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.