Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Visiting Former Inmates

Yes, you heard right. I said former inmates. Although not exactly prison, it's an institution that sure feels like it to those who enter it each morning and suffer within its walls for eight hours or more each day. They [the call centre reps] have a phone system where not only do they have to log in each morning, they have to enter a code for every activity they do that doesn't involve answering calls. You have to pee? You enter a code to show you're not answering the phone because you're doing as nature intended. You have to enter notes in a file and don't wish to be interrupted by the phone? You enter a code. You go down to get a coffee, a coke or a snack out of the machine? You enter a code. You leave the building? C'mon folks, say it with me... you enter a code. If you forget to do this or you choose not to, your friendly manager pops his or her head over your cubicle and asks how come you've been unavailable for phone calls for the last five minutes?

I visited some old friends for lunch the other day and entered the place that had me chained to my desk by golden handcuffs for seven long years. At the end of their 45 minute lunch I joked with them that I'd better leave so they can return to their desk before their ankle bracelets start beeping. I am not far from the truth, at least where certain departments are concerned. If I needed confirmation that I'd made the right decision by leaving, I got that yesterday, and then some.

This has become a place where employees apply for internal job openings but even if they have played the game right and get the job they are still not free to go as the department can't afford to lose said employee. "Oh, it's temporary, we'll hold you for the maximum time that we can but you'll go in the end". A month and a half later, the employee learns that unfortunately the department still is in bad shape and ... well... nobody can leave. Indefinitely. So, the job that you applied for is gone and you'll be stuck here for eternity. Unless, of course, you are in a financial position to tell them to shove it and walk out of the job. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, mr. manager, I'm leaving anyway and you'll still have an empty chair to fill. But since few people can afford to do it, that stuff will continue to go on.

Thank you for staying. Now please return to your phone and be sure to log on and enter your code.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Win Some, Lose Some

In the span of about 24 hours we gained a Chef and also lost a Chef. If you think this is edge of your seat action you can settle down because it's not. It just seems that way.

Let me start off by saying Chef is not leaving. I don't think he had any intention to, he was just venting. As always. Tuesday was a little busy, there was only one server to handle front of house and one boy in the kitchen to help him and he came undone to the point that he contemplated leaving. Let's shelf that for good. To save us all the trouble of going back and forth on things Chef vents about I'll just try to shrug off a little more each day and focus on the important stuff.

We did have someone come in to hang out in our kitchen for a couple of hours and even have a cooking test and this man cooked so well that he was offered a position of Chef. Not head Chef but Chef. Maybe it would have alleviated some of the stress on our existing Chef, allowing him to take less shifts and give him someone to collaborate with. Tuesday night the man left saying to everyone "good night, see you tomorrow." Wednesday when I showed up at work I find out that he must have slept on it because he wasn't coming, wasn't taking the job. Gosh darn it, I could have had an entire week off at Christmas, Chef had already told me that if I wanted to I could stay up north the rest of the week as he could get the new guy to take my shift. I would have regretted it on payday Friday but the rush of a week off is as powerful as a bottle of spirits that you just polished off. The rush that comes from not thinking straight anymore, when every idea is a fabulous one until the next day, or week when you have to face the music!

As for me, I have to decide whether I like thinking with my head or with my ... liver. All this detoxing is leaving me with some splitting headaches, likely withdrawal from caffeine and a few other things I haven't ingested or puffed on for a week. I miss coffee. And since the liver's not talking to me today maybe I'll see if it'd like to have a chat with me this morning, over coffee.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Huh!

Last night I took Jen and her cousin for dinner at the restaurant. I seem to be spending all my money there lately (it's the third time I've gone in the last four days!), I might as well be working for them for free. At some point during the night I went to ask Chef how he's doing and thank him for our meal. He told me he won't be in today and I should keep the fridge as immaculate as he has left it for us. He also told me he will likely be leaving the restaurant. I nodded understandingly although I don't understand a thing. I asked him if he'll be in on Thursday so we can talk, I paid our bill and left.

Nothing was discussed as he was busy putting out food and I had my dinner companions to return to but after I got home I couldn't stop thinking about what he said. What could have possibly happened between Sunday when I last saw him and yesterday that he had such a change of heart? I knew he was working hard and at times he would make comments like "I'm too old for this", or "I can't do this anymore", but with him venting so much in the past I didn't think much of his complaints. It was like the boy who cried wolf... after a while it was just Chef venting and over-reacting again.

So if he is indeed leaving either something big must have happened in his personal life or there was a disagreement between him and the owners of the restaurant. Either that or he is not leaving at all and yesterday's comment was but another cry for attention. I'll have to wait till Thursday to find out. Today, it's me and the Sous-Chef. Ugh.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Friend, My Liver

Previously on Not Just About Cooking: As the Chef had an appointment to go to he requested that I go in early and get some of the prep done. An unprecedented event and, needless to say, an occasion that require I put my best foot forward.

So I show up a little before 1:30 and open the bistro. I was able to uneventfully let myself in, disable the alarm, turn on the oven, the hoods and the panini grill. Fumbling with the switches I even found the light switch for the line but not the one for the back of the kitchen. Oh well, I'll just have to work in the dark, it would only be doing dishes back there and since it's just me, there wouldn't be many.

I finished everything on time, according to plan. I set pasta to boil and once the pasta was cooked and cooling I pulled chicken off the bone, did the chicken pot pie and the cauliflower gratin. My only interruption was from the supplier who came with my delivery. As the clock ticked 3:30 pm I tidied up after myself just in time to have the Sous-chef walk in, followed by Chef himself. I had the Sous portion the three kinds of pasta I had scattered on trays in the kitchen and we were ready for dinner service. Dinner service was busy and I was tired. As promised, Chef let me leave early but instead of the 8:30 pm I had envisioned I was allowed to leave at 10 pm. Still saved me from closing.

I have to address the fatigue now. I was unusually tired on Saturday, Sunday and most of today. I have concerns about my liver as it seems that all I want to do is sleep. I don't think it's weather related. No, SAD is not what I'm concerned about right now. I say this because fatigue is also accompanied by slight nausea. Since I have been drinking but not to excess I have to think it's from not eating properly. Skipping meals, eating fatty, rich foods, lots of pizza. When I say "lots of pizza" I don't mean large amounts per serving, but "lots" in that I have eaten more pizza in these past two-three weeks than I have in a year. Being busy in the kitchen I don't have time to eat and I often will wolf down a piece of pizza that got messed up in the oven. As I am not big on apples and pears and I don't like the taste of melons and berries in the winter, my fruit intake has reduced dramatically, as has my vegetable consumption. Combine that with an increase in my consumption of caffeine, carbonated beverages, energy drinks, sweets and spirits and I am asking for trouble.

If you're wondering what I've been up to the past couple of days, well, I've been sleeping. It just so happens I am off today and tomorrow which allows me to rest. I am also detoxing, somewhat and making an effort to drink more fluids, eliminate fat and fried foods as well as dairy. No eggs, no nuts (not that I eat many of those anyway), bland chicken soup and pretty much bland anything (sodium also a no-no). Boiled potato (sans butter or margarine). My lunch was tuna on an english muffin. Dinner will be pasta with some mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and arugula.

In a couple of days if I don't see results I guess I'll get myself to a doctor... you know, in case I am completely wrong about what's going on and have some parasite instead. Since I work in food preparation that is also a possibility, however remote.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Got 'Em!

Yup, I got the keys last night! I have to go in early today and prep as well as be there to receive our order from the supplier. I have approximately two hours before Chef comes to do a lot of prep but luckily a few items on there are to cook pasta which takes hardly any time at all, not to mention that it doesn't take any supervision (other than timing it properly so it doesn't overcook). While the pasta cools I can make the chicken pot pie and the cauliflower gratin after which I can portion the pasta. I think I also have to cut some greens for my salads but that should not take long and can be done to order if need be. It's the pot pie and the gratin that absolutely have to be done by dinner time as we have none left. Oh, and pull the meat off the roasted chickens.

There. That's not so bad is it? Chef should be in around 3 pm, ideally I'd like to be done with most of the stuff on the list so I can be out of his way. He is coming in to bake cookies again -- those cookies are so good we can't seem to keep them in the house -- and to make the BBQ sauce. I'm supposed to do it as well but I don't think I can get that in by the time he comes.

Today will be all about speed. I'd like to see how much I can get done in two hours. I'm always in awe of Chef who comes in around 11 or so each day and by the time I show up he has prepped and cooked his way through half the menu. How does he do it?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Trying to Beat The Clock

The bad news: as I write this we are losing one of our kitchen staff (leaving us with three!)

The good news: because of bad news, boss is not going to Florida for Christmas, meaning I get Christmas Eve off and can go to the cottage with Jen for two days instead of just one. (resto is closed Christmas Day)

It's hard to get all the prep done when my shift starts at 3 pm and the restaurant opens at 4 pm. There's usually no tables between 4 pm and 5 pm which extends my buffer prep time to two hours but when the list is long -- such as: mashed potatoes, pull chicken, ratatouille, tomato sauce etc -- you can hardly start any of those projects. With a kitchen as small as ours where we can only prep in the front, you don't want to take up too much counter space prepping because if you happen to get a table and are in the middle of pulling chicken you have to de-glove, move everything in the back (if you can find room) and make the customer's food. By the time you move everything back to prep again you are likely to have another table, and...well, you get the picture. Since there are only two people in the kitchen at any given time -- unless it's the weekend -- the chances are high that closing time will come and your half-pulled chicken is still in the back and now you have to either deal with it or store it and continue tomorrow.

I am hoping to one day get the keys and maybe go in early to do prep by myself, see how much I get done when there's nobody there, no danger of getting interrupted and, more importantly, no distractions. Two weeks ago Chef said he might call me in the morning to prep one day this week as he has an appointment to go to and he cannot cancel it. I'm not sure whether or not that's still happening, but if it is, it'll be tomorrow. It also frees me up from closing for the first time in a month. Yay! In case you haven't figured it out, I'm still not a big fan of mopping the floor. When I see the water in the bucket get soo dirty it makes me wonder if we're really cleaning the floor though. I think that floor needs a good mopping, changing the water several times. That's not going to happen at the end of the night when everyone is tired and in a hurry to go home and it's also not going to happen when you're told to be out of there at 10 pm with the kitchen also closing at 10 pm. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, I'll spell it out for you. If we get a table ordering food at 9:30 we're supposed to put out that food. The kitchen cannot be properly cleaned by two people in under 30 minutes. It cannot even be done by three people in under 30 minutes but for two people it's impossible. Sure you can shove things in the fridge ever which way, and maybe do a half-assed job sweeping, mopping and disinfecting, but that only means when you come in the next day you'll find a long list of what didn't get done. At the present time I have no solution other than to sign out at 10 pm but stay until 11 pm to get my stuff done.

Oh well... I still love my job though. I do. Would I blog about it (almost) daily if I didn't?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Shopping

At times having a different workweek than the average Canadian sure comes in handy. For example, my weekend begins on Sunday night as I have Monday and Tuesday off. I think it's no coincidence that this is also the first year ever that I don't do my Christmas shopping on December 23.

Sitting here with my wine, fireplace behind me and breathing in the intoxicating aromas emanating from the Lush bag next to me, I'm happy to report that at 4:30 in the afternoon I got back home having finished all my Christmas shopping. Total time: six hours. Jen and I left the house at 10 am and are back home already. Now, pork roast in the oven, we clink our wine glasses, congratulate ourselves for being so efficient (and somewhat thrifty) and are even contemplating what to do with the rest of our afternoon. Oh, I know, Cheap Tuesday at the Silvercity in New Market, followed by a nightcap at Moxies.

So I will put on my just-bought makeup (eyeliner, lip gloss, mascara and base) and take my new Danier scarf to town. When I come home I'll enjoy a luxurious bath with the "waving not drowning" relaxing bath bomb from Lush and score from Jen a massage with the "each peach" massage bar, promising a similar massage in return. To wrap up the evening I'll curl up in bed with my new cozy pajamas that Jen bought for me "just because" and read a book. After all, I finished all my Christmas shopping and tomorrow is a new work day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Oops, I Did It Again

I will hereby have to extend the "day" of my blog to mean "an entry will be made by 3 am". Blogger cuts me off at midnight and with my new work schedule it seems to be that I often miss the midnight cutoff on Saturday night. I wish it was partying that caused me to miss it this time, but it was actually just work.

I walked in to work today to find a long list of the things I missed when closing last night. Since I seem to get comments every day I come in for my shift I am beginning to expect them and my day usually starts with me thinking "Oh, let's see, what did I forget last night?". It was not actually me forgetting things, mostly "the boys" I closed with, however since it's somehow become my duty to oversee them I inevitably become responsible for all the things that didn't get done.

Today I got to hear about the dish pit area not being mopped, about the walk-in fridge having stuff thrown in it every which way, the dirty bowls in the salad area, the cheese container being left empty, the Chef's knives not being clean and ... well, the list went on and on. Honestly, it made me want to turn around and go home. When you start off your day like that, can you really brush things off and go "oh well, eff the list. I'll just put in my time and go home and all is right with the world?" I am frustrated. I am always the first one in and the last one out. Because I'm always the first one in I always the one who gets the brunt of Chef's frustration. Because I'm always the last one out, all things somehow become my responsibility. And no, don't tell me that's what it's like when you're a Chef because that's just it: when you're a Chef you get to tell others what to do, you don't do it yourself anymore!

I had a few words of my own to get off my chest and so after I asked Chef not to interrupt me I said my piece as well. We agreed that I had a right to be frustrated, as had he. We had also agreed that "the boys" and I are equal as far as responsibilities go and therefore it is not my job to watch them mop the floor and go "excuse me, young man, you missed a spot."

At the end of the night Chef bought me a drink. In my book it was an apology for his dumping on me. He said it was for a job well done. "Enjoy your drink, you did an outstanding job tonight."
I still think it's because he felt badly about the earlier outburst. You feel free to tell me what you think.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Timing Is Everything

Not long ago I would have been the happiest woman in the Village to have first dibs on a Sous job at Slack's. Instead, the reality of a long commute, cost of parking and other considerations have taken a front seat and rendered me unable to be excited, or even accept the offer. To put this simply, I could work at Slacks if I was willing, the job is mine starting tomorrow. The trouble is I don't want it. I don't want it because I live 60 kms away and accepting the job would add two unpaid hours to my shift, not to mention that I'd be getting back to the very thing I ran away from when I moved up to York Region: a long commute. Finding temporary residence in the vicinity could be doable I suppose, but I'd be away from my partner and my dog and the thought of that is unbearable. I left my previous job because it wasn't making me happy and it would take a lot of convincing for me to take another that will cause me to do any juggling whatsoever of my home life. In my old age I find I am all about the quality of life and have little patience for anything that comes between me and it.

I'm trying to picture where I will be two years from now and I can't. I would flunk the interview that had the question: "Where do you see yourself in five years?". I'd like to say, for the record, that I hate that question. Always hated it. Am happy to be in an industry where I no longer have to put up with interview questions. A lot of the jobs in the food industry are found through word of mouth, referrals and staff taking each other along. For example, one of my sous chefs that was moving on to another restaurant asked me if I would be interested in working for him (he was moving on to be Head Chef and wanted to take me with him). Since the job was in Barrie I declined (again, the 40-minute commute) but -- and I think I've said this before -- through networking I've been offered more jobs during my year as a cook than in my seven years as an insurance adjuster. I've now worked in three kitchens and none of those jobs were obtained as a result of an interview process. I can't tell you the relief I feel to have a job where I don't have a phone, a computer, I don't have to apply and go through an interview process with structured interview questions (although there are exceptions I'm sure).

There are also no performance reviews where you are asked "would you say you exercise good judgment in your decisions?" I remember being asked that very question during my last performance review as an adjuster. Having already made the decision to leave, although I hadn't announced it yet, I looked at my boss and asked, with raised eyebrows, "does anyone actually answer 'no' to that?" I can't remember what her answer was but I do remember her being taken aback by the question.

Some say cooking is a mindless job. Maybe I'm just tired of being smart and I want to do mindless things for a while or, with some luck, for the rest of my career. I care about people thinking I'm stupid but not enough to give up cooking and go back to being an intellectual.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Support The Future Chef

As I sit in front of my calendar and look at the months ahead, I realize April is not that far away. C'mon, it's four months! That's it! Does that mean I am looking forward to April, or dreading it?

Even when I was younger I could never stop looking at the weeks or months to come, always wishing they would hurry up and get here already. I've been told many times, by different people, that I'm wishing my life away, and I should just carry on without looking to the future or without hoping for a particular event to happen. For example, right now you'd think I'm looking forward to Christmas, or school, but it is not the case. I'm looking forward to my tax return in the spring. I am not at all looking forward to Christmas and all the unnecessary expenses I am not prepared to make. I'm looking forward to April when I'll be done with Basic Skills, when winter will be but a distant memory and the golf season will start anew. Not looking forward to working two jobs, one at the club and one at the new bistro up here, and having no free time, but if I am to shake myself free from the heavy blanket of financial debt, I need to work two jobs come spring time.

Now I don't normally discuss finances openly, however having a low income is the reality of a cook and this blog is to offer insight into the life of a cook. If any of you, or anyone you know is looking to embark on this journey, it is important for them to know that they will be paid very little. One really needs to love cooking in order to put up with it. The people a cook lives with, be it a parent, spouse or significant other will become providers whether one likes to admit it or not. It will take a while for a cook to start moving up, especially on the pay scale. Be prepared to adjust. If you live alone, be prepared to have to work to jobs in order to fulfill your financial obligations and be prepared to have no social life as a result.

I am fortunate enough to have a partner who at the moment bares the financial burden of my decision and even more fortunate to have her not see this as a burden. I couldn't have done this without her, not without having to sell the house and the car, give up the satellite dish and the cellphone, the trips to LCBO or whatever else I consider a luxury. On the other hand, it might be harder for us because we are used to a certain standard of living built on my previous income. A young cook/chef (young in years, not experience) who is just starting out may not find it as difficult.

Aah, but enough with the philosophical discussion. I am tired tonight. I should rest, tomorrow is friday and therefore another shit show will be upon us. How many more till April?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chicken Stock

Up until a year ago I've always bought my chicken stock. When my chef loaned me a copy of "On Cooking" and told me to read the chapter on stocks and sauces I realized there was nothing to making chicken stock so I started making my own, but only every now and then. Even when I did, I never bought chicken bones for stock but used the carcass after eating a roast chicken.

Some chefs will say there's plenty flavour in the carcass and it's perfectly fine to make a stock off it, you'll just get a darker stock. Other chefs will swear by the raw bones and tell you that carcass you've been using to make stock from can just go in the garbage. Chefs are also divided when it comes to ratios of water to bones to vegetables. Some say to go ahead and throw whatever you feel like into your stock, don't worry about how much celery, or how much carrot while others will tell you that using too much carrot will result in a sweeter stock. There seems to be an agreement on what vegetables should not go into stock (for example you don't want to put cabbage in there, especially not red cabbage, nor should you put potato). Celery, carrot and onion is the vegetable of their choice, across the board, although some put the vegetables from the start while others boil the bones first and add the vegetables later, say during the last hour or so. Why? Because vegetables do not need to be cooked for four hours in order to extract all their flavour.

I have started to make stock regularly now, both off raw bones and off carcass, the latter because I can't bear to throw away all the goodness in the chicken carcass. I keep stock in the fridge at all times now. It's great for two reasons. The first reason is that many food recipes require chicken stock and I no longer need to rule them out or run to the store. The second reason is that when the stock is approaching its time in my fridge I will turn it into a soup. This practice has made me more comfortable with soups and sauces. For a long time I could not make good soup, my forte has always been the entrees. Slowly that is changing and I am adding soups and bisques to my repertoire.

As for stock, what you non-cooks need to know is that you should always start your stock with cold water. Also, never stir and never boil your stock. Both will make your stock cloudy. Simmer at low heat. You're looking to get a lazy bubble popping up every now and then. You are also encouraged to cool your stock quickly but I have to say I am guilty of just letting it cool on the stove and refrigerating once it's cool. I figured as long as I bring it to boiling point when I cook it again (whether in soups or sauces), I'm safe. Happy stocking!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The University Educated Chef

A university-educated Chef said to me not long ago that she's gets quite bothered when people assume she's a moron and treat her as such just because she's a Chef. I understood that to mean that people think Chefs are stupid, uneducated, blue-collared trades folk. I know it's what my mother thinks. To her, Chefs are people who couldn't do anything else with their life, weren't smart enough to get into university, or even colleges, so they turned to cooking for a living. It's interesting that she only has a grade ten education but never turned to cooking, and ironic that she can be so vehement about what uneducated people are like or what they should choose to do with their lives.

The recent comment from the Chef made me give some thought to how I felt about the subject. Upon reflection I found that I also tell people quite early on that I used to be an insurance adjuster and have a university degree before giving it up and becoming a Chef. Where this is stemming from, I don't know. Do I want them to see me in a different light, do I want to say "hey, just because I'm doing this don't think I'm not smart", or am I just so proud of what I have done and accomplished since coming here that I'd be leaving out a part of me if I didn't mention it.

I think many Chefs these days are more educated and are turning to cooking for the love of food not because other avenues are not available to them. The Chefs of today are very different from the Chefs of years past. They are more articulate, they treat their staff differently, the writing and reading comprehension is higher. Where's my research? Why it's an observable fact. And although I haven't compiled a list of books and statistics to share, there are several authors making this point, Ruhlman being perhaps at the top of my list.

Also, no longer is it acceptable to have swearing or improper conduct in the kitchen. People don't stay in kitchens with abusive Chefs anymore. Sure, when they leave there'll be others to take their place but the thing is the kitchen with high staff turnover will likely not survive in the end. It takes time to train someone and you cannot afford to have fast turnover. The food will suffer, your labour cost certainly will be high (it takes a newby twice or three times as long to do a task that a veteran would) and you will go under. Not to mention what staff turnover does to employee morale. So if you think that all Chefs, or even most of them, are Gordon Ramsay like, you've either never worked in a kitchen or have been watching too much television. Today's culinary schools are packed with as many women as men and a high percentage of them are more mature students who are switching careers. They are not yesterday's confused boy who had no path in life and who has fallen into cooking. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying the times are changing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Geoff and Laura Show

On Saturday we had the Geoff and Laura show for dinner service. Chef said he is kicking us out of the nest, clipping our wings or some such thing. I figure it would be hard to fly with clipped wings but maybe that's not what he meant. And so I cooked Saturday's dinner service all by myself. Apparently I did an outstanding job and should be proud of myself. The food looked amazing he said -- I'd hope so, he was plating it for me -- and it tasted great. Can't take credit for the food, it is his menu and his ingredients, however it was my execution. It was not as busy as Friday and I was able to keep up. For a while there we didn't think there would be a dinner service at all because of the Santa Clause parade up here seems to draw half the town but we were steady.

The compliment at the end of the night felt good. So good, in fact, that having closed the kitchen I stuck around for a few drinks. There was one last table having drinks after I closed the kitchen and since my former Sous-Chef and her partner were at the table I joined them and had my drink. Then, around 11:20 pm I called Jen and asked her to come out and the six of us continued drinking until 2 am when the server was legally required to close and we all left. I really hope she won't get in trouble for keeping the restaurant open for that one table. Although we weren't eating, much liquor was consumed. Not really sure how much but my head this morning and well into the afternoon says it was a lot. I seem to forget to tell the bartender to just get me water instead of booze. As I sit there, with an empty glass, and feel the need for a drink, it's much easier to nod absentmindedly when asked if I want another drink instead of focusing on the question, remembering I've had way too much and saying "actually, would you mind getting me a bottle of Perrier?". I'll have to remember that tonight after my shift downtown because my head is still pounding after last night and it's 1:34 pm.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Until Next Friday

Friday's dreaded dinner service came and went and I have to say that although the kitchen did go in the weeds at one point it was not as terrible as I thought. This because Chef ended up doing most of the cooking and I plated for him. The pizza boy could not keep up, there were many pizzas in the oven and he just couldn't keep up with the orders. The hot side was putting up food that was supposed to go with pizzas but the pizzas weren't ready thus causing everything to backlog.

At one point the servers had run out of menus which means that every single table in the restaurant was looking at their menu at the same time. That, of course, also means that ALL the orders came in at once. One need not be a cook to understand that is not good news. Some of the patrons had a bit of a wait for their food but -- and this is my opinion, however biased -- you cannot get upset for waiting if you come in and you see a packed restaurant, you have clear view of the kitchen and the cooks slinging pots and food and hopefully an understanding of how quickly food can get cooked. No matter how many cooks or burners you have back there, there are still 40 other people ahead of you or being fed at the same time as you. But hey, that's just me.

We made it through and, as I said, although it wasn't pretty, it was not bad. Nobody came undone, nobody had a meltdown, we didn't run out of any food and by 8 pm all was right with the world and it will continue to be, until next Friday.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hand Cream Needed

Since I spend more time with my hands in the water than a rubber ducky in a bathtub, hand cream is a must have, especially with the hard water that can be found in parts of York Region. The backs of my hands get so dry from all the repeated hand washing, dish washing, toweling dry and all the other cookery duties that I no longer leave the house without hand cream in my pocket. There's even a tube of Nivea that I keep at work so that I always have access to hand lotion.

Problem with all the hand creaming is that you can easily transfer it to the food. I'm in a pickle. Without hand cream I am in discomfort. My hands get so itchy and visibly dry to the point that I can't work with them. Hand cream can get onto the food. What to do? I can start wearing gloves when I run the dishes but the dishes are only part of the problem. I am washing my hands constantly after touching doors (including oven door and fridge door), garbage cans, the floor (to pick up something I dropped), the broom and so on. I am not a germophobe but the thought of my grubby hands touching food that someone else will eat is unacceptable to me. I've seen others with different standards of hygiene but I cringe at the thought. Some days I think to myself "I am never eating out again, regardless of the restaurant." But then the love of food and the spiffy-ness of a clean dining room and clean kitchen staff gets me to reconsider.

Let's talk dinner service though. Tonight's dinner service was nice, steady, with a good spread between pizza, salads and pastas. No one station got clobbered and the kitchen was given to me around 8 pm when Chef left. Sous Chef is gone for the week so I was it. I had one table after Chef left. It ordered meat loaf and mash, something I had only plated once before but I remembered everything. I grilled the meatloaf and put it in the oven. I got my relish ready as well as the side, remembered to get my garnishes in the oven so they heat up and it all went a-ok. It was one of the boys and myself for closing and we got out of there only three minutes after the schedule said we needed to. We completed nearly everything, swept, mopped, took out the garbage, closed the dish pit (with the exception of two almost clean pots we forgot in the big sink!)

Tomorrow will be what I call "the shit storm of all time." If today was nice and steady instead of boring and slow, which Thursdays have been so far, tomorrow we're getting hit. I'm ready in the sense that I know the menu, but I am not ready for an eight-top to come in and order everything off my station. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sole fillet in butter sauce

Even though I know it won't keep all that well until the time that Jen will be reheating her dinner I am making sole meuniere today. I have sole in the fridge, butter aplenty and no time to make anything more elaborate. Sole meuniere is quite simple to make, it's seasoned sole sauteed in a butter sauce. Should be served immediately after it's cooked but Jen will never cook this for herself and I have to leave at 2 pm so we shall see how the sole behaves when reheated in the most awful of ways -- the microwave. I'll serve her sole with some lemon rice on the side that way she can share it with Charlie.

In other news, I received my offer of training letter from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. I am offered a seat in the Jan 11 2010 class of Humber College of Applied Arts. My seat is reserved as soon as I pay the classroom fee, and so it dawns on me that January is right around the corner. Gulp!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It's All Been Done

Being original these days is next to impossible. Whether you're a Chef, a big Hollywood film maker, an aspiring author or you hold any other job where creativity is key your biggest challenge will be coming up with something that nobody's done before. These days it seems that Hollywood has given up on original movie ideas and instead it started a trend of book adaptations. The Golden Compass, Narnia, Twilight, Harry Potter, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Inkheart and hundreds of other recent, box office winners have all been book adaptations. I am sure the same goes for kitchens although somewhat harder to spot. A dessert on Moxie's list, the Xanga (Ch'anga), a fried tortilla filled with banana cheese cake drizzled with caramel sauce and dusted in cinnamon -- and my favourite dessert ever so far -- is showing up in other restaurants (like IHOP in Myrtle Beach for instance) under different, yet slightly similar names. A grilled cheese sandwich with aged cheddar, caramelized onions and pears that was on today's "The Main" (with Anthony Sedlak) and which looked pretty damn good was spotted by a friend of mine, 10 minutes later, in a recent Food and Wine magazine she found on my shelf. The only difference between the two sandwiches was that one used thinly sliced pears while the other used apple. Both had the same aged cheddar and both used caramelized onions in their sandwich. I am sure if I were to research both sandwiches I would find several variations on the theme.

So, I ask you, how original then am I in my latest corned beef sandwich creation? When I decided to caramelize onions and sautee mushrooms to add atop the melted swiss on my corned beef sandwich, was I creative? Absolutely. Original? Remains to be seen. I haven't had time to sit down and search for corned beef sandwich recipes but I would bet money that someone's already thought of the same toppings I have.

How does one win the Golden Plates competition, or the Bocus D'Or where lack of originality immediately dismisses a plate, no matter how well executed the technique, no matter how tasty the dish? You don't know what I'm talking about? Watch the last "Top Chef" episode where the contestants had to compete in the Top Chef version of the Bocus D'or. It made my head spin. There's much to learn, that's for sure, and much to research before knowing, without a doubt, that your recipe is yours, that nobody's published it before. Talk about thinking outside the box. If we all have mentors and we learn from them, how do you stop thinking like them and therefore mimicking something they've already done?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rookie Goes Downtown

I've been a slacker, I know. It soon will become literal, sort of, as I'll be cooking at Slack's every now and then, so I'll be even more of a Slack-er. Get it?

Having house guests has a way of interfering with life as one knows it. Between work, demented dogs and house guests I've hardly had time to myself. I've found myself having to get dinner together in 20 minutes (before leaving for work) and as much as my job is about learning to quickly put food on the table, I don't like being rushed when I cook at home.

After getting home after midnight on Saturday and then staying up till 2 a.m it wasn't easy to get up Sunday morning. After making a herculean effort I managed to rouse around 9:30 as I had to feed my house guests breakfast. Everyone was up, starving and waiting for me. Jen informed me her parents were taking us out for brunch. Yay! Off we all went at the nearby "Tonia's" all day Breakfast and Lunch place. We returned after 1 pm and I had exactly an hour to come up with dinner for the troups and make it before going to work at 2 pm. Back home again at 11 pm and in bed at midnight to catch up on the sleep I missed the night before. Time to blog: Zero.

Not to mention that Sunday was so dead at work that I've hardly any material to blog about. If I don't count the venting session Chef had about how he "looked like a jackass" when a table ordered Nachos and he had no guacamole since I failed to pull some out of the freezer the night before, it was all very uneventful. Well, except for the part where he had three tables who ordered sandwiches and he had no root chips to serve because nobody told him we were out of root chips which also caused him to hyperventilate... Other than that, it all went smoothly. Until a pizza stuck to the oven and he had to make another. Thank goodness because by now I was getting hungry and when the destroyed pizza became staff pizza we all got fed. Out of there at 9 pm and into bed till next morning rounds up the weekend's activities.

See? You didn't miss much. I promise. I am going to Slack's on Wednesday, bring on the women!

Saturday, Nov 21

On Saturday Nov 21, my 113th blog entry was 30 minutes late so technically I failed my self-imposed deadline to update the blog daily. Quelle terror!

Although I got off work at 11 pm I was having so much fun sitting at the bar and chatting that I forgot all about having to make an entry by midnight. All you drinkers out there, you know how it goes. You have a drink, then you have another, and the next thing you know you forget all the things you were supposed to do or you remember them but talk yourself out of doing them. "Well, I was supposed to do laundry tonight but I suppose it could wait until tomorrow" or "I was supposed to wash my hair tonight because I have a party to go to and I wanted my hair to look just so but you know what... we can have just one more drink before I go." I wish I could say that was me tonight, I wish I could say that I thought about the midnight thing, at least in passing, but I'd be lying. I did look at the clock at 11:57 pm and even said to the server: "shoot, it's 11:57!" When she looked at me panicked I joked about me turning into a pumpkin at midnight but even then I wasn't thinking about my blog. I was mostly thinking that it was midnight and I should head home but had no desire to. I knew Jen would be asleep anyway so there was nothing to go home to. My Farm Town crops didn't need harvesting, my dishes in Cafe World didn't need to be served for another hour so really, there's no need to rush home. I'll just sit here and have another rum and coke. The complimentary rum and coke (my staff drink of choice) did nothing but give me a nice buzz so I had another, reminiscing with the grrls about old times.

And that, my friends, is why I missed making a blog entry by 30 minutes. We'll just have to consider this one to be for Saturday and the next one will get me back on track although you're still getting the shaft because I've just wasted an entry telling you why I didn't make an entry. Oh well... I'll buy you a rum and coke next time I see you and we can talk about it some more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Comfortable

I worked the hot side again yesterday as it is my job to do so when the Sous-Chef is not in. I am getting more comfortable with the pasta dishes as they are the most popular of the entrees, if we don't count pizza. I can now do spaghetti and meatballs without a worry and I can also do the Penne a la Vodka. There are two other pasta dishes on the menu but since I have only made them once, they would take a couple more tries before I find myself in the comfort zone. The salads are also slowly going on auto pilot, especially the Caesar Salad. I need a lot more practice with the entrees that require garnishes and sides having made only the meatloaf so far.

My Chef likes to hog the chits and just tell me what to cook instead of me looking at the damn chit. It prints in two copies and for the life of me I don't understand why he needs both... So yesterday he says to me: I'm going to need a caesar salad, and when you're done with that I need a spaghetti and meatballs. So I do the caesar, put it in the take-out container and then go to do the spaghetti. He sees the finished spaghetti in the takeout container and says: "No meatballs! Didn't you look at the order?" Errr... welll... no, you didn't give it to me, you only said "spaghetti and meatballs" forgetting to tell me about the "no meatballs" part. It drives me completely up the wall when an order gets effed up through no fault of my own. So I told him next time to stop hogging the chits and give me one while he keeps the other. He looked at me but I don't actually think he heard me. He didn't seem interested in what I had to say. Pet peeve #2: being dismissed like that, with just one look that says "oh really, you're going to tell me what to do? what do you know?" Well, Mr. Chef, I'd like to tell you what I know but judging from that look, what's the use?

Sous-Chef is in today so I don't have to worry too much about the hot side. I'll have to do my salads, my apps and paninis and help with plating but I'm slighly concerned about it being busy and someone having a freak-out over not finding the tomato relish or some other silly, small thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Come Here, My Little Chickens!

Our roasted chickens are probably the juiciest birds you'll ever eat. The chickens are thoroughly dried before being trussed and roasted. I learned last week and got a refresher yesterday on how to properly dry and truss a chicken. Why do we dry the chicken, including its cavity? I learned that water in a hot oven makes steam (duh!) and we do not want steamed chicken, we want roast chicken. So you stuff the cavity with paper towel and then you proceed to thoroughly dry the outside. By the time you have a nice and dry chicken on the outside, chances are the paper towel inside it has done its job and absorbed quite a bit of the moisture so the inside is more or less dry also. Truss the bird -- don't forget to remove the paper towel! -- and stick it in the oven.

Trussing took a little bit of practice. The tucking of the wingtips behind and under the chicken, pressing down on the legs so they stay close to the body and crossed at the "ankles", slipping the string under the wings, crossing over the legs and under, double-tie and knot on top gets easier and easier the more you do it. I've done an entire tray of chicken (about ten) before they started to all look the same and be nice and tightly trussed up but I think I got it now, I'm ready for that 100-chicken banquet that I might have to do one day!

Once the chicken is trussed, it's roasted in the oven and then cut in half, back bone removed. That's also a messy job, one that I needed to learn. I found that the job is nearly impossible without a really sharp knife because the knife has to go through some bone and cartilage. You can't hack at the chicken like a savage because the halves you're left with have to look good when they go on the plate along with a garnish and sides. Taking out the bone is a messy job, your hands get greasy and the knife's handle becomes slippery so by the third chicken I find I have to wipe down my hands, the cutting surface and the knife before I can go on. I don't want to lop off a finger because I've been too lazy to clean myself and the knife slipped as I was pressing it down through the chicken's back.

I plan to try this method of roasting at home but before I do, I need to learn what's in that brine that makes them so juicy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Roasted Corn and Chorizo

I think I am in love with chorizo. My favourite accompaniment for my mains over the last few days has been a simple combination of roasted corn and chorizo. Maybe it's not your thing to have meat with a side of ... well.. meat, but if you try it you'll understand. The smokiness and deliciousness of the chorizo sausage pairs so well with corn that your side dish may well end up trumping your entree. I could eat it just on its own and be happy.

I'll be trying chorizo in a variety of dishes in the next few weeks because I'd like to see if it can transform my already tasty dishes into something utterly delicious. I have a feeling chorizo can make my jambalaya unforgettable and that it can also turn an otherwise boring pasta dish into a thing that even someone on a carb diet will fantasize about for days before finally giving in. Although chorizo is not cheaper in comparison to other sausages, it is not outrageously expensive. You might even be able to find it on sale at times. Put chorizo in your grocery cart next time you're out and cook it with mashed potato, with pasta instead of meat or combine it with meat, or just try it my way, with a little bit of corn. If you only have frozen corn that's ok too. Throw in a knob of butter and you'll be on your way to a delicious meal. Wash it down with some of your favourite wine and it'll be an evening you'll want to repeat without delay. Go buy chorizo. Go now.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Restorative Powers of Soup (and Rum)

Monday morning Jen woke up feeling achy, like she was coming down with either a cold, flu, or the dreaded H1N1. I wasn't feeling all that great myself but seeing how I am fine today I chalk all that up to sympathy pains.

Yesterday did fill me with enough fear to run out and buy plenty chicken bones and veggies so I can make a big pot of chicken stock from which to make a big pot of chicken soup. My plan was that if I were to become incapacitated by anything, H1N1 included, I would survive on chicken soup and a big pot of Romanian paprikash which I am also cooking today. I bought fresh pineapple and other fruit on which I could munch on without having to spend any energy on preparation. To also make absolutely sure we weren't getting sick I spent some money on liquor, including rum. I made hot tea and laced it with rum. Jen also opted for rum but she went for coke instead of tea. I don't know if it was the rum, the french onion soup I made for us, the sleeping or the warmth or all of the above but we woke up feeling better this morning. I'd dare say "good" but don't want to jinx it. Jen even felt good enough to go back to work. I still have the day off which is good, I now have all this food I have to cook!

So today, curled up near the fireplace, Food Tv on the background, old Romanian cookbook nearby I decided to read up on some Romanian recipes. After perusing for a few minutes I found most recipes are terrible. For example, there's a recipe for lettuce soup. Great. What kind of lettuce? Or, there are these dumplings Romanians can put in soups and stews. One recipe is made with egg, butter and flour and another recipe appears to be identical to the previous one except it asks for 1/2 cup of milk or water. They might both work but which is better? I am in no mood to experiment today, I already have my hands full. I'll go for the milk-less one and hope for the best.

I'm off as my chicken stock needs skimming and my pork loin needs its garlic stuffing, not to mention my fingers are getting stiff here by the window in the study. There must be something wrong with the heat, I'm not getting any in this room and we don't have the know how to fix it. DiYers we are not.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Exciting Times

First off I'd like to share what I am excited about, before I start talking about food. For the first time since I've started working in kitchens, not knowing my schedule from one week to the next, I now am guaranteed to have at least one of my days off be the same all the time. The new restaurant is closed on Mondays. This means I can finally plan some time with friends without fear that I might have to cancel my plans because of my work schedule.

And now we re turn to our regularly scheduled program, thanks for your patience!

The large oven looks very attractive from outside and I think it will look even more inviting on cold blustery nights. We all love looking at a fire and although the restaurant does not have a fireplace, the big flame in the oven replaces one quite well. The fact that it gives off 700F worth of heat will also come in handy when we're all in the strong grip of the long, cold Canadian winter.

Despite the fact we've been open for only one week we are beginning to have repeat customers according to our server tonight who noticed the couple in a booth. Not that I had any doubts about the food but I think it might become something to talk about.

I also had the pleasure today to cook for another Chef -- although when I was cooking I didn't know who it was I was cooking for -- and the food was the best they've had in Aurora in many years. "My wife and I never eat at the same place twice but we will be coming back here."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Late Nights

Although I've only been at this bistro for a week I am beginning to see a glimpse into the life of a restaurant cook. The golf club was different as we rarely got any orders after 9 pm unless it was in the middle of the summer and daylight lasted till almost 10 pm. This meant that the latest I ever got home was 11 pm and even that happened rarely. Here, we don't even start closing procedures until close to 11 pm which means I could still be cooking at 10 pm and don't get home until close to midnight. The hour between 11 pm to midnight is a pizza only menu so that the staff can start closing the kitchen. One guy (the pizza boy or Chef) stays behind until midnight to do pizza but the rest of us clean up and are gone by 11 pm. I'll have you know though, before you start feeling sorry for the pizza boy, that this only happens on weekends. During the week we have an 11 pm close for the entire restaurant so it's not like someone is there till midnight each and every night. Not to mention that with us cleaning everything else, all he has to do is wrap up his station, drain the dishwasher and go home. Not a bad deal.

I look forward to the end of the night though when I sometimes take off the white jacket and sit at the bar for 30 minutes having a drink, watching Tv and shooting the breeze with whoever is still there: the bartender, one of the grrls or Chef himself. This was also something I never experienced at the golf club because by the time the kitchen closed, the dining room and bar were already closed and the front of house supervisor was dressed, bag and key in hand, waiting for the kitchen staff to finish cleaning up and leave so the place can be locked up for the night. It just all has a different, nicer vibe here.

The only few things that still have to happen is Chef needs to delegate more of his prepping duties; he still shows up at the restaurant bright and early to do all the daily prep and mise en place so by the time we get there, at 3 pm or later, it's all done for us and all we have to do is locate everything and conveniently place it at arm's reach. He does all the vegetable grilling, the potato roasting and mashing, all the desserts, all the sauces and dressings, and all the meat roasting. Essentially, he does all the hard, monotonous work and we come in for all the fun stuff -- the adrenaline-filled cooking that is the dinner service. The guy sets my nerves on edge but I also wouldn't want to be without him in the kitchen. As jittery as he gets me, I know he knows his food and can get it together. I don't have to worry about much when he's there, other than the things I am responsible for. He is the conductor, if you will. He watches the boys, calls ordering, firing and pick-up of dishes, all we have to do is execute. Without that, we'd be a little lost. Am I giving him too much credit? We'll see. He will have to take some time off eventually as he had none so far. His plan was, and still is, to be at the restaurant every day at least for the first three weeks. Once he's gone we'll all find out if the cows still get milked.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday The 13th

"I don't know, but I've been told
Eating my food will never get old"

Well, there's my attempt at rhyming for you. My Chef's rhyme involves something more vulgar about Eskimo something being mighty cold but since it's my rhyme and my blog I figured I should at least make it about food.

I'm learning a few tricks (not so much about cookery but about presenting plates) and we, as a team, are still learning what works best. Chef has given up his helm at the pizza oven and has trained one of the boys to make as well as monitor the pizzas while in the oven. It works better than Chef making the pizzas and having someone else monitor and rotate them through-out the oven as they're baking. After all, the person who made the pizzas and placed them in the oven is more likely to know where which one is in the cooking stage than anyone else in the kitchen. So that's done. It frees up Chef to teach me plating and to teach his Sous-Chef how each dish on the menu should be cooked.

My role? It depends on the day. When there's four of us, I make salads, run in the back for last minute things we need, and learn how to both plate and cook at the same time. Last night we had a few tables, thankfully not all ordered at the same time, and it all worked very well despite the fact that for half the night our printer didn't work and the servers had to hand us their order chits. When there's Chef, Sous Chef and I in the kitchen, Chef will go back to doing pizzas with Sous Chef doing the hot side and I look after salads, starters and plating the hot food the Sous hands to me. When the Sous Chef is off I take over cooking the hot side and have one of the boys do salads and plate for me. We figure with this system we can feed no matter how many people we get. It also helps if not all people at the table order from the same station -- if the order is spread out: some pizzas, some starters and some hot stuff, we're golden. Even if the orders are all pizzas we're still golden because Chef can always step in and help the pizza boy. The opposite is not true as one, and only one person can cook on the hot side due to limited space at the stove.

So we made it through our first Friday. Friday the 13th, at that. Don't look now, but this could all be coming together.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting A Heat Lamp?

Can a busy dining establishment survive without a warm window to put plated food on? The new bistro, which is housed into an old pizzeria place, has no kitchen window and therefore no heat lamp above, only a ledge where cooks will place the food to be picked up by servers. If the server is not quick to pick-up, the food will get cold. Also, if there are large tables to cook for and the cooks do not have all the food up at the same time (which is very difficult, if not impossible to do at times), the food will have to sit on the ledge and get cold. Can the lack of a heat source to place food under bury a fledgling bistro? Chef doesn't want to keep plated food in a warm oven so we'll have to do our best.

We expect to be busier next week as the girls start their advertising campaign. Any kinks we need to work out will need to be worked out by then.

Today was steady. We normally open for business at 4 pm but so far we haven't been getting tables until around 5:30. The next two hours we put out food and it slows down around 8 pm. For a Thursday, I'd say it's pretty good. Real test likely to come this weekend. I cooked the hot side today, not much action though. I learned a couple of pasta dishes, both cooking and presentation, as well as the shrimp plate. I should write this stuff down so I remember it. Now if I could only locate my notebook that was in my car before Jen cleaned it (the car, not the notebook!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Regrouping and Reorganizing

When I popped in yesterday to watch Chef do his cheesecake and maybe learn to make it myself I found that I was not the only person to show up at work on their day off. The Sous Chef was there already and him and Chef were hard at work moving the shelves, tables and appliances around.

The three of us were trying to learn from Monday's experience whatever we could. Making sure you have stuff at your fingertips is crucial in making dinner service work smoothly. The less you have to move away from your line, the less you have bend down to the fridge and shove containers around looking for what you need, the quicker it will be for you to put out the food. A few seconds count because they add up and you bring everyone else down with you. If the guy putting out the starter is behind, that means the entree sits in the window for too long and it gets cold. The opposite is also true where the appetizer goes out too fast and the diners have too long a wait between the app and their main. Making it all work tickety-boo takes a lot of practice and communication between the cooks.

So there we were, organizing the salad station and the hot station, deciding what foods can be sped up in any way (for example, let's not put the flatbread on the grill, or in the oven to crisp it up, let's try the panini press); let's have a bain-marie going and have two of the sides in there so that whoever is working the hot side has two things off his plate so to speak. Also, let's portion out wings and keep them on line so we don't have to count wings when we get the order, they're already counted. Pasta -- let's start portioning that too and keep it on the line so you don't have to run around in the back fridge looking for it in containers and grabbing at it with your hands.

Two hours later the kitchen looks more organized and the two of them feel that they are ready to repeat Monday, with improved results. I am still not ready for another Monday but maybe in a week I'll feel differently about it.

As for dinner, turns out I wasn't needed so I stayed home. I'm also home today. Should probably try to stop thinking about work so much seeing how I'll be spending the next five evenings there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Wheels On The Bus...

The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round... until they come off, that is. If we needed a dose of reality after Sunday, boy, did we get it last night! The girls decided to more or less pack the house with friends and coworkers to give the kitchen a fire drill, for lack of a better word. They're of course hoping that by creating a pretend fire we'll learn and be ready for the real one. Everything that could go wrong last night, did. The pizzas -- which patrons ordered a lot of -- started to break when getting slid around the oven. Took a while for Chef to figure out that they were all going to break, not just "that one". Turns out the oven got too cold and the pizzas started sticking. Who know that 30 degrees Fahrenheit would make such a difference. The 700F the oven should be at became 667F just from having the door to it open for too long stretches. Uhhh... yeah, we were busy putting loads of stuff in the oven and moving it around, you have to have the door open!

Then the guy on the hot side got hammered with all sorts of stuff and he's doing the sides and the mains. I'm supposed to help him plate and watch the oven for him but I was not getting anything coming my way, I ended up running to the fridge for a lot of the mise en place we didn't have ready.

To make matters worse (if that could be possible), the chits were printing separate things, on two different printers. So Chef would get half a table on his chit and the printer on the hot side is printing the mains. That'll have to be fixed, we don't have time during service to play the "match the chits" game. I can't have half of table #19 print on one side and half on the other. Why? Because I'll have a server coming to me for a salad that I haven't even seen print. "What Caesar salad?" Turns out the said salad printed on one of the chits but Chef and hot side guy were so busy figuring out their own mess that nobody told me there's stuff I am supposed to be making.

Then -- oh yeah, there's a "then" -- there were only three of us. No dishwasher in the house, so one of the servers is back there doing dishes as we're running out of pans and plates to put food on. Uh-oh.

Sure, it was a drill, sort of. I say "sort of" because there were still people at tables who ended up waiting a long time for their meal. To me, that's not a drill. Someone's still hungry there and watching you fall apart in your nice open-concept kitchen! They're friends so they'll be more forgiving and, after all, that's what they're there for in the first place, to make you sink so that you'll hopefully swim next time. It's just that sinking is not a good feeling, it fills you with panic!

Although I am supposed to be off today I'll be going in around dinner time for a couple of hours. Chef gave me and the Sous Chef the night off which leaves him alone with the two "juniors." He was a little worried about it last night and asked me if I minded coming in. I said yes. So I'll go in for dinner but I can't go and prep nor will I stick around for the cleanup.

Here's to a better day!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Come Out And Play!

I suited up for my first real day at the new bistro. Opening Day. All the other stuff we did there before today felt almost like pretend cooking. You could say we were getting ready for the big event, as much as one could be ready. I was nervous, anxious, excited... you name it, I felt it. Breathing deeply, I exhaled and I walked the front door that wouldn't be open to the public for another couple of hours. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, I don't know what I am doing. I have been shown how to plate only one of the salads and I'm supposed to open today? I don't know where anything is, still, or what to do with it, still, and I'm supposed to put food out?

My buddy Jason comforted me this morning by saying: "It won't be that bad, you'll see. And you won't be alone. It's almost like introducing a new menu at any other restaurant: nobody will know it and you'll all be learning at the same time." Okay, I thought, if you say so.

Turns out Jason was right. Our first few tables were made up of friends. They asked us if there was anything in particular we wanted them to order, to which we, the cooks, answered that they should order whatever they felt like. It would give us a chance to practice so "you're not doing us any favours by asking us what we think you should order," we said. We also had a few tables of real patrons, walk-ins who saw our "open" sign and came in. We all, owners included, were surprised. They had deliberately done no advertising whatsoever so that we could work out the kinks first. Other than flipping over the "open" sign, we did nothing to attract business. Despite that, we had tables, so imagine what will happen next week when we start advertising!

I also heard that I am doing quite well. Hearing that definitely helps ease my nerves. I am the sous's right hand man, so to speak, and responsible for plating all of the dishes, with the exception of the pizzas. After I set them up and plate them, Chef gives the plates a once over to make sure they're right after which food leaves our window. When "the boys" are not working I am working the oven to make sure that whatever is placed inside it doesn't get forgotten and burn. The oven could fit me and five more people of my size inside it, it's that big, so it requires that I get really friendly with the big shovel-like tool that helps me place things in the oven as well as rotate them once they're in there and take stuff out when cooked.

The big man, the Chef himself, will roll out dough and assemble the pizzas, as well as oversee their baking in the wood-burning pizza oven. He will also remind us all of the things in the oven and answer any questions we will have. Today's questions were: "Chef, is this done?"; "Chef, is there parm on both these sides?"; "Chef, is there a topping for the ratatouille?" "Chef, where did you put my tomato relish?"

There were two minor accidents today with Chef being the injured party both times. The first time he shoved his hand into the mini food processor -- no, don't worry, it was turned off -- and impaled his index finger into one of the blades resting inside the container there. The second injury was tequila chili lime sauce in the right eyeball. Chef was tossing the wings in a hurry and sauce splashed up from the bowl right into his eye. I had to finish plating the wings while he went to wash out his eye. Poor guy. It only occurs to me right now he might have been nervous himself!

All in all we did really well based on feedback we received from our friends. We asked if food took a long time to arrive -- to us, the cooks, seems that food takes longer than it actually does because there's a lot of stuff going on back there -- and we also asked if it was tasty. Really, tell us, was it good? The consensus was that women will throw themselves at us for that cheesecake we make. I'll have to get Chef to teach me it, I wouldn't say no to a little action on the side!

I'm back in the kitchen tomorrow at 3 pm. "The boys" will be away tomorrow so it'll be Chef, Sous-Chef and yours truly holding down the fort. That's fine, I feel a little more ready now. By next week, the place will be a well oiled machine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Joys of Volunteering

The Chef at the club where I worked until this past week, and where I will be returning in April, has volunteered his entire kitchen staff's time today to a cause of his. He didn't ask us if we were willing to volunteer he merely told us he needs us on the 7th and not to make any plans. Only later on did I find out that my services were actually volunteered. A bad, manipulative move, no doubt. I wonder if it was intentional or if it was his organization and communication skills that made it appear so. Maybe he thought he told us we'd be volunteering? Maybe he meant to say as much, it just didn't come out that way? Maybe he thought some staff from previous years knew it would be volunteer work instead of paid work? Regardless of what he thought, I find it in poor taste.

This matter, however, brings me to ask myself a question, perhaps a moral one. A year ago, having no kitchen experience whatsoever, I would have given almost anything to be in a professional kitchen, even as a volunteer. In fact I was prepared to offer volunteering in one just so I can learn, and was ultimately surprised by my Chef who offered me a paying job in his kitchen. What happened then, during the course of the year, that made me harbour resentment towards that same Chef who dared volunteer me (and several members of his staff) to cook today for a fundraiser event? Was it the fact that he didn't ask me before putting my name down? Or is it that since I now work in a kitchen and having a weekend off is so rare I resent anything that takes me away from my partner, a good meal at home with her, some wine and my Saturday night movie premiere on The Movie Network?

I have yet to decide if I will show up for this event today. I am not obligated to but feel compelled to go only if to not disappoint Chef. Must be the desire to please that's so deep seated I don't even know it's in me. Or maybe it's that I have to work for this man next year and don't want the awkwardness, although I doubt that he'll remember any of it by next year.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I survived!

I am home after a 10-hour day. It wasn't even that long if you think about it, but I am beat. We didn't stop working, from 9 am till 7 pm. No break, no nothing. I finally grabbed some food at the very end of the day. I was tired, hungry and therefore getting crankier by the moment.

Some first impressions after today are that taking out the garbage at the end of the night at 20 below temperatures, through the snow, will be a b**ch. At the club we had maintenance folks who cleaned and took out the trash. Here, it's the job of the kitchen staff. So if at 10 o'clock at night you're driving on Bayview Ave. and you see a little girl plodding through the snow taking out cardboard boxes and yanking on a large garbage bin (you know, one of those gray ones on wheels), well, that's probably me.

Also, and this goes for all new jobs, regardless of industry, I find myself confused by my surroundings, don't know where anything is and it takes me a good minute to find such simple things as lemons or tomatoes among the many cases of produce in our walk-in fridge. There's containers everywhere and without taking the time to stand there and read labels to find what's in them I'm doomed to constant searching at least for the first week or so. The fact that it's a small kitchen, with small staff, should help as we'll likely all be putting things in the same place all the time. At the club, with a staff of about 20, the blue cheese dressing could be find anywhere from the dry storage to the stand-up fridge in the back, to the walk-in fridge of the lower level kitchen or, at times, even in the giant fridge built outside. I'm hoping I won't have that problem here.

The kitchen area is quite small and will likely give some logistic problems as we begin receiving patrons. I also fear a lot of time will be wasted walking back and forth from the dish-pit with few dishes at a time given the limited elbow room in there. We should try to put a cart there (the problem is there's no room to fit one in) so the person doing dishes could stack the clean ones on it, otherwise whoever is on "dish" duty will be forever taking clean dishes to the rack in the kitchen one load at a time. In the middle of a busy dinner service that could spell trouble with capital letters.

I'm trying to not think about any of this too much because, as cruel as it sounds, it's not my problem. It's not my restaurant and I cannot change it's layout. I don't think the owners could either, without injecting some serious cash into it. Since the place is yet to open, such cash has not yet been generated, nor do the owners know whether investing it is warranted at this time.

And so we all anxiously await Sunday's opening which will give us a sense of what will work and what won't. I do like that the open concept kitchen allows me to see into the dining room and, more importantly, glance up at the hockey going on the big screen TVs suspended from the beautiful ceiling.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

You Ready To Cook?

I called Chef Ken today and he asked me: "You ready to cook?"

I am to prepare for a long day tomorrow, and since he's short on knives I am to bring my own. No problem! Knives, I have. A way to transport them safely to the resto, not so much. I guess I'll just wrap 'em in a towel and stuff them in a backpack or something. You see, I never got around to buying a knife kit, there was no need for one. At the club's kitchen I used the kitchen's knives which we have bought from Nella. I know I'll need knives for when I go to school but I always thought I'll deal with it then. So... this is why I have no way to take my home knives with me to the kitchen.

I asked Chef if I should wear "my stuffs" and he replied that typically he prefers no clothes whatsoever in the kitchen but since the safety board frowns upon the practice I should probably wear something. He'll be wearing a Chef jacket and jeans tomorrow. I'll do the same since we're not really open for business yet so I don't need to pull out the heavy duty kitchen pants. I can't wait. I could go there right now just to hang out and get more info on tomorrow but I don't want to seem too eager! I can't wait to cook with him all day. Real cooking, not just assembling plates. We'll be cooking and testing all day. Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Shall We Call This?

A friend is taking me out for a drink and a bite tonight but I'll still be making dinner as I can't leave Jen to her own devices; she'd end up eating store-bought bread and butter. In the fridge there's the leftover broccoli and lentil soup I made yesterday but since it won't be filling enough I still need a main for Jen.

I have scallops I need to use and am personally craving spice so will throw together a Chinese inspired dish. I have a wok that my in-laws gifted me for Christmas last year which will help me whip up Jen's dinner in a jiffy. Oil, scallions, ginger, garlic and a few chili flakes will get me started. The scallops will follow. The sauce will be a combination of chicken stock, soy, oyster and hoisin sauce. Thinly sliced celery for crunch and some shredded red cabbage for colour. I have never done this dish before nor am I following anyone's recipe (not that I know, anyway!). I suppose I should write the recipe down so I can make it again and also give it to others if successful but I personally enjoy the freedom that comes from cooking without a recipe and just combining ingredients. (Note I didn't say: throw ingredients together; some basics are needed still)

Although it's Jen's dinner I am too excited about it not to sneak a bite. I'll go make it right now and have some of it for lunch.

Gotta dash!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day Two Of Unemployment

This is my second day of unemployment in a long time. I came to Canada 11 years ago and was fortunate enough to find work within six months of my arrival. Since I have a fair amount of stick-with-itness I have had only three jobs ever since, the third one being the current one, that of a cook. I have also been fortunate enough to never been fired or laid off. This is why the current situation, that of being in-between jobs, is unfamiliar to me. It's more than the fact that I am bored, although I am. I have been on holidays a week at a time in the past but this feels different. I don't feel on holidays. Instead, I feel useless, like I am not earning my keep.

My partner is very supportive of me being "in transition" as she calls it but I am very uncomfortable with being a kept woman for the time being. I keep myself busy cooking and cleaning as hundreds of thousands of women have done before me when keeping house but am counting down the days when I can be back at work. It'll be soon enough, I know that, and I am trying my damnedest to enjoy the spare time I have been given but the harder I try, the guiltier I feel. I have had dinner guests both last night and tonight and I felt entertained on both occasions. Tomorrow a friend is taking me out for a belated birthday dinner and Thursday I am going to the bistro for our first day of dry runs. Although I won't be earning wages for those days I will be there cooking, feeling like I make a difference.

Tomorrow morning I plan to take a "sick day", stay in my pyjamas, in bed, watching Food Tv and TMN. Maybe I'll be able to trick my brain into thinking it's not unemployment, it's just a good ol' sick day. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

See You Next Year!

When I got to work today and checked the schedule for the coming week I was delighted to see the cells across from my name say: Thanks Laura See You Next Year! Although I would have been available to work there for the beginning of this week, I was also more than willing to relinquish my shifts if anyone were to ask me. I am happy. I know I won't miss it because I am starting on another journey of which I am very excited about. Out with the old and in with the new I say!

I have only one week of unemployed freedom and I intend to savour it. As soon as I saw the schedule my fingers got busy dialing friends I haven't seen in a while and making dinner plans. I don't know how much time I'll have once I start working again, especially since my friends own two restaurants and I will be doing shifts at both places. I am sure January will be here before I know it and then school will be added to the mix leaving no time for social relations.

I just realized that by being laid off early I also escaped the second black box test. After the first round I was in the lead. No longer sure it means anything anymore but at least I have bragging rights. Give me 10 weeks of culinary training, try to give me a black box again and watch what happens! (Gosh, I hope I'm not putting too much stock on this culinary school thing and that it'll be all that I imagine it to be!)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

One More Week

I bet you're anxiously awaiting to hear why I had to go in yesterday at 2 pm. It was cold, raining, and minimums have been over for almost a week so what possible reason could there be to have me in three hours before schedule? I am not sure. Neither does the Sous-Chef who took one look at me when I walked in and said: "what are you doing here? You're not supposed to start till 5!"

I patiently explained that Chef sent me a message telling me to come in to work for 2 pm, and promptly produced said message on my cell phone. Her answer: "I will talk to him. There's nothing for you to do here, it's dead. Go home, come back at five." Would you have been angry? The fact that I live 7 kms away should have no bearing on the fact that I was made rearrange my day and go in early only to turn around and walk home. So what if I didn't have to drive 45 minutes to get here? It doesn't mean my time is not valuable. I left fuming. Came home and composed a polite, to the point email and promptly sent it to the executive Chef. The email ended with " I understand the challenge you face with labour costs but I ask for a little more notice when being called off work." Two minutes later my cell phone rang but I was in no mood to discuss the issue so I turned my phone off. Three hours later I purposely delayed leaving the house for my five o'clock shift. I had stuff to do and since I was sent home earlier because my services weren't needed I assumed the world would not be coming to an end if I was half an hour late for work.

When I did turn my phone back on and checked my email, there was an apology from the Executive Chef. He also called me at the end of the night to see how work was. He's never done that before. I heard he told the Sous I was pissed off. I was. I almost ended the email with "since it's the end of the season and my services are no longer needed I would be happy to relinquish my remaining shifts effective immediately. See you next year". I decided against it. He's lucky.

Friday, October 30, 2009

No TGIF Here!

I haven't been in the work kitchen since last Sunday. It feels like a long time. It is not good to be away from work for this long. I think I am beginning to understand those workaholics who do not take holidays for years and years. Once you're away for anything more than three days you start begrudging going back to the same job. Somehow in those three or more days off you forgot about the monotony of the job (in my case the mise en place, or prepping) and getting snapped back to reality gets you a little annoyed. That, coupled with the excitement I feel for my new job and the fact that the current kitchen doesn't lay me off until Nov 15 is enough to make this generally kitchen-happy girl a little cranky.

Crankier still when the phone bleeps and a text reads: "how soon can you be at work today?" I will be going in early, three hours early. Three hours is exactly the time it takes for a black-box test. Since we cannot possibly be busy (it's cold and rainy and minimums are over) I have to assume that I am being ambushed into doing a second black-box today. We've been warned by Chef that he is trying to get a second one in before the season is over but I was truly hoping to get away without having a second one. Fat chance. Others have already done their second one so I don't think I'm getting away. Since Chef knows that as of next week I am starting my other job and he might not be able to get me in, I think calling me early to work is a poorly diguised way to get me to do my blackbox. I should have said no.

It's hard to cook with what's in the box only. There is no chicken stock to make a proper soup to serve as an app. There's never baking powder or baking soda or yeast to make a dough for dessert (even if I knew how to make those things). There's no variety of herbs and potatoes, there's no cheese to make gratins. Preparing for it is almost impossible and this is why this time I refuse to prepare for the test. Oh, ok, who am I kidding? I'll probably chicken out at noon and start frantically searching for dessert recipes.

I should take my camera this time if for no other reason but to show Chef that I knew what was up his sleeve before I even left the house. He thinks he's so clever... Hah!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sir, Yes Sir... errr.. Chef!

Yesterday I went to meet the man who is the head Chef of the opening-soon restaurant I'll be working at. This former U.S Marine says part of his experience includes working at The French Laundry, Bouchon as well as Canoe. The rather inexperienced apprentice/cook in me is impressed. Because I read, sometimes about food, I am quite familiar with Thomas Keller's story and the reputation he has. In addition, dining at The French Laundry -- or Per Se, as getting to NY might be cheaper than California -- is on my bucket list.

The resto was going to open next week but due to the fact that on Nov 7 both Chef, myself and another cook have other engagements that we can't get out of, the owners have no choice but to push opening date to Nov 8. It wouldn't do to have the restaurant open on Nov 3rd only to be open for three days and then close for the day on Saturday Nov 7. So I have to stew in my own juices for a week.

I am excited and nervous. Although I have been honest about the length of my experience and my cooking knowledge, I am picking up on this vibe that my friends and the head Chef seem to think I know quite a bit. They speak of the other line cooks as being "boys", and "junior line cooks." I want to say ... err, excuse me, I have a year of kitchen experience which makes me junior also! Sure I cook at home and have been for years and maybe I have a leg up compared to some 20 year-old that lives with his/her parents and eats mamma's cooking still but I am not sure I am worthy of the confidence placed on me. Our head Chef is a big guy, exactly what I pictured a Marine to be, and I have a feeling I'm going to be getting my ass kicked when I under perform. My only hope is that we don't get slammed for the first couple of weeks while I learn the dishes. It's easier to cook fast when you know what you're cooking, when you're almost on autopilot, instead of having to search your memory about a particular dish. The menu is nice, quite varied but maybe a little too big for the handful of kitchen staff and the smallish kitchen. We'll have to wait and see, I guess, and work out any kinks as we go.

I went in today for a couple of hours and Chef and I got the kitchen clean and ready to receive food. You know... scrubbed the sink, put things away, lit the pilot lights, put up some shelves, swept and mopped the floor (yes, that again!). It was nice being there, I think the place has a good vibe. Since it was just the two of us for a while we had time to chat a bit. I like the guy. I also learned that since he and I live the closest (as I mentioned, I'm around the corner and he seems to be just one street away) we'll be doing most of the closings. I'm fine with that. Honest. Just don't yell or swear at me, Mr. U.S Marine, Chef guy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Happy Birthday To Me

The danger of celebrating one's birthday in advance, and for more days than the actual birthday day, is that when the day actually comes it almost feels like an ordinary day. It feels like an unbirthday, as Alice (from Wonderland) would say. My in-laws are coming over today. They're not coming for me, that's just a coincidence. They're driving to South Carolina tomorrow so they're dropping off their dog here for the month that they're gone. I'm making Boeuf (Beef) Bourguignon. All hail Julia Child! Before that I am going for the mandatory daily Starbucks (no change in routine there) and I am meeting the Chef with whom I'll be working for the next few months. Nothing special there either although I am excited about it.

I am sure somewhere in there I'll be doing some birthday stuff -- like receiving celebratory phone calls, opening the cards that I have yet to bring in from my mailbox, and whatever other birthday hoopla comes my way.

I wish I could go to Zelda's, the place where I celebrated my birthday five years ago, but it's no longer there. Although Zelda's didn't actually "go under", it merged with another locale and also changed locations. I believe it is to be called Zelda's Living Well, or some such thing. Jen and I had our first date at Zelda's the night of my 30th birthday. We had met on a previous occasion and had coffee, which later turned into dinner, but as we didn't see it as a date at the time it doesn't really count as one in my book.

I begged off work and Lauren who wanted an extra shift took mine. As such, I am off today and tomorrow leaving me wide open for partying. Perhaps on Thursday after the in-laws leave I might venture downtown for a beverage or five to forget that I am getting old. Well, maybe I'm not. So far, 18 minutes into it, I don't feel old at all!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Officially An Apprentice

This morning, after a brief message from our Executive Chef, a woman from the Ministry of Ontario showed up with apprenticeship enrollment forms as well as apprenticeship packages for those of us entering the program. We filled out the forms together and she thoroughly explained the requirements to completing our apprenticeship program. It all sounded very serious. Not that I wasn't taking this seriously before she came but her being there made it all finally seem real.

A condensed version of what was explained would go like this:
  • there are 6000 hours that an apprentice is required to have worked in order for the apprenticeship to be considered completed
  • of the 6000 hours, all kitchen experience prior to the formal schooling is considered (so our breakfast cook who has been with the club for 5 years has fulfilled that requirement already before even entering the program)
  • your Employer (read: the executive Chef) is to sign off on all the sections within the apprenticeship booklet that the apprentice (me) has completed.
  • Do not wait till the end of the year to have your book signed because no Chef will be willing to sit down for an hour to sign off on all your units. Go through your book periodically and ensure that as you complete your units your Chef signs off on them.
  • If you already know you will be out of town during the 10-week school period, do NOT enroll in the program as no more than two absences are allowed unless death or dismemberment. (ok, I added the dismemberment part, but that's it in a nutshell)
  • Your schooling counts toward the 6000 hours
  • There are no OSAP loans for this apprenticeship program
  • The cost to you (in my case covered by the employer) is $600. The Ontario government foots the bill for the other $6000 that a culinary program costs.
  • Upon completion of your first year you qualify for a $1000 grant. It is not a scholarship, therefore a mere completion is all that's required for you to get $1000. Another $1000 is given at the end of the second year with an additional $2000 when finishing the apprenticeship program in its entirety. Total grant money per applicant $4000.
  • Do not switch employers during your apprenticeship. If you do, be sure to notify the ministry and have the proper forms completed so the Ministry is aware.
  • Do not change residences during your apprenticeship. If you do, see above point. If you live at home, be nice to your folks because you'll be there a while. Being an apprentice earns you minimal wages so you can't afford to move out on your own.
  • I assume you all have a grade 12 education and expect a fax with proof of same. (**raised hand: sorry ma'am, will a University degree do?"
  • Do not assume you are enrolled in the winter 2010 program as seats are limited and notices have already been sent to those who applied. We guarantee you will go to school, it just might not be in January. (well, f**k me, how come I didn't know this part before?)
  • Go home and wait for your notice.
  • Thanks for coming out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Full House

Today was madness. Worse than we anticipated. We didn't have a dinner rush, we had an all day rush. The orders came in non-stop for all the ten hours I was there. We ran out of a lot of things, not because we didn't have time to prep but because we didn't anticipate it would be that busy.

We ran out of berries to use in the Sonoma Salad. Apparently nobody cared because they continued to request for it, even without the berries. We ran out of calamari. All out. I had a box ready to prep if needed but there was not a spare second to go back to clean and cut it. We almost went through all the Romaine lettuce. We were down to the last insert with no Romaine left in the fridge to even cut so we would have had to eliminate all our Romaine-based salads. We had cut and washed two cases of Romaine lettuce and we went through them in just those ten hours when normally a case can last us for three days. We ran out of bruschetta mix even though we started with three inserts (and we never use that much!). Although it's not hard to make the mix, we didn't have diced tomatoes to make more and it would have taken a person a few minutes to wash and dice tomatoes so they can be turned into bruschetta mix. We were down to the last two bags of fries as well. For the hot side, grouper was out and I think when it ended we had only two more tenderloins left. Anyway, you get the picture. We nearly sold out of food. In order to spend their allotted amount people ate in the restaurant then ordered more take-out upon leaving. They drank a lot of wine and one table even bought cases of Powerade and sparkling water before going home.

The kitchen staff was all there, as were all the servers and their supervisors. All this and we barely could keep up. At the end of the night when we were closing there were a lot of empty containers on the line and nothing to put in them. The two people who have the misfortune of being scheduled to work today will have a lot of prep on their hands.

I'm glad it's over. I will be going in maybe 20 hours this week, probably even less next week. I wish I could stop going altogether as of next week. The 20-hours a week are an obstacle to me starting my other job on November 2nd. Because both jobs are evening kitchen jobs and I never know my schedule in advance at the club, it is impossible for me to do both jobs at the same time. My friends are looking for me to tell them what days I can work and I find myself unable to do so. We might just have to wait till the 15th.