Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Things no one told me about being a chef, part one

There are a bunch of things that I've discovered about being a chef that no one told me about being a chef before I actually became a chef. Here's one of them:

You are basically making it up as you go.

When I first started conceptualizing the menu for the wine bar, a month or so before we opened, I struggled a lot with not second-guessing myself (something of which I'm still guilty). At the time, I remember telling a friend who owns a 3-year-old restaurant that I felt like I was just making it up as I went, and his response was, "I still feel like that, every single day." I didn't really believe him at the time, watching his cool demeanor as he prepped, cooked and managed his restaurant seemingly seamlessly.

Fish en papillote. A moderately successful dish

I'm now almost two years into my first official chef job, and not a day goes by where a small part of me doesn't feel like I'm just making it all up as I go, or that I don't feel like I'm making decisions based on gut instinct or intuition. Some of this revolves around menu writing: There's really no telling how something's going to sell at any given moment, and I don't really have a test audience. As a new chef, I'm trying a lot of recipes for the first time, and relying on my skill and intuition to guide me in the right direction. I'm constantly balancing What I Feel Like Cooking with What I Think Will Sell with What Goes Well With X Wine with What's In Season Right Now with What Can I Purchase In Small Amounts Without Breaking My Food Cost with What's Creative And Not Super Derivative with What's Classic And Not Trying Too Hard with... with... with...

(Not to mention What Will Pick Up Beautifully On An Induction Burner And/Or Quarter-Sized Sheet Tray With As Few Steps As Possible... but that's a story for another time)

Cured salmon and smoked oyster board. I really liked this one

On top of that, there are an endless number of managerial decisions that I make on any given day, the answers to which often boil down to: What's the smartest decision here? Sometimes the answer is black and white, but often there's a undefined gray area and you just do the best you can with the information you're given. Some may call this "experience" or "creativity," and I guess if you're smart you can deduce that my past experience has certainly informed the decisions that I make now. But honestly a lot of it is just what feels right, and honestly that seems really crazy to me.

This isn't to say that I make decisions lightly or fly by the seat of my pants; quite the opposite. I'm simply surprised at how much I do on a daily basis that is a result of me deciding on something because it feels like the right thing to do or it seems cool or fun. Maybe this stems from the fact that I've never been much of a rule-breaker, and always did well with boundaries, when a lot of chefs seem to come from an opposite perspective. I'm having to learn to trust myself, and I am lucky enough to have some great sounding boards as co-workers, but ultimately I am the one Making Shit Happen and it's a lot harder than they tell you. I've gotten used to it over time but it's still pretty weird.

I will say, however, that once I realized I was feeling this way, I started asking a lot of well-seasoned, well-respected chefs, "Do you ever feel like you're just making it up as you go?" I have yet to have someone tell me "No," and the most frequent answer is "All the time!" At the very least it's nice to know I'm not alone.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Honest advice to a budding cook/ chef with no experience whatsoever

This is a slightly altered version of a real email that I wrote to a young man who found my blog and is considering culinary school, but had no real experience cooking. He wrote me that he was intrigued by cooking, and I thought it pertinent to share this advice with a wider audience. I get the "should I go to culinary school?" question all the time, and I think it really depends on your situation, but the following is the advice I give to anyone who is considering culinary school without some background in restaurants.

Hey ****!

I can definitely relate, as it took me about 5 years of waffling back and forth before I finally decided to go to culinary school. I checked out FCI, ICE, CIA Hyde, J&W in various locations, AI in various locations, CCA, CSCA, and Western Culinary before deciding on OCI. Let me go ahead and squash your concerns about not being good enough for culinary school, because I didn't know shit about cooking besides what I had learned as a hobbyist cook and food geek, and most of the people around me at school knew even less. Now that I'm on the other side of it and have been cooking professionally for about 6 years, I feel that if I had to do it all over again, I would still go to culinary school, but I'm glad I had some restaurant experience before I went, and that's my advice to you if you want to know whether or not your cut out for this industry: GET SOME RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE.

Books/magazines/websites can supplement your education, but real learning comes from doing, and doing things over and over and over and over again until it's muscle memory and/or intuition. You will do this at culinary school to an extent, but I think it's best to know before you make that career move and investment. Is there a place in your town you can go in and do prep when you're not in school? Even a little family-run diner that does things from scratch will be able to show you the inner workings of a restaurant. If you're lucky and there's a nice-ish restaurant nearby, see if you can get a weekly stage (stage= French word for unpaid trial period). A lot of cooks and chefs do stages in other restaurants to expand their horizons. If you can go into a restaurant, offer your services one or two days a week for free (Saturday mornings/afternoons are great, as most restaurants need extra hands for prepping Saturday night service), and just be their yes man for a few weeks/months, you will learn A LOT. Even if it's just for one night. Most of all, you will see what it's like in real life, and whether or not you're really cut out for this line of work/life. And also whether or not you want to invest in culinary school.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is nothing at all like cooking for your family or what you see in cooking shows; For the first few years of pro cooking especially, it's a lot of hard work for little pay, not seeing your non-restaurant friends or family, not getting "normal" days off, and simply following orders ("Yes Chef!"). You're cooking other people's recipes and menus, and you're doing it their way, and your doing the same thing over and over, night after night. You're paying your dues and building your foundation. You're not exercising your creativity, and you're not writing menus and coming up with dishes. You're lucky to have an idea of yours show up on a menu in your first three to five years of cooking--I still remember the day I got an oyster mignonette on the menu, almost a year into my first job. I felt like I climbed a mountain. I didn't get anything else on a menu for another 2 years, when my chef was stuck in NY during a snowstorm and the sous asked me to come up with a pasta special for just that night. One menu item and one sauce in my first three years, out of hundreds of menu items I cooked. You're burning/cutting/breaking yourself in new and weird ways, and you're eating irregularly at best. You burn shit and your chef gets pissed and you feel worse than you ever have, until you fuck up that other thing and your sous almost beats your ass. You're really tired and you eat Hot Pockets for dinner after service at 1AM because you don't have the energy to cook for yourself after cooking all day.

BUT! If you have the "it", the X-factor, the thing that lives in us crazy cooks and chefs that forces you night after night to work your ass off and do better than you did before and want to be better for your Chef and want to be better for all your coworkers, you will thrive in this environment. You will soak it up like a sponge, and question every technique and every step, even as you're doing things the way you've been taught. You want to know the "why" of it all, and you'll start to figure out the "why" that makes the most sense to you. You're okay knowing that your cooking job will not make you wealthy, unless you luck into a high-paying corporate gig that somehow doesn't suck your soul.

All this said, I really loved and cherished my time at OCI, and I would definitely do it all over again if I had the chance. So much of your success in culinary school is dependent on the work you put into it-- you get out of it what you put into it, really and truly. I showed up early and stayed late every day; I turned in every assignment on time; I did all the extra credit and volunteered for all the off-site events; I asked every single instructor every stupid question I could think of. It's a really safe and fun place to learn, and of all the culinary schools out there, OCI does the best job of putting the "real world" of cooking into perspective--you're doing tons of knife work and kitchen techniques daily. But there's also a ton of culinary math and exams and book knowledge that you must know to pass, and I swear it's vital further down the line. As a chef currently I'm constantly swimming in spreadsheets and numbers, and my Harold McGee is never too far away.

Speaking of which, I know you asked for some book/reading recommendations, to which I will recommend:

- On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee. This is the driest reading of all time but it's a great reference when you want to know why meat turns brown and crispy, and what the difference is exactly between a poach and a sear.

- Any cookbook by James Peterson. He does a great job with explaining history of food, and his basics are always solid.

- Joe Beef cookbook. One of my favorites in the last year, reads like a novel in some ways.

- Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home. This was the first cookbook I ever read that really imprinted in me the idea that there's more than one way to do things "right" when it comes to cooking.

God there are so many other cookbooks I could recommend... The French Laundry, River Cottage, Zuni Cafe, Baking Illustrated, Fat Duck, even Joy of Cooking. Get thee to a bookstore and sit your ass in the cookbooks section for a good long while.

- The blog of Richie Nakano, current chef of Hapa Ramen in SF. Specifically his blog entries from 2007-2009, while he was sous chef at NoPa. They're gut-wrenchingly accurate tales from line cooking, and really rung true to me in my first few years of cooking.

- . The blog of Shuna Lydon, NYC pastry chef. She has some really good advice to starting cooks or people looking to dabble in professional cooking. Good place to start is here:

- Ideas in Food: . I'll be honest, I don't read this frequently but a lot of cooks I know do and have found it insightful.

- The Food Lab at Serious Eats:

- Lucky Peach Magazine. The only paper magazine I subscribe to.

So that's probably either way too much information or not at all the answer you were hoping for, but I hope I was able to help in some small way. Good luck with whatever you decide, and there's a great farmer's market at the PSU park blocks every Saturday from March-December :). Let me know if you have other questions.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's a whole thing, you guys. It's a whole thing.

It's 3AM, I'm on the ass-end of four 15-hour days in a row, and I can't say in all honesty I ever imagined I would be where I am today.

Marinated olives in some yummy shit
Last night was the opening night of the little awesome wine bar that my boss conceived of mere months ago with the help of our wine shop manager. My official title there is chef, which I still can't say without blushing. Feels weird, man. I mean fuck, this is the hardest I've ever worked at something and still feel like I have such a long way to go before I'll have accomplished anything meaningful. This is not to say I think I'm doing a bad job; quite the contrary, I've put my heart and soul and literal blood, sweat and tears into creating this menu. I can genuinely say I've never worked harder at anything in my life, and I think it's pretty good for a first go.

It's just that when I think of the term "Chef", I think of my culinary 101 instructor Bikram, a joyful Nepalese beast whose curry I have yet to meet an equal, and whose sharp tongue and kind heart from his many years of being an executive chef at an international resort hotel helped prepare me for the real fire and heat of a professional kitchen. I think of my first mentor Jack, who was gracious enough to take my green ass under his wing. He commanded kitchens, held down a line better than anyone, cooked every station better than everyone and made the most gorgeous, inspiring food that only a person with 20 years of professional cooking experience could make. He blew minds here in Portland, and led the golden age of a restaurant whose employees I'm all still friends with, impossibly, and one of whom I'm marrying in a few weeks*.

Preserved lemons. Jack's recipe.
I think of Sarah, the chef at the restaurant I recently left to open the wine bar, who is one of the most driven chefs I've met and whose only passion is food. She deserves all the accolades she's received and more but doesn't have the reach of a "Portland celebrity chef" because she's not much of a Food-Network-ready glad-hander and instead prefers to spend her time on the line, in her restaurant, actually cooking and creating some of the best food I've ever had. I think of a million and one other talented and driven chefs who I've had the opportunity to meet, talk to, work under, or simply admire from afar, and they've all touched the lives of food nerds like myself in a way that means something, to me at least. I look at their plating photos and their impeccably clean kitchens and think, shit, that is fucking brilliant. And shit, I'm a fucking mess. I am not their equal. I am not their peer.

I want to get there, but it still feels like a long way off. Am I not giving myself enough credit? Am I too hard on myself? I don't know, maybe. In the meantime I'm spending a lot of my days playing phone tag with various vendors and purveyors, some of whom won't give me the time of day because I'm a no-name nobody. Hey weird purveyors, I'm literally trying to give you money for your product and you're making it really hard for me. It shouldn't be this difficult to give you cash for this thing you're selling.
classic love/hate relationship

Also, I really like the menu I've put together, but it's a menu that has a fair amount of restraint because the timing of the wine bar's opening ended up strangely coinciding with another giant, life-changing event: *In two weeks, I'll be marrying my best friend and the best partner a person could ask for in a reasonably intimate ceremony in one of my favorite parks in Portland. Basically I'm spending the next week and a half working out kinks in this menu, putting systems into place to make sure that everything operates smoothly while I'm gone, prepping the shit out of backups for my homies to use in my absence, just making sure none of the wheels will fall off. And then Jeff and my entire families converge in Portland for a week of celebrations followed by a week of honeymooning (which, let me just take a minute to point out that our boss was so incredibly generous to give us a full week for a honeymoon, which is pretty much unheard of in this industry).

Let me also just say that if anyone ever asks you to open a wine bar and plan a wedding to occur within two weeks of each other, just say no. I truly love everything I'm doing right now, but I do not recommend this schedule to anyone. While the timing isn't ideal, it was a team effort on all parties to not let either big amazing thing stop the other big amazing thing. I come back to the restraint on my menu because I want to do a lot more with the menu but I also wanted to make sure it's foolproof while I'm gone, which is already a challenge with any menu but an especially interesting challenge with an opening menu. I'm hoping to stretch my wings a little (a lot) when I return.

Really, I just want to cook from a genuine place for a public audience. And I have this truly unbelievable opportunity to do just that. Like how many motherfucking cooks can actually say that??? Not many, my friends, not many at all. I constantly find myself flabbergasted at my fortune. I just want to do this right, and I want to do this well.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Staging Like A Pro

I've been itching to write lately, and I found the following post in my drafts folder while sifting around in my blog archives. I'm warming up to write about what's been going on in my present life (Kitchen managing! Events cheffing! Wedding planning!), but I figured this would be a nice and easy return to blogging. I must have written this in 2009 while I was still in my first kitchen, and I'm pleasantly surprised that I feel pretty much the same way about staging now as I did then. I've left the post as I wrote it 4 years ago pretty much intact, with any additional notes or edits in italics. I've also added more at the end.

I realize that as a person who's been in my chosen profession of higher-end kitchen work for less than a year, I'm probably not the most qualified person to be doling out unsolicited advice about pursuing your dreams in this field.

I'm gonna do it anyway.

We've seen a pretty good number of stages come in (and out) our doors these past few months, and the following advice is based on some of the things I've witnessed and consequently been totally dumbfounded by.

How to conduct yourself during a stage
(as told from the point of view of an observant rookie with decent intuition for reading people)

Put together a decent resume
Don't put "rockstar" under skills, especially if you're a recent culinary school grad and currently employed on pantry station at a hotel. You will inevitably come off looking like a douchebag. Put your dates of employment next to each restaurant you've worked at. A simple sentence about each position will do--nobody wants to read an essay about how you cleaned the walk-in and scrubbed the sinks every day. Think of it this way: The more content you have on there, the more content there is for a prospective employer to pick at and critique. Make it clean, simple, easy-to-read. Feel free to write a cover letter, but if your resume is longer than one page, it's too long. And fer peet's sake, SPELL CHECK, DAMMIT! If you're using Microsoft Word or any decent word processing program, it's already doing the work for you. Those squiggly red lines under certain words? Yeah... those words are misspelled. Fix that shit!

Keep your mouth shut
Friendly banter and get-to-know-you kind of chat is gonna happen, but keep your bad jokes to yourself, at least until you've gotten to know these people. Racist, sexist or homophobic jokes will not get you very far during your stage. I'm amazed I even wrote that last sentence, but it's truly stunning what I've heard fall out of stages mouths.

In addition, don't distract other cooks with unnecessary small talk. You are there to get a job; the making friends part can come later. You don't want to be known as That One Stage Who Wouldn't Shut The Fuck Up - and there's always at least one!

Related: Keep your criticism to yourself
If you know this isn't the place for you while you're staging, be fine with that knowledge and take it as another experience. Don't go blathering to anyone who will listen about how silly the menu is or how your current place of employment does such-and-such thing this way, which you think is better than that way. Aside from formerly mentioned douchebaggery, word will spread to other places how much of a douchebag you are. Portland may have a great variety of restaurants, but it's a small community where everyone knows everyone else. When the chef asks you where else you are staging in town, you better believe that a) he probably knows the chefs or other cooks at the other restaurants, and b) if you were a douchbag during your stage, the other chefs will know before you even step foot through their doors. I've seen stages shortened and even canceled because of it.

Be respectful of people's equipment and stations
Recently, I had a newbie ask me if he could watch me and help out if I needed it during the happy hour rush that overlaps into dinner service. It seemed innocuous enough, so I said "sure". In the 15 minutes that the newbie was sharing my space, ticket times doubled what they normally would be and I felt totally overwhelmed by the tickets, even though technically speaking I had help. When I turned around to see the newbie firing off my dinner proteins without telling me, I knew I was in major trouble. My sous chef told me to take control of my station and kick him off if I needed to. I felt bad doing it, but I had to--it's MY station. The worst thing about this experience was knowing it was entirely my responsibility--I let him on my station, I was still in charge of everything coming off it, and it was my duty to take the heat for anything that went wrong, even if I wasn't the one who physically did it. Mostly, it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking initiative, and I think that the fact that I did take initiative had a lot to do with why I got hired during my stage. But there's a huge difference between showing enthusiasm and trying to take over someone's station because you think you're totally awesome. If you're gonna take initiative, make sure you have permission to do things before you do them.

Simply put: Don't touch anyone's mise en place unless you've been specifically told to. That shit is wack.


This is where I stopped writing the post four years ago. Four years later, I would never in a million years let a stage fire food off a station I ran. I was a severely naive line cook at the time, though I also can't say I blame myself for being that way-- learning to manage people is by far the most challenging thing I've ever done in this industry. It's why so many line cooks stay line cooks for life: they either suck at management, or they simply don't like it. Fortunately for me I don't suck at management (at least I don't think!), and I actually enjoy it, for the most part.

To the above, I'll add a few pointers for successful staging:

Have some respect for whomever you are trailing
Yes, you are working for free. But training is hard; it's much harder to explain in an understandable way every single action you're making and every step of a process that you've done a thousand times than to just do it. Ask questions as necessary, but be respectful of the fact that these people are taking time out of their precious prep time or fire time to explain things to you.

Write everything down
If a Sharpie, pen and pocket-sized notebook aren't already part of your daily mise en place, they should be. Writing things down means you don't need to ask again what's in the halibut pickup, plus you'll probably come away from the stage with a few good recipes and new techniques. Write down names if you're bad at remembering them; write down processes and fire times; write down as much as you can.

Don't be afraid to ask for help
If you're told to do something and you don't know how, by all means ask to be shown how to do it. Don't fake your way or pretend to know. I've seen stages say "sure, I know how to julienne a carrot," and come back with a quart of large dice veg. Thanks to that stage's insecurity, the prep time got doubled and those gorgeous (and expensive) heirloom carrots became part of staff meal. Part of staging is to display your technical ability, but if it's something you're unfamiliar with you're far better off asking. I'd much rather hire someone who can follow directions precisely than someone whose mistakes consistently affect my time and my food cost.

Plan on staying until the kitchen closes
I've seen stages act surprised that they are there past a certain time or a certain number of hours, or ask when they will be leaving, because they have a thing they have to go to later. This comes off as extremely disrespectful, not to mention lazy and careless. And no one wants to hire the guy who's complaining about 8 hours when the regular shift is 10. Expect to pull a full shift, and offer to help clean down the line after service if you're still there when cleanup starts. Don't make concrete plans for anything important after a stage if you can help it.

Be on time--better yet, be early
This should be self-explanatory, but sadly, I have to mention this because lately I've witnessed the extent of late cooks and their flexible relationship with time. It really, really sucks when a cook is awesome in every other way but you have to fire them because they cannot for the life of them show up on time. I recently saw a cook get offered a position, and show up an hour late on his first day. He didn't call to say he would be late, even though he had a cell phone. The chef fired him on the spot, and rightly so. And it was too bad, because he really needed the work, but being unreliable is A-number-one the worst trait to have as a cook.

I'd love to hear stage pointers from other cooks out there. What say you?