Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's a whole thing, you guys. It's a whole thing.

It's 3AM, I'm on the ass-end of four 15-hour days in a row, and I can't say in all honesty I ever imagined I would be where I am today.

Marinated olives in some yummy shit
Last night was the opening night of the little awesome wine bar that my boss conceived of mere months ago with the help of our wine shop manager. My official title there is chef, which I still can't say without blushing. Feels weird, man. I mean fuck, this is the hardest I've ever worked at something and still feel like I have such a long way to go before I'll have accomplished anything meaningful. This is not to say I think I'm doing a bad job; quite the contrary, I've put my heart and soul and literal blood, sweat and tears into creating this menu. I can genuinely say I've never worked harder at anything in my life, and I think it's pretty good for a first go.

It's just that when I think of the term "Chef", I think of my culinary 101 instructor Bikram, a joyful Nepalese beast whose curry I have yet to meet an equal, and whose sharp tongue and kind heart from his many years of being an executive chef at an international resort hotel helped prepare me for the real fire and heat of a professional kitchen. I think of my first mentor Jack, who was gracious enough to take my green ass under his wing. He commanded kitchens, held down a line better than anyone, cooked every station better than everyone and made the most gorgeous, inspiring food that only a person with 20 years of professional cooking experience could make. He blew minds here in Portland, and led the golden age of a restaurant whose employees I'm all still friends with, impossibly, and one of whom I'm marrying in a few weeks*.

Preserved lemons. Jack's recipe.
I think of Sarah, the chef at the restaurant I recently left to open the wine bar, who is one of the most driven chefs I've met and whose only passion is food. She deserves all the accolades she's received and more but doesn't have the reach of a "Portland celebrity chef" because she's not much of a Food-Network-ready glad-hander and instead prefers to spend her time on the line, in her restaurant, actually cooking and creating some of the best food I've ever had. I think of a million and one other talented and driven chefs who I've had the opportunity to meet, talk to, work under, or simply admire from afar, and they've all touched the lives of food nerds like myself in a way that means something, to me at least. I look at their plating photos and their impeccably clean kitchens and think, shit, that is fucking brilliant. And shit, I'm a fucking mess. I am not their equal. I am not their peer.

I want to get there, but it still feels like a long way off. Am I not giving myself enough credit? Am I too hard on myself? I don't know, maybe. In the meantime I'm spending a lot of my days playing phone tag with various vendors and purveyors, some of whom won't give me the time of day because I'm a no-name nobody. Hey weird purveyors, I'm literally trying to give you money for your product and you're making it really hard for me. It shouldn't be this difficult to give you cash for this thing you're selling.
classic love/hate relationship

Also, I really like the menu I've put together, but it's a menu that has a fair amount of restraint because the timing of the wine bar's opening ended up strangely coinciding with another giant, life-changing event: *In two weeks, I'll be marrying my best friend and the best partner a person could ask for in a reasonably intimate ceremony in one of my favorite parks in Portland. Basically I'm spending the next week and a half working out kinks in this menu, putting systems into place to make sure that everything operates smoothly while I'm gone, prepping the shit out of backups for my homies to use in my absence, just making sure none of the wheels will fall off. And then Jeff and my entire families converge in Portland for a week of celebrations followed by a week of honeymooning (which, let me just take a minute to point out that our boss was so incredibly generous to give us a full week for a honeymoon, which is pretty much unheard of in this industry).

Let me also just say that if anyone ever asks you to open a wine bar and plan a wedding to occur within two weeks of each other, just say no. I truly love everything I'm doing right now, but I do not recommend this schedule to anyone. While the timing isn't ideal, it was a team effort on all parties to not let either big amazing thing stop the other big amazing thing. I come back to the restraint on my menu because I want to do a lot more with the menu but I also wanted to make sure it's foolproof while I'm gone, which is already a challenge with any menu but an especially interesting challenge with an opening menu. I'm hoping to stretch my wings a little (a lot) when I return.

Really, I just want to cook from a genuine place for a public audience. And I have this truly unbelievable opportunity to do just that. Like how many motherfucking cooks can actually say that??? Not many, my friends, not many at all. I constantly find myself flabbergasted at my fortune. I just want to do this right, and I want to do this well.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Staging Like A Pro

I've been itching to write lately, and I found the following post in my drafts folder while sifting around in my blog archives. I'm warming up to write about what's been going on in my present life (Kitchen managing! Events cheffing! Wedding planning!), but I figured this would be a nice and easy return to blogging. I must have written this in 2009 while I was still in my first kitchen, and I'm pleasantly surprised that I feel pretty much the same way about staging now as I did then. I've left the post as I wrote it 4 years ago pretty much intact, with any additional notes or edits in italics. I've also added more at the end.

I realize that as a person who's been in my chosen profession of higher-end kitchen work for less than a year, I'm probably not the most qualified person to be doling out unsolicited advice about pursuing your dreams in this field.

I'm gonna do it anyway.

We've seen a pretty good number of stages come in (and out) our doors these past few months, and the following advice is based on some of the things I've witnessed and consequently been totally dumbfounded by.

How to conduct yourself during a stage
(as told from the point of view of an observant rookie with decent intuition for reading people)

Put together a decent resume
Don't put "rockstar" under skills, especially if you're a recent culinary school grad and currently employed on pantry station at a hotel. You will inevitably come off looking like a douchebag. Put your dates of employment next to each restaurant you've worked at. A simple sentence about each position will do--nobody wants to read an essay about how you cleaned the walk-in and scrubbed the sinks every day. Think of it this way: The more content you have on there, the more content there is for a prospective employer to pick at and critique. Make it clean, simple, easy-to-read. Feel free to write a cover letter, but if your resume is longer than one page, it's too long. And fer peet's sake, SPELL CHECK, DAMMIT! If you're using Microsoft Word or any decent word processing program, it's already doing the work for you. Those squiggly red lines under certain words? Yeah... those words are misspelled. Fix that shit!

Keep your mouth shut
Friendly banter and get-to-know-you kind of chat is gonna happen, but keep your bad jokes to yourself, at least until you've gotten to know these people. Racist, sexist or homophobic jokes will not get you very far during your stage. I'm amazed I even wrote that last sentence, but it's truly stunning what I've heard fall out of stages mouths.

In addition, don't distract other cooks with unnecessary small talk. You are there to get a job; the making friends part can come later. You don't want to be known as That One Stage Who Wouldn't Shut The Fuck Up - and there's always at least one!

Related: Keep your criticism to yourself
If you know this isn't the place for you while you're staging, be fine with that knowledge and take it as another experience. Don't go blathering to anyone who will listen about how silly the menu is or how your current place of employment does such-and-such thing this way, which you think is better than that way. Aside from formerly mentioned douchebaggery, word will spread to other places how much of a douchebag you are. Portland may have a great variety of restaurants, but it's a small community where everyone knows everyone else. When the chef asks you where else you are staging in town, you better believe that a) he probably knows the chefs or other cooks at the other restaurants, and b) if you were a douchbag during your stage, the other chefs will know before you even step foot through their doors. I've seen stages shortened and even canceled because of it.

Be respectful of people's equipment and stations
Recently, I had a newbie ask me if he could watch me and help out if I needed it during the happy hour rush that overlaps into dinner service. It seemed innocuous enough, so I said "sure". In the 15 minutes that the newbie was sharing my space, ticket times doubled what they normally would be and I felt totally overwhelmed by the tickets, even though technically speaking I had help. When I turned around to see the newbie firing off my dinner proteins without telling me, I knew I was in major trouble. My sous chef told me to take control of my station and kick him off if I needed to. I felt bad doing it, but I had to--it's MY station. The worst thing about this experience was knowing it was entirely my responsibility--I let him on my station, I was still in charge of everything coming off it, and it was my duty to take the heat for anything that went wrong, even if I wasn't the one who physically did it. Mostly, it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking initiative, and I think that the fact that I did take initiative had a lot to do with why I got hired during my stage. But there's a huge difference between showing enthusiasm and trying to take over someone's station because you think you're totally awesome. If you're gonna take initiative, make sure you have permission to do things before you do them.

Simply put: Don't touch anyone's mise en place unless you've been specifically told to. That shit is wack.


This is where I stopped writing the post four years ago. Four years later, I would never in a million years let a stage fire food off a station I ran. I was a severely naive line cook at the time, though I also can't say I blame myself for being that way-- learning to manage people is by far the most challenging thing I've ever done in this industry. It's why so many line cooks stay line cooks for life: they either suck at management, or they simply don't like it. Fortunately for me I don't suck at management (at least I don't think!), and I actually enjoy it, for the most part.

To the above, I'll add a few pointers for successful staging:

Have some respect for whomever you are trailing
Yes, you are working for free. But training is hard; it's much harder to explain in an understandable way every single action you're making and every step of a process that you've done a thousand times than to just do it. Ask questions as necessary, but be respectful of the fact that these people are taking time out of their precious prep time or fire time to explain things to you.

Write everything down
If a Sharpie, pen and pocket-sized notebook aren't already part of your daily mise en place, they should be. Writing things down means you don't need to ask again what's in the halibut pickup, plus you'll probably come away from the stage with a few good recipes and new techniques. Write down names if you're bad at remembering them; write down processes and fire times; write down as much as you can.

Don't be afraid to ask for help
If you're told to do something and you don't know how, by all means ask to be shown how to do it. Don't fake your way or pretend to know. I've seen stages say "sure, I know how to julienne a carrot," and come back with a quart of large dice veg. Thanks to that stage's insecurity, the prep time got doubled and those gorgeous (and expensive) heirloom carrots became part of staff meal. Part of staging is to display your technical ability, but if it's something you're unfamiliar with you're far better off asking. I'd much rather hire someone who can follow directions precisely than someone whose mistakes consistently affect my time and my food cost.

Plan on staying until the kitchen closes
I've seen stages act surprised that they are there past a certain time or a certain number of hours, or ask when they will be leaving, because they have a thing they have to go to later. This comes off as extremely disrespectful, not to mention lazy and careless. And no one wants to hire the guy who's complaining about 8 hours when the regular shift is 10. Expect to pull a full shift, and offer to help clean down the line after service if you're still there when cleanup starts. Don't make concrete plans for anything important after a stage if you can help it.

Be on time--better yet, be early
This should be self-explanatory, but sadly, I have to mention this because lately I've witnessed the extent of late cooks and their flexible relationship with time. It really, really sucks when a cook is awesome in every other way but you have to fire them because they cannot for the life of them show up on time. I recently saw a cook get offered a position, and show up an hour late on his first day. He didn't call to say he would be late, even though he had a cell phone. The chef fired him on the spot, and rightly so. And it was too bad, because he really needed the work, but being unreliable is A-number-one the worst trait to have as a cook.

I'd love to hear stage pointers from other cooks out there. What say you?