make, which is a little uncomfortable for me.) I have no idea what their tax situation is. But they do live in and pay rent in Los Angeles.

In my previous job as a computer guy in a big company, I made substantially more money. I could dust off my economics degree and discuss why certain professions have historically been paid less, and why they are likely to remain low wage, blahblahblah. This is not an "Oh, poor me" entry - I'm in this to learn and for the experience, so my situation is a bit different. I'm getting a lot out of this. But for the workaday cooks, the rewards are modest.

Just for fun, let's just appreciate those numbers. There are about 2,000 work hours in a standard work year. So $7 per hour times 2,000 hours in a year means...$14,000 per year for one job. Most guys do a second job for only (!!!) 3 or 4 days a week, so the second job adds about $11,000 per year, or approximately $25,000 combined.

Mucho trabajo, poco dinero.

March 31, 2006

Cooks' Shorthand

I suppose all industries have their own specialized lingo and required knowledge. Recipes in kitchens may not be what you expect. In my very limited experience, they're rarely precise and explicitly detailed. If it's a sauce, it might be something like:

sweat some onions
1big bottle of this
1small bottle of that
half of a sixth pan of stock
reduce by half
add 1 half gallon of cream
salt and pepper
bring to a boil
add a big tablespoon of butter, mount it

For the most part, you'd end up with something more or less the same, even if you have to decide how much onion to use. But with an individual plated special, there's quite a bit of discretion left to the cook. Let's say the special is a snapper - the direction you receive might be:

pan roast the snapper
saute the veg with some shallots
make the cream sauce, but add some chives
use the round plate
garnish in the middle

But there's a lot of detail in there that you're expected to understand and perform without being told. For instance, the-what-actually-would-have-to-happen version of the instructions might be:

season the snapper with salt, pepper, and the fish spice mix
preheat one medium and one small pan, and get another small pan ready for sauce
warm the plate in the oven
put oil and butter in one pan, just oil in the fish pan, and no oil in the sauce pan
the fish pan has to be hot enough, or the fish will stick
saute the vegetables before adding shallots, or the shallots will burn
transfer the fish to the hotter of the two ovens
cream sauce only gets salt, no pepper
the round plate is bigger, so it needs more sauce than the other dish that uses that sauce
add the chives near the end so the color is bright
reduce the cream sauce to coating consistency, finish it with butter
remove the plate from the oven before it gets too hot and boils the sauce on the plate
plate the veg
flood the rest of the plate with sauce
fish should be just cooked through, not medium
fish on top of the veg
add garnish on top

The vagaries of the order and timing have to be considered in all of these steps as well.

I explained one of our dishes to a visiting chef yesterday, so I was on the giving end of the conversation. I did have to backtrack occasionally and explain what's in certain mixes, what's different about our stock, some of our less common ingredients, etc. But she was really comfortable with the same sort of of abbreviated directions. Clearly, she has more experience than I do, but I enjoyed being able to communicate at a professional level.

March 21, 2006

The Geometry of Duck

I realize that "The Anatomy of Duck," would have been a more correct, but the "The Geometry of Duck" says a bit more about the difficulty I'm having. One of the dishes from my station at work is half a duck, carved a la minute (when it's ordered). Of course, the best thing about duck is the crisp skin. The method they use to carve the duck is modified to preserve the skin for presentation, so it's a precise process.

Now, I'm no butcher, but I've cut up a decent amount of chicken before. I've cut up a few ducks before, but not in this particular way. Even with them being so similar in structure, it hasn't been easy. I thought, "Ah, well, the duck is just a stretched out chicken." But the angles and contours are different enough that fluency in one doesn't cross over to the other. At least, not for me.

To do it well, first off, the knife needs to be really sharp. I sharpen my knives about every day, but I had been taking only one knife out of my kit, but after prepwork and such, it wasn't sharp enough, and sometimes the skin would tear instead of being cut cleanly. So now I take out two, one that I keep in a bladeguard until service, and use it specifically for duck. Second, you need to visualize the internal structure of the bird, while also seeing dotted lines on the surfaces, so the shapes of the skin are pretty. Thirdly, cutting up finished duck is takes a more delicate hand than raw, because we're trying to keep the skin intact. It's almost like having tissue paper around the entire thing, and keeping it unmarred to put on the plate is tricky. Each order is half the duck, so if I use too much force to take off the first half, the skin of the second half gets mashed up.

My duck plate is starting to look better, but it's not as consistently gorgeous as it should be. Watching the other cooks do it is humbling. The accuracy and assuredness of their motions, and the clean, perfect results on the plate speak to their skill and professionalism.

February 23, 2006

Still Standing

It's been a tough learning curve, but so far, I'm still standing. For a while there I was stressing myself out, thinking that I might be close to getting fired because of the speed issue. I'm still noticeably slow compared to the other cooks that work the saute station, but I'm getting a little better. Speed is definitely a concern for my station, because the saute cook calls the fires for the grill, which means, as the orders are coming in, tells the grill when to start grilling steaks or chicken in advance of them being finished and plated. Also, the saute station is responsible for pulling out certain items for them to come closer to room temperature before being grilled. Besides being for timing, it's also part of the check and balance for inventory control purposes. When I fall behind in cooking, I also fall behind in reading the tickets, causing the grill to have less cushion time, and it becomes a problem for that station as well.

Getting faster in my case will mean improving in several areas: reading the tickets more quickly, but still with accuracy, juggling two or more dishes at once, saving seconds on each step, making fewer errors, and just increasing the pace without the quality or appearance of the plates falling.

It's very much a game of inches, so to speak, because the stove is quite powerful, and basically, they cook with the burners on high. So the window of time between cooked and burnt is quite short. Most dishes require two pans, one for sauce, and one for the protein or the vegetable/accompaniment. So to cook two dishes at once, there would be four pans on the stove, plus the two plates warming in the oven. The plates should be warm, but can't be too hot either, or the sauces will boil on the plate, and they won't have the right appearance or consistency.

Continue reading "Still Standing" »

February 05, 2006

An Initiation of Sorts

Last night was my first night alone on the hot line in a restaurant kitchen. It didn't quite go down the way I would have liked.

Realistically, I'm still in training. I've learned all the components on the plates, and how to make most of those components, but up until last night, I've only cooked two dishes on my station from start to finish. Most of last week was a special menu, so I haven't had that much exposure to the regular menu. But a guy called in sick on the grill station, which is right next to my station, saute. Saute works closely with the grill anyway, so the guy who was training me was supposed to slide over to grill to fill the vacancy, and help me stay on top of it.

But basically, they threw me to the lions. It was a Saturday night, and there were about 160 covers on the books, and I'm guessing it ended up pretty close to 200. They guy who was supposed to work with me pretty much just hung out on the grill and watched me go down in flames. Then when it was clear that I was in the weeds, they called in some help, but mostly they helped out on grill. But he still found time to give me a hard time throughout the night when I didn't have his sauce ready on time or I made too much sauce for 4 orders, or didn't hand over the proteins (fish, scallops, lamb) as they are ordered, in preparation for them to be grilled.

I got all my food out, albeit slowly. Nothing came back. For not having actually cooked most of those plates before, I did okay. I'm still standing. Chef made a few comments during the night, like, "Reduce your sauces more" and some similar comments.

At the end of the night, I got more constructive criticism. "The _____ should be very crispy. Your plates need to be neater."

I would have preferred more practice on slower nights to really get my shit together. I had imagined my first Saturday going a lot smoother than that. But under the circumstances, I'm just happy that I made it through the night.

January 30, 2006

Occupation: Cook

On my recent trip, there were tons of forms to fill out. Each country usually has a landing permit form and a customs declaration, and some have a visa application, or a visa-on-arrival application. Hotels have forms for your permanent address. Most of these forms have a box or a line for "Occupation:", where after some consideration, I decided to enter: "Cook". Even though I qualify as someone who cooks in the broadest sense, and those forms will never be reviewed by anyone, I have some baggage about the term, and I never got 100% comfortable with writing in "Cook." I felt like a bit of a trespasser. But computer repair guy didn't seem appropriate either, because I'm trying to close that chapter.

For most Americans, our occupations are a large part of our identity. When we ask the vague question, "What do you do?" we mean, "What is your profession, or your occupation? What do you do for a living? How do you make money?" As if what we do for fun or our passion doesn't really count, and isn't even worth mentioning - unless we get paid for it. I don't think I'm alone in carrying these beliefs. We are capitalists, after all.

By contrast, I've heard that in Europe, people respond with their passion first, and their occupation second, as in, "I'm a poet, but I'm also a bank teller" or "I'm a painter, but I'm also a teacher." I like that kind of thinking.

When I explain to people that I'm leaving the field of information services to become a cook, quite a few of them say, "Oh, you're a chef!" But really, I'm not a chef. Chef is the French word for chief. Most of the time, I explain that I'm a cook, and chef is a title for the person who's in charge of a kitchen, or has responsibility for a part of the kitchen, like section or a station. But sometimes, it's too much work to explain, and it's easier to let them go on uncorrected.

With the higher profile and status of chefs and cooks, all the cooking shows on TV, and all the cooking gadgets in stores in the last few decades, I think the term chef is thrown around a bit too easily. I understand the point of it is to make it seem like anyone who cooks is a chef. I suppose the justification is "everyone is the chef of their own kitchen". That sells a lot more gadgets, cookbooks, and recreational cooking classes. But even Julia Child (a tremendous cook) described herself as a cook, not a chef, because she never worked in restaurants.

These are terms from a particular industry and craft. Some may think that this is all semantics, and they're right. Cooking ability is quite separate from what title one may hold. I'm talking about nomenclature. In my opinion, to use the title chef or cook imprecisely diminishes the accomplishments of people who have put in the time, worked hard, and sacrificed much to earn those titles.

What I'm leading up to with this convoluted rant is, the other day, with help from Amy and her instructor Chef de Castro, I got a job at a well-known restaurant, as an entry level line cook. Not a chef, a cook. I have so much to learn, but I can finally say, without any qualifications:

Occupation: Cook