Category Archives: Kitchen Life

Pop Quizzes & Potato Salads

Two weeks into my voluntary indentured servitude at the restaurant, Chef handed me a stack of A4 papers stapled on the left corner… a take home exam. It asked for detailed descriptions on how to make basic sauces & classics such as duck confit & rice pilaf. Then there were sections for mini dissertations on the key points of big pot blanching and the right way to cook & cool root vegetables. The final two pages housed a list of ingredients & French cooking terms for memorization (think—aiguillette, cuisson, cubebe) and the names of prominent chefs & their flagship restaurants. It was a given that the corresponding quiz for the final two pages would be given at the moment one least expected it.

My innocuous super power (everyone has one) is the ability to memorize just about anything. Thus I kinda’ kicked butt on the second part of the exam. A week later, convinced it was a fluke, Chef gave me the test a second time. I missed one. (I still have nightmares in which I am hunched over one of the stainless steel countertops staring blankly at the word SOUBISE).

Needless to say, in all the places where memorization played no part I stunk it up. Embarrassing, but I learned a lot. Not the least of which was to master the fundamentals and not be afraid to ask or research anything I didn’t know rather than absentmindedly going through the motions.

Below is a simple recipe that utilizes two of these fundamentals—cooking potatoes and making mayonnaise. Prior to working in the restaurant I always used store bought mayo. Now I make my own, often “fancying” it up with garlic, herbs or other condiments. And occasionally I’ll use the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie because contrary to what other blogs may say there is no acceptable homemade version.

The process of whipping up a mayonnaise is simpler than what you’re probably conjuring up in your head, and it’s worth the effort.

As for the potatoes, the technique below yields potatoes with uniform texture that hold their shape when you toss them with the other ingredients. I guarantee the next time you serve a potato salad, guests won’t be wondering if the main component is last nights’ leftover mashed potatoes.

My husband blames my Canadian blood for my unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise. Maybe he’s right. Love it or hate it, mastering emulsification (blending two ingredients—such as oil & vinegar—not normally found together) will aid you greatly when you advance to the realm of “fancier” sauces. And hell, at the very least you’ll be prepared should someone ever decide to give you a culinary aptitude test.

Mayonnaise Ingredients:
1 egg yolk
¾ cup neutral oil (such as canola or grapeseed)
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. sugar
Salt & pepper to taste

Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 medium shallot, minced
2 tsp. minced tarragon leaves
Salt and pepper

Japanese Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 Japanese or Persian cucumber, peeled & thinly sliced
½ Fuji apple, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
Salt and white pepper

First the mayonnaise…
• Twist and form a ring out of a dishtowel. Place the towel on the counter and a large mixing bowl over it. The towel will securely hold the bowl allowing you to whisk the mayonnaise with one hand while drizzling in the oil with the other.

• Drop the egg yolk into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt, whisk. Drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking quickly. Chef liked to point out that all the action is in the wrist. Your elbow shouldn’t be moving.

• Once you have the beginnings of a sturdy emulsion, add the vinegar & lemon juice. Continue whisking, adding oil as you go along. I like to add a ¼ tsp. of sugar because I think it rounds out the flavor, you can add it or leave it out.

• If you want a firmer mayonnaise keep adding oil until you reach the consistency that you want. The more oil you add the thicker your mayonnaise will be.

• Taste and season accordingly.

On to the potatoes…
• If you’re making the French inspired potato salad, peel the potatoes & cut them into wedges (I usually get eight out of one potato). Place the potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• If you’re making the Japanese version, peel and cut the potatoes into quarters and then slice across, into ½ inch thick triangles. Place potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• Bring the potatoes to a boil over high heat. Once they come to an aggressive boil turn the heat down to medium. Continue cooking until you can insert a skewer or fork easily into the flesh.

• Remove from the heat. Place the potatoes under gently running cold water. Let them cool this way for a few minutes.

• Drain and dry on paper towels.

For the French inspired potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato wedges, the minced shallot, mayonnaise (exact amount depends on your preference) and minced tarragon. Taste and season with salt and a few turns of the pepper mill.

For the Japanese potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato slices, Kewpie mayonnaise, cucumber and apple slices. Season with salt and white pepper.

Chef’s Day Off

I’m afraid that I have a Chinese Tiger Mother living in my head. I strive for perfection. I love lists, schedules, benchmarks and goals. There is very little time for detours or “smelling the roses”. That’s for people with safety nets and back up plans. I have one plan… be wildly successful at everything.

With that in mind, let’s look back at the last year and a half… I jumped off a solid career track to pursue a passion for food. Miraculously, I found myself in one of the top kitchens in the city, worked my butt off, learned a huge amount… and then finally admitted to myself that becoming a chef wasn’t my long term goal and left. No surprise then that on my bad days the Tiger Mama in me lashes out, questioning my life choices and asking what I’ve gained from the decision to detour off the more obvious path. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a solid answer quite yet. But this past Sunday I came pretty damn close.

A year and a half ago I sat down to the most nerve-wracking interview of my life with Eric Ziebold (Gasp! I’ve finally given you his real name. I feel like the creators of Sex & the City revealing Mr. Big’s real name for the first time) at CityZen in Washington D.C., but on Sunday I was standing beside Eric (a.k.a. “Chef“) and his fiancé Celia, in the kitchen at my in-laws house sipping wine and making dinner. So, the answer to that question is that over the last year and a half I’ve gained confidence and some pretty wicked friendships.

Had I stayed on the safer career path I might be managing an Asian policy program, or getting ready to graduate with an MBA. But I’d also still be going to restaurants and staring at the cooks in the open kitchen and wondering what could have been. So, I’m glad that I traded the locked and loaded cocktail party drivel of my “very important DC job” for the culinary knowledge and friendships that I’ve since gained. Because honestly, in 30-40 years job titles will be a mere footnote in the story of your life. But a friend who will come over, on his one day off in months, with plates of fried chicken, grilled shrimp, freshly baked focaccia and sangria laden with liquor-soaked blueberries—I think we can all agree—is a rare and wonderful treasure.

Dinner is served

Dill potato salad. Green beans with garlic and toasted almonds. Glazed baby carrots. Guacamole

Fried Chicken 

Grilled focaccia. Shrimp and cherry tomatoes tossed with a yuzu vinaigrette and purple basil

From right: Eric, Celia, Chad & Ben 

Sangria with cherry and apricot brandy macerated fruit

Chicken Liver Pâté with Apples and Cognac

Ever wondered why some restaurant meals taste so much better than what you’re whipping up at home? How they manipulate their steak so that the flesh reacts like a sponge when squeezed between your teeth, savory juices oozing as you bite down? Or stared suspiciously at a creamy risotto, its rounded grains relaxingly spread out on the plate, glistening as they mock your home cooked version that barely shudders even when violently shaken? Perplexed why those golden nests of pasta twirled in silky sauce look nothing like your go-to lady slayer, spaghetti “sticky strands with watery red goop” Bolognese?

Many a frustrated home cook has justified their shortcomings by laying blame on the evil kitchen duo, butter and salt.

Well they would be right… kind of. What this flippant response ignores is mastery of proper cooking technique. Yes, professional cooks use a great deal of salt, but they also know when to add it. They know that to build flavor, you have to learn to cook with salt rather than showering it on at the end, expecting that it will magically fix the failures in your dish.

Sure restaurant cooks use butter (in a French kitchen they use A LOT of butter). However, they also know the difference between using solid, clarified and beurre monte. Salted versus unsalted. Most importantly, they know that there is no acceptable substitute for top quality stuff.

But it’s not just butter and salt. A good cook knows when to use lime instead of lemon juice, champagne vinegar instead of sherry vinegar. The subtle difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil. What will happen if they use canola rather than grapeseed oil. And how the flavor will be affected if they add honey instead of crystallized sugar.

Knowledge and technique are the so-called tricks to decadent food.

I promised Chef I would never divulge any secrets I learned while apprenticing under him, but I think I can get away with spilling one tiny one… if you want to highlight an ingredients’ natural sweetness without bringing the whole dish into the realm of dessert try adding fruit instead of sugar.

In the recipe below I’ve used an apple to add a subtle sweetness to the pâté that could never be accomplished with honey or any type of sugar. As for the butter that is called for, toss out all the fake “healthy” fat substitutes in your fridge, and go out and get the real thing (I use Kerrygold, Pure Irish Butter).

Wanna cook like a chef? Start with the right ingredients, and take the time to learn how to use them.

Ingredients
1 stick butter + 1 Tbs. (9 Tbs. total) 
1 onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 shallot, diced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 Granny Smith apple: peeled, cored and diced
¼ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 lb. chicken livers, trimmed
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. cognac 

  • Melt ½ a stick (4 Tbs) of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, shallot and ½ tsp of salt. Gently cook for 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the thyme. Cook for one minute more.
  • Add the apple and nutmeg. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove mixture from the skillet.
  • Return the skillet to the medium heat. Melt the other ½ a stick of butter. Add the chicken livers, ½ tsp of salt and ¼ tsp of black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes turning the livers occasionally to insure even cooking. Add the onion and apple mixture to the skillet. Cook altogether another 4 minutes, or until the liver centers are just slightly pink (you can cut one open to check doneness).
  • Add 2 tablespoons cognac. Stir through and remove from heat.
  • Place mixture in blender. Process till you get the texture you want. I like my pâté to be very smooth so I do it in two batches. While it’s running, carefully scrap down the sides of the blender with a thin spatula to ensure an even smoothness (this will also give the blender a hand with the processing of the somewhat dense mixture)
  • Add the final tablespoon of butter, blend through.
  • Taste and add a touch more salt and pepper if you desire.
  • Place the mixture into the dishes you will serve it in. I typically hold it in two ramekins. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. This pate can be eaten as soon as it cools and sets. However, it tastes even better the next day.

The Culinary Stylings of Will, the Boy Wonder

On my first day in the restaurant kitchen I noticed this kid working to my right, shoulders turned in, absentmindedly rocking back and forth, completely engrossed in prepping the crate of artichokes on his station. The sleeves of his ill-fitting chef’s whites were rolled up exposing a patchwork of scars and blisters up and down his forearms. Being a nervous neophyte I was on the hunt for others like me to commiserate with and, judging from his baby face, he looked like a promising candidate. However, when I asked for his story he replied in a weathered and jaded tone, “I’ve been in the industry for 6 years”. I went back to my work seriously concerned about the child labor laws in this country.

For my first four months I did prep in the mornings with Will. Here’s a summary of what I learned about him:

He’s fast—very fast.

He hoards pots, lexan containers, delis and third pans but will generously hand them over if you ask him nice enough. Ask for his help and 95% of the time he’ll smile and say, “the world is your oyster, I’m just here to shuck it”.

He has the worst ADD I’ve ever encountered but possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of food and restaurants. He doesn’t know whether Australia is a country in the Pacific or in Europe, but he can rattle off Melbourne’s top 5 chefs, the names of their restaurants and at least three dishes currently on their menus.

He is constantly conducting gastronomic experiments, but gets particularly excited about the ones that include Jagermeister or meat glue.

The walk-in is his domain, and his favorite word is “consolidate”. Use an item but fail to transfer the rest into a smaller container and you’re bound to get a speech on the virtues of consolidation.

He probably utters the statement, “that’s what she said” 30 times a day. The number increased drastically when I started and inadvertently offered countless opportunities for its use. (Yes ladies, he’s single).

I’m not going to lie, there were moments during those long prep hours together, in which I would fantasize about going back to my old life of covering routine Senate hearings and dry foreign policy discussions. However, somewhere between putting away 20 crates of produce and shucking 30 pounds of peas side by side, the little guy grew on me. If it weren’t for Will, I would’ve ended up in the shit a whole lot more than I did. He saved my ass on many occasions.

At the end of the month, Will is traveling to Spain, Britain, Australia and Denmark for a year of staging at some of the best restaurants in the world. So, last Monday night a group of cooks and friends from around DC gathered for a 14-course meal prepared by the Boy Wonder himself (aided by the very talented Yama and Alex)—a last feast before he embarks on his culinary adventure. Words could not do the experience justice, so I’ve kept them to a simple description of each dish.

Will and all his quirks will be terribly missed. I feel a touch of envy for the restaurants that will encounter this enthusiastic and talented kid. I’m slightly terrified for them as well. But most of all I’m curious how long it will take him to learn how to say, “that’s what she said” in Spanish.

Fried potatoes, crème fraiche, sorrel juice, caviar and dill

Oyster and potato dauphinoise, pernod and caviar

Braised abalone on a bed of watercress and pear, with a truffle pernod sauce. Topped with crispy chicken skin.

Green apple granite, uni and crispy shiso

Yama’s dish: Lobster gelée, sea urchin sabayon, pickled muscat grape, radish and cucumber. Topped with scallop tuilles.

Foie gras poached in meade and seared. Buckwheat honey gastrique, feuilles de brick.

Alex’s dish: Roasted pork tenderloin, buttered turnip puree, fennel braised in orange and vanilla, orange vanilla cream and maple walnut crumbs.

Tataki baby leeks and pickled leeks with smoked bonito dashi sauce enriched with bone marrow. Topped with watercress and pork cracklings.

Cauliflower that was dipped in oyster liquor, wrapped in konbu, salt crusted and baked. Blanketed by speck and served with oyster, sea beans and nasturtium caper sauce.

Seared scallops, mustard seed, lardo, three kinds of cabbage and potatoes with scallop infused cream. Purple cabbage and cumin sauce (served tableside).

Squab stuffed with black sausage, on a bed of sheeted beets. Black garlic puree. Beet and liquorice sauce.

Beef tenderloin cooked in a seaweed and salt crust. Potato and oyster mousse, tempura sea beans.

Beets, ash goat cheese and olive crumbs.

Oreo cake, mascarpone, sphere of frozen white chocolate filled with Oreo mousse. Served with Oreo bavarois (not pictured, sorry).

Can You Stand for 12 Hours? Set Records in the 10-meter Dash? You’re Hired!

I remember cracking up a couple years ago when my news bureau received a resume from a hopeful candidate proudly declaring one of his special skills to be, “the ability to operate for long stretches of time with little to no sleep”. Why would someone include that as a skill when applying for a corporate job? Is there a job out there where a statement like that would be the ticket to the top of the resume pile?

Well, I think I may have found it. The job? New cook. In addition to positively responding to sleep deprivation, I would recommend that candidates who list parkour and training for the Ironman race as their favorite pass-times should immediately be handed a cutting board and toque.

I realize that in most cases it is wrong to hire or not hire someone based on physical attributes. However, I would argue that requiring some level of physical fitness might be the responsible thing to do in the case of high-volume top-of-the-line restaurants (oh, and while we’re on the topic—US domestic airlines, requiring that your flight attendants bums be able to comfortably fit through the aisle might be the kind thing to do… for your passengers).

Let me just say I believe this rule should only apply to kitchen neophytes. A cook who’s been in restaurants for a while who has added a couple extra rolls to their mid-section while perfecting their mayonnaise-making technique has enough skill and knowledge to carry them through a rough service. Newbies, we have yet to earn that pass. Here’s why.

New cooks get put on prep. We’re the ones putting away pounds of produce, boiling quarts of stock, and blanching big pots of vegetables—all activities requiring muscle. Being new to the game, we are also less organized. That means more trips to the walk-in, dish station, freezer and pantry. Whether that trip is 20 feet from your station or down a flight of stairs doesn’t really matter. During a 12-hour shift it all starts to add up.

I’ve always considered myself in-shape. While my whopping 110 pounds is normal in Asia, it tends to fall into the “anorexic” category in the eyes of many in the US. So I frequent the gym to maintain muscle mass. This way I can avoid women in the supermarket asking me about eating disorders, and extolling the benefits of food (as they load the 20th box of Lean Cuisine into their cart). I’ve found that while “skinny” encourages critical comments and looks, “sporty” earns me the right to remain blissfully ignored by nosey strangers.

Unfortunately, my typical gym routine did little to prepare me for the rigors of kitchen life. Within the first 3 months I was sporting a heavily defined six pack and veins on my arms that would’ve brought a sigh of relief from any nervous needle-holding student nurse. I had lost 8 pounds, and tweaked the right side of my back from incorrectly distributing my weight while standing for hours on end. It wasn’t long before a typical evening activity became propping my legs against the wall to relieve my swollen feet and early signs of varicose veins while ravenously sucking down a 1000-calorie milkshake.

Getting accustomed to standing, bending, carrying and running for long hours takes some time. Therefore I argue, why not give yourself a head start? Think about it, if you’re in decent shape, your fit little self will be able to dash off to the walk-in or pantry and return in a flash when a cook runs out of something during the Saturday dinner rush. This will no doubt increase your kitchen value (remember being a newbie your value is pretty low—on par with the citrus juicer, convenient but everyone knows how to get along without it).

Another benefit? Being fit decreases your chances of getting sick. For a young cook the only way to earn a free-of-scorn sick day is to prove that even a defibrillator wasn’t enough to raise your ailing self. Fever? Flu? Hit by a car? Can you remember how to plate that salad and grill shrimp correctly? Then get back on the line.

So, to all the young cooks out there waiting for your externship or stage to begin, I suggest you sharpen your knives, perfect your brunoise skills, & then do several sets of suicide drills, pull-ups &  hurdle jumping. Sure it’s hard, but once you get in that kitchen it’ll prove far more valuable than any “technique” you’ll learn sitting on your butt watching the Food Network.

Shall We Dance?

Movement in the kitchen is a carefully choreographed dance. Your dance floor may be 50 square feet or 15 square feet, but cooks must always be aware of where their “partners” are. In addition to the other people, you have to dance with props. As anyone who has actually performed with a hat, fan or umbrella knows—it’s a lot harder than it looks. In the professional kitchen your props are searing hot pans of braised meat, pots of boiling stock and sauces, knives, ovens, skillets and food of all sorts. Oh and let’s not forget fire.

A serious failure by a clumsy cook is akin to a dancer failing to execute a complicated lift… someone will be hurt, another will stand there like an idiot, the choreographer (Chef) will be yelling, and there will inevitably be someone laughing. But the worst part is— the performance will be brought to a grinding halt.

Luckily, there are lots of simple verbal cues to signal impending moves to your dance partners.

“Behind”: Stand where you are, someone is executing a tricky spin behind you. When you hear someone call this out in your vicinity, it means that it would not be prudent to turn, knife or cutting board in hand. It is also not the moment to take a large step backwards or stretch you aching muscles.

“Below”: Take a step to the side or turn your body just enough to allow your fellow cook access to the drawer or low boy under you. Failure to do so may result in a drawer or door to your most sensitive bits.

“Below” and “behind” may also mean that someone is crouched down behind you… the perfect position to take out your knees. Stepping back into them would result, at the very best, in a back flip. However, the kitchen dance is more similar to a high-speed, multi-partner waltz, not a B-boy street competition. Flips will not score you any points.

I learned the importance of properly signaling my moves after failure to do so resulted in a second-degree burn to the forehead. I bent under the flattop to retrieve a blender. As I stood up the cook behind me took a step back. My forehead kissed the stove’s scorching stainless steel border… instantaneous blister. That was also the day I learned a new use for the kitchen dunce caps, hiding the battle scars from one’s stupidity from Chef.

“Corner”: One cook is carrying a 22-quart container of chicken stock down the stairs on his way to the walk-in. Another cook is bringing up his ingredients to start prepping his mise en place for the night: delis, c-folds, a gallon of milk, five shallots, a bundle of herbs, vegetables, a bottle of white wine and ten eggs are precariously balanced in a hotel pan. Were these two to occupy the same space and time unexpectedly, the results would be akin to a collision between two scooters returning from a family trip to the local market in Bangkok or Kaohsiung (anyone who’s lived in Asia and witnessed a family of four piled on to one scooter—papa steering with handlebars laden with produce, while mama holds on to a toddler and junior on the back balances a chicken and piglet for dinner—knows what a major disaster this would be). So, to avoid a serious spill smart cooks will call out “corner” when coming around a blind turn baring a full load.

The shin tap: This is a Chef specialty and an extremely effective silent maneuver. Rather than saying “below” he’ll tap a side of your shin or ankle. Translation—take a quick side step in the opposite direction.

The pace of the dance quickens once service begins. There is less signaling; at this point you are expected to anticipate your partners’ moves. Often two or three cooks will be plating delicate, multi-component dishes at once. The dance begins to have strong similarities to an advanced game of twister on fast-forward. Learn the moves or get out of the game.

I almost took myself out of the game… when I burned Chef (yes, I lived to tell the tale). During service, I stand to Chef’s left and sometimes use part of his station to plate canapés. Disaster struck one night when I approached from behind carrying a soufflé on a sheet tray straight out of the oven. As I went to put it down, Chef slid his hand left. The scalding tray came down on his knuckles. In that second I saw my culinary career flash before my eyes. It was not promising. In fact there was nothing much but panic and blackness. Chef was pissed (obviously), but surprisingly he didn’t boot me out of the kitchen. Although he didn’t let me forget my transgression… nor did the general manager, sommelier, pastry chef, souf chef, line cooks, dishwashers, or anyone who caught wind of my crime.

Chef said that I was the first person to burn him in his 20+ years in the kitchen. “Someone once threw a hot skillet at me, but I dodged it… no one’s ever burned me before”. The best way to describe that experience would be utter humiliation. But now I never fail to call out “hot behind” when approaching anyone who has his or her back to me.

If you plan to step foot into a professional kitchen learn the basic moves above if only so that you can avoid a fate like mine… going down in history, unlike the hot skillet thrower, as someone stupid enough to successfully injure their chef.

The Fear, Anxiety, Pleasure and Pride of Making Staff Meal: Part III

Personal high and low points of my time cooking staff meal:

My biggest disaster was probably scalloped potatoes that suffered from too much liquid and too little time in the oven. When I served them they had an al dente quality (not what you’re looking for in potatoes), and had to be rescued with a slotted spoon from their milky grave. Another small miss was my five-spice rubbed salmon. I made a hot oil infused with ginger/scallion and light soy sauce based concoction that I drizzled on top but I knew I’d failed the seasoning test when chef reached for the salt after taking his first bite.

The slow-out-of-the-gate chili that I mentioned yesterday actually turned out to be a success. For some reason everyone was done prepping early that afternoon, and so in a rare moment our kitchen had a chance to sit down and enjoy a meal together. We each found a spot on carpet runners along the kitchen floor and sopped up the hot chili with thick slices of grilled garlic bread. We talked all things France: what it’s like to work in a French kitchen, the life of an apprentice and how and why the food in France has changed over the years. When Chef polished off his bowl of chili, he stood up and said “not bad”. That might not sound like praise to some, but Chef doesn’t normally comment on staff meal so for me that was a huge compliment. To be honest, I don’t know if Chef was commenting on my chili or my breadth of knowledge on the 2006 youth labor protests in France… I like to think it was the former.

The chili was a feather in my cap, but my pièce de résistance was probably a simple, but well executed beef stir-fry that I made towards the end of my stint as the staff meal cook. The flat-top in our kitchen (a very hot flat surface on which you can cook with multiple pots and pans at once) has concentric circles of steel. The center is the hottest, and each circle is cooler moving out from there. I removed the two center steel pieces and set two woks directly over the flames that were trying to escape out of the hole. It was like cooking in an old-school Chinese kitchen. I caramelized sweet onions and shiitake mushrooms, sweated garlic and tossed up some pre-blanched broccoli rabe. Then I seared thinly sliced strips of beef in small batches. Generously seasoning everything as it cooked with a sauce I had composed earlier (away from the critical eyes, opinionated minds and loud mouths of the other cooks). Finally, I tossed all the components together in the hot woks. Added slivered scallions, a drizzle of sesame oil and served it up with steamed white rice.

That night I had about 30 minutes to roll out ravioli so I disappeared pretty quickly after putting out staff meal. I ran into Chef about 15 minutes later. He paused and said, “really great stir-fry”. In my mind I saw a hundred balloons drop and heard confetti guns firing, covering me with millions of colorful sparkling pieces of paper. I felt like one of those girls who just won a freakin’ beauty pageant. Except instead of fanning a tear stained face, I think I mumbled a barely audible “oh thanks” and hurried off.

Chef wasn’t the only one to compliment my food that night. Several of the other cooks told me how much they loved it, but in the end a word of praise from Chef is akin to finding the Holy Grail.

I haven’t made staff meal since I switched over to working dinner service on the weekends. Part of me is relieved to not be under that kind of pressure, but part of me misses it as well. I’ve found a new kind of challenge in the fast paced environment of dinner service. Being forced to remember orders as they come in, and plate those orders quickly and perfectly every time is tough enough. But I miss learning new dishes and cuisines. I miss being shown how to make the perfect plate of pasta from the sous chef who used to work in an Italian restaurant in NYC, and spent his summer vacation biking up and down the Italian coastline. I also miss scribbling down recipes like the one I got for flat bread, passed down to a young cook by his Armenian grandmother. Or watching our Colombian line cook make hominy cakes and chorizo. The best staff meals are those that are heavily influenced by the background of whoever’s preparing it. When the cook is not excited by the challenge it shows. However, when they are–and when they take pride in what they’re serving–it can be some seriously tasty food.

So now you all know. Most of us who work in kitchens around the city don’t take off our aprons and sit down at a table complete with napkins and stemware. We eat leaning against the stainless steel countertop or squatting down behind our station. Our napkins are rough paper towels we call C-folds. Stemware is usually a deli (those little containers your take-out soup comes in) or maybe a quart container filled with ice water that we’ll refill several times in an effort to stay hydrated during dinner service. We don’t eat what you’ll be enjoying in our posh dining room. Rather our dinner was prepared by a nervous noob, mad kitchen scientist or an exhausted prep cook—maybe someone who embodies all three, using scraps and hopefully a good dose of imagination.

Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something tasty, eye-appealing, and satisfying. But the message underlying that was “Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?” Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.

— The French Laundry Cookbook

 

 

 

 

The Fear, Anxiety, Pleasure and Pride of Making Staff Meal: Part II

Why is cooking staff meal important and whose job is it?

The responsibility of cooking staff meal typically falls on the lowest member of the kitchen hierarchy. Chef uses it as a way to test their palate and skills. Do they over or under season their food? Do they know how to cook meat and fish properly? How is their sense of timing? Can they deliver on a deadline? Chef can’t taste every dish, or cut into each piece of meat that comes off the line to be certain it’s cooked correctly. Staff meal thus becomes an ideal way to test someone’s skills and ensure they have what it takes before being put on a station.

You can imagine the stress that this put on any kitchen noob. For me the dreaded but inevitable day arrived two months into my stage. Chef pulled me aside after work and told me that he was making staff meal a part of my daily responsibilities. I went home and had nightmares. The next day I showed up and made a semi-decent version of fried rice (with slab bacon, the most popular ingredient in the kitchen) topped with an over-easy egg. My only real mistake, (well at least the only one Chef mentioned) was using oil to cook my eggs instead of butter or rendered beef fat. A useful tip to file away—use more interesting fats.

Staff meal sounds like a great opportunity, so why the anxiety?

You know the idiom “too many cooks spoil the broth”? I think the initial speaker was witnessing the making of staff meal—a kitchen full of cooks all too eager to tell you when you’re doing something wrong; e.g. the way they would do it, and therefore the way you should be doing it. Yes, learning from those more skilled than you is a good thing, but sometimes you’re better off trusting your own instincts. One clever stage managed to circumvent this issue by disappearing to some forgotten corner of the kitchen in the late afternoon. He would reappear 30 minutes before service with a completed staff meal. Pure kitchen genius!

However, the onslaught of unwarranted advice could occasionally be used to your benefit. I remember the afternoon that I declared I was making chili and grilled garlic bread for dinner. An animated discussion ensued over what belonged in a pot of chili. I ran through a list of ingredients, cooks nodded along… then I said garlic and jalapeños. “Sharon” Chef said bluntly, “you don’t put those in chili”. Wait, I don’t? But I do! And it’s quite delicious. (I should note that Chef doesn’t like spicy food. He thinks the cook is trying to cover up the fact that they don’t know how to develop flavors correctly). As I fumbled for the words to justify using garlic and jalapeños, someone else blurted out that they add a bit of chocolate. Immediately Chef’s critical gaze shifted away from me to the more egregious offender, and I quickly scurried off to collect the necessary ingredients for my chili… sans garlic and jalapeños, of course. You can ignore the tips of the other cooks but never, ever ignore what Chef says.

Everyone has their best recipes, why not just cycle through those?

When cooking staff meal, there’s an unspoken rule that you don’t repeat dishes. You want to challenge yourself by making new things and being creative. However, sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle when all you’ve got is root vegetables and 30 minutes to cook. Some thrive in this environment. We have one cook who I refer to as the little mad scientist. He can come up with the most creative staff meals, each one with multiple components. If it is something simple like sandwiches or hamburgers, he’ll bake fresh bread. He can make ingredients magically appear. I don’t know how—I’m quite certain I don’t want to know—but they do, and it is always interesting in the best sort of way.

However, if you ever find yourself extremely pressed for time (super “in the weeds”) go ahead and put out a rerun. The one thing to remember—the most important point of all—always serve something. If you’re on staff meal and don’t put anything out, you will be hunted with torches and pitchforks. Okay, maybe not the first time, but you will quickly make people’s shit list if you do it more than once.


The Fear, Anxiety, Pleasure and Pride of Making Staff Meal: Part I

“Babes, I can fend for myself if you want to stay at work and join the other cooks around the table for dinner”. Dinner around a table? What is he talking about? After racking my brain for a few moments it dawned on me that my husband was referring to staff meal.

Staff meal, sometimes called family meal, is food consumed by the kitchen staff, typically before dinner service begins. My husband isn’t alone in his misconceptions of kitchen life. There is a scene in the Catherine Zeta-Jones movie No Reservations where the cooks and wait staff are sitting around a large table in a bright dining room, laughing and passing around plates of pasta and sampling the day’s menu. Ah Hollywood, how you love to romanticize reality. In a real kitchen, the scene more often involves cooks hunched at their stations devouring a plate of food, or periodically picking at it (depending on what’s for dinner). While they eat, they continue to cut, blanch and whisk—making that final push before diners arrive and the orders begin to roll in.

I was part of the morning prep team when I first started out in the professional kitchen. I would work until about 7-8pm, and then hurry home where I would cook and eat dinner with my husband. If I ate staff meal at the restaurant I wouldn’t have the motivation to cook dinner, so I never ate at work (consequently Chef developed the belief that I was allergic to everything except air and water).

The preparation of staff meal terrified me from the get-go. The first time I met Chef he used the preparation of staff meal to explain how he expects the highest quality of work from his cooks at all time. “You need to be aware of details,” he said. “Yesterday we had BLTs for staff meal and the cook forgot to blanch and peel the tomatoes”. I could feel the blood draining from my face as my mind screamed, “Peel tomatoes for a sandwich or burger? I am going to be so screwed!!!!” Here I was begging to apprentice in a kitchen where cooks were expected to know that you always peel tomatoes, celery and remove the germ from garlic. And you’d better not just know—you’d better do so, no matter what you’re making.

My first week on the job I was so nervous, worrying that any day Chef would ask me to prepare that day’s staff meal. Naturally the news arrived in the most terrifying way. Staff meal Iron Chef style. A battle between the three stages. The one with the worst meal leaves the kitchen.

Do you know what an out-of-body experience feels like? That afternoon I had one that lasted the full 45 minutes that I was given to cook. I quite literally floated to the ceiling and watched myself fumble around the kitchen.

I got it in my mind that I would make Chinese fried noodles; always a crowd pleaser, and something that I’ve made a million times. Except in a professional kitchen you don’t make a grocery list and hit the super market. You use scraps, trim, and must-go items. And at the last minute I found out that we only had veal trim and fettuccini noodles. In hindsight, I should have changed my plan and served an Italian-American dish instead. Unfortunately, I was too frantic and couldn’t think straight, so Chinese fried fettuccini noodles with veal is what I made. Was it the worst? No. Did I get booted? No. Thankfully, no one ended up being forced to leave in shame, but it certainly wasn’t a proud moment either.


Why I Love to Cook

I can’t remember the first time exactly. Rather than one instance, the memory is more likely a combination of several—a quiet house, the mellow morning sun glowing from behind Japanese paper doors, the clean woodsy smell of the soft bamboo mat flooring. As a child I would silently slip out of my warm bed, taking care not to wake any of my sleeping siblings. Tiptoeing down the narrow hallway, I’d make my way towards the kitchen. The light clanking of metal and the tic, tic, tic of the stove pilot light would tell me that my dad was putting the kettle on for his morning cup of coffee.

With ten children, my family can be accurately described as shockingly large. Our house was always filled with friends, visitors, sleepovers, and play dates. Naturally two things were in short supply and in constant demand—a peaceful room and the undivided attention of our parents. Maybe that’s why cooking became so important to me; it was a moment in which my dad or mom focused on me. Was I holding the knife safely? Cutting the vegetables the right size? Rinsing the rice correctly? The kitchen before everyone else rose for the day became my place to find parental attention and complete calm.

It was here that I learned to make my very first dish: scrambled eggs, a dish with the ability to be utterly pedestrian, or worthy of a place on the menu of a 5-star restaurant.

As a kid I remember the horror of showing up to my friends’ breakfast table, and seeing a pile of something that vaguely resembled food. A rubbery, overcooked grayish green mass where bits of whites and yolks could still be differentiated in the pile. A papery burnt film shuddering atop an oozing undercooked section. I recall being mystified as to how someone could both burn and undercook eggs at the same time.

Maybe it’s the adoration of a little girl towards her father, but I still believe my father’s scrambled eggs were perfection. He moved slowly, methodically through the steps. He would crack the eggs into a large bowl. Then slide the bowl over, allowing me to whip the eggs. He preferred to use a fork, but sometimes the volume of eggs would be too much for my little wrist and he would hand me a whisk. He showed me how the addition of a little milk would make the eggs creamy and fluffy, and the importance of salting them before cooking so that they didn’t taste of salt but rather fresh, rich eggs. A careful constant stirring over medium heat resulted in the fluffiest, most savory plate of eggs this little girl had ever tasted.

We would probably only have thirty minutes in that quiet kitchen—me intensely stirring the eggs, while my dad sipped his coffee and buttered slices of whole wheat toast to accompany them. By the time everything was ready, the house would be coming alive with the sounds of people eager for breakfast.

Last week at the 5-star restaurant where I now work, I learned how to make the ultimate upscale version of my childhood breakfast food. A few professional secrets elevate this simple dish—extra egg yolks are added to enrich the flavor, crème fraiche replaces milk and the eggs are cooked slowly in a saucepot, stirred constantly with a small whisk and finished with a round spatula. Of course, cooking them in truffle butter and garnishing with a generous shaving of white truffles from Italy doesn’t hurt. When it comes to the table the pungent earthy aroma of the truffles envelopes you and for a few blissful moments you are lost in the luscious, savory, buttery eggs. Simplicity elevated.

However, for me no amount of truffles, caviar, or smoked salmon will ever elevate anyone’s scrambled eggs over my dad’s. The simple joy of spending time with him, cooking in our tiny Japanese kitchen while the rest of the house slept. Quiet moments like this didn’t occur very often, making the times that they did all the more memorable.

If I close my eyes I can still feel the warm morning sun coming in the small window above the kitchen sink. A little girl is standing at the stove, dad close by—wisps of steam disappearing off the top of his mug, filling the room with the robust and faintly sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee. For her, this is the best moment of her day and the most perfect plate of food she will ever eat.

When I tell people that I have started a new career in the food world the common reaction is a head tilt and an inquisitive “why?” Why? Simple—it makes me smile. Sometimes the quiet, simple moments in life resonate the loudest and the longest.