Saturday, June 20, 2009

Just a Stage

Last night was the first time that I really felt like a rookie at The Restaurant. I have always known I was under experienced, but I didn't realize this: I can't cook quickly. Well (smirk), I can, but it is not going to be beautiful, and it may or may not be tasty.

Everything is fine when The Restaurant isn't busy. I can keep my station clean, organize my ingredients and restock them in their proper 1/9 pans, and taste my food for proper seasoning and plate it like a piece of art. But, when there are three tickets, all with 4 orders each at our small station, efficiency, timing, and preciseness is key.

I am floundering. I have an order for soft-cooked eggs. I try to be efficient and do one task at a time. I start by getting out my plate. Then, I start cutting the small ends off each of the sides of the three eggs so they will not wobble when they are cut open. Then, I cut each of the eggs in half to put on the plate. But, because they are soft-cooked, the yolks have a tendency to run. Chef M, not even the chef at my station, looks over at what I am doing, and tells me that my yolks are running out onto the cutting board. He goes on to say that The Restaurant charges the customers a lot of money for that plate, and I shouldn't cheat them of all of their yolks.


So, flustered, I immediately flip the egg over, and he is right, the yolk has dripped out. I pat it, evening it out with my fingertip and try to cover my mistake. I go to put the soft-cooked eggs on the long white plate they call their home, but realize I have forgotten the aioli line that I am supposed to draw down the center to make the eggs stick to the plate. I remove them all, draw the line (which was more like a squiggle) down the center of the plate, and then season them with Kosher salt and cayenne.

What is next? I was missing something.

Oh yes! They are supposed to be topped with smoked tuna! The problem is, I have never learned how to make the tuna. The Sous is to my right, sweating because he is doing the other 11 orders that I am not helping him out with, and I timidly ask him the recipe for the smoked tuna salad.

He stops what he is doing, shows me without talking and speaking to me through “big” eyes, and goes back to his 11 dishes. I am humiliated. If I paid attention before, I would have known the recipe. I need to WATCH.

WATCH, WATCH, WATCH. Maybe I need glasses?

As the night goes on, I probably made about 10 more of those egg dishes, along with shucking 40 plus Kumamoto Oysters (and almost dislocating my shoulder), attempting 1 Cherry Clam and failing, and tossing and plating 13 (or so) different salads. I am sure there are victims along the way: A small piece of shell in an oyster here, a caper-heavy tuna salad over there, and maybe too much citrus in the dressing of one of the salads. But, I am doing my best. I taste, even when it is busy, and try to plate everything carefully and beautifully.

The Sous still thinks I am holding him up.

As things are getting a little slower, one of the servers comes up to The Sous. He whispers in his ear, and then leaves. It is very James-Bond. I think nothing of it. But then, The Sous turns to me to tell me what the server has said. He gives me a correction about something the server has noticed that I was doing. It is a mistake that I have never been told about, and I have continued to do because I don’t know any better. Completely taken aback, I take the correction, and then stay silent for about a minute facing my cutting board, head down. I am angry, and hurt, because I like to be talked to directly if there is a problem. I ask The Sous why the server didn't just come up to me and tell ME the correction?

He says to me, in his suave Sous way, "At the end of the day Stage, you are just a Stage."

Point taken.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blood Spatter Specialist

When we woke up this morning, after the night we had last night, Erik told me he had a dream that I cut all of my fingertips off. They were pouring blood, so I decided to be an artist and paint with the color and spatter from the cuts. Luckily, what I did to myself was NOT that dramatic.

I knew yesterday was going to be an off day when arrived at 1:00 to The Restaurant and nobody was there. The lights were off and the door was locked. After about 20 minutes, The Head Chef arrived having just left just hours ago from the night before, and asked me what I was doing there so early. Um, if I am not mistaken, this is when I got there last week? But, I guess on Thursdays, when it is slow on Wednesdays, it is an unwritten rule that you get to The Restaurant later.

Thanks for the memo.

So, I kill about an hour at a local coffee shop (slickly dodging a person I recognized via Twitter) and read "Tender at the Bone" ( this will be ironic later). I stayed a little after 2:00, slowly walked back, as to not look to eager, and put on my apron.

I was working with Chef B, the Thursday chef, at a new station. Not much needed to be prepped, but he taught me how to make Biscotti, and we filled our 1/9 pans with items that needed to be restocked. I made an aoili, soft boiled some eggs, took on my daily task of blanching cauliflower and pea vines, and learned how to break down a Geoduck.

Service started. We were steady. Chef B let me plate many dishes, and I was generally pleased with how the evening was going.

Then, Chef B asked me to cut more peaches for a dish that we hadn't prepped well for because it wasn't selling. Well, it was selling last night.

I went to the back, found my peach, and began peeling the skin with my Wustof pairing knife. I was told to slice each piece thin, and then into mini triangles. Let me first say that EVERYONE in The Restaurant talks to me about having better knife skills. I remember about half the time. And the other half? Well, I will just blame my Kitchen Retardedness.

I skinned the peach without a care in the world. I begin to slice each light pink section from the pit. They were all uniform, which is an improvement, and I go to start the other half. As I am trying to wedge my knife above the pit to slice, my hand slips from the skinned peach and my Wustoff slices right into my ring finger.

It took the finger print off. I looked for a second, shocked at my stupidity, and watched as the pink fruit began to have a more ruby tone.

I had a bleeder.

I immediately went to the First Aid Kit, which I have become very familiar with these past two weeks, and got out a finger bandaid. Before I could even get it on, it was soaked with my blood. Then, I reached for a wet paper towel, and put pressure on it.

This is the best part, I am such a compulsive do-gooder that I continued to cut the peach into triangles! While bleeding!

As it got worse, I stopped, and luckily at this point, the hostess ( who is going to nursing school) assisted me with bandaging my wound. She gave me some gauze while she got all of her supplies ready, and then asked me to take off the gauze so she could bandage me. As I slowly peeled the gauze away from the cut, it ripped the small clot and my blood spattered all over my "not-so-white-anymore" Chef's coat, along with my face. I looked like Dexter after he has killed one of his victims. The Hostess was wearing a white dress. Thank God it did not get on her!

Prepare yourself for the dramatics: I started to feel faint. I am sorry, but I wasn't losing THAT much blood? I think I was in shock, disappointed, embarrased, humiliated, (insert other dramatic feelings here)...

She said she thought I should leave, I took my coat off in a cold sweat, said goodbye to The Chefs and got into a yellow cab.

I raced to the drugstore and purchased forty bucks worth of finger bandaids, finger condoms, gauze, tape, Neosporin, and Shout! (which doesn't work BTW). I came home, chugged two glasses of wine, and waiting for Erik to arrive.

At this point, my finger felt like it was going to fall off. It had already done the whole "heart-beat in the finger" bit, and now it was going numb down to my knuckle and into the palm of my hand. I had dramatic illusions of grandeur where I was losing my whole ring finger and having to wear my wedding ring on a stump.

When Erik got home, I told him I needed him to help me change my bandages. I know he has a queesy stomach around blood, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The blood had clotted on the gauze, but I had to get it off because it was too damn tight. I cut away the huge bandage that made me look like a cartoon character with hair cutting shears, and pulled away the guaze.

HUGE mistake. The blood poured out like a chocolate fondue fountain; cascading down my knuckles and the back of my left hand. Erik lost it.

I am freaking out, he is getting nauseous, I am about to faint, he starts gagging. We were a mess. The dog just laid there. He is used to all of this back and forth drama.

I got another bandage on, Erik went to the bathroom to calm down, and I drank about a liter of water in one sitting.

As we woke up this morning, and he told me of his dream where I was creating art with my blood, I decided that I AM going to take a knife skills class. I owe it to myself, and everyone that ever has to work with me in a kitchen.

And I should probably get up to date on my tetnis shots if I am going to cut myself on a weekly basis. Will this be a tradition? I am two for two right now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kitchen Retard #1

I have one piece of advice for all you crab cleaning novices, like myself: when you lose your virginity to the cleaning of your very first crab, point the crab AWAY from you.

You can only imagine what happened next.

This was one of many new things I learned yesterday with The Teacher. Boy, she is a patient woman.

The first item on my prep list yesterday was to make a curd to go with her homemade ricotta. So, I hear curd and think of Little Miss Muffit, a spider, and her curds and whey. I thought to myself, Why don't you just get them at Beecher's like you always do?

But, no, she meant lemon curd. Ohhhhhhhhh. I could definitely do that. IF I knew how. Or, if I wasn't so dense!

So, I have concluded that I am a not only a Kitchen Bitch (#2, of course), but I have also have earned the extra (self) title of Kitchen Retard (#1).

I begin to zest the fresh lemons on a microplane for the curd, and stir in my "pretend" superfine sugar that I pulsed in a food processor to make smaller. Then I juiced the lemons, whisked in the farm-fresh brown eggs, and put three ounces (6 tbsp.) of unsalted butter into the mixture. I placed it over my makeshift double boiler to be babysat by my wooden spoon until thickened, for about 20 minutes. Easy.

I only say easy because it turned out, okay.

This is another detail that enlightened me yesterday: 1 ounce= 2 tbsp.

I know what you are thinking. You didn't know that?

No, math nerds. I did not. I am a Kitchen Retard, and on top of that, not really the measuring type.


The Teacher probably spent 5 minutes trying to explain this concept of ounces to tablespoons to cups, until I finally got the very simple concept. Like I said, she is a extremely patient woman.

I think I need to go back to school.

One redeaming part of yesterday was that I got to recreate my Dungeness crab and local asparagus brown butter pasta. I actually got to cook, serve, taste AND season the dish this time. I learned from my mistakes from yesterday, and was elated with the turnout. Too bad it was the most boring, and basic, course of six. A slight embarrasment, and a 1st place trophy to my lack of skills. I mean, how hard is it to make brown butter, squeeze lemon and season it with Kosher salt?

People. This is Cooking 101. Maybe cooking 110.

I watched as The Teacher made a Salmon Rouillade from an old Julia Child cookbook. She skinned, deboned, and butterflied a Copper River Sockeye, stuffed it with braised leeks, patted it with cracked black pepper, and wrapped foil around it as she rolled the fillet. Then! Then! She cooked it, wrapped in the foil cylinder in peanut oil turning, a 1/4 of a turn clockwise every couple of minutes, until it was perfectly medium-rare. She cooled it, removed the foil, and sliced it thin into little rounds. It was topped with a cucumber and tomato creme fraiche sauce and a garnish of finely minced gazpacho-like vegetables.

This was a sexy dish!

And, I can make brown butter.

I think I am in over my head here.

Lemon Curd
Serves 24

3 large lemons, zest and juice
9 oz. superfine sugar
6 large eggs
6 oz. unsalted butter

Mix the lemon zest and sugar in a metal bowl. In another bowl, whisk the lemon juice together with the eggs. Pour this mixture over the sugar. Cut butter into small pieces and add this combination to the mixture. Place in a metal bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir until thickened, about 20 minutes, until it coats the back of a spoon. Cool and refrigerate for up to a week. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Mistakes

"Stage! You on vacation?"

I was in hysterics as I got this text message right when I was coming home after working with The Teacher for 8 hours. The Sous thought I had "chickened out" of The Restaurant and wrote me a message making sure I was coming back.

Do I really seem like that type of girl that would give up that fast? The Sous has no idea.

But, I do have to say, the work with The Teacher and the work at The Restaurant could not be different. The Teacher gets frantic at times, having to plate meals for 12 all at once, timing large quanitites of food, and having to manage most food related problems all by herself. However, at The Restaurant, it is a well-oiled machine, and everyone has their specific task and nothing faulters from that. The Teacher basically is working a miniature restaurant all by herself. And, boy, does she do it well.

Yesterday, my first task for The Teacher was to bake a flourless cake.

I am thinking, oh great, all I have gotten to actually cook for this woman is a gazpacho that I messed up and now a baking item, which I will surely mess up. This is a great way to start the day.

Let me first just tell you, I dislike baking more than anything. I have a sweet tooth, don't get me wrong, but I just hate the process of having to be so exact and reading a recipe over and over and over again making sure that you are doing the right thing. Although I enjoy specific direction, there is a little more room to fudge when you cook.

The Teacher and I were talking as I made the cake. My first mistake. This made me nervous because I had to multi-task in my mind as I separated eggs, zested oranges, chopped Callebaut chocolate, and perfectly toasted blanched almonds and pine nuts. I kept re-reading the same lines again and again: unable to move forward, even though I already knew what it said.

I was obviously distracted.

She taught me how to heat eggs, gently, over a pot of shallow simmering water to bring the cold ones to room temperature. I whisked them with a mixer that sounded like a 747 was taking off in her kitchen, and then folded the Callebaut chocolate batter inside. Then, I also heated the cold egg whites over the simmering water, forming them into stiff peaks with sugar. Then, slowly folding each half separately into the dark brown batter.

She had buttered and parchmented a round cake pan, she preheated the oven to 350 degrees for me because I forgot to do that (second mistake), and we stuck the cake inside.

That was the last time I thought about it (third mistake).

All of a sudden, The Teacher realized that she had not set the timer, and to be quite honest, I didn't even remember that I MADE the cake.

She took the cake out, and luckily it was not yet burnt, but it was definitely dry and not as appealing as it had the potential to be.

Right after she had originally put the cake in the oven, just seconds before I would forget that I have created it, she had told me that she would be telling her clients that I made the cake (her 1st mistake).

Well, shit. Now, because I am not an intuitive baker, and we forgot to set the timer, my cake was going to taste like a piece of construction paper with whipped cream on top. I had to think fast.

Really fast.

I decided that just in case because it was really dry, we should poke holes in it with a toothpick, make a simple syrup and gradually drizzle the syrup over it for the next couple of hours. That would salvage it. She like that idea, and let me do it.

I made a simple syrup, equal porportions sugar to water, and slowly drizzled the syrup over the cake. I would have to wait hours at this point to see if this solution would actually salvage my cake.

The rest of the night seemed to also be filled with faux pas. She let me make a brown butter (which I have now perfected because of The Restaurant) that she wanted it tossed with her homemade angel hair pasta, Dungeness crab that was just cracked by one of her diners, and blanched local asparagus. I took the lead on the dish.

I knew if was not a good sign when the angel hair was looking sloppy as I was tossed all of the ingredients together in the giant All Clad. Normally, I would have tasted the pasta like I learned at The Restaurant, but I had to plate it as quickly as possible with the biggest tongs that I had ever seen. I am talking GRILLING TONGS. Not condusive to methodical plating.

The angel hair slipped multiple times from the tongs as I tried to swirl the pasta precisely onto the plates. The crab and the asparagus were difficult to pick up with the giant tongs, and so some plates had more and some had less.

As the plates were given to the diners, I just thought to myself: that needed more lemon, I should have tasted it for salt, why did I not have a wet rag to clean the sides of the plates? The Restaurant has ruined me.

Later that evening, after washing way too many dishes, and listening to her diners get louder as they filled their glasses with perfectly balanced Cabernet, it was finally time for the flourless chocolate cake.

She cut the cake, and slyly gave me a small taste. I anticipated tasting a cotton ball like substance in my mouth that I would probably have to spit out on my kitchen towel, but somehow the cake was moist. She smiled at me, and said, that it was definitely going to be good!

I felt a sense of pride, and let out a huge sigh of relief. She let me plate the dish on little white plates. We cut the cake in half, and set them on top of each other to make a bow, and topped it with whipped cream and first of the season strawberries. The diners had no idea the cake was an overbaked-disaster salvaged by a simple syrup. All they could think about was the chocolate and orange combination.

I think I am finally earning The Teacher's trust. This might be her mistake.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Pine Nut Dressing Project

"Hey Stage", Said The Sous. "In about a minute here, I am going to need you to make a pine nut dressing for me". Dumbfounded, I couldn't believe that he actually wanted me to make something for a dish he was serving. I was wondering what this dressing entailed. Did I get to be creative? Or, did he want specific, as The Sous always does. After I finished my present task of finely, (beyond finely) chopping chives, I asked him for more detail.

He told me to make the exact recipe that I made the other day for the anchovy dressing with Chef B, but to substitute pine nuts for the anchovies, sherry vinegar for the lemon juice, and make it more watery. So, basically I needed to change the whole recipe except for the canola oil. Creative or Specific? It was obviously the latter.

It was coming time to open the restaurant. I still had my black tank top on without being suited up in my "Chef whites". The staff was frantic tonight. There seemed not enough time to get everything done that needed to be done. The waiters were quickly folding napkins, the dishwasher seemed to have more dishes than usual, and all of The Chefs were finishing up on their final details of their dishes.

And, of course,there was no station for me to do my project. Except for The Head Chef's station, which had already been cleaned and organized for the evening.

I was frantic, slightly shaking, and trying as quickly as I could to create the perfect pine nut dressing for The Sous.

I didn't think to ask him if he wanted the dressing thick enough to hold it's own on a plate, or thin enough to drizzle. So, I had to go back multiple times and ask him to taste it, look at the consistency, and give me corrections on the porportions. All the while, I was hogging The Head Chef's station. At this point, He was anxiously hovering, waiting to set up for the evening.

At The Sous last taste, he said it was perfect (but could always use more salt) and told me to put it in squirt bottles and set it by his station. I got two bottles (forgetting the lids) and made my way back to The Head Chef's station. As I began to fill the squeeze bottles with the dressing from the food processor, Chef M told me I needed to "wrap" up this project so The Head Chef could get to his station. Nervously, I scraped the dressing out, smoothly, still shaking, and moving as fast as I could. I went to quickly gather up the remains of the project: the large can of Dijon mustard, the egg shell and shallot peels in a small work bowl, and the dirty food processor canister. I was moving rapidly, and once I had gathered everything into my hands, I made a quick manuever with my left elbow to clear the meat slicing machine that was in my way.

At that moment, my longer than usual appendages, filled with the remaining ingredients from the dressing, hit one of the uncapped squeeze bottles of pine nut dressing.

As if the world had been in super-slow motion, the dressing flew all over the meat slicer, the floor, the till, and of course all over The Head Chef's pristine station. I mean: ALL OVER. It covered his cutting board I watched him sanitize, his knives that he sharpened and buffed, and all over his clean kitchen towels. And, as all this was happening, customers were coming in the door.

The one good thing was that all of The Chefs were in the back, wrapping up the last of their prep work. I screamed profanities in my head as I cleaned as much pine nut dressing as I possibly could from The Head Chef's station, changing out towels and wiping down his knives. I perused his station, hoping it looked how he left it, and brought the dirty containers to the dishwasher.

I got TWO lids, as I should have done originally, carefully placed them on top of the dressing containers, wiped them clean and stored them at The Sous station. Phew!

Much later that evening, as The Head Chef was slicing prosciutto for a dish, I saw a beige glimmer on the side of the meat slicer. I surreptitiously decided to clean the spot as he turned his back to plate the dish. I wiped the final remains of MY disaster from everyones knowledge.

Maybe they knew, maybe they didn't but, either way, they never said a word.

My hunch is that I will continue to see the remains of my disaster, and I will continue to slyly cover my tracks.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From Beginning To End

When I woke up this morning at 9:30, I already wanted to go back to bed. The exhaustion was unparalleled and I couldn't imagine have to get up and cook for another 12 hours again today. But, all The Chefs do it. Five days a week.

Today has been spent reliving all of the amazing memories I have had over the weekend. I can't get them out of my head. They replay like a broken record, skipping to the same places over and over again. Some are funny, like watching a really drunk woman stumble out of The Restaurant with her boyfriend in tow. Some are humiliating, like when one gnocchi dish that I made was sent back about a minute after I had said, "Service, please. Table 10." Their scallop had been under-cooked.

It was cooked to me.

I met Chef M for the first time on Friday. I was appointed to work with him because he was going to be at the same station that I had worked at the night before with The Sous. He made the same dishes, but in a different way than The Sous. He didn't care about the order of things, he just wanted the dish to have all of the components that made it what it was. He told me everything else was just artistry. The Sous is more exact. He taught me the way he made the dish, and wanted me to replicate EXACTLY what he had done. I definitely feel more comfortable having exact directions, but the fun part of cooking, I have now learned, is mastering the method, and refining it, to create the best dish possible.

Last night I was given two dishes to focus on, one was the gnocchi I had been making for the past two nights. Chef M asked me right before service which dishes I felt the most comfortable with. I told him the two I thought I was the "best" (haha!) at, and he told me that those were mine the whole evening. No matter what. If an order for gnocchi came in, he wasn't even going to look at it. It was my responsibility. From beginning to end.

How often do you make a dish about 15 times IN A ROW? Never. Well, at least I haven't. I now know the two recipes I made last night like the back of my hand. Each time, I would refine my method more, and more. I was learning what I didn't know the time before. I am sure there were victims along the way. A couple of pieces of burnt garlic. Maybe a scallop that was slightly cold in the middle undercooked. But, I didn't hear any customers complaining.

Well, except for that one table.

I found that for the gnocchi, the front left burner worked the best. That burner heated the olive oil and the finely diced pancetta to the perfect temperature right before I would throw in the blanched potato gnocchi. The little gnocchis seared brown on one side, and right when the oil started to bubble, I would add in the mandoline-sliced garlic and bright green favas. I would cook those for almost a minute, and when the garlic started dance inside the pan, and then I would ladle in the homemade vegetable stock to cool down the garlic. A trick The Sous taught me. I would add a handful of kale and a little square of butter to finish off the sauce.

The butter had not always been a part of the recipe. It came from refinement process. I hadn't always done that, but I found it made the sauce have more beautiful sheen, and well, it just made the dish taste better. I would frequently see Chef M put in a little nub of butter.

That was his secret.

To finish the gnocchi, I would season the sauce with a decent amount of kosher salt and add just a splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The lemon juice, I discovered, made all of the flavors pop.

Meanwhile, while all of this was cooking, I was searing a scallop that I had rubbed with olive oil and seasoned with salt. Putting it presentation side down, I would put it on the grill, and squeeze a little vegetable oil to sear it. The olive oil was just for flavor. Once I flipped the scallop over, I would put my plate in the oven to warm it. It was the perfect amount of time to not get the plate too hot, but also warm enough to keep the gnocchi at a good temperature as it went to the customer. Then, I would take the scallop off of the grill, slice it in half and take the plate out of the oven. I would tilt the pan and spoon, (not dump from the pan, as I WAS doing) the gnocchi onto the warmed plate, ladle any extra sauce around the gnocchi, top with the sliced scallop, drizzle with finishing oil, season with more kosher salt and call for service. I would quickly take a damp towel, and clean the sides of the plate in case I had gotten a small drip of sauce on the side.


Sometimes it would be 4 orders of gnocchi in a row. So, I would cook two orders of gnocchi each in dueling pans. It was beyond exciting. The rush is similar to dancing on stage. No wonder I like this profession.

It was fun to watch the recipe come to life from beginning to end. Earlier in the day, Chef M had taught me how to blanch the favas and pop them out of the tough membrane that they come in. He taught me how to make the gnocchi I would be using from a heavily-salted baked russet potato, combining it with one egg yolk, and a handful of flour. I squeezed lemon after lemon to fill squeeze bottle with fresh juice. I watched as they made vegetable stock out of scraps of vegetables like parsley, a bit of celery, carrots, onions, peppercorns, and dried chickpeas. I chopped kale, removed the little foot from each scallop, and refilled small bowls with kosher salt.

Ocassionally I would watch my dish go to a customer. I loved watching their face light up as it was presented in front of them. At the end of the night, by the dishwasher, I would see the gnocchi bowls licked clean, with maybe just a few pieces of pancetta that couldn't be picked up with the tines of a fork. I assume that means people liked their meal.

I didn't hear otherwise, except for that damn scallop.

At the end of last night, I decided I would make the gnocchi dish for Erik. It is the first recipe I have learned from The Restaurant that I can see myself creating at home. Making the gnocchi, blanching the favas, freshly squeezing the lemon juice, finely dicing the pancetta, and making homemade vegetable stock.

From Beginning to End.