Monday, August 24, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Recently I stretched my culinary muscles. I re-entered a large-scale commercial kitchen to help out a chef friend of mine. I’m here to tell you that my muscles got a lot more than stretched.
Day One: I am excited and nervous. Will I know how to use the equipment? Will I understand the terminology still? Can I still keep up? There’s a reason I no longer work in the restaurant industry. On the first day I am told my friend, who is the executive chef will not be there. I have to admit. I did lose a little sleep with the added pressure that I might have to prove myself. I was transported immediately to that first day at a new school and reliving the nightmares of failure and embarrassment. I was really getting myself all worked up.
Proving yourself is the nature of this industry. Unless you’re packing your James Beard award or a hefty resume (of which I have neither) then you will be watched and you will be proving yourself. So I had to administer some serious self talk. This is not my primary employment and I’m just doing a friend a favor. I have nothing to prove. I began to feel like Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s SNL character who used to turn towards the mirror and gaze at himself saying.. “You’re good enough. You’re smart enough and dog gone it, people LIKE you.”
I ended day one without incident of blood or tears. I count that a success. I had made arrangements to meet some friends for a cocktail party that evening. Instead I took two prescription-strength Motrin and crawled into bed. I woke up 4 hours later and took two more Motrin and tried not to make eye contact with my feet as they screamed up at me.
Day Two: I tried a different pair of shoes on day two, expensive shoes. This day my friend the executive chef would be there. Don’t think that gave me a ton of comfort. He can be brutal. (But he wasn’t!) But still he can be brutal. Thankfully, the Sous Chef had given a favorable report of my progress on day one. So, I was warmly greeted and then put to work. There would be a late dinner, 9:30 PM, for 145 people. There would be several catering events, two for 50 and another for 240. The kitchen was abuzz with activity when I arrived 2 hours after most of the crew. Feeling more comfortable if not a bit stiff, I put my head down and began to work on my project.
In his book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain describes the very unglamorous process that is working in a restaurant kitchen.
“What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner. Line cooking- the real business of preparing the food you eat is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.”
I made several hundred crostini, debearded 10 pounds of mussels, steamed and shucked them, then I tried making a gallon of Vanilla Crème Anglaise. I made vanilla scrambled eggs and went home with my very sore shoulders slumped.
Day Three: I woke up and was sorry I hadn’t died in my sleep. I got into the car and hoped for the viaduct to collapse underneath me as I made my way back to the kitchen. Shoes just didn’t matter anymore. I’d taken two pain pills the night before. They didn’t begin to touch the pain. They just distracted my mind from caring anymore.
I walked in the kitchen and the chef looked at me and without a second’s hesitation, not “good morning”, not “good to see you” but “Make Anglaise!” I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of pressure. The “real” chefs were starting to roll out the stories of a previous “retarded prep-boy” who made scrambled eggs every time he attempted Anglaise. There was no sympathy at all. I had the heat so low under that Anglaise it was warmer in the room than it was in the pot I was stirring. I had lost my best chef’s knife the night before. I had dropped it somewhere. If I knew where it wouldn’t be lost. I told the chef that if I failed on the Anglaise again I would fall on my own chef’s knife but I didn’t have one anymore … could I borrow his? That Anglaise owned me. That crummy sauce was going to determine whether or not I’d be picked on in the halls for the rest of my very short career. It turned out fine. But there was no atta-girl. No “good job”, “way to go”. I was done with that and on the next task.
Day Four: I refer back to Bourdain’s comment above. Repetition! Mindless repetition. A good friend had told me the day before that her dad used to tell her (regarding work) when she was a teenager: “Go there, put your head down and work.” Not so glamorous but that’s what I had to do for day four. I started off helping with a catering job for 670. 700 crostini later, I was in the groove and getting the hang of the flow. One thing I came away from those four grueling days with was the sense of camaraderie that hangs heavy in a commercial kitchen. No one person sees all components of a dish from beginning to end. It’s a well choreographed dance that requires precision, timing and exactness from several people. If one person misses a step the house of cards will come tumbling down. A harder working group of loyal, good-to-the-core, conscientious people I’ve never encountered before.
This was a pan of olive-oil poached tuna.
Later it became a Salad Nicoise.
Soon to be baked wild musroom tarts.
A mess of Penn Cove Mussels.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
One of our early campers (pre-motor home camping) sported an 8-track tape player and speakers that dad would bring out and mount on the outside of the camper once we’d settled. We would listen to Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Charlie Pride while we sat around the campfire. Camping, was our family’s all-inclusive resort vacationing.
As an adult I am no longer a camper girl. Hanging from the rear-view mirror in my car is a picture of a platinum blond in front of a high-rise hotel in a 50s era cartoon with the statement “I love not camping”. It’s true now, I love not camping. As a child I didn’t really have a choice and I didn’t know anything else. Besides, camping was the only time we got to eat junk food and drink soda. Also, camping was the only time my dad made his beer pancakes.
I like pancakes about as much as I like camping now. But when I was a little girl and I sat at that little table in our hand-made camper, smelling the mixture of propane and perking coffee while my eyes tried to adjust to the morning, I was happy. I knew that my dad was going to make breakfast. Dad only made breakfast when we were camping. There was something so exciting about the novelty of watching my dad tackle a task that was completely foreign to anything he would have done at home. It was as though I had a different dad when we went camping. I had a breakfast-making dad. It was like magic. Dad’s culinary repertoire was short and sweet. He made beer pancakes. That’s it. After breakfast my culinary father disappeared and my mom was back in charge of all things food.
Dad’s beer pancakes were, in fact, legendary. Part of what made them so special wasn’t just that they were my chef-dad’s only specialty but it was the location. I think that even a bologna sandwich tasted somehow perfect surrounded by the canvas of nature. I am pretty sure my dad used a box of pancake mix and modified the “recipe” on the back of the box by using beer instead of water. So, I’m not offering up a recipe for dad’s famous beer pancakes here. I’ve given enough of the secret away already.
Today my version of camping is sailing. I have a friend who owns a beautiful 42’ sailboat that he moors in
Recently we grilled some sausages and sautéed some peppers, mushrooms and onions and served up dinner in a hoagie roll. The star of this dinner was the blue cheese coleslaw. My friend Nancy found the recipe in the Seattle P.I. (R.I.P.) a couple of summers ago. It hails from The BBQ Queens Big Book of Barbecue. The recipe calls for
Coleslaw has such a muddy reputation. This isn't coleslaw's ugly sugared up-mayonnaise-wearing step-sister rather her sophisticated cousin visiting from the city. This is the coleslaw you want to take home and introduce to the family. It plays well on the plate with a number of things and at almost anytime of year. But it really shone next to the grilled sausages with peppers, onions and mushrooms.
I've enjoyed this coleslaw several times before and maybe it was location, location, location but it tasted better than ever the other night on the boat. Nancy says the recipe claims to serve 8 but she's sure it would feed more like 18.
Blue Cheese Coleslaw
2 pounds Napa cabbage, cored and shredded
8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup chopped green onions
3/4 cup Vegetable oil
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 TB sugar
1 tsp celery seed
1/2 tsp ground white pepper (Nancy says she uses black)
1/4 tsp dry mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
Toss cabbage, cheese and onions together. Just before serving, whisk the dressing ingredients together. Pour over the slaw and toss to coat. The slaw will wilt after dressing so serve right away.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
I couldn't help but feel slightly irreverent each time the sound effects on my digital camera made the "shutter" noise. I couldn't stop myself from trying to capture the essence of this sanctuary in bits and pieces and small frames. It was impossible to do.
As we approached the entry I asked my friend to place her hand on the door before I snapped the picture.
Then I read that Holl commented, "Doors are the place where you touch the building. They are something special... the portal, the threshold." That made me shiver. The doors are different sizes. One large representing a ceremonial entrance and the smaller more of a private feel. Both are constructed of hand-carved Alaskan yellow cedar and are accented with reddened bronze. There are seven glass lenses set into the door at different angles and they radiate light throughout the day.
Upon entering I was struck by the silence. There were other people in the chapel but no sound. Perhaps this is why my camera suddenly sounded like a jackhammer.
I was so intrigued by a small room called the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Of course I took in everything visually before I read the literature. Later I discovered that the walls are coated with beeswax and the "prayers" that I found embedded in the walls are made of gold leaf.
Throughout the chapel the shadows and glow of natural light that is cast across the angles create the very ethereal descriptions that were delivered to me by others who have visited this marvelous structure.
Finally, there was a beautiful statue named "Gratia Plena" which honors Mary. The statue was created by artist Steven Heilmer who carved it out of a single piece of Carrara marble.
Whether it's a perfect plate of food that offers up healing comfort or a painting that makes me want to dance or architecture that makes me hold my breath, art is moving and inspiring. As we left I turned one last time in an attempt to "capture" the beauty of this piece of art. Like the superstitious beliefs of some tribes it seemed an imposibility to photograph the soul of the Chapel of St. Ignatius.