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.