Wednesday, March 16, 2005

In The Weeds

I hate, hate hate being in the weeds. For one thing, I loathe disorganization. For another thing, I hate that feeling of waiting to get into trouble when someone in charge finds out how much you're trying to get accomplished at once. And third, I hate having to ask for help - even if it is just from Nathan, my neighbor on the hot side. But as much as I hate it, every now and then it happens to me. Nathan and I refer to it as "throwing a weeds party." I've been on a roll for the past couple months and have successfully avoided the weeds, but yesterday the good ship Fish Station ran aground.

On my prep list: candy grapefruit zest, tourne and braise a case of kohlrabi, parsley coulis, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, pan-roasted asparagus, carrot juice reduction, saute thumbalina carrots, blanch spinach and mustard greens, slice pineapple and cook tomato sauce. What did my station partner do yesterday?? Looks like he just blanched and seeded about half a case of beefstake tomatoes for the tomato sauce. Gee, thanks Kevin. But I felt up to it. I drank almost a whole pot of coffee before coming to work.

I go downstairs and shop. I pull all the fish out of ice and put it into containers. I drag two carts full of fish and veg into the elevator and take it back up to the kitchen. When I'm pulling them off, one of the sous chefs runs up to me and tells me that we have a guest in the kitchen who will be working with Nathan and I today. "She's a real nice lady. Talk to her about Chef's Garden and about Honolulu and about where we get some of our product, just show her what you're doing." Okay. Every now and then the restaurant sells a day in our kitchen as a guest cook at a charity auction. The winner gets to come into the kitchen, gets a uniform, gets to spend the day helping out the cooks, then gets to go out and eat dinner with their family at the end of their shift. I like when these people come in; they're generally extremely nice and very interested in what we do. It reminds me how lucky I am to work in a restaurant with such a great reputation that people actually pay money to spend a day behind the scenes. I'm introduced to her and after exchanging welcomes and thank yous, I go about my business. Before she can help me do anything, I have to get everything put away and the major projects started.

I chop two onions and smash twelve cloves of garlic and start sweating them in a large pot for the tomato sauce. I pour two containers of beurre blanc base that Kevin had so helpfully labeled "Reduce More" into a sauce pot and throw it on a burner. (Why Kevin had the time to write that but not the time to get it done is beyond me.) I throw another pot of water with six potatoes on the stove, then grab the juicer from pantry and juice 15 carrots into a pot and then throw that on the stove, too. Now I can deal with the guest while I've got all this stuff rolling. I show her our baby kohlrabi. She's never seen one, so I tell her that "kohlrabi" is German for "cabbage turnip" and cut one open so that she can smell the inside. It smells dead on a cabbage. I show her how we tourne them and she eagerly grabs a paring knife and helps. I watch her progress. Chef comes down the line and says hello to me, asks Lynn (our guest) how she's doing. "She can tourne better than Nathan," I tell him, teasing two people at once. Chef laughs. "I have to leave you here because I have a flight to California very early in the morning," he says. "I will see you Saturday." He shakes my hand. "Be safe, I'll miss you," I tell him. "I won't miss you," he replies, and breezes off.

Now it's after 5. Service starts at 6. The tomato sauce is cooling in the walk-in along with the carrots and kohlrabi. All projects are finished and everything is put away except for the parsley coulis and the sliced pineapple. I'm trying to show Lynn how we make our butter sauces here. She knows what a beurre blanc is but she's never made one. Nathan's asking me questions, and then my whisk turns up missing. This is where I feel like I'm about ready to slide down the disorganization vortex. All I need to do is find the whisk. This poor woman is watching me dig through my station with a barely concealed hysteria. Okay, whisk is found. Beurre blanc is explained, then demonstrated. Nathan said that having this woman trailing him was putting him behind...well, maybe that is so, but they always say that you don't really understand something until you can teach it. Whenever I have the opportunity to explain and demonstrate things, I'm always surprised at the stuff I knew but didn't know I knew - does that make sense? I look on it as a good test of my cooking knowledge, not as a nuisance.

So somehow everything gets done on time. Lynn is super happy with everything. I'm feeling pretty okay about everything. Service starts and I'm finally out of the weeds. Life returns to it's normal pace. And another day goes by.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Book Review : The Tru Cookbook

First of all, let me say that I absolutely hate this cover. In fact, I took it off and threw it away. You'd think someone who does such artsy food would have a better looking book cover, but oh well, we can't all be the French Laundry.

But once you get past the cover and chef Rick Tramonto's dedication to "my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," (gack) this is a pretty interesting book overall. It kicks off with Tramonto's hors d'oeuvres, amuse bouches and appetizers which, in my opinion, is Tramonto at his best. The bouches in this book are pretty bad-ass: watermelon-lavender juice shooters with yellow watermelon salad, rabbit roulade, purple peruvian potato soup in a flat japanese soup spoon. Playful, colorful, tasty - just what a good bouche should be. Something to get you excited about the meal. Next, in the appetizers, comes the famous Caviar Staircase - a miniature glass staircase with four different caviars and their traditional garnishes. Like a lot of things in this book, I find it kind of gimmicky but kind of cool, as well. I wonder how many of those staircases they go through a year due to mishandling by the dish staff...Likewise I wonder about the "Live Japanese Fish and Chips," which is basically a bowl of seviche set inside a fish bowl with a fucking Beta fish swimming around in it. This is where I draw the line between "playful" and "get-this-the-fuck-off-my-table-you-clowns." Stupid. But then you turn a couple pages and get to the "Braised 31-vegetable Ragout with Chervil Butter" and it's like wow, maybe this guy does know what he's doing.

It's dishes like this that make me love what I do for a living. Thirty-one different baby vegetables, each cleaned and cared for according to their type, each cooked to the perfect done-ness and tossed together with a fresh and slightly anise-flavored chervil butter...Extremely simple, but it highlights how the proper love and care and technique can eleveate a simple vegetable medley into a fucking amazing dish. Tramonto gets two guns up for this one.

The rest of the book I am only so-so on. His foie preps are okay, but he's one of those dudes that makes really dessert-y foie dishes and that kind of gets on my nerves. Just because foie gras goes well with sweet flavors doesn't mean you can put fucking ice cream with it. His meat work is also pretty uninteresting, and the fish and seafood part is uninspiring, over all. The dessert chapter is pretty cool, but chef said that when he ate there the desserts were totally disappointing, especially since the Tru pastry chef is so hyped.

So overall, I would have to say that I didn't mind spending $35 on this book, even if it was only to enjoy Tramonto's smaller courses. It's fun to look at, and I have learned a thing or two from it. I've also noticed that our pantry guy rips Tramonto off with his bouche preparations sometimes, but if you have to steal, at least you're stealing from one of the best. I'd have to say that I recommend this more for restaurant industry workers than for home cooks, as a lot of the recipes haven't been dumbed down for home production, which I also value.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Morning-After Chill

Okay, I've had my morning constitutional, I've brewed a cup of coffee, I've started to mentally prepare for my day at work. Time to think over the events of last night. Time to rehash, analyze and critique. I still think that my station partner is a dicksucker, but a dicksucker with whom I must go right back to work this afternoon, so I might as well find a way to make it work.

Here's what happened: Kevin - that is, the station partner - is in charge of plating on busy nights, and I am in charge of cooking. Occassionally Kevin will need help plating if we're picking up a lot of entrees at the same time, so I will turn around and help him out for a minute or two. But Kevin has this annoying habit of lining his plates up vertically instead of horizontally, so if I try to help him it just becomes a big cluster fuck because we're reaching over each other, leading to reduced speed and efficiency as well as drips of sauces and oils on plate rims. So I've told him literally five or six times that if he wants me to come over and help him, he needs to line his plates up on the counter in a single row so that we can get things accomplished without standing on top of each other. Last night we're picking up the last four entrees of the night. Every plate is different - a bass, a tuna, a swordfish and an escolar spec - and that can be really time consuming, so I turn around to help him out. Instead of:
on the counter, I see:
once again, and I flip out. I'm like "Kevin, how many times do I have to tell you not to line your plates up like that?" Kevin says, "Shut the fuck up."

Now, I understand that Kevin is probably tired of hearing me tell him to do this particular task the right way. You would think that he would do something about it then. Instead, he tells me to shut the fuck up. Not a good way to respond to criticism. If this were the first time I had told him the right way to line the plates up, I don't think I would have gotten so pissed. But when you have to tell another adult - one who is seven years older than me, even - to do something over and over and over, it starts to feel ridiculous. Kevin has been my station partner since, like, September. Can someone please tell me why we are still having this conversation??

Things just went downhill from there until eventually I just quit talking to him and didn't say another word to him for the rest of the night. It's just better that way. Keeps me from getting too stressed out. Ignore the little worm.

So I was downstairs icing the fish down, thinking to myself, there has to be a better way to handle things. The thing I most need to work on are my leadership skills. The cooking thing comes easier for me - I love doing it, so I'm always trying to push myself to improve. But people skills are harder to work on. You have to have patience. You have to lead by example. You can't talk down to people. You have to think, I am not a parent scolding a child; I am an adult directing another grown adult who commands just as much respect as I do. Basically, you have to think before you speak, and I am really bad at that. Probably my best bet would have been to just direct Kevin to move the plates on the counter top to the way that they are supposed to be and left it at that. And if he would have told me to shut the fuck up then, I probably should have just shut the fuck up and then had a conversation out in the alley with one of the sous chefs and let Kevin get in trouble for it. You live and you learn.

In any case, I have vowed that today will be a better day. It's up to me.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Better picture of the escolar. Posted by Hello

Those plate rims are fucking hideous. Can you imagine how much better and brighter that food would look on a plain, white plate???

My station partner is a dicksucker.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Escolar. Posted by Hello

Here's the finished dish for which I prepped all the ingredients yesterday: Escolar on a bed of pan-roasted white asparagus, fava bean/golden beet fricasee, carrot/white verjus foam sauce and crystal lettuce. We do a lot of garnishing with various baby greens - baby Bull's Blood turnip greens, baby basil blends, baby watercress, yadda yadda yadda. A lot of the times I think the green on the plate is more important than the way the greens taste, which is kinda fucked up. I don't like garnishing just for the sake of garnishing. But I actually like the crystal lettuce. You'll never find a softer, more buttery green on the face of the earth - it's pretty special. And it's nice and clean tasting, which goes well with the fresh, spring-like theme of this dish.

Family meal today was meatloaf, baked potato bar and peas & carrots. Peas are our secret ingredient this week; each week we have to make family meal we'll pick one ingredient and work it into the meal every day. Last time it was worcestershire sauce, which was a little challenging. We actually made worcestershire sauce vinaigrette one day - fucking hideous - but, it's always fun to punish servers like that. They're never in on the joke. Someone made jalapeno ice cream once and all the servers thought it was mint. And they have a dollar a day docked from their paychecks for family meal - ha!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Fava beans Posted by Hello

white asparagus Posted by Hello

Two sure signs that spring is on it's way - beautiful white asparagus and the first fava beans of the season. Some people think that fava beans are a pain in the ass - and they are kind of time-consuming - but the results are worth it. When you unzip the pod and reveal those pale green beans snuggled up in their velvet bed, you can't help but treat them nicely since nature seems to have already deemed them delicate. Like tender little lima beans. Their flavor is permanently linked with spring in my mind, not to mention their electric green color. I came into work early just to bust into these babies!

I also got the chance to help Jon braise some rabbit legs, which is cool because a) I've never worked with rabbit before and b) usually just the sous chefs and chefs take care of the braising, so I felt pretty proud that Jon allowed me to help him. Also I roasted some baby golden beets, peeled the asparagus, and made chicken pot-pie and a fast salad for family meal. That's the only good thing about not being too busy - some of the pressure is off and you can relax a little. Have a little fun.

This week is going by so slowly. Business is way down at this time of year, and it sucks wanting to prep all this great food and having all these great dishes on the menu this weekend without that many people to appreciate them! But then, just when you're starting to bitch about the lack of reservations, you have a table come in like our 9:30 deuce tonight: first of all, they were an hour late. Second of all, they sat down and asked us what kind of sushi we had. Where in the fuck did they think they were eating?? So the guy gets a lamb med-rare and the chick gets a sea bass, pan-roasted, olive oil only, no butter. Amateurs. Don't come to a french restaurant if you're on a fucking diet, alright honey?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

This blog is barely off the ground and I've already let it fall into disrepair. It's still very much a work in progress, just sitting here, waiting for me to get my shit together. Part of the reason I haven't been updating very much is that the kitchen is in a little lull right now. We are very slow due to the time of year, and we are also in between seasons. Winter is going out, spring is coming in. Spring is my favorite time to be in a kitchen, with summer coming in a close second. Spring is bursting with produce - squash blossoms, asparagus, starting white and turning to green, ramps, sweet little English peas, fava beans, morel mushrooms - all kinds of great stuff. Out goes all the heavy, braised dishes, and in comes all kinds of fresh, light, colorful things. But that is all still about three or four weeks away. For now we are still dealing with the dregs of winter, and the dregs of the winter menu. That, combined with the fact that we've been running the same prawn special for three weeks has made me a bit inactive. But I will be better. Soon.