Old things become new…

I grew up eating oregano. My mom is Italian and it hid in the background of so many dishes.  It was never the primary flavor but it was always there. I always liked it, but never really appreciated it on its own.

Recently, I rediscovered oregano, on its own accord. I was reading through this cookbook* and came across a recipe for Argentinian chimichurri..which features, you guessed it, oregano as the primary flavour.  

The best way I can describe my feelings after making and eating it (over a dry aged ribeye…) is like this: It’s like when the backup quarterback on your favorite team goes out and throws 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. You never saw it coming but once it’s happened… your opinion is forever changed.  
Read the book. Make the sauce. Be inspired. Trust me.
*Seven Fires, grilling the Argentine way. Francis Mallman with Peter Kaminsky. Artisan, a Workman Publishing Company. 2009.

Advertisements

Balancing Act

Chefs live on the edge of a knife.  In some moments, quite literally; in others, only figuratively.  In all cases, the edge is sharp and dangerous whether literal or not.

We teeter on that edge day and night, day after day night after night.  Trying to find the balance between a thousand things, things that vary from {how quickly you are able to complete knife work with how accurately you are able to do that work} to {should I go out with the other cooks, or go out with my other friends} and everything in between and beyond.

The balancing act – walking the edge – it is what drags many of us back into the kitchen day after day.

The rush.

The tension.

The fear mingling with adrenaline and excitement.

Your heart racing, as it seems, in time with the ticket printer.

It’s like a drug, and we are all addicts.  Our justifications are widely varied, as are our specialties, backgrounds and tastes.  But, addicts one and all.

The thing is,  as much as that rush may tame our anxiety during working hours… as good as the fix may be…  we have to learn to leave the blade at work – to indulge with moderation.  After all, If you don’t step off of the edge once in a while, you become statistically, progressively, more and more likely to slip.

And when you fall, you fall hard.  That edge you hone so carefully will slice you wide open.  For some, there is no recovering.  The burnout, the disgrace, the loss of family and friends.  The very real addictions to alcohol and drugs.

It is imperative that we learn the balance between the fix and our lives outside.  That we learn moderation.  

Some of us, myself included, have a hard time finding that balance.  My work has a tendency to become my life.  The line between dedication and consumption is very, very fine, and quite blurry.

I spend a minimum of 10 hours in my kitchen every day. I go in early and leave last most days.  That means that I spend more time with the people in that kitchen than anyone else.  Even my fiancee, if you don’t count the time we are sleeping.  They become my family.  My dysfunctional but loving parents, brothers, sisters.  So, there is this part of me that wants to be with them even when we aren’t on shift.  But I resist. I don’t.  There are a lot of reasons why.  For the purposes of today, we will limit ourseves to my mental health.

Here’s the thing; If my whole life is surrounded by the same people, the same conversations, the same bullcrap 24/7, inside and outside of that kitchen, I’ll go crazy.  You can’t go to the bar with your coworkers and bitch about your coworkers.  You can’t go drinking with someone one night and be friends, and then go back to the kitchen the next day and be the boss again.  It might work for a little while, but eventually, the lines of ‘friendship’ and ‘leadership’ get blurry.  Respect is lost, willingness to obey is lost.   Eventually you need to talk to someone else. You have to have friends that won’t be hurt that you think that the proteins cook is an asshole, or that the GM guy is always going down.  When you leave the kitchen frustrated with your colleagues, you can’t go out with your colleagues to get your piece of peace.

It is a challange, as a chef, to maintain friendships and relationships outside of the restaurant.  I know.  There is a very limited subset of the population that work the same hours as you and can tolerate your schedule.  It can be tough to find those people.  But even if there aren’t many other people and it’s hard to line your schedules up so that you can have a beer together, or go for a ride, or a hike, or whatever, you have to find something to occupy yourself outside of that environment.

If I could make a couple of reccommendations, to help you find that balance… indulge me.

If you like to have a nightcap after your shift, find a good industry bar and go by yourself.  

Talk to the bartender.  Talk to the sad, burnt soul next to you.  Leave your brothers behind at the restaurant and go somewhere that other restaurant people go.  Those people, they will understand.   You can say whatever you want, to someone who understands, get some feedback, and go home feeling better.  And maybe you’ll make some friends along the way. Friends who get it – the hours, the burns, the pressure, all of it.

Find a hobby.

Something that gets you outside and active.  It’s hard to have the energy sometimes, I know.  I’m not saying you have to go run 7 miles before service on Saturday after getting your ass kicked on Friday night.  But the fresh air helps me clear my mind.

Walks with my dog can be so therapeutic … more than any glass of bourbon or beer.  I can say anything I want to her… and you may think that’s crazy, talking to my dog.  I get how it might seem that way. But, I can say whatever I want to her with no fear.  She may not have any solutions or resolutions, but just getting it off of my chest can feel like a weight lifted. I’m not saying get a dog (because unless you have someone to help you out, let’s be honest, you don’t have time for a dog), but get yourself out there where the air is clear and you can relax.

Talk to the trees or the sky or God or the universe, out loud or in your head. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It will make you feel better.  And it doesn’t just have to be about your frustrations.  Maybe you’re trying  to work your way through a new dish, or whether or not to hire someone, or making a pro/con list about what your next move is.  Nature is therapeutic.

Do new things.

I know that our days off are precious and that we often spend them recovering and recouperating and recharging…but you can recharge places other than your couch.  Go to a park or a beach that you’ve never been to.  Go to an afternoon minor league baseball game.  Go to a brewery or a winery or a distillery (whatever you prefer) and do a tour and a tasting.  Discover a new restaurant (and maybe some inspiration along the way).  Explore your city.

Excercise.  

The most mentally fit people I know are also the most physically fit.  Burn off frustration, energize yourself, learn a new coping mechanism.  I can’t afford a gym – you probably can’t either if you are reading this.  But, a good pair of running shoes and a TRX workout system aren’t super expensive and will do wonders.

If you’re saying in your head “yeah right I don’t have the energy to exercise” you’re just making an excuse.  You may feel a bit more tired for the first week or so that you are working out, but let me lay some knowledge on you:

It is scientifically proven that the more you demand of your body, the more it will give you.  Energy is not finite.  It can be built up, stored, increased.  How do you think marathoners do it? Triatheletes? They build their energy stores over time.  You can do the same thing.  Boom. SCIENCE. So go do it!

Here’s to your health and happiness.  I hope that you are able to find it.  I am still searching for my balance, but I have help along the way and it is a beautiful road.

Good luck.

When I grow up…

…I want to be a (doctor, firefighter, librarian, princess, the President, scientist) CHEF!

When we are kids we go through a myriad of options before we settle on what we really want to be.  It took me longer than most to really figure it out: I got a bachelor of science degree in Molecular Biology before realizing that what fascinated me wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do every day. I was 24 when I went back to school for Culinary and started working in kitchens.

While I was writing yesterday about what I want to be (or not be) as a chef, I got to thinking about how I became who I am as an adult.  I started looking back and trying to figure out how I had developed into this person.  How my ideals were shaped and how I came to value certain things over others.  I began to wonder how I avoided the pitfalls many of my friends and acquaintances in the restaurant business have fallen into: drugs, violence, alcoholism, burnout, temper tantrums, nervous breakdowns, breakups, toxic relationships, etc. etc. This is what I came down to.  Forgive me if it’s a bit long winded, but, so goes the expression about once you open the gates…


 

When you think about your childhood, what are the first things that you think of?

My Dad, my Marine.

My Mom, how strong she is.

Friday Night. Adirondack Chairs. Wine. Love.

My first microscope.

My Auntie Joanne chasing my brother with a broom for teasing me.

Making gravy and meatballs and Itallian cookies with my aunts before Christmas.

My easy bake oven and the way my Dad would eat anything that lightbulb cooked (or didn’t).

Softball. Softball. Softball.

The way my brother used to tease me, and the day I learned to fight back and love him at the same time.

Learning to drive in the cemetery, so that “if I killed us, we wouldn’t have far to go.”

High expectations, discipline, help, success.

Oh, and the Three R’s:  Respect for yourself, Respect for others, and Responsibility for everything you say or do.

Every minute of every day we are walking reflections of our experiences past.  As it relates to these particular memories… Every day I am a bit of my Father.  Stubborn. Respectful, determined, humble, educated, ever a student.  A leader.  Every day I am a bit of my Mother: Strong, creative, caring.  Between the two of them they taught me humility, dedication, and sacrifice.  They encouraged me at every turn and helped me back onto my feet when I fell.  Not literally though – I had to pick my own ass up off of the ground and brush off.  But they were always there with a bandaid and some encouragement to keep going.

Really most of those memories come back to them.  They gave me both my first microscope and my first easy bake oven (though now that I think about it, the oven may have come from my aunt?).  My mom hunted for bugs with me and helped me build my first terrarium – fostering my creativity, curiosity and love for discovery.  She taught me to cook, as she made dinner for my family every single night (and forced us to sit down as a family to eat it). My dad ate everything I made in that oven… even when the packaged ingredients ran out and I started just mixing whatever was in the kitchen and baking it.  Mostly flour water and eggs.  That can’t have tasted good.

Every Friday night my parents sat in our back yard in the adirondack chairs from happy hour until dark.  My dad drinks beer and my mom wine.  While their tastes have improved from Sutter Home and Budweiser to Louis Jadot and Magic Hat, not much has changed in the 30 years I’ve been alive.  It was and will always be family time.  Sometimes my closest cousins (who might as well be siblings) would stop by, my Aunt Joanne was a near weekly presence.  We would laugh.  Oh, would we laugh.  Sometimes we would cry. Decompress. Relax.  Solve the world’s problems. I learned to drink in those chairs, learned my limits.  I learned to rely on the people around me, talk it out, and let go of the day.

My family – my big, loud, crazy, Itallian family… They shaped my love of food.  My Aunt Joanne made the best meatballs I’ve ever had.  And the best popcorn.  My Uncle Tony let me stand at his knees on Christmas Eve and help him with the gravy (to you civilians: gravy = tomato meat sauce. not bolognese … red sauce with meatballs and sausage). NO METAL SPOONS!  My Aunt Helen taught me just the right way to knot anisette cookies, and that pizzelles are only as good as the waffle press (cast iron or die).  Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner (Feast of the 7 Fishes) with the whole family (at one point, almost 40 of us) was always hand made and always delicious, if not loud, smoky, and drama filled.  While as a kid I hated the smoke, I loved the meal and everything that lead up to it.  I learned to love people for who they were, not who I wanted them to be.

Softball was a study in discipline, dedication, work ethic, and team work.  I could probably write a whole book just dedicated to the way softball shaped me as an adult.  I played through college.  It made me the physically and mentally strong person I am today.  It made me able to focus in the face of extreme pressure.  I am able to control pain and fatigue.  To push through.  The art of leadership, set like an edge by my father and honed by years of hard work on the field.  The fact that a leader doesn’t always sit on the throne.  These are all things that were learned through softball.

My brother taught me to take my bumps, but also to give it right back.  He made fun of me relentlessly until I was about 10 years old, and then I finally figured out how to use my words to fight back.  I can debate with the best of them.  I learned to both win and lose with grace.  I also learned to speak up for myself when I feel like something isn’t right.

The Three R’s I think are self explanatory.  These were the last words from my mother every time I left the house.  She made me recite them.  No matter how I hated her for yelling “remember the three R’s” after me as I walked into my first school dance, I love her a thousand times more now for it.  I look forward very much now to teaching them to my own children.

So how does all of this relate to the kitchen?

Except, maybe, the learning to drive thing, everything else contributed greatly to the person I have become, to the Chef I will become. These experiences molded how I see the world and myself.  I gained confidence, work ethic, and humility.  I learned that a sacrifice today may mean success tomorrow.  I learned to lead by example and to trust my teammates.  I learned to taste with my eyes closed and listen with my heart open.  It is my sincerest belief that these things, these memories and experiences will push me in the direction I am aiming: towards CHEF, and help me along the way.

I am a reflection of my experiences and everyone that participated in them along the way.

 

Who will you be, Chef?

As cooks, we all collect bits and pieces of our Chefs, Sous Chefs, leaders, people who inspire us.  Like puzzle pieces, they will all come together someday to create this image, however cracked and uneven, of who we become as Chefs.  Who will you be, when that someday comes?

Will you be aloof from your staff? Or right there in the trenches?

Are you old school? Do you like to be HEARD, CHEF! YES, CHEF! or do you want your whisper to be louder than the loudest scream?

Are you aiming for an elusive James Beard or Michelin Star? Or, do you just want to bring good food to average people and do it really really well?

Will people aim to gain your respect? Or will they cower under you and pray to survive the (year) night?

Will you be straight forward? Or will you beat around the bush?

Will you play favorites? Or will you nurture those who are struggling?

Do you value work ethic over talent? Or the other way around?

How Do You See Yourself?

I suppose all of those questions boil down to who you are as a person and what your goals are in the kitchen.  No matter what your goals are, who you are will determine what you can achieve and how you will get there.  How were you raised? At home, at school, in the kitchen? What kind of leaders have you had?   From the day you were born, who has been molding you?  Who has contributed to your value system?

I ask myself these questions all the time.  As my career progresses and I feel myself getting closer to stepping up from being a cook, feel myself being groomed (so to speak), I wonder more and more frequently who will I be?.

The thing I seem to come back around to most frequently is a little bit different of a question. Really, it’s the same question, just twisted a little bit differently.

Who will I NOT be?

That question, I have several definitive answers for.

I will NOT be a screamer.

Three words: WASTE OF ENERGY.

Also, see the next question.  A whispered note of correction or praise should be louder than the top of your voice if your team respects you.

I will NOT be feared, but instead respected.

I think a lot of chefs mistake fear for respect.  The first Beard Winner that I worked for, I was afraid of.  He was volatile and unpredictable.  I was afraid every day that I worked for him and his sous (who he had molded to be just as volatile and unpredictable as himself).  I did NOT do my best work for him because I was too focused on my own fear.  Now, I work for another Beard winning chef who is quite the opposite.  I do better work now than I have ever done, simply because I am not afraid.

I will NOT be decietful, or play my sous chefs or cooks against each other.

I’ve seen the result of a chef who plays games with their staff, and it’s ugly.  This particular chef took advantage of the naive newcomers and was unfair to the others because of their own insecurities.  In the end, we all left.

I will NOT allow one cook to bring down the whole team.

One negative nancy can bring down your whole team, and affect the mood, pace, quality of service.  If you’ve got one guy slamming pans around all over the place, everyone else is going to be looking over their shoulder all night instead of focusing on what they are doing.

I will NOT will not run a kitchen which has a negative vibe.

At the end of the day, people who are happier at work do better work.

I will NOT value talent over work ethic.

Yes, at some point talent does become important.  However, when you’re hiring line cooks you always have to bear in mind that you can teach someone knife skills, how to saute, even guide them towards creativity.  You can not however (in most cases) teach a strong work ethic to someone who has no idea what it is to work.   Talent on top of a strong work ethic – well then you’ve hit the jackpot. 

I will NOT be friends with my non-management staff.

This is a dicey one.  But, in my book there has to be a firm line between managers and staff.  There can be no grey.  

Just because I am not screaming in your face doesn’t mean that I don’t expect a firm “Yes Chef” in response.  If you get too close personally with the people who you are leading, discipline becomes more difficult, is taken less seriously, is sometimes disregarded.  Praise for someone you had a beer with last night looks like favortism to someone who wasn’t invited.  You can see how this may degenerate into chaos.

I will NOT allow things that are sub par to leave my kitchen, even if it means waiting a few extra minutes.

If it’s overcooked, undercooked, not seasoned properly, doesn’t look right, doesn’t smell right, has a big greasy thumbprint on it, is too big, too small, misshapen … etc. etc.

Also along those lines, myself or my sous chefs will be checking your product EVERY DAY.  So if that sauce is too runny, if your pickling liquid tastes like crap, if your supremes look like you used a hack saw…. DO IT AGAIN.  I will help you, if you  need it, but we will not be putting that oxidized guacamole on ANYTHING. Clear?

I will NOT allow my cooks to feel like they are drowning, or my sous chefs to work more than 10 hours a day.

Within reason, if you have made a list and are working hard, I will be happy to help you bang out that prep.  If you come to me (more than five minutes before service) and tell me you are in the weeds and sinking fast (thank you for your honesty) I will be happy to help you, or get someone to help you.  That’s what TEAM is.  That is mutual respect.

I know that operating budgets are tight and sometimes your staff can be unpredictable.  Call outs happen.  However, I will make sure (even if it means working more myself) that there is some kind of balance in the work and personal lives of my sous chefs.   I am tired just looking at my sous chefs sometimes, thinking about the 80 hours that they put in some weeks.  I can see the burnout coming.  I don’t ever want my sous to look or feel that way.  I want them fresh, excited, mentally clear every day.  

Finally, I will NOT allow anyone in my kitchen to work harder than me.

Hands down, end of story.  And I will let them all see it.  I will never ask you to do something I couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  If the dishwasher didn’t show up this morning? I’ll help.  The line needs scrubbing down at the end of the night? I’m there.  People work hard for people who work hard.  I WILL set that example. 

I suppose it is yet to be determined who I will become when people start to call me Chef.  But, I think I’m on the right track.  I guess only time can tell.

Real Questions asked by Real Guests…

What kind of fish is in this Bluefish Pate?

 

A real question asked by a real guest sitting at the bar.

I wish I was kidding.  Unfortunately, people sometimes can’t see what’s written in bold black ink, never mind what’s between the lines.

Commence lesson on the Bluefish, native to the cold, North Atlantic waters, and particularly prevalent along the coast of Massachusetts…

I genuinely wish that people would take some time to think before they open their mouths.  I’m more than willing to answer and discuss any decently thoughtful and intelligent questions guests may have.  For instance:

“I’ve never had bluefish before. Can you tell me a bit about it?”

Well, certainly.

But people don’t think before they speak anymore. When did that happen?

Anyway, if you’ve heard some bad questions, I’d like to hear them too, so go ahead and send them to me! I’ve got a button up there along the top that says “what’s your story?” Click away and tell me your question or story. I’m looking forward to hearing it!

Family Meal

Family Meal….family meal is a tough, contentious topic if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant.

My feelings on family meal are wide and varied.  They start at the bottom with “go fuck yourself” and progress to the top and “come eat.” as a consumer I love family meal but as a producer, it can swing drastically based on how much other work I have to do.

I suppose how I feel about it depends on where I am working at the moment, the people being fed and their attitudes.  I don’t mind feeding the appreciative ones.  The ones who work really hard and understand how hard the kitchen works and appreciate their free meal every day.

The thing that triggered this post is an event – it happened last Sunday at work and I can’t wrap my head around it, can’t stop thinking about it.  I’m feeling a few things – anger, frustration… disrespected.

A little background before I dive in: we are open breakfast, lunch and dinner every day except Christmas and Independance day.  We aren’t mass production by any means but we definitely do some volume.  Dine LA (restaurant week) just ended Sunday night, Monday we had a huge buyout for a movie premier, we are/were exhausted, overstretched and behind on prep.  Family meal always falls to the saute cook… I’m not really sure why but for whatever reason, it does.  Which means that it falls to me 5 days a week.

Sunday was a hard day. We got wrecked on Saturday night, almost 300 covers. I was starting from scratch for mis en place… Which really is two afternoons worth of work and I had about 3 hours to get it done between my arrival and the first reservation, never mind the happy hour snacks that would roll in through the afternoon.

Most days I stay ahead enough on my prep that I don’t mind making family meal. I am usually able to find a half hour in my day to put up halfway decent nosh for the crew around about 5 o’clock.

This day was obviously not one of those days, from the very beginning.  Every cook was in the same position, scrambling to get ready before it got busy. We all came in early, we were running when we hit the ground. So, no help to be had from each other, we were all on our own gunning for preparedness. It took until about 5:30 for us all to get close enough that we could take a few minutes to put together a staff meal. We were doing it as a team when a big ticket of bar snacks came in. So, I put down staff meal and picked up the tacos. As we were plating, the sous chef goes “That’s weird, there is no table number or guest count. This better not be for staff. ”

Rewind the day about 10 minutes and step into the front of the house.

The servers don’t understand how the kitchen can be busy when there are no guests sitting at tables. They all started complaining to the floor manager that they are hungry and that staf meal in’t up yet. And his response is to try and shut them up by RINGING IN BAR SNACKS FOR THE STAFF.

“What? You guys are too busy to put up family meal? Let me create some MORE work for you and use up the meez you already did. That seems like a good idea.”

So there we are. The kitchen dimension intersects the front of the house dimension, and I am standing there, fuming, family meal in one hand and a big platter of bar snacks in the other.

Are you kidding me? Is this real?

Now, I get why restaurants provide family meal. The days are long, we don’t make a ton of money, it builds the team to share a meal. But, the expectation that your free meal be more important than the mis en place with which I will feed our paying guests? That’s just some bull. I get paid to feed them, not to feed you.

I don’t know. Like I said at the beginning, family meal is always (and probably always will be) a touchy subject.

I guess my point is that the front of the house needs to have more respect for the weight that the kitchen bears on a daily basis.  You come in, you roll your silver and put out your candles, talk to your guests, ring some food in.  It can be hectic at times, yes.  I respect that to be a true professional server is an art form.  However, that respect has to go both ways.  Without me doing my job to the best of my ability, you quite literally don’t have a job.  And that meal – Family Meal – is a gift, from me to you, because we can not survive without one another.  If I want my passion to be conveyed to a guest, I need you too.  We need each other.  So Family Meal is my gift to you, to say thank you for your help.

But for the sake of our team, the respect has to go both ways.  Recognize when we are flying.  I know you can tell.  I haven’t stopped to say hi today? Service hasn’t started and the cooks are already soaked with sweat? It’s Saturday? or, Saturday was banging and today is Sunday? Just take a second to stop and think.

And maybe say thank you once in awhile.  That means more than anything else.

I got distracted…

Today, I was supposed to bring you the next installment of the Maslow and Food series… but I am sorry to say that I was distracted.

A few days ago, my executive chef told me to watch “Mind of a Chef” (a PBS series narrated by Anthony Bourdain, who is my hero, so obviously I was IN).  It’s available on Amazon Prime which means I can binge watch the first two seasons… dangerous but in a way satisfying.

I AM HOOKED. And, MY MIND IS BLOWN.

The first season features David Chang.  Episode 1 made me want ramen noodles more than I’ve wanted ANYTHING in a long time.

Episode 2 is devoted to the pig (otherwise known as the king of the meat animals).

I can’t wait to see what comes next!

I’m going to have a really hard time getting off of my couch to go to work.

Anyway, my apologies for not finishing the Maslow post, I promise to finish it for tomorrow 😉