Friday, July 31, 2009

On dishes and prepping...

Every day I walk through the upstairs kitchen and down the stairs leading to Chef's office, the walk-in freezer and dry-storage area and I stop at the coat rack. I'm shoving hangers around until I locate my own whites. I grab one and quickly put it on, tie on an apron and also grab 2 must-have dishtowels we lovingly call "rags" and tuck them behind the apron strings tied at my waist. I am already wearing my kitchen pants and boots, I always put them on at home to avoid wasting precious minutes at work.

I walk through the hallway into the bistro, I punch in, look at the little printout that spits out of the machine and read 1:57 pm. Right on time. First thing I see? Non-kitchen staff in the dish pit trying to keep up with plates stacked so high on the dish table they might topple over at the slightest nudge. Uh-oh. This can only mean one thing: the lunch crew got slammed.

Before I can even take over the dishes, I hear my boss holler "little chef, hop on here! grab me that salad, finish plating this sandwich and oh, fill this up with dressing." "PICK UP!!" he yells to the server on the other side. Sheesh... haven't even looked at the chits, have no idea what he's talking about but I quickly get on it. Within 20 minutes or so everything's under control, I must have caught the tail-end of it. I take pity on the pour soul still struggling with those dishes and take over. Boatloads of plates, dirty pots, pans and aluminum bowls everywhere. It takes me over an hour to get through them all.

In our kitchen we all do the dishes. We do have "kitchen help" as part of our staff, but they mostly cover the evening shift, say from 4 pm onward. Before then we do our own dishes, whenever we have a free moment, whoever can get to them first. It is not uncommon to see Chef humming away at the dish pit, probably reminiscing about his own days as a dishwasher many years ago.

By the time I'm done with the dishes it's 4 pm and I have only about an hour before people start trickling in for dinner. Barely enough time to check and stock up my station, especially if they've been busy and ate through everything I had stocked up on the night before. I quickly glance at the schedule to see when the next guy coming in is supposed to start at. Forget about even looking at the prep board to see what general prep needs to be done, I must get my station ready first.

I open fridge doors and make sure every container on line is full. If not, I rely on the back up from the line fridge and fill up what I need to fill up. Now it's time to check the back-up stash. Do I have time to slice cucumbers now or do I wait until after dinner? Do I need to bring down cherry tomatoes? How about that salmon? I don't have time to poach it now so I write it down for someone to poach it tomorrow. The next thing I know, I hear that whirring sound - orders are starting to come in so I rush to take my spot.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's hot back there

"You know why I couldn't do your job? It's not the cooking, I guess I could learn that. It's the heat. I don't know how you stand it back here." Almost every non-cook who stands on the line invariably makes that comment. When I first brought Jen to the kitchen to show her my new digs, she said the first thing she noticed was the heat.

One hot day last month our fun was to keep checking the probes tucked in our sleeve for the temperature. It went anywhere from 41C (105.8 F) to 44C (111.2 ºF) and dinner rush hadn't even started. This means the burners were off and we weren't rushing to put orders out. The stove was on though, it's always on, and so were the grill and the friers.

To all of you out there, take heart when I tell you after a while you don't notice the heat anymore. Also some comfort should be the fact that you really are not on the line your entire shift, there's a lot of prep to be done. In fact at the beginning of your career, depending on what kitchen you are in, you may be doing only prep. As Anthony Bourdain puts it in "The Nasty Bits," you might be "chained to a sink in a crowded sub-cellar, doing nothing more glamorous, hour after hour after hour, than scraping vegetables or washing shellfish." I must have lucked out in this kitchen because the most unpleasant job I did, and it was not for hours, was to clean calamari. Although there is this one girl who had to deshell lobster and after two hours of playing in lobster juice her fingers had gotten quite pruny.

There are two kitchens at my workplace. A banquet kitchen and the bistro kitchen downstairs. I spend most of my time in the bistro. I really dig the fast pace of it all and have the stamina required to make it through the madness as we fall in the weeds and have to get ourselves out. In the upstairs kitchen there can be 4-5 people prepping and plating all day for a function of say 200 people. And the food all goes out in an hour. That's their rush: An hour, two at most. I think I'd be bored. My assistance was required not long ago for the glamorous job of sorbet scooping. 145 people, 3 different scoops of sorbet for each. You do the math. And you can't just throw the stuff in the cup, it has to look pretty. And you better hurry, because IT MELTS (unless you choose to do the entire job standing in the freezer) So you wheel out a tray of empty cups, fill them each with peach sorbet, rinse the scoop and move on to let's say raspberry, rinse the scoop and do, i don't know, lemon. Wheel the first tray in, wheel the second, empty tray out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 145 people, 3 scoops each.

So yeah. It's not always that hot, you might just be freezing. I know your hands will.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From the beginning...

Bare with me as I try to speed through this to bring us all to the present day.

Last year, through a series of fortunate events, I was introduced to the Executive Chef of the kitchen where I am now on staff. At the time, I was struggling with the decision whether or not to leave my current office job, a job that was financially rewarding, for a life as a professional cook.

Passion and eagerness to learn were my only assets, having no other professional kitchen experience. Sure I watched The Food Network 24-7 and even picked up a few things, and sure my friends and family raved about my cooking and joked that I should open my own restaurant, but they're supposed to, right? They're my friends and family. I didn't want to be like one of those people on American or Canadian Idol thinking they can sing only because they were encouraged by their loved ones. They should have a show "So you think you can cook," I bet it would get lots of ratings. But I digress...

My intention behind meeting the Exec. Chef was to learn about some of the challenges of the trade, let him know where I was at on my current career path, and of my desire to join the ranks. Imagine my surprise when after five minutes of meeting me and seeing some minuscule food photos of my cooking on my ipod he suggested I come to his kitchen and "check it out." That suggestion was followed by "how much were you hoping to make?" My immediate thought? It was "oh my god, this guy is going to actually pay me?" I was handed an application and tax form, so I guess "checking it out" in his terms meant "yes, you have the job you didn't even apply for." I guess it helped that it was his Jr. Sous-Chef who introduced us. I started the following Monday.

Under the guidance of my friend (yes, the Jr. Sous) I learned the ropes. Proper knife handling, our kitchen's closing procedures, rotating, D10-ing, how to clean squid and so on. By the way, cleaning squid must be everyone's least favourite job because to this day I am the one who does it 90% of the time. Something about putting your hand in that rubbery squid and pulling out the snot-like stuff and the spine. You get used to it after a while though.

I spent last summer working two jobs (yes, declared both incomes to them tax folks). Insurance adjuster by day, line cook/dishwasher by night. Between the two jobs I was working 7 days a week, totalling about 70 hours. I was arriving home near midnight, dogtired, but thoroughly happy. Fed, too. I was constantly grazing, couldn't help myself. How I didn't gain 20 lbs that summer and fall, I don't know.

The kitchen closed for the season at the end of November and I am not lying when I say that for three long winter months I thought of little else aside from that kitchen. How much I loved it, how very stress-free it was and how I would love nothing more than to be cooking, full time. Financially, quitting my job to become a cook was an insane idea. Having recently purchased a home where making the mortgage payment required my income remain the same, I lost many a sleep over crunching numbers. Every morning and every night, the same questions were present at our dinner table. "What do you think I should do?" "Can we afford it?" "What happens if you lose your job?" It was like Groundhog day. My partner of five years has what feels like infinite patience for me, how else could we have survived 3 months of the same discussion? Until one day Jen said "I think you have to do this. The question is not 'are you going to do it', but 'how are we going to do it?'

And so in February, legs trembling and hands shaking, I walked in to my manager's office, opened my mouth and ... no words came out. Tried again and finally managed a weak "I'm here to resign." Once I got that out, the rest was easy and, as they say, history.