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.