Monday, December 22, 2008

Making the best of it.

Update: Read an in-depth recounting of the below-mentioned maintenance "issues" over at Jeff McCarthy's blog.

This past week has been certified b-a-n-a-n-a-s for most everyone in the Pacific Northwest, myself definitely included.

The view from my apartment as of 5 minutes ago. Note the freeway--no pavement visible under the snow.

Portland hasn't seen this kind of snow in decades. Temperatures hit record lows this past week, and the powder kept piling. The inclement winter weather began to surface last Sunday, and by Monday evening, hot water stopped running out of any of the faucets at work. On Tuesday morning, the restaurant had some maintenance "issues" (to say the least) due to freezing temps outside, and were closed for the day. We were scheduled to be up and running again by Wednesday morning.

Unfortunately, the snowy weather got the best of us again on Wednesday, and we closed again for the night. By Wednesday afternoon I was like a junkie in withdrawal, and judging from the calls, texts and Twitter messages from my coworkers, we were all in the same boat. One can only do so much laundry, bill-paying and housekeeping to stay busy.

By the time I got the message on Thursday morning that we were closed AGAIN because of further maintenance problems, with the possibility of being closed through the weekend, I officially freaked out. I hadn't worked in three days, I didn't know what would happen over the next few days, and besides not being able to work right before Christmas, having a broken workplace is really sad and slightly demoralizing. It's like the heart that keeps our little work family together stopped pumping suddenly, and we're all at a loss for what to do.

I literally cried on the phone to my friends and coworkers, cursing and yelling a lot, which I realize is a reaction not often elicited by the announcement of a day off from work. Richie over at my recent favorite blog, Line Cook 415, wrote about cooks unexpectedly not working in a post titled "Withdrawal". He puts it really well--that sense of restlessness and feeling bothered rather than relaxed and ready for vacation. Having more than one day off in a row is unusual for most of us, much less two or three with the possibility of more hanging over our heads.

Then I remembered that I wasn't scheduled to work on Friday anyway. That was it. I said, "Fuck it," was at Union Station with packed bags in under an hour. By Thursday at 2:50PM, I was on a train to Seattle to visit my brother and sister.

Amtrak Cascade line FTW.

What unfolded over the next few days was a remarkably laid-back and lovely visit with family in Seattle, made up mostly of eating, reading, watching movies, navigating the insanely snowy, hilly streets and a bit of Christmas tree decorating and sledding. My advice: Always keep a native Alaskan on hand for all your snow driving needs. Very helpful in times like these.

My sister decorating the most adorable tree on the planet.

My Sculpey penguin masterpieces. The one on the left is a wee bit chilly.

Grilled steak a la Sculpey. The other side was "raw."

Homemade chicken n' dumplin's, ya'll. This was my second helping.

Watching peeps sledding in Capitol Hill. We eventually joined in for a ride.

On Thursday night, after a meal of chicken roasted to order at Cafe Presse, we ran into some friends sledding in Capitol Hill. While watching and giggling at the 40+ mass of sledders, I received a text message saying we were closed for the rest of the weekend, which allowed me to finally exhale a bit and let myself enjoy my little vacation.

The lesson here? In times like these, when there's not much to do but stew or worry, I think we need to remember to make the best of it. Attitude is everything, and that's not just a cliche. Currently I'm back in Portland, having hitched a ride down I-5 in a sturdy truck with some friendly folks via Craigslist rideshare. I feel fully relaxed in my apartment for the first time in ages, watching the snow continue to pile up and loving every minute of it.

(Don't worry kids, the work itch will come back in no time. I'm sure of it.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

For all the fellas out there with ladies to impress...

... it's easy to do, just follow these steps.

I kid.

Being officially chest-deep in the holiday season, I thought I would share some of the things that make my life as a cook easier. The idea started many months ago as a self-help guide for uninitiated cooks, but it's so close to Christmas that it seems appropriate as a gift guide for friends and family of aspiring chefs. It's both, really. Call it what you want--there's a lot of unnecessary junk out there that's marketed to cooks who want professional kitchen experience but don't know exactly what goes on in the daily life of a kitchen monkey. I would know; I have lots of extraneous tools I amassed over the years, currently filling storage boxes and drawers in three different cities. There's also stuff out there that's might be good for the home cook but is completely impractical in restaurant kitchen cooking. Bagel slicer, anyone? Egg separator? Garlic press with built-in cleaning device?

I'm also including a short list of items that are specific to women, as there's not much info out there for us kitchen chicks. I'm totally talking bras and stuff. Dudes out there, try not to get weirded out.

I advise to you take my guidance with a grain of salt, as I'm still a professional kitchen rookie. These are my personal favorites, and my tastes will probably change as I gain more experience, but I'd like to think this is a good start.

Things I could not live without:
These are items I use every day.

- A Good Chef's Knife
This is your main tool in the kitchen. Your knife will become your best friend and your right hand. You will spend many, many hours chopping, slicing, brunoise-ing, mincing, and you'll want a knife with which you can comfortably spend that much time. You will become very protective of your knife, and you will learn that using someone else's knife is a privilege. Currently I'm loving the Shun Elite 8-inch that I was lucky enough to receive on my most recent birthday...

...and for three years prior to that I was using a trusty Wusthof Classic 8-inch.

I've been asked "What knives are best?" more than once since I started this blog, and I've come to this conclusion: Ultimately, there is no one "best" knife brand or size, as everyone's hands, skills, usage and personal preferences are different. I prefer an 8-inch knife, and personally I couldn't imagine wielding a 10-incher for prep and during service, especially in a small kitchen. But I know some cooks who don't like to use a chef's knife under 10-12 inches. For those still wondering, Shun, Global, Wustof, Misono and Messermeister are popular brands among cooks. No matter what, always, always, always test run a knife before buying it; most cooking stores will have test knives for that purpose. If you're buying for someone else, take that person to the store and let them try it out for themselves.

- A Decent Paring Knife
Usually 3 to 4 inches in length, this is an all-purpose tool for in-hand work. I really like my school-issued Mercer paring knife, because it has soft edges that are really comfortable in my hand.

Sure makes skinning 5 pounds of pearl onions a breeze. My paring knife is second only to my chef's knife in kitchen knife usage.

- Peeler
Again, all-purpose. I have two in my kit: the below-pictured Swiss peeler for wider items (blocks of cheese, winter squash, apples and such) and a traditional swivel peeler to blow through long, skinny items (carrots, parsnips, etc.).

If I could only have one, the Swiss peeler would win hands-down.

- Messermeister Knife Bag

As much as I like my OCI-issued Mercer knives, the clunky, heavy knife case it came with was a certified pain to carry. I didn't realize exactly how much of a pain it was until I switched to a Messermeister knife roll, which carries the same amount of stuff in a much more compact, light and efficient package. Bought mine at Sur La Table.

- Birkenstock "Birki" Chef Clogs

Holy mother of bejeebus. These shoes literally saved my back (and feet). After an extremely painful three weeks of culinary school in Dansko clogs, I followed a friend's recommendation and purchased a pair of Birkis. I would say these shoes count as one of my top five purchases ever. They're that good. I've spilled on them, dragged them through mop water, dropped hot oil on them, and they're as good as the day I bought them. And they're dishwasher safe! Seriously, what more could you ask for in a shoe?

- Microplane
It's not exactly an every day item, but I'm surprised at how frequently I do use it. Nothing compares to a Microplane for zesting and grating.

It's really one of those "once you go there, you never go back" items. It's the shit, ya'll.

Things that are really nice to have in your toolbox:
Not quite essentials (or not yet, for me, anyway), and I don't own all of these items, but these are certainly helpful to have and, I've noticed, popular amongst restaurant cooks.

- Serrated knife
- Boning/filet knife
- Plastic/flexible pastry scraper
- Japanese mandoline (nothing better for super-thin slicing, hand-tool wise)
- Flexible fish spatula
- Needlenose pliers from a hardware store (for fish pinbones)
- Reamer (aka juicer)

For the ladies in the house:

- J.Crew "Favorite Tank"

I own 7 or 8 of these tank tops in different colors, and I rarely buy anything in duplicates so you know they're good. First I bought 2 for the sake of having something under my culinary school chef's jacket that wasn't a t-shirt. I hate having sleeves on under more sleeves, so tank tops are ideal. When I got the restaurant job, I bought a few more so I could go more days without doing laundry. And then I bought a few more when I realized exactly how awesome and indispensable they are. The J.Crew tanks in particular have a long, neat fit so they hug my body without strangling it and don't ride up my waist during service. I wear them outside of work all the time too. Bonus points for often being on sale at the J.Crew website.

- A good sports/wireless bra
Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. You need good support, and there's nothing worse than straps and wires digging in your ribcage during service. I love my Calvin Klein front-clasp wireless racerback. No link, unfortunately, as I snagged mine at Nordstrom Rack and haven't found an online source.

- Scunci No-Damage hair bands
I have thick hair, and a lot of it. I also have a minor fear of a customer finding my hair in their food, which hasn't yet happened, thankfully. I started using Scunci No-Damage "Firm and Tight" hair bands several years ago and they're the only hair bands I've found that hold my unwieldy hair without having to readjust during service. The "No-Damage" means there's no metal parts to pinch or catch your hair. I've seen these in almost every major grocery and drug store I've been to.

And that's all, folks. I'm sure there's plenty more out there that I'm missing, but this is what I can come up with off the top of my head. I personally could use properly tailored chef pants that I don't have to roll up or step on during service, and a few nicely fitted chef's jackets.

Anyone have other "must have" suggestions?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bento like something out of my wildest dreams

Seriously, this is 28 different kinds of awesome and ridiculous.

The yawning creature above is Totoro, who, for those not in the know, is the title character from the Japanese anime film My Neighbor Totoro, one of my favorite films of all time. Oh, Hayao Miyazaki. How I adore thee. And thy weird beard.

Anyway, I found these amazing bentos via the always fascinating He latched onto the awesome Wall-E themed bento:

Apparently this Japanese-American woman named Anna decided to make a character bento for her boyfriend for lunch, which he photographed and posted to his Flickr. She kept making them, he kept eating them (and posting photos), and they became so popular, she started a bento blog, complete with very detailed how-tos. Though she has her own Flickr account for her blog, I more enjoyed going through the aforementioned boyfriend's Flickr "Obento!" set and reading the notes on what everything is made of.

Somewhere on her blog, in her "about me" section, she talks about how they "only take about five hours" and the best part being that they're eaten every day. I don't know about you, but if I accomplished something so intricate which took "only" five hours to make, I'd lock it away in a glass case somewhere, never to be eaten, only to be admired for eternity.

Though, on the other hand, they do look rather tasty. Most of me is happy (and jealous) that someone actually gets to enjoy these in real life. Leave posterity to Flickr and blogs, right?

This makes me wish I had someone who liked me enough to spend five hours a day making me awesome bentos. Sigh.

(Anybody? Anybody?)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thankgsiving 2008 Part II: Spa time, hot pot, and asparagus to make you cry (in a good way)

The ridiculous, slightly delirious feasting continued on Friday evening after driving to Portland: Nine of us enjoyed a dinner at my restaurant. My chef created an incredible seven-course tasting menu and the sommelier paired a bottle of wine per course. This worked out great for our group, as each person ended up enjoying the equivalent of 2-3 glasses of wine. Before the tasting menu even began, we started out with a couple of house-made charcuterie plates and several orders of pork ribs. Good way to reel 'em all in, I think.

On the menu that night (I hope I got this right!):

-Hamachi sashimi: Preserved orange yuzu kosho vinaigrette, cilantro, Thai basil oil and American caviar
-Cauliflower soup: Lamb sausage, curried almonds, golden raisins and curry oil
-Asparagus wrapped in house-cured lamb prosciutto: Bruleed Parmesan-truffle glacage, sunny-side-up egg and shaved black truffles
-Foie gras torchon: Spiced apple chutney, brioche toast, microgreen salad with candied walnuts, balsamic reduction and honey reduction
-Pan-seared scallop: Fennel puree, Dungeness crab, sauteed leeks and truffle vinaigrette
-Maple-glazed bacon-wrapped pork belly: sherry creamed lentils, lardons and hedgehog mushrooms
-Dessert course: Flourless chocolate cake, olive oil beignets, apple bread pudding, espresso cheesecake, and cheese plate (Mt. Tam triple creme, Cirrus camembert, Bermuda Triangle goat cheese, Pecorino, Shaft blue vein)

I mean, come on. Seriously. Like, what the crap.

This meal killed, obviously, and I'm still kicking myself for forgetting my camera. Winning the prize for favorite course would probably be a tie between the asparagus course and the foie torchon. During the asparagus course, the entire table went silent in sheer enjoyment, and my brother literally started whimpering in happiness. Everything tasted incredible and looked beautiful, and sitting through this fantastic meal at the restaurant for which I work made me feel both lucky and humbled; lucky because I'm working at a truly special place, and humbled because the menu my chef created was ultimately the result of many years of experience, skill and a highly developed palate. I'm so young in the field and I have so much to learn, and this meal really inspired me and got the wheels turning.

(Side note to all the restaurant industry folk who might be reading this: If you haven't yet had a proper meal at your restaurant, I would highly recommend it. It's quite refreshing and can really round out your perspective of your workplace.)

My chef surprised me with a day off on Saturday, for which I was (and still am) so grateful. This Christmas will be the first one ever that I won't be around my family, since we're heading into busy season for the restaurant, and any time I get to spend with my family is truly precious for me. I think my muscles actually managed to relax, thanks to some spa time at Loyly and a good nap in the afternoon.

For the rest of the weekend, we aimed to keep the style of cuisine relatively light after such rich, stick-a-fork-in-me-I'm-done meals. I mean, a body can only handle so much torchon before resulting in a desire to nap forever. We rounded out the weekend with some munchies from the food carts on 10th and Alder downtown, dinner at Beijing Hot Pot, and a Sunday lunch at Pambiche (which was thankfully much better than my last disappointing visit).

The last of my family and friends departed on Sunday evening, and I admit to nearly shedding a tear or two. This might qualify as the best Thanksgiving ever, and gave me perspective on all the amazing opportunities in my life for which I have to be thankful. I know I'm waxing a bit poetic, but I think I'm allowed to every now and then.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thankgsiving 2008, Part I: In'N'Out, fun with pickles, Middle Earth, and real biscuits and gravy

It's been a blur of a Thanksgiving week. Coordinating 12 members of family and close family friends from 5 different cities was like herding cats, and my apartment is now officially a wreck, but it was well worth it.

Many, many awesome food related things happened during this time: special burgers, major feasting, home-cooked Southern goodness, and eating our way through Portland. Somehow I managed to not take an entire photo all weekend, but hopefully I can round up some photos and get those posted eventually.

It all began on Wednesday night, when one of my dearest friends in the world flew into Portland with a most special package in hand: a box of Double-Doubles from In'N'Out Burger, straight outta Los Angeles, to feed the entire kitchen crew at work. I have literally dreamed about shipping In'N'Out to Portland before, and this was better than I could have hoped for. Yes, they were six hours old by the time they arrived, but a few minutes in the oven did the trick and I swear I haven't had that good of a burger in ages. Thanks again, Ben! Can't wait to visit LA and have it fresh outta the drive-in.

That night, Ben and I stayed up until 3 AM pickling apples and making a cranberry compote out of the November issue of Gourmet (the same issue in which my restaurant makes an appearance, wink wink). The apple pickling was my first attempt at pickling at home, and they came out the perfect taste and texture. I packed up the pickles, compote, my knife kit, an apron, and some other helpful goodies and Thursday morning we were off to meet the rest of the crew on a beautiful farm in central Washington. It's smack in the middle of the Cascade range, and I couldn't help but keep thinking I was in the Misty Mountains in Middle Earth when the fog rolled in in the afternoon.

As always, the Thanksgiving menu was a bit ambitious, and I think this year's qualifies as the most ambitious yet. Though I'm giving myself a pat on the back for actually have a proper prep list this year! I came up with a menu last Monday, put together a prep list on Tuesday, sent it to my brother, and my brother and mom took a big trip to Whole Foods to get all the goodies before heading to the farm. With quite a bit of help from family and friends with prepping and washing dishes, we managed to produce the following menu:

-Heirloom turkey, dry brined by my brother and served with a pan gravy that needed zero seasoning because the drippings were so flavorful
-Rack of lamb, oven-roasted to medium-rare
-Wild mushroom, spinach and ciabatta stuffing; one veggie version and another with Italian sausage and bacon fat
-Butternut squash and ginger soup, finished with white truffle oil
-Heirloom beet salad in an oregano sherry vinaigrette with warm fennel puree and pickled apples
-Cranberry compote with quince, fresh pearl onions, cloves and coriander
-Cast-iron roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic and lemon
-Oven-roasted root vegetables: carrots, parsnips and fingerling potatoes
-Green bean casserole with fresh green beans, horseradish aioli, crimini mushrooms and fried onions

We could have fed twice the number of people we actually did. Of all the things I made that day, I was the most happy with the green bean casserole. It wasn't my absolute favorite thing on the menu (I think that honor would go to the lovely, slightly gamey turkey), but I was stoked that I made up a way of recreating the classic canned bean and cream of mushroom soup recipe with fresh ingredients. And it was, after all, pretty scrumptious.

We ate until we were bursting, and then surprised my sister with a chocolate mousse cake for her birthday, which fell on Thanksgiving day. We dug into one of the three fabulous pumpkin pies that Christy's mom Doris made, and between the sweets and eight games of Boggle, the night left me sated.

I woke up Friday morning to the scent and sound of country sausage frying, and we feasted on a late breakfast of Doris' authentically southern biscuits and gravy, perfectly scramble eggs fresh from chickens on the farm, and homemade jams and jellies. Those biscuits may have been the best I've ever had. Top three biscuits of all time, definitely. How I managed to find space for such a huge breakfast after Thursday's gorging remains a mystery, but I've never been one to turn down a good meal.

Coming soon: Part II, onward to Portland...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Finding the things you didn't know you were looking for

Restaurant cooking is really, really hard. To work a full shift on your feet in full bodily motion under high-stress conditions, come home late every night with new burns or cuts, not be able to sleep even though your body is dead tired because you're still mentally wound up from service, wake up aching from head to toe and get stoked about doing it all over again is not an easy accomplishment.

meet my new blisters (thanks to some stray, searing-hot pan grease). yay!

I'm convinced that the actions themselves (cutting, grilling, sauteing, plating, etc) can be done by any well-trained monkey, but to do this for hours at a time, day after day, with speed, grace and efficiency and without mistakes or refires takes a certain kind of person. One who is thick-skinned, marathon-ready, mentally sharp and not easily flustered. Though I have all of those qualities some of the time, I do not naturally have all of those qualities all of the time. We're not perfect, right? My sous chef has had to tell me more than once after I get frustrated from a refire or a mistake, "you can beat yourself up after service."

I'll be honest: For the past few weeks, I've been struggling with kindling the same intense fire I had when I first got hired at my restaurant. I believe it's a result of a mixture of factors: The end of the "honeymoon period" now that I've been there for four months; being done with the school part of OCI and feeling disoriented from not doing 13-15 hour days; going from the sometimes crazy but fairly straightforward pantry station to the sometimes crazy and intense-multi-tasking-required grill/saute station. I'd never cooked meat to temperature order in my life, much less worked on a hot line period, and the thought that my chef entrusted this task to me was at once extremely complimentary and also really, really frightening.

I made no secret that it was an overwhelming yet exhilarating feeling to be moved up to hot line, but I don't think I took it nearly as seriously as I should have from the get-go. I became lax about my work ethic, relying on my coworkers to pull me out of the weeds when I was feeling mere hints of "going down" (restaurant speak for falling way behind) and simply not giving the 110 percent that any good chef requires from their cooks.

My actions (or lack thereof) all culminated in an unfortunate incident that resulted in my chef, never once to mince words, letting me know how disappointed he was in my recent performance with a blisteringly critical verbal slap on the wrist. I once wrote that any time I know I've messed up, I can always make myself feel worse about it than anyone else could, and it rang true here. It was exactly what I needed to wake the fuck up and get out of this weird funk I've been in, and the next day I thanked my chef for reprimanding me and not letting me get away with subpar performance.

I've been building up to getting that fire back, though I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for. I've been recently getting words of wisdom from people I respect who have been working in kitchens much longer than I have, and all of them reassured me that I would eventually get it right and even get a natural high off of the adrenaline rush. After so many nights of shit going wrong or even feeling a little off, I was starting to doubt that this would happen.

Then last night came around.

Last night was easily one of the best nights I've had on the hot line since I first eased my way over from pantry a few months ago. The number of reservations were three times what I expected them to be for a Wednesday night, mostly due to three parties of 8 or over that were coming in at the same time. I immediately felt knots in my stomach, as the previous times I've gone down hard and had to be saved were often a result of multiple parties.

Prep time was a blur and went way too quickly, and I definitely scrambled to get some last-minute tasks finished before we rolled right into dinner service. The ticket machine started printing, and the first few fires were steady. Then what seemed like a mass of really long tickets came in at once, and suddenly I had 14 meats on hold, 10 of them cooked to temperature (i.e. rare to well-done), on top of soups and apps that were fired. My oven was stuffed full with lamb racks and chicken halves, all of my burners were on fire, and I was juggling prawns and bread on the grill.

I began feeling overwhelmed and started thinking out loud, mumbling the ticket items and temperatures to myself over and over so as not to forget something in the oven or on the stove. I don't know exactly how to explain what happened next, but suddenly I was washed over in a weird calm, and at the same time my heart was beating so fast I could feel it in my neck. It was like I could suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel where there used to be none at all; somehow I was staying on top of things just enough to keep moving along, and nothing was getting lost in the fray. Intermittently I found myself saying out loud, "I'm okay, I'm doing okay, things are good, I'm doing alright," partially as an attempt to stay calm, but also because I was really surprised I wasn't totally going down.

It was a high I've never felt before, knowing that this delicate tower I built could topple at any moment, like a house of cards that could blow over in one breath, and my heart was racing so fast it felt like it was going to burst. But somehow everything was going right and I was present in that moment. With some help from my chef, we plated up everything I had on hold in three pickups. Everything looked beautiful and all the proteins were cooked to perfect temperature and color. It was the first time in a long time that I felt a sense of accomplishment like the one I felt after my stage day.

There's massive room for improvement, especially between balancing cooking and plating, but I finally got a taste of the adrenaline rush that I've constantly heard seasoned line cooks talk about. For the first time ever on the hot line, I finally felt like I could not just do this, but enjoy it and be good at it. I realized that I had lost the joy in being in the kitchen for a while there, and I found it again last night. After last night's rush, my executive chef and sous chef let me know that I was doing a good job, and I couldn't contain the huge grin that spread across my face. After feeling so low recently, it feels great to pick myself up off the ground, brush myself off and kick some ass, finally.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Don't try this at home

This is what a month or so of being on grill and saute side at work has done to my hands and arms:

As you can see, my left arm has obtained the majority of burns and cuts, mostly because nearly all of my pan and saute work is done left-handed. Even though I'm naturally right-handed, I move and toss pans with my left hand almost exclusively, which is something I learned from my chef and sous. Good cooks use their strong hands to adjust seasoning, add liquids and taste with tasting spoons, and their weaker hand for pan movement. I've quickly picked up this habit, but I am still figuring out the most efficient way to move about, including putting pans into scorching hot 500 degree ovens, which is when most of my burns occur. The most recent burn is the one on the inside of my left arm nearest to my elbow, which I got last night in a harried string of pickups that included 12 steaks for a large party. Nearly every burner on our 18-burner front line was in use, as well as some of the back burners and back ovens.

I tend to wield my burns around like war wounds, and part of me thinks they're pretty badass. But it ultimately comes down to the fact that when I burn myself, it's a result of not being careful or working sloppily, which is something I try to keep in mind. Still, it's hard to avoid it completely when you're moving fast and simultaneously feeling like you're not moving fast enough.

I'll admit I've had my moments of frustration when I feel I'm starting to doggy paddle just to keep up with the string of tickets, and that fight-or-flight feeling of being overwhelmed is becoming more and more familiar. There are two things you can do in that situation: Give up (which is not an option) or keep pushing. Thankfully I've had a lot of help from my chefs and coworkers when shit becomes ridiculously hectic on the line, but I know I am ultimately responsible for bettering myself, becoming faster, more aggressive, more efficient and just being able to juggle it all.

On a related note, I was recently pointed to a blog called Line Cook (thanks Jeff!), which is written by a current sous chef at Nopa in San Francisco. I've found his writing to be extremely insightful as to what it's really like to be a cook, to the point where I've wondered if he's sitting in my head. Good reading, if you're interested.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

On online restaurant reviews

So I've spent the last hour or so looking for restaurant options to take my friends out to dinner tonight. Oftentimes these searches lead to common review sites like Citysearch, Yelp and Trip Advisor. I usually devour the reader reviews, but I've been running into some reviews that I have to admit irritate the crap out of me.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge proponent of open-to-the-public online reviews, and have been known to author a few myself. I love the immediacy of the Internet, and in Portland especially there is an active and encouraging dialogue between chefs/owners and diners on sites like and Food Dude's Portland Food and Drink.

In my humble opinion, however, unless you are Ruth Reichl, Jeffrey Steingarten, Frank Bruni or a food writer of that caliber with comparable knowledge, experience and finesse with words, the following phrases immediately disqualify your opinion:

- "I would first off like to say that I am a total foodie and have visited some of the finest restaurants in America. I used to live in San Francisco, where I found the greatest food on earth to be located."

- "I'm an experienced foodie. I've lived in Seattle and New York and currently reside in San Francisco so I know good restaurants."

- "...What my server didn't know is that I'm a server and probably tip a whole lot better, not to mention know a lot more about food than most people in the room."

- "So I'll start by saying that I have been to many (and I mean many) restaurants around town..."

- "We are regulars at [insert list of expensive restaurants here], and for special occasions we dine at [most expensive restaurant in town]."

The above quotes were pulled from actual reviews. Okay people, if you feel the need to define yourself as an expert diner in order to garner some sort of respect, you automatically lose. Some of what you're saying may be true, but let your food knowledge come across in the retelling of your dining experience without prefacing your opinion with a qualifier.

Other irritating phrases:

- "I would have given five stars if there had been more vegetarian options."

It would be one thing if this particular reviewer was writing about a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, but this was a review of a restaurant well-known for it's meaty deliciousness and common use of animal offal.

- "People in Portland may like this restaurant or revere it as top notch, because there is not much else available."

I don't even know where to begin with this. Wait, yes I do... read this and see what the New York Times has to say about "not much else available" in Portland.

Not all the bad is entirely bad, however. These comments gave me a chuckle:

"As I waited for my computer date..."

I appreciate the honesty here.

"The ambulance was good."

Hmm. I don't know about you, but I don't really like the ambulance during my dining experiences.

Anyway, enough with irritants. I think the sudden onslaught of cold, wet weather after a seemingly endless string of perfectly blue skies has turned my mood slightly. Summer is officially over, kids.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Last day of school

I completed my last day at Oregon Culinary Institute yesterday. Technically speaking I don't graduate until I've completed 360 hours at my externship site, which I'm doing at my current workplace over the next two months. However, the days of donning the school uniform and being under the daily guidance of my chef instructors are over.

I have to admit that when I woke up late this morning, I was feeling a little lost and confused. Has six months really flown by that fast? I thought I was looking forward to being done with this crazy schedule of full-time-school-full-time-work, but now that I am, something seems off. It seemed like all of the sudden it just stopped.

But the key thing here is it doesn't stop, actually; like one of the chef instructors said to us yesterday, our first step in our education is complete, and now the real education begins, especially for those stepping into the industry for the first time. I found this to ring very true when I started at my restaurant, and though I'm a bit sad to be leaving school, I'm excited to be able to focus my energy solely on improving my skills, techniques and speed at work.

Speaking of which I'm heading off, but (as always) I have a lot more on my mind. Now that I'll have a little more time on my hands, hopefully I'll actually get around to blogging in a timely manner.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Catching up

It's been far too long since I've written, and it's not for lack of interesting goings-on in my life. In fact, things are going even faster at work and at school now that I'm having difficulty finding the time to just sit down and write for longer than two minutes. Now that we're in the restaurant full time at school (with no class lecture), I'm currently doing between 65 and 75 hours a week on my feet between work and school, and somehow I still don't feel like I'm working hard enough. I think it's because with something like cooking the amount of knowledge and skill you can gain is endless. It's a great motivator for me, especially when I'm surrounded by people who are so much more skilled and experienced than myself, but it can lead to frustration for me as my nature is to want to know everything and to be really good at everything right off the bat. Unrealistic, I know. So sue me.

On the upside though, the biggest news in my life recently, besides moving into the OCI restaurant, is that I'm currently training to move up to the hot line from pantry at my restaurant. I got the news about a month ago that my exec and sous wanted to start training me on the hot line. This initially struck me as absolutely bonkers as I've never cooked anything to temperature order prior to culinary school, and everything at my restaurant that can be cooked to temp order is: scallops, game birds, fish, steak, pork, everything. Add on the plating sets ("set" = the other stuff that goes on the plate) and it's the ultimate in multi-tasking. There's no doubt that things can get hairy on the hot line, and it's a lot of pressure. I'll admit I was slightly scared and a bit timid about the step up, but after a few weeks I'm feeling pretty confident that I can "handle the heat," as they say.

I have a billion observations, updates and news items I want to share, but sleep is calling for now. I'll get to them sooner than later, I promise.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred, or 100 foods you should eat

I first saw this list on the beloved food blog (and one of my favorites) Chocolate and Zucchini. Andrew Wheeler, co-author of the blog Very Good Taste, came up with what he calls The Omnivore's Hundred, or a list of foods that, in his own words, "every good omnivore should have tried at least once in their life." With this list, he suggested the following rules:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at linking to your results.

Below are my results, with my commentary in parentheses. I've added an asterisk (*) to the items I've made or cooked with myself. A lot of those items are thanks to culinary school and my work as well. I suggest visiting VGT's original post or Chocolate and Zucchini's posting of the list because they took the time to link a lot of the less well-known items to Wikipedia, something I would have done as well but am too lazy to do. Heh.

1. Venison*
2. Nettle tea (Like C&Z, I've had nettle soup, but not tea)
3. Huevos rancheros*
4. Steak tartare*
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding (AKA blood sausage)
7. Cheese fondue*
8. Carp*
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush*
11. Calamari*
12. Pho (Yes please!!)
13. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich*
14. Aloo gobi*
15. Hot dog from a street cart (Boy do I miss ghetto dogs in LA...)
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle*
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (berry wine)
19. Steamed pork buns (Surprised I haven't made these yet...)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes* (One of my favorite foods of all time)
22. Fresh wild berries* (Ditto #21)
23. Foie gras*
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters* (I've gotten my shucking + cleaning time for oysters on the half-shell down to under 10 seconds per oyster from start to plate. On a good day. With cooperative oysters.)
29. Baklava*
30. Bagna cauda (Sounds intriguing)
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl* (Is there anything better on a freezing cold day? Also, anyone have a favorite bowl in Portland?)
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut*
35. Root beer float*
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (Yes cognac, but not with a cigar)
37. Clotted cream tea (This might be at the top of my list to try)
38. Vodka jelly* (AKA Jell-O shots to us 'Mericans)
39. Gumbo*
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects (Somehow surprised that I haven't tried this yet)
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu (Not itching to try it, but I wouldn't rule it out entirely)
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel*
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (How can you not when you grow up next to the hometown of Krispy Kreme?)
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer* (Made this for the first time in school... much easier to produce than expected)
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (I crossed this out because the last time I had a Big Mac, I nearly got sick just staring at the gray meat and I was henceforth determined to never eat a Big Mac ever again)
56. Spaetzle*
57. Dirty gin martini*
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine (Fries with cheese curds? Why have I not tried these?!?)
60. Carob chips*
61. S’mores*
62. Sweetbreads*
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs*
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (I'll eat and enjoy pretty much any form of fried dough)
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain*
70. Chitterlings or andouillette*
71. Gazpacho*
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill (Not dying to try this, but wouldn't say no)
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail* (White wine, lemon, parsley and garlic is the way to go)
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum (Would like to make this sometime)
82. Eggs Benedict* (My Hollandaise skills are getting pretty good)
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare*
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse (Hell to the no. There's something very wrong with this, and I love me some meat)
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam*
92. Soft shell crab*
93. Rose harissa (Sounds awesome)
94. Catfish*
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox*
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta* (This is my go-to starch for black box exams)
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

If I counted correctly, I'm missing 23 foods on this list. And of the 38 foods I've cooked myself, nearly half of them are foods I've cooked for the first time in the past five months (since I started culinary school and working at the restaurant). I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I think it's pretty awesome that I've had so much exposure to such interesting ingredients and recipes because of school and work.

Now I gotta get on that clotted cream tea...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The awesomeness that is restaurant cooking

Being a kitchen cook is really hard work, probably the hardest I've ever worked in my life, and I've only been at it for a couple of months. With full time work on top of full time school, it's a struggle to stay on top of my game 100 percent of the time. I miss seeing my friends, I miss weekend trips, and having a normal social life is nearly impossible--I can hardly make time for laundry, much less a civilized date. I sleep erratically and I eat standing up at work or walking to/from school, usually scarfing down whatever I'm eating in less than three minutes. I'm lucky if I actually get to sit down for a meal more than once a week.

Even though it crosses my mind that I'm crazy for doing this, I truly love what I'm doing, and here are a few of the reasons why.

The Sounds: Sizzling of meat hitting a properly heated pan, clanging of metal pots and pans and bowls, whirring of mixers and blenders and grinders, the calling of orders and the echo of cooks, the blasting fan in the walk-in, even the whooshing of the mechanical dishwasher.

The Smells: Sauteed onions, creamed butter and sugar, fresh-out-of-the-oven bread pudding, pan-fried lardons, citrus rind zested on a microplane, simmering corn bisque, resting duck confit before it goes in the walk-in.

The Particulars: How a bunch of ingredients sitting in various sizes of hotel pans, Cambro containers, squeeze bottles and plastic pint cups become a 28-dollar plate that looks worth the money. I love that it's rather unromantic in the kitchen, and I love that the food makes a magical transformation once it's in the server's window and delivered to a patron's table.

The Organized Chaos: It looks like an abstract mess on the surface, but every step you take and every turn you make means something. A good cook makes no wasted moves. There's something kind of awesome about five cooks juggling searingly hot pots, pans and bowls in a 20 square foot galley kitchen with lowboy refrigerators, ovens and hot surfaces. It feels great when you're moving swiftly and efficiently.

The Textures: Getting my hands on crisp greens, slippery scallops, creamy dressings, rock-hard mollusk shells, soft strawberries. It's a good occupation for hands-on kind of people.

The Tastes:
This one should go without saying. Tasting 10 flavors in one dish, tasting 10 dishes in three minutes, tasting the difference between something unseasoned and the transformation it makes when properly seasoned, trying something I've never had before and being completely surprised and/or blown away.

The Camaraderie: This is one of my favorite things about cooking, really. The minute I set foot into the kitchen, it's like stepping into an exclusive club. An exclusive all-boys club, in my case, and for a lot of other kitchens out there. For the longest time when I was a server and a host, there was a sense of mystery about the kitchen to me; I was so curious, yet afraid to touch anything or get in anyone's way. I stuck to asking a lot of questions and pestering chefs to let me taste dishes instead. Now that being in a kitchen is my job, the mystique and romanticism is gone, and it's fun to finally know what it's like to be back there. I love behind-the-scenes kind of stuff, and this is the ultimate in being behind-the-scenes, for me at least.

It's been a busy few weeks with the start of Term 3, but I'm doing my best to power through as usual. Late nights and early mornings take a toll, but I know it's worth it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Ups and downs

I guess every day can't be as spectacular and mellow as cooking under blue skies in vineyards.

I'll just get to it: I kind of sucked at work today.

We had a party with 20 guests, which I can usually handle alright on a typical Monday. Today, however, was not a typical Monday. The number of covers we did tonight was more typical of a Thursday or Friday, so on top of having my station and the pastry station to myself, we were slammed in the dining room. I was totally underprepped, and even though we were busier than usual, I simply wasn't on top of my game.

I have to admit that I'm totally disappointed in myself, especially because my personal standards are so high. But what's worse is I feel like I've let down my chef, with whom I just had a great conversation last weekend about how well I've been doing and my future at the restaurant.

I guess we all get knocked off our high horses every now and then. I just have to get back to kick-ass mode, starting tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, Term 3 for me at OCI officially starts tomorrow morning, bright and early at 7:30AM. We're moving into the phase where we'll be working in the OCI restaurant, as well as doing courses on restaurant management. I'm looking forward to this term, and I'm not scared to get into the restaurant since I'm already in a real working environment. But I have a feeling that it'll be strenuous, not to mention the early mornings... Power naps and I are going to be good friends for the next two months.

I'll feel better once I get some sleep, I know it... but I'm turning that kick ass dial back up to 11.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Plates and pitchforks

One of the things I'm realizing about Portland as a food town is that the world of chefs here is quite intermingled; some would say it can be slightly incestuous, as you run into a lot of people who know people you know, because they've worked with them elsewhere. Just last night I was at a bar where two people who worked there knew two of my current coworkers from previous restaurants at which they worked. It makes for an interesting, kind of familial feeling.

As a positive result of the weird intermingling, I've been lucky enough to run into some great opportunities, one of them being the Plate and Pitchfork dinner I just returned from tonight.

Plate and Pitchfork
The view from the "kitchen"

Plate and Pitchfork, for those not in the know, is a series of dinners catered by local chefs in partnership with local farms, and which usually take place at local wineries. Tonight's event was at the Jacob-Hart Vineyard in Newberg, about 45 minutes outside of Portland. I love that you can drive a mere 45 minutes out of town and be deep in Oregon wine country.

The chefs for tonight's event were Gabe Rucker of Le Pigeon, one of my favorite places in town, and Eric Moore from Victory Bar, an awesome spot in SE Portland. One of my coworkers knows Gabe quite well, and asked me to volunteer my time for this event. Help cater a dinner out in a sunny, gorgeous vineyard and playing with some incredible food? No arm-twisting necessary.

We literally drove through the grapevines to get to the spot where tables for 120 guests were set amongst the vines. I saw dogs running about, horses in a nearby barn, two grills set for roasting prime rib... I felt the sun on my back and the breeze blowing through my hair and I knew it would be a good day.

On the menu were beautiful Viridian Farms greens and veggies, in the form of some simple but beautiful salads, sides and desserts concocted by the chefs. Gabe makeshift-smoked and grilled six huge slabs of fat, juicy prime rib for the main course, and meanwhile I cut up a giant bunch of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes for a marinated tomato-cuke salad, fried up some lamb tongue "nuggets" for appetizers, plated many family-style bowls of beautiful greens and veg, fried buttermilk-soaked onions to top off a for classic green bean casserole with a horseradish aioli, and just did whatever work needed to be done.

I was surprised at how mellow the atmosphere was, maybe because I'm so used to having the tickets pour in and busting my ass to get things out on time. It also helped that the chefs were ultra-prepared, and as a lovely result, we were able to partake in some of the food and wine as well, albeit standing up. Now that I think about it, I haven't eaten sitting down in days. Last time I ate sitting down... take out from Kenny and Zuke's, sitting on my couch, four days ago? This is why I need dinner dates, people.

I had a lot of fun being out there in a field under the sun, especially because I feel like I haven't been outside enough this summer. It's August already, and the days are just flying by. It's nice to just take your time, do a fun event for the hell of it, and be surrounded by lush farmland while you're at it.

Highly recommended, folks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Work and school: The how and the why

scallops at Le Pigeon*

I'll be honest: If you asked me in March if I thought I'd be working in a restaurant kitchen in a few months time, I'd have told you, "You so crazy." In fact, four months ago, the thought of working in any professional kitchen, not to mention that of a high-end restaurant, frankly scared the shit out of me. Even starting culinary school and being surrounded by the endlessness of stainless steel was highly intimidating. I couldn't imagine how we'd get to the point where we would be cooking for the public in the open kitchen of the OCI restaurant (which is coming up for me in a few weeks).

Funnily enough, one of the most surprising things about my new job is how comfortable I feel in the kitchen, putting out food for which people are paying not a little money. I have a desire to know more, to get better, to get faster, to hone my skills. I've been bitten by the bug, as Chef Wilke put it, and it just keeps spreading.

With everything that I'm learning at work, I'll admit that it's crossed my mind to quit school altogether and focus entirely on with my job. I mean, what's the point of being in school if I'm learning so much AND getting paid to do it, right?

I've been pondering this quite a bit, and as we're nearing the end of Term 2 at OCI, I find myself wandering the hallways at school and thinking, "I can't leave this. I'd be missing way too much." School and work are symbiotic; both are feeding off the other, and both are helping to narrow my focus a lot. I thought it might be the reverse, where I'd be spreading myself way too thin, but work and school together has only made me that much more driven.

It really comes down to this: I learn how to do things at work, but I learn why I do those things at school.

Don't get me wrong; my chefs and coworkers at my restaurant are wicked smart and highly knowledgeable, and most of them didn't go to culinary school. The combined experience of the 10 or so people in the back of the house is kind of staggering. But as a rookie with very little formal kitchen experience, I find there are definitely times where I feel happy that I did my reading homework about varieties of heat transfer or the properties of salt or mollusk physiology. I'm shucking oysters at work, but only after we discussed shellfish anatomy in lecture did I begin to think, 'Maybe I should be cutting out the abductor muscle on the larger oysters to make it a more pleasant eating experience.'

Thanks to school, when I'm plating a dish at work and it tastes funny or looks wrong, I'm better at intuiting what needs to be done. I don't always get it right, but I feel more comfortable making decisions. More height, more salt, more vinegar, more color: all those things didn't mean jack to me before we filled out the endless amounts of recipe analysis sheets in Term 1. On these sheets, we were to describe every minute detail of every element of a dish. What is the sugar's purpose in the vinaigrette? What texture does a radish have in a salad? What color does the asparagus lend to the soup? Does the lettuce add height?

At the same time, because of work, my school sensibilities are changing. The idea that we're selling food for money is smacking me pretty hard in the face now that I'm working in a "real world" setting. It's not enough to make food that makes someone say, "I'd eat that." It has to be "I'd shell out my hard-earned money to eat that" (bonus points for "on a regular basis"). It's the difference between home cooking and professional cooking, and that difference only hit me when I set foot into the restaurant I work at now. Every time I put up a plate to sell, I make sure it's something I would pay the money we charge for it. It might sound a bit crass, but it is an industry and it's how we make a living. We have fun and feel passion for it too, and I think that translates in the food.

Because I have the roots for those real-worldy business sensibilities now, I find that I approach plating dishes at school from an entirely different perspective. It can't just be pretty... it has to be appealing; appetite-whetting, if you will. Something that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, 'Wow, this is beautiful/different/interesting.' And for crap's sake, it has to taste good.

It's a fine balance, but I feel I'm doing pretty well, considering the hours and the circumstances. I hope it only continues to get better.

*I don't work at Le Pigeon; I am, however, very fond of their food.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Passive Aggressive Appetizers

This New Yorker list of 14 passive aggressive appetizers for your next dinner party is just too funny to not share. Check out number 4:

"Blend fresh crabmeat with diced avocado, scallions, and a dollop of mayonnaise for a canapĂ© topping so delicious that it will take your guests a full minute to realize that they’re eating it off dog biscuits. Once they catch on, act mortified and stammer that you must have “mixed up the boxes,” until everyone calms down. Then start crying because the biscuits remind you that today marks exactly eight weeks since you had to put down Buster, and you just miss him so much."


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Food Service Eyes

I know I haven't written a school-descriptive post recently, which I'll remedy soon, I promise. This little anecdote, however, might help explain my current state of mind:

I wandered into school this morning and sat down at a computer to type out our live fire project menu. Chef Wilke, my school's co-founder, who is always high energy and genuinely enthusiastic (I don't know how he does it--strong coffee is my guess), has taken to asking me how my new job is going every time I see him. It's pretty great, because he knows I'm doing full time school and work, and I truly believe he wants to see me succeed at both. He saw me and said, "Good morning Ingrid! How's work going?"

I looked up dazily and replied, "Oh, it's going really well, actually. We got totally slammed last night, which is weird for a Monday. But it was good, ya know..." I smiled a morning-weary smile, and he began to chuckle. He said to one of my instructors, "Hey Chef, check it out, Ingrid's beginning to get that 'food service' look in her eyes!" They both laughed, and he said to me, "You know, like I can tell you're still on top of it all, but you're looking about 18 inches past my head when you talk."

I couldn't help but laugh. That guy is always spot on, folks.

So that's about where I am right now. I'm doing some awesome stuff in school, last week was one of my favorite weeks so far (Fish! Crustaceans! Mollusks!), and I have photos to post, but I promise I'll get around to it soon.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Things you might or might not know about me, food edition

I'm stealing this idea from Internets uber-geek Sean Bonner, but I'm doing this foodie style. And instead of shooting for 100 things, I'll spare you all and cap the number at 28, which happens to be the number of years old I will be in a little over a month.

1. My favorite junk food (arguably of all time) is Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream Potato Chips.

2. I don't cook at home as much as I'd like to. I'll blame it on the fact that I have an electric range, but I know that's not entirely the case.

3. It's a point of pride for me to be a woman in a largely male-dominated field of cooks. Props to my guy friends for teasing me enough to know how to deal with a bunch of sarcastic, foulmouthed dudes.

4. I am very critical of myself in the kitchen (and elsewhere, but let's stick with food here). Any time I know I've messed up, I can always make myself feel worse about it than anyone else could.

5. Alternately, it makes me really, really happy when I do a good job. Seeing the looks on people's faces when they gobble up something I made and then passing plates around the table to share gives me such a sense of satisfaction, I remember why I'm doing this in the first place.

6. I am extremely competitive. Extremely.

7. The entirety of my college undergrad experience, I dreamed of waiting tables. I read this book and fantasized about being a server.

8. The first time I waited tables was for a restaurant owned by my aunt in Gastonia, NC. It was Sunday All-You-Can-Eat brunch, and NOT buffet style--customers ordered as much as they liked, finish the first round, ordered another round, finished that round, and on and on and on. I went back to my aunt's house after my first insane shift, called my mom and cried to her for an hour.

9. I love a bowl of hot soup on a hot day.

10. I love a bowl of hot soup basically anytime.

11. I once got into a serious argument with a previous boyfriend about the merits of soup.

12. I considered breaking up with said boyfriend over soup argument.

13. Every time I worked in a restaurant as a server or host, I made it a point to befriend the kitchen staff. I always asked a lot of questions about the food, as well as how they got started cooking, because I knew somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking about it myself. As a result, I got food easily fired on the fly, chatted up exec chefs about their farmer's market hauls of the morning, had plates especially made up for me to try (house-made pasta in anchovy and sage-infused olive oil with shaved truffles, anyone?), and even dated a couple of cooks.

14. I feel that I've "mastered" only a handful of dishes. I'm hoping to multiply that number within the next few months.

15. I'm self-conscious about trying my hand on the hot line at work.

16. I love that cooks talk about cooking when we're not at work.

17. I went through phase as a kid when all I wanted was some form of potato. I remember it being the first time I developed an interest in cooking.

18. I was a vegetarian once for eight months, nearly eight years ago. The first omnivorous meal I ate when I quit being vegetarian was a huge plate of sashimi.

19. I consider my personal kitchen to be very ill-equipt.

20. The only time I ever got upset at my former roomie (and still one of my best friends) when we lived together was when we were making dinner one night, and I turned to see her attempting to cut off a wire twist-tie on a bunch of spinach with my new Wustof Classic 8" chef's knife. I think she knows better now :).

21. I have doubts about my cooking skills, but I know I'm getting better.

22. Another point of pride for me: Kicking ass in culinary school.

23. I've been called "bossy" by some of my classmates, but, frankly, I don't mind.

24. I'm convinced my brother knows way more about food that I do. He's a bona fide gastronome. He definitely knows more about wine than I think I ever will.

25. I am not particularly good at cooking the cuisine of my home country, and hope I will get better at it because I gots a cravin', and there's very little Taiwanese food to be found in Portland. Plus I'd like to cook some of these meals for my future family.

26. Thanks to school and work, my hands and feet look like they belong to a marathon-running auto mechanic.

27. I remember the exact moment when it struck me that I wanted to pursue a career in food: At Coastal Kitchen in Capitol Hill, Seattle with my mom, brother and sister, four years ago. I was eating a particularly good meal, happy to be with family after a tumultuous year prior, and a feeling hit me out of nowhere. Before I could think, I blurted out, "I think I know what I want to do with my life. I want a food-related career." My family's response, besides some cheering and clapping, was essentially, "DUH." Something along the lines of, "We knew all along, we were just waiting for you to realize it for yourself."

28. I'm not certain where this path will take me, but I've felt more certain on this path than any other in my life.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

You've come a long way, baby

I'm sitting on my couch in the dark, and just got off the phone with a friend with whom I haven't talked in a long time, too long. He's been my friend for several years, went through some major rough patches with me, and has always been a good friend. He was out of the country for the past few weeks, and I just now caught him up on the massive changes in my life that he missed. Telling him the entire story about getting my new job got me seriously reflecting about how truly amazing it is that I got here.

Contemplative Ingrid, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest

Truth be told, I never expected my life goals to be as obtainable as they now seem. I'm still ironing out the details, but everything seems possible now. In order to understand this all in context, and why I'm so surprised, I should explain something that I've hesitated to share in detail on my food blog, because a) it's quite personal, and b) it's not exactly food-related. It seems relevant right now, however, and most of the small population who read ye humble blog seem like good people, so here goes...

I've been an epileptic for my entire life. I had seizures as a child, but I didn't know they were seizures until I was a teenager. I knew them as small, non-convulsive "dizzy spells". I had my first grand mal seizure when I was 14, in a minivan on my way to summer camp. The kind where you black out, convulse on the ground, foam at the mouth, wake up with a massive headache, all that stuff. I had a CT scan and EEG done when I was checked into the hospital, and they found a benign malformation in my brain, between my left temporal and parietal lobes, which was causing neurons in that area of my brain to misfire.

For two years after that, I consulted many doctors, checked into many hospitals, and I continued to have occasional grand mal seizures until I found a mix of anti-seizure medications that successfully halted the grand mals. I was still having small, complex partial seizures, which only continued to grow in intensity and frequency. This is a large part of why school became a struggle for me when, prior to my first grand mal, it came very naturally to me. College was a very difficult time, to say the least.

By the time I moved to Los Angeles, I was having small seizures almost every day, and I was on high dosages of three medications which clearly were not working that well. My driver's license was taken away by my doctor at UCLA (not my favorite doc), and doing the catering work I was doing became increasingly difficult. In fact, everyday life was starting to become a hassle; worrying about crossing the street, or missing my bus stop, or having a seizure at a party, or being mid-conversation and having to excuse myself abruptly. Something needed to change.

Cut to summer 2006: A series of fortuitous circumstances landed me back in North Carolina, consulting my favorite neurologist and a neurosurgeon about having the malformation removed. It was an option when I was 14, but I was too scared then to agree. It was still risky, but I'm glad I waited, because I was truly ready this time. On November 9th, 2006, I underwent a five-hour brain surgery, three hours of which I was awake and quite conscious. On a lot of opiates, but chatting and cracking jokes. I came out of it with a wicked scar, which is now unnoticeable under my fast-growing hair, and a few titanium screws and plates in my cranium.

The surgery was a success, and my daily seizures literally halted. It was a very slow recovery, almost a year, in fact. But for the most part, it's been a night-and-day difference in my life. I can drive, go to school without fear of "blanking out" in the middle of lecture or kitchen work, and work long hours without having to stop what I'm doing to hide somewhere to have a brief "dizzy spell".

So you see, dear readers, this is why I'm amazed, stunned, really, to be where I am. And why I am more grateful than one can possibly ever imagine for the hectic life that I now have. Maybe this is too much information, and maybe I'll change my mind and take this down tomorrow. And really, who knows how this is all going to turn out? But what used to seem impossible (and impossibly frustrating) now feels within reach. I am literally astounded by my life, and amazed that my family and friends have been with me through it all.

So thank you to my mom, dad, brother, sister and friends, and thank you, universe. Keep the surprises coming.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Survival extraordinaire

This is what happens to your hands when you cook 12 hours a day, use knives, manipulate wet, staining ingredients and wash your hands 80 times a day, and then ride your bike home from work:

cook's hands

(This method of nail and skin care is not recommended to the general public.)

It's been a week since I started my glamorous new job as a pantry/prep cook, and as I suspected, it wasn't an easy week by any means. Between the early mornings for school and the 8 to 10 hours I put in at work each night, I was literally hurting by Wednesday. I considered sleeping in and missing school for the first time ever (but thankfully didn't), and nearly fell asleep in class during a truly fascinating slide show about wild mushrooms and mushroom hunting by my mushroom-expert chef instructor. The trick, folks, is to ask lots of questions during the lecture so as to stay engaged (and thus awake). You'll thank me for this gem of knowledge later.

I'm adjusting, however slowly, and realizing how precious every spare minute I have is to me. 20-minute power naps between school and work helped, as did the fact that my chef at work was understanding enough to set my work schedule so I have a day off during the week to rest, collect myself and not burn out. He's been great to me; in fact, everyone at the restaurant, kitchen staff and front-of-house staff as well, have been so welcoming to me. I'm especially fond of all the women bartenders and servers who are stoked to finally have a girl in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, I studied like a demon for my midterms, and I'm crossing my fingers for good results on the comprehensive written test. I kicked butt during the 104-item identification test (fruits & veg, greens, dried herbs & spices, grains & legumes). I also managed not to cut myself during the mirepoix drills on Friday, thankfully, and though I didn't quite get two quarts, I was happy with my results. Though I did nearly cut off my ring finger during practice last Monday (see the photo above). It's a pain to work with open wounds, because it normally means bandages and finger cots, through which you can't feel anything. Tuck those fingers under, kids!

At work, things move at a very rapid pace. I'm realizing the most frustrating thing about starting a new kitchen job is figuring out where everything is. Since we deal with massive amounts of ingredients, equipment and serving dishes, I ask a lot of questions, most of them about where something is. For example, endive is in a container in the walk-in fridge, but someone labeled it "ANDIV" and no one has ever bothered to change it. I spent a good five minutes looking on the shelf on which it sits, basically staring straight at and around it and never finding it until one of the cooks told me about the mislabeled container.

It's small stuff to worry about though, as after a week I'm finally feeling more comfortable with where everything is, and my muscle memory is just starting to reach for things without having to think. It's how cooks get fast, I think; just being able to put together all the parts without having to stop to remember what's in that particular dish. Most of the salads I make, for example, have anywhere between seven and ten ingredients each, and I still sometimes have to stop and think, 'Wait, is there pepper in this one?' It really helps that we taste everything, EVERYTHING, before it goes up to the window to get delivered to the tables, as I've made most of the dishes enough times to know if there's something missing when I taste it.

I'm knocking stuff out fairly quickly though, for having only been there for a week, and I love that my chef asked me on my third day, in reference to how busy we were on my second day but how I managed to make it through intact, "So are you proud of everything you put up? Did everything taste good?" It means a lot to me that my chef is encouraging my pride in my work, and not just expecting me to knock out dishes quickly (though they do expect that too!).

I'm happy to have the next week off from school, as this will give me a great opportunity to just focus at work and be well-rested when I'm there. I know I can be a lot faster, a lot cleaner, a lot more efficient, and I have many more recipes to learn, but I have faith that I'm getting there.

Step by step.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A One AM Quickie

Not that kind of quickie, kids. This is a family-friendly blog.


Anyway, thought I should let everyone know that the first two days of work went really well, tonight especially. We had over 70 reservations and did close to 100 covers for the night, which is usually typical of a Saturday night. I walked in and I was told by my chef that I was running my entire station by myself (on my second day, mind you). Must admit, I had a tiny panic moment, but once we got into it, it was basically go go go with no time to think.

I had a helping hand, fortunately, from the pastry chef and a line cook, especially when it came to oyster shucking. I shucked my first oyster ever during my stage last week, and I still haven't quite gotten the hang of it. But I'm getting more comfortable with all the recipes for my station, including all the dressings, all the prep, all the clean up and all the plating. It's a lot to know, but I feel I'm doing well. I didn't get out until past midnight tonight, and rode my bike home with semi-deflated tires, but the air blowing through my hair felt great.

Saw some friendly faces today (hey guys, thanks for stopping by!) which made me smile. I have so much more to tell, including how I'm determined to become an oyster shucking master, and how I have to work out a way of memorizing 12+ orders at a time. Oy!

Thanks for all the well-wishes and congratulations, all. Lots more to come, when I get a real minute to sit down and write. Sleep for now...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Calm before the storm

It's a relaxing Sunday, lounging in bed with the Macbook on my lap, yet the butterflies in my stomach have me thinking about exactly how hectic my life is about to become.

Sunday morning disheveled attire with my monkey, Mocha

This week may be one of the most challenging weeks of my life yet, no exaggeration; probably on par with the last week of my senior year of college before my comprehensive finals were due and I was pulling out my hair (and crying a lot) trying to get my B.A.

But that was seven years ago, and a lot has changed since then. For one, I don't feel that impending dread of "I just want to get this over with." In fact, I am so excited about this coming week, I've been blathering like a nutcase to anyone who will listen about my new job I haven't even officially started yet. There are probably very few people in the world who are as excited as myself to be a pantry/prep cook, but then again, very few people make it into the kitchen of "a top-tier professional restaurant" (the executive chef's words) with no professional kitchen experience whatsoever. Really, it's kind of a miracle, and I'm still stunned.

Credit, however, should be given where credit is due: I know I wouldn't have been able to achieve this without my chef instructors' guidance and genius at culinary school. Exercises that seemed trivial at the time, such as equipment identification tests and knowing how to cut a fine brunoise (1/16" cubed), served me so well during my stage, that I felt great not having to ask someone what a nine-pan was or the dimensions of a julienne or how to cut an orange into supremes. All the training we had on proper seasoning seemed to help me the most: Too often, beginner cooks are afraid of salt, for fear of making something taste salty, but when properly applied, salt only serves to enhance the existing flavors.

This little miracle has resulted in what will be 40+ hour work weeks at the restaurant, on top of what is already 25 to 30 hours at school, five days a week, and possibly weekends at work. Basically I'll be doing 14 to 15 hour days, mostly on my feet, involving repetitive and strenuous labor (and LOTS of cleaning).

Who would be nuts enough to do this, much less look forward to it? Only us crazies who love creating something extraordinarily delicious, who revel in gently manipulating the freshest of ingredients, who crave honing their methods and skills, who happily turn up the speed when orders are flying at us, and who get off on making a patron's night with an excellent meal. It's the ultimate in instant gratification.

But let's not get too romantically carried away. The exec chef made it clear that I'm getting myself into something really big, and I have very large shoes to fill (again, his words). Not to mention I am the first woman to be hired in this kitchen of foul-mouthed, testosterone-driven men, as most cooks tend to be. The night of my stage, I kept getting disclaimers from the chefs about the fact that their kitchen has been all-guys for a long time, and they hope I don't have delicate ears. Ha! My reply to their disclaimers: "Sounds like there's far too much man-love up in here. You need a girl around these parts."

I admit that being the only female to be hired in that kitchen makes me more proud of myself. Yet the chef has said, "Just so you know, I'm not going to take it easy on you because you're female," and I would expect no less.

I don't fool myself into thinking I'll be perfect at this job from the get-go, and I know I'll have many tough days where things don't work out as I planned. But I've never been more excited to step into new and unexplored territory. I have a lot to learn, A LOT, and it's a matter of keeping up the energy and enthusiasm I had the night of my stage.

Oh, did I mention I have a comprehensive test at school tomorrow, midterms and a kitchen practical on Friday, plus the five-minute mirepoix drill showdown?

Here goes nothin'. Or everything.

p.s. - Anyone out there ever been in a similar situation? I could use some friendly coping tips (especially ones that don't involve drinking or general substance abuse). And thanks again, everyone, for the support. I have a feeling I'm gonna need it in these coming months.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Gotta change the resume again...

I got the job.

It's nearly midnight, and sleep is calling, but as of tonight, I am officially a pantry/prep cook at a restaurant that many would put in Portland's top 10. I managed to impress the executive chef who is tough but fair, and trained under (and eventually became Chef de Cuisine for) Wolfgang Puck. He even said to me that he's not easily impressed, and he admitted he wasn't expecting the performance I gave tonight. I just busted my ass and kept my nose (and station) clean, and repeated "fast is slow, slow is fast" over and over again, especially when things got hectic. I took initiative when the time called for it, and just dove in head first.

Right after the dinner rush, the exec chef asked me, "Is this your first time on a restaurant line?". I told him "Yes," and he raised his eyebrows and said, "Wow. Well, you're doing awesome." That lit me up so much, I swear I glowed for a few seconds there.

There's so much more I want to tell, but I really have to get in bed. Gonna try and get a round 6 hours of sleep before I have to get up and do my recipe cards for school.

Thanks for all the pep talks and support, everyone. It really made a difference.

Holy crap!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's always when you're not looking...

... that the right one finds you.

I went to happy hour tonight with the intention of catching up with a friend and eating some delicious goodies at one of Portland's best restaurants, and I walked out of that restaurant with a stage (tryout period)! I had no intention of asking, but a series of fortuitous circumstances landed me in the kitchen talking with the executive chef about my past restaurant experience, my present culinary school, and staging in their restaurant. Hardly five minutes later, I walked back to the table, totally in shock, half-laughing and half-mumbling, "Ohmygod, what the hell, I start staging here tomorrow, what the f*** just happened??" I'm still numb, but I'm completely ecstatic.

What is staging, you ask? Firstly, it's Frenchified, pronounced "stahhhj-ing" with a soft "j". It's basically an unpaid tryout period where you get a chance to see how their kitchen works, and they get to see how you work, your knife skills, your cleanliness, your prep speed, your general sense of urgency. If you seem worth your salt, they may hire you. Alternately, if it doesn't work out, no harm, no foul. The hope here is that it works out, obviously.

I'm convinced the universe is paying attention to my thoughts; I've been thinking for several weeks now that I should really start working in a kitchen, just to get a feel for it. You know, see how I do and if it's where I want to be, as we're starting to pin down our externships for Term 4. More importantly, I've been noticing more and more that my fellow classmates who work in kitchens outside of school are faster, cleaner, more efficient, and have more tricks up their sleeves than myself and my fellow students who have never worked in a real kitchen. They know how it really works, and that sense of urgency that is so important in a kitchen just comes naturally to them.

I want that, and this stage is the perfect opportunity. And I start tomorrow after school! Seriously, WTF?!? I'm still in shock.

I think there was a little bit of hesitation from the sous chef because of my gender; the sous asked me if I had a thick skin, and my reply: "I know I look sweet, but..." Heh. I figure if I've been able to handle the guys at school, many of whom work in restaurants, and none of whom make any effort to clean up their language or spare me from teasing because I'm a girl, I can handle these guys fine. Now it's a matter of seeing if I can cut it in the kitchen.

And a big, big thank you, you know who you are ;).

I must admit that I'm nervous as all hell, but this is truly an amazing opportunity, and my intention is just to learn as much as possible and drink it all in. Universe, you really know how to take a girl by surprise.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day Corn Soup

In honor of my dad, who passed away five years ago, I'm posting his most notable contribution to my family's culinary library: Corn Soup. Not chowder, ya'll, it's simply soup. My dad was a funny one when it came to cooking; he wasn't afraid to try something new, or to be "wrong", and he never allowed other people's opinions to affect his own. I was embarrassed by this as a kid, but now I only hope I inherited some of those genes from him.

This recipe, by any organic and farm-to-table standards, is eight different kinds of wrong, but we used to ask for this all the time as kids. By the time I was 10 or so, I could make this on my own. It was one of the first recipes I ever "mastered".

I've kept this recipe tucked away quietly in my head, and don't make it often, but I still get a hankerin' for my dad's Corn Soup every now and then, and I sometimes find myself absentmindedly perusing the red and white cans in the canned soup aisles.

Here's to sharing weirdly delicious recipes with the world. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Corn Soup a la Heinz

1 can Campbell's condensed cream of chicken soup
1 can creamed corn (regular corn works too)
1 handful chopped celery leaves (from the leafy tops of the celery stalks)
1 egg, beaten
pinch ground white pepper

Add cream of chicken soup to a medium-sized pot. Cook over medium heat until soup starts to sizzle (yes, sizzle. Dunno why, it's just what Dad did and that's the way I do it). Add a soup-can full of water and corn to the pot, using a fork if needed to break up condensed soup. Cook until corn and soup are heated through. Add celery leaves and whisk in beaten egg with a fork. Season with white pepper.

Sometimes I'll add some dried fresh tagliatelle in broken pieces to make a noodle soup, but only when I'm feeling frisky. This could also possibly be the perfect bachelor recipe, but the celery leaves might be a bit of a stretch for the average bachelor.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Little Love for Tiramisu

Why am I putting off homework at this late hour? What did I have to share with the world so badly?

Why, this, of course:

My family's cat, Garbanzo, enjoying a fabulous tiramisu cake from Ganache in Greensboro, NC

Okay, so she didn't really eat any of the cake. This photo was taken last year, and it was my mom's birthday cake. My mom dislikes almost all dairy, but she's always made an exception for tiramisu. And I don't blame her.

(Or the cat.)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Choice phrases at OCI

The following are some choice phrases and terms my chef instructor used in the kitchen and classroom today:

-"Just say no to day-glo" (as in French's mustard)
-"Technicolor yawn" (an interesting term for puking)
...and my favorite:
-"Full yogurt dangle" (this was in reference to a true story involving a chef who cut a very hot Manzana pepper with bare hands and then failed wash his hands before using the restroom. The yogurt was the salvaging solution)

And these are just the ones I remembered to write down. He had some choice words about the English palate, but I'll spare your delicate ears (ask me in person if you want to know). Needless to say, I'm having a great time in T2, despite the onslaught of homework and the fact that I'm getting to school between 7 and 7:30AM every morning as well as staying after class to keep up with the workload. My chef instructor is officially brilliant, and I've become that super-annoying girl in class who won't stop asking questions because he's got answers for everything. EVERYTHING, I tell you.

I'm a regular Hermione Granger, and I can't help it, really. I've become sponge-like in my quest for culinary knowledge, and my resources are simply too great to not pester. Is that so wrong?

Monday, June 02, 2008

First day back quickie

I'm deep in homework mode right now, but I wanted to share that the first day of Term 2 was a success. When I got to school this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to realize how excited I was to be back at school, and to see everyone again. We received a mountain of course work, packets and our homework schedule, and I gotta say, upon initial evaluation, the workload looks fairly brutal.

My bandaged thumb and a mountain of homework
My bandaged thumb (keep reading below) and a mountain of homework

The only downside about today was the part where I cut my thumb during mirepoix drills. We had 5 minutes to cut as much small-dice carrot, onion and celery as possible, and were graded on quality of cut as well as volume. The goal at the end of this 4 weeks is to cut 2 quarts of veg in 5 minutes (the most ever done was one full gallon by some student last term). I'm aiming for 3 quarts.

The rules are if you cut yourself, you're done with that drill. About 2 minutes in, I had chopped about 2 cups of onion and began chopping away at celery, and the tip of my thumb slipped under my knife. I was more annoyed that I had to stop than the fact that I cut myself, especially since it was easily covered with a bandage, but I get it--no one would hire a sloppy, unhygienic cook. My instructor made me leave my bloody thumbprint on my grading sheet and wrote "BLOOD SACRIFICE" as my grade. Seriously. He's funny.

This is going to be a hectic term, but I'm really looking forward to it. Every day starts with 15 minutes of knife drills, so let's hope I keep my remaining appendages unscathed.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Start of Term 2 at Oregon Culinary Institute

I've been away for a bit, as I've been thoroughly enjoying a 10-day break between the end of Term 1 and the start of Term 2, which, incidentally, begins tomorrow. I can't deny I have a few butterflies in my tummy about beginning a new term with a new class, new instructors and double-to-triple the workload, but fortunately it's not a nauseating feeling. More like elated anticipation.

Looking back on Term 1, I can't believe how quickly it flew by. What I'm most amazed by is the fact that I've learned so much already, I feel like I've been in school for at least an undergrad semester, not the actual eight weeks that Term 1 occupied. The last week of Term 1 was especially challenging for a variety of reasons, but on the last day, finals day, my kitchen partner and I managed to pull off some plates that I'm particularly proud of: Pork chops with cherry-almond stuffing served with creamy mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, grilled eggplant and roasted yellow peppers, and pan-fried chicken Supremes (boneless chicken breast with leg bone attached, aka "airline breast") in lemon-garlic Espagnole sauce served with pan-fried sun-dried tomato and basil polenta, roasted red peppers and sauteed spinach. They weren't perfect, as the pork chop was a bit overdone and some of the grilled veg were charred, but I was happy with the seasoning and presentation at day's end. I wish I had thought to take some photos of our final dishes, but I guess I'll have to recreate them some other time. Hint, hint.

I have to say, I attribute the sense of readiness and most of the creative inspiration to that fabulous dinner at Le Pigeon I wrote about previously. It really got the juices flowing for a nice presentation. Though every part of our menu was planned almost a week in advanced, I decided on finals morning to nix the boring roasted potatoes we were planning on doing for our pan-fried chicken Supreme, and go all-out with the colorful, round polenta cakes, each topped off with a beautiful basil leaf. It's not a difficult process, pan-fried polenta, as long as your mise is well-done.

Finals day also consisted of a written comprehensive exam of about 100 questions, which wasn't too painful. Also due were our math work books, study guides, proficiency sheet with about 15 tasks (including various cuts of potatoes, vegetable cooking methods, tomato concasse, et al, each of which had to be personally inspected and signed by an instructor), as well as our big notebook with all of our work over the last 4 weeks, including recipe analysis sheets and tasting journals.

I'm not sure what to expect from Term 2 yet, especially since I've been told that my uber-brilliant instructor has been known to make people cry, but my expectations for class and for myself are high as ever. My mom thinks they're too high, and maybe she's right. I just have to remind myself occasionally to make sure I'm having fun. Sounds silly, I know, but necessary for the moments that I'm on the verge.