Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Mood

I knew when I got only 5 1/2 hours of sleep that today would be an off day. I can' t go back to sleep, but the exhaustion is overwhelming. 

I realize I have forgotten my makeup at The Restaurant, so I am basically going to look haggard and lackluster when I first get there. I go to get on the Seattle Metro bus that I normally take, and it is 15 minutes late. Of course. Now, instead of being eagerly early, I look inconsiderately late. I run, up a huge hill, to The Restaurant, to be turned right back around to get sage leaves at the Trader Joe's for The Sous: Halfway to wear I just came from. 

I get back to The Restaurant and start working with Chef M. He, in his usual way, gives me my tasks back to back: pick parsley, pick basil, pick mint, make biscotti, make lemon juice, make a pickling juice, chop horseradish....

I am tired. My oyster elbow hurts. And, I am in a mood

It starts with the biscotti. Chef M tells me that I need to put three times the amount of pistachios in the recipe than I did last time. I start mixing the biscotti by hand in the back kitchen, where I prefer to be when I am moody, and finally add in the pistachios: Three times the amount. I shape the pistachio-filled dough into two loaves, and put it in the 350 degree oven, and set my iPhone to check it after 35 minutes. When the timer starts buzzing in my back pocket, I look in the oven, expecting to see what I saw the last time I made biscotti. 

Gross. It is crackly, and baking in a weird shape. Shit. 

So, I take it, stick it on the speed-rack, and wait for it to cool, hoping that maybe it will tighten up in the cooling process.  I am in for a challenge. It is already crumbling around the edges. I can't IMAGINE how it will be when actually have to cut it. 

As I start the arduous task of cutting the biscotti into 1-inch slices, I am getting about a 70 percent return on my investment. Some are breaking in half, and some are cracking just at the tips. Why is this happening? I did the exact same recipe as last time? At least I will have lots of snacks for the emotional eating I predict is going to happen tonight. 

One of the owners of The Restaurant comes in. He was a pastry chef for many years, and I ask him what has happened with my biscotti. He tells me my first problem is that with big quantity recipes, I always should use a Kitchen-aid mixer. Ugh, okay. Then, he tells me that unlike other "doughs", biscotti needs to be worked, for a long time. That is how it gets hard and crispy, and not crumbly. 

This is my mistake! Last time I made the biscotti, I almost left out the pistachios. So, I had to work the pistachios back into the dough, which created more gluten, which made them harder. This makes total sense. This time, I just added the pistachios once the dough came together, and didn't really work the mixture as much as I had before. 

First flub. 

Then, Chef M gives me chopping tasks which I hate. I just have horrible knife skills. I mean, I can chop just fine, that is not the problem, but not into even pieces the size of sesame seeds

Chef M is a virtuoso with a knife. He is beyond consistent, and makes a fine dice look elementary. My task: chop horseradish into a fine, fine dice to be pickled. And the most important part? He stresses to me that they all have to be even and homogenous, because they were going to be sitting on top of a Kushi oyster, standing alone as the only ingredient. 

I already feel pressure. 

It just starts out defectively. I can't cut that first dice of the horseradish consistently, which botches the other steps of the dicing. I go to slice the horseradish, and the pieces I am cutting are thinner on top than on the bottom. Again, knife skills. Frustration, and second flub. 

After about 15 minutes of struggle, Chef M comes back, needing the product to be pickled for service, and I have not even gotten half-way. He just takes what I have done, not commenting on the apparent inconsistency, and tells me I know must chop smoked tuna for the soft-cooked eggs. 

Of course, tuna is a flaky fish, especially when cooked, and a fine dice just doesn't work for this. I do the best I can, but it is crumbling in front of my eyes. Just like my psyche. 

After all of my chopping tasks are complete, I go to juice lemons for all of The Chefs for their stations. At my last lemon, the bartender comes in and asks if there are anymore lemons left. Usually, I leave one lemon just in case. But, like I said, my brain is off today. The bartender has no lemons for his drinks tonight. Not only am I holding people up, but I am preventing customers from getting lemons in their drinks. Good one, Stage. Third flub. 

Service starts, and of course, my first task is to shuck Twelve oysters: Six Kushi and Six Kumamoto. My elbow feels like it is going to shatter just like my oyster shells. The Sous helps me out, saying he doesn't want the customers to have to wait forever to get their oysters (because I am slow) and the order goes out. I have shooting pain down my arm and into my chess. 

Am I having a stress induced heart attack? Chef M just laughs at me. 

The shift goes on, I am getting by, but I just don't feel like myself tonight. It is not all bad, though. I finally figure out how to scoop Gelato and Sorbet! Thank goodness. I get an opportunity to slice some yellow-fin tuna for a Crudo dish because Chef M is busy. I also plate a few dishes that I usually wouldn't get to touch, which is exciting. 

But, at the end of the night, when we all usually get our Friday-night pizza at 1:00 in the morning, I take my routine celebratorial vodka shot with The Chefs, clean my station, apologize for my "off-day" and head home to dog puke on my white rug and an incredibly exhausted husband who is sounds asleep.

Nobody but my pillow needs to be dealing with this mood. 

Tomorrow I start a new station, and I get to work with The Sous. I need a fresh start, and some new tasks to botch. 

Friday, June 26, 2009

At The End of The Night

I make a prep list on the back of an old menu from the previous day. Items like aioli, blanched cauliflower, and avocado puree frequent the list, and comfort me. The Chefs trusts me enough to not be babysat, but don’t worry, I am still on a constant running video surveillance, as I should be. 

I start the day by making aioli which I know is egg yolks, lemon juice, a garlic clove, a splash of water, and finished by a constant stream of vegetable oil. I am planning to use three egg yolks, cracking each yolk in my prep bowl, and straining the white protein through my hands. The Sous enters the walk-in, looks over at me, and says, “Whoa, Stage. Easy on the egg yolks.” I take the one I am presently perfectly straining in my hand, dump it in my prep bowl and begin making the aioli with two egg yolks. 

The aioli breaks. 

The Sous smirks, and gets me another egg from the fridge. I pour the broken mixture back into the empty oil pitcher, add the yolk he gets for me into the empty Robot Coupe, pour the broken mixture back as if it were the vegetable oil, and it forms into a fluffy cream mixture. First task complete. 

Tonight, I am working with Chef B, The Thursday Chef, at the same station I was working at last Thursday: The day I cut myself. My goal today is NOT to repeat the mistakes of seven days ago. He asks me to cut a peach for the same recipe, in the same way. That dreaded peach. I figure, hell, why not? At least I can redeem to myself, and to others, that I am not always full of blunders. I learn from my mistakes this time, square off the peach for stability, REMOVE the pit, make sure my hands are curled and protected, and slice thinly. Success. 

After all of those improved knife skills, that peach ends up becoming a puree. 

Chef B and I are working in tandem, like a dance, sharing a cutting board and knives, and as always at this station, fighting for ineffectual light and limited square footage. He lets me slice some fish with his beautiful Japanese sushi knife. As I am salting the fish after my mediocre attempts at cutting, he stops me, and tells me that I ALWAYS have to put His knives back to where I got them from, on a blue prep towel folded to the right of the cutting board. Chef B, tongue in cheek, says that when the knife is not in its place, It will either cut me because it is not in a safe place just laying on the cutting board, or He will “cut me” (if his knife happens to drop on the ground). That knife goes back to its place the entire night, as if a magnet is pulling it there. 

I do my best cooking on a stomach full of Fried almonds, sips of Kombucha, and Peronis. But at 6:00p.m., I have none of these in my belly. The Restaurant is still kind of dead and the sound of the ticket printing out to my right can only mean one thing: an order for Gelato or Sorbet. Hmm. Did I mention I need a beer? 

I know it sounds trivial, yes. But I can’t scoop freaking ice cream to save my life. It either ends up consistent to a "7-11" Slurpee, or in the Gelato’s case, a minefield after it has been detonated. Tonight, there is a brand new Hazelnut Gelato, just delivered, and never been scooped. The perfect victim. As I am creating my first curls into the Gelato, it is crumbling into my scoop like sand. The spoon is not hot enough, and the Gelato is too hard. I know. Excuses, excuses. The Gelato should scoop smooth, like a long river, and look even and calm, when you are finished with it. 

By the end of my torturous experience, I have The Sous and The Head Chef watching me, as they sometimes do when The Restaurant is not busy. This flusters me even more. They observe as I butcher out ridges in the Gelato like I am some force of nature. The Sous looks over and says, “Wow, Stage. Are you trying to go for the Grand Canyon?” I respond, “Well, I was thinking more of the Sierra Nevada Range.” Chef B gives me a tip after I completely destroy the untainted Gelato: Use steaming water from the espresso machine to heat the scoop. This man is brilliant. 

The funny thing is they want me to be able to run this station by myself someday. I would get stuck at the first Gelato order, every time. By 6:00 p.m., I would probably have a toddler's temper tantrum, stomp out of The Restaurant, and throw my apron down on the pavement.  

This damn Gelato is not getting the best of me. 

I love that The Chefs don’t let me get away with anything. Well, almost anything. The Sous and Chef B keep testing my food every forty-five minutes, or so, like a required emissions test; Only letting me serve the food if I "pass". I get a correction from Chef B to not put a small mixing bowl, filled with Kumamotos, on the ground by the mini- fridge. The bottom of the bowl sits on the floor, and the dirt from the floor gets on the cutting board. Oh, yes. Common sense would benefit me in this profession. 

Later, The Sous looks over from his station and asks me if I salted the soft-cooked eggs? Have I put aioli individually on each one? 

I show him how I am salting the eggs, delicate and snug, so that the salt only touches the top of the egg. He shows me that I need to salt from ABOVE, and on the cutting board, not on my plate. He takes his hand, filled with Kosher salt, and puts it almost even with his ear, and in a circular motion, salts a prep plate to show me the technique. I look over and there is a perfect coating of salt all over the silver disk.  “Even, Stage. Even.”, he repeats. 

At the end of the night, Peroni in hand, I begin wrapping the stations 1/9 pans and changing deli-containers filled with pickled radishes and mint puree. I have already overturned a 1/9 pan of toasted pistachios all inside the mini fridge, and I accidentally break 3 out of 10 grissini Chef M made yesterday. (His were better, by the way. He ends up using more yeast, and rolling them smaller and shorter.) They are obviously more delicate than mine were. Shut! 

I see The Sous efficient method for wrapping his 1/9 pans. He rolls out the plastic wrap still in the box, covers the container airtight, and then with a swift movement with the side of his right wrist and forearm, he swipes to loosen the plastic. He quickly seals the the edges, and moves on to the next. I would say it takes three seconds, maximum, and as he says, with pride: “airtight and stackable”. Easy enough. I try to attempt this technique with a small bowl of ground black pepper. I take the plastic out, and wrap one side of the small bowl. As I go to loosen it from the container with “my version” of the swipe, the small container of black pepper tips and spills all over my clean cutting board and the floor. Classic. I look around, subtly, nobody sees, and I laugh: OUT LOUD. I will be putting that item on my prep list tomorrow. And, while I am at it, I’ll add the grissini, too. 

At the end of the night, while listening to P.Y.T and Billie Jean to honor the late M.J., I have a conversation with another intern at another reputable restaurant down the street. He is fresh out of culinary school, and in the same position as I am; Just a Stage. I realize, right then and there, I am one lucky Bitch. I have been working at The Restaurant for six and a half days (remember, cut finger). I get to watch, and learn, from one of the most talented, and humble, Head Chefs in Seattle, and work with his amazing team of Chefs who are willing to teach me. I have worked two stations, not gone to culinary school, and the best part: I am not auditioning for the job like the other Stage. 

I’m just here to learn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eating The Cake

I feel like I am living a secret double life. It vaguely resembles Jennifer Garner in Alias, except without all the CIA drama. 

I am a professional ballet dancer by day who is posing as a wannabe Chef by night. I haven't been able to articulate this double-life concept to myself, but I am realizing I have always had a hard time describing myself the past few years after my new-found love of everything cooking. I am torn between two passionate worlds: One that I have been encompassed in for the past twenty-three years, and the other, which I have barely touched the surface of after a couple of weeks. I feel like I am on a glacier, and it is breaking in half, and I have to chose one side or the other. But, I just can't. 

I am enveloped by both. 

Living my life without each of them seems beyond the bounds of possibility. But, I also realize I am not willing to fully commit myself to one, or the other. 

Life seems scary without both. 

I took ballet class today, and I realize that I just adore dancing. It welcomes me like a familiar foreign country where I am fluent in the language: talking, shopping, joking, and blending into to their world. But, in the kitchen, I am visiting a land I have never been to before. I have read about it, in books maybe, and I know the basic history of the community. I can intelligibly make out what The Chefs are saying in their foreign language, but I can't always communicate back. I fit in, mostly, but it is obvious that I am an alien.  

Recently, my own comfortable domain has been turned upside-down. I have decided that eventually I do want to be a Chef. I want to study that language, become fluent, and live like I have with that familiar world of ballet. I want to step over to the cooking portion of the glacier. I know the dialect of ballet, and I am ready to learn another language. As hard, and uncomfortable, as it will be. I mean, you shouldn't always live in the same place your whole life. 

I can't have my cake, and eat it too. I guess I just want to eat the cake.  

All in due time.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mise en Place and The Spoon

Today is the first day I am cooking since I have been working at The Restaurant. I think cooking will forever be changed for me. For the better.

The first course of action today is that I have to buy a mandoline at a cooking store so I can thinly slice my garlic and shallots like The Chefs do at The Restaurant. I, of course, come out with not just a mandoline, but with a new All-Clad saucier that The Chefs cook with, beautiful white pasta plates that are similar to what they use for serving the gnocchi at The Restaurant, and miniature ramekins for my mise en place.

And a big metal spoon.

The Chefs only cook with metal serving spoons.

For me (and Anthony Bourdain) mise en place is like a religion. It is a way to meditate through my dish(es), and make sure I have everything perfectly prepared and settled: measuring, washing, mincing, and chopping. It also gives a Chef (or a Stage like me) a lot of self-satisfaction in each of the dishes they create. It is a completely different cooking experience when you handle, and prepare, every aspect of a dish. Having all of your ingredients be prepared ahead of time helps with cleanliness of your station, and of your mind, and makes for a faster and more efficient Chef.

I now understand that pride.

Today, I roast potatoes for the gnocchi. Make the gnocchi dough. Roll it out on a gnocchi board. Blanche the gnocchis. Blanche fava beans. Peel the fava beans. Slice garlic and shallots on my new mandoline. Place red pepper flakes and salt in my new mini ramekins. Wash and chop dinosaur kale, and squeeze and strain fresh lemon juice. I also boycott, my safeguard, Whole Foods' previously frozen scallops, and actually shop for fresh scallops at a specialty seafood store.

All for just ONE pasta dish for two.

Another change for me is with The Spoon and cooking. The Spoon is used to taste, to stir, to toss, to scoop, and to plate. Maybe once or twice at The Restaurant, I have seen The Chefs use a spatula to flip a scallop, or a pair of metal tongs to pull treviso off of the grill, but The Spoon is the preferred tool for cooking.

If I take my new All-Clad saucier pan with my towel-wrapped hand and tilt it at a 45 degree angle, The Spoon can accumulate the maximum amount of sauce in the pan to pour over the gnocchi. It's as if The Spoon and the pan are dancing seamlessly into the curves of each others stainless steel.

Cooking tonight should be a new experience. I will only touch my pan with a towel wrapped hand. I will start with olive oil and pancetta in a cold pan so that I can render the maximum amount of fat without burning the pancetta. I will toss the gnocchi into the pancetta-laden oil and let it stay there until it gets crispy and golden on each side. Then, I will add sliced garlic (stored in olive oil), my blanched favas, and a generous amount of red pepper flakes, for just a minute so that the garlic just begins to jump a little in the pan. Then, to bring everything together, I will give the pan a splash of vegetable stock (from the box) and a handful of kale. I will season everything with kosher salt and maybe, if I feel like it, add a small nub of Plugra to finish off the sauce.

Meanwhile, I will sear off my scallop in olive oil AND vegetable oil, not touching it, so that it will get the most perfect "toasted pine-nut" color on each side. Then, I will warm my plate in a 200 degree oven, tilt my pan at a 45 degree angle and spoon the dish onto the plate. At the end, I will top the dish with the perfectly cooked scallop, and drizzle it with a little bit of olive oil for a shimmer, and a little more kosher salt.

I might be yelling "Corner!" and "Behind!" to nobody but me, my husband, and a dog, but I will enjoy it just the same.

I told you I have changed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Oyster Elbow

I think I have oyster elbow. 

I am at the ballet today, (trying to get in shape) and getting ready to do pushups, and my left elbow is terribly achey and sore. It takes me a while to figure out what I would have possibly done to myself, and then I realize: I bet I hurt myself shucking oysters all weekend. 

I have probably shucked more than 100 Oysters in the past two weeks. And, I have never shucked an oyster before working at The Restaurant. 

Each chef has their own unique way of shucking. Chef B, and The Sous like to hold a kitchen towel in their hand, and shuck the oyster that way. Chef M likes to put the kitchen towel on his working surface and wrap the towel around the shell to stabilize it. Some Chefs wear fancy gloves, and some Chefs use different kinds of oyster knives.

And me? Well, I am not a Chef, so I like to just get the little sucker open in less than five minutes, however I can. Yes. Five minutes. For ONE oyster. I was really bad at shucking them in the beginning. 

Oh, and not breaking the shell all over the place is another goal.

For my first oyster, I wrap the towel in my hand and nestle the shell in my palm like The Sous has taught me. I get out my oyster knife, and try to wedge it into the hinge. Not only did I not pop open the oyster, but I break the first layer of  shell and get my oyster knife stuck. Eh. Not good. 

So, to remedy this mistake, I just decide to push the knife through the oyster. This, of course, severs and slashes open the oyster meat. Then, I scrape around with the oyster knife, like I am digging for buried treasure, and I finally pop open the top shell, and try to abrade the muscle from its home. This breaks the oyster meat in half. 


Debris, mud, and the bits of shell look like a brunoise all over my demolished oyster. And the coveted brine? All over the cutting board, my kitchen towel, and my apron. 

I show The Sous. He laughs at the wreckage, and gives me another one, and we start the learning process again. He can shuck an oyster in about ten seconds with finesse. After watching him do this about four times, I am finally starting to get the hang of it. It is more of a slight twist and pop, instead of a jab and slash. More technique, less brawn. 

When I have done four Kumamoto oysters without turning them into hamburger, in less than five minutes, I finally get to top them with the beautiful finishing oil, finely minced apple, and freshly grated horseradish. I pack a mini All-Clad pan with ice and arrange them so that their hinges all face in towards the center. 

The order only took fifteen minutes or so, when it could have taken three, but I did it. 

When the night is over, my shoulder is aching, and my left elbow feels like I have torn something. 

But, I can shuck an oyster. In less than 5 minutes. 

Now on to the Cherry Clams. Wish me luck on those. I feel they will be even more difficult. I will probably title that post Clam palm. 

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Methods

The minute I step in the door, Chef M has a laundry list of things I need to accomplish before 5:00. It made me regret getting here at 1:20.

But there is a problem; all of the items have to do with baking. And, I am just not a confident baker.

Chef M whips out The Restaurants culinary bible: the giant Giorgio Locatelli cookbook, slaps it on a giant Boos Block, and turns to a page in the middle that has been bookmarked with a ribbon.

The recipe is for grissini. Ugh. I hate working with dough. And, I have never made grissini.  

He spouts off some changes that he wants, like using active dry yeast instead of fresh, and substituting out Pecorino Romano instead of Parmigianno Reggiano. He tells me I have to weigh all of the ingredients, and preheat the oven in advance, and read through the whole recipe, and learn Locatelli's techniques and methods for working dough. It was an earful, but all important, I assure you.

Then, as I begin reading the recipe, he puts another smaller book on top of the Locatelli book. It is The Restaurant's master recipe list. He flips it open to the "recipe" for biscotti. He tells me I will use toasted pistachios as the filling, and double the "recipe". I look down at the book. It is a long list of ingredients, and at the bottom the directions say: Use the cream method.


I guess I will just be add-libbing this one, too. Great way to start a shift.

As I am walking back to the kitchen, Chef M also tells me that I will be making a lemon mostarda using the triple-blanch method. I look at him. Smile. And, wonder when I will get a chance to google on my iPhone the terms mostarda, and triple-blanch. It is only 1:25. 

I find a scale, and start to measure my ingredients for the grissini. I am having to do math in my head while I weigh the flour because the scale does not have a reset button to start at zero. I find a cup, and place it on the scale: 5.8 ounces. A nice, even number to subtract everything from. 

(Sigh) Lovely. 

I weigh the flour. The recipe says I need 13 1/2 ounces. I am sorry, but there are not 1/2 ounces on this scale. I eyeball it because, frankly, nobody is looking over my shoulder. It seems to be a little over 1 1/2 cups. That sounds good enough. 

Then I melt butter, and milk, and add in the active dry yeast. I add that mixture, slowly and in a steady golden stream, to the flour and begin to form a dough with my hands. You have to understand, I really have no experience with dough. I am slightly shaking, and I am nervous that this is not going to turn out. With dough on my hands, palms, finger condom, and apron, I wrap the hard (should it be hard?!) dough ball in a wet, blue towel. Now, I wait for it to rest. Maybe it will soften up with time?

Chef M comes to the back, and asks me if the dough feels "right" in my hands. I laugh. 


Then, I move on to the lemon mostarda, which I have no IDEA how to do. I would have done the biscotti, but the butter needed to get to room temperature so that I could properly use the cream method. Honestly, I am really screwed with either recipe that I chose. Chef M told me earlier that the mostarda should contain lemon zest, sugar, white balsamic, dijon mustard, horseradish. No amounts, of course, or directions of order, but just enough to make about 2 cups. I get out a zest tool, and create beautiful pale yellow curls all over my cutting board. I ask The Head Chef to tell me what the triple-blanch method is (it is not google-able), it seems easy enough, and I get started on that. Meanwhile, my timer is buzzing because my hard dough now needs to get the Locatelli press and flip method, and then go under the blue towel again. My head is spinning. 

When my grissini dough is finally ready, I roll it out through a pasta wheel, and begin to form it into long sticks. I can't make them even, of course, and I put them on a Silpat to cook for 15 minutes. During their time in the oven, which actually ends up being more like 30 minutes because I make them too thick, I whip of a quick double-batch of biscotti. Using the ever-so-descriptive "cream method", I start them like I am making cookies, toss in the pistachios (that I almost forget) and put the loaves in another oven to bake as well. Phew! Two down. 

I pull the grissini out of the oven, crispy and brown. Chef M takes an ugly one (one of my first rolling attempts), tastes it, tells me this recipe is an experiment, and informs me that we may or may not serve them. 

What? All of that stress for an experiment? I need a cocktail. 

I finish up the lemon mostarda, golden and sweet, that will be served on the cheese plate, with the "may or may not" grissini, and a huge hunk of aged Pecorino. I put in into a small white bowl. 

The only thing left to do is cut my biscotti, and bake them for a second time. It is 4:45 and I need to get on my Chef's coat and my apron. Chef M, walking by quickly, grabs one of the "butts" from the end of a loaf, tastes it, slaps me on the back, and says, "That's the best shit you have ever made!" 

I smile ear to ear, on this inside, of course.