Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Sunday with Starbucks, Indigo and Chef of India

Almost every Sunday Jen and I go to the nearest Starbucks and enjoy a morning mocha, macchiato or frappuccino, depending on the weather. Today was a mocha day. It was also a day where we took Charlie the Chihuahua with us, against our better judgment, so instead of enjoying our coffee lounging in the comfy Starbucks armchairs, we had to get back in the car and drive home. The mocha and pumpkin scone were to be enjoyed walking our beloved pest around the block.

As I had today off, we decided we would go downtown and spend some quality time browsing and buying books at Indigo, walking around town, people watching and finally being adventurous by dining out in some restaurant we never heard of.

We ended up at Yonge and Eglinton. It was not our planned location but we decided to stay and explore an area we once knew. I used to live downtown but it was almost a decade ago and, as you all know, places change rapidly these days. Our Indigo shopping proved to be quite fruitful, if spending an obscene amount of money on books can be called fruitful. I am most excited by the two books which now complete my Ruhlman "trilogy": "The Making of a Chef" and "The Reach of a Chef." I had purchased "The Soul of a Chef" earlier in the year and enjoyed it tremedously so I knew it would be a matter of time before I rushed out and got the other two.

As for our eating out adventure, since we were at Yonge and Eglinton and on foot (which is something I am no longer used to), our restaurant choices were not many. There was "Spring Rolls" and "The Mandarin" and there was also some Mexican fast food looking place. On the North East corner there was a Brazilian Grill (the name escapes me), and Chef of India. We opted for the latter. The Karahi Lamb was tasty, and so was the Vegetable Korma, however on the Korma, the menu advertised cashew nuts but I saw not a nut in sight. Maybe they ran out and figured we wouldn't remember what the menu said anyway... (The too common resto habit of sending less than perfect food out, nobody will notice).

I obviously am no restaurant critic and I think I am a pretty easy-going diner -- I might notice certain things amiss but I would never make a big deal about them --but even I have to say that using frozen veggies is not cool if you fancy yourself a fine-dining restaurant. Maybe it depends on what your definition of fine dining is. Mine is "Canoe" or "Terra" or "Auberge du Pommier." Anyway, to get back to the frozen veggies, I am absolutely positive that what I found in my vegetable korma was a handful of the frozen California Vegetables. You know, the crinkle-cut carrot slice, the lima bean, and the flat green bean cut on a bias. What tipped me off they might be frozen? They were too mushy. Once I started poking around them, it was obvious what I was eating. The taste was good though, that cream sauce loaded with indian spices. The basmati rice was cooked well and the naan was hot and presumably out of a tandoori oven. Not sure what goes on back there but it was tasty so I'll give it to them. My concern is this: if you can't even have fresh vegetables, how much confidence can I have now in that lamb? I mean, I know it's not fresh-fresh, it's not like they farm their own sheep or anything, but I want to know it's not been sitting around in that reach-in or line freezer (or worse, fridge) for days.

There were three choices of white wine by the glass, and three reds. The variety was greater if you were going for bottles, which we did not do this time. The wine was not properly chilled. It was cold, but it didn't seem to be the right temperature for me. Not a connaisseur by far, I just eat out enough times and drink a lot of wine with my meals to know what temperature I like my white wine to be.

Oh and one final thing, my plate had a chipped corner and there was white paper on top of our table cloth (for easy cleanup, obviously, but not a good touch for fine-dining)

How would I rate the experience? Their service was definitely good and the food was flavourful. Get some fresh veggies, sauce them a little less and if a sommelier is out of the question, at least keep your wines in a cold cellar. Fine-dining, it was not, but it was far from a disaster, which one should be prepared for when walking into just any dining establishment.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Another One Bites The Dust

They are starting to say it's a curse. How else could you explain the fact that no sous-chef at our workplace has lasted more than a season? Last year's Sous was let go because although a great cook he was unable to lead his team (or so I hear, I wasn't there last year). This year, the first sous-chef was fired on his very first day for allegedly trying to steal some steaks. The sous-chef that followed ended up resigning shortly after the season started. Since she had worked here the season before, she actually set the record for the longest a sous has stayed. Then there was the Sous who was let go after harrassment complaints were filed by a few females, servers and kitchen staff alike. The current Sous, was neither let go nor did he resign, but is out for some sort of leave, duration of leave unknown.

As I said, folks at work are starting to say it's a curse of The Pope. The question I have to ask though, is at what point does one start to think it might be the place, not the Sous?? We still have one Sous-Chef left (we had two). I don't know if having more than one Sous is common in kitchens or if it's just our kitchen that's staffed in this manner, but we'd be in deep doodoo if we'd lost our only Sous.

Anyway, what this means is that, again, I am going in at 11 am instead of my scheduled shift. I also don't know if I get to have tomorrow off, nor do I know how many 12 hour shifts I'll receive all of a sudden. Not only did we lose a Sous, it is the start of another school year so two of the kids that help in the kitchen (a dishwasher and a line cook) are leaving us also. Sheesh... The next week will be interesting to say the least.

As for the Sous-Chef, I hope he's ok, he was my favourite.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Banquet Kitchen

"Little Chef, you're coming upstairs with me today" said the Executive Chef. "You're going to do this function with me." He hands me a clipboard with the details of this function. It would be a small party of 22, which is why no banquet staff was scheduled to work. These 22 guests would start arriving at 6:30 pm, have hot and cold starters, followed by soup for six of them, salad for 16, and then the main course which was also varied. Some wanted chicken, some wanted fish and there was also steak. We also needed to prepare the starch and vegetable as well as dessert. We got everything done in under 4 hours, without breaking a sweat.

I love the convenience of industrial kitchens. At home, steaming potatoes for 22 people would take a long time as I'd have to work in batches. Here, I dumped them all in a deep pan and stuck the whole thing in the steamer, turned on the timer and moved on to another task. I also cannot say enough about the miracle that is the hot box! The home cook would have to time absolutely everything (case in point, see my blogpost from yesterday) if he/she wanted to have the food still hot when guests arrived. At work I just stick the finished starch or veg in the hot box until later when I am ready to plate. It's fabulous! If I had the space for them at home I would get myself one. And don't even tell me that I should use the microwave. The only thing we microwave at my house is popcorn, and recently I have been thinking that even that can be done in a pot, thus eliminating the need for microwave altogether and saving precious counter space, space which undoubtedly will be taken up by a food processor, or some such thing.

Exciting moment of the day was when Chef shared the 'secret' of his thai broth. I have mentioned before that currently my favourite soup is the thai chicken soup and yesterday I got to make it. The bistro was quite low on the broth so Chef had to whip up a new batch. As I was his Sous for the day, I had a chance to see what went into the broth because I was the one chopping everything that we put in. Incredibly simple. I would let you in on it but, since I have not obtained Chef's permission, the insurance adjuster in me fears a potential suit! "What do you think you're doing, putting up my recipes on the internet for all the world to see? If I wanted them to know, I'd write a book myself"

All in all it was a better day in the kitchen. I learned new things and it was a pleasant break from executing the same dishes every day. I made beurre blanc sauce and minestrone, thai broth and smoked salmon rosettes and I even prepped the rainbow trout. The day ended with Chef shoving me out the door so I can attend the staff party, a party he would also join later in the night.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shut Up and Eat!

Yesterday was my day off so I had invited a friend over for dinner and, inevitably, sleep over. I say inevitably because when there's that much food (I prepared a five-course meal) you know that wine will be flowing so you better have a bed available for your guest(s).

My challenge was to make as much in advance as I could so I can spend time with my friend, yet have the food hot, instead of lukewarm or, worse, cold. Also, I couldn't cook until the very last minute because I would have to get ready and also pick my guest up at the train station. SO you see, I had to plan my day carefully and not waste a moment which is why, after shopping for food and liquor I stopped at Starbucks -- you didn't think I'd skip Starbucks today, did you? -- and spent an hour chatting with a friend.

I returned home at 2 pm which, by my calculations, left me with three hours to do everything, including clean-up. Since I was to use about 20 various pots, pans, the ricer, baking trays, three cutting boards and different knives the cleanup could take a while.

So at 2 pm (is this boring for you?!?) I set the oven to 425F and while waiting for it to heat I started prepping. I cut one head of cauliflower into 1-2 inch pieces for roasting, tossed it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few sprigs of thyme. (This was the beginning of the Roasted Cauliflower Bisque). Onto a baking tray went the cauliflower. I also got out two eggplants and set them on a cookie sheet lined with foil for easy cleanup. Oven pre-heated, I stuck both the cauliflower and eggplant into oven -- it would take 20 minutes for the cauliflower to roast (and longer for the eggplant to bake). As the cauliflower was roasting I chopped the leeks for the bisque and cooked over medium heat until soft. I added the stock and simmered for 10 minutes, by which time the cauliflower was ready to come out of the oven and be added to the simmering stock.
As the eggplant still needs time I proceeded to scoop out the flesh of three perfect, unblemished, hot-house tomatoes. Sorry, I didn't take step by step photos... I had no time to play around with the camera too! I did, however, take photo of the finished product. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Eggplants are now ready. I peeled them and set them in a strainer to get rid of the juices and also cool them at the same time.

The soup is now ready to come off the heat and be pureed, so I do that. I return the bisque to the pot and that's that, one dish down. I would later reheat, add cream and lemon juice to finish it off, and serve it topped with chives.
Eggplant is still too warm so I move onto peeling and quartering some Yukon Golds, get them in water and have them ready. I would not start the garlic potato puree until much later on, at dinner time, but all it would take would be heat and time. I still have to tenderize the chicken and bread it but I want to finish everything before I start playing with the raw chicken. So I finish off the eggplant salad by finely chopping the eggplant (I did it by hand but you can use a food processor I suppose), adding mayo and finely chopped shallots to it. Stuff it into the hollowed out tomatoes, add garnish, and voila!

Two dishes down (the bisque and the eggplant), I have only two to go because the dessert I would not make ahead of time.
I'll skip the rest of the play-by-play because I think you got the picture. It was go, go, go until 5 pm when it was time to get the kitchen cleaned up and myself ready. In the car by six, at the station at 6:10 and by 6:25 pm we're all basking in the late afternoon sun, food and wine in hand.

Three hours later we're still eating and both my partner and my guest are yelling "uncle!" Plates got pushed aside, it was simply too much food!

Dessert was not until midnight -- we were too full -- and I didn't take a picture. I will recreate and photograph it later today but if you must know right now, it was a simple rum-soaked loaf cake with flambe berry compote. Colourful to look at and the rum in it made it oh so tasty at 12:30 am...
Also after much food and wine my friend came up with an idea on how I would pimp myself out (although I think she used the term marketing and offered to take upon herself said task) and what my shtick will be (branding?). We have all decided that I will develop into the female version of Chef Gordon Ramsay (given my rather limited patience in watching others make a mockery of prepping/cooking). She even came up with the idea of a bobble-head doll of me wielding a Chef's knife. I think she had too much wine.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Having Your Priorities Straight...

I once heard Rachel Ray say, during one of her 30-minute meals shows, that she used to make food (I think it was some soup) after coming home from work at 1 o'clock in the morning.
Puh-leaze. Does any chef or professional cook do that kind of stuff? I mean I love cooking and I do it daily, but not at 1 am after working a 10 hour shift in the kitchen. I do my cooking in the morning and early afternoon, before going to work.

You want to know what I do when I get home from the restaurant? I do the following (exactly in the order listed):

1. Pour myself a glass of wine -- or something stiffer, depending on the day I've had.
2. Bring take-out container (from work) upstairs in the study and hop on the computer.
3. Eat contents of take-out container while catching up on twitter feeds, facebook and email.
4. Occasionally blog (although sometimes step 4 is postponed to a more godly hour of the morn')

I do not make soup, or any food for that matter, when all I want to do is put my feet up and when my eyelids are starting to close. Nobody should be handling knives in that condition, so unless the soup is out of a carton, Rachel Ray should go to bed and make said soup in the morning.

On a different note, I realized today that in our kitchen we all have nicknames. Today, when asked if I knew what bikini line's real name was, I drew a blank! You heard me, we call her bikini line. Is that demeaning? I also work with "Hairdo," "Heels," "Snappy Kat," "D-Rock," and "The Pope" Me? I'm "little Chef." Guess they couldn't come up with something more clever, like "midge" or something... The great Chef himself? He's called Scrawny, Johnny, or sometimes Dude. We also threaten each other a lot, but only jokingly. It is quite common to hear "I'll stab you in the troat!" No, that's not a typo, it's troat indeed. Like.. "In the troat, man," said with jamaican accent. There are a couple of Jamaicans in our kitchen, thus the funny line. Not even sure where it came from anymore, but that line has been with us since last year.

Now, before I want to stab myself in the troat, I must hit the sack. A friend is coming over later today (yep, it's Wednesday already) and I have emailed her the five-course menu. It apparently made her fall off her chair. I have to be in top form tomorrow and keep my promise or... say it with me... she'll stab me in the troat! Maybe I'll even show you some pictures tomorrow. Not of the stabbing, but of the food.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And Then There Were Two... AGAIN!

Mondays in our kitchen are starting to be quite hectic. Remember last Monday when I was called in early because one of the Sous-Chefs called in sick and there were only two of us to run the line? Yesterday I showed up for my scheduled shift to learn that there would be only two of us again. The other Sous (as in not the one who was sick last Monday) had fallen "up" the stairs as he was carrying chicken and got sent home. I say 'fallen up' the stairs because that is what happened. This was not the toppling down an entire flight of stairs with cases of chicken breast landing atop that you would likely envision had I said he fell down the stairs. What actually happened was that he tripped on one of the steps and since his hands were occupied by the large chicken container he couldn't regain his balance and dove face first into said step, dropping the chicken, busting his knee and something else -- his head? I haven't talked to him so I don't know the extent of his injuries although I hear from others that he was fine. He drove himself home so he must have been.

There was also the time when one dude was having car problems and couldn't make it to work, or the time when one got in a collision on the highway on the way to work, a collision which rendered the vehicle non-driveable thus making him unable to get to work. Feels like highschool, don't it? There's only eight of us in the bistro if we don't count the kitchen help and the banquet staff. Is it possible that Chef hired a crowd that's most susceptible to disease and mishaps?!?

In other news, I am still occasionally working the saute station and the grill and yesterday made a thai chili wrap order and pulled pork sandwich orders. Probably the easiest dishes to make but still... as long as they're on the menu, it's good for me to know them so I can help on that side if it gets nutso. Also worth noting is that yesterday the squid got cleaned and cut by someone else for a change!

Sadly, I didn't get home until well after Nurse Jackie's season finale. It aired again at 3:20 am but there was no way I was going to stay up until 4 am and still be at work for 2 pm today.

Which reminds me, time for my Starbucks fix. Until tomorrow...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inventory Day

The reason for yesterday's alarmed request from the Executive Chef that I go in six hours earlier than originally scheduled was that I was needed to do inventory. I am uncertain as to why this was to be done yesterday as we typically do this the last Sunday of each month. Regardless, I have spent, together with one of the Sous-Chefs, over 6 hours counting everything in stock. By everything, I really mean everything. Every container of seasoning, dry herbs and dressing. Every apple, pineapple and bag of carrots and onions. Every bunch of thyme, rosemary, or green onion. Every case of poultry, beef rib, squid (my favourite!) and every can of chickpea, tomato paste, tomato juice and... well, you get the picture.

We moved from the dry storage area by the kitchen, to the walk in cooler, to the portions on the line, to the chest freezer. Then, it was onto the large dry storage area on the main floor. When I thought my eyeballs would start bleeding from trying to find all the items on my 25 sheets of paper so I can enter them, and my stomach would stick to my spine from hunger it was time to take a break. I went to the kitchen and made myself a quick thai chicken soup (with thai broth, shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, rice noodles and chicken), asked the line cook on duty to throw down an extra springroll for the order she was firing and wolfed it all down while standing by the saute station. That soup had nice heat, both in spice and temperature, and it was needed as we would move into the walk-in packed floor-to-ceiling freezer where we would spend a good hour. Even though we turned the switch off while we were in there, it was still so bloody cold in there that my toes were starting to feel numb by the end of it.

The mindless counting is now followed by entering the information on the sheets into the computer. A reminder to my readers, this is my first kitchen so I have nothing to compare any of this to, but I am thinking there has got to be a better way to do inventory than for two people to be taken from the kitchen for practically an entire day, once each month.

Since it's a fact that I am not learning many new things every day in this kitchen and some days I am not even engaging in any creative cooking, I need to keep cooking at home. Today, as I am not going in to work until 5 pm (or so I hope!), I will be firing up one of my favourite mains -- chicken scallopini with sauteed rapini and sundried tomato sauce --

and a tasty nibble for midday, a black olive and goat cheese tart.

The entree will be Jen's dinner, I don't want to get into the habit of eating at 4 pm, but I will be sure to sink my teeth into the tart. These were inspired by Anthony Sedlak's The Main and they've been so loved by all my dinner guests that I have started making them regularly and inevitably altered the original recipe over time.

As I am committed to posting daily for at least a year and I anticipate that some days I might not have much to say (or you might be tired and need a break from it), Monday posts will become "wordless Monday". I am also hoping that, in time, I'll get myself a decent camera and that my friend Sonya will teach me a thing or two, so that I can start uploading some better looking pics. I know you agree.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Day Shift

I'm leisurely taking in my first cup of coffee and finishing yesterday's Globe and Mail when I hear my cellphone ring. As this inevitably happens if not every Sunday, then at least two Sundays each month, I know who it is before I even flip the phone open. There it is, a new text message from the Executive Chef: "little chef, can you come in at 11? Please and thank you."

As I was scheduled to be at work for 5 pm and planned the day accordingly, this is a major disruption. It means I will not be having lunch at home and, worse, it means no dinner for Jen as I do not have time to make anything with the half hour I have left. I was planning to slowly braise pork ribs tonight and, although the dish is easy to prepare, it's more than Jen is willing to do. Now don't misunderstand me, Jen has the ability to make dinner for herself, but the willingness is rarely there. This is fine as I am usually more than happy to cook for her, it only becomes a problem when I am called in to work suddenly.

The bright side of working the day shift is that I escape the closing procedures which, I am not ashamed to admit, I dislike the most about the job.

"Closing" is a bit of work. First, I rotate all containers at my station. If a container is empty, it goes in the dishpit and I just get a clean container and fill it up (with olives, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes or whatever needs to be in it). If the container on the line is only half empty (or half full, if you prefer), I get a clean container, fill it up with new contents and top it off with the remaining stuff in the old container. I do this about 20 times as there are various such containers on the line. Once this is done, spray area with disinfectant (D-10), wipe it down, and move on to clean the friers, grill and stove.

At the end, we sweep and mop, a job that almost always falls on my shoulders. How hard it is to mop you say? Well, it's a pain. The line is greasy. You know how when you cook or fry stuff at home and get splatters on the surfaces adjacent to the burner, as well as on the floor? There is a ton of grease on the floor at the end of the day and it's made worse by the 10 cooks walking around in it, from line to back fridge, to sink, to freezer and back to line. It gets tracked all over and only heavy duty degreaser will get it out. So I mop twice. Once with a lot of water, almost without wringing the mop, and the second time with a drier mop so I can pick up everything left. The mop bucket is big and although it's on wheels, I am 4'11" and weigh 98 lbs. Dragging that bucket around and having to lift it at the end to dump all the water out is not the highlight of my day. But today I escape that because going in at 11 I will most likely come home around 8 pm, thus leaving the unpleasant job to someone else for once.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

If I were a bet woman...

"Please clean and cut the calamari, right away" I heard one of my Sous-Chefs say as I stood there scanning the prep board.
"Sure" (I learned this is the best answer to give to this particular sous-chef)

I told you this would happen, didn't I? I should have bet money on it.

Why wait until 3 pm to have someone deal with the squid? Because they were "slammed", they say. I know better. It's because, at present, I'm the best squid cleaner that can be found in our kitchen. Aah, such a fine compliment...

For the next hour or so, I cleaned the squid I had dumped into the sink, pulling out the spine and all snot-like innards. Once the most unpleasant part was done, I took the now clean squid to the cutting board where I proceeded to slice half-inch rings, dumping them all into a container to my left, which later I weighed into equal size portions and bagged for later use.

I have to let you know that although my culinary knowledge is not expanding on a daily basis, I am making great progress as far as my musical education is concerned. Why only yesterday I listened to a band called "Daft Punk" on one of our cooks' iPod! I was really proud of myself for refraining from banging my head on the stainless steel table located at the back of the kitchen, where I can be found prepping. Also, I was told the video is fabulous; some skeleton robot doing... I fortunately tuned out the rest. Jeezus, I am old.

Another irritant is the radio permanently set to some rock station (I know which one but I won't tell you) by our breakfast cook. She is one of two people in our entire kitchen who actually listen to that. Unfortunately for me the second person works the same shift I do thus subjecting me to some awful head-bangin' stuff.

What happened to CHFI and Gloria Estefan??? Even 99.9 will do although, since it became Virgin Radio, I find it less cool than before. I must request an earlier shift in order to arrive in the kitchen before anyone else. Either that, or see my doctor. I am sure there is some medication I can take.

Ah, but this is a cooking blog, you'll say. Well, let me tell you that today I have learned nothing, but made up for it by eating. I consumed an icecream drumstick, a slab of chocolate cake, two chicken fingers, what felt like a mountain of fries, one battered cod (our sous on duty was prepping fish for fish and chips and they were so beautiful and golden I couldn't resist), several chunks of strawberries and pineapple. Cutting those juicy pineapples is too tempting for someone possessing as little willpower as I do. And today was a day of slim pickings man! On average I can pack away a lot more. You want examples? Half a smoked salmon pizza, a chicken shawarma, half a lemon-sage chicken panini or club sandwich (depends on which way the wind blows), regular fries drenched in dijonnaise, as well as the occasional red fry (read: sweet potato fry). Wash it all down with a coke at first. Guilt sets in quickly after so I switch to club soda, with a dash of cranberry juice -- you know, to flush the kidneys (or so I tell myself).

Access to all the food and drink one could dream of is a very dangerous thing when PMSing. And since I am PMSing two weeks in any given month, I will be joining Jenny Craig soon by the looks of it.

My favourite dish on the menu? Depends on the day. Today, it was the Thai Chicken Soup. Yah, even in this heat, there's something about that broth. I'm off tomorrow which can only mean that on Sunday, feeling deprived, I will throw down some spring rolls and get a large ramekin of sweet chili sauce. Mmm...

Friday, August 21, 2009

I think I liked the old menu apps better

It (the old menu) had a few pain in the neck appetizers, but they were more exciting than the current ones. Much as moaned about having to assemble the spring rolls to order, a task that took me away from the line and got me occasionally in the weeds, they were tasty. The 'upscale poutine', as one of my twitter foodie pals has called it due to the jus, blue cheese and short rib topping, was popular and delicious, as were the duck confit crepes. Sure I groaned each time they were being ordered (which was often) and I didn't think I'd miss them, but I do!

So far the most popular dish coming out of my station, if we don't count the oh-so-common fried things appetizer platter that almost always jams all my friers during dinner, is a salad of spinach with berries, raspberry vinaigrette, pine nuts and goat cheese.

Since we're on the topic of appetizers, I know that today when I go in I'll have to deal with the squid that's waiting to be cleaned, cut and portioned, later to become calamari. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, it's everyone's least favourite job, which is why I would bet money that yours truly is going to be in charge of the task yet again. Oh well, could be worse!

Switching gears completely, I am counting the days till my visit to Waverman's kitchen. Looking back, Lucy's food writing has been the most influential for me, following her recipes my first foray into grown-up food and cooking. Lucy entered my life via her food column in The Globe and Mail delivered to my doorstep every Saturday morning for the past decade, and although I have never met Lucy, I feel as if we are friends. This is because Lucy's personality shines in her writing, be it a recipe, a blog, or a cookbook (of which she has written many). A woman whose writings I've followed for over a decade, Lucy has dedicated herself to teaching and mentoring young talent and has inspired me more than she will ever know. This is why I am deeply honoured to have been invited for a visit to her kitchen, not to mention thoroughly excited. For more information on Lucy, visit

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pizza anyone?

Am thinking about work this morning, particularly about the bruschetta pizza and the smoked salmon pizza, both recent additions to the menu.

Don't know about you, but bruschetta pizza does not really appeal to me. Why have that on the menu in addition to having bruschetta as an appetizer? Do people like bruschetta so much they would be willing to pay for and consume a pizza-sized one? Maybe it gets ordered for the table to share, as I can't imagine someone eating an entire thing on his/her own.

The smoked salmon pizza is a different story. Although skeptical when I first heard of it, I have since tried it and find it to be tasty. It's almost like eating a large cracker topped with smoked salmon, dill and some creamy cheese. Like the bruschetta pizza, it would be quite suitable for sharing because, although tastier and more flavourful than the former, it is also thin crust and lighter on toppings than a more traditional pie. Both are just crust and bruschetta mix, or crust, cream type cheese, salmon, dill and capers, respectively. Also, only the crust goes in the oven, the toppings are added at the end, so both are cold pizzas save for the warmth of the crust, making them more of a snack than a meal in my opinion.

Maybe what these pizzas have going for them is the simplicity, quality and freshness of their ingredients. Unlike other pizzas out there, with these two you can't hide mediocre toppings under a mountain of shredded mozzarella or tex-mex cheese and pray your diners are liquored up enough to like it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't Be Afraid

I'm typing while keeping an eye on "The Next Food Network Star." I am watching it for the first time and I'm guessing I missed quite a few episodes because they are already down to the last three contestants. What captivated me enough to watch something I normally wouldn't? As I was about to turn off the Tv I caught the premise of today's show. The three contestants would watch an advance screening of "Julie & Julia" and create a three course meal for a few celebrity chefs. They had a budget of $1000 and three hours to create their three dishes. I have a favourite contestant already but it doesn't matter as I likely won't watch the finale. I just liked the interweaving of Julia Child and "Julie & Julia" references.

Those of you watching to the end, let me know if Melissa the home-cook becomes "The Next Food Network Star".

I should try challenging myself in this way too (minus the celeb chefs). Maybe what I will do is give Jen a budget and send her to the store to buy whatever moves her, that way I am forced to use ingredients which might not be as familiar to me. I find that whenever I am at the grocery store, even if I don't have a list, I always go for the same stuff. As I shop, certain dishes immediately come to mind so I always come home with the same loot: leeks, arugula, Chicken breast, pork, arborio rice, sundried tomato. Or maybe they're just my staples...

I feel the need to start coloring outside the lines more, to surprise myself. Although it is hard to create something truly original (someone, somewhere has thought of it before you), I'd like to at least try. Dinner tonight was delicious but the presentation was quite sad and uninspired. I made a kind of pork papricas (an old Romanian dish, no paprika in it whatsoever) and, craving starch, I rested it atop a nest of tagliatelle nere (black tagliatelle). The dish lacked color and, much as I tried, I could not find something of brighter color to contrast with those black tagliatelle. Looking in the fridge, I did see lemon and yellow peppers but I passed on both as neither would go with the dish. I should have cooked some of those yellow peppers into the dish but alas, too late now, the food was plated already. I ended up garnishing with the predictable finely chopped parsley in a last ditch attempt to add some colour but as you picture parsley green against black I am sure you will agree with me when I tell you that it just was not colourful enough.

Ok. I have decided. I'd like to publicly commit to making a 'black box' dinner for my bi-weekly guest at her next visit. My dear guest, if you're reading this, don't be afraid! Worst case scenario, if my creation is not edible, I'll make Waverman's "pizza with arugula, leeks and cheese." Aaarggh... here come leeks and arugula again. See what I mean?!?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Channing Way Shrimp Curry

Every other Tuesday my bi-weekly dinner guest shows up for dinner. Always invited, even though I always tell her she is welcome to just show up, no invitation needed. She never makes requests for a particular dish, or theme, and always brings either a bottle of wine or dessert. The perfect guest, no?

As I recently finished reading Ruth Reichl's "Comfort Me With Apples," I was inspired to cook the 'Channing Way Shrimp Curry' for tonight's dinner. Something about that chapter moved me enough to hang dinner on a recipe found at the end of the chapter, a recipe I never tried. Granted, I knew just by reading it that it would work and that it did. My friend loved it. So did my partner. My only regret is not making the original recipe that served 6 -- I had cut it down to serve 3 since, you guessed it, there were only three of us. I served it on a bed of aromatic basmati rice with a green pea and tofu curried side-dish. We washed it all down with some berry lassi. Ok, if I am being honest, we washed it down with a Chilean Chardonnay, the lassi came after! (I was initially thinking of making a mango lassi but the idea came at the last minute and left no time for a run back out to the grocery store to buy mango. So... berry lassi it was)

Ruth's Curry (as we might start calling it) will definitely be making a repeat appearance. It was such a simple dish to put together and it yield such delicious results. The cooking of the basmati takes longer than the curry.

After dinner -- and I know this is not fascinating for any of you but it is, after all, my blog -- we were going to watch "No Reservations" (you know, the one with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin) but paused for a moment to watch "At the Table with ... Elizabeth Falkner" on Food Tv. Well, hello hot looking San Fran lesbian Chef lady! I'll be Googling you as soon as I get a chance.

"At the table with..." lead to an interesting discussion on what I should do with my future. Since I am at what I hope to be the beginning of a culinary career I have some decisions to make. Do I take a recent offer to work at an opening-soon restaurant 40 minutes away from home where I might learn new things? Do I go to a nearby sports bar/pub type establishment while I go to culinary school? Where will I learn more? Will the sports bar be good for my resume and what will I learn there? So far I have gotten advice belonging to two different schools of thought:

1) At the beginning of your career is when you want to be choosy as it will dictate the path you take in the future
2) At this point in your career, you shouldn't turn anything down, it's all about building experience and learning as much as you can, about anything and everything.

If I had a poll button here (if there is one, I don't know how to use it) I'd let you all vote as I'm pretty stumped about what I should do. You know what they say though, "when in doubt, do nothing!"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Unless on Your Death Bed, Do Not Call in Sick!

I got a call around 3 pm today that said I am needed at work immediately. It turns out someone from work had called earlier in the day too, around 10 am, but the person calling didn't see a point in leaving a voicemail when I didn't answer. It's just as well because I was still at the cottage, two hours away, so I couldn't have gone in at that hour anyway.

Upon arrival I learned that a staff member had called in sick, leaving just me and the Sous-Chef for dinner service. That's it. Just us. No kitchen help/dishwasher was scheduled for the night (which meant I would have do double as dishwasher) and although the hoods were now working, the ovens were not. All we had working for us was the grill, the friers and the burners. You don't realize how often the oven gets used until it stops working. Then it seems as if every order is a pizza, a quesadilla, beef ribs or some other dish that gets finished in the oven.

To make matters worse the temperature in there was unreal. I worked only 8 hours but I feel as if I had been there all day. We did ok as far as cooking goes but in the end, had there been one more order, we would have had to stop and clean some dishes. Every saute and sauce pan were dirty. Every plate, be it a side plate, a soup bowl, a dinner plate or a salad plate, were also dirty and piled wherever the servers could find room. When they ran out of room in the dish pit, they started putting the cleared plates on top of the chest freezer. The line looked no better. There were containers everywhere, all the knives were scattered around and there was sauce splatters even on the wall (yah, we're messy!) . Let's just say the mise was definitely not en place and once again, it took the two of us over two hours to restore order.

I can definitely say today was not a fun day. It was a trying day, but not a fun one. It's good to know that we pulled it off but I wouldn't want to go through it again. I think the worst part though was that pile of dishes I was faced with at the end. I had already started to lose steam and all I wanted was to go home. I was deliriously wishing that, when I went back inside after the break, someone had miraculously cleaned everything up. That thought was followed by "what if we just left everything?" Well, our asses would have been fired, that's what. So you tough it out and get through it, one tray of dishes at a time. Don't look at what time it is, don't look at how much you still have left and definitely don't stop to go out in the cool air. You heard me, I said the cool air. The outdoor temperature of 27 Celsius feels like a frigid blast when you've been working in temps of 40 Celsius. You start wondering why everyone is complaining about the heat outside. What heat??

The day's learning experience was the huge impact that 'calling in sick' can have in a kitchen. Especially a small kitchen in today's economy when the schedule is made with the labour cost in mind and when only the minimum amount of staff is scheduled. If you've already stripped down the kitchen to bare bones staff, it can be devastating to have even one person missing.

I know one day I'll be able to look back and laugh about today's nightmarish dinner rush, but that day isn't today and it probably won't be for a while.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The "D-System"

Last night I got home just before 11 pm and was greeted by "Yay, you're home, let's go for ice cream!" Although I don't have much of a sweet tooth I have a soft spot for Jen and her requests so the three of us --Charlie the Chihuahua, Jen and I -- headed for the nearest Baskin Robbins... and found it closed. Our next choice was DQ but on our way there we found a Wendy's and Jen settled for a Vanilla Frosty (I think that's what it's called). I ordered one in solidarity much to Charlie's delight who ate most of it and what he didn't eat is probably still on his chin -- unless it's rubbed off on my pillow. Yes, Charlie sleeps on my bed. Between my legs when I'm there, on my pillow when I'm not.

Taking advantage of Jen's sugar rush (this is a woman who goes to sleep at 10 pm) I chattered on about the goings on at work. It was not very busy and I have learned little -- I put together our Mahi Mahi and Grouper entrees. Simple execution: season the fish, flour (in the grouper's case), sear presentation side down, maybe cheat a little by finising in the oven, sauce it, daily starch, veg. and voila!

Panicked moment came around 7 pm when we almost had to shut the place down as the hoods and oven refused to stay on for more than 20 seconds -- something about a breaker problem -- and Chef was beside himself about the whole situation. "Not today!" he kept muttering to himself. It doesn't help to learn that both repair/maintenance guys are out of town today and tomorrow. Isn't the point of having two maintenance guys that one backs the other up in case of emergency? Oh well... We'll have to see what happens tomorrow. Today we managed to get them going by turning off all the appliances that we could do without so that we didn't overdraw on the power supply. Do we really need this panini maker? How about the line freezer? I'll just unplug it for now, make sure you turn it back on when you leave for the night.

I guess functioning in a kitchen is about more than having culinary knowledge. It seems to be about flying by the seat of your pants. It's about learning how to fix faulty fridges/freezers/grills, about how to improvise. I believe Bourdain calls it the D-system in his book "The Nasty Bits". I'd give you a quote but I'm too tired to locate it, so you'll just have to get the book yourself. I'm going to sleep.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Here's to Me!

A few things I'd like to mention right off the bat:

a) I am inebriated as I write this -- does that make you want to stop reading? inebriated... that's a word, right? Sorry, ESL kid here... Maybe I should stop using that excuse, I've been living in North America for 16 years come November. How long can I use the excuse that English is my second language and get away with it?

b) Julia Child would be 97 years old today. It appears she was born Aug 15 1912 (according to wikipedia and other sources) . Too bad it was 60+ years before I would enter the world. As Romania wasn't big on Julia Child when I was growing up -- that whole communism thing -- I never even heard of her until the late 90s after making my escape to the fabulous Columbus, Ohio. Oh yeah, you heard me!

c) I'm ticked off that after spending hours researching vacation rentals in Hilton Head and Key West, Jen just told me she's changed her mind about vacationing at all. All this after seeing someone "walk out the door at work, after getting shit-canned," she says. C'mon, really? That's all it takes for you to give up travel plans? Our dog would have loved this place I found. Ocean front, pet friendly, the works... Oh well, I guess it'll be the Kawarthas this year.

d) As it turns out, half the visitors that my stat counter was picking up were actually me. Yup. I forgot that I had only set up the cookie blocker thingy only my desktop. Since my modem is down and I am using my laptop, statcounter has been tracking my own visits to the blog. Ugh. Not that I read and re-read my own drivel that much, but each time I make any changes to the settings, or just read it because I want to give myself a pat on the back on how fine a writer I am, I count as a visitor. Double ugh. Now that I fixed the problem and statcounter no longer counts my visits, it seems I was the only one reading this blog! Ok, maybe I'm stretching a little. There were a handful of other visitors...

Since all the grievances are almost a blog in itself I will wrap this up shortly, but not before mentioning that I feel oh so proud of myself for surviving Friday dinner rush by myself. Almost. As we had no dishwasher person, my linemate had to do dishes so I had nobody to rely on. Sure I could have asked for help if I got in the weeds but it was a pride thing for me, especially with Chef working the line tonight also. Fridays and Sundays are our busiest night of the week and I made it. It's a big deal to me. I'm new. Up until four months ago I was an insurance adjuster. You know, paper pusher bureaucrat who knows nothing about standing for 10 hours a day in temperatures of 40+ Celsius. Now I can handle the line by myself during our busiest night. If that doesn't make you want to drink to it, I don't know what will! And drinking I've been

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where's All the Stuff??

Yesterday evening, after borrowing someone's cap (yuck!) because I forgot mine at home, I got a good look at our new menu. Well, ok, maybe it was not a good look, but it was a look. Although the menu changed last Tuesday, I hadn't cooked off it yet as I had my much needed (and deserved, I say) days off Tuesday/Wednesday. Sure I had previously read through the printed pages, but I was still unprepared for walking in and seeing my first order go up:
1 Tandoori Salmon
1 Sonoma Salad

Tandoori Salmon and Sonoma Salad? What the hell is that? Oh yeah, it's the new menu! Luckily, the menu and a list of ingredients is taped to the fridge door for us to refer to as we need. Chef is also in the bistro for 70 hours a day* (you heard me, it's not a typo!) for the first two weeks after introducing the new menu as he needs to observe and guide us to ensure the correct preparation and plating of the new-to-us meals.

In addition to learning to prepare new meals, we also need to get familiar with the line setup all over again. There are more salad dressings than before, and the squeeze bottle that held, let's say, a honey mustard vinaigrette now holds a mint yogurt dressing. So much time is spent sniffing the squeeze bottles that I am determined to make labels for them the first chance I get. (although by then I'll likely have no need for the labels). Olives have also appeared at my station now, in the location that formerly housed mandarin orange segments. And this large container on the shelf where I used to have condiments? Why, it's baby spinach!! Anyway, you get the picture. Nothing is where it was and it all looks very foreign, almost as if I stepped into a different kitchen. It sure cuts the boredom, I tell ya!

So how many cooks does it take to make it through dinner service on a Thursday with a new menu? Surprisingly, the same four cooks that were needed with the old menu.

I didn't work on the hot side yesterday for it was too crazy a night (a busier Thursday than we're used to) but I did learn a couple of the dishes on that side. I know I won't work hot side today either because it's Friday and what feels like the entire city will be descending upon us for dinner. Friday is a zoo in there, not a good time to throw the newly promoted kid in there. It'll have to be next week.

I did french my first rack of lamb today, under the guidance of my favourite Sous. Sounds dirty, doesn't it? Frenched it the hard way too, with the boning knife, as he couldn't find butcher's twine. When I was done, after inspecting it, he declared it was a pretty good first attempt, and that he's seen lot worse. Now tell me that doesn't make your day!

*side note: Last year, when I was working two jobs (the kitchen and the insurance adjuster job) I half-complained to Chef that I was tired. "I am working 70 hours a week!" I said. His reply? "That's all? I do that in a day!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not just about cooking...

I spent my day off eating and drinking. How irresponsible of me, but I had so much fun! Since I had to be downtown Toronto for an appointment I figured I might as well make the best of it. Ages ago, before becoming a suburbanite -- is that a word? -- I lived downtown T.O and every now and then I have strong urges to return to the mother land (or something).

After spending a couple of hours at the Starbucks at Bay and College, reading Bourdain and people watching, I met a friend for drinks at O'Grady's. Although I didn't go there for the food and only ordered an appetizer platter to go with the beers I was saddened by the menu choices and terribly dissappointed by the service. Although the server visited our table often to check if we needed more drinks, she completely disappeared once it was obvious we were no longer going to drink and I asked for the bill. It took more than half an hour to get the bill brought to us and then to have the credit card picked up and charged. Guess once she figured she wasn't making more money off us, we were no longer a priority. Think again sister, I was still to enter a tip amount on the dotted line!

After my friend left, my partner and I decided to dine back home so we drove to Cachet in NewMarket. It was our first visit and we were pleasantly surprised. Decent, unpretentious food and rather extensive wine list. Since we had had appetizers and booze in the village we decided to skip the apps here. After scanning the starter menu we didn't feel we missed out on anything; calamari, bruschetta and ceasar salads appeared, along with French onion soup and spinach salad. Entrees were a different story. Lobster Ravioli was my first choice, a Cachet favorite, but at the last minute I chose the Crab and Shrimp Duo: a skewer with 4 jumbo shrimp and what must have been a king crab leg on a bed of basmati rice and vegetables. Jen went for the seafood paella after I talked her out of the pickerel. Pickerel could have been good but it came with a sweet potato mash and napa cabbage slaw -- not exciting enough if you ask me. Sure, we could have asked for substitutions I suppose, but I usually try to go easy on the kitchen staff. The drink on the table was a bottle of Chardonnay from Chile which we thought a good pairing for our food. For dessert I had cognac -- sorry to dissapoint you! Jen was already full and drunk (she says) so she skipped dessert altogether and since I don't have a sweet tooth I decided to spend my buck on more booze and ordered cognac.

We'll be returning to Cachet for the service, the atmosphere and the food. See, I told you this blog was not just about cooking!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Life without Internet (and good food) is not worth living!

When I said, in the blog's opening comment, that it will be updated daily, I didn't anticipate that I'll be without internet for four days and counting. I thought of other disasters, of course, like death, dismemberment or illness, but didn't consider the fact that a storm will fry my modem and I might be without an internet connection for days on end. After hours on the phone with Bell, the technician's last suggestion is that my modem may be fried (even though all the modem's lights are on) and they are mailing me a new one. That better be it, I tell you! I am, at the moment, piggy-backing on someone else's wireless network (an unsuspecting neighbour?), but the signal is low and I am not sure how long it will last. My laptop is a relic and I am too embarrassed to show it in public (i.e starbucks) just to feed my addiction. Plus, I'd feel weird sitting there for hours -- it takes hours now for me to get my fix of everything: twitter, facebook, email and all the other gimmicks I've got myself hooked on...So I guess I better start talking food before I get cut off here.

Things have been better the last couple of days, there seems to be a little less tension in the air. Maybe it's because the past week has been quieter than usual and we are not behind on prep anymore -- meaning we are no longer blaming each other for not getting things done. Also different is the Sous-Chef who engages with me more, which I find strange because this is a woman who I thought couldn't stand me and readily took her complaints about me to the Chef. The other day she talked to me about beef tartare. I was wrapping steaks and they smelled so good I couldn't help commenting that I could eat them raw. As she heard this, the Sous stopped what she was doing (she always seems to be within earshot) and asked me: "have you ever had raw beef?" I answered that I had, which must have been satisfactory because she proceeded to tell me what kind of cut I should ask my butcher to give me, and how I should marinade it for a nice beef tartare.

Earlier in the day she caught me sniffing the fresh fish fillets I was checking and told me in great detail what I should smell for. All I know is that good, fresh fish shouldn't smell fishy, but now I hear it's supposed to smell sweet?!? This I'll need to practice on.

Food for thought: Everyone cooks differently and many times chefs have differing opinions on the best way to prepare certain things. How do I know that what I am learning in this kitchen is "the right way?". Yeah, sure, I am supposed to take in everything and try all the different things I learned in order to find "my way", I just don't want to pick up bad habits along the way, habits that will be difficult to shed later on.

Oh, I almost forgot. Tomorrow I start work on the hot side, a new station for me. I believe some restos call it the saute station. We have a new menu and they figured what better time to move someone over than when everyone else is also learning... I guess I should be looking at this as a promotion?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Christmas Shawarma and the Salmon Parcels

Today I had my first taste of our chicken shawarma wrap, a dish which is part of our new menu being rolled out on Monday. I think this particular batch had a little too much nutmeg, we might need to tweak the seasonings a little. To me it just smelt and tasted like Christmas. I am very curious to see how it will be received.

I also brought home some nice salmon parcels -- you know: piece of fresh salmon, salt, pepper, julienned veg (in this case pepper and onion although I would have used fennel), a dash of white wine, your choice of herbs, all packaged neatly in parchment paper with the ends tightly wrapped so the steam does not escape. Stick 'em in the oven for a few minutes and voila, a light, healthy, tasty dinner.

All of a sudden the hours I have spent portioning mountains of linguini and rice did not seem so bad!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Rome wasn't built in a day

Home after a long day at work I sip my wine and think how different my life would be if I were wired to be just a little more patient. I am always hurrying after something and as of late my impatience rests with not knowing enough about food and wanting to learn everything in as little time as possible.

Ideally, I would like every day in the kitchen to be a learning experience. I want to learn about sauces, about oysters, about foie gras. I want to learn what it takes to create such food that it would make someone's breath catch in their throat at the sight and smell and taste of it. I want to make food that causes one to involuntarily close their eyes in order to better savour it and, why not, maybe even moan.

Back to reality though. Today I spent the first couple of hours making a large quantity of tuna salad that I later turned into a multitude of tuna salad sandwiches. With each sandwich I make and wrap I think to myself "I've got to find another kitchen, I need to get more out of my apprenticeship. Is this why I quit my job as insurance adjuster? To make tuna sandwiches?" After the tuna salad nightmare ended, I moved on to making fish batter and getting some cod battered for what later would become fish and chips. Yes, I work in a bistro, and much as we have tried to shake off the burgers and other pub fare in the past, the ensuing riots have forced us to leave said items on the menu.

Once my rage over the tuna salad and fish batter diminishes I give myself a pep talk about how Rome wasn't built in a day, or some such nonsense, and about how maybe an apprenticing electrician spends their first year drilling holes in drywall and not doing anything 'electrical' -- anything to make myself feel better about wasted opportunities. Maybe I am just tired. I was reading "Comfort Me With Apples" by Ruth Reichl just before I went to work and all the food in the book sounded so luxuriously delicious that I started to resent the pedestrian food I fed Jen for dinner and especially disliked the mountain of tuna I had to transform into sandwiches.

I understand that I can't run unless I've learned to walk, but I wish I could fast forward the next five years or so, it's going to be agonizingly slow.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The day off

Since no cook lives in the kitchen, perhaps I should dedicate at least one blog entry to what this particular cook does on her day off.

You're wrong if you think that professional cooks spend their day off preparing meals. Very few of my chef friends cook while at home. Some say they're too tired and spend their time off relaxing, others say that since they cook all day, every day, the last thing they want to do on their day off is cook some more. I still enjoy cooking at home and can only hope that I am different than they and will continue to enjoy it for years to come. It would be terrible if, after I chose to cook professionally because of the love for food, I end up resenting it in the end.

Anyway, back to my day off. Just because my day off is a Tuesday or a Thursday, as opposed to the conventional Saturday and Sunday, it doesn't mean I am free of those pesky errands and chores. My laundry still needs to be done, as is my shopping. I still need to get my hair cut, my dog taken to the vet, and the library books returned. Oh, and in between all that running around I even took the time to prepare a picnic lunch for Jen and I and drove to her workplace with it. How Barefoot Contessa of me!

I got home in the evening feeling accomplished, somewhat tired but excited to cook dinner and with plenty energy left for it! Since I felt like pasta I cooked whole grain spaghettini and tossed it with sauteed smoked bacon, asparagus and zucchini. After plating it, noticing it lacked colour I added some sundried tomatoes. Freshly grated parmiggiano and torn basil leaves finished the bowl nicely. I would post a picture except it didn't occur to me to take one!

As I sat on my patio listening to the waterfall in my artificial pond, with my pasta and the ever present glass of white wine, feeling so serene, I thought of all the folks out there who are missing out on great food because they can't be bothered to cook it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

More on learning and loyalty

I have mentioned before that the kitchen I'm doing my apprenticeship in right now is my first professional kitchen gig. I figured when it comes to professional cooking I'm an empty vessel and there's so much learning to be done that I could be in any kitchen. In the last couple of days I started thinking my assumptions might be faulty.

Because of my circumstances I am choosing, at least for now, not to commute for a kitchen job. A good chef friend of mine thinks I am limiting myself by being unwilling to commute. He said I have high-end restaurants to the south (downtown T.O) and resorts to the north (he must be talking about Barrie area), but not a whole lot around where I am. Sure, there are restaurants he said, but what will you be learning in those kitchens? I tell myself he just doesn't know York Region that well and that surely I can find a good kitchen once I am ready to move along. Which brings me to the topic of loyalty.

My current employer will hook me up with, and cover the cost of, culinary school. I will be studying Basic this winter and Advanced the next. So how can I, after two years, go "so long suckers, thanks for schooling me, now that I know some stuff and I can get someone else to hire me I'm moving on to greener pastures?" Most cooks/chefs seem to agree on the advice they give me (independent of each other): "oh, you have to think of yourself" and "in this industry you can't think that way because the more you move around the more valuable you are" (yah, to someone else?). Really? Is there no loyalty in the kitchen? Are we, the staff, really there to just snoop on the kitchen's best practices, pocket some tricks and apply them elsewhere? If that's the case, I think I just found my biggest challenge, because I am generally a stayer. Since I joined the labour market, more than a decade ago, I've really only had two jobs. My former employer had me for seven years, and I left only because I was itching to cook, otherwise I would have likely retired from there. And no, it is not because I am afraid of change. If you know me then you know that couldn't be farthest from the truth. It's just that I'm of the belief that the grass really isn't greener. But could it be that when it comes to kitchens I've been looking in the wrong yard?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Today's lesson: You will no longer have a social life

Today I walked Chuckle-Buck later in the day than I normally would. Didn't plan it that way, I just had a busy morning. After we hung our fourth and final left which put us back on our street and we were a few houses away from home, we met a very friendly neighbour when her little dog chose that particular moment to dart out and pee on the sidewalk. As our respective dogs were doing their thing, sniffing each other's junk, her and I chatted amicably for a good 20 minutes. She had been unloading groceries and was still holding a 24-pack of water bottles even as we chatted. She ended up setting the water down on the driveway after about 10 minutes when I shared that I am doing my apprenticeship and am training to be a Chef. Turns out her and her husband recently sold a downtown restaurant they had owned for about 10 years. My neighbour talked freely about the demands of any kitchen job and said they had sold the restaurant because they were no longer willing to sacrifice family time for the restaurant.

"You will have no social life," she continued. "Your friends are out partying on weekends and you have to be in the kitchen, working. After a while they'll stop calling you." I nod. I know all this. Whatever remains of social life I still had after moving to the suburbs have disappeared completely. I am working evenings and weekends, and when I do manage to get a couple of evenings off, I choose to spend them with my partner. Driving for an hour to meet with friends for a drink downtown requires too much of an effort these days. I just want to put my feet up, cuddle in front of the Tv, or read a book. I enjoy time with friends but these days they're going to have to come to me. I'll even offer them food -- as long as I don't have to go anywhere!

My neigbour also talked about the games and the drama going on in the kitchen. The server who doesn't like the busboy, or the chef who doesn't like the server, or the sous-chef who has a beef with the line-cook, none of these necessarily performance based. Just personality clashes. And... I know that too. She sugar-coated nothing, and I appreciated it more than I could tell her. In fact, I invited her for coffee. I hope she takes me up on it one day, I bet she can teach me a few things.

Monday, August 3, 2009

It's a small kitchen out there!

Our kitchen is pretty small as far as kitchens go. How can I know this if I have only worked in one and therefore have nothing to compare it to?? We can only fit 4 people on the line if comfort is a consideration. We'll fit five of us if we're really busy but it gets a little cramped. When there's four of us on the line, two on the salads/friers/hot sandwiches and two on the other side, one on the grill, the other on pans and oven, we have just enough elbow room. I haven't measured or anything but I'm thinking we each have about maybe 12 inches or so of working surface. We need a fifth person on really crazy nights, a person that mostly helps us keep it together. There are nights when I don't even know what chit I'm working on anymore, when there's all this stuff going on, all the friers are full, plating while waiting for other food to finish cooking and it's total chaos but, somehow between my line partner and I, we keep it together. On those nights, our Sous-Chef pulls us out of the weeds simply by calling "From you, I need one chicken tenders, one fish and chips and one steak salad right now!" It saves me from having to look up and find the chit I need, between the dozen fluttering up there. 10 precious seconds every now and then, not more, but they make all the difference.

And just when I think I can't do it anymore, someone else better step in here because I'm lost, I also hear "c'mon guys, let's push, we're almost there, four more orders and we've got touchdown!" Talk about a second wind... One minute I'm frantically trying to hang on and the next I'm hearing the voice that will eventually take me from quicksand and pull me to solid ground. Hearing it I find my focus return, I glance over at the remaining chits, and I miraculously remember why I have all those friers full and why I have all those sauces ready.

We made it. We grin like idiots, high-fiving and slapping each other on the back. We made it, didn't run out of anything tonight, nobody complained and we got all the food out in the required amount of time. The celebration doesn't last very long because the line looks like a garbage bomb went off in it. Mixed greens, fries, pieces of bread, pasta and even chicken wings are all over the floor. The back kitchen is no better. In our rush to replenish our stock we didn't bother to put anything back where we took it from. Half empty containers and bins fill the stainless-steel tables and the walk-in cooler is also in disarray as we shoved things around in a hurry.

We are looking at at least a couple of hours of cleaning and re-stocking. We crank up the boombox sitting atop the line fridge, tuned either to CHFI or the Edge, and we all descend upon our station armed with rags, D-10 and elbow grease, knowing that a cold beverage of choice is maybe an hour or so away. As much as I dislike cleaning, this part is probably my favourite of the night. It's when all the banter starts and the camaraderie really comes through. "You can't lift that big pot full of dirty water, little one?!? No worries, step aside, I'll do it for you." Or "I'm going upstairs, do you need anything from that fridge?" Or "Oh, I cut some cukes for you earlier today, here you can use them to fill up your line." So you see... What's not to love?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's all the little things...

A friend who comes for dinner regularly has taken to asking me about cooking professionally. "C'mon, tell me some secrets. What do you guys do to the food that makes it taste so good?." Or, upon dining on my jambalaya one night, she asked if I learned to make that at the restaurant. So far I have provided her dissappointing answers: No, the jambalaya is mine, it's not a dish I make at the restaurant. As for tricks, I can't really think of any. And it's the truth.

I have been cooking professionally for only about four months and feel that I have learned very little in the way of cooking. I am a self-taught cook, and a pretty decent one at that, if I may say so myself. I knew quite a bit about cooking even before becoming a professional cook, and it was that knowledge and love of food that made me decide that I wanted to become a chef, that I wanted to be surrounded by food, that if I could do any job out there, cooking would be the job that would make my heart sing.

I am not saying I did not learn things in four months, but those things are not so much on cooking. I have learned that an Executive Chef spends a lot less time cooking than I'd previously thought. The job involves doing inventory and ordering food (i.e produce, meats, dry goods), it involves scheduling staff, it involves teaching and doing payroll. I have learned that some items on the menu need to be prepared ahead of time (rice, for example) and I have learned more about safe handling of food. My knife skills have improved without me giving any conscious thought to improving. It just happened. Cutting stuff up for at least 8 hours a day, you're bound to get better at it!

For me, so far the learning has been the little things, the things I don't even realize I am learning. The knife handling, as I mentioned. Remembering to always garnish a plate. Remembering to taste, taste, taste as you're cooking. Season your food. Serving hot food on hot plates and cold food on cold. You know, the little things...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I already have an account, b**ch!

I am shocked at myself. I didn't know I had the ability to swear so much but a few months in the kitchen will bring that out of anyone (anyone who has it in them, that is). Hell, I think my mother-in-law would hold her own with the best of us if we left her in the kitchen for a few days. Oops, did I just say 'hell'? In written form it looks worse than it sounds. Sorry, mom!

I didn't know what I would write about today, it was pretty uneventful, but I sat down anyway. In trying to log on I accidentally hit the "create new blog" button and was immediately prompted to "create a new account." "I already have an account, b**ch!" flew out of my mouth before I realized. Jen is watching me suspiciously from the couch where she is reading her book. She has no idea what I am doing, but my swearing at the computer is not a good sign to her.

I haven't seen my in-laws in two months. My last weekend off was sometime mid-May. Mid-May, for those who don't know, was only a month after the kitchen had opened for the season. Back then I was still a well-read, well-rounded nice girl. Now I'm a foul-mouthed, boot 'n cap wearing woman who, within 2 minutes of getting out of the car and onto their property, told a story that ended with my calling someone a "lying scheming ho." My brother-in-law looked at me and said "I don't think they understand you." I really hope he's joking!

Today I worked the morning shift, unusual for me. Our breakfast cook is a firecracker so the best thing is to stay out of her way as much as possible. "It's ok, I'll just do prep all day" I thought to myself. I'd just finished making our daily soup when the sous-chef rolled in and started pulling me in all directions. Ham needed to be sliced, and oh, what about those sandwiches, and can I wash leaf lettuce? All this in between putting out lunch orders.

Off I went, from one task to another, all the while watching the clock on the wall. I love my job but I haven't had a weekend with my partner in almost 3 months, so you could understand my excitement. Everyone knew I was off to the cottage. Everyone. With 30 minutes left on my shift I am told we are now out of grilled chicken breast and a number of other items that I swear were not on the prep board earlier in the day, and can I take care of them? Blood roared in my ears and my mouth went dry. No way man. I am so out of here. Don't do this to me. Not today. I never say no to staying late and always run when Chef calls me in early, but you're not doing this to me today. I plan to be sitting on the dock at 5 pm with a Manhattan in hand, listening to two months worth of stories. Of course I wasn't about to say any of this out loud but I imagined letting go of a frighening string of profanities.

I did end up leaving, and only an hour later than planned, but near-tears angry and probably alienating a couple of colleagues. "What, she just 'f***s off?' Look at the schedule, shithead, I was supposed to be gone long ago! It took all of two hours for me to put it in a bubble and blow it all away, until my dear family asked, as I was sitting down, "How was your day?"

Oh, but I do love my job. Really.