May 21, 2010

I'm Bad. I'm Nationwide!*

This is weird and funny and sorta cool. The last restaurant I where I worked, Huckleberry Cafe and Bakery was just listed as one of the Top 10 Best Places for Fried Chicken by Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit magazine. It's a nationwide list, and Huck is the only restaurant in LA that is mentioned. I helped develop that recipe! Congratulations to Zoe and Josh.

Here's another article where we got some recognition for the chicken. There's a photo if you scroll down a bit. Top Fried Chicken in Los Angeles on Thanks, Josh!

These lists are fraught with problems, but I'll save the modesty for another time. It's just a cool thing to have happen. Woohoo!!

*ZZ Top reference

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.

March 07, 2010

I'm Not Much of a Baker.

I was thinking about the posts I've made here and was reminded that I haven't posted enough pictures in general. Additionally, I talk about cooking and such, but haven't really shown food that I have made. So here's something to start with. It's not something I would normally make - it was an assignment in class the other week.


Plum Tart with Chambord Creme de Beurre Noisette.

The crust is pate brisee, a classic French pie or tart dough. This dough is quite forgiving - easy to patch or re-roll. No greasing or blind baking is needed in this case. I worked in a bakery, but I didn't make the baked goods, so this was still outside my comfort zone. General pastry rules apply: keep the butter in visible bits or pieces, and handle the dough as little as possible to prevent gluten formation and melting/blending of the butter into the dough.

Plums from Chile - they weren't the best, but I love plums and they were the most interesting of the fruits available. Also, everyone else made pears, so I wanted to switch it up a little.

It was my first time making creme de beurre noisette, which is a filling used by bakers consisting of eggs, flour, brown butter, and sugar. When it's baked, it reminds me of baked frangipane, but it's not made with nuts. The brown butter brings a nutty flavor, so that's probably what made me think of it. I flavored this one with Chambord, which is a cassis (black currant) liqeur. It's one of those components that is actually better to eat before it gets baked, like cookie dough or pastry cream. I could eat a bowl of it like pudding! I think next time I would put a layer of the filling across the bottom of the tart, use a tiny bit less fruit, and make the crust a bit thinner. Plum and Chambord is a good combination. I would just increase the proportion of creme de beurre noisette by any means necessary.

I'd definitely make this again.

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.

June 17, 2008

Favorites From My Library

I have a problem. I collect cookbooks and I can't stop! At present, it's probably upwards of 350 cookbooks. I'm going to begin a list some of my favorites, with links to Amazon. If you happen to decide to buy them through these links, I'll get a little Amazon credit, and you can be my enabler. Thanks!!

For Everyone:

This is the classic American cookbook. There's actually a bit of drama surrounding this book. In the 90's, it was revised and expanded to include all sorts of new cuisines, to mirror what was happening in American food. The family of the original authors apparently didn't like the new expansion, and later took editing control back. But this is the version I have, and I love it. The recipes are structured in a sequential way, which I think is brilliant, since most cooking is process oriented.

Another great all around cookbook, written by David Rosengarten. He was one of the original Food Network hosts, who would do extensive reseach on the particular dish at hand. I also like this book because it discusses the aesthetics behind the recipes and the choices.

Although there is science in it, a very readable and usable reference to help anyone figure out why a recipe isn't working.

This is a helpful book about the creative process - in whatever medium you choose - not just painters and novelists and musicians. I find it so valuable that I've probably given it away to over 25 people over the years. HIghly recommended.

For Professional Cooks:

As Bourdain says, the argument ender. Although rooted in European food, contains at least simple entries to just about any ingredient as well.

For all the lip service that cooks and chefs pay to the importance of sharp knives, a surprisingly large proportion don't REALLY understand their knives or the sharpening process. As far as I'm concerned, this book should be required reading for every culinary student and every professional cook.

For me, this is a timeless book, with elegant ideas taken to the nth degree. I'd say one of the most influential on me, even though his style is so different.

This is the best book I've found so far on Spanish used in kitchens and restaurants. Besides food words, there's phrases for interviewing, giving instructions, and other situations that might come up if you were a chef, manager, or owner of a restaurant.

If nothing else, read the first few chapters, which offer an eloquent rebuttal to vegetarianism, and discusses the politics of meat in general.

Although this is a new book, it's become one of my instant favorites. He has a powerful mix of traditional technique, global perspective, and originality that results in some dynamic and wonderful food.

Although there are a ton of books about French techniques, this is the daddy. Yes, you've probably seen a lot of it on TV already, but this is the source.

April 04, 2008

Cusp of Spring Dinner

When I went to Asia, I took a lot of photos. Usually about 75 pictures a day, then I'd come back and crunch them to post them - for two and a half months.

I got burned out.

So much so that I rarely take pictures of food anymore, and if I do, it's with my cellphone camera. I rarely even carry a camera. In fact, most of the entries since returning have no pictures, and no food that I've cooked. A bit silly, really, since the subject of the blog is food.

Recently my buddy Adam suggested that he and Lorraine would host a few people over to their place, I would cook, and he would choose the wines. I was excited by the prospect of cooking something different than I would at work, and jumped on board with the idea.

Some of the courses, photos by Amy:

Green Pea and Green Garlic Soup, with Creme Fraiche


Cassoulet of Tarbais Beans, Duck Confit, Sausages, with Seared Foie Gras


Pan-roasted Cote de Boeuf (ribeye) with Pommes Aligot (mashed potatoes with Salers cheese), Braised Leeks, Roasted Carrots, Red Wine/Winter Savory Sauce


For alternate pictures and coverage of the wine pairings, please check out Josh's site,

There were a few things I would have liked to change, but overall, I'd call it a success. I hope it's the first of many to come.

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 03, 2007

Christopher Walken Roasts a Chicken

As if we needed it, more proof that Christopher Walken rules.

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 19, 2007

Pet Peeves I

There's a term that cooks use that's been floating around a lot more lately: Dysfunctional garnish. The term is already skewed because it implies that the garnish in question has no function, no purpose. A less prejudiced term is non-edible garnish. It seems cool to beat up on things on the plate that aren't meant to be eaten, because the diner might be put in the embarassing position of putting something in their mouth that isn't edible.

But, uhhhhh, isn't it GARNISH?? To me, it's a bit silly that people have to be told not to eat twigs of rosemary and paper liners and such.

Part of it also seems to be a Western bias. Namely, Japanese cuisine has probably the most aesthetically fetishized food presentation of any culture. All sorts of seasonal leaves, flowers, and other natural products in beautiful ways. Of course, it has to make sense with what's being served. Japanese chefs use items with a profound connection to the dish that is being garnished. It seems more appropriate to me to put a beautiful and meaningful garnish on the plate than a sprig of curly parsley that has no significance to the dish, yet is technically edible.

October 11, 2006

Why I Watch Project Runway

My overlong and unstructured ramble-

It may come as a surprise to some that I not only watch, but am hooked on Project Runway, a "reality" show about fashion designers who compete for a chance to show at Fashion Week, which is apparently a big deal. Clothing isn't that high of a priority for me. I'm pretty utilitarian when it comes to clothes, but I know what I like and what I don't like.

I actually started watching it because last season, there was a show called Top Chef. And while it had it's problems, it was about cooks and cooking, and I will watch almost anything about cooks and cooking, including shows in other languages, infomercials, and shopping channels (it's quite sad, I realize). The channel that airs both shows is Bravo, and their strategy of scheduling is to re-air each episode of their shows several times each week, I imagine to try and find viewers by a shotgun approach.

These two shows are made by the same production company, so they have a few things in common, and they often sandwich Top Chef between Project Runway to get the lead-in viewership and cross-pollinate the audience. Every few weeks, they'll run a marathon of the shows in a block so it's easy to catch up on episodes you missed.

It worked on me.

Continue reading "Why I Watch Project Runway" »

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.

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.

July 09, 2006

SAM & Julie's Rehearsal Dinner

I'm posting this a bit after the fact, but back in July, Amy and I went up to San Luis Obispo to cater a rehearsal dinner for SAM and Julie. We had a great time cooking and meeting everyone. Here's the menu, and a few pictures of the food, courtesy of Amy.

Prosciutto Cups with Mission Figs and Balsamic Vinegar/Pine Nut Brittle


Nori-wrapped Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Sesame Sauce


"Filet" of Tri-tip with Homemade Steak Sauce - I call this "filet" of tri-tip because it's cooked sous vide, at 131 degrees F for 26 hours, making for very tender beef.


Grilled Chicken with Fresh White Nectarine Glaze

Whole Roasted Pork Loin, Olive Bread and Fuji Apple stuffing

Fresh Lettuces with Sherry/Orange Vinaigrette

Herb Roasted Potato Medley

Toasted Pasta Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts and Olives, and Tomatoes

For dessert, Amy made a delicious
Fresh Cherry and Macadamia Nut Pie

July 03, 2006

Under Pressure

Here's what a tri-tip cooked for 24 hours at 131 degrees Farenheit looks like. It's tender enough to be cut with a fork.


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" »

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 27, 2006

Dinner for 85

Amy and I knocked out a dinner for 85 the other night, and Kelly helped us at the event. We're a pretty good team together. The menu was South American:

Mixed Seafood Ceviche in a Plantain Cup with Mango Salsa
Pepita Crusted Chicken
Brazillian Cheese Breads with Guava-Port Wine Sauce
Spiced Almonds
Fresh Strawberries and Pineapple

Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
Sauteed Garlic & Oregano Shrimp
Saffron-Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Fresh Green Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette and Hearts of Palm, Kalamata Olives, Roma Tomatoes and Provelone Toasts
Roasted Corn and Asparagus Salad

I'll run through some of the less common items. I used snapper, bay scallops and squid in the ceviche, "cooked" it in citrus juice, redressed it in fresh citrus juice later, then put it in fried plantain cups. Plantains are starchy bananas that are more common in the Carribean and some parts of South America. Pepitas are pumpkin seeds, which Amy used as a coating for chicken dipped in honey and paprika. The Brazillian cheese breads are called pao de quiejo in Portuguese. They're made with tapioca flour, crisp on the outside, but somewhat chewy and cheesy inside. But they're strangely addictive! The guava-port wine sauce is not traditional, but it was exotic and fruity and brought up the normally subtle breads. Chimichurri sauce is the parsley, cilantro, crushed pepper, and olive oil condiment used for grilled meats in Argentina.

Of course, there were little details that I wish I had had more time to execute, but the hosts and attendees seemed to be very pleased. I didn't get to take any pictures myself, but I'm going to ask around. I was also happy that we managed to stay pretty close to the budget, so we came out positive overall. I passed out a few business cards and promo cards, so maybe this will lead to a few other jobs.

Now if I could just get the scheduling down a bit better to make it easier on ourselves...

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.

March 08, 2006

Time, Temperature, and Doneness

Look out, I have assembled a sous vide set up! I'm late to the party with this, as it's a well established trend in restaurants. As I understand it, sous vide is French for "under vacuum," although that's not exactly correct. Sous vide refers to a cooking process where the food is sealed without air in plastic bags or plastic wrap, then poached at precise temperatures in a waterbath (or steam oven). It's a relatively new technique. Theoretically, this can be done with plastic wrap and carefully monitoring the temperature of a pot of water on a stove. But since the temperatures are quite low, often in the danger zone (between 40F and 140F), and very long (12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours and beyond), most people buy scientific laboratory equipment that is used to automatically keep water at a specific temperature. What's used is called either a heated waterbath (a tank with a built-in heater) or an immersion circulator, which is the heater and pump used with a tank or pot of your choosing. I'll be using a FoodSaver and a VWR/Polyscience immersion circulator.

Conventional cooking is usually at a High Temperature, for a Short Time. To cook properly, the cook must judge when enough heat has been applied. By comparison, sous vide is often Low Temperature, for a Long Time, with that time having been computed in advance. That may remind some people of the barbeque mantra, Slow and Low.

Continue reading "Time, Temperature, and Doneness" »

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.