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.