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.