Friday, July 17, 2009

Biscotti Nightmares

I went to eat at The Restaurant with my Mom for the second time this week since I have been back from my vacation. I knew I would get shit right as I walked in the door. The Head Chef said smirkingly, “again!?”.  I guess they think I am coming here just to eat, and not to work.  I assured them I was coming back the next day.  

The food was stunning again, of course, but I have to admit that it was even better than last time which was just six days before. Maybe I am biased, because I adore these Chefs and respect their food and palates, but it is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to eat in Seattle. 

After the dinner is over, I say goodbye to my Mom, and decide to sit at the bar. I spot one of the Sous Chefs of a sister restaurant, I join him at the bar. We drink an entire bottle of Italian Prosecco as we get into a whirlwind conversation about the similarities between the dance world and the food industry, our love of pickles, running, and the extremely odd professions that we have chosen. I adore Chefs. 

Then, The Sous pops his head around to the bar. I assume he is going to ask me to get up and do a task for him. But, it is even better. He asks me if I wanted my prep list for the next day. Ha! I love that I am sitting at the bar drinking, and I am getting my task list for the next day. This is why I love this place. He tells me my job tomorrow will be…..dun dun dunnnnh….


All of a sudden, I am wishing I didn’t drink a half a bottle of Prosecco.

Ugh. Biscotti seems to be the one thing that is inconsistent EVERY time that I make it: Burnt on the bottom, crumbly, underworked dough, pistachios too big. I am determined to make it good this time.   

I arrive the next day after finishing a grueling ballet class and 2 mile run, excited, like it is my first day of school. I plop my polka dot knife bag, and my Kooba purse in the back kitchen, put on my white bistro apron that is too long around the neck, take a deep breath, and get going on the biscotti. 

I first take out the butter, which has not been taken out the night before, and stick it on a prep pan over the grill to soften it. When I come back after a few minutes, Chef M has chopped my 1 cup of butter into little pieces. I guess that would make sense. The smaller surface area makes the butter warm faster. I told you I don’t use my brain sometimes. 

So, I put the butter in the commercial black standing mixer and start to soften it with the giant steel paddle. I know the recipe by heart, or at least I think I do, and I start adding one egg into the butter. 

This is not the recipe. 

I realize I forgot to cream the butter with the sugar first. So, to fix my mistake, I just add the 1 cup of sugar into the one egg and butter mixture and continued on my way, hoping that this little error doesn’t mess up the whole recipe. I think I would die of humiliation. 

I continue on with the eggs, adding them in one at a time, until the mixture is a frothy yellow sugar. Then, I measure out the flour. As I am doing this, Chef M walks in to the back kitchen and give me one of those looks like, “Stage, what are you doing?”. He tells me I should always spoon my flour into a measuring cup so that it is not packed down. Then he says, technically, I should be weighing the flour, because that is the only way to have an exact flour measurement. He is a fantastic baker. 

I obviously start spooning the flour into the measuring cups. 

I measure everything out, and slowly add the flour to my egg mixture. The standing mixer, resists the flour at first, but then slowly starts to incorporate it. Dust from flour gets all over me, the standing mixer, and the prep counter. I get a comment about being a messy cook. This is true. 

After I have slowly incorporated the flour, I add in the different size chopped and toasted pistachios, and improvement I have made since my last batch. The mixer sounds like it is going to break, and so I decide I am going to work the dough by hand to avoid any accidents. I go to touch it, and it feels really gummy like a bread dough, so I decide to just leave it in the mixer, crossing my fingers as I add the pistachios. The mixer sounds like a old car that doesn’t want to start. It is resisting the pistachios. Why. Why. Why? 

Everyone has a comment, which I am now realizing is the life of a line cook. You always have mixed messages coming at you from every Chef who does it their own way. Chef B, looks at the mixer and says, you should have just done the whole recipe by hand like how I taught you. Then, Chef M walks by, tastes the dough, pretends to spit it out, and says,”Stage, there is so much gluten in this thing, it is going to be like a loaf of bread.” I have now over-mixed the dough. I am, as you can imagine, panicked. My first task in two weeks, and I am going to mess this biscotti up, again.  

Chef M then rolls out the dough for me into a long thin loaf, presses it with his fingers, and points out how much the dough is bouncing back. Then he says we are just going to bake it anyway, to see how it turns out. 

We stick it in the oven for 30 minutes at 325 degrees. I say a little prayer. 

As I am separating cauliflower florets on the opposite end of the Boos Block, I hear a ringing from the timer for the Biscotti.  Chef M, who is closest to the oven, gets to the biscotti first, and opens the door. I feel like he is breaking into a treasure chest, wondering if there will be gold. 

I look at him. He closes the oven, silent, and looks back at me. He says, “I checked on your bread, its not done yet.”  Ha! Bread. 

I give the bread about 15 more minutes, and I take it out of the oven, just barely browned and looking like all the biscotti that comes out of the oven at The Restaurant. But with all the shit I have been given, I am fully expecting to see a challah loaf, or a french baguette appear after all that gluten I created. But, alas, the biscotti prevailed. 

Now the waiting game begins. 

The biscotti has to cool before you slice it off, and bake it for the next time. The slicing is the nerve wracking part. Will it crumble and break under your Chef’s knife? When you taste the butts of the biscotti, will the flour and baking powder be properly sifted? Did you add enough leavening and sugar? 

When the biscotti has cooled, I bring it to the prep table to start the slicing. I wince, as I make the first incision and my knife runs smoothly through the biscotti like butter. I take the end piece, the butt, and pop it into my mouth. Oh! Buttery, and nutty, with a great texture? I slice off the rest of the bread successfully with no crumbling, and put it back in the oven to bake at 200 degrees for another hour or so. I am feeling slightly more confident. 

After flipping them once and testing them for hardness, I take them out of the oven to cool. I taste a small piece again, and I conclude that they are the best biscotti I have made. Extra gluten, my ass. 

I tell Chef M that the biscotti turned out, and I think they are the best ones I have made so far. He looks at me, charmingly, and says, “Stage. I was just messing with you this whole time” and gives me a huge wide smile. 

Ugh! I am so gullible. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Banquet Squiggle

Banquet Squiggle- A short wavy twist or line, similar to a curlicue, that was used at Hotel Banquets starting in the 90’s to garnish a plate


There are many tools used when plating and garnishing a dish. You have your microplane to grate fresh horseradish over Kumamoto oysters, or to grate Mojama over a deconstructed carbonara. You have your ceramic mandoline and your vegetable peeler to cut thin crisp slices of a green apple, or shave a small Persian cucumber. But most importantly, you have your opaque 12 oz. and 6 oz. squeeze bottles for sauces and dressings. Maybe they have a lovage puree, or a creamy anchovy dressing. Or they contain a thick lemony aioli, or a frothy watermelon broth. 

There are many options for plating these sauces and dressings: you can spoon the sauce in a corner and run the back of your spoon through it to create a sort of teardrop like arrow, you can drip consecutively bigger dots next to each other down the side of the plate, you can draw a straight line on the edge of your plate, or splatter the sauce, Jackson Pollock style. 

But, no matter what is in those squeeze bottles, do not ever, ever, EVER use them to create a banquet squiggle.


I feel uninspired as I begin to plate a crudo dish that I had already finished slicing and prepping on my cutting board. In a loss for creativity and lack of experience, and maybe eating at too many “trendy” restaurants in the 90’s when my influences started to take shape, I start to complete the final element, which is to create a garnish with the mint puree from one of the squeeze bottles.

I am sure you can imagine what happens next. 

I create a short wavy twist with that 12 oz. squeeze bottle in the corner of the white square plate, feeling at that exact moment, as I lift the bottle into the air to finish, that it was the lazy way out. Immediately I sense Chef M’s eyes bore into my plating. 

He says to me in his slight southern accent, “Oh, Stage. Stage. Be Careful there. We do not want this establishment’s food looking like some kind of hotel banquet, now, do we?” At that, he quickly picks up my plate to show The Sous and The Head Chef across the Boos Block what I have done, laughing hysterically. Then he says, “Stage gave you a little banquet squiggle.” 

All I can do is laugh, hard. At myself, and with the other Chefs. I take the plate back and assure him I can fix it. I wonder if anybody has a toothpick lying around? I plan to just create a pattern from the squiggle that I have seen those same Hotel Chefs do with berry coulis. 

Can you feel this getting worse? 

I pull some lines through the squiggle with the end of my fork, but at this point, the mint puree has settled, and all that is left on my plate is a verdant rectangle of slop. It looks like an ironic grass stain lying there on that white square plate. It reminds me of the grass stain I had in middle school, on the butt of my favorite pair of white Calvin Klein cut-off shorts, that I adamantly wore because I was too prideful to throw them away. He says to me, “Now you are just making a mess.” 

Maybe this is my hint to get myself a food plating book. But, I can assure you, It will have the banquet squiggle in there. 

It is a classic. 

But, regardless, the Chefs are never going to let me live this one down. 

Monday, July 13, 2009

In It For The Long Run

I miss The Restaurant. It has been two weeks since I have worked there and while I have had a fantastic vacation, it is bittersweet to stop in the middle of something you really want to be doing. 

It has also made me reflect on my time there, what I am getting out of it, and my food life in general, not to mention the importance of keeping my standards high. Like ballet, at first, nobody ever believed that I would be a dancer. My childhood ballet teacher in my hometown of Virginia gave me the run around, playing with my mind, turning it into egg scramble of verbal abuse and discouragement, and attempting to prevent me from becoming a dancer on a daily basis. But, because of her disbelief in my potential, I basically showed her my really long middle finger by being accepted to the School of American Ballet in New York City at the highly mature and responsible age of fifteen until I was invited to join to this "little" company in Seattle called Pacific Northwest Ballet. Thus becoming the first professional dancer from my childhood school to ever get a job as an honest-to-goodness professional ballerina. The rest is history. 

Not an easy history, but a fulfilling one at that. 

I don't feel discouraged in the same way at The Restaurant. Well, not yet. But I do feel like people don't believe I am serious about wanting to become a Chef. People ask me, with a subtle laugh that I can see on the inside, if this is really something I want to be doing. Well, yes. I think so? But, like many others, the chef world is largely a male dominated profession, and I am starting at the bottom, naive and ignorant to the amount of work it requires, and talent pool I am joining. I feel like the runt of the puppy litter, hoping that someone will pick me, believe in me, and guide me as I grow. 

I learn new things. Daily. Stupid things that The Chef's would assume to be common knowledge, but not so much as a "home cook". I burn my arms while taking giant pans of biscotti out of hot ovens, forget even the most basic recipes (rather, methods) that I thought I had known intimately like my eye color or shoe size, and constantly, constantly, constantly make mistakes. More mistakes than I have ever made before. 

The other night The Owner came in to The Restaurant. I am immediately flustered because my station is not busy, and I must look stupid standing there like a wallflower twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do. He says hello to me, and gives me a vigilant look.  Maybe he is thinking they are not keeping me busy enough? Is he wondering if I am actually learning anything from The Chefs? He walks away, and sits at the seven person bar with The Reviewer from a magazine that is writing an article about The Restaurant. I immediately ask Chef M what I can do to keep busy. He has me change clean out the ice pans in the fridge, and replace the ice. Relief.

That only took me ten minutes. Now what?

I come back to my station and an order has come up for The Owner and The Reviewer. Chef M starts the order taking careful time to create lines from squeeze bottles filled with herb sauces, slice heirloom cherry tomatoes and Persian cucumbers on the ceramic mandoline, and clearly plate the dish as if he is painting on canvas. I watch, mouth slightly ajar, no drool. 

A few minutes go by, and Chef M tells me to take the next order. It is a monochromatic dish I have plated many times: hamachi, prosciutto, and marinated grilled mission figs (which tastes as amazing as it sounds). I start to slice the fish, something I have just started to get a hang of with his long Sashimi knife. I salt it, and start to plate it as I always do. Chef M looks over and tells me we are going to plate this dish differently because he didn't realize it was also for The Owner and The Reviewer (and who wants The Stage cooking for them!). As he goes to rearrange the fish from a fan stack, to individual pieces lined up on the plate, he discovers that I have not sliced the fish all the way through at the very bottom ends. They hold on like a seedling root in a Spring garden. Oops. I guess I knew that this could have been a possibility when I first sliced the fish, because it has happened before. But for some reason I let my standards go, and did not check it to make sure I had sliced it all the way through.  What if they had given that to The Reviewer? Would she have noticed? 

I am horrified. 

Luckily, besides a little well-deserved sarcastic comment, Chef M handles my "mess" up pretty well. He saves me from being the lead in a my own personal horror flick. One in where The Owner yells at me, and tells me to get out of The Restaurant in the middle of service, because quite frankly, I can't even slice a damn piece of fish correctly.


But, when I finally ate at The Restaurant the other night after working there all summer, I realized the importance of every plate looking and being perfect. It was by far one of the most stunning meals I have eaten in a long time. It was odd being in the front of the house, removed from the action and banter in the kitchen, having my friends serve me, and wondering and imagining all the hours of preparation that went into each dish before The Restaurant opened. 

My group ordered everything that The Head Chef made. I never get to work with him, so I feel like I know his cooking style, and palate the least out of everyone. I was stunned with every dish that came out; each one different in flavor and style. And, each one cooked to perfection, plated with elegance, yet understated. I told you in was in awe of The Head Chef. 

Crazy as I am, this made me want to become a Chef even more. The jubilation that I had, eating the food of The Chefs I think so highly of, made me understand the difference between The Restaurant I "Stage" at, and the plethora of other places who do not have the same standards. I yearn to be able to create the same experience I just had when eating in The Restaurant. It reminds me of the stimulation I get while watching another ballet company, and itching to jump on the stage, and dance with them. 

Through these moments of horror and self doubt, though, nothing has changed. I am still in it for the long run, and I am eager to get back to The Restaurant like I am eager to get on that stage while watching a show. 

I just need to practice slicing that damn fish.