Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On not having The Fear

Hell of quenelles
Hell of quenelles: Caramelized onion and crimini mushroom duxelle, to go on cream cheese tart puffs. These, plus tomato-bacon jam on black pepper cheddar crackers, were the apps for Thanksgiving Overkill 2010, to be written about at a later date. Instead I'm writing about something that all line cooks know well...

The restaurant I work in is fortunate enough to be busy basically every night. Dealing with this busyness night after night is not easy; along with three to four hours of prep work, we work a seven or eight hour service between happy hour, dinner and late night, and since almost all of our patrons are walk-ins, we never really know exactly how much of anything we're going to sell. Some nights it's all steaks, and some nights I'm getting killed on pastas and fish. More often than not all the stations are getting hit equally hard. I prep as well as I can, trying to get ahead a day or two to lighten my load, and I'll still frequently find that I'm well wiped out for mise en place at the end of the night. Nothing like a monster prep list the day after getting killed the night before. It's definitely a routine that takes getting used to.

Despite the insanity of service and feeling like I'm over it by the time the last few tickets roll in, I noticed recently that it's been a while since I had The Fear during service. Recognizing The Fear in a cook is quite easy: It's the deer-in-the-headlights panic, sweat beading down his temples, limbs flying, pans clanging and catching fire, filthy apron and side towels, moving too fast for his own good. It's what cooks call "going down", as in "in flames". You're brain is overloaded, you've lost control and you have no idea how you're going to get any of your plates out. You're trying to do too many things at once, your station is a total mess, and worst of all The Fear is paralyzing--you're rudderless, a sinking ship, and you're taking the rest of the line down with you.

It's not a pretty thing to observe and it's downright horrible to experience. It's gut-wrenching, nauseating and disorienting and tends to leave you in a haze for hours, sometimes days. After a Fear-dominated service, your coworkers keep their distance; they don't really know what to say to you, except your chef who is most likely gearing up to give you a verbal ass-kicking.

Thinking back on it, the first few months of working the hot line at my first restaurant was almost entirely dominated by The Fear. I would wake up dreading service, stomach in knots on the way to work, quietly wigging out while attempting to concentrate on prep. Once service started I constantly needed my chefs and coworkers to pull me out of my mess, and I didn't see how it was humanly possible to put out so many perfect plates in such a short amount of time. I could feel my coworkers' eyes boring holes into my slow-as-molasses head as they impatiently waited for me to catch up.

But I'd watch my chefs and fellow line cooks do it, seasoned vets that they were, putting up beautiful plates (and a lot of them) while hardly breaking a sweat. They were busy, no doubt about it, but watching them cook was mesmerizing. It was an effortless grace, no wasted movements, their stations cleaner than I could imagine. It was possible--I was watching it happen right in front of me--but I couldn't wrap my head around how I would ever be that fast or clean.

I remember one night during my first few months of line cooking, after a particularly bad pickup my sous chef pulled me aside and admonished me for being sloppy and unorganized. He saw the resulting consternation on my face, shook his head and pointed down the line to the saute cook who was putting up multiple plates. "Look at his station. It's spotless, and he has eight plates coming up. He's totally organized. You need to work like that." I suddenly became acutely aware of the mess on my station--my filthy knife askew on my wet cutting board, my counters and ranges strewn with salt and herbs and sauce, even my chefs' whites that were no longer white, thanks to various handprints and food stains. I felt ashamed and defeated. I'm pretty sure I went home that night and cried, but I came back to work determined to improve.

Organization and cleanliness have everything to do with The Fear. When I first started cooking, I was learning things and practicing habits that now seem like second nature. Arranging your 9th pans in the same order, putting your pepper grinder and oil bottle back in their place every time, lining up your plates the same way, wiping your station after every pick-up--it's mise en place, "everything in its place". After you've done it for a while it's easy to forget that cooking is a learned skill. I didn't go into the kitchen knowing that putting everything where it belongs was so essential.

You practice organizing the right way night after night, and slowly but surely the other good habits start to creep in: timing all your picks just right, keeping an eye on the heat on six different burners, knowing what's in your oven and when it comes out, watching the color on your sear, using the right utensils for each action, knowing exactly what you have on fire with what allergies and what amendments without having to look at the tickets. Seeing five minutes in the future and 10 steps down the road at all times.

Two years after my sous chef's admonishment, I'm finally beginning to feel like I have a pretty good handle on this thing. It's rare that The Fear rears its ugly head, and when it starts to creep in on an insanely hectic night, I can bat it down with a few deep breaths and a quick stop to reassess my all-day. I don't claim to be completely free of The Fear, and I'm certainly not the most organized cook. My first few days on saute were peppered by several Fear-like moments of panic, feeling gut-wrenched from over-searing a chicken or forgetting that half-order of pasta. I've settled into saute pretty well, however, and I'm really enjoying line cooking again. I'm rediscovering cooking in a way, and it feels damned good.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting closer

Grilled Dorade
The new dorade set: eggplant caponata and coriander tomato sauce. The fish in this photo was only the second one that I did with this set, which is why the saucing looks kinda wack. Still love this plate though.

One of the big goals I've had since I started at my current restaurant is to work all the line stations. When I was hired last summer, I started on pantry and soon after moved over to the grill, where I've been for almost a year. I have my good days and my bad days, but generally speaking I feel like I have a decent handle on grill station. I know my equipment, my technique is getting better and I fuck up my temps less frequently these days. I know the dimensions of my work space really well, and sweating over the carcinogenic fire monster from hell that is our grill every night has become normal. Which is, by the way, totally abnormal, but that's a whole other blog post.

At the end of the day, I love what I do, and I can't imagine myself thriving in another profession. But, like everything, it has its downsides. I'll be honest: I've felt "the grind" of line cooking recently, and though I am quite fortunate to be working at a restaurant with a seasonal menu that changes daily, being on the same station for almost a year had started to wear into my bones. A year is not a long time, really, just enough time to start to get good at a station. I didn't even realize I was coming up on a year until I thought about it yesterday--clearly, this year flew. Line cooking is all about repetition and practice, doing the same thing over and over until you're as close to perfect as you can be. And then you get a new set or a new pickup, and the learning starts over. I remind myself that line cooking is a step in the process to something greater, and that I'm building a solid foundation and skill set. And I'm learning every day. Still, doing 200+ covers with a three or four man line, working the same station night after night, and working an 6 to 8 hour service, not including prep time or cleanup... I'm only human, y'all.

I'm determined to work all the stations, however, and the one station I haven't worked yet is saute. Saute is a killer station at my work: it's fresh pasta and fish, as well as chicken and a few hot apps. You need to be able to throw down to work saute, and I've seen seasoned vets reach the edge of breaking point on that station. Some nights, everyone in the restaurant wants pasta and fish, and cooking the majority of the entrees for 200+ covers ain't easy. Needless to say I've been wary yet eager to try my hand at saute, and because of several factors it didn't look like I'd be able to make it to saute until after the holidays.

Due to some recent unexpected but welcome changes, however, I just learned that start training on saute next week. Next week! Just typing that makes my heart beat a little faster. I feel a renewed sense of pride in line cooking, and I'm that much closer to realizing a major goal. I'm feeling The Fear (you cooks know what I'm talking about), but somehow it feels... comforting. Like an old blanket. Welcome back, The Fear. Keep me on my toes, will ya?

My desire to keep up with this blog is still very pressing, yet these past six months have brought all sorts of upheaval into my life, mostly in good ways. I have some almost-finished blog drafts in the works though. In the near future, expect a couple of blog posts soon about the merits (or demerits?) of culinary school, and a little expounding on The Fear. Should be interesting.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The view from the kitchen

Summer in a hotel pan

Engraved Gray Kunz spoons and Togiharu slicer--gifts from my rad boyfriend for my recent 30th birthday

My mise en place

Herbs ready to go in the spring lamb set

Squid soaking

Baby octo stewing

That's a big-ass steak

My cross-hatch is pretty good these days

Kitchen short-hand labeling

The ubiquitous wedding gallette a la Jay-bar

Work snacks

More work snacks

Balls after 11

A busy Sunday night

Friday, July 16, 2010


One week later (and five pounds lighter), including three days of missed work, I can happily report that the gastroenteritis is almost entirely curbed. I'd say I'm at about 97% right now, the 3% being my body getting used to eating real meals again, and feeling a little tired still from rapid weight loss and lack of fuel. I inherited my mom's quick metabolism, and I didn't exactly have five pounds to lose before the illness, so I'm slowly working on getting back up to a normal weight.

My diet for most of the last week has consisted of mostly soup, applesauce, purposefully bland congee (rice porridge) and a few pieces of white bread. I know this sounds somewhat ludicrous and possibly pretentious, but it felt so, so wrong to not properly season my food when my cook's instinct is to make it right and balance it well. I forget that the primary function of eating is for energy, and I'm grateful that we've evolved from simply fueling ourselves into creative experimentation with flavor, texture and balance.

Another thought I'll take away from this whole bout with stomach flu is this: I'll never again take for granted the ability to eat, and the variety of foods available to me. Around day four, after my millionth or so bowl of soup, I started to dream in Technocolored gastro-porn: cheeseburgers, sashimi, mussels, mayonnaise, over easy eggs, carbonara, corndogs, lardo, burrata, French dips... everything that I physically could not stomach. It actually made me nauseous to think about food, but after a while I really couldn't help it. I am so, so spoiled by the riches around me and I'll never complain about having to taste my sets before I send them out.

I finally felt good enough on day five to attempt eating a real meal. Following a restorative afternoon relaxing in the sun (a nice change from my bedroom), I settled around the dinner table with my boyfriend and his roommates who had made perfectly barbecued chicken, potato salad with Walla Walla sweet onions, fresh-shucked Oregon peas with yogurt and mint, and grilled summer squash. Not a bad welcome back to gastronomy. Adorably, my boyfriend only served me about a third of what I'd normally eat of each, but he was right in doing so as my stomach seems to have gotten tinier with lack of proper usage. Worry not, it'll be back to right in no time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gastroenteritis can suck it!

I woke up yesterday morning feeling more exhausted than normal and with a dull stomachache that I automatically attributed to the previous night of gluttony with friends (sweetbreads, veal pate, chicken liver mousse and endless desserts, i.e. probably about five sticks of butter in total, not to mention a couple of cocktails). I was surprised, as I certainly didn't have enough drinks to be hungover, but I brushed it off as early morning queasiness that would go away by the time I got to work at 8AM. Doing my best to wear an "I'm doing fine" face and ignore the insistent aches, I tried coffee, ginger ale, bitters and soda, crackers, and several trips to the bathroom before I finally admitted to myself and my coworkers that the stomachache, weakness and nausea were not going away. I felt guilty about barely doing anything at work and leaving before service started, but the idea of working a station even for a few hours made me feel more ill than I already was.

What ensued was the worst short bike ride home ever and a subsequent few hours of laying in bed sweating and half-sleeping with frequent interruptions to visit the bathroom before my boyfriend arrived to take care of me, flowers and several Gatorades and ginger ales in hand. The fitful, sweaty non-sleep and bathroom trips continued throughout the day, but having some company to rub my back and whine and moan to certainly made things a little better. My boyfriend spent an entire gorgeous and sunny Saturday laying around indoors with me, watching action movies on Netflix, making me tea and dutifully waiting out my miserable stomach flu. Good man, that one.

As of this morning it's quite persistently sticking around and I've called in to work sick again, despite my instinct not to. It's ironic that of all the industries I've ever worked in, food service is the one where I've consistently felt the guiltiest about calling in sick. The irony comes from the fact that food service the most likely work environment that you can pass on a contagious illness to a lot of people. The fact of the matter is in a lot of kitchens, there is no such thing as being sick. The common practice is unless you are quite literally dying, you show up to work and stick it out like a good boy. I've known cooks and chefs who've injured themselves quite severely on the job and refuse to leave to get the stitches they need. In my first month of working at my first restaurant, I stabbed myself in the hand with an oyster shucker during service and I just wrapped it up with a giant icepack and went back to work. I figured I still had one good hand!

But I've had some serious health scares in my past so I try to listen to my body when it says "PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME DO THIS." And still I end up feeling guilty.

I know I do it to myself mostly, make myself feel guilty that is. All of my bosses have been extremely cool and understanding about this, but in the back of my head I imagine them thinking that I'm weak and unreliable, even if this isn't the case. Or that they would never call in sick. I'm pretty sure that they know it'd be a bad scene for me to be working my station whilst running to the bathroom every 10 minutes, but it's that lingering machismo and "strong like bull" testosterone-y attitude that hovers over a lot of kitchen environments that's got me feeling hyper-aware of my "weakness".

I normally have the constitution of a linebacker when it comes to my ability to eat a lot and frequently without being bothered, but apparently gastroenteritis ain't picky. I seriously can't remember one time in the last 10 years that I've had something like this. One thing I've learned about the stomach flu: it's TOTALLY BORING. And there's nothing you can do but drink lots of fluids and wait it out. Total bullshit! Two of the most beautiful days of summer so far and I'm stuck in bed, waiting for my innards to quit misbehaving. And blogging about it, apparently.

In the meantime I'll be staving off the boredom by watching more Netflix and flipping through my newest Powell's purchase: The River Cottage Cookbook by the adorable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Just look at that book cover! Piglets!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

I'm still alive.

My hopes of blogging more frequently seem to not be coming through as much as I'd like. Suffice it to say that in addition to my jam-packed work week (two and a half jobs and the resulting exhaustion), there have been some pretty dramatic changes in my life as of late, all for the positive. I've been thinking a lot about the future, and these changes have really affected my outlook on a lot of things, my work being one of them. When I get my words together a little better I'd love to share what exactly I mean.

In the meantime I will leave you with the most ridiculous 25 seconds of your life. Leave it to a cat lady to post something so ludicrous on a food blog:

(Thanks to my dear friend Tonya for sharing this one with me!)

Now if only this rainy, cold weather would give up... c'mon Oregon, it's June, dammit!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some thoughts from a line cook on IACP, Michael Ruhlman and the simplicity of cooking

This year's annual (IACP) conference, held in our lovely city of Portland, came to a close last weekend. I was pretty stoked to hear that some of the biggest names in food were experiencing some of what we have to offer, as I'm proud to be living in a city and working in a restaurant that does good work. But as the days went on, as photos of (and wild gossip about) the foodie glitterati got littered on Facebook and elsewhere, and as I talked to more of my fellow cooks, I grew warier by the day.

Most cooks I talked to had no idea what the IACP was before it arrived, myself included, and even while it was here knew very little about what purpose it served. For an organization that calls itself the International Association of Culinary Professionals, it was largely inaccessible to most of the cooks (presumably part of the "culinary professionals") in town, not to mention the Portland public. Every event that was open to the public cost money, and most were quite a bit--individual tickets for dinner events cost around $100 a head.

Besides the fact that tickets for the whole conference cost upwards of $700 for members and $900 for non-members, a figure that your average cook could never afford, it was held on what was essentially a long weekend for 9-to-5-ers, otherwise known as prime work time for cooks. The most that your average line cook could hope for was helping prep a dinner for the event, but more likely crossing his or her fingers that Ruth Reichl or Michael Ruhlman would eat at their workplace. While it's thrilling to feed a famous person, I can hardly see how it helps in furthering IACP's goal of connecting "culinary professionals with the people, places and knowledge they need to succeed".

I don't want to ruffle feathers, and I am by no means trying to diminish the impact that the conference had on my friends and colleagues who were fortunate enough to attend. Judging from Tweets and blog updates, the weekend was truly amazing for many. But I can't help but observe how unavailable the events and headliners were to the laborers of the actual restaurant industry, the ones who make the gears churn. The press, food critics, food writers and bloggers are no doubt vital in keeping our industry alive and healthy, but it's weird to be a mere observer of a huge event that is purportedly an attempt to connect culinary professionals. I'm sure it's not the intention of the IACP to leave us out, but it certainly was a byproduct of the event. It's as if a giant party is being thrown in your honor, but you're not invited. Or like when Kelly Kapowski couldn't afford to go to the Bayside High School prom, except we don't have our boyfriends to slow-dance with us outside.

I'm thinking we have to be our own Zack Morrises. I'm dropping some Saved By the Bell science on y'all mofos!

One specific thing that did come from the weekend, which has since ruffled many feathers, is a comment Michael Ruhlman, author of many cookbooks and the highly-regarded Making of a Chef "trilogy" (one that I'm currently enjoying), made in response to Karen Page's assertion that some people don't have time to cook. Portland's own Nick Zukin caught the action on camera:

Ruhlman then took to the Huffington Post to clarify his "bullshit" response, as he was certainly getting heat from Twitter and the general blogosphere for his comment. In short, he's asserting that people who claim they don't have the time to cook are merely making excuses or are simply lazy. "Working 12-hour days is a choice," he writes, as he explains how quite simple it is to throw a chicken in the oven for an hour while your kids joyously set the table and you "enjoy some carnal exertions with your partner during that hour".

One of my favorite foul-mouthed women and one of the most badassed chefs I know, Janis at Tanuki, responded in kind in a way that only she can. The blogosphere, of course, quickly picked up on the back and forth. Janis further clarified her point on PortlandFood.org. Here's a snippet:

For the record, what I objected to was the blanket statement nature of the claim that anyone who says they don't have time to cook is "making excuses".

In the insular world of foodies I'm quite sure it is true that the people Mr. Ruhlman knows who say they don't have time to cook are pursuing other things that are choices. Entertainment, the gym, blogging, etc.

But how blind do you have to be to ignore the fact that there is a whole class of people in this society who raise kids while piecing together multiple part time jobs while using unreliable public transportation to support themselves?

First of all, can I emphasize again how much I love this lady? She doesn't give a shit what people think about her and her views, and despite the fact that I'm certain I skew far too liberal for her taste, and I disagree with some of her strong stances, we see eye-to-eye on many issues, this one included.

Besides the fact that I'm pretty certain Michael Ruhlman's attempt to bully or guilt lazy people into cooking won't work, and I have a certain distaste for his condescension, I want to explore a little more an aspect of this conversation that hasn't really been touched on too specifically: The fact that it's not just a time or a laze issue. Cooking is something that a lot of people, working-class or otherwise, are intimidated by, and the addition of mouth-breathing chef groupies, world-class food travelers, Food Network reality shows and the age of the celebrity chef certainly isn't helping. I have friends who do quite well for themselves financially and still cook rarely to never, not because they don't have the time or energy, but because cooking has become this deity, complete with a vast list of how-to's that it seems one must master before making a simple meal at home.

Cooking has evolved from an everyday necessity into a fun hobby; something that foodies can list on their internet profiles as a personal interest. Without knowing it, in their well-meaning attempts to make cooking accessible to everyone, I think the Michael Ruhlmans, Jamie Olivers and Alice Waters of the world have inadvertently made home cooking into something bigger and more intimidating than it ever had to be. I think about bicycle enthusiasts in the same way some people think about cooking and food: I do it because it gets me to where I need to be, but the whole culture surrounding it frankly intimidates me. I want to get a better bike but I'm afraid I'll pick the wrong one and get laughed at by people who actually know.

Any time we put emphasis on a necessity and dress it up seven ways to sundown, something that could (and should) be simple becomes a 12-step process. Organic, all-natural, biodynamic, sustainable, mise en place, low-fat, low-carb, no preservatives, free-range, artisan, Atkins, Whole Foods, New Seasons, paring knife, chef's knife, Wusthof, Swiss peeler, Microplane, Robot Coupe, Boos Block, Viking, Wolf, Escoffier, Reichl, Keller, Waters, Ruhlman... see what I mean? To an everyday person just trying to get by, the bombardment of accoutrements that comes with cooking is too much to handle. Sometimes it's too much for me to handle, and I do this for a living. By saying, "See how easy this is?" and "All you need is this!" to someone who gets frightened by the mere thought of touching a raw protein, the message inadvertently becomes a challenge, or even a taunt. The message of "You're doing it wrong" is everywhere, and the Lean Cuisines and rotisserie chicken in a bag start to look mighty appealing.

This is not to say I don't agree with what the aforementioned cooks and food writers are trying to do. The way people eat has become a health crisis, no doubt about it, and my bleeding liberal heart hopes against hope that Jamie Oliver will turn public school lunch systems on their heads and stop counting french fries as vegetables. But I can't force my peers to think the same way about food that I and my fellow cooks do: It's something that feels right, that I enjoy doing, that makes me happy. Bear in mind this is coming from someone who just mixed a can of garbanzo beans and a can of tuna fish with parsley, lemon and chili flake and called it lunch. I'm no food elitist, but I would love to see more people skip the McDonald's dollar menu and pick up some veg at the farmer's market instead. I won't, however, talk down to people for not wanting to try their hand at a simple roast chicken.

All I'm saying, really, is simplicity is almost never that simple.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we, as culinary professionals, as line cooks especially, do this to ourselves?

I think about this a lot, especially on those days when I'm nursing my shift drink at 1:30AM, sticky with dried sweat, grill smoke and fryer grease and thinking about how hard we got rocked, how much my back hurts, and how poorly I'm gonna sleep before I have to peel myself out of bed and do it all over again. How big my prep list is for tomorrow, how perpetually dirty my cuticles are from scrubbing the grill grates, how much it sucks that even though I'm dog-tired at the end of the night I won't be able to fall asleep for another two hours at least. How I wished I hadn't missed a certain concert or birthday party, how badly I need to do laundry and clean my house, how I haven't been on a date in months, how my last relationship deteriorated in no small part due to my work schedule. Try explaining to someone who gets home from work at 6 or 7PM that waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to an alarm clock that snoozes for over an hour is neither normal nor acceptable to someone who gets home from work at 12:30AM at the earliest.

Then I have days that are nice reminders of the work we do, the world we live in, the people we can proudly call our colleagues. I do this because I love my crew, I mean I love them, really. I can be myself wholly and completely, in all my nerdy, foul-mouthed ridiculousness and they'll just shake their heads and say, "Yep."

I do this because as much as I hate to admit it, I'm an adrenaline junkie. I get a crazy high from pushing out ticket after ticket on a busy night, the one where I can feel my jugular pulsing in my neck when I'm on top of my game. I'm juggling 10 things on the grill, pirouetting to the sound of expo calls, talking with saute with just a nod or an eyebrow tweak, and, despite myself, letting out a "yessssssss!" when I slice a steak and hit the temp dead-on. I've stopped looking at the clock for how many more hours of service we have left and instead I'm keeping an eye on the minute hand to pace my fire times.

I do this because I'm tickled by the customer who interrupts me during a three-ticket fire to tell me that the steak I cooked him was incredible, one of the best he's ever had, and made his trip to Portland worth it.

Because I'm stunned by the amount of work that made that steak possible: The cow farmers, the butchers, the purveyors. The farmer who grew the lettuce and raised the hens that laid the eggs, the time it took for the artisans who made the balsamic vinegar and cheese, and my chef who portioned the meat and made the marinade. It's easy to get complacent in the everyday life of a line cook, and I find it helps to put things into perspective.

Because I get to help do this every week:

Breaking down whole lamb
Whole lamb being broken down for brochettes of loin, braise, lamb belly for breading/frying, and stock

And be proud of the little things:

Soft boiled eggs
Soft-boiled, 5 minute and 15 second eggs. I usually break a couple per batch, but this was the perfect batch--no breakage, perfect consistency

And admire gorgeous handiwork close-up, seeing the man behind the curtain:

Rolling out cavatelli
Javier, our pasta man, working his magic on our buckwheat cavatelli

Because I have moments every now and then where I think I might actually know a little something about something. And then I'm completely bowled over by how much more someone else knows about that something. It's humbling and inspiring all at once.

Because I love the look on some people's faces, men especially, when I tell them I'm a line cook. And because I can't help but be proud of the places I work, and the places I've worked before.

Because the people we meet, the people we feed, they had a memorable experience and we were part of that. Every day, I am a part of someone else's experience. I make things with my own two hands that people eat and (if we did our job right) enjoy fully, tell their friends about and come back for more.

Because I can go to an event with my restaurant where there are nine other awesome restaurants representing, and you can feel the love and respect. I've met so many great cooks and chefs in Portland, and worked with a lot too, and it still stuns me that I can even consider myself in any way remotely associated with that talent.

The IACP annual conference kicked off today in Portland, and as frightened as I am of mouth-breathing chef groupies, the roster is legit (Ruth Reichl, Kim Severson, Michael Ruhlman, Madhur Jaffrey, Dornenburg/Page, et al). While I couldn't (and probably wouldn't) pay what they're charging for tickets to the event, I was fortunate enough to tag along to help set up, serve and break down our station at the opening reception for the conference. A giant ballroom was packed to the gills with hundreds of eager guests, all of them friendly and mostly knowledgeable about food. We scared off a couple of folks with the mention of the words "pig foot" (and I judged them for it, I admit), but by and large we were a hit. The feedback was awesome and I always have a lot of fun interacting with people through tasty morsels.

I've always craved connecting with people, which is what made me gravitate naturally toward hosting and waiting tables. I was never truly fulfilled by front-of-house work, however, and it was my thirst for being in the trenches, cultivating skills and knowledge that seemed to belong to an elite few, that eventually won out. Turns out that through line cooking, a job that people have historically turned to specifically because they don't care to interact with other people, and a trade that has a reputation for harboring some of the surliest and least personable workers around, I've connected with more people on a more meaningful level than any other work I've ever done.

Since I started cooking for a living, I've worked the hardest I've ever worked in my life, and with all the triumphs have come major downfalls too. But I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. I won't be a line cook forever, and frankly I don't know where this will take me, but for now, right now at this very moment, despite all of its downsides and the ridiculous life that comes along with it, I'm pleased as punch.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Finding balance

Today I feel grateful for the balance in the universe. Lest you think I'm going down a Burning Man path, allow me to explain.

Tuesday night was one of those nights where I looked at the clock at about 5:30, right before the happy hour burger pile-up began, and before I knew it my rail was full. Suddenly the place is packed, there's a giant pool of people at the door waiting for dinner tables, the a la carte table of 15 right in front of the line is drunk as hell and singing "happy birthday" repeatedly and clapping in unison and I'm literally yelling to be heard, having to ask two or three times for ticket calls because I can't hear my chef on expo. I came into work with a sore throat, and now I've nearly lost my voice. I'm hanging on by a thread, struggling to keep up a good pace, checking and re-checking my tickets, and at one point I remember squeaking a pleading "no" when chef squeezed a new ticket into my already-full rail. I'm literally grunting out loud, and every move I make feels like a wasted motion. Why does that shelf have to be so high? Why the fuck is the grill so fucking hot? Who in their right mind orders well-done anything? Every request is suddenly a personal attack and I'd simply lost control.

I finally clear my rail, and I look at the clock again. Suddenly it's 10:20 and my eyes are blurry and I barely have the energy to stand up straight. Were people coming out of Easter hibernation? Did Tuesday become a new holiday? I'm looking for excuses as to why I felt so bad during service, and simultaneously feeling like shit for letting myself and my chef down. He gives me a pep talk, tells me it wasn't that crazy of a night, and that loud party was the biggest problem, but it only makes me feel worse that I couldn't handle my shit.

I put out generally timely plates, my temps were good and the food looked nice, but it was like pushing a boulder up a mountain getting there. So much of the job of cooking is the means to the end, and (at least to me) if the means isn't good then it doesn't really matter what the end product is. I worked with a cook once who could put up good-looking plates in a reasonable period of time, but it couldn't make up for the fact that that cook was messy, lazy, non-communicative and unwilling to work alongside the rest of the crew without telling everyone else how to run their stations. I don't want to be that cook, ya know?

We managed to break down dinner, cook happy hour, and do our big Tuesday cleaning project (break down the front and back ranges, change out the drip pans and scrub the burners with highly caustic grill cleaner) and still get done before 1AM. I indulged in a whiskey with a Pilsner back, ran for the bus, and found myself falling asleep to Gillian Welch's gorgeously depressing album Time (The Revelator) through my good headphones.

Wednesday morning I woke up, every muscle in my body aching, feeling dehydrated and nursing a wicked pain in my neck, jaw and temple thanks to my TMJ acting up overnight. Wednesdays are the days I go into work and trail the AM kitchen manager on my own time, and for a moment on Tuesday night I thought about calling off for Wednesday. But I felt I'd just be further letting myself and everyone else down, so I dragged myself out of the house and found myself back at work.

My first task upon arrival was to clean and dice two large Lexans of rhubarb for jam, and it turns out there's really nothing better to soothe a frail and scrambled soul than cutting something easy and gorgeous over and over again, watching the dice pile get bigger and bigger.

hearty stalks

Rhubarb: Jam
pretty pile

I also tasted raw rhubarb for the first time and it's as if a light bulb "dinged": I suddenly got why people were so into rhubarb. I stood in the prep kitchen, cleaning and cutting and dicing, imagining where these hearty stalks grew, running my hands through my pile of clean cuts. I felt like a kid in a playground, discovering worms in the dirt and finding shiny rocks.

We did the math on the rhubarb-orange jam recipe, and since I know you were wondering what 39 cups of sugar looks like:

I have this overwhelming desire to sit in that bowl, preferably down a snowy hill.

Macerating rhubarb
Macerated rhubarb is the jam, y'all!

Once the rhubarb was put away, we pulled out the whole lamb we get in every Wednesday and chef broke it down into primals in a speedy fashion, as always. I'm just now getting to the point where I'm breaking down the legs without having to ask where to start or what to do every time. I'm slow at it, but it's starting to feel more natural. Butchery is so visceral and physical, and I love it for that.

I left work yesterday afternoon feeling uplifted, something I had almost forgotten cooking could do for me. It's positively lovely to have that balance.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pushing through, with apologies in advance for rambling

Has it really been a month and a half since I last wrote? I feel pretty sad about that. Dear neglected blog and whoever is out there reading this, you deserve better.

I notice that besides the times I feel inspired to write positively, I always turn to writing in times of frustration or unhappiness. So it's no coincidence I'm here since today could qualify as the worst day I've had in a long time. Service itself was totally fine and I honestly felt good about the food I put out, but sometimes all the other elements of the day just pile up and pile up until you've just about had it. I'll spare you the minutiae of this really lame day, but you could say I'm learning to push through the shit, function properly for service, and not take whatever bullshit I'm feeling out on my coworkers. At least I'm hoping that's the case. If we continue to stay as busy as we have been, I definitely need to hone the marathon-readiness.

And can I just say I feel really fortunate to be working at a place that's staying so busy? It's always a good thing to be busy, and I love a fast service, but when you're selling double the amount of every dish off your station of what you usually do, there's a lot of hustling involved to make sure you're not cutting corners or shorting people on a good dining experience. Add to that a lot of really dumb shit and I come home feeling like I want to sit in a hot bath for a week. Or cry. Or both.

It's been a pretty unusual month for me, actually. My sister just moved to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and in the weeks prior to her move I took my weekends to visit her in Seattle and help her pack. I also worked a couple of days at my old restaurant since they were a little short-staffed, and I have to say it was really fun to be back in the old joint. The front of house staff is virtually the same, and there were plenty of people in the kitchen with whom I was already familiar. It was great to be around all those familiar faces, and I loved seeing what the new executive chef is up to, and the differences in the way the kitchen is run now. They're doing a pretty killer job.

Speaking of killer jobs, I recently added a once-weekly shift at another great restaurant in town on top of my current job. It's a totally different kitchen, and I'm working a day shift that starts at 8AM (gasp! I know!). Though I've only been there a few days, I'm really happy with the change in pace and the fact that I'm learning new stuff on top of the stuff I'm already learning at my current place. Can I say "stuff" again? What is "stuff" anyway?

Okay. This incoherent rambling probably means my ass is ready for bed. I promise I'll make more sense next time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Burger Redemption

My relationship with burger cookery got off to a rocky start.

One day last spring at my old job, right before happy hour started, my sous chef decided on a whim to move the very popular burger pickup to my station. Though I was cooking steak, lamb, pork and poultry at that point, I'd never temped a burger in my life and, frankly, I had no desire to. Burgers were cooked to order in saute pans, so the far more skilled saute cook had been picking them up for the more than six months that I'd worked there. I'd watch him fire several 10 burger pickups in a row at peak happy hour rush, holding it together but starting to break a sweat, and I'd be so, so happy it wasn't me.

...Until suddenly it was me. After a minute or so of angry silence and stunned shock on my part, I had about 10 minutes to rearrange all my mise and try to figure out what the hell I was doing. I was so livid about this last-minute change, I was on the verge of tears. It made me even angrier that the other cooks took to taunting me about it, and when they realized through my silence that I was genuinely upset, the sous helped me take my station apart and put it back together, somehow cramming six new 9th pans, a 6th pan and two 3rd pans into my already-crowded station.

Like anything in the kitchen, I just got to it. Fake it 'til ya make it, as they say. I started to get a feel for temping burgers, and fortunately my first day as burger lady wasn't insanely busy so I didn't go down in flames.

(I did, however, go home that night and cry myself to sleep. Don't tell anyone, okay?)

Even though I'm still convinced it was really shitty to give me the burger pickup with no warning, it was probably one of the best things that's happened to me so far as a cook. My sous chef was no dummy. I got better at multi-tasking real fast out of sheer necessity, and I was working harder than I ever had. The days when I cooked dozens of happy hour and bar burgers while firing dinner tickets at the same time and managed to do a decent job, I went home feeling pretty good about myself.

But I also had a fair amount of resentment toward the burger pickup. Maybe it was because it felt like an interference when I was already temping five proteins and picking up several other dishes. Maybe it was the fact that burgers were commonly fired at the end of the night. The countless number of times that we were on the verge of closing and a burger ticket came in, oftentimes after our official closing time... I let the resentment build up.

I had a lot of burger anger.

I bitched at bartenders who fired late burgers, as if they had gone out of their way to inconvenience me, which, of course, they hadn't. It's a fact of life as a cook--you'll get tickets at the end of the night, sometimes after closing time, and even though you're all wrapped up and ready to bounce, you have to stay and finish your job. I didn't see it that way for a long time, until well after I left that kitchen. Late tickets are never fun, but getting mad about it doesn't exactly help.

About a month ago, I moved over to the grill station at my current restaurant. We have an extremely popular burger that we grind in-house, and I used to come in all the time before I ever worked there to get a burger after work. It comes off the grill, so I've been working some burger action as of late. I was worried that I'd be out of shape for meat station, and I am a little, but I found that it's like riding a bicycle. Getting back to it wasn't as hard as I thought it might be.

I told myself one thing before I started on grill station, however: I would not let myself have burger anger. I volunteered for the job, I wanted grill station, and there's nothing worse than a cook who works from a place of anger. Seriously.

There's a reason that grill cooks tend to be the surliest of the bunch: They're standing in the hottest part of the restaurant for hours at a time, smoke wafting in their faces, maneuvering multiple proteins between the hot and cool spots on the oft-temperamental grill, and likely slangin' some major burgers. By the end of the night your skin has a fine coat of smoke and grease and sweat. It ain't glamorous, that's for sure.

But telling myself that one thing, no burger anger, has made the busy happy hours go pretty smoothly so far. Cooking without anger is something I never thought I'd have to make a conscious effort to do, as I'm not exactly an angry person, but when you're doing the same thing dozens of times a day, day in and day out, it's easy to see how the tedium and the constant buzz of the ticket printer can wear at you. I haven't been on grill that long yet, but I'm doing my best to watch my temperament this time around.

I don't want to cook out of anger. This job is too good to waste on that.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finely Aged

I got a call from my mom this morning voicing some concern over my mention of her 60th birthday in my previous post. She was worried I was stating it in more of a "Wow, my mom is old!" manner than what I really meant: I think it's simply amazing and awesome that she's lived 60 years of life and she's still so young at heart. My mom is one of the wisest, strongest and most humble people I know, and I'm fortunate that I have a concrete role model to show me what it means to struggle through seriously unforeseen hell and come out on the other side more alive and vibrant than you were before. I doubt anyone would guess she was 60 upon meeting her.

Mom in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Christine in the Blue Ridge Mountains in fall

I guess commenting on her age came so easily to me because I think about my own age quite a bit in context to my work. Last year I turned 29, and every day I'm surrounded by people who are many years younger than me, yet have been in the industry for many more years than I have. I've gotten used to most of my bosses being younger than I am, but it doesn't bother me because what matters in the end is experience. We joke about my age sometimes, and I'm amused to find myself explaining to my coworkers in their early 20's what Thundercats and the Care Bear Stare meant to me. It's quite a thing in our industry that some of the best chefs out there are 25-year-olds who have been cooking for 8 or 10 years.

Not that I was always comfortable with my age. When I first considered cooking professionally I was highly conscious about the fact that I was getting a late start. I looked around at the fresh-faced, straight-out-of-high-school kids in my culinary school class and I won't deny I felt a tinge of the weight of age. The thought crossed my mind, 'How am I going to keep up?' The harder I worked, however, and the deeper I got into the industry, the more I realized a couple of things: First, how glad I was to have had some years of living before I made a career choice. I've mentioned this before, but I'm certain I wouldn't be as put-together about my work life if I had started this insane job 10 years ago. And secondly: I feel young. I think this has something to do with the fact that my surgery was a rebirth for me. It was like I was given a chance to hit the "Restart" button.

I credit my mom with giving me context. Seven years ago my dad died in an accident and left my mom with a small business on the brink of bankruptcy thanks to an industrial depression. She literally became president overnight. She was thrust into the limelight and suddenly had the weight of an entire company and 20 years worth of my dad's work experience dropped on her shoulders. It was a ludicrously tough hill to climb that I will never fully comprehend, and to be honest there's a part of me that doesn't want to know. In seven years my mom completely turned the company around and then some; last year she was on the cover of a widely-circulated business journal as a success story in her industry, and was listed in the top 50 fastest growing women-led companies in North America. She looks younger and more vibrant now that she did 10 years ago.

The most stunning and possibly unusual part of it all is I've never once heard my mom complain. Not once. She's never been a complainer by nature, but if there were any excuse to complain, I think this would be a pretty good one. Not only that; she thinks it's weird that there's so much fuss over her success. Before my dad died she rarely met clients, never went on business trips, and took care of accounting and the behind-the-scenes paperwork. Three days ago she left the house at 5:30AM to drive four hours to a business meeting that ended at 2PM, after which she drove another two hours to the Charlotte airport to take a 6PM flight with a layover to New Orleans for an industry conference, flying back to Charlotte 36 hours later and driving another two hours home. This kind of travel is not out of the ordinary for her. When I talked to her this morning she was chipper as usual and praised the meetings and flights and drives for being smooth and on time.

Context, y'all. Context. If I have even half the strength that she does, I'm certain I can accomplish what I want to in my career and in my life.

She'll probably call me again after she reads this to tell me that she doesn't see what the big deal is. My mom is the youngest 60-year-old I know, and I wouldn't be where I am without her.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A New Year

Oh, my poor neglected blog. Thanks to a nudge from my coworkers, here I am at last. For whatever reason in the last few months I've suffered from a self-imposed, increased pressure to write quality material that people can relate to. Mix that with general blog laziness, being sick four times in five weeks, and a lovely Christmas trip to North Carolina where I did nothing but watch movies and eat pound cake and Chick Fil A, and ye here blog goes without company for too long.

Unfortunately, I really miss writing, so let that be my first resolution of 2010: Think less, write more.

So what have I learned in this past year? I'm well into my second year of cooking professionally, and things are only looking up. I've been going into work on my own time on one of my days off to trail the day kitchen manager, and it's been so eye-opening to see things from beginning to end. PM cooks are pretty spoiled at my restaurant, as a majority of the big prep gets taken care of for us during the day--butchering, portioning, braises, cures, terrines, sausages and other charcuterie, burger prep, breads, pastas, some sauces... nearly all of it is done in-house, and most of it is taken care of by the swift hands of the day crew, sous chefs and exec chef. There's definitely a good amount of prep for the evening cooks to take care of, but I think most of us would agree that we have it pretty cush.

It makes for a smooth system, but how do you learn and grow in this environment? One of the biggest lessons I learned the hard way this year was to never get comfortable. Comfortable leads to plateauing, which leads to complacency and oftentimes a shitty attitude. And, trust me, NO ONE wants to work with a cook with a shitty attitude. My point is, I'm learning to make a conscious effort to stretch my limits and my comfort zone.

Confession: Charcuterie intimidates the shit out of me. I don't even know why. Maybe it's the history of it, or how finicky it seems, or the fact that I've just been spoiled by working at two places that did almost all of their sausages, cures and terrines in house, and the people doing the charcuterie were crazy good. But I only see one solution: Learn to make it. Conquer the fear. Push my limits, scare myself a little, make some mistakes and move on. That's the only way we can get better, right?

Things aren't always what we hope for, but instead of complaining and doing nothing, I'm learning to make the best of it. I remember one of my classmates in culinary school who had this extraordinary ability to complain about everything. The kid clearly had raw talent, but he took complaining to some next level shit. Everything was always too much or not enough. Too easy, too hard, too much work, not enough to do; no matter what the situation, this guy managed to see the negative in everything. Worst of all, it was permeating--the attitude just ate at your nerves until you could cut the tension with a knife. This leads me to possibly the biggest lesson I learned this year: We can complain all we want to, but in the end we're responsible for ourselves. Getting bored on my station? Try different tasks, ask for more, trail another station. Giant prep list? Work faster and request help. Does shit suck? Then change it. It seems so unfairly simple to say, but there it is.

I'm no saint. I don't claim to be perfect, by any means, and I have my bad days. I've definitely fit the complainer description well in the past. But I'm mostly in what I'd call a happy place right now. Things are fluid and fun, my coworkers are pretty awesome, and though I get stuck in station tunnel-vision from time to time, the extra days and new projects help keep me flexible and challenged.

Other cool things that happened in 2009:
- My mom turned 60 (happy birthday Mom!)
- The third anniversary of my surgery, and I'm fit as a fiddle (despite the winter colds!)
- Bought a condo!
- Went to San Francisco and LA by myself, had an amazing time and ate some of the best food of my life
- Made some of the best food I've done yet
- Met some amazing cooking (and non-cooking) related people in Portland and elsewhere
- Obtained a 17-year-old cat named Whimpy, who was a friend's childhood house cat. Spry old guy, and a biggun too, but what a ridiculously sweet thing. I was already basically a cat lady before I got the cat, and now it's official.

This year, I'm hoping to narrow my career focus a bit. I'll let you know how that goes. I'm also hoping to travel: San Francisco is calling my name again, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Taiwan and/or Europe. And I'll write more, yes!

Things are good, friends, things are good.