Saturday, October 31, 2009

One More Week

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

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2009

No TGIF Here!

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Happy Birthday To Me

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Officially An Apprentice

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Full House

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hubba Hubba

I returned to work today after being away from the kitchen for almost three days. I was off Thursday and Friday and didn't start until 5 pm today. It was a nice break. Tomorrow will be the last busy day for the season, not much will happen after tomorrow.

When going through the closing routine this evening I couldn't help noticing the empty freezer and dry-storage shelves. I doubt Chef will be ordering any additional supplies for the remaining two weeks. We'll probably be using whatever is left at 86'ing items as we run out of them. I know he definitely does not want to be caught with thousands of dollars of overhead at the end of the season. I am doing inventory for part of the day tomorrow and am definitely pleased with the rather empty state of our kitchen. It should make counting a breeze.

I, like everyone else, am looking forward to the end of the season. I think it's the part I like most about this particular kitchen. I'm there April to November and then I get a break. Sure there's the added stress of seeking new employment but there's an excitement that comes with that as well. Right now I feel like I am two weeks away from a holiday. Although I won't have any time off as I'll be starting not one but two different jobs, I'll have a four month break from this particular kitchen and when I return, in April, I will be refreshed and with renewed excitement at being there. I might even be in a different position, a little higher in the ranks, who knows?!?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Caplansky's and Kalendar

I've always been one for celebrating birthdays instead of keeping them secret like some people. In fact, not only do I celebrate on my birthday, I start a week early and have at least two birthday weekends.

This year would be no different so today, a week before my birthday, we started the celebration with a trip to see the Vanity Fair Photo exhibit at the ROM, followed by lunch at Caplansky's. I had heard about Caplansky's and have read about them in a few reviews so I was looking forward to going. The food was good. Really good. The atmosphere very relaxed, that of a deli. We sat in the back, in a booth by the meat carving station. I had the 7 oz pickled tongue sandwich (on rye) and my friends had the smoked turkey and burger. We all agreed that the food was good. An hour or so later, after twice turning down our server for third helpings of booze we decided it was the clue to move on. Since I still had much celebrating to do I was not ready to go home. A friend who happens to live just down the street from Caplansky's and therefore is familiar with the area suggested we go to Kalendar, this really gorgeous, cozy place two blocks west (I think). So on to Kalendar we went, sampling their apps and drink selection. There were hot drinks, both alcoholic and non, and also a separate section for winter drinks with offerings of mulled wine, mulled cider to which you could add rum for an additional charge and they also had a hot toddy. They also had a good spread of brandy, armanac and cognac and a few choices of scotch. They had a lovely variety of beer and moved away from the standard pub fare (although I am sure they had those). There was a dark beer with a 9% alcohol content, called La Fin du Monde. My friend had that and encouraged me to try but as I was knocking back Jim Beams I didn't want to mess myself up. Later into the night, those drinks whetting my appetite we tried a couple of their apps, right there at the bar. There were the nanettes one through five, of which we had the third (essentially they were pizzas on naan bread), and there was also an appetizer of smoked trout, served with naan, pickled ginger, a few pickled pearl onions on the side and something I couldn't identify but felt mushroom-y. I ended the night with a bottle of Tankhouse (a Mill St. Brewery beer), I think alcohol content was 7.2% but I have had much to drink that night so I could be slightly off about the percentage.

If there was one disappointment today, if we could call it that, was that after spending so much of my time on College Street I was unable to move on to the Black Hoof that night. I'll have to leave it for another day.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Barley and Squash Risotto

I love cooking. I can't get enough of it and I always feel I should be cooking more. Although I need rest on my days off, I dream of a day where I wake up early and cook all day. Stock simmering on the stove, meat roasting in the oven, several side dishes and possibly dessert. I have yet to do a cooking marathon, simply because I just don't have that many mouths to feed. Dinner for Jen and I takes no more than an hour. I can maybe cook for three hours if I make several dishes to last us a couple of days. I have not yet taken on the curing or smoking meat so maybe it's something to consider.

I made pork chops today with a barley and squash risotto. Originally the recipe called for squash to be diced and cooked in at the same time as the barley. As I feared I would chop off a finger in my attempt to cut the squash I decided to just cut it in half and roast it. Roasting would enhance the flavour and also soften the squash. Once you roast the squash though you have to modify the recipe. You can no longer cook the squash and the barley together as the recipe originally instructs. The already-soft roasted squash would likely become baby food by the time the barley has cooked and absorbed the liquid. So I made the barley risotto and stirred in the roasted squash at the end. Since I was craving something other than the sweetness of squash and barley cooked in chicken stock, I seasoned the squash with salt and pepper and added some cumin and coriander seed to it before throwing it in the oven. The smells as it was roasting were amazing. I could have eaten that squash on its own, I tell you.

I give the dish an A+ as far as taste goes. Charlie and Jen agree. Presentation was not colourful enough. I would have liked to maybe garnish the risotto with some fresh coriander but had none. In fact I had no fresh herbs of any kind as my grocery shopping day this week is Saturday and the cold weather outside has done in whatever fresh herbs I had going out there. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Dropped The Ball

I dropped the ball today. Unfortunate. However, even if I hadn't dropped the ball, I still wouldn't have been able to remedy the situation.

The problem? Mid-afternoon I went in the back to grab some battered cod tails and realized I had maybe five orders left. I should have noticed yesterday that I was running low thus pulling more cod from the fridge so it can be prepped. Noticing things two hours before service is not good. To make matters worse, when I go to pull more cod out I find there's none left. Damn! The order for tomorrow's delivery has already been placed and it is now past 3 pm which is the cut off hour for a next-day delivery. This means there will be no cod, therefore no fish and chips, for the next few days. I'm already panicking about getting yelled even though I didn't think it was my fault -- whoever pulled the last of the cod out should have written it on the board so Chef could order more -- when Lauren says to me "isn't it already on the board?". I look over my shoulder at the order list and sure enough, there it is, clear as day "Cod". I thanked all my lucky stars today for bailing me out. We do not have to 86 the fish and chips for minimums' weekend, yay! Tomorrow when the fish comes in they can batter it and have some ready. Whew!

We also forgot to order Ranch dressing. It's ok, we can make our own I suppose, it just made it hard for me yesterday to produce Spicy Ranch. I don't know how angry the Sous-Chef will be when she finds out there are now two things I messed up. I guess we'll find out on Saturday.

This week is almost over for me. I am working Saturday in the kitchen and Sunday it's inventory day. The last inventory for the year, where we get to count every scrap of food in the house. Assisting me with inventory this week is our "new girl." She's highly efficient at washing dishes and prepping the odd thing we ask her to help with, hope she's good at counting!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fennel, Orange And Everything In Between.

Yesterday I made a saute of fennel with shrimp and spinach and since I had no white wine to deglaze my pan with I decided to use a splash of orange juice instead. Something told me fennel would go well with orange. I served the dish on a bed of orzo. This morning, watching Food Tv I learn that fennel and orange is a classic combination. Sedlak had grilled fennel with an orange marinade and made a prosciutto-wrapped halibut, served it all on a bed of lemon orzo.

This might not be thrilling for anyone else but I am very excited to discover that I am making good choices (instead of strange ones!) when combining ingredients. Also, my choice of serving my shrimp and orange fennel with orzo, instead of rice, appears to have also been an inspired one. My next choice would have been cous-cous, something tells me that would have worked as well. Checking wikipedia this morning to verify this information I learn that both fennel and orzo are common in mediterranean cooking. I thought of none of this when I was making my dish, I was guided simply by my palate and whatever home-cooking experience I do have. And I say home-cooking because so far I can attribute very little of my knowledge to working in a kitchen. I have not seen fennel in our club kitchen since I started working there, nor do we cook with orzo very often. Our club's cuisine is rather unsophisticated, serving a lot of sandwiches, pastas, burgers and pizza. Which is why I get irritated when someone attributes my good home cooking with having experience cooking professionally. I am sure a few years from now the knowledge that comes from having cooked at home daily for many, many years will combine with the knowledge received through culinary training and experience but it is not the case right now.

Being aware that a large majority of my meals have mediocre presentation I am currently shifting my focus from learning to cook to improving presentation and searching for my hidden but hopefully existent creative side. This can, at times, lead to rather unfortunate choices when it comes to presentation but I am determined to stick with it. Although I'm not a good photographer I try to take pictures of my creations and hope that they will be something to laugh at 10 years from now, much like I now laugh at the 19-year old me who thought she knew everything back then.

My mother says food is food and would never shell out hundreds for a dinner at a fine-dining resto. She goes out to eat maybe once a year if she's lucky (my parents have lived hand to mouth their entire lives, just their lot in life, I guess) and always orders the same thing: gratar cu cartofi prajiti (a thin cut of pork, seared, served with fries). I don't know how we can have such different tastes, seeing how I grew up with her cooking and thought it good back then, but we do. This is why I might give Auberge du Pommier my pay for a week for a memorable birthday and anniversary dinner. If that means putting my trip to Romania on hold till next year then so be it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To New Beginnings

Despite my tiredness I managed to buy a supply of groceries for the coming week and even make dinner. The sweet potatoes and pork I brought home along with a can of black beans came together wonderfully in a cuban stir-fry of pork, black beans and sweet potatoes. Sipping a 2004 Chianti I picked up on the way home, "An Affair to Remember" in the background, and keeping an eye on Jen (who was supposed to keep me company but kept typing on her computer when I wasn't looking), I prepared dinner.

Now the kitchen is clean, I can still smell the vanilla in the rice krispies treats I made earlier in the afternoon, and I feel content and relaxed sitting at my kitchen table.

I am excitedly awaiting the closing of our club for the winter and looking forward to the next cooking gig. I will be working at a restaurant conveniently located just up the street from where I live, an opening-soon pub and pizza place. I visited just the other day and it looks wonderful. It has an open kitchen with a large stone pizza oven as its focal point, the bar and furniture in beautiful dark-brown colours and a promising menu. The best part of it is that I will be working for and with friends. Two wonderful women whom I've known for years have bought a former pizza joint and are hoping to turn it into a warm, inviting space serving sandwiches, pastas and pizzas. They have a good business plan, good marketing idea and what appear to be caring staff.

I raise a glass of (Le Gaggiole) 2004 Chianti to their success and mine. I look forward to a place of employment where we all feel as if we are family and hope to be spending many evenings there. May this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Growing Pains

I've just finished a 12-hour shift and can feel every single bone and muscle in my body. They're all moaning and, in turn, making me moan. I am not sure why my back hurts more than my feet, you'd think it'd be your feet that start complaining first and carry on the longest. Speaking of feet, I really need to get myself a pair of kitchen clogs instead of those boots. My birthday is coming up, maybe I'll ask Jen for a pair of those nice Sketcher no-slip clogs I saw the other day.

I was supposed to go in at 4 pm and work in the banquet kitchen helping with the wedding that was going on. Instead, I received a call from Chef around 10 am asking me if I could go in right away. The breakfast cook was sick and couldn't continue her shift, she was basically hanging in until someone got there. That someone was me, with Chef following shortly after which is impressive considering he has a 40 minute drive and I only have a 10 minute one. He must have called me from his car.

Naively, I still thought that I'd work the bistro till 4 pm and move on upstairs to complete my shift. Unfortunately for me hairdo, who now works only Saturdays because she has gone back to school, didn't feel well so she left at 2 pm, three hours after coming in. With hairdo leaving there would be nobody to cover my station during dinner service. You'd have to be clueless not to see that there was no way Chef was going to take me upstairs for the wedding when they'd be getting humped downstairs. And humped we got.

I knew from the day before that we had a party of 24 make a reservation, with additional large tables (parties of eight and parties of ten) also reserving seats. I was somewhat relieved knowing I wouldn't be there today for that madness. Little did I know that's exactly where I would end up. I've said this before but I'll say it again: our kitchen is small. It can fit three cooks, maybe four on a busy night, but that's it. It'd be nice to have a runner that fills our containers once we empty them, but that's wishful thinking, we hardly ever have a runner. Which is where our speed really comes into play. Not only are we putting out food, we have to often run in the back to replenish our stock. So when you have a party of 24, even though we provided them a fixed menu, it screws things up a bit. Two people are now taken out of the mix as they have to plate 24 entrees so any other table that comes in while those 24 are eating is going to have a bit of a wait. We had plated the salads and desserts ahead of time so all I had to do is bring them out of the walk-in fridge, leaving me free to deal with the orders coming in from other tables.

I will toot my own horn and say I was awesome tonight. I was dancing. I kept up with the non-stop orders never dropping the ball. My plates were never late in the window, always up exactly when needed. I did my orders, I helped with the grill, I ran over to the hot side to grab things out of the oven and plate, ran in the back to get more ribs, got them set up, put out another order of starters... I was a one-woman circus and I'm not the only one thinking this. I was "the bomb" as my Chef de Partie said, and later he even relayed to Chef that I gave an extraordinary performance. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Ms. Sous-Chef.

I have Sunday off to recover and that's all I will be doing. Grocery shopping might have to wait although I promised Jen rice krispies treats.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Restaurant Food

About a month ago my friend L. came for dinner and told me all about this restaurant she had gone to where she was served a salad with a very tasty dressing. She could not for the life of her identify the taste in the dressing and asked me what I thought it could be. She thinks the secret to restaurant food is not necessarily great cookery but certain ingredients that the home cook would not even think of trying. I suppose she's partly right. I told her that last season at our resto we tried to make an asian dressing by turning sweet chili sauce (you know, the stuff you dip your springrolls in) into dressing by diluting it slightly with water, adding lemon juice and whisking in oil until emulsified. Then I pulled from the fridge a bottle of sweet chili sauce, the same one we buy for our resto, and had her taste it. Her eyes widened in surprise when she recognized it was indeed the same taste from her salad dressing the previous night. She examined the bottle and admitted to never seeing it before, asked me where I bought it. "Sobeys" I said, and continued "You have to be looking for it though, in order to find it, it's not exactly a food item that jumps out at you."

I like having the skill, however limited at the moment, to manipulate ordinary food into a final product that can wow. I also like being able to show people how simple cooking can be, and how tasty, if one would only try experimenting with ingredients. Instead of seasoning your pork chop with salt and pepper and grilling it, why not try smearing it with some dijon mustard and sprinkling some herbs on top (say.. thyme) and giving it a good sear in your pan before sticking it in the oven? I guarantee you it will not be the same pork chop you are used to eating. If you like salads, make your own vinaigrette in a jiffy with whatever you have in the fridge. You're afraid of vinagirettes because they sound so fancy? Make it simple. You eat jam, jelly or whatever you wanna call it? Take a spoonful of that, add in a little mustard, a splash of vinegar (hopefully you have something other than white vinegar on hand), whisk in some oil (the same quantity as the jelly and vinegar combined) and you've got your dressing. Sure you can make the vinaigrette with fresh raspberries in a blender, but if you don't have 'em, try jelly. If you don't like it, oh well, don't repeat it. At least you tried it! Don't be afraid to experiment.

Oh and the other thing restaurants do that the home cook rarely does?? Sauces. There is sauce on every single entree that leaves the restaurant window. Whether it's jus, mustard sauce, cream sauce, brown butter with almond sauce, tomato sauce with black olives, maroccan sauce, chutney topping, or mango salsa, there's always sauce on the plate. I think sauce is one of the most neglected food by people cooking at home. Show of hands... how many of you so much as think of adding a sauce to go with your chicken and mash potato?? How about for your grilled salmon and steamed rice? Most people when cooking try to balance carbs with proteins and vegetables but rarely do they think their plate lacks a sauce.

I don't want to generalize my statement and say it applies to all people who are not professional cooks, it was merely an observation based on the many different home dinners I've been invited to up to this point in my life. Interestingly enough, my dinner invitations from friends have become rather sparse since I've started cooking professionally. Come to think of it the only household I still eat at, aside from mine, is my mother-in-law's. I wonder why, it's not like I ever make comments about the food nor do I have certain expectations when it comes to the food I am given. I hope they're not all reading this post, it'll definitely not get me invited over! It's ok folks, I can make the sauce if you'd like and bring it with me. Let's eat together, shall we?!?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Back in the Kitchen

There is less and less to do at work now that the cold weather is here. The Chef de Partie was called off today, told he was not needed, and that left three of us: myself, the Sous-Chef and Lauren.

For the first three hours Lauren and I took care of the cleaning and prep downstairs while the Sous-Chef kept herself busy in the upstairs kitchen, apparently organizing it. Lauren and I were not really sure what that meant and why it would take three hours but we were relieved to have her gone so neither one of us asked her any questions.

I cleaned the dish-pit and Lauren cleaned the oven, burners and all. I think she got a little high on the EZ-Off fumes because she was quite giddy for the rest of the evening. Once the dish-pit was clean I took the ciabatta buns and the panini rolls from the boxes they arrived in and individually wrapped the breads in plastic. On the table there was also sliced roast beef in a hotel pan awaiting to be portioned. By the time I finished putting all the beef in 6 oz portion bags it was 5 p.m. It was nice working side by side with Lauren, quietly, without interruptions. I felt like the kitchen was ours. We sang along with the radio, took a break to drink hot chocolate and eat leftover pumpkin pie topped with whipping cream, and checked our line to make sure it was full and ready for the dinner service. During the service we helped each other and were quite efficient. The Sous-Chef was in the middle calling the orders and doing very little cooking so Lauren and I ran the show. I really feel good about my speed tonight. It would have been nice to have someone in the dish pit so we didn't have plates piling high but since we didn't and I was the closest to the pit I would run over every few minutes to send some dishes through. It really is quite a feat to be the cook and the dishwasher at the same time, especially during the service. My personal challenge right now is too get faster by being more organized, more efficient and thinking ahead. For example, if I go to return the spinach to the back fridge, is there anything on the table or in the fridge that I can grab on my way back to the line thus avoiding making the trip to the back later on? If I am putting out food orders, is there any prep I can do while the food is cooking? I have to say this multitasking leaves me quite tired, but in a pleasant way. Not dogtired so I don't feel like lifting a finger at the end of the day but tired in an i've-just-had-a-good-workout kind of way.

Also challenging is checking my line when I come in. There are a lot of containers and I find it very difficult to remember everything so I'll think everything's full and then during dinner service I realize I have no chipotle mayo. Had there been a half-full container of chipotle mayo in the fridge I would realize the container needs filling. When the container is missing altogether it is more difficult to spot. It's like trying to figure out which facebook friend or twitter follower dropped you by going through the existing friends and finding those now missing from your list. It's not easy! Maybe I should slowly build a list with all the items I need on line and walk around ticking things off the list as I replenish them. It feels like a good solution but a little late for it, we're only going to be open for another four weeks or so.

Tomorrow I'll be alone at my station accompanied by the Sous and the CDP on the hot side, not my favourite team to be on. I seem to get dumped on more when the three of us are in the kitchen together. I think that's happening mostly because the Sous is timid when it comes to demanding things from the gruff Chef de Partie which leaves me to take the brunt of her requests. If you were to ask me who is actually running our kitchen, I'd tell you that's it's the Chef de Partie. He's been there longer than all of us and he also has problems with being told what to do, regardless of who is doing the telling. A bit of a wild card, that one. It'll be interesting to see if we ever find a Sous that the CDP will listen to or if he will leave untamed in the end. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Day in Lucy's Kitchen

"A Year in Lucy's Kitchen" is the latest cookbook from my favourite cookbook author and food writer Lucy Waverman. It has been available for purchase -- the book, not the author -- since yesterday and I encourage everyone to buy it. Christmas is upon us and it would be the perfect gift. Don't buy me one, I already have my copy, but do go out and buy it for the cook in your life. There's no cook in your life? No problem, the non-cook will love it too. Trust me! I have been thanked over and over for gifting Waverman's last cookbook, "Lucy's Kitchen" to friends and family alike. In fact my mother-in-law recently hinted that she would like "Lucy's Kitchen" for Christmas this year after seeing how I've refered to it many a time and have given it such enthusiastic props every time Lucy's name comes up.

As I flip through "A Year in Lucy's Kitchen" and look forward to cooking the mouthwatering foods Lucy has thoughtfully selected I am transported to the day I know will forever be etched in my memory: my day in Lucy's kitchen. Due to the fact that I so admire this woman and have a deep respect for her and her privacy I will leave out all the details of my visit. I will say one thing though -- I have never met a more generous, welcoming woman. To Lucy I am a stranger. I am quite possibly her biggest fan but a stranger nonetheless. Despite this she has welcomed me into her home, allowed me to cook in her kitchen and to try the food we cooked and she even listened to my opinion, however inexperienced it might be. I will forever be grateful for today and since there is no way I can possibly repay Lucy for her generosity I can at least do my part in spreading the word about her newest book. Go buy it. Go buy it now. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?"

When I had my first date with Jen, I wooed her with food. She showed up one Sunday morning, the day after we celebrated my birthday with a group of friends, bearing a pumpkin instead of flowers. She thought it was nicer. I agreed. The plan was I would feed us brunch -- the thing she now calls my fourteen-egg omelet -- we'd chat for a while after which we would go see a movie. It seemed that brunch was over before we knew it and we had to decide if we wanted to go to the 1 pm showing of "Shall We Dance" or to the 4 pm one. Since we were enjoying the quiet time in the comfort of my home we opted for the later showing. By the time the movie was over it was dinner time so the hostess in me (or was it the cook?) said "Why don't we pick up a bottle of wine, I make us dinner and you can go home afterward?"

Dinner was a creamy shrimp fettuccine, my signature dish back then. I groan when I think of it now. Looking back I think I must have overcooked the shrimp because I put it in with onions (I wasn't using shallots back then) and garlic and then made the cream sauce over it instead of removing the cooked shrimp and adding it at the end. Jen loved the dish and so did I. I think we didn't know any better. This was a girl that would have pork chops and salad for dinner at least twice a week. Pork chops always made a presence in her fridge and she would cook them on her George Foreman grill after seasoning them with salt and pepper. Served with a salad and there you go. No sauce, no starch that I remember, nothing.

Fast forward five years. I am now a cook and my skill has improved greatly since those shrimp in a cream sauce. Jen has developed her palate and, although still reluctant to try certain things, she can now recognize overcooked rice and pasta, whether a dish is bland or not, and she can even identify certain spices in foods if I quiz her. She is becoming a more refined diner and although I am still not allowed to cook pig's feet , she won't go anywhere near livers, sweetbreads or other ... offal, I am still proud of the way she's changed.

I am also proud of the way I've changed. From eating Rice-a-Roni in Columbus, OH and thinking they were the cat's ass, from making pasta sauce out of those Knorr packages and thinking they were so good that I'd even invite people for dinner and serve them, to a cook whose dish was so surprising in a latest cooking competition among our kitchen staff that the Chef is eager to put it on the menu next year. I didn't exactly follow a recipe so I hope I can replicate it when needed.

I now make my own stock, as a matter of fact my turkey stock is simmering on the stove as we speak, I think shallots are a cook's best friend, think nothing of deglazing with wine or adding Calvados to my apple compote and am seriously considering buying a meat grinder so I can grind my own meat thus controlling what goes in my ground beef for example.

And if I've come this far in five years, just imagine what I could do with a little bit of formal culinary training, with a little more than what I picked up from watching the likes of Anthony Sedlak, Michael Smith or Laura Calder on Food Tv. I can't wait for the next five years!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Turkey Anyone?

I am so happy about how things turned out this evening. The restaurant was dead. Deader than dead. I guess everyone was home having their turkey dinners! I think we maybe had five tables come in around 6 pm and when those orders finally came in, the five of us descended upon them like vultures, eager for something to do. Until those tables came there was nothing to do but prep and there was not much of that to be done either. We had to grill chicken but -- and this is going to sound terrible -- nobody was in the mood. The energy was just not there. When you have four people standing around chatting, it's really hard to say "Oh, I know, I'm just going to go grill some chicken breasts!"

The more daring kitchen staff hopped up on the chest freezer and sat there chatting for a good 30 minutes before the Assistant Food & Beverage manager saw them and asked them to get down from there. Usually, when business is slow, some of us get sent home as Chef tries to keep a lid on the labour cost. Since both Chef and the Sous-Chef had gone home there was nobody to send us home and none of us felt that we could go home, much as we wanted to. I was really tempted to take initiative and say that since there was very little to be done I was going home, but I didn't want to get in trouble the next day for leaving!

Finally, after our rush of five tables, the front of the house manager on duty said someone can go home since it didn't look like we'd be getting "slammed" tonight. At the risk of being stabbed by the dishwasher girl who had gotten in an hour before me and who also wanted to go home, I think I had my coat buttons undone even before I breathlessly said "Can I go?" I must have stunned everyone into silence because nobody had answered anything, they just kinda watched me walk out the door after getting the nod. So although I gave up two extra hours of pay, I gave them up so I can enjoy Thanksgiving with my family. I called to tell Jen I was coming home and I arrived just as they were finishing their turkey dinner, my plate piled high with turkey, mashed potatoes, beans, squash, cranberry sauce and gravy, all prepared by my mother-in-law.

The glass of wine and that Courvoisier I had after dinner are starting to take effect but as I go to bed I take time to be thankful for Jen and her family for making my Thanksgiving. Before they came into my life I spent Thanksgiving alone. I would normally cook a small Buterball turkey breast with all the fixings and after dinner I would watch movies. I like this much better but I wish my parents were here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Saturday Before Thanksgiving

As much as I would have liked to stay home with my in-laws this afternoon I had to be at work for the dinner shift. In fact, I had to more than just be there physically, I had to be ready for a busy service. So I toasted my father-in-law with a tiny sip of Courvoisier and off I went. On this sunny, warm Saturday afternoon the golfers would be aplenty and so would the walk-ins as we are merely two weeks away from minimums. You see, at our club there is a food and beverage minimum amount that members need to spend and they all have a steep learning curve (the minimum is not something recently introduced) and wait until the last possible minute to spend their money. If they don't spend it by the last weekend in October, they lose the money.

There is usually an increase in customers during the week leading up to the minimum weekend with the weekend itself being almost unbearably busy. The minimum weekend in July is bad, worse than the October one, but what makes the October one hard is that everyone's had a long summer, and every single member of the kitchen and front of the house staff is looking forward to the end of the season (in November). To make matters worse in the fall we lose some of our younger staff as they return to school, not to mention that someone threw Thanksgiving in there too! Not only are we open on Thanksgiving, we serve a Thanksgiving brunch and I believe there are two seatings. I dare you to try to find a parking spot at our club tomorrow. We keep asking for reserved parking for staff so we don't have to park 10 minutes away but so far nobody is listening.

It was not so bad this evening though, we got out just before 10 pm. I had to clean the upstairs kitchen where the banquet staff cooked the turkeys and thanksgiving brunch (they didn't clean up after themselves). That took me almost an hour and then I cleaned again, downstairs, after we finished dinner service. It feels like all I've done today was clean. Not my favourite job by far but then who likes that stuff? It was made worse by the fact that my Sous-Chef is under the impression that I have gotten to 35 years of age without ever learning how to sweep so she watches me as I sweep and comments on how to hold the broom, how to get under the line, and then how to use an S-motion when I mop. She feels that the push-and-pull motion that I use does not work as well as the S-motion. I disagree but naturally do not say it. Frankly, I think that with the S motion you don't put as much pressure on the mop therefore not really getting the grime off. Not to mention that by swirling that mop around you end up flinging bits of food back under the stoves and fridges. Oh well.

My new schedule comes out tomorrow, I am hoping against hope I will have Thanksgiving Monday off. Gobble Gobble?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Vegetarian Friday

Early this morning I decided I would spend my day off cooking. Because I really felt like it -- that fennel in the fridge was calling me -- and because my in-laws are coming tomorrow and the kitchen will be taken over by Jen and her mother, making it near impossible for me to cook us lunches and dinner.

I always plan the weekly menu on Sunday or Monday and then grocery shop accordingly. When I asked Jen if there was anything in particular she'd like me to make she said, instead of shrugging in her usual fashion, "I would like more vegetables." This is why this week's menu featured three entirely vegetarian dishes, something I don't do very often.

For today's dinner I've made Aubergine Charlotte with Tomato and Coriander Salad (Laura Calder's "French Food at Home" recipe).

Tomorrow's lunch will be a Cauliflower and Zucchini Curry,

and I have also made a Fennel and Orange soup because I had fennel that needed to be used.

Initially I was going to braise the fennel and serve it as a side dish but changed my mind at the last minute. The soup still needs to be pureed and have cream and seasoning added to it but I will do that just before serving.

The fennel soup is the easiest thing to make. You will need fennel -- I have used one bulb only -- an onion which you will chop, some ground fennel seeds, three cups of chicken stock (or less, depending on how strong a fennel flavor you like your soup to have), half a cup of orange juice and a little bit of heavy cream. If you're desperate to know how much cream and you don't like my telling you to add as much or as little as you prefer, I'll have you know I'll probably use 1/4 cup.

Roast your quartered fennel in the oven at 400F for about 20 minutes. While the fennel is roasting, take a pot and saute the chopped onion with the fennel seeds until the onion is soft. Add your roasted fennel to the onion, pour the chicken stock and OJ into the pot and simmer for 15 minutes. Puree the soup, return it to the pot (if you used a blender instead of a hand-held immersion blender) and reheat it. This is the time to add your cream and seasoning. Serve. Garnish with whatever moves you. If nothing moves you, don't garnish.

I suspect it keeps in the fridge for 1-2 days but it is so good that you will likely gobble it up before you have a chance to see if it lasts that long.

Note** Don't dismiss the success of my future cook-book based on the joking tone of the recipe presented here. Also, the fennel and orange soup recipe is not technically mine, I've used Lucy Waverman for inspiration. It would have never crossed my mind to combine fennel and orange in a soup, not in a million years.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Complaining

A friend once told me, when I asked for feedback on my blog, that I should try to find a balance in between how I feel about my experiences in the kitchen and the factual aspects. If I did not misunderstand she basically wants less of "what I do" and more "how do I feel about what I do?" It is her opinion that sharing my point of view will make the blog more personable, more "mine" if you will, and less similar to the thousands of other kitchen blogs out there.

Until this morning I couldn't quite put my finger on why I would have trouble transforming my blog, even if I wanted to. The truth came while reading Ruhlman. I won't quote, but essentially he is exploring why complaining has no place in kitchens. In kitchens you don't complain, you quit. If you don't like cooking, you shouldn't be there. He compares complaining in a kitchen to one walking through the Sahara desert and complaining about how hot it is. Kitchens are known to be hard places to work in and most cooks have to have a mad streak for not only putting up with it, but loving it. If you don't like it or can't do it you're free to leave, someone else will gladly and quickly take your spot.

On a bad day I might rant about someone not pulling their weight but never about the fact that I've been cleaning calamari for over an hour and my fingers seem to be covered with this invisible film that I have to scrub off when I am done. I'll tell you all about how I've cleaned it but never about how I feel about the fact that I seem to be the only one cleaning it. I am not saying I don't have a complaining bone in my body because god knows I've complained aplenty when I worked as an insurance adjuster. I'm just saying that because I still love my kitchen complaining doesn't come as easily.

Now don't go searching through all the posts where I may have pointed a finger toward the Chef de Partie who I don't think knows where the mop bucket is located, or find my other minor grievances. The point is, and I don't want you to miss it, is that I still do not have a major complaint about the work that I do every day. I still look forward to putting on my white jacket and black pants, and even to being in there for long hours, because half the time I don't realize how long it's been or how many salads, sandwiches, pastas or apps I've had to put together.

Today, as I prepare to go in for my 2 p.m shift I feel truly lucky.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hump Day

I no longer think of Wednesday as "hump day" because I no longer have the traditional Monday-Friday, nine to five work-week. Wednesdays can still make me happy, especially those where I work the day shift as opposed to the evening shift. I had such a Wednesday today.

There was nobody in the kitchen when I got there at 11 am. The server on duty shared that Chef has been chilling in his office all morning. This annoys me a little because I have been told that someone has to be on line at all times and there has been many a time where I am alone in the kitchen, am dying for a break but cannot leave as there is nobody else there to watch the kitchen. The fact that he was chillin' while there was a lot of prep to be done does not annoy me as much. My Chef works long hours, arrives some days before 7 am and doesn't leave until after 7 pm on a good day so I am all about cutting the guy some slack. But don't tell me there's a rule to have someone in the kitchen at all times but that rule doesn't really apply to you, Chef.

Another peeve was that he was going to teach me some desserts today but didn't. I think he completely forgot about it. But the thing that gets me the most is being called inefficient simply because I can't keep up with the dozen of orders coming out of his mouth at any given time. I have written about this in the past, why I believe it was just yesterday! Another example, if I may make my case... Shortly after I got in, Chef came in the kitchen and we discussed the daily soup. A breakfast order came in for two sunny side ups, one with pemeal, one with sausage, both with homefries and brown toast. As soon as I finished the order and turned around Chef says to me "is the soup ready yet? it's 11 o'clock!" I just want to say to this guy... "hello, have you not been here the whole time? I have been making breakfast, and no, I don't have a twin that went in the back and made soup while I was making these eggs." So I put the soup on the stove and then he says "go upstairs and bring the striploin, we have to cut this right away." I am stressing "right away" and you know why? Chef left at 2:00 pm without having cut that striploin that I had to rush and get, in the middle of making the daily soup. I just don't get the guy. I really don't. You'd think that striploin was the most important thing today the way he made me drop everything to get it and then it sat there on the table, for three hours, untouched, until the Chef de Partie finally cut the 6 oz. steaks later in the afternoon.

It was a very quiet day though, especially after he left! I could focus on my prep: dicing onions, peppers and tomatoes, cutting romaine, making chipotle mayo and julienning (is that a word?) peppers for my salads. I had also cut up fruit -- pinapple, honeydew and cantalope -- and washed leaf lettuce. I had to do this in between making lunch orders but it really was not a busy day. When I left at 7 pm the line on the cold side was fully stocked and I am sure the three cooks remaining would get out of there within an hour as well.

I think tomorrow will be a different story, I think it's supposed to be sunny and a little warmer, bringing winter golfers out in droves, especially before Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nine Wings and Three Fries

My shift today was 1 pm to close. By the time we finished all the dishes, cleaned the stations, swept and mopped, "close" was 9 pm. Very early! But then again, it gets dark at 7 pm these days. Long gone are the summer days when I would get home at midnight because we'd have people ordering dinner around 9:30 pm. Now when the schedule shows me working 5 to close I cringe because it means I'll get four hours of work if I'm lucky.

I was to do breakfast tomorrow, bright and early, but that got changed this evening. Just before leaving, Chef looked at the schedule and said "Bella, why don't you come at 11 a.m instead? 11 -7. I can do breakfast on my own if you guys stock up the line and if in need I can always call you, you're only 10 minutes away, 15 if you have to get dressed." Of course I gave an ear to ear smile and said "sure!", as if nothing would give me greater pleasure. In truth, although I am happy to work two extra hours, it would have been nice getting home at 2 pm and enjoying a nice dinner at home with Jen. Instead, I'll come home after 7 pm, too late to make dinner, and we'll end up eating restaurant food in front of the Tv.

Let me tell you the fine cookery I did today. Between 1 and 2:30 I was alone on the line. Although both the Chef and the Sous-Chef were in the building, they were nowhere to be found. Maybe they were putting away the supplies delivery that always comes in Tuesday. This left me to fend for myself. Philly Cheese Steak with Caesar, Thai Chili Wrap with fries, Burgers, Chicken Fingers, Steak sandwiches and Roasted Vegetable Soup were all ordered. It was steady for two hours. Then, when it slowed down, my Chef and Sous-Chef also appeared. And it started: "Please check the line and fill it up." "After you fill up the line, can you clean the pork tenderloin?" "Little Chef, do we have any chicken back-up?" "Here, cut this up, we need a s**t load of backup." "C'mon, you've been cleaning those for 30 minutes, be done with those now!" Like a ball in a pinball machine I went, completing request after request. They only stopped and gave me peace when the dinner rush started. Hah! Who would have thought I'd find peace during the dinner rush. But it was only then that my head began to relax and my thoughts were allowed to run, uninterrupted. "Drop twosome" my head said. "Small caesar, small greens with balsamic, sonoma salad." "Turn around, twosome should be ready by now, let's plate it." Out loud: "Chef, can I get that quesadilla? And I also need from you a veggie turnover." "Are you ready for it now?" Chef asked. "In about three minutes!" And so we went for three hours until it stopped, at 8 pm and I took my five minute break, after which it was time to rotate the containers on the line, fill them up, disinfect, and finally sweep and mop.

My own dinner tonight consisted of nine wings and three fries. I brought them from work, naturally. I was too lazy to cook anything else at that hour. By the time I got home the fries were cold and gross so I only ate three; not even Charlie was interested in them. I am already thinking about what to bring home tomorrow, the stuff no longer appeals to me after seeing it and cooking it and smelling it all these months.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Food Filled Day

It started with the Brick Works Picnic where I volunteered my services for the morning. I would help with Food and Beverage in a particular section, mostly ensuring the Chefs had whatever they needed for their tables. I was to help them set up upon arrival, give them whatever they would need during the event (napkins, ice, water, glasses, etc) and roam, ensuring things were going smoothly. For this I would get to attend the picnic as a guest at the end of my shift, which I consider to be a very generous offer considering the rest of the population got to pay $110 in order to attend. Not bad for three hours of volunteer work.

As I would be working for the better part of the picnic I chose to leave my camera at home. It would only get in the way. Boy, I really suck at this documenting through pictures thing, don't I? I am sure, however, that you can find pictures of the event on the internet, media pictures, way better than anything I could take with my little Canon A530 4x digital zoom.

There was food everywhere. At the end of my shift I had over an hour to sample the food and wine and so I did. Andrea, another one of my fellow volunteers, and I went from table to table to table sampling everything from elk tartare to raw oysters to empanadas. The wine was also abundant, up until the end. Or maybe because it was the end??? We were doing the rounds around 3:00 pm and some of the vendors were pouring liberally, far more than the "sample size" I was expecting. The only table whose food I didn't get to try was Pangaea. When I finally made my way over there I saw only two boxes with produce on the table, no food and nobody manning it -- they had packed it in.

A highlight of the day was meeting Chef Jason Bangerter of Oliver Bonacini's Auberge du Pommier. He was so patient while I gushed over the food and told him how I'd been following him on twitter and how I loved the pictures of the empanadas and the braised tongue he'd posted. I even told him I am going to Auberge for my birthday and he was kind enough to say that he'd drop by and say hello if I send him a note to tell him when I'd be there. Thank you, Chef, don't mind if I do!

When I finally made my way out of there, onto the shuttle bus and then into my car, in my food induced near comatose state I decided that there would be no better way to spend the evening than taking Jen out for dinner. Yes, dinner. I am not sure how I could think of food at a time like that but I did. So we wrapped up the day with disappointing food at nearby Crabby Joe's. I wasn't hungry so the overcooked pasta went back almost untouched. Jen's beef sizzle was also mediocre with overcooked rice and too-saucy beef. Who am I kidding, we knew what to expect going in. Our favourite restaurant, Chinook, is closed on Sunday, and so is Orleans. We wanted cheap food that filled the stomach and that we got. That cold Corona was the best thing I had there.

Tomorrow, dinner is at my house. I have the day off from work so I have plenty time to make that tomato chutney and butter lentils for my indian spice and yogurt marinated chicken.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pizza and Hell's Kitchen

A couple more things about the black box thing before I put it to rest. It appears Chef has told everyone about my amazing appetizer and he is putting it on the menu next year when the club reopens after the winter. Feels good. I also learned that Lauren pretty much failed her second black box attempt. I know she didn't care about the challenge and apparently she did not hide that from anyone else either. During the challenge she just wanted to get it over with and rushed her dishes, didn't give 100%, probably didn't even given 50%. It's sad. She's a very young woman, a teenager still, who is learning that the career she chose and trained for is not turning out exactly how she pictured it and is quite disheartened. The attitude is defeatist and I really feel for her. I know things will work out for her in the future but she's got a rough road ahead of her. I do not envy her youth and her situation.

Today's dinner service was busier than expected and I was alone on my station. I forgot to count how many Caesar salads I had put out -- I had told myself I'd count, just for curiosity sake --but tonight it was spring roll night anyway. Spring rolls and Greek Salad were the popular dishes tonight. For the sautee and grill side the hot ticket was the prime rib special; we almost went through an entire rib roast.

I brought home pizza and ate it watching Hell's Kitchen. Another glimpse in the glamorous life of a cook: eat late meals that you bring home from the restaurant -- as opposed to home cooked -- alone, in front of the Tv, as your significant other is snug in the warm bed, already into a deep sleep.

Tomorrow is the highly anticipated Brick Works Picnic. The food is promising to be outstanding. One of the Oliver & Bonacini Chefs, Chef Bangerter I think, has braised tongue to offer, and this is just one example. There will be flavours from all over and I can't wait.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Errr... Team Canada anyone?

"So, are you ready for you black box?" said Chef as soon as he laid eyes on me yesterday. I gave a weak smile and a "yeah" but I don't think he even heard me. He must not have been interested in the answer because I noticed he had already turned to the Chef de Partie and said "Go make her a black box. Just go to the fridge and grab whatever, make sure you have two proteins." So as I wait for him to return I stepped outside through a back door on the pretext of having a cigarette (I rarely smoke), but mostly to give Chef time to look at the box that the CDP has prepared so he can add or subtract items without me there. Shortly after stepping out Chef's head popped through the half-open door and called me back in. It was time.

I looked in the box and half-panicked when I saw my protein was two cod tails and four lamb chops. It sounds like a lot of chops but they are small and at our resto we do serve four on a plate for one order. Cod tails and lamb? I was prepared for shrimp, scallops or salmon. Any one of those and I would have made ceviche. I was not even going to attempt turning cod into ceviche. Bleah!

In the bin there was also one leek, 3 peppers (one of each colour), a tub of cottage cheese, a small container of plain yogurt, a head of broccoli, 2 potatoes, four eggs, a liter of heavy cream, a large green zucchini, a carrot, four spears of asparagus and some mushrooms. There was also rosemary and thyme in there, but no parsley or cilantro. I would have liked at least one of those and would have traded the thyme for it. Anyway, I found the box was too generous! There were too many items in there, points would be deducted for wasteage. Very difficult to make three dishes and use this jumble of stuff.

To get an idea of how nerve wrecking these things are I will tell you that another panicked moment was when looking in the box I saw nothing sweet with which to make dessert. No berries, no chocolate, nothing. Sure there were two lemons in there but what dessert am I going to make with two lemons??? I have been talking for two days now about how I was sure there would be lemons in there so I can make cold lemon souffle, yet when I looked in the bin I couldn't think of a dessert. Eventually the fog lifted, my eyes focused on the cream, the eggs and the lemons, and it finally came to me: I would make cold lemon souffle for dessert. Booyah!

As an appetizer I decided, at the last minute, to make mushroom crusted cod tails. I make a mushroom crusted red snapper with tarragon beans at home -- god bless you, Anthony Sedlak! Although I had no tarragon and no beans, I could still do mushroom crusted cod tails and top it with asparagus spears. I also needed a sauce for it but the box contained no liquids with which to make sauce. I came up with a citrus butter drizzle and I rested the whole thing on a southwestern salsa. It sounds like a lot is happening on this plate but I had to use a bit from each ingredient and I already knew the dessert would only use lemon and cream so... I had to make my own croutons for the topping, but that was no biggie, our ovens are so powerful that my croutons were done in under 3 minutes.

The main would be seared lamb chops with potato pancake (to use up the last egg and do sometehing different than boring mash potato). I couldn't come up with a creative veg option and I did not want to pair lamb chops with steamed broccoli -- i don't know about you but broccoli doesn't quite scream fine dining to me. So I decided to make a broccoli and carrot salad with a honey yogurt dressing, thus using the plain yogurt in the box and some of the veg. I put it all in green pepper bowl.

Dessert, we've already discussed. I did do it all in less than three hours. I lined them all up on the chest freezer when I was done. Timing would be my biggest challenge, making sure everything came together at the same time. You don't want some food ready and sitting in the window while you make sauces or other dishes. Since I had lamb and fish I had to be careful, their cooking times are so different. So I seared the lamb nicely on both sides and stuck in the oven. About two minutes in I put the fish in. Lamb should NOT be cooked past medium rare, but how do I tell without cutting into it? I seldom cook lamb in this fashion so I was very nervous about over cooking it. Cutting into it, or even pricking it with a knife would be a huge no no as all the juice would run out of the under-rested meat.

How did I do? Chef first tasted the app (naturally) and asked me what I had prepared, keeping an eye on the written "menu" I gave him before I started cooking. I apologize in advance for using profanities but upon tasting the app Chef stepped away from the plate and did a half turn, not towards anyone in particular, just a half turn and I heard him say something like "taste is f***". With my eyes, large as saucers, I breathed "what? not good?" He looked at me and said "it's tasty as f***. Very tasty, very good!" Dude, I was surprised, I really was. I mean, I was trying to make sure each component was tasty but I was very afraid of how they would all go together. I seasoned well -- chef always tells us we don't season enough -- in fact I probably over-seasoned knowing he likes his salt, I even used some texmex spice combo on the fish so that it would go with the southwestern salsa, but in my wildest dreams I did not expect him to say it was 'tasty as f***'. So that got me an A+ on the app. He said he would have plated a little different. I rested the fish on the salsa and drizzled the citrus butter sauce on top, he would have put the citrus sauce on bottom and cascaded the colourful salsa over top. Makes sense right? It sure does now, in the heat of the moment it just didn't come to me.

The main received a C. I would have given myself a lower grade for presentation for my plate lacked colour huge. I knew it did, I just couldnt' think of a colourful thing to put on there. The potato pancake was nicely browned and well seasoned and cooked, the lamb chop flavourful and cooked to perfection (I had smeared the chops with grainy dijon mustard and dragged them through chopped rosemary and thyme before searing them) but the veg was no good. I was supposed to do a hot veg as it was a hot plate and instead I presented a cold veg in a raw green pepper. The only reason he gave me a C on that dish was because of the perfect flavour and cooking.

My dessert would get a B+, I suspect this is because he had showed it to me just two days before, thus I was not exactly original.

The other judges, non-kitchen staff, enjoyed tasting all of the dishes. They all loved the fish and the dessert, and the one girl who tried the potato pancake liked it. Neither of them eat lamb so they didn't try it. All in all I did good. Chef told me he was impressed, especially since this was my first cooking test ever and I do not have any culinary training.

Since I didn't take my camera with me I had to take the pictures with the phone and the quality is poor. It is however, better than no pictures at all, at least you get a sense of what I am talking about. The photos are disappointing, it does not focus on any of the components so aside from the dessert, you will hardly know what you are looking at. I deeply regret not taking my camera.

As it turns out, there are three of us only completing the black box test, and we are competing against each other. So far I am leading as Lauren failed her first attempt. She is having another go today. I will have my second black box later on. Chef is contemplating taking the winner with him to a competition and possibly entering Team Canada for the Culinary Olympics. I am sure that even if that were true (why would he even joke about something like that?), we would mostly be helping him prep for the competition, but wouldn't it be cool?!? Holy crap!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Anxiety Building End of the Week

I seem to be very anxious this morning, and for good reason. I am likely to have my black box test today and after surfing the Food Network website for a good hour looking for inspiration I realized there is no way to prepare for this test without knowing what ingredients will be in that box.

I initially thought that I would just look up a fish appetizer, for example, but when I did that generous inundated me with a mountain of recipes using shrimp, scallops and a variety of fish. These main ingredients were marinated, skewered, served cold, seared, grilled and then presented in a variety of ways. I cannot possibly look at all the marinades because I really don't know what I will have to work with. Will there be lemon in my box? Will there be herbs? If there are no herbs, am I allowed to go to the walk-in fridge and get some? I know that I'll have access to any pantry item I might need (i.e flour, butter, sugar and so on), but am I allowed to use the fridge too? Cream, butter, herbs are all contained in there. I don't think there's a way to prepare. Those guys on Iron Chef or Hell's Kitchen have years of culinary experience to draw from. I have under a year in a far from fine-dining kitchen. Sure I've been cooking at home for over a decade but I don't think that compares with a high-end presentation I will be challenged to come up with. I can't make him a beef stew and hope to impress him, even if I have potato and beef in my box. Not to mention that a beef stew would take almost 2 hours to make and I have three hours to come up with a concept and then prep, cook and plate everything.

Another reason for my nervous tension this morning is that I am going to visit Lucy's Kitchen next Wednesday. Yes, I know there's a whole week between now and next Wednesday but this is a big deal for me. Lucy has been my Julia Child in a way and I am nervous beyond words.

Finally, there is the Brick Works Picnic going on this Sunday, Oct 4, and I have volunteered my time both tomorrow, for the preparation leading up to it, and on Sunday. For my services I will be given time to attend the picnic for free, something that the masses get to do for a fee of $110. For me the picnic will be a bonus, I am excited beyond words to be in the presence of some great chefs as well as work with them.

Tomorrow at 10 a.m I will be reporting for duty and I have been assigned to assist the chefs with preparation, cleanliness, and helping to ensure their area runs smoothly. I can only be there until 3 pm as I have to be at work for 5 pm, but I am excited beyond words. I don't know yet what I will be doing on Sunday, during the main event, but I don't care. I'll be there and that's what counts!

I'd stay here and write longer but I have to go and continue my deep breathing exercises. I'll let you know how everything went and I'll have pictures to show you tomorrow if I do indeed get my black box today. Gulp.