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 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.