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.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saint Valentine

What did you do for Valentine's Day?

onions and leeks

I worked a sold out Saturday night with a lovely prix fixe menu designed especially for V-Day. My usual Saturday night role is back kitchen expediter, which, in my kitchen, really means helping out with anything on pantry, restocking plates and mise for the line, firing desserts (sneaking mint chocolate chip ice cream when I can), and organizing the walk-in fridge and dry storage in my downtime, which, on Saturdays, is rare during actual service. It gets pretty insane sometimes, and truth be told I didn't like it at first, but I've come to see how much I've gained from having to turn my focus on so many stations in such a short period of time.

When I work, I like to have a specific focus, which is what I like about working the hot line. I have my own space, my own equipment, my own setup, and the particular dishes that come off my station. When I time things perfectly and I'm on top of my game, it's like doing an elaborate dance with my coworkers. We're tangoing to the tune of the ticket machine.

But to be more than just a line dog is to be aware of everything else around you. Being back kitchen expo on the busiest night of the week for the past three or four months has made me much more aware of how all the stations work together in time. The kitchen is an engine, and we're the ones who make it run. In order for it to run smoothly, we all have to be on the same page, all understanding what's happening not just on our stations but all around us. Plates must come up at the proper times, and the three minutes that a salad sits and wilts in the window while waiting for something to come off of grill station will most certainly mean a re-fire. We don't put out wilty salad, dammit.

But I digress. Back to the most romantic night of the year. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up on grill side for the evening. One thing I caught onto pretty quickly about kitchens is to always expect the unexpected. It's such a tired cliche, I know, but there's nothing truer when so many things, I mean a ridiculous number of factors, can go so, so wrong. Factor in the basics: Hungry customers, sensitive equipment, HEAT (and lots of it), hundreds of time-sensitive ingredients, confined spaces, money, the wide range of personalities on a restaurant staff... It's amazing to me that every restaurant in the world hasn't just self-imploded. And I'm certain that many already have.

But you get a bunch of people together who thrive on what they do, take pride in their work, and make every effort to work as a team to get the job done, and things can go pretty smoothly. We sat the equivalent of a VERY busy Saturday night, and it went so smoothly that it was nearly uneventful. I came into work determined not to repeat my New Year's Eve mistakes, and though my back had definitely had enough by the end of the night, I felt a slight sense of redemption knowing that I could actually work a notorious restaurant holiday without feeling entirely overwhelmed.

I came home exhausted but pleased, and treated myself with a bubble bath and a few episodes of 30 Rock. And then I wrote this blog entry. How very romantic.

Onto this week's five things I learned this week:

1. When your grill catches fire due to accumulation of dripping fat, don't use flour to put out the flames. They may suffocate the fire, but the flour will burn in the process and make the entire restaurant smell a fright. Salt is the key. Lots of it.

2. Related: There is something incredibly satisfying about scrubbing down a crusty grill from top to bottom. This may sound strange, but I feel like I'm finally starting to "get" my equipment, trust it, learn its quirks, respect it. My oven, my burners, my grill, my lowboy... it all needs love and respect. And I know they're not just mine, but I can't help but feel a little possessive towards them.

3. Never get comfortable. This doesn't mean that you can't revel in what you're doing and enjoy the time you spend doing something you love with people who are essentially family. Good cooks, I think, move on from a place once they start to feel comfortable because they never want to settle. They always want to be pushed. I definitely (and constantly) still feel pushed to do better.

4. A cappuccino foamer makes a decent foam, but an immersion blender is the best and fastest way of getting a good, lasting foam.

5. What's the best-tasting or best-looking dish (or part of a dish) may not always be the best period. One must consider a number of factors; namely convenience, speed of fire/pickup time, cost-to-profit, labor-to-profit, and the simple fact that it may not sell. It is a business, after all. But some of the best dishes are the ones that have the most care and time put into them. It's essentially about the love and passion we put into our work, and hopefully that'll translate through the food.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Five things I learned this week

A little late posting this week's Things I've Learned, but it's been an incredibly busy week. I have some exciting changes coming up that I'm dying to share, but I'll discuss them once things are finalized. Until then, enjoy this week's installment:

1. When storing fresh truffles, store them in a closed container with one or two raw eggs. The porousness of the shells will absorb any moisture and keep the truffles from going bad. The eggs that are stored with the truffles will also absorb the truffle scent, and are quite delicious sunny side up. Just a perfect hint of truffle in the egg.

2. I will throw down for my coworkers without any hesitation. The narrowly-avoided barfight on Friday night with a douchebag vs. myself is evidence of this. It definitely helped that 10 of my coworkers were with me. I really love those people; I feel like no matter how much we bicker or disagree at work, they got my back, ya know?

3. Patience, a good side towel and a decent shucker are the keys to shucking six dozen oysters in a night.

4. Although neither is ideal, better slow but correct than fast but fucked up.

5. Abre los sus ojos. Very, very necessary. (Thanks, Chepe!)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Learn something new every day

pre-oven beef wellingtons
Beef Wellingtons before going in the oven at my sister's house for Christmas dinner. Thanks, Mister Ramsay!

How do you quantify what you've learned? Recently I've been asking myself this question in regard to my work, in an effort to get better and figure out how best to improve my skills, technique, work habits and efficiency. I can be a bit of an overthinker sometimes, and consequently I'll find myself in an existential state of mind where I'm overly conscious of exactly what I'm doing and exactly how it's helping me. It's as if I'm mentally filing away a thought or an experience in the proper file cabinet.

This is, of course, pretty silly. It occurred to me today that over the course of the past ten months or so, the most important things I've learned can't really be boiled down to bullet points. I've garnered so much over my time at school and especially at my restaurant that the things I've learned have much more to do with who I am as a person rather than what I can recite off the top of my head.

Still, there are quantifiable lessons learned on a daily basis in this line of work, as things change so quickly and there's so much that happens in a single day--a single hour, or single minute even. That said, it then occurred to me that it might be fun to keep a running tab of things I've learned in the kitchen. I'm going to try and do this every week.

So without further ado, here are five things I learned this week at work:

1. I can never know enough about my station. Or rather, I can always know better what I have and what I need.

2. "Spoon" in Spanish is "cuchara". My Spanish is truly, embarrassingly pathetic, but hey, I'm trying.

3. I was having difficulty keeping the firm-peak Chantilly from melting on the ice cream scoop until I started putting a deli cup of ice water on the pastry station. Dipping the scoop in the water, tapping it dry and then scooping the cream works like a charm.

4. Filling fresh ravioli with bread pudding and deep frying it sounds way more awesome than it tastes.

5. Do not ask servers to pull fryer baskets. Things will inevitably end up on the floor and fire times will double. (Totally my fault, should have never asked in the first place. Love ya, E!)

Wow, coming up with five things was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I'm thinking this weekly list might be a good practice.

P.s. - Richie, aka Line Cook 415 hits the nail on the head again with his post, You're Missing Out. God, he's a killer writer, and sometimes I swear it's like he's reading my mind...