Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Visiting Former Inmates

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Win Some, Lose Some

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Friend, My Liver

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Got 'Em!

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Trying to Beat The Clock

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Shopping

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Oops, I Did It Again

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Timing Is Everything

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Support The Future Chef

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chicken Stock

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The University Educated Chef

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

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

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

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