Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Great Day

Why was it a great day you might ask? Well, for the first time since I started working at this club I was scheduled the morning shift. Since I am a morning person, this is great. It would also give me another evening off and I don't think I need to tell you how great those are when you are in the hospitality industry. But the main reason today turned out great is that it would be just Chef and I in the kitchen. Great opportunity for learning, especially since all the male golfers from our club went golfing elsewhere today so there would be very few food orders coming through.

At 9 am, after some standing around, Chef tells me that we'll all be doing a "black box" this week. "Black Box" is essentially a test where one is given random ingredients by the Chef, in a bus bin, and the cook has exactly three hours to come up with an app, a main and a dessert. Points are given for presentation and taste and one can also lose points for sanitation. For example, if your table is a mess and you have stuff all over the place, you WILL lose points.

Of course I am glad I have some advance warning so I can prepare instead of just showing up for work one day and being told "here's your black box, you have three hours starting now. Go!" The downside of having an advance warning is that I now have the anxiety of knowing I will be tested and am already agonizing over what I would make, given what ingredients. It's a great challenge and a great learning experience, sure, I just don't want to bomb. I can't just make a bruschetta or a pizza with arugula, leeks and cheese. Or a tomato stuffed with eggplant salad. We're talking fine dining, pile stuff up high presentation, lots of color (ideally).

Lauren got her black box test today. She had a pork tenderloin, a piece of salmon and one of sea bass. She had a tub of ricotta cheese, some berries, two pears and an apple. I think she was also given some scallions (translation: green onions), green, yellow and red peppers and two handfuls of rice. Turns out her rice was overcooked, she stacked two pieces of salmon for her app and apparently this is a no-no (I was eavesdropping), she plated way too much starch for the main course and she didn't cut her tenderloin in half to show the stuffing she'd made. I also heard Chef telling her the tenderloin looked boiled instead of pan seared --it lacked the colour you obtain through that high-heat sear. All in all I think she did ok given the ingredients. Not sure what the stuff tasted like, I didn't get to try it as my shift ended and I went home.

As I was leaving Chef tells me to show up early tomorrow so I can make the dessert for him and also to take advantage of the time he can spend with me now that the season is coming to a close. "It's hard to learn when you're working on the line. You should come early, on your own time, and I'll teach you." This makes sense to me so I am showing up at 2 pm tomorrow, instead of 5 pm. Of course I am fully prepared to be presented with my gray bin as soon as I come in the door.

Ah, but I got sidetracked. Before Lauren showed up at noon, Chef and I were alone in the kitchen. He was quizzing me about desserts, and what desserts do I make? When I answered honestly that I am not much of a baker and that generally my talent lies in savoury stuff instead of sweet he brought a note book and told me to copy his dessert recipe for a cold lemon souffle. After I copied down the ingredients I noticed there was no procedure written down. I looked up at Chef and said "Umm... there's no recipe here, only the ingredients". His response "Bella, you will write the procedures down after we do the dessert. Go ahead, gather your ingredients."

So I obediently collect three eggs, two lemons, sugar, heavy cream and some gelatin and measure them all. He zests the lemons and says to me "I want you to mince this. Mince it so much that if you so much as breathed on it, it would move." Of course I didn't take that last part literally but I start mincing. He leaves. After I minced the zest to bits I go find him in the dining room, watching the news. I am about to open my mouth to tell him I've minced it but as soon as he sees me he said "It's not fine enough. Go back." I thought he was kidding so I must have raised my eyebrows, or given him some look. "I'm serious," he says. "You need to mince for about 20 minutes." I'm thinking he is probably just making fun of me, like that one time he told me to measure 6 peppercorns for each of the 150 plates we were doing for a wedding because each plate would be getting 6 peppercorns, no more, no less. It turnes out they were jerking me around for shits and giggles. I guess it's better than when they sent the dishwasher girl to get the bacon stretcher, or they gave some guy a bucket and told him to return with a bucket of steam.

But I digress... I go back and mince some more until that zest is now finer than white sugar, you can't even tell it's lemon zest if not for the smell. We beat the egg yolks with the sugar and the lemon juice and zest, then we fold in the egg whites and cream which were also whipped until soft peaks were formed. Pour it into your mould of choice (we used little ramekins), refrigerate the sucker and you're done. An hour later we sampled it and it was indeed very good. Lemony, fluffy, not heavy at all. Chef told me he won the gold medal with that dessert a few years back in a culinary competition. It was not just the souffle, it was accompanied by something else, but I was so thrilled that he shared it with me.

I was instructed to make it again tonight, for practice, and I would make it again for him tomorrow. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if my black box will contain 2 lemons, some cream and sugar, as well as some gelatin among other things.

If you're into cooking, why not try cooking a black box dinner tonight? Just ask a roommate, friend, or significant other to randomly pick items from your fridge (assuming you have more than pizza and beer in there) and see what you can make. Oh and, do not use any blenders, food processors or any gadget. Everything must be done by hand.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Makes YOU Tick?

This morning I am thinking of all the reasons I love cooking as a profession. I was going to say "cooking for a living" but then realized I am not really making a living as the line cook wages I've been getting are barely covering my car payment, insurance premiums and utilities. I am, however, hoping that one day in the not too distant future I'll reap the rewards for the sacrifices I am making in the present day.

This rainy morning, can there be anything more comforting than turning on the fireplace in the kitchen, maybe putting a pot of soup on the stove and curling up with a book as the soup simmers and the fire crackles?

Food has always been so comforting to me and of all the jobs out there I can't see myself doing anything different now that I've discovered how happy I am in a kitchen. Michael Ruhlman, in a passage from his book "The Making of a Chef", wrote: "I have no doubt that there are people in this world, toiling away, in offices and backhoes alike, who are fundamentally unhappy because they never tried working in kitchens."

The work is monotonous though, aside from being physical, so you have to really like it, deep down. It has to be in your blood or you can't do it. It has to be bordering on obsession, almost like a border collie is obsessed with herding sheep.

I cannot tell you how many times I have to make a caesar salad, for example, during lunch or dinner service. It's become the easiest thing to do, and I am happy to see it on the order chit as I am quick at it and I am able to save precious moments that I might need to spend on a different dish. On a busy night I probably make around 30 caesars, both as a side dish, a small or a large portion, if not more. How can I still like it? I love it though. I love it infinitely more than making the same phone call, over and over, like I did when I was an insurance adjuster. "Hi, how are you? I am calling to let you know your vehicle is a total loss. A write-off." And then proceed to explain the steps that one would need to follow during their insurance claim. Phone call after phone call after phone call. Really, I'd rather make caesar, after caesar, after caesar, for half the pay!

Tell me, what do YOU do for a living, and do YOU still enjoy it? What would make you tick, if you could do anything?!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Home Is... Where Your Knives Are

I felt groggy all day even after sleeping off yesterday's 12-hour drive that would bring me back home. Although I got very little accomplished -- maybe it takes some time to get back into the daily routine -- I did cook dinner and it was then I truly felt I had returned home.

We had very little in the way of groceries and I didn't feel up to going shopping just yet. Luckily, the chicken breasts in the freezer and my habit of keeping a well-stocked pantry at all times saved the day. Spices would combine to form a moroccan spice rub for my chicken breasts, cous cous would be our starch and a quick apple cinnamon sauce topped off the creation. Unfortunately I overcooked the chicken so the apple compote garnish/topping stole the day. I sauteed a small diced apple with a pinch of cinnamon, added a splash of chicken stock (brandy would have been swell but there's none in the house), reduced it and swirled in a knob of butter at the end.
For dessert, I experimented with an idea I had about "apples and oranges" and a twist on the traditional basket of fries. I took apple and treated it as if it were a potato. I cut it into matchsticks, put it on a baking sheet, sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar and stuck it in a hot 450F oven. I thought they would come out crispy as fries. They didn't, so next time I will actually fry them, to see if I can obtain a crispy apple french fry. To serve them, I cut an orange in half, juiced it carefully, scooped out all the flesh to create two same size bowls which I filled with the roasted apple sticks. The finishing touch? A cinnamon stick, of course. I have to come up with a different 'basket' idea, one easier to obtain than hand juicing oranges and scraping the flesh with a pairing knife. It is too labour intensive and too messy to mass produce.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A day of Less than Mediocre Food

Today's food would be kind that you pick up off the side of the highway, mostly because there will be no time to stop and have a decent meal if I want to be home before midnight. We have decided to stay in Washington for a few extra hours so we'll be getting home around midnight instead of 10 pm. The last leg of the trip is 10 hours long so if you count stopping for gas and a quick bite, well, you do the math. At least my day will start off right with a cup (or two) of organic coffee brewed "the turkish way", in a pot.

Yesterday's dinner was at an Indian fast food place. I wish they had these where I live -- if they do, I do not know of them. At the front of the restaurant -- because there is a restaurant in the back, through a different door, there is a large buffet-style display. You know, chafing dishes, sneeze guard, the works. Various dishes are displayed there with a little card above them so that it makes ordering easy and so that one also knows what main ingredients are in each dish. We brought home butter chicken, lamb curry, alu gobi and some lentil dish whose name I don't remember. Each came with a choice of naan or rice so we opted for two dishes with naan and two with rice. The naan were huge, I swear they were the size of a medium pizza. The food was delicious, I'll be thinking of it when I'm eating Subway or something similar by the side of the road today with a dog in my lap.

Friday, September 25, 2009

On the Road Again

After a mandatory stop at IHOP for breakfast we will take to the road again. The first leg of our trip is going to be shorter than the second as we will stop in Arlington, VA over night. A long-time friend of mine lives there and on our way down to South Carolina I realized that we passed Arlington, VA by only about 30 minutes. Naturally, I got on the phone and told her about this, so we planned that we would stop there on the way back and stay overnight. Why stay at some random hotel when a friend I've known since I was 15 is 30 minutes away? Last time we saw them was in June of 2008 when Jen and I went down there for four days, so this would be a perfect time to catch up. If your friend lives 10 hours away and you just happen to be in the neighborhood, it would be a crime not to stop. I think she would have been disappointed if I had told her, later on, that I was so close and didn't stop for a visit.

For those of you who don't know this, Arlington, VA is immediately across the Potomac River from Washington DC. My friend lives minutes away from the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian. In fact, I can see these from the building she lives in. Now I'm thinking I should go to the Smithsonian tomorrow, last time I was there I failed to visit Julia Child's kitchen housed in the American History Museum.

Although I am looking forward to being home, I will miss these warm warm temperatures and, of course, the beach. Last night as I was headed to dinner around 7 pm, the temperature in Myrtle Beach was 31C! Of course I'll also miss dining out every day, it was a nice treat. I must see if they sell grits in Canada to try and make some. I liked it. The crunchiness and the texture, as well as the look of it, reminded me of polenta, undercooked polenta. I found a place last night that serves dishes with grits for breakfast, but I really want to stop at IHOP as well, Jen's never been and I have not been in probably 8 years or so. I wonder if they still have that RootyTooty Fresh and Fruity on their menu. In fact, let me see... let's check their menu. Oh my, they do still have it! It's a signature favorite!

Ok, just think about this. My last time at IHOP was seven years ago and I had Rooty Tooty Fresh 'n Fruity. The first time I had the dish was in fact over 10 years ago when I was still living in Ohio and taking road trips like this one. The fact that I remember this (how can you forget such a name for a dish though?), and the fact that they still serve it, so many years later, really is remarkable. It is, in fact, just as remarkable as me remembering precisely where I parked the car in Charleston during my last visit (also more than a decade ago, in 1997) and the waterfront walkway, as well as how to get there. I got there by feel, by memory, with no map. A map would have been useless as I did not remember the name of the street, or the name of the park where we had to be. If you think it's unreal, go on, ask Jen!

Oh, such bragging has made me hungry. Time to wake Jen up so we can pack up the last of our things and go. Till next time...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rockefeller Raw Bar

Yesterday's dinner was at an establishment called Rockefeller Raw Bar. I wouldn't call it a restaurant, although it does serve food. Good food. The place has more of a diner feel to it. You can perch yourself on a stool at the bar to enjoy a cold one and a smoke -- yep, indoor smoking not banned in this place -- or you can take a seat in a captain chair at any of the tables in there. The tables, although not many, have high turnover. The place is packed with locals, which is exactly what I have been searching for all week long.

Finding the place was another story. We looked for it up and down Myrtle Beach. We had the address. There was no 3613 on Kings Hwy though. And there was also no traffic light at the intersection of 37 St and Kings Hwy. After going around about four times, the fourth time on foot, we decided to call the place. On the phone, April promptly advised us that they are located in North Myrtle Beach, and NOT the north side of Myrtle Beach. So basically we were in the wrong town. After driving north for another 15 minutes we reached Barefoot Landing, just one mile south of where we needed to be. That's it, we were one mile north. At which time Jen, who was driving, decides to turn into one of the parking lots there. At my puzzled look, she tells me she wasn't sure if I still wanted to go there for dinner since I was just sitting in the passenger seat, "bitching". Now you have to know that although I have been stewing I haven't actually said anything for the last 20 minutes of the drive so when accused of bitching I snapped. "What do you mean I'm bitching? I haven't said a goddamn thing! I haven't said a goddamn thing!" I furiously throw my cell phone -- I was still holding it although I had made the phone call 20 minutes or so ago -- on the dashboard. I must have thrown it pretty hard. It went to where the dashboard meets the windshield and it must have bounced a bit because the next thing I noticed was the large spider-web crack in my windshield. Later Jen would tell me she actually said "bitchy" and not "bitching", and that it may have been a poor choice of words given that I was merely sulking, and indeed not saying much... Now you tell me!

Well, after all this of course we decided that we were going to have a meal, gosh darn it, and enjoy it! So we did. Oysters Rockefeller and Scallops wrapped in bacon to start and for entrees I had the Shrimp 'n Grits (my first time trying grits) and Jen had a grouper dinner. Grouper seems to a fixture among dining establishments here. The food was good. Not sure it was worth the $600 I'll likely have to pay for my windshield replacement, but it was good.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Charleston, Georgetown and Cafe Paradiso...

So last night we went to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville only to turn around and leave. It was not a restaurant, although I am sure they serve food. It was a tourist trap, full of screaming children and balloon animals. It was Rainforest Cafe meets Captain Hook, or some such thing. I just wanted good food and atmosphere and unfortunately this did not look like it could provide either. We had to find another place for dinner, which we did, nearby. The place is not worth mentioning, neither is the food.

Today we got in the car for our trip to Charleston, SC. We would stop in Georgetown on the way, since Georgetown is pretty much in between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. In Charleston we parked the car on the waterfront and explored on foot -- the only way to get around without going crazy. It is still packed with tourists and it is hard to imagine what it is like during peak season. The houses along East Bay Street's waterfront look something like this (see below). Can you imagine someone actually lives there? This is a residence, and all the houses along that strip look like this.

After we walked around for over an hour in search of a place with a patio we found Cafe Paradiso. My plans of finding Bubba's did not work out as the heat outside was unbearable and there was no way to leave Charlie in the car. This worked out well though, the place was very inviting so we would have our lunch here. We each had a fried flounder hoagie with fries. Charlie had to settle for the occasional fry we threw his way...

Once we were watered and fed it was time to try to find the car and head back to Myrtle Beach. Another hour on foot was too much for Charlie and Jen who were both asleep as soon as the car started moving. I think I'll have no trouble leaving Charlie alone in the room tonight as we go to dinner.

I have not given up on food around here, there's another place I am going to check out. It's an oyster bar. Wish me luck, so far Bummz was the only place that met expectations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


While on the beach yesterday I had the good fortune of talking to some locals who were kind enough to point out some restaurants that were not buffet-style.

There are two main strips I have discovered so far. One is Ocean Blvd and the other is Kings Hwy (or US-17). The former consists of hotels, motels, resorts and very little else. The latter is peppered with buffet-style family restaurants. I guess at one point in time these were coveted and the market became over saturated. I am not a fan of buffets and, although I was forced by circumstances to eat in one the first night, do not plan to repeat the experience. But how do you find good food places? I discovered that even armed with the laptop and a wireless connection, unless you know what you are looking for, you can search for many hours and still not be sure if what you've found will be good. This is why I was happy to meet Dianne and Ed. They have moved to Myrtle Beach from Ohio a few years back and were happy to drop a few must-eat-at restaurant names.

One of them was Bummz, the only restaurant actually on the beach. It is on the same road that our hotel is located on so we took their advice. Slowly driving up Ocean Blvd where the speed limit is 25 mph we found Bummz about 8 minutes later. They have a large patio overlooking the beach, with nice palm trees and other tropical vegetation. They also have a nice guitarist -- on our visit the guitarist happened to be female -- and it is beyond words nice to eat your meal while listening to live music and having the ocean waves crashing on the shore as background noise. We stayed for two hours, because Charlie was alone in the hotel room and House premiered at 8 pm, but I could have easily stayed longer. I had the grilled grouper with rice and coleslaw and Jen had a burger (BORING) because the kitchen was out of the stuffed flounder. We'll go back once more before leaving as I want to take some picture and sit there once more. Bummz is definitely a place everyone should visit when in Myrtle Beach. We'll be back for sure.

The other place Dianne mentioned was Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. Jen had found a brochure for it at the South Carolina visitor centre and we were planning to go anyway, but to hear Dianne mention it as another must-visit, well, it cemented my decision. She said that whenever they have visitors from out of town, they always take them to Margaritaville. So today we're leaving Charlie once again in search of good food and atmosphere.

Finally, when I told Dianne we are going to Charleston one day this week she told me we must try "Bubba's". I thought I didn't hear her right, so I asked... Bubba? Her response was "Yeah, Bubba Gump's, like you know, in that movie?" Of course I know the movie, who doesn't? So we'll likely be dining at Bubba's tomorrow.

So much food, so little time...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Surf's Up!

It's been a rather long drive to Myrtle Beach. After leaving home Saturday morning, we arrived here at our hotel only about two hours ago. We spent Saturday night at the Comfort Inn in Winchester, VA, just off I-81 South. We were glad to finally find a place that allowed pets. We had stopped several times. We tried the more popular Best Western and Mariott as well as your no-name side road motel. None allowed pets. When Comfort Inn said yes we were happy to finally be off the road. The room was clean, quiet, offered complimentary wireless as well as complimentary cold breakfast. The wireless thrilled me more than the breakfast, to be honest with you, although the thimble of orange juice I tried there was good.

As for Myrtle Beach, again we had limited options as far as lodging goes because only some places allow pets. We are at Ocean Park Hotel, a place I had actually booked in advance. The ocean view room is clean and nice. It, in fact, exceeds my expectations. I know that doesn't say much, I kept the expectations low given the price and some of the reviews on trip advisor. The guy at the front desk was pleasant and polite. The building is indeed on the beach and the exciting part is that Charlie is allowed on the beach as well so I won't have to leave him in the room alone.

Food wise... I don't know just yet. So far I had four meals since leaving home. The first meal was in Pennsylvania, at a place called Sheetz, a gas station/sandwich bar serving made to order food. At Sheetz I went for the advertised hot dogs, 2 for $0.99, toppings were extra. Instead, I walked out with two hot sandwiches: steak on a ciabatta bun, both with mozzarella, mushrooms and sauteed peppers and onions. The neat part about Sheetz is that they have touch screens to order your food so you don't place your order talking to a person, you select from the touch screen. You can choose Hot dog, or cold sandwiches, or subs, or hot sandwiches, or paninis. Once you've selected one, there are several options within each. It really was neat-o. We ate the sandwiches sitting on the curb (there were no benches or anything to sit on outside, rather disappointing) beside our car, greasy sandwich paper in our laps. The sandwiches were good. Jen said it was the best sandwich she's had in a while. I think she must have been starved. The thing was tasty but not the best sandwich by far.

Our second meal was a small Papa John's pizza, "The Works", delivered to our hotel in Winchester. No comment.

Today's lunch was a Wendy's sandwich for me, salad for jen, eaten picnic style, on a blanket on someone's private property no doubt. There was no sign against tresspassing so we quicly eat our food and bailed.

Finally, dinner in Myrtle Beach was had at the Seafood World buffet. Again, Charlie was the problem. We didn't want to leave him alone in the hotel room so soon after we'd gotten here so we went in search of a take-out place. Seafood World has a brochure in our hotel's lobby so we went for it. The buffet was something like $21.99 and one was allowed to take out two boxes. It was, as the name suggests, mostly sea food. Tilapia, grouper and atlantic salmon, broiled, fried or poached. There was also shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and other buffet fare (chicken, rice, potato, and so on). The rice was a slightly undercooked and some of the fish was overcooked. They were tasty. I can't believe that I went to a buffet, especially since as a cook I know all about buffets. What they are, what food they serve, what to stay away from while there... everything. Aah, the things we do when we're hungry, tired and with dog in tow. Hopefully we'll survive.

Maybe tomorrow I can go to Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville". What can I say, I am such a tourist!

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I must have sucker written on my forehead or something. There is no other way to explain why I am always the one being asked to go the extra mile: make fish and chips to order, make sandwiches when everyone else is cleaning and ready to go home, be on line at all times while others are taking breaks or washing a dish here and there. Maybe I'm being immature about it and maybe it's just self preservation. I don't like feeling like I am being taken advantage of.

I am not making this up... I would be mopping the floor while more than one colleague would stand there, watching, waiting for me to finish, instead of punching out and going home. I believe it is called milking the clock?!?

Today we ran out of battered fish for our fish and chips. Normally, we 86 it and move on. Today I was told by the Sous-Chef that I must do them to order. This means mixing the batter and have it ready -- read:in my way -- so that I can batter fish should I have orders for it. And of course, as Murphy would have it, today there were no less than ten orders of fish and chips where maybe I had three all week. So I flour the fish, dip it in batter and, holding it by the tail, I lower it into the frier but without dropping it in. By doing this I prevent the fish from sinking to the bottom of the frier. You see, when you hold it by the tail in the hot oil, the batter on the submersed part cooks and forms a flotation device of sorts if you will. It will help the fish to float when you finally let go.

As you might imagine, playing with the fish and batter in this manner is messy. My fingers become caked with batter and there is no way I can touch anything until I wash up. This almost puts me behind the eight ball. Dinner service is so tight that sometimes I barely have time to read the chits, let alone stop every few orders, dip battered fish in hot oil with my bare hands and run back to wash the sticky goop off my fingers.

The kicker? The Sous tells me, toward the end of the evening, that next time I come in I should prioritize better before starting to prep. Traying bacon and placing pemeal into inserts is not as important as making fish and chips or sandwiches. Well, maybe next time you have a board full of items for the MEP you will want to schedule someone to come in early, not with only an hour to spare before dinner. But no, of course I didn't say any of that. I nodded and left the building.

Friday, September 18, 2009

All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun

I'm a little worried that I'll be called in to work today before I can finish packing for my trip and before I get a chance to do all the last minute things that I need to do. As I sit here typing I see dark, storm clouds slowly taking over the sky over my house. I also know the schedule today has the first p.m cook coming in at 3 pm which means the Sous will be alone in the kitchen after the breakfast cook is supposed to leave at 1 pm. If it rains, it will force all the golfers off the course (and there are 350 of them today according to the T-sheet) and into the dining room. To say they are short-staffed for this afternoon would be an understatement, hence my trepidation at being called in.

Today is my last shift before my vacation and I am glad I am scheduled to be in at 4 pm (instead of 2 pm). It'll make the work day a breeze to get through because, as you should know by now, dinner service starts at 5 pm so I only have an hour to kill. I mean prep.

Some tartar sauce, some rice and maybe some romaine and the prep hour will be gone. Dinner will be over in a flash if we are expecting that many people and then I'll be hanging up my white jacket and pants for a whole week. Can't wait!

I feel the need to preface next week's blog, provided I am able to find a wireless connection and blog at all. It'll likely be a break from kitchen talk from the cook's perspective and become food talk from a diner's perspective. I plan to eat my way through Myrtle Beach and Charleston in hopes to find some southern cuisine favorites, so next week's blog might be more of a traveling foodie blog. Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

If You're Looking for Karma, She Was In Our Kitchen Today.

Cooking rice, cutting fruit, cleaning romaine hearts and slicing peppers into julienne strips were the only things written on the M.E.P board when I got to work today. I don't have to tell you that it took us under two hours to get it all done, even with the interruptions of cooking staff meals every now and then. We were now in a position to prep ahead, which we did, and clean, which we also did.

A few minutes before 5 pm we had a two-top order pizzas and we snickered at how overwhelmed we were by this order, how we might just have to call in someone from upstairs to help us. In our boredom induced near-comatose state we didn't read the early order as a sign of things to come. We should have. Having diners in before 5 pm usually signals dinner service would be busy. Today we shrugged at the early order, chuckled at how easy the night is going to be, and karma got us good. We got blindsided. Around 6:30 pm the dining room was full of guests who I am convinced talked to each other out there on the course, synchronized their watches and decided to all descend upon us at exactly the same time! Luckily, one of the banquet kitchen girls would stop by to check on us just before clocking out and she ended up staying an extra hour to give the saute/grill/saucier guy a hand!

We are starting to cut down on both kitchen staff and front of house staff (servers) so there were only three people on line tonight, plus the kitchen help, a newly hired 25 year-old Dominican girl. On my station we were fine as there were two of us. The hot side would be handled tonight only by our Chef de Partie, a short-tempered Jamaican guy who can crank out food pretty fast but has a tendency to throw pans around and gets angry rather easily. Once he got some help and managed to avoid getting in the weeds we were all fine. The rush would be over as suddenly as it started. It didn't just taper off, it simply stopped.

As for my wounded finger, I only went through three bandaids and finger cots today. Promising!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Slow, Slow Wednesday... and some blood.

Our knives are sharp. Want to know how sharp? I was putting together a sandwich and as I reached for my spreader which was on the cutting board, next to the knife, the tip of my middle finger merely touched the knife's blade. Slice! That was all it took for the tip of my finger to start bleeding. Dropping everything, I went to the sink to examine the wound. A superficial cut but a bleeding one nonetheless. Two minutes later the band-aid is on, a finger condom is over it and I'm good to go. Problem is that every time I go wash my hands water gets in there and wets the band-aid which then falls off, so all night I'm playing in the first-aid kit. Not to mention how funny it looks as it is my right middle finger that's afflicted, and how that will interfere with other activities, such as... typing. It stings!

Today would be another slow day, made even slower by the fact that I am two days away from a week's vacation in sunny (or stormy, according to the weather channel) South Carolina. Saturday morning Jen and I are packing the car and taking a road trip with Myrtle Beach as our final destination and beautiful Charleston, SC also on the itinerary. I last visited Charleston and Myrtle Beach more than ten years ago and I am excited to revisit both places and be a witness to Jen experiencing them for the first time. Our only problem will be Charlie who we've decided to take with us thus limiting our options as far as lodging goes. I'm sure everything will work out in the end but it is cause for some trepidation. At the moment we are also trying to find a room providing wireless service so that I might keep the promise of blogging daily.

I'll be sure to let you know how it all turned out but now I must give my sore middle finger a rest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How do I like the sound of being "Chef the Partie?"

Although today was my day off I still had to do the five minute drive to work in order to attend a 3 pm staff meeting. Within the first ten minutes of this so called meeting I learned that only the people presently at the table had been asked to attend -- meaning the people not in attendance hadn't been invited, not that they were late or haven't bothered showing (as I first thought).

I've attended my share of corporate meetings in the years spent working in the insurance industry so I was prepared to get this over with quietly. I was going to sit there, listen attentively, nod every now and then but have no hope that anything will actually change as a result of this meeting. Most of you know what I am talking about and the rest of you, well, maybe one day you will.

The Sous-Chef talked about cleaning; specifically, that she'd like to see more of it being done and to see us taking initiative instead of her having to tell us to sweep under and behind the stove. Essentially she's trying to treat us like the grown-ups that we supposedly are. Chef also wondered why everything was stocked up and cleaned perfectly each time he was opening for breakfast, yet he was getting complaints that it was less so when the breakfast cook was opening. Some grievances were brought forth when we went around the table. I had none. Well, let's just say there were no comments that I cared to voice because I think there are certain things you just don't say to your boss no matter how trusting he would like to make you feel. That, coupled with knowing my place in the chain of command, makes me a rather quiet meeting participant.

What the meeting boiled down to was that Chef is building his team for next season already. He sees a lot of potential in the people present and would hope that we return. Four of us will be going to school in the winter and he wanted to make it clear that although he would like us to give him another year in return, out of loyalty, we are not bound to him and free to leave if we choose. "People helped me along the way too so I am not going to give with one hand and hold on to you with another." Sounds like a nice guy, eh? In truth, I really like him and if I have any issues with the kitchen, the issues are not with Chef. I wish he spent more time in the bistro so that I learn from him a little more but aside from that, there's not a whole lot I can complain about when it comes to the Executive Chef.

Oh, the most exciting thing? He's decided that he will train one of the girls also starting Basic Skills this winter, K, into a full fledged banquet Chef and that he would like it if either myself or this other girl, will step up and be his new Chef de Partie as he does not want to hire it from outside. Pretty cool, huh?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A day in the life of... a Garde Manger

"Garde Manger" sounds so much better than "line cook", doesn't it? That's what I am in our kitchen, in case you're wondering. The keeper of the food, sort of. I am responsible for hot and cold appetizers, salads, sandwiches and a few of the mains requiring the use of deep friers.

The job of a cook, although mostly physical, relies quite a bit on memory. A cook has to remember what components go into a particular dish as well as how to plate it and garnish it. It might become second nature after a week of doing the same dish, but at the beginning it's a struggle to keep it all straight, especially when one is dealing with a four page menu.

Here are the dishes I am responsible for on the current menu (ingredients and recipes are excluded from this description):

Appetizers (apps): Spring Rolls, Calamari, Bruschetta, Appetizer platter (for two and for four)

Salads: Caesar, Mixed Greens (with a variety of dressings), Greek, Sonoma, Tandori and Southwestern

Entrees: Beef Ribs, Chicken Fingers, Fish and Chips, Wings, Club Sandwich, Lemon Sage Panini, Pulled Pork Sandwich, Kids Pizza, Kids Pasta, Kids Fingers.

Sides: Onion Rings, Sweet Potato Fries, French Fries, and all the salads listed above that can be served as a side dish, on a smaller half moon plate.

If that doesn't look like a lot, let me tell you it can be insane during a busy dinner service, because a chit can look like this:

1 Bruschetta
1 Small Caesar
1 Calamari
1 Spring Rolls
****Serve First****
1 Grouper (no potato, no veg, sub balsamic salad)
1 Beef Ribs
1 Mahi Mahi
1 Fish and Chips
1 1 lb wings, Honey garlic, sweet potatoes

It would go like this:

I drop the spring rolls because they take the longest to cook and also I can do something else while they're frying. After I drop the spring rolls, I grab the calamari and drop it into the flour and seasoning mixture, toss toss toss and when they're coated enough I drop the, in the frier. I turn around to toss the caesar salad and by the time I got that on a plate the calamari is ready to come up (they take hardly any time to cook -- cook 'em more and they're rubbery as hell). Put the caesar in the window and grab the calamari. Season it and plate it with its corresponding dip. Quickly slice the bruschetta bread, in the toaster it goes. Turn around and grab the spring rolls. Cut them, plate them, put them in the window. Bruschetta bread now toasted, bruschetta mix goes on it, in the window. PICK UP! Run to the back fridge, grab the beef ribs. Heat them up, sauce them, stick them in the oven to finish them off, drop the fries for the "FIsh and CHips" but not the fish which takes considerably less than the fries do. Throw down the "red fries" too (we call the sweet potatoes "red fries" in our kitchen). While the ribs are cookin' and the fries are, well, frying, I jam tartar sauce and coleslaw into little ramekins for the fish and chips. Grab the wings, drop them and the fish, grab the plates that would hold the fish and the wings, respectively. I pull the fries up (they're done), plate them. A few more seconds and that fish is done as well. Arrange the fish on top of the fries, put it in the window. The wings are up, I plate those, complete with blue cheese or ranch dip and crudites. I don't have to worry about plating the beef ribs, the saute station guy will plate those, I just had to get them in.

Oh and... this is just one chit. Picture 10 of these in a row and know that, although the chits are done more or less in the order they came in, you can't really ignore all of them and focus just on the one you're working on. You need to know what comes next because if you have friers empty, you can drop the next chicken finger order while you're plating orders from the previous chit. Right? Oh and my food better not be sitting in the window too long because I'll have to redo it. So not only do I have to pay attention to what I am doing, I have to talk (yell) to the saute station person to see where he or she's at. If the hot side does not have their food ready, my part better not be hanging out in the window. It'll be dead and I'll have to redo it. Caesar salad and french fries go limp quickly. REALLY quickly. So unless I want to redo that Caesar, I better not have it ready too long before the rest of the food on that order is ready.

Do you get now why I love my job? It's so... addicting, for lack of a better word. Once the chits starts rolling in, I get caught up in this chaos, but an organized chaos, and I lose track of time.

Did I mention I also do desserts? So every now and then I have to leave the line and run back to put together a brownie sundae, to plate some fig strudel, or the ever popular chocolate-caramel-peanut butter bar. I do it all. I'm a one-woman circus on the days I'm by myself. When there's two of us it's just as crazy because I now have to pay attention to what the guy next to me is doing, in addition to focusing on my own stuff. So if you're wondering why there's so much yelling in the kitchen, it's because we have to communicate and we have to make ourselves heard over the rest of the noise. I don't have time to look to my left and figure out what that cook is doing, so I shout out "where are you now?" or "what table are you working on?" or "can I drop those fries?"

Now you know what I do every day, in addition to cleaning squid and making tuna and egg salad sandwiches. I also prep coleslaw and tartar sauce, I make balsamic vinaigrette by hand (using a blender turns it pasty, you have to whisk by hand) and bruschetta mix (and you know all about that if you've been reading). I julienne peppers, slice and dice cucumbers, grill vegetables, dice feta cheese in neat little cubes that go on the greek salad and some pizzas. I batter cod tails, portion rice and pasta, make croutons and bacon bits ... ok, you get the picture. If that weren't enough work, we clean the kitchen before leaving for the night. I am sure you'll agree with me when I say that I really need that glass of wine -- ok, fine, those two glasses of wine -- when I get home.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sibbald Point Provincial Park

"You're packing us a lunch and we're going to the beach" said Jen at 10 this morning. I dutifully went to find the Coleman cooler in our basement, dragged it up the stairs and filled it with sandwiches, sliced cukes and tomatoes, pitas and dip, fresh raspberries and drinking water (the latter was for Charlie the Chihuahua).

Half an hour later the car was loaded and we were on route to Wasaga Beach. We never got there. As it would take us over an hour to get to Wasaga Beach we detoured and stopped at Sibbald Point instead. Entrance fee was $13 (per vehicle). There were discounts for seniors as well as the disabled but we qualified for neither. Another $13 got us an inflatable water mattress (green), two bottles of water and one of root beer. It would be all we needed for an awesome day outdoors. Charlie the Chihuahua will sleep well tonight. Unfortunately not the same can be said for Jen whose back soaked up all the afternoon sun before I could get any...

Rolled in back home around 7 pm, I threw together a quick dinner (vegetable and tilapia fillet parcels: one tilapia fillet atop julienned peppers, leeks and zucchini with a splash of white wine and a dollop of butter, all wrapped tightly in aluminum foil as I had no parchment paper) and we headed out again for a meeting of the Jens. Two of my friends have wives named Jen, and my Jen makes three. Whenever the six of us get together, I call it a meeting of the Jens. It was funnier when we all worked together. Every day at work we'd exchange pleasantries: "How's Jen?" "Good, and Jen?" "And how about your Jen?" It was cause for some serious eye rolling and chuckling from the rest of the kitchen staff!

We're finally home. I had to cut our visit short because although I took two Benadryls I feel like a herd of elephants has taken up residence on my chest. For someone as severely allergic to cats as I am even spending 10 minutes in a household run by felines (my friends have three) makes it impossible to breathe. Now, as I am waiting for my congested chest to loosen up so I can go to sleep, I am planning an email to my friend whereby I am advising him of my intent to never visit again (until next summer when we can sit on the patio) and that he should come over here if he wants to spend some time with us. Think it'll fly?

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Still Love Saturdays

I needn't have been worried about finding work to do today. At exactly 3:40 pm my Sous-Chef picked up the phone and called off the two girls who were to start at 5 pm. "Too many people in the kitchen," she said. She is right about that one, anyone could tell you, and I am happy I was scheduled for 3 pm and not 5 pm, otherwise it would have been me getting the night off. Being called off would have been bitter sweet however. I would have liked the time off, sure, who wouldn't? But since I am not a student and this is not a part time job for me, not to mention that I don't live with my parents and I have a mortgage to pay, I would have missed the eight hours come pay-day.

So today, instead of having to look hard for something to do, I walked in and prepped the squid and made egg salad for sandwiches, with dinner creeping up on us before I knew it. I won't bore you with those details for you heard them plenty times now, I'll just say that I was happy it was busy. I am off tomorrow you see, and didn't really feel like going in to work today (there, I've said it) so the dinner rush helped the passing of time. Also, and this has to be said, even on those days when it's hard to get going and head in to work, once I'm serving dinner, it's all forgotten and I'm one with my food. I even escaped without having to sweep and mop today, the Sous-Chef taking on the unpleasant task. All in all it was a good day. Tomorrow I am turning off my phone, this is one Saturday I won't be working, I don't care who calls me. I am already looking forward to Starbucks on the patio and to the two hours I'll be spending with my old friend the Globe and Mail and nothing is going to spoil it. C'mon Saturday! On second thought, maybe I'll just wait another hour; the paper will get delivered and I can get a jump start on it, with a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Aah, the things that please me...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Clean, Clean, Then Clean Some More

I got to work today at 1 pm and found out the bistro was closed until 3 pm. There was a golf tournament going on and the golfers were being fed by the banquet staff in the upstairs dining area. I am still uncertain as to why any of us were scheduled to be in if the bistro would be closed. One week we're getting hardly any hours as the management is tightening the labour cost and the next day we're scheduled to come in and stand around. Go figure.

Since yesterday was also quiet and all the prep was already done there was nothing for me to do but clean and disinfect the station, rotate the containers and chat with the servers. I was bored and felt guilty -- I was getting paid to do absolutely nothing. I am not used to that! We got a bit of a rush around 6:30 and there would be, in the end, enough tables to keep me busy until around 10 pm, but those first five hours between 1 pm and 6 pm were the longest hours I have had to kill since starting work in this kitchen.

I worry that tomorrow will also be quiet. Although Fridays are generally busy, we have our entire staff scheduled for tomorrow which means we'll be bumping into each other all afternoon in search of work. There's maybe enough prep for two people as I had to throw out half our prepped romaine tonight (it was dead) and we are almost out of grilled vegetables. Unfortunately, by the time I arrive at 3 pm, it'll all likely be done and I'll be instructed to clean the hoods or the ceiling, or some such thing. Maybe they'll call me and give me the day off; fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

When the Sous-Chef Is Away

Our Sous-Chef is off for the next two days and I feel relieved. I can't really explain why, it's not like we behave differently when she's gone, but it seems to be a more relaxed atmosphere. We do the prep on the M.E.P board (and whatever other prep needs to be done) and we get ready for dinner just the same.

I think for me, personally, the difference is that I can prioritize tasks my own way instead of someone else prioritizing for me. For example, if I want to start cleaning squid for my calamari and haul the large box from the freezer, dump it in the sink and am about to begin, it messes me up that I am told to drop that and make sandwiches first (or some other thing). Or I'll be making sandwiches and then I am told "quickly, can you run upstairs and bring down such and such". It just keeps me in a constant state of confusion. No, confusion is not the right word. I just seem to never really get into a task because I'm jumping around so much and then I never get the sense of completion -- because while I am doing something else, someone will finish the job I previously started. So it just seems I am starting all these things and not finishing any. It's strange. I don't know why. I mean, I know I am there to do whatever is needed so if she feels other things are more of a priority, then so be it I guess, but it leaves me always wondering what I will be doing next instead of knowing.

Today was a very relaxing day, on all accounts. Not only was the sous-chef gone, I had come in to find there was little prep to be done and dinner service would also be very slow. I had been warned that business normally "drops off" after Labour Day but I didn't expect it to be so sudden. It was only two days ago that we got so very busy during lunch that I nearly walked out of the kitchen. I was working with a girl who is not usually in the bistro and us being thrown together for one of the busiest lunch services of the year was an almost disastrous move. Had I walked out I would have possibly gotten fired but, more importantly, they would not have been able to pull off lunch without me. I mean, we were already in the weeds, can you imagine if I had just walked out? Instead of walking out, I went and stood in the walk-in fridge for about 30 seconds to cool off, literally.

Getting back to today though, the kitchen was dead and I was out of there at 9 pm Tomorrow likely to be the same, I am not even sure what I'll be doing there from 1 pm till closing time. This is obviously not good for business, and I shouldn't be happy, but we're all getting pretty tired after a very busy August so we're thrilled to get a breather. We all know that October is around the corner and it will be mayhem again as folks try to get in their last collective hurrah before the deep freeze!

As for me, I'll be looking for work come November and in January I start cooking school. So much for hybernating in the winter...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cooking Without a Recipe

I have a friend who comes over to my house for dinner every couple of weeks, usually on Tuesdays. I have referred to her in the past as "my bi-weekly dinner guest." Today she showed up around lunch time (she's on vacation) with two cardboard boxes filled with fresh vegetables harvested just yesterday from her parents' garden. She brought with her tomatoes, both beefsteak and cherry, large green onions, peaches, zucchini, eggplant, green beans and enough garlic to last me for weeks. She also brought all the fixings for Caesars (the drink, not the salad) as she planned to show me she makes a mean Caesar. To top it all off a large basil plant, soil and roots attached, was also in the box. We were going to make basil pesto but we decided it would be best if we used only a little of it and plant the rest in the garden so I can have it for the rest of the summer/fall. Since I am not a gardener, I handed my friend the little shovel (or whatever it's called) and, a few minutes later, two basil plants of different variety were basking in the late afternoon sun in the middle of Jen's flower bed.
For this particular dinner gathering I had previously decided not to plan a menu or to even think about what I would be making. For once I was going to wing it so it came in handy that she had brought all the vegetables. The large tomatoes turned into bruschetta mix (a no brainer). As for the main...

I had stopped at my neighbourhood Longo's earlier in the morning and picked up some prosciutto, some nice white asparagus (all the way from Peru), mushrooms and fresh salmon. Since my friend had also brought a 500g bag of penne, dinner just came together. It would be a simple, comforting, pasta salmone with prosciutto, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms and, of course, garlic and basil. A no frills meal for my Italian friend for whom I have not yet cooked pasta. You see, I didn't think a Romanian girl, no matter how into cooking she is, can do pasta justice the way an Italian would.

So anyway, back to the impromptu dish. I wasn't sure if salmon would actually go with prosciutto but since I had both and had to use them I went for it. I also had too many vegetables in the pan to get a nice heat to them. The zucchini and mushrooms started releasing their moisture and my vegetables soon were almost boiling in there, instead of caramelizing nicely. I drained some of the liquid and switched to the biggest pot I had. It seemed to work but still the dish was not coming together as I envisioned. Something was missing. Since we ended up not making pesto (too much wine and too many caesars) I had nothing bringing those ingredients together so at the last minute I poured in some heavy cream and after it reduced a little I added some shredded cheese for good measure. Dumped the cooked pasta over it, seasoned with some very nice cyprus sea salt I bought (that damn Longo's, I tell you, is a dangerous place) and freshly ground pepper and voila...

I still had some very ripe, very juicy peaches to use up so for dessert I whipped us up peaches and strawberry sundaes. I have been wanting to try a balsamic syrup for a while now and this gave me the perfect opportunity as I had no other syrup for the sundae. So I mixed a nice balsamic vinegar with maple syrup (equal parts) and let it reduce until I was satisfying with the sweetness and consistency. I drizzled it over three small scoops of chocolate hazelnut icecream topped with the fresh peaches and strawberries. For the final touch I added whipping cream and a strawberry.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Little Chef is growing up

As of late my Sunday morning routine has changed from "coffee and paper" to "received text from Chef, must go in early." His texts have become so regular that I am now expecting them, so when the schedule says I am to be at work Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon, I know not to plan anything too involved for the morning as I'll likely have to show up for work early.

And so it is that on this particular Sunday I will be pulling another long shift. I leave, Starbucks in hand, to face the lunch rush and work with the one-woman show that is the breakfast cook. Upon arrival I learn that breakfast was not too busy -- a good indication on what lunch would be like -- so I breathe a sigh of relief. It means I have time to get a handle on all the prep. So I cut up all the chicken, portion the rice, make the chipotle mayo and the spicy ranch, as well as the pulled pork. At 1 pm our breakfast cook left and I, having finished all the prep, took over on line. It never got so busy that I couldn't handle it and I would put out food for the next two hours, all alone. Working the entire line all by myself is quite the accomplishment, really. Although I didn't get a huge rush, the orders were coming in steadily. I never got in the weeds and, best of all, I knew how to make all the dishes that were ordered, didn't have to ask any questions. It really is amazing to think of the progress I've made since I started. Last season I was in awe of the speed with which these guys were putting out food. They were flying! As for me, I am sure I was hindering more than helping, at least for the first month or so. Now it feels like little Chef's all grown up, running the line all by herself!

Dinner was a different story. We got rather busy and it took all four of us to get the job done. I have to say I was looking forward to getting out of there early, skip the sweeping and mopping business just this one time. Unfortunately no such luck. I really must find a way to ask the Sous-chef why this is always my job. There's this one guy who I wonder if he even knows where the mop is. I have never ever seen him mop. Not this season and not last season. Every night he disappears just as we start cleaning and shows up again at the end, when we're done. Somehow he gets away with it every single night. I wonder if the Sous even notices? Like... c'mon, what's the deal here?

But enough with the whining. Time for me to get a drink, put my feet up and let Michael Ruhlman transport me again to the kitchens and classrooms of the Culinary Institute of America. Until tomorrow...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Not Happy About it.

I'm watching Jen pack for her three-day weekend at her parents' water-front property we so humbly call "the cottage" and wish I could go with her. This morning I am thinking of all the things I am giving up to become a Chef. The list is growing, and it has only been since April that I started living a cook's life. No more fishing trips, no more three day weekends, no holidays -- my in-laws are already planning Thanksgiving without me, at my house! -- and less and less time spent with Jen. I know it's only going to get worse. At least right now I still get Christmas as I am doing my apprenticeship at a place offering seasonal employment (April to mid December), but that will change once I move on. I also know that 15-hour work days will likely be the norm, not the exception and although I am preparing myself for them mentally as much as I can, it'll be nothing like the real deal when it actually happens.

I fell asleep last night reading Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef," and this morning I particularly remember the part where Chef Pardus tells Ruhlman about all the things he gave up to be a Chef: "I haven't had Thanksgiving since I was a kid. [...] Mother's Day? I didn't spend it with my mother. Busiest day of the year. I've lost a lot for this work. And I'm not happy about it."

"Not happy about it" is how I feel this morning. My mother is secretly thrilled each time I grumble because she hopes that I will change my mind and return to my cushy, high paying, 9-5 office job. The job that paid me enough to live comfortably and even send her some cash from time to time. My folks live in Romania, on my father's income, and do not have it easy. They were hoping that by me coming to the land of opportunity they would live better themselves so she tries to make me feel guilty each chance she gets for not thinking of them when I made this career change. What she doesn't seem to understand is that cooking is not a choice for me, it's something I have to do. I've tried other jobs and in retrospect, they were crushing my soul. I want to be around food, I want the work that I do to be about food, I am happiest when cooking. Even when on vacation, we usually rent a cottage instead of staying in hotels, so I can have a place to cook. I hope to one day make dishes a little less pedestrian even though right now I am at the building blocks, way down to the basics.

While I will be sweating in my white jacket, apron, black pants and steel-toe boots, pumping out bistro food to those who have chosen to stay back instead of going to their cottages, Jen will be sitting on the dock, drink and book in hand, or swimming, or ...

If you're having trouble picturing it, here's what I'll be missing this holiday weekend:

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Bruschetta Incident

I seem to be eating less and less and it's not on purpose. I never thought the food at work will lose its appeal but I'm afraid it has. If I have to eat another steak sandwich or pasta dish I think I might hurl. I have never been a salad person, so the only thing left to eat is the daily soup. Calamari, bruschetta, spring rolls, chicken fingers, fish and chips, sweet potato fries, burgers and even the mighty club sandwich have all lost their appeal. Some days I eat only one meal a day and I am beginning to worry just a little about the consequences of that. Not the desired consequence of losing wait (so far I haven't lost any), but the other, more pesky ones. Yesterday I had a tiny bowl of the daily soup when I got to work at 11 am and until the steak sandwich I wolfed down while standing by my station, at 9 pm, I had only a scoop of chocolate ice cream. I think I skipped dinner altogether the day before. I packed it and brought it home (it was a pasta dish with prosciutto, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and pesto) but Jen ended up eating it. Maybe we'll add the loss of interest in food to the list of occupational hazards, along with the near disappearance of a social life.

As for how the rest of the day was... well, it was long. It was an 11-hour day and I that's all I'll say about that. By industry standards though, I don't think that working 11 hours is even considered long. Not until you enter the 15-hour territory.

After being called in at 11 am --because Chef was bracing himself for a fast and hard lunch rush -- I worked till almost 3 pm straight before I got a chance to look up and check the time. Although the rush was long over by then, there had been a steady stream of orders which kept me on line. I now took a break, ate that scoop of ice cream I was telling you of and then prepped until dinner time started.

All in all a pretty uneventful day until Chef happened to lay eyes on the insert with bruschetta mix. I believe his exact words were "what is this shit?" He was referring to the fact that someone had prepared the mix using dry basil instead of fresh. Chef poked around it some more and said "That's not how you make bruschetta. Did you make this?" he asked looking straight at me.
"No Chef" I answered honestly. "And I don't know who did, either" I continued.
He took some of the mix and popped it in his mouth. "Way too much garlic" he said.
Chef took the tub out, dumped the entire contents in the garbage, called someone from the back to take over my place on line and said, handing me the insert, "look after this for me."

So, off I went, while dinner service was on, to make a new batch of bruschetta mix. I chopped the basil, mixed in the oil, garlic and finely chopped red onions, seasoned it and put it in an insert when round the corner comes Chef, with two pieces of crusty bread. "Did you season it?" "Yes Chef." "Is it ready?" "Yes Chef" I said, eyeballing his bread. So he takes some of the mix, puts it on his bread and takes a bite. Chews a bit, makes a fist pumping motion and says "That's what bruschetta should taste like. You see anyone doing it any other way, dump it out and make a new one." Of course I nodded, but I can already see the problems I will have if I take what someone thinks is perfectly good bruschetta and dump it in the garbage bin while they're watching me. Even if they're not watching me dump it out, I can't make a fresh batch in hiding so either way it won't be good. "I am sorry to waste this but Chef told me if I ever see this on my station, to toss it and make a new one. Now let's be friends."

After the bruschetta incident was over dinner service would unfold more or less uneventfully, and last until after 9 pm. I think we set a new record for clean-up time because I was out of there at 10 pm, 11 hours after getting there. Oh, did I tell you that already? My bad.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Survivors Ready?

"Geezus, bella, you're supposed to work with me here, everything else is up already!" yelled the saute station guy. Of course he failed to tell me he was going on that table so I didn't have the ribs ready in time. Between running in the back to do the dessert orders and helping him plate his stuff, I didn't keep a close eye on what table he was working on. Ribs take a long time and by the time he told me to go on the ribs he was already cooking his salmon and mahi mahi orders, which take half the time the ribs do, if not less. Needless to say my stuff was not ready and his food was sitting in the window. Not good. But really, it was not my fault, it's not like I was standing around picking my nose or anything. BUT... if I learned anything since I started working here, is that you don't talk back in the kitchen!

Let me give you a few examples:

Chef gets a complaint that a Lox 'n Bagel took 20 minutes and he calls downstairs to ask you why, he really isn't looking for an explanation, not at that moment anyway. So you say "sorry Chef" and let him get stuff off his chest. You don't tell him that you walked in at 11 am and the Lox 'n Bagel order was already there, 6 chits behind some other stuff, and that really it was good that you showed up because the breakfast guy was getting nailed and you were just bailing his ass anyway... You don't say that. You shut up, say "sorry chef" and keep on trucking. Maybe later you gather the courage to say that really, you had just gotten there, and stuff was already falling behind. Trouble is you don't want to point fingers and blame your fellow cook either. I find that at times kitchen is very much like the army, not that I've been in the army... It's a lot of "Sir, Yes sir" (except it's Chef, not Sir) and a lot of taking blame when it's not yours to take. It doesn't matter who put shitty food in the window. If you saw it, and you let it go out, you're as much to blame for it as the guy who put it out. Fair, no?

I remember one day I was putting out a bruschetta order. I toasted my bread just so, but Chef felt it was not toasted enough so he ran it through again, but left the kitchen before we could plate the order together. So I finished the order, put out the blackened-in-spots bread against my better judgement, and sure enough it came back. "Customer wants new bruschetta, this one a bit too charred for his taste." Now I know what you're going to say, and I cringe to this day thinking about it. Although it was Chef himself re-toasting that bread (and burning it in the process), I should have known better than to go ahead and let the server take it. I knew sending it out that it would come back. I guess maybe I wanted an "I told you so" moment. I wanted to say to Chef "I told you the bread was toasted fine the first time around. Now look what you did, you burnt it!" I, the new kid, knew that bread was plenty toasted and wanted to brag about it. Instead, I had to do the bruschetta all over again. When I later told Chef about the episode, he asked me "why did you let the food go out like that?" There was no way I was going to say "well, you wanted it retoasted, so there..." He was right. I knew he was right. Since then, I always watch the food as it goes out, no matter who put it up. The problem with that is now we get into arguments because of my vigilance.
Me: "Hey, that Sonoma needs to be tossed instead of just drizzled with dressing."
Cook: "No it doesn't!"
Me"Yes it does, just ask Chef! All salads get tossed!" (I need to find a way to sound a little less... righteouss or something)

Next day, both the cook and Chef are present so I jump at the chance to get clarification. (and by clarification I don't mean that raft thing for consomme)

Me, glancing over at the cook: "Chef, I was wondering... as a refresher... do we toss all salads?"
Chef, without hesitation: "Yes"
Me, smug expression given to cook: "Thank you, Chef"

If this were Survivor, I'd be voted off so quickly... I can't help myself though, I really care about the quality of the food going out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mise En Place

I returned to work today after three days off. Can't remember the last time I was off three days in a row. I know a lot of you have a long weekend coming up. For those in the hospitality industry the name Labour day is taken literally as that is exactly what we will be doing: labouring.

Labour day Monday, as well as the weekend preceding it, means an army of cooks (in our case the entire kitchen staff) will be in the kitchen prepping. There will be mountains of julienned vegetables, sliced cucumbers, diced peppers, onions and tomatoes. There will be bus bins full of washed and cut-up romaine, tubs of bruschetta mix and cases upon cases of grilled chicken breasts. There will be a cacophony of sounds, shouting, cooks walking about with a real sense of urgency, mentally preparing for the day-long rush. During holiday weekends we do not have a lunch rush and a dinner rush. Instead, the rush seems to last all day, beginning with breakfast and continuing on till after dinner. The reason all the cooks are needed is because some will be cooking and those not cooking will be runners, constantly stocking up the line fridges. It's a high energy environment and it's contagious and you can't help but like it.

I sometimes think of vegetarians, particularly those who have eliminated meat from their diet because they are making a stand against cruelty to animals. In the kitchen we cook chicken breasts by the hundreds. I won't even tell you about all the chicken wings. Up until I started working as a cook I didn't have a clear picture of just how many animals get slaughtered daily to end up on our plates. Similarly, when I was an insurance adjuster handling claims for vehicles that were total losses (write-offs) on a daily basis yet not fully grasping the big picture until I took a trip to a salvage yard (some would call it junk yard) and saw rows upon rows of damaged cars, stretching on for kilometers and kilometers. It was staggering.

But I digress...

Today we were sous-chef-less, which is why I was scheduled to go in earlier than I normally would on a Wednesday. I got there and after running some dishes I got to my favourite job, cleaning squid. The M.E.P board (Mise En Place) read:
chipotle mayo
blanch asparagus
slice onions, dice onions
egg salad, tuna salad
slice olives
roast beef
poach chicken*
cut squid**
beef ribs
batter fish
Note: * incorrectly named as the chicken is not poached but cooked in the oven; **cut squid was not really cut squid, it was clean out, cut and portion squid, a job that takes over an hour
(For those not in the know, Mise en Place, as defined by Wikipedia is: "a French phrase defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "everything in place", as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to the ingredients, such as cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components that a cook requires for the menu items that they expect to prepare during their shift)"

Once I finished dealing with the squid it was almost 4 pm (I was interrupted several times to cook food as there was nobody else to run my station). Did the chipotle mayo, egg salad and even got to slice some olives before I had to stop, we were starting to get orders. Chef did the beef ribs upstairs (thank goodness), and someone else did the blasted sandwiches. The roast beef, chicken and fish got carried over to tomorrow, to which I added at the end of the night: cook penne and wedge lemons. Fascinating, huh?

Cleanup today was done to reggae music for the most part, which I could do without. There was Depeche Mode in there too with Personal Jesus (not sure whose iPod it was, but there were some bizarre musical pairings). We were out by 10 pm (way early), wine in hand by 10:30. Booyah!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's been a bad week for...

To borrow a tag line from the Globe and Mail, "It's been a bad week for ... our Executive Chef."

When I left the corporate world along with my job as insurance adjuster I thought I would free myself of all the corporate goings-on that bothered me so. Instead, I found myself working in the kitchen of a corporate club, naively thinking the long arm of the corporate machine will not reach the kitchen. Hrmph. Leaving all the unpleasant details aside I will just say that between being leaned on about labour costs, his car breaking down on the road while on his way to open for breakfast (thus having to call his breakfast cook at 6:30 and ask her to go in to work within 30 minutes) and, finally, losing a Sous-Chef last week, it's been a bad week for our resilient Executive Chef.

Our Executive Chef is a very tall, very skinny, fourty-something (?), easy-going guy who I have heard yell only once. He's not the throw-stuff-at-you kind of chef, nor does he yell or swear at his staff. He does correct our technique if needed, and most often our plating, but I have seldom seen him really lose his patience. Sure he'll get annoyed if he's shown you how to do something more than three times now and you still mess it up (or forget), but he has the ability to let it go and the next day, or even a few hours later, you start anew and it's like it never happened. Short term memory, unlimited patience, or the knowledge that although you messed it up he's still invested in you and you are not that easily replaceable in a kitchen who can only offer seasonal employment for average pay? Maybe all of the above. I think it is difficult for him to have almost entirely re-staff his kitchen every year. I am sure that people come and go in every kitchen, but it appears that in ours the staff leaves all at once. Only a couple of people will return for the next season so Chef is left with having to hire 14 cooks and helpers each and every year. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

One girl who has been there four years (an anomaly), said she has worked with four different groups, one for each year. Where are these kitchens I've been reading about, where the staff is a cohesive group and they stay together through the years? Our group is far from cohesive. I ended up going to the staff party last week, and there were only five cooks there. Five! Some had brought their significant others, so it looked like there was more of us than there actually was. I definitely do not get a sense of togetherness from our kitchen staff.

I do like the job though, despite everything, and I am very aware of the fact I am here to learn and not necessarily to form long-term relationships. I know I won't find my BFF in this kitchen but it would be nice if we all just got along.