Thursday, February 24, 2005

Um, ouch. Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Valentine's Day, Part 1

This is what we get for having the luxury of two Saturday nights off in a row during the holidays - two nights of Valentine's Day. Any holiday that comes with the tradition of taking your special someone out for a romantic dinner wreaks a fair amount of havoc in a restaurant. "Amateur night" it is called - the whole dining room filled up with people who don't know shit about food. People who think filet mignon is a good cut of meat. People who not only think filet mignon is a good cut of meat, but who order it medium well or -gasp- well done. People who are afraid of anything off of the fish menu. People who ask for ketchup with their pommes souffles. And not only are their orders predictably boring, but they only come in twos. Everyone is there on a nice, romantic dinner with their date, so while the ticket board in the kitchen looks jam-packed, really we're only dealing with 24 meals.

We did 196 people last night, which is a lot for our little restaurant. The most we ever did was 248 (incidentally, that was last Valentine's day) and that took three complete turns and lasted until well after eleven o'clock. (For those non-industry types, a "turn" is a complete seating of the restaurant, meaning by six thirty the restaurant is completely full. By seven thirty they're finishing up. By eight most of them will be gone and new people will be arriving. That is a turn.) The annoying part of it is, yesterday wasn't even Valentine's Day proper. It was just busy because of all the people who decided to go out the Saturday before Valentine's since Valentine's day is on a monday this year. Unfortunately, the other, more traditional half of the city is saying "Monday be damned, we're still going out on Valentine's Day, school night or no." So we have to go back and do it all again tomorrow. Like I said, it's pennance for getting two Saturdays off on Christmas and New Year's.

The best part of last night was when the bum walked in our kitchen. The restaurant is right downtown, and our back door is in a little alley which connects with several other restaurants' backdoors and which opens right up into our back kitchen. I have a perfect view of the door from my station, and around 8:00 last night in walks some guy in street clothes whom I have never seen before. He walks toward me and tries to confirm if he's in the right restaurant. Meanwhile I have fish cooking on the stove and chef calling out more orders behind me. This fool has walked right into our kitchen right when the second turn is starting to get going and I know that if chef sees this guy it's on. "We are very busy right now, sir. You shouldn't be in here." I cut him off before he could even try to explain. The guy backs away like "Okay, okay," and then when he gets to the door he mumbles something about "white bitch" and then slams out. By this time, chef has noticed something amiss. He walks toward me. "There was just some bum in here," I say, still totally shocked. Chef nods and turns his eagle-eyed stare to the back door. He starts toward it, then turns back to me. "Do you have something hot?" he asks, then grabs a saute pan off my stove with a towel and stomps toward the backdoor and out into the alley with it. He returns a minute later shaking his head and replaces the pan on my stove with a characteristic mumble of "Fucking idiot." I look after him, laughing. "I love working for you," I say. "Why's that?" chef asks. "Because you were going to fight a bum with a hot saute pan in the back alley in your chef clothes and everything." Chef nods and says, "Yes, and I would have burned him right on his fucking face, too," and mimes searing a man's cheeks with a hot pan. Even though chef's English is very good now, he has become a master at pantomime. And let me tell you, I'd never want to tangle with chef in the middle of service, hot pan or no. That bum was flirting with disaster.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Lobster Stock

Jonathan stirs the party punch. Posted by Hello

I learned something new today - how to make lobster stock. It's not very complicated, and Jonathan's stock turned out quite clear and smelled good...completely unlike some other batches of stock I've seen the downstairs restaurant turn out, which we refer to as "Wet Dog Stock."
1. Sturdy vegetables in the kettle first - your onions and carrots. Sweat 5-10 minutes.
2. Watery vegetables in second - your celery, leek and fennel (if you're using fennel.) Sweat a
little more.
3. Add some tomato paste and let it carmelize just a bit.
4. Deglaze with white wine and sherry.
5. Add your lobster bodies and shells, and give the whole mess a good stir.
6. Add water to cover and simmer 2-4 hours. (Jonathan also added some saffron, and although I've never actually made lobster stock, I've read plenty of recipes for it, and never have I seen saffron included unless they were making bouillabaise broth or something.)
7. Skim, skim, skim
8. Strain, cool, lable, store.

Stock is super easy to make at our place since, as you can see in the picture, we have a whole row of steam kettles in the back kitchen to use. You make your stock in one of those, then simply strain it out through the spigot in the bottom of the kettle, and leave all the mess in there for the dishwashers to clean out. This helps to contribute to my inability to cook at home. At work I can dirty up all the dishes in the world and it is other people's jobs to wash them for me. At home I have to wash them myself, which sucks.
Right now I have to jump in the shower and head off to work early. I volunteered to go in early and break down all these huge prawns since chef is on vacation and the work load is a little heavier for everyone this week. The prawns are awesome, but cleaning them is sort of a bitch. They're so big it's almost like breaking down a lobster.

Before I give the steps, there is one important trick to being a fast and efficient cook: If you're faced with a whole bunch of product that has to be processed the same way, break everything down at the same time. For example, if you had to peel and zest and juice ten grapefruit, don't take the sticker off of one, then zest it, then cut it in half, then juice it, then start on the next one. That is completely inefficient. Take the stickers off of all of them. Then zest all of them. Then cut them all in half. Then juice all of them. See what I'm saying? Being a professional cook is about being as efficient with your time and effort as you can possibly be, because you always have something else you could be doing. Anyway, back to the prawns:

1. Twist the tail off of the body. Pull away the long legs.
2. Pull the body out of the shell. Put the shell aside. Pull the liver and roe out of the body and set aside. Chop off the legs and face and put aside. Throw the rest off the body away - it will now be like a one ounce chunk of mess.
3. Crack the shell away from the tail and pull that out gently. Put the shell in the pile with the legs and faces.
4. Gently crack the legs at the joints and pull out the meat.
5. Vacuum pack and freeze the liver and roe and the leg meat - seperately, of course.
6. Put the tail shells, legs and faces in a bag and freeze. This will be used for prawn stock when there is enough saved up.
7. Hold the tails for service and save the big shells in case chef wants to use them for a garnish (which I totally disagree with but until it's my restaurant I'm not saying anything about it.) If chef does want to use them for a garnish I boil them for a minute in water with a bit of lemon juice.

And that's how you do it.

End results - shells, prawns, livers and claw meat. Posted by Hello

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Pork belly and blue prawn. Posted by Hello

My day at the office:

11:30 am - Dash madly around the house looking for my glasses which I just got and am not used to wearing and which I leave laying in really fucked up places like the closet.

12:00 pm - Get to work on time and run up to the locker room to change. Open the door just in time to hear the pastry cook throwing up in the toilet stall. Nice.

12:10 pm - Finally get downstairs to the kitchen, only to find that Jonathan, with whom I am supposed to be working, is busy. I bang out an omelet and have a quick breakfast while bullshitting with the lunch fish cook.

12:25 pm - We get to work braising a pork belly, cleaning some prawns as big as my foot, roasting pork scrap for jus, browning up some mirepoix and stuffing some quail.

2:00 pm - My station partner arrives, predictably hung over, and we go downstairs to go shopping. The next three hours are spent working on mise en place for our station.

5:00 pm - Thursdays are the days we roll out the specials for the weekend. An example of each special must be ready by 5:30 so that chef can describe it for the servers and let all the vultures eat a bite so that they can convey how good it is to the guests. Usually Kevin (station partner) and I are ready at 5:30 with no problem, but today there is a cabbage fiasco. The baby bok choy we were waiting on never came in, so we have to substitute savoy cabbage instead. We get the leaves peeled off the head and blanched and we start braising it. Chef comes down the line. He wants the cabbage cut into strips, not whole. He also wants it slow poached in butter. The cabbage comes out of the pans and I cut it with burning fingertips. The cabbage goes back in the pan with three ounces of butter per pan and we cook it the proper way. We cut a piece of pork belly off the slab that is still cooling in the walk-in and somehow manage to have everything ready by the time chef strolls back over, ready to do the plate-up. The results are fucking amazing: Pan-seared poached pork belly with a blue prawn, butter braised cabbage and a pork jus/gastrique sauce that sort of tastes like a super-good barbeque sauce. The food goes out looking great and leaving my stomach growling.

6:00 pm - Service starts. I portion out the pork belly for the weekend. Hungry line cooks fall on the scrap pieces like fucking jackyls and we feast. If you've never had pork belly, it's basically what they make bacon out of - lots of fat and a little meat. When it's braised or poached, the fat turns buttery soft and the whole thing just tastes like porky goodness. It's beautiful.

6:15 pm - The sous chef from downstairs brings up a tub of extra duck livers that he has no use for. We don't really have any use for it either, so we use it to make a pate terrine to eat with family meal tomorrow. Jonathan sautes the livers with shallots, deglazes with cognac, purees the mess with some bloomed gelatin, folds in some whipped cream and slaps the whole thing in a porcelain terrine mold. My job is bad. ass.
10:00 - The shift is over. All the guests are fed, the mise is tucked away and wrapped. The fish is stored and iced in the proper manner. I didn't even have to use my AK. Today was a good day.

Bienvenido. Posted by Hello

This blog has been a long time in the works. I've had the idea and the URL for about a year now, but somehow I've never gotten around to making it a reality. I've actually written this entry about four or five times, but never with satisfactory results; the post always gets deleted, and the blog lapses back into neglect. But not today. If I can just get this introductory bullshit out of the way once and for all, I can finally get this project off the ground. So here goes.

I love my job. It says in the blog description that I'm a line cook, but I don't think that's exactly correct. I do cook for a living, and I do cook on the hot line, but I've been cooking for six years now and am currently one of the lead cooks at an upscale French place, so please allow me the vanity of thinking of myself as a "professional cook." And I love it.

I can't explain to you the nerdy thrill I get from butchering a perfect, big, fat, glistening red tuna loin. How exciting it is when we get to play with obscure, esoteric produce like beautiful white Cloud 9 eggplants or frizzy, magenta micro beets. How much I love to clean wild mushrooms. (I love it so much that I've gotten into minor arguements with one of the sous chefs over who gets to clean them.) Sure, the job has it's downsides - annoying hours, sore feet, "kitchen pain" - i.e. everything from your lower back on down hurts more or less all the time, the possibility of getting cut or burned all the time if you're not careful - but on the other hand, when a lot of people are sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen, I'm butter-braising root vegetables and talking shit about who's going to win the SuperBowl. It's not a bad gig.

So why this blog? It will help me keep track of the food I get to work with, the specials we run at work, shit like that. I'll learn more and understand more if I have to write about stuff. And I'm just obsessed with my profession. (I'm also obsessed with baseball and the Boston Red Sox, but I already have a blog about that.)

I would write more, but I have to go to work early to help Jonathan braise a pork belly. But there. That's the introduction. I can consider it done and over with. I'm posting.