Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Know Thyself

I had a thought the other day while getting ready for work, ruminating about the stage who trailed my station the night before and the new back-line guy who didn't know what mise en place was and who I've kind of taken under my wing:

I think I might have gotten to the point where I might actually know something about being a cook.

Which is also to say I don't know that much at all.

Lemme explain.

At some point in the past few months, maybe especially since my trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles, and definitely since the start of my current job, I started thinking a lot, A LOT, about who I am as a cook.

When I first started on the pantry station at my first kitchen, I was completely fascinated, if not overwhelmed, by the wealth of knowledge that my bosses and coworkers possessed, the experiences they had, and the energy they had to carry out the hours they were doing every day. It got to the point where the insecure control freak part of my personality would worry that I wasn't good enough to be in this industry because I wasn't _____ [reading enough cookbooks/ eating out enough/ working enough hours off the clock/ staying late enough/ reading this one blog and that site and the other thing/ sharpening my own knives/ talking enough about food/ thinking enough about food/ obsessing over food/ forsaking the other things in my life for this career path... ad nauseum]. You get the picture. I had nights where I went home and cried because I know I didn't give it my all, or I couldn't stop thinking about how I messed up a ticket and let it haunt me for the remainder of service.

Slowly, slowwwwwly, I started to ease up a little. I took work home a little less. I forgave myself a little more. I realized that the nature of our workplace is inherently forgiving in a way: You fucked up yesterday, but look! Here's a whole new batch of people and a whole new service where you can atone for your sins and show them what you're really made of!

And then I met and befriended more cooks and chefs and saw the range of personalities that float in and out of kitchens every day. Some I could relate to more than others, and some were just completely unrelatable. I've had (and keep having) great conversations with cooks about food and work, but found that there were cooks (and even foodies) who couldn't shut the fuck up about food and what chefs they admired and what they wanted and how badass of a line cook they were and how they deserved better and how they were mistreated or taken advantage of or this that and the other thing. They're unable to step outside of themselves or the industry for just a second and see this whole big world that's going on around them, with or without their stellar butchery skills. I came to realize that I didn't exactly fit in with this tunnel-vision, food-is-God worldview, but I got the feeling I wasn't a bad cook for it.

I also found my own level of comfort with the accoutrements of our industry. I got to know the cookbook section of Powell's a little more. On the advice of my first chef I bought The French Laundry Cookbook, and then I found The Devil in the Kitchen, and enjoyed my way through The Man Who Ate Everything and even re-read Kitchen Confidential (less scary and more silly this time around, FYI). My bookshelf found more company more regularly. I found cooking blogs I loved, and instead of being so jealous of food writers who were far more talented than I, I embraced them for their literary skills and their ability to capture what I could hardly comprehend.

I overcame the fear of sharpening my own knives on a stone, and though I still pretty much suck at it, I do a serviceable enough job and am slowly getting better. I made it a habit of eating out at restaurants on my days off, partially as a way of catching up with friends I missed with my insane schedule, but mostly to get a little inspiration and to see what chefs were coming up with in Portland. I came in to work a little earlier, worked a little later, tried (and am still trying) to complain a little less and keep my mouth shut a little more.

And then, somewhere in there, I started to see the everyday a little differently. The minutiae of the grind became something to love. The perfect sear on a steak, hitting the medium-rare beautifully, finding the perfect spoon with which to butter-baste, working faster, cleaner, more precisely yet more efficiently. Picking herbs a little faster than the day before, making the Bearnaise better than yesterday's, being one hundred and ten percent ready for service when the time came.

This is not to say I'm any less hard on myself; in fact I'm probably more so now than when I first started. I still don't consider myself a great cook, and I'm really young in this industry. I'm too slow still, I can work much cleaner, the color on my sear could be more consistent, I need to be better about remembering the six hotel pans I have going in the convex while portioning my pork belly and emulsifying my sauces. I get pissed at myself when I don't do something right. I get impatient, I get short with people, I talk too much, I don't focus enough. I've fucked up enough temps to know I'm not the queen of meat... yet.

But rather than harping on exactly how much I suck, I'm more willing to let a mistake go knowing that I'm making it a goddamned mission to not make that same mistake again. That, I think, is called learning.

This is ultimately about the fact that I'm reconciling with myself who I am as a cook and what my capacity is for the idiosyncrasies that come along with being a cook. In a way I'm glad I came into cooking at the age I'm at now, because I'm surer of myself and what I want than who I was 10 years ago. I've heard chefs and cooks say "Cooking comes first; everything else is secondary," and I simply don't subscribe to that philosophy. I'm not willing to forsake my relationships with friends and family to have a successful career, especially considering what my family and friends have done to help me get to where I am now.

I've heard cooks say "You're not a real cook if you can't hold your liquor." I'm not a party girl and I rarely drink to excess, as I need to take care of my body and I have a very low tolerance for alcohol (what can I say, I'm a cheap date!). I'm very, VERY lucky to be able to even work in a kitchen in the first place and I don't take that for granted. I don't make it a habit to pick up every new hot cookbook, but that doesn't mean I don't have a few in mind or that I'm not paying attention. I'm not sure how many more years of line cooking I have in me, but I'm pretty certain it's not enough to want to make it all the way to the top of this particular chain. I know how much time and energy it takes, and while I want to give it all I got, I don't got enough to be an executive chef of a four-star restaurant.

What I do know is I want to keep cooking for people. I want to keep line cooking, at least for a while, get techniques and moves under my belt, and LEARN. I want to continue to be surrounded by cooks who are better than I am, who know more than I do, knowing that simply watching them and working side-by-side with them every day is making me a better cook. I'm figuring out my own pace, my own style, my own preferences. I'm working with what I have, yet I'm pushing myself to be better, faster, more efficient. I'm not mouth-breathingly obsessed with this career and this lifestyle, but I love it and I love that I get to live it every day. I want to be really fucking good at what I do. I have ideas in the works, and I don't need to be the kind of cook that a lot of cooks aspire to be.

And I'm really okay with that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Resurrecting Five Things

I'm about two months into my new job and things are really good. I've even trained someone else on the station already, as my previous station partner moved onward and upward. I've been having a bit of difficulty shaping my work experience of late into words, so instead I thought I'd resurrect the Five Things I Learned This Week theme. To be fair, some of these have been culled from longer than a week ago, but let's just play pretend, okay?

1. Having a Forschner as a line knife is the way to go. I really don't know why it took me so long to catch onto this idea; you think having my Shun Elite 8-inch chef's knife dropped and tipped TWICE (both times not by me) would be enough to make me run to the store for a cheap-o line knife. Then about three months ago my friend Morgan and I won first place in a grill competition at a zinfandel event, and one of the prizes in our gift basket was a sizable gift certificate to Sur La Table. We finally got around to shopping at SLT last week, and while I don't exactly enjoy browsing the endless amounts of useless products or small-talking with the wide-eyed Food Network-philes cluttering the aisles, we had free money to blow. So along with some other goodies I picked up this handy little Santoku to keep on the line. Forschner makes a good quality product for a great price, and it's been an insanely wonderful difference--not having to babysit my knife, especially since my station is in a high-traffic area.

2. A helpful way to roast squash: Adding white wine and water to barely cover the bottom of your hotel pan before it goes in the oven keeps the squash skins from sticking and burning. Plus the white wine adds a nice aroma.

3. A mis-cooked terrine can go a very long way in family meal. A little baked ziti in earthenware dishes (consuelos?) never hurt anyone.

Baked ziti for family meal

I threw these together on a slow night one evening, and they did not suck. We snacked on the leftovers for a few days afterwards, and I made my way through a quart of it in my fridge at home. Also: Why use breadcrumbs when you can have buttery baguette croutons? I'm just sayin'.

4. Family meal can make or break a night. A good family meal goes beyond simply feeding everyone; it can bring home an awesome night, and bond the crew together in quiet revelry as we sit on the stairs and regain our energy. Alternately, a bad family meal can be downright disheartening, even demoralizing. It's hard to tuck into a half-thought-out pile of something-or-other and feel like you're ready and charged up to get back to the grind. I don't take the fact that we have family meal every single night for granted, and bad family meals have been very few and far between and usually occur under already-strained circumstances (insanely busy nights where everyone is buried); it's just that a little care and attention go a long way.

5. Wearing a button-up shirt and tie on the line is totally awesome. My current kitchen, like my previous one, is an open kitchen, and we've resurrected Tie-Day Fridays--basically the opposite of Casual Fridays. Seeing our entire line in button-up shirts and ties is both hilarious and swagger-affecting. You really move differently when wearing a sharp get-up, and it always puts a smile on my face.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Starting fresh

My current workplace was amazing enough to give me time off right after I started working there to sit my ass on a beach in North Carolina for a week with my lovely family. Besides doing a lot of lounging, napping and catching up, we cooked every meal and ate and drank like spoiled kings thanks in part to the fact that my aunt owns two restaurants and my cousins are the front of house managers and wine buyers for one of them. I've surpassed my filet mignon quota for the year.

Also on hand, thanks to the great fishermen of the East Coast and the most amazing shanty of a fish market on a dock in Topsail Island: blue crabs. Lots of them. Cooked in beer and Old Bay. Maryland would be proud.

The only dreaded part of the trip was the actual traveling; 8 hours on planes and in airports is totally not awesome. I touched down at PDX at 11:30PM on Tuesday and got right back to work Wednesday. In a way it's been great to jump right back into it, but I'm just now kicking the last of the jet lag. Hitting a wall at 9PM during dinner service is far from ideal.

What has been great is knowing I'm finally on a solid schedule. While I was extremely fortunate and happy to take this time off, I like having set hours and days that I can rely on. Is it part of getting older, craving some stability? While the job itself is refreshingly unpredictable in many ways, knowing where you're going to be and when you're going to be there is a small comfort.

Not to say it isn't a little rocky at first; I remember when I first started working at my previous restaurant, the most frustrating thing about the first few weeks was figuring out where everything was located, and my new restaurant is no different. The hotel pans, the China caps, the pint containers, all your various and sundry utensils and every individual ingredient you needed for your station--like an old cat lady who keeps her hair pins in tidy rows on the bathroom counter, every kitchen has its small idiosyncrasies into which you eventually step in line. Most of all, I hate pestering people to ask where things are, but as they say, it comes with the territory.

I can report that even though I'm still very fresh meat, my new job so far has been refreshing and fulfilling and slightly terrifying; in short, all the things I was hoping it would be. I miss my old coworkers a lot, but in my humble opinion, opening the doors to new opportunities and experiences is one of the best parts of cooking.

Monday, August 24, 2009

San Francisco, Part the Second

Go here to read Part One of my San Francisco adventures.

I finally got around to tackling the organization of all the photos I took in San Francisco and LA, thanks to my first day to myself alone in my house in what seems like forever. I had an immense blast on my trip, but I think it says something about how happy I am in Portland that I was surprised with a bit of homesickness by day six or seven.

There's so much going on right now that I want to talk about, including officially starting at my new job last week, but I want to devote a good blog post to that topic so it'll have to wait. Suffice it to say I'm really enjoying being busy again, though my body can definitely feel the effects of eating three rounded meals a day for a week, rather than grazing intermittently and then snarfing down a cold sandwich as fast as I can while standing over a garbage can. I have vacation padding going on for sure.

Onwards, San Francisco!

My solo meal at Coi Restaurant was an incredible, mind-blowing experience that I'm having terrible difficulty summing up in written words.

Coi dining room

Despite being (or maybe because of the fact that I was) the only solo diner in the restaurant and the youngest by at least 10 years, everyone from the host, my server, the sommelier and Daniel Patterson himself was incredibly warm and generous. In fact, I received a few extra courses and glasses that I didn't order. Maybe I'll barrage you with descriptors and photos a post or two down the road, but for now I'll say this dish changed my life:

California caviar, traditional garnishes
soft-cooked egg, creme fraiche, chives, caviar and brioche

Listed on the menu as "California caviar, traditional garnishes," taking my first bite of this resulted in an overwhelming visceral response that I've never had before. The sweetness of the egg, white and yolk almost the same velvety consistency, the salty crunch of the brioche, the tartness of the creme fraiche and the briny popping of the caviar... it was almost too much, and in the best way possible. I took a lot of notes during my dinner, and of the egg I wrote, "Egg - 63 degrees C - 45 min to 1 hr, circulator in shell. FREAKING OUT. NEAR TEARS." It's true, I nearly cried. And then I blessed Daniel Patterson with a verbal-diarrhea-like spout of praise for his egg. Poor dude was just trying to deliver the next course and got showered with all sorts of "I just have to tell you that, well, the egg I just ate? OHMYGOD. Amazing. I don't even know what to say, I've never had an egg like that in my life!" Etcera etcera yammer yammer.

At the end of the meal, even though I was clearly crazy and couldn't stop yammering, they let me in the kitchen!

Coi kitchen
That's a clean-ass kitchen

Sarah, my server, introduced me to all the cooks as "a fellow cook from Portland" and they warmed up right away. The cooks were super-nice and the guy with the beard (sous chef maybe?) explained all the stations to me and how they recently redid the middle line, general nerdy cook chat. Soooo awesome. I cabbed it home, riding on a cook nerd high.

One thing I garnered from this trip, especially during all my solo time in SF, was how much the cook brotherhood/sisterhood carries over from city to city. There was tremendous respect for what's going on in Portland, culinarily speaking, and I had some awesome resources thanks to Chad, Richie, Matt, Mike (my gracious host in SF) and every server and bartender I met in SF.

The next morning I woke up determined to make it a four meal day. Breakfast at Tartine was a great start, and totally worth the 20 minute wait in a line out the door:

Tartine goodies
Hello, morning bun and ham and cheese croissant!

A relaxing morning spent perusing the sidewalk traffic on the Mission, and then I met Mike downtown at Katana Ya for shio ramen with BBQ pork:

Shio with BBQ pork at Katana-Ya
love me some noodles

and then spent the afternoon wandering around Golden Gate Park:

look! I found hippies!

because I felt like it

Can I just say that having an iPhone makes traveling alone the best thing ever? I had a little too much fun getting lost in the jungle-like backwoods trails of Golden Gate Park and thanks to the GPS made my way out with nary a scratch, found the best transit route to my dinner destination and hopped the bus back to the Mission in half an hour's time.

My destination? Early dinner at Delfina:

Calamari and white beans? Yes please!

I sat solo at the bar without a reservation and must have gotten there at just the right time because 10 minutes after I was seated the house was packed. I got a primo seat next to the kitchen and watched four women rock the hot line:

Delfina kitchen
I love this shit

...while I chatted with the friendliest bartender ever, talking about Portland and cooking and whatnot. She surprised me with a plate of house-cured anchovies, courtesy of the kitchen. Definitely a great little meal.

A post-Delfina trip to Bi-Rite Creamery resulted in a marvelous scoop of Ricanelas: cinnamon ice cream with Snickerdoodle cookie crumbles (!!!). Their other much-touted flavors, the salty caramel in particular, proved less than impressive. I've been spoiled by this guy's ice cream for too long now, and he sets the standard by which I judge all mint chip, salty caramel and butter pecan flavors. I have yet to meet its equal.

Then Mike and I met Matt at Nopa for a highly anticipated late-night meal:

Nopa pork chop
Mike repping East coast style, ready to devour the Nopa pork chop

I was still sated from dinner number one, but between the three of us we handled some flatbread, olive oil poached tuna, corn, tagine and pork chop nicely. That pork chop especially rocked my world. I only wished that I had been hungry enough to devour what looked like an awesome burger, and I also regret not saying hello to the kitchen. By the time we were done, however, I was suffering some major food coma and the kitchen was in full clean-up/shut-down mode. Next time, I promise!

I slept off the food coma and after a solid 5.5 hours of sleep crawled my way up and at 'em to the Ferry Plaza Saturday Farmer's Market:


Though the place was already bustling, I arrived early enough to beat the crazy tourist contingency and wandered the stalls for about an hour before I started to get claustrophobic. Fortunately I found respite on this "public viewing" platform that sits above the ferry pier itself. Not too many people seem to know about it, as it was practically empty:

Did I mention the weather was stunningly gorgeous during my entire trip?

I sat under the sun, looking out on the water and over the stalls of the market, and enjoyed my last few hours in San Francisco. I closed the book with porchetta from Il Cane Rosso, packed my belongings, and BART-ed my way to SFO...but not before grabbing some goodies for the flight to LAX:

best in-flight snacks ever
Fuck yeah, chicharrones and peach/nectarine!

I hope to make it back to the city before the end of the year. I was worried four days on my own would be too much time, but it turned out instead to not be enough. Nicely done, San Francisco; you have a lovely city and you definitely lived up to the hype.

next stop, Los Angeles!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I'm on vacation, dammit!

I know I've been awfully slow about writing up the rest of my SF trip, but I have some things for a new blog post in the works that hopefully will come to fruition in the next few days. In the meantime, I've been relaxing with wonderful friends in LA and eating just as much as (if not more than) I was in SF. Can I just say it's a funny feeling to be sitting down for rounded meals on a daily basis? 'Cause it totally is.

I'm working on getting my photos and notes all put together so I can share the rest of my trip with ya'll, including a visit to Osteria Mozza from which we just got home. Holy effing raviolo. Stunning, really.

Los Angeles has been a mix of nostalgia and newness, along with realizing how far I've come since I last lived here, three years ago. The inception of this blog was during that time in LA, and it was a formative time for me. I've loved being here during this visit, and seeing some of my best friends in the world has been amazing, but I'm not gonna lie... I'm getting homesick for Portland.

I can't wait to officially get started at my new job, and in celebration of the new place, I bought this necklace that I found at Popkiller in Little Tokyo. I still can't believe I found it, it's so perfect, and it may give you a hint as to where I'm working...

New necklace
meat cleaver as seen by Osteria candlelight

See ya soon, Portland. It's been too long.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Embracing the tourist in me

Dear San Francisco,

I'm totally in like with you. Bashful tourist too cool to take photos, be damned!

It started with a picnic at Mission Dolores Park:
Mission Dolores Park picnic
strawberries from Bi-Rite and quiche and zucchini bread from Tartine

and, later that evening, dinner at Fish and Farm, helmed by the awesome and infinitely talented Chad Newton:
Gnocchi at Fish & Farm
the best gnocchi of my life thus far? Very possibly

Gnocchi on Foodista

The next day I met my new friend Matt at Ryan Farr's stand, 4505 Meats, at the Ferry Building Thursday Market:
4505 at the Ferry Market

where I quickly ordered (and devoured the crap out of) a Zilla dog combo:
Zilla Dog and Chicharrones at the Ferry Market
Hot dog with kimchee, scallions and pork rinds. Yes please!

and wandered around the market stalls ogling the summer produce:

I spent the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, whose rooftop contains a Blue Bottle Cafe, where I had a most delicious New Orleans style iced coffee. I was positively blown away by the current Richard Avedon exhibit:
Richard Avedon Exhibit @ SF MOMA
a very morose Marilyn

as well as an exhibit featuring Robert Frank's "The Americans". Seeing those photos shook me to my core. I left SF MOMA thinking, 'Holy shit, these people made something incredible. I want to do something, I want to create something, I want to make something!'

I met an old dodgeball friend for a drink at 15 Romolo:
15 Romolo
that there is a steep road to navigate in heels, I'll tell ya what

before heading to Coi for what was one of the most transformative dining experiences of my life. The tale will have to wait for the moment, as I have some Bi-Rite Creamery to get to before heading to Nopa for late dinner.

to be continued...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wearing flowers in my hair.

Firstly, why aren't all airports as good as PDX? Besides the free wi-fi and public transit that drops you off in the terminal, the people are so damn nice. While I was in the line for security, a TSA employee who looked like he could seriously beat someone up said, in the calmest grandpa tone possible, "Don't worry guys, you're almost there. Just hang in there, everybody." I could have hugged him, for serious.


Hey guess what? I'm in San Francisco!

Taken mere minutes ago... it's frickin' gorgeous today
downtown sf

More specifically, I just plopped my luggage on the gorgeous wood floor next to the gorgeous couch on which I'll be crashing. Said couch belongs to a friend of a friend who lives in a choice spot in the Mission, and is being generous enough to let me stay until I leave on Saturday. We're headed to Fish & Farm tonight, and until then I'm gonna get me some fruit from Bi-Rite, maybe something nomnomy from Tartine, and sit in Dolores Park and people watch.

Anybody in the area, feel free Twitter message me! I'm @ingridc.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Passion for Pork Buns, Personified

One of many passions that is shared among my family and friends is an undying love for pork buns. I'm Taiwanese, what do you expect? We take this shit seriously, ya'll. My dear friend Patty is currently blowing shit up with her ode to buns as BaO, a play on Korean pop star BoA. For those unaware, the word "bao" is Chinese for "bun", and Patty's almost shot-for-shot spoof of BoA's music video for her hit "Eat You Up" is simply brilliant.

Click on the full-screen option to experience the true porkiness:

Naturally I have favoritism toward this project as I consider Patty as a sister, not to mention my brother Ted produced the track for the video. In all seriousness, I know this was a labor of love for her, and I truly couldn't be prouder.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I'm not saying this to shake you up
I'm just saying this to wake you up
Its all good when we making love
All I ask is dont take our love
for granted, its granted
My love for you is real
Baby if you don't love me somebody else will
So baby girl don't you ever get too comfortable

So sayeth the all-too-wise Lil' Wayne in his track, "Comfortable".

(Yes, I just quoted Lil' Wayne. Stay with me here.)

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I have a place in my heart (and on my iPod) for so-bad-it's-good pop rap, and Lil' Wayne made it into the rotation about a month ago. I'll be sitting on the bus listening to this track, and every time I hear those lyrics I can't help but think that it's the restaurant kitchen singing me these words.

Crazy? Maybe a little. A kitchen will nurture you, but you're in danger the moment you become too comfortable. If you don't want it, "baby, if you don't love me somebody else will": there are hundreds of cooks ready and willing with deep resumes and sharp knives waiting to take your coveted spot. This is something I've constantly reminded myself of when I get down, when things get tough, when the everyday grind starts to feel monotonous.

A few weeks ago, I passed the one year mark of being at my current restaurant. I've loved and been loved, I've hurt and been hurt, and something keeps driving me. It's been an amazing journey, and one only needs to look about a year back on this silly blog to see how far I've come. I can't help but be a little proud of what I've achieved; moving from pantry to grill station within months of being in my first professional kitchen, being part of the team that garnered Restaurant of the Year from an influential Portland food writer, even the everyday stuff--putting up a perfect medium-rare and sending it off with the feeling in your gut that it's gonna make someone really fucking happy.

I'm still incredibly green, however, and I'll be the first to tell you that there is an untold amount of talented cooks out there who could do my job better, cleaner, faster. I'm working on becoming one of those better, cleaner, faster cooks. I'm eager to keep learning, progressing, moving forward, and though I've been through a lot in the past year, I know I've still barely scratched the surface.

Why all the waxing poetic? Well, I've been incredibly blessed by opportunity in the last few years, and a new one came to me recently to take a position that's opening up in another great Portland restaurant. It's a kitchen that I admire and frequent and whose food feels familiar yet exciting. Best of all, I'll be shaking up the comfort zone and trying something new. I'll be working at my current place for the next month and making my transition to the new spot in August.

Even more exciting news: I plan on taking a little sabbatical between jobs, wherein I plan on traveling to San Francisco and Los Angeles for a couple of weeks to eat a lot, visit friends, and stage in various restaurants. It occurred to me not too long ago that I've only ever staged in two restaurants, both of which I staged for employment rather than just for my own curiosity. I'm looking forward to seeing how other kitchens run, what the rest of the culinary world has to offer outside of Portland, and what the big deal is with the San Francisco culinary scene. Hopefully visit my internet buddy at Nopa. I've never actually visited San Francisco properly as an adult, and it seems highly overdue.

I'd love to hear some suggestions for dining and/or staging in SF and LA! Send 'em on, kids.

This summer is turning out to be an equally awesome, scary and exciting time in my life. I hope it stays this way.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Trip Down Memory Back Alley

Before The Hungry Cupboard, there was my Myspace blog. I haven't peeked at that blog in quite some time, so I decided to take a trip down memory lane today. I found one blog entry in particular quite interesting, if not highly embarrassing and extremely naive. Oh the things I thought I knew... engage tongue-clucking. A small part of Now Me wants to punch Then Me. Truly shameful, kids.

I'm reproducing it here in all its poor grammar and bad writing glory for your reading pleasure. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, for reference. Personally, I think it gets good around the Kitchen Confidential part. Funny how things turn out. Coincidentally, I'm currently revisiting Tony Bourdain's inaugural autobiography and it's a whole different ride this time around.

Please to enjoy... *cringe*. And I hope you all had a lovely Independence Day. I know I did; best July 4th yet.

October 12, 2005

So last night I was munching away on a plate of crackers and rosemary chevre, typing one-handed and trying to keep cracker crumbs from lodging in the keyboard. At some point in my computer fun, I ran across an ad for the new Kitchen Academy, which is in the same complex/building/block-thingy as the Arclight on Sunset. I've been watching the construction with some curiosity, hoping it isn't some gimmicky thing. It may be legitimate though... they're a branch of the CSCA in Pasadena, which is a Le Cordon Bleu-associated school. Blah, blah, blah.

What I'm trying to say is that it started me thinking again (for like the 50 billionth time) about whether I really want to attend culinary school. This is a thought that has seriously lingered in my head for about a year and something now. I'd say that my interest in all things culinary goes way beyond eating for sustenance, but not quite a real foodie-foodie. I'm somewhere between "enjoys a great meal" and "blows a load over gorgeous tomatoes," both of which I've been known to do. I went as far as to injure myself for the sake of growing my first veggie garden at my old house in Portland (but ohhh was it worth it...).

Ryan put it this way: "I have friends who are music nerds, movie nerds, book nerds... but I've never known a food nerd until I met you." I've long felt that somehow I missed the boat on the artistic talent part of the Chen kids, particularly in music; Ted and Sylvia both are pursuing careers in music, and rightly so, as they are ridiculously skilled and smart and make a party shake-a-ass as far as I'm concerned. I, however, was still constantly worried about myself.

A few years ago, while in the midst of one of my many "what the fuck am i doing?" crises, I had a (very belated) epiphany over dinner with my family: I love food. Maybe I should pursue a career in it. I finally felt a focus, and it was so good to have my family's encouragement and trust in my skills. The more I talked about it, the more it made sense. I've been making dirt pies and holly berry "stews" since I was 9, and when I was 13 I somehow pulled off a chicken fricassee after discovering a melting/flaming Tupperware in the pre-heating oven. I managed to work around the fire extinguisher dust and had dinner ready by the time mom and dad came home. Heh.

The point is food is something I "get." The seriousness in culinary school resulted in two trips to NYC last winter to visit several schools there. It took me two planes, two trains, and three automobiles just to make it to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. (Which, by the way, blew my fucking mind.) The CIA was the first school I visited, and minutes after stepping onto campus I decided then and there that in one way or another food was going to be in my working future. Every building smelled like baking bread or sauteeing butter. Students stepped through the snow from one class to the next, clad in their chef's jackets, checkered pants and caps. For the first time in years, even before/during undergrad, I thought 'Shit, man, this is where it's fucking at.'

More school visits followed, each one a mix of delight and nervousness. I toured the buildings, peeked into classes, noshed on "class practice" goodies and even got a few good (free) meals here and there. Though I gotta say that the bahn mi that ben and I had in downtown San Francisco after our visit to CCA simply killed.

That was nearly a year ago. My fervor for culinary school has since mellowed, wavered, even been shunned a couple of times as I looked at the reality of the situation. A majority of culinary students come out of school, hired on to be prep or line cooks at decent to good restaurants. At first I thought that might be ok... then two things happened: 1. I made friends with line cooks (and even briefly dated one, if you could call it that) 2. I read Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential.

You know that phrase, "if you can't stand the heat..." ? I didn't understand that until I really got to take a glimpse into that world, through other cooks and chefs. It's not even a job; it's a lifestyle, and most people don't do well in that lifestyle. Plus dating sucks if you're a cook. Regardless, if number 1 doesn't scare you out of the kitchen, then number 2 will kick your sorry ass out. I looked at myself: kind, caring, giving, tolerable, creative, patient, too forgiving sometimes... those things don't go well in the kitchen. It's like the army: Do what you're told or you're in for an ass-beating (or simply being fired). I knew I couldn't be just a cook. Part of me, my stubborn part, wants to simply say "Fuck you! I do what I want!" I feel if I really, really tried, I could do it. But honestly, it's just too much for me.

So what now? That's where the waffling and waving came in. Shit, if I wasn't going to be a chef, then why go to culinary school? What good will it do me? After being sad for another little while, I began to realize (admit?) that there were other avenues to take. Food writing? Food styling? Food consulting? Catering? Private cheffing? All much "nicer" ways to get myself working in the culinary world.

So that's where I am now, essentially. I read Saveur and Gourmet and Food & Wine and whatever else comes my way, and I lose myself in the articles. Market-fresh mangoes in India? clay-oven pizza in Tuscany? heirloom tomatoes in Oregon? Fuck yeah! I like food. I like writing. Food... writing? I like the sound of it. I just don't know if a year-long, $18,000 course is worth it. Gimme a minute, I'm still thinking... (mmm... crackers and chevre... be back in a minute...)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lazy Sundays

What happens when you get a few cooks together for a gorgeous Portland Sunday grill-fest-slash-cocktail party:

Rainbow trout on the grill
Nomnomnom. Yes please.

I'm fairly convinced that on the scale of badass-result to ease-of-method ratio, grilled whole fish rates quite high.

Method: Stuff fish with good shit. Grill.

Doesn't get much easier, kids, and it makes for a nicely dramatic presentation. Not to mention it tastes awesome as hell. Luckily for me, the only choice of whole fish at New Seasons, rainbow trout, happens to be a fish that doesn't need descaling to be perfectly palatable. I seasoned the fish cavity with salt, stuffed the fish with sliced fennel, fennel fronds, parsley and thyme, and oiled and salted the skin before plopping them on the grill for a few minutes each side. In my excitement I forgot to add the slices of lemon I intended; next time. The grill needs to be really hot for the fish skin not to stick, but ain't no thang.

Note the grilled corn in the backgroud; Mike made an awesome cilantro-lime-serrano mayo dip to go with it. Mayo-slathered beards abounded, Jeff and Jaybill's in particular.

Fresh pasta
Tell me that doesn't look a little hott...

Mike adopted a pasta maker and we were eager to try it out. I've made fresh pasta this way a handful of times, but it's still surprising how lovely the pasta comes out. We used a basic pasta dough recipe from Marco Pierre White's White Heat. It took a little tweaking (the first batch was a dry flop before it even got rolled) but I think it turned out pretty sexy.

What's a backyard barbecue without proper beverages?

I'm in love with this cooler. Along with the typical Portland mix of ever-present Pabst and local brewery choice, in this instance Bridgeport Brewing Company's Haymaker Extra Pale Ale, I picked up some Vernor's Ginger Ale, a non-alky classic, and a case of Capri Suns in reverence to my childhood. What's more badass than grill tongs and a side towel in one hand and a Capri Sun in the other?

Jeff and I, Sunday barbecue stylz
Me giving Jeff attitude whilst double-fisting beverages

I failed to get managed to procure a photo of the melon-infused vodka and fresh watermelon concoction that got the party started (in Jeff's hand, above). I do, however, wish I had photos of all the rambunctiousness that occurred, from Pop-Its and whizzing fireworks, Jeff jumping over the fire pit, and Butters versus Butters: The battle for a Nerf football between a high energy twenty-something and a hyper Labrador Retriever. Surprisingly sustaining entertainment.

I love my coworkers, for all their insanity and silliness, but most of all for their heart and soul. This past Sunday was pretty perfect, and if summer keeps up like this Portland will have me in its grips for good.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Killin' it in a cocktail dress

Ladies (and gentlemen?), don't wear four-inch heels when you're catering a party. I only rocked the heels for about 20 minutes before changing into more sensible shoes, but two days later, my calves are killing me!

Because I threatened to do it. on Twitpic
Click to embiggen. Awfully blurry, I know. My camera batteries were dead and my little cell phone was the best I could do.

(Good dress though.)

This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to cater a fundraiser for a film my good friend Jim is writing and directing called Widow's Walk Lake. The fundraiser was an Edward Gorey-themed garden party, as the look of the film itself is based on Gorey's artwork and is set in the 1930's.

Photo taken at the fundraiser by Circle23, who set up a room at the event for fabulously "gorey" poses. See the entire awesome set here.

When Jim asked me several months ago to cater the party, I said yes with no hesitation. Cater a friend's costume party for about 100 attendees on my day off? Perfect! Ever since I worked as a catering server in Los Angeles, catering is something I've kept in the back of my mind as a career path. I love working in a restaurant kitchen, but I enjoy the change in scenery that catering provides too. I didn't let the fact that up to this point I'd never planned a meal for more than 12 people on my own deter me at all. I happily trotted along, recruiting a few awesome and eager friends from OCI to help me with my little project.

Two weeks before the party, I woke up with the worst, most panicky feeling in my gut--though I've prepped for and plated plenty of large parties at work before, I was two weeks away from my first "solo" event, with insanely scattered ideas for what to do about sourcing the product, budgeting the event, and actually prepping and transporting everything. I had no idea how far in advanced I wanted everything to be done, or how much of anything to get. I immediately thought of my Term 3 Pro Skills instructor, Maxine Borcherding, who besides teaching management at OCI (and WCI previously), ran a catering company in Portland for 20 plus years and still caters parties from time to time.

As soon as I reached out to her, the sinking ship could not have righted itself any faster. We sat down over lunch and talked everything out. The original menu I came up with, an OLCC-friendly menu with several options--soups, focaccias, tea sandwiches, crostinis--were all very Victorian-era finger-food-type things that I thought would look and taste fresh and amazing for an indoor-outdoor garden party. It quickly became evident that with the budget constraints under which we were working, I had to simplify the menu while making it hearty enough for the fact that the party was being held during dinner hours.

Chef Max suggested I revamp the menu, and we decided upon an easy, inexpensive but still delicious menu:
- Tuscan white bean salad
- Penne salad with roasted bell peppers
- Summer melon, grape and pickled fennel salad
- Three types of focaccias: Roasted shaved asparagus and caramelized fennel; Yukon Gold potato, crimini mushroom and truffle oil; and caramelized onion, toasted walnut and Gorgonzola cheese.

With the help of my amazing friends Jess, Nate and Pablo, all of whom I attended school with, not to mention the endless support and resources from Chef Maxine, it took us two days to prep out the final menu. While planning amounts and recipes, I couldn't help but be grateful for all the number crunching we did during school.

I contracted a killer head and chest cold a week before the event, so Maxine in all her awesomeness made a comprehensive (think Excel spreadsheet) shopping list for me. She also secured us kitchen time in a local catering kitchen. I made my first will-call pickup order at Sheridan Fruit Company, which took up five big veggie boxes. We slowly but surely got through the boxes, and with a little baking guidance I pulled off some awesome handmade focaccias (I say they're awesome because I'm massively impressed I managed to not screw it up... though I'm pretty confident they actually tasted good).

The morning of game day, running on five hours of sleep and adrenaline, we knocked off one by one the items on the prep list I'd written and re-written the night before. I kept having moments where I thought I should be freaking out but wasn't at all--things were going so smoothly, it was eerie. There was definitely a little bit of a race to the end, but we finished it all on time. We packed everything up in the Zipcar'd Honda Element and carted it over to the truly gorgeous Overlook House in North Portland. They couldn't have picked a more picturesque spot for a Victorian garden party, and once the attendees started arriving, I felt like I was in another era altogether.

Photo by my good friend John. See the rest of his set here.

How could I not cater this party in a cocktail dress? I mean, really.

Once we set up the buffet table, it was smooth sailing. Jess and Pablo were great about keeping the table refreshed and clean. The crowd favorite was the Gorgonzola focaccia though the dapperly-dressed ladies and gents were helping themselves to seconds, thirds and fourths of everything. At several points in the evening there were small crowds of people around the table, munching and chatting, and I could not have been happier.

Thanks to a dead battery in my camera, the best photo I managed of the table I took with my pitiful camera phone. Still, you get the general idea:

The spread in full FX on Twitpic
Click to embiggen. From front to back: Roasted bell pepper penne salad, Tuscan bean salad, melon and pickled fennel salad, lotsa focaccia.

We overshot the estimated amount needed by quite a bit and ended up offering leftovers to guests to take home. Everything was snatched up in a matter of minutes.

All in all, a smashing success in my book. Though the event was small fry, logistically speaking, in the vast world of catering, I loved the challenge and the gears are starting to spin for side projects I'm envisioning. I'm thinking of catering events every now and then for friends and friends of friends, charging only food and supply cost to get my chops up. Thoughts?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open Letter

Addendum #2: I've received some concerning feedback about the original blog post, so I truncated it. Like I said earlier, I'm beyond grateful for our customers, as they're the ones keeping us going through this tough economic time. Consider this a small rant against the rare badly-behaved.

Dear Maserati Douchebag,

We should have known better than to seat you and your three equally demanding friends on Saturday night after the scene you threw the previous week for not getting a table outside like you wanted, then calling the manager an asshole and saving some choice words for the hostess. Fortunately for you, there was a different manager on Saturday night, and though you were seated promptly, you still demanded to be seated in an area we stopped seating for the night. You won the manager over by promising to take really good care of your server, who got to spend the rest of the evening running her ass off between her given section and your totally out-of-the-way table.

Maybe in your hometown of Douchebaggerton, a $35 tip on a $335 check equates to "taking really good care of your server". Here in your chosen city and country, a 10 percent tip, on top of being demanding and calling people names, immediately qualifies you as blacklisted. The cherry on top was not tipping the valet when he pulled up your precious Maserati. Hate to break it to you, but showing everyone how wealthy you are without sharing the wealth with the people who take care of you will never make your man parts any bigger.

Please, please, PLEASE come back into the restaurant; it would make my day to watch you get kicked out.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Graduating, and the importance of family

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I forgot about my culinary school graduation ceremony until a week before it occurred, except I think I've been so immersed in work that my time at Oregon Culinary Institute seems so far behind me. Yet it wasn't that long ago that I was going to class every day and being pushed by my dear chef instructors to work faster, work cleaner, do better.

For a nearly-forgotten incident, my graduation this past weekend turned into one of the best weekends I've had in a long, long time.

A last-minute invite to my brother and sister worked out, and by Friday night they were on their way from Seattle with their significant others and my brother's ridiculously cute dog, Ollie. I walked home from work that night, and they had made themselves at home thanks to my brother's copies of my keys. Excited as I was to see them, I was weary and beat from work, but mustered the strength to give them the full tour of the new place. I got this painted here, I changed that there, I think I'm gonna try and install this here... I walked them toward the bedrooms, and wondered why my bedroom door was closed.

I opened it... and found my mom standing there. My mom, who lives in North Carolina, who I assumed wouldn't be able to make the cross country trip, especially not so last minute.

I shrieked, stunned, then started crying.

It's been a tremendously hard past few months, between buying a new place, working six days a week, maneuvering major transitions at work, trying to get settled into my new place essentially on my own, and just not having had a real break since Christmas. It's the life we lead, I know, but knowing that doesn't really make it any easier. I've spent a lot of time recently feeling overwhelmed, yet we all just keep plugging on, knowing it's leading up to something better. Upon seeing my mom, such a sight for sore eyes, the tears of joy came immediately.

Saturday morning, I put on my OCI chef's whites for the first time in over six months, and joined about 65 of my fellow graduates in a giant ballroom at the Governor Hotel.

Graduating. Photo by Woody Bailey. See the rest of his set here.

As expected, the ceremony itself was a practice in self-deprecation and not taking oneself too seriously. Lots of jokes, lots of silly speeches, some meaningful and serious ones too, but the morning was dominated by a general light-heartedness.

That's what I've loved about OCI and its instructors and founders since I first visited--you get the feeling that events such as graduation, as meaningful as they can be, are not, ultimately, why you attend school in the first place. I'm proud that made my way through the entire program, as it's not an easy accomplishment, but I had to go to work right after the ceremony, and I honestly think that's what they're after: Students who work hard, have goals, and find themselves in positions where they barely have time to squeeze in a graduation ceremony on a Saturday morning, knowing they'll have to be deep in prep for Saturday service in a few hours.

Not to say we still can't enjoy ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done. My classmates and I cheered happily for each other, knowing how much we'd been through to get to that point. My family cheered loudly for me when my name was called, and despite the initial unseriousness I felt about graduation, I have to admit it was pretty awesome to hear their whooping and yelling.

So here's where I'll tell you why my family is, in my opinion, the most amazing family one could ever ask for. Besides surprising me with my mom's visit, besides being a personal cheerleading section at my graduation that I nearly forgot, I came home Saturday night after 10 plus hours at work to find that they cleaned my entire apartment top to bottom. They washed the windows, unpacked all the leftover boxes, constructed a bookshelf and bed frame I hadn't yet gotten around to, and purchased new sheets, towels and a bunch of organizational gadgets for my use. They even bought me a lavender plant and a huge bouquet of lilacs and pansies that made my dining room look like a spread in Martha Stewart Living.

family portrait
At the dining room table: Rob, me, Ollie, Sylvia, Ted, Christy, Mom and Josh. Taken with Sylvia's trusty camera and Josh's helpful tripod.

I mean, come on. Seriously? How much luckier does a person get?

What else could I do but make them Sunday brunch?

Taken by Sylvia, see the rest of the awesome set here

Blueberry pancakes with caramelized bananas (they worked so well the first time around!), roasted asparagus and spinach omelet with Mt. Tam triple creme, rounded out with a pork trio of country sausage, maple bacon and pepper bacon. Many happy bellies.

The Seattle crew departed soon after the crazy carbo-load, and my mom stayed in town for a few more days. I miraculously got Monday off from work and was thus able to spend some much-needed quality time with the momma.

Getting some sun at Laurelhurst Park

Any part of my personality that is even-keeled and laid-back, I give credit to my mom. She's the most understanding, compassionate and zen-like person I know. She's been through more hardship than any person should ever have to withstand, and has conquered it all with a force that none of us knew she had. And she's been nothing but humble and unassuming about it all, never demanding credit for her hard work, never complaining about putting in insanely long workdays. I know a lot of people (myself included) who could benefit from borrowing a page from her book.

Who else takes the time to listen to the trees?

This weekend was about remembering my fortune, despite all the hardships: A line cook job at a top-notch kitchen, a home I can legitimately call my own, and a family I wouldn't trade for the world. Not bad, ya'll. Not bad at all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting back to it

Portlanders love their brunch. I've never heard of another city that is as maniacally into late breakfast as Portland. While I hate the idea of spending $20 on a meal I can make at home for $3 and without the 40-minute wait, count me guilty--I love breakfast any time of the day and I'm a big fan of bacon and sausage, not to mention quality time with friends around giant plates of carbohydrates.

Today, my dear friends Bonnie and Jim were the recipients of brunch at Casa Del Ingrid:

Jim and Bonnie
Jim looks stoked, doesn't he?

Hello, blueberry buttermilk pancakes with caramelized bananas, cheesy black bean and cilantro scramble, and chicken breakfast sausages. Nice to meet you.


While it's nothing out of the ordinary for a person to be making a meal for her friends, my recent (and more frequent) forays into home cooking are something of a revelation for me.

Six months ago, the mere thought of putting the energy into making a meal for myself outside of work was enough to make me take a long nap. I went through a stretch of several months where I ate nothing but post-work bar food, Pita Pit and canned soup. The greatest secret shame was my freezer--stacked with frozen dinners, chicken fingers and a Hot Pocket or two.

While I have nothing against a good ham and cheese Hot Pocket every now and then, it was truly depressing to think that I was so exhausted from cooking awesome food all day that I couldn't save any of that energy to treat myself. Between school and work, I'd go whole days sustained on a granola bar eaten on the three block walk to school and a dry pastry (the results of newbie patisserie students) on the walk to work.

What's so guilt-inducing about not cooking for myself was the idea that I was lacking in not just physical energy but creative energy as well. As a rookie in a professional kitchen, I'm often so focused on the particulars of technique involved in cooking my chef's recipes that I often forsook my capacity for creativity.

In the past few months, however, something changed. Maybe it has to do with moving into a place with a proper kitchen, or maybe it's the encouragement I get from my friend and coworker Jordan who is constantly whipping up awesome baked goods and soups at home, but the excitement and appeal of coming up with something in my own kitchen has reformed itself. I started buying whole chickens again to break down into pieces for soups and stocks, and I'm finding myself excited about coming up with yummy goodness late at night with the scraps of meat or veggies I get to bring home every now and then after work.

I'd like to think it has something to do with becoming more comfortable with myself as a cook. All day long I'm surrounded by people who are more experienced and more knowledgeable than me in the culinary field, and though there's no better place in which to learn, it can be incredibly intimidating. On my worst days, I'd find myself thinking in despair, 'How the fuck will I ever be as good as these people?' Add to that the fact that I'm a perfectionist who never likes to be wrong and it's a fine recipe for quick self-destruction, or at least early-onset ulcers.

Maybe one could say I've started to find my sea legs. Regardless of what it is, there were some happy bellies in Portland today. Here's hoping I keep making cooking at home into a more frequent occurrence.

Monday, April 27, 2009

On not having disappeared off the face of the earth

So it's been a while since I've written and I felt the need to remedy that. I have legitimate excuses for being neglectful of ye here blog--besides working six days a week, which I've been doing for more than two months now, I bought what I believe to be the sweetest condo in Portland and have been attempting during my limited time off to get it painted and settled in. Though I've made some progress, this has for the most part proved rather unsuccessful, as my bedroom currently looks as if a giant moving box got sick and threw up clothes all over the floor. Girl needs a dresser, stat!

One of my favorite things about all the change, however, is I am now proud owner of a kitchen in which I'm happy to spend time. The kitchen in the studio apartment I lived in prior to my condo purchase was hardly more than a sink, electric range and refrigerator in a row against a wall. Now I have this:

I bask in the glory of the gas range! HALLELUJAH!

...in which I can do stuff like this:

pickin' parsley like a pro

...which results in things like this:

Linguine and Manila clams. Nomnomnom. Lesson learned, however: a pound and a quarter of clams is too much for one person.

The goal is to get my house in good enough shape for a housewarming thingy and lots of dinner parties. You know, all that adult shit that comes with homeowning. Plus I have a balcony from which my friends can curse drunkenly at innocent passersby. What fun!

Oh, did I mention the view?

downtown Portland as viewed from the kitchen sink

Yeah, I'm pretty fucking stoked.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Guide To Being An Awesome Diner

...as told from the point of view of a kitchen monkey.

- Manners will get you everywhere. Saying "Please" and "Thank you" are incredibly underrated in this industry, and those simple words leave a greater impact than you might imagine, from the managers to the cooks. Being nice WILL get your food and drinks to you faster, and special requests will be much more willingly met. From my side of the line, I've had servers plead for an odd dish or made-from-scratch condiment in the height of dinner service, adding, "They're super-nice people." Personally speaking, I'm happier fulfilling their request, knowing that they'll likely appreciate my gesture.

- If there is something wrong with your food or drink, ask your server or manager to fix it. It is unfair for both the diner and the restaurant to not give the restaurant a chance to remedy the situation before going home and blathering to the Internets about how your experience sucked. Some people feel like "voting with their feet" is enough, but a majority of the negative consumer reviews I've read on Yelp, Citysearch and the like revolve around incidents that could have been easily fixed in a matter of minutes.

Where I work (and at any decent establishment), the staff will go out of their way to remedy the situation, especially if you're nice about it. Good restaurants take every bit of feedback seriously. I try to take the time to ask the front of house staff how everything is going on the floor, and if there's anything coming off my station that wasn't well-received, I absolutely take it to heart. If something is too salty, too acidic, too whatever, the cooks need to know about this so we don't make the same mistake the next time.

- Order appropriately. If you're watching your cholesterol, don't order the Parmesan-cream risotto, "light on dairy". If you're not in the mood for something salty, don't order the Caesar salad, "no salt". It's kind of heartbreaking to make a sub-par version of a dish; I think most cooks would rather come up with something off-menu to please a picky diner than to drastically alter an existing menu item. If you know your tolerance for a certain taste (salt, acid, sweet, etc) is low, make a note of it to your server before you order a dish so they can guide you toward certain menu items that may fit your palate better than others, as well as let the kitchen know your preferences.

- Mention your allergies and meat preferences right away. The dish may not list your particular allergen as one of the main ingredients, but there's only so much space on a menu to list descriptors. Your meat dish may have shrimp paste, your chicken dish may have lobster stock, your vegetable risotto may use chicken stock. If it's a very serious allergy, mention it when making your reservation.

- Make a reservation, especially for a party of five or more. It may be a slowish night, but a better prepared staff makes for a better experience for you. I'd like to put a big FAIL stamp on the foreheads of every douchebag who's wandered in with a party of eight 10 minutes before closing time. Even a quick call to the restaurant a few minutes before you show up can make all the difference to the kitchen staff.

- If you're in a hurry, let your server know. Your server can let you know what items are quicker to prepare than others, and will make a note of your limited time to the kitchen so they know they need to put priority on that ticket's timing. Oftentimes, especially on busy nights, the only logical way of managing tickets is to fire them in groups. That means the entrees for four tables may have been fired across a span of six minutes, but they'll be bunched together and come up at the same time. If there's a note on a ticket to rush a table, they'll get priority when it comes to timing.

- Don't camp if you can help it. Campers, by restaurant definition, are diners who linger for an unusually long period of time. No one likes to feel rushed when they're trying to relax, but there's a difference between that and staying an hour and a half after the restaurant has closed, thereby holding up your server, their manager, several cooks and the dishwasher. If you do plan on having a very leisurely dinner, do the following: 1. Come in early enough so that you're not keeping the restaurant open much longer after closing hours. 2. Let your server know you'll be staying a while so both the front-of-house and back-of-house staff will be prepared. 3. Pay your bill promptly when you receive it. And fer peet's sake, 4. TIP WELL.

- Don't get pissed when a table that sat down after you gets their food first. This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Sure, you got there first, but they ordered a dish with a three-minute pickup time, and you're the one who ordered your steak medium-well. You should by all means say something to your server if you're legitimately concerned that you've been forgotten, but more often than not, it's thanks to the laws of physics that your dish takes longer to make than someone else's.

- Do I need to say it again? I think I do: TIP WELL. A lot of debate can be (and has been) had about this topic, especially because tipping is, technically speaking, optional in this country. Consider, however, that tips are a vast majority of a servers' wages, and that they give a percentage of their nightly tips to bartenders, server assistants, expediters and us kitchen monkeys. Also, keep in mind that servers have a keen memory for shitty tippers. Telling your server that your meal was amazing and you had a fabulous time is not enough... they're not waiting tables for the self-esteem, trust me.

Any other awesome diner tips I forgot?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's the little things.

"Can we get some more grilled bread?"

Six thin slices of French baguette, drizzled in olive oil, grilled on both sides and stacked up neatly on a plate.

Such a simple request, right?

We've all been there--sitting at a table in a nice restaurant, chatting with your companions and trying your best to be patient while you wait for a simple request to be met. I admit I've had my moments where I've thought, 'What the hell is taking so long? It's just ____ (bread/condiment/drink/etc).'

Now imagine this: It's a Friday night, the house is packed, and you're on the hot line riding the insanity that is weekend dinner service. Your station is grill station, which really means grill and saute, as you're responsible for several appetizer and bar items as well as entrees, including temped-to-order meats. You've just put up seven hot appetizers and you're in the middle of a four-ticket entree pickup, with another three tickets trailing and six other tickets on hold.

You're juggling eight pans on six burners and your oven is stuffed with another four pans. The line expo is heating your plates for you in his oven because you have no space in yours. You have to remember the temps on the five steaks and three lambs you're getting ready to plate, and you're watching the starch carefully as you're running low and it's a special order grain that won't come in again until tomorrow. You haven't even started on the bar items that just came in, and your ticket time for your next app pickup is looking perilous.

The saute cook has a pan down for his scallops so you fire the "very rare" steak you've been holding off on until now. As you reach for the steak, you look at your resting rack to make sure you're on top of the items you have on fire, as well as the ones you have on hold. Your adrenaline-pumping heart jumps ten notches when you realize you're short one medium-well steak on this pickup--that medium you have on hold is now your medium-well and it goes straight into the pan with the rare. You have to remember to get another steak on for medium right after this pickup. Was it four mid-rares, two mediums and two mid-wells on hold or do you have your mid-rare and mid-well numbers switched?

You desperately need an all-day, and look to the line expo only to see him already beginning plate-up on the 12 plates that saute has going with your 10. You're cursing silently at your steaks to cook faster, goddamnit, and maneuvering pans around to make room to fly the sides going with that forgotten steak. Meanwhile, you're making sure your sets are hot, tasting and adjusting seasonings and keeping a mental timer on your proteins in the oven. While you're organizing the order of plating in your head, the digital timer goes off, beeping urgently to tell you the lamb racks you have on hold in the oven need to be pulled out and checked on. You turn your steaks before reaching into the 500 degree oven, and just barely brush your forearm against the screaming-hot oven rack. You literally hear your skin sear.

And then the front-of-house expo says to you, "Hey, table seven wants extra grilled bread for their charcuterie."

It's just a simple request.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Well-done ≠ Done Well?

Being on grill and saute station means I get the pleasure of cooking a shit-ton of steaks. I had a thought the other day: 'Have I cooked a thousand steaks yet?' It certainly feels like I have. If I'm not at a thousand yet, I think I'll be there soon.

It's tricky business, cooking meat to temperature order, and even trickier when your instrument for measuring doneness is your finger. Line cooks temp to touch, no thermometer in sight, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right. A LOT. There are so many factors affecting the touch: The cut of meat, the thickness, the temperature before it was cooked, how marbled or sinewy it is... getting it right is a challenge. But when you do, there's nothing quite like cutting into a steak and seeing the inside look exactly how you wanted and imagined it to look like. On busy nights, I tend to make audible "Wooo!"s and the occasional "Yeah, baby!" when I cut into and plate a particularly gorgeous piece of meat. Nerdy cook stuff, y'know.

I'd say the average temperature order we get for steaks is medium rare or medium. Medium-well comes in every now and then, and there are certainly folks who go for "bloody". I can see the appeal behind the Pittsburgh steak, aka "Black and Blue"--charred on the outside, rare on the inside. Personally, I like my steak a nice medium rare with a well-seasoned crustiness on the surface.

About two or three times a week, I get an order for a well-done steak. My immediate reaction is to look at the table number on the ticket and take a peek at the person who ordered the well-done. I try to put myself into their shoes; maybe it's how they grew up eating it, or they're old and set in their ways. Maybe they really enjoy chewing on shoe leather. Maybe (and this is usually my assumption) they get squeamish at the sight of the red (and wonderfully delicious, might I add) juices, which makes me sad that anyone has that much of a disconnect with the fact that they're eating an animal that gave it's life to provide us with a delicious piece of meat.

It's about as judgmental as I get from my side of the line.

As a grill cook, it's my job to make the food the way the customer wants it, and I do that to the best of my ability. When that well-done steak order comes in, I try and take as much care of that order as I do the medium-rare. There's certainly a way to cook a steak to well-done while still maintaining a relatively appealing appearance on the surface. But no matter how you slice it, per se, you're still cooking the shit out of a piece of meat, and it will be tough and chewy with not much in the way of taste, because that's what happens when you cook the shit out of a piece of meat.

Frankly, it breaks my heart to cook a beautiful cut of meat to a charred leather state. Temping a well-done steak to the touch is equally heartbreaking--touching a steak that has little to no give whatsover is kind of frightening. Every time I cut into a well-done steak, I get this pang of "OH GEEZ WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?" And then I quickly realize that someone asked me to do this on purpose, and that thought could possibly be even more disturbing than the initial pang of guilt. As I watch a person chew (and chew and chew and chew) on a well-done steak, all I can think is, 'Are they actually enjoying this?'

Judgmental much? Just a tad, I know.

In my attempt to maintain a sense of diplomacy and open-mindedness on this here blog o' mine, I'm hoping to hear from someone out there who actually enjoys their steak well-done, with an accompanying explanation. Maybe if your explanation makes enough sense to me, I'll cook you a well-done steak.

(But you're paying for it.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Family meal and simplicity underrated

My sous chef came up to me this afternoon with instructions: "There are a couple of heads of Napa cabbage in the walk-in. Make family meal. You know, something Asian-y." He cracked a smile, and I smiled back and started thinking.

Family meal, for the uninitiated, is a communal meal that's shared with the entire restaurant staff. We don't do it as often as some places, but every now and then it's nice to make a big batch of one-pot-something that satisfies a home-cooking craving and can feed a bunch of super-hungry troublemakers.

It's kind of running joke-slash-forgone conclusion that when I'm charged with family meal, it's going to involve a lot of ginger, eggplant, my wok and some rice. Y'know, "Asian-y". I think it started when I brought my wok to work since I don't have a gas burner at home, and my chef trusted me with the stir fries since I ate a lot of it as a kid. I find it a nice way to get in touch with my Taiwanese roots, or attempt to, at least. Who knows; my grandmother would probably spit out what I churn out for my coworkers.

Taiwanese food is incredibly simple, which I think can make it harder to get right. I crave the meals my mom used to make, and it's a goal of mine to master some of my favorite dishes of hers. Dinner at my house as a kid was 8 or 10 plates of various vegetables, meats and tofu, each dish with only a few ingredients. Everything was sparingly but effectively seasoned with one or two aromatics (usually ginger and/or garlic) and maybe some white pepper. Simplicity was key.

My immediate thought for the Napa cabbage was a cabbage soup, because a) I love soup and can eat it anytime, b) soup is a good family meal and c) I wracked my brain for Taiwanese cabbage usage and a lot of soup was coming up. I consulted my coworkers for further ideas, which turned into discussion about kimchee, borscht, cabbage rolls and coleslaw (chicken salad sandwiches in particular). I've had one too many sandwiches recently, however. I was also starting to feel a cough coming on, and my mom used to make me a chicken ginger soup whenever I got sick. A version of that soup was sounding really awesome to me.

One of my coworkers asked what I was putting in my soup, and after listing the very short list of ingredients, he sounded incredibly skeptical. He asked, "What are you using for your base?" I replied, "What do you mean? There is no base. It's Chinese peasant food. It's really simple." I could feel the skepticism swelling, and he said, "Okay, well, just win me over and I'll believe you."

The pressure was on. I gathered my ingredients--a couple of lunch portions of chicken thighs, some scallion ends, a few good bulbs of ginger. As I started to put together the soup, my coworkers randomly came over and warily observed the contents of the pot. I think I was more skeptical of their approval than they were actually skeptical of my soup creation, but I'm convinced there was some eyebrow-raising involved. I imagine my coworkers thought of it like a perfectly-planned heist: It's so simple... it has to be too simple.

(Yes, I have an overactive imagination.)

In the end, it all came together beautifully, and though a couple of my coworkers indulged with Sriracha bottle at the ready, it was exactly what I wanted it to be: Subtle, clean, aromatic and so, so wonderful for a chilly night. I made a pot of rice to go with it. We were all sweating soup as we finished our bowls, and it gave me a boost to get back to work and close up for the night.

family meal
Tonight's family meal, demolished by hungry restaurant staff

Of all the family meals I've made, this one reminded me the most of real home cooking. Might be the closest to Taiwanese I've done yet.

Chicken, Ginger and Napa Cabbage Soup

- 1 whole chicken, broken down (breasts, thighs, wings, back). For a quicker version, use deboned chicken parts
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 2 big bulbs of ginger, julienned (can't have enough ginger, in my opinion)
- 1 bunch of scallions, chopped
- water to cover
- 1 large head Napa cabbage, chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves, chopped
- salt to taste

In a large pot, heat the oil until nearly smoking. Season chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper and add to the pot skin-side down. Cook the chicken until nicely browned on all sides, and add the ginger and scallions and briefly saute. Add enough water to cover the chicken, and simmer on low heat for an hour or so, less for deboned chicken.

Turn off the heat. Remove the chicken pieces onto a plate and let them cool for a few minutes. Remove the meat from the bones, take the skin off the meat, and shred or chop the meat. Return the meat to the soup. Add the cabbage to the pot and simmer for a few minutes until the cabbage is soft and wilted. Add the cilantro just before serving.

It plates nicely in a bowl over some white rice. A whole chicken recipe will make about 8-10 servings, depending on your appetite.


For a food blog, I realize I don't do a lot of recipes and such, with step-by-step instructions and porno-rific photos that seem to come out of some country kitchen in Tuscany. I tried it a couple of times when I first started this blog, but my thought is most people aren't coming here for recipes. It seems to be all about the process these days, which is accurately reflective of my current interaction with food. Just an observation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Burnwatch 2009

I realized it's been a while since I posted photos of my current burns. As of today:


more burns

As you can see, I've definitely welcomed some good ones to the family. I get a lot of "Oh, Ingrid... poor girl!" kind of reactions when my friends see my burns, but they really only hurt for the first few hours. The only one in which I actually feel any pain currently (and only when I touch it) is the pinkish one on my inner right arm, which is a recovering blister from stray fat that came from searing off a lamb rack. I wasn't even shaking the pan or anything; I was turning the rack with my tongs and a pocket of fat in the lamb popped out.

Note the ones on and near my knuckles on my right hand--that's a first.

Also a first: My face! WTF?!

face burn!

Yes, it's tiny (the dark spot on my cheek near my earlobe), but I never thought my face would be part of the action. Lesson learned: Do not lean too close to an active pan on the stove when pulling things out of the oven.

Speaking of things I've learned...

1. See above.

2. Clean clean clean clean clean. Work clean!

3. Try not to get roped into kitchen work while wearing 3-inch heels. It's doable, but precarious, to say the least.

4. Due to a series of recent occurrences, I've been reflecting on my time at OCI quite a bit, and still have no regrets or qualms about attending culinary school, even though a majority of cooks have not gone to culinary school. I definitely get my fair share of shit from cooks for having spent the money on "food college", but I made the right decision for me, and it was the platform I needed to head down this path. A more in depth post about culinary school is in the works.

5. Confidence in the kitchen and in your abilities is essential. ESSENTIAL. I did my first solo Saturday night on grill station last weekend, and after a rough couple of days last week, I came into work Saturday with the mindset that I know I can do this right, not letting that itchy doubt linger in the back of my head. Not that you have time to linger on any particular thought during a busy service; you just do it. I went into service feeling prepared and confident, and we knocked out some pretty fine lookin' plates. It wasn't hitch-less, per se, but pretty smooth for my first solo Saturday.

Bonus Thing I Learned: The chorus from "Electric Feel" by MGMT is a great song to have in your head during service. Other songs I've had stuck in my head during service recently: "The World is Yours" by NaS and "Get Money" by Junior M.A.F.I.A. (featuring Notorious B.I.G., of course). I've been on a crazy Biggie kick for the past few months.