Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adventures of a kitchen slave, pt 6. I work the line

Sunday 8/22/10
The end of the busy workweek is here! I'm already looking forward to Monday, my only day off. I dare not add up the hours in the last workweek, as I know I have blown past the 60 hour mark. The chef asks, "can you come in on wednesday?" I know that this will mean 4 double duty days in a row (8:30-1:30 @ Gymbo, 2:30-11:00 in the kitchen). "Absolutely", I reply. The opportunities just keep on knocking...It is up to me to find the motivation to tackle them. I had no idea what surprises Wednesday had in store for me.
Wednesday 8/25/10
Venti Starbucks down, I was feeling ready for another exciting day of dicing & slicing. "Let me see your burn!", I'm commanded by the chef upon walking in. How does he even know about that? Someone told him. Someone told him "everything"...my little blog included. Oh no...they aren't going to buy my "nice girl" act anymore?! No way, those days are behind me. Turns out, the head chef thought my tough attitude was pretty "hard core" and furthermore "bad ass". In fact, this turns out to be the reason he wants me, yes ME!, to be his new line cook. I swallow the lump in my throat, and give myself a silent pep talk. I can do this. I can do this, right?

That night, I am trained on the pizza station, but it produces alot more than pizza. A small pizza oven, 6 burners & a flat top grill, this station churns out mussels, cioppino, crab cakes, salmon sandwiches, ahi clubs, veggie clubs, crab quesadillas, and seafood pastas. It's also responsible for making some of the kid food...pepperoni pizza, pasta marinara, grilled cheese (which will always remind me of my Dad. He made the BEST grilled cheese. If we were lucky, ham & cheese. In my mind, he might have well have been friggin Escoffier). The sous chef tells me that they used to call this the Bistro station. I will now refer to it as the LBistro station :)

I could see the surprise in their eyes. I could FEEL the surprise in my bones! I OWNED this station! Making details notes to my menu, I learned how to create every one of these dishes, along with tips for time management. Unsure of what to expect, I exceeded my every intention. This station is my bitch! For the next 4 days, I felt it an honor and a privilege to own this little part of the kitchen. No longer having to ask, what can I help you with (not to imply that I won't lend my help to others), I love having something to be responsible for. I am toasted with my favorite treats to a job well done. I skip off to get something. "Did you just skip?", someone says. They don't know that Ryan calls me Skipper, something I tend to do when I'm excited. "Ok, you have to stop being giddy", the Chef says. "Line cooks aren't giddy. They are MAD, and their anger motivates them." This one is giddy, and may be for quite some time. They will just have to get used to that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Adventures of a kitchen slave pt. 5, Awareness of the cycle

We are all on a spiral path. No growth takes place in a straight line. There will be setbacks along the way... There will be shadows, but they will be balanced by patches of light and fountains of joy as we grow and progress. Awareness of the pattern is all you need to sustain you along the way.

I wanted to cry and go home. Last friday, I managed to screw up everything I touched. Feeling crappy, preoccupied with my upcoming move to a new house, run down from my hectic schedule, my head was not in the game. I tried unsuccessfully to institute some self-imposed attitude adjustments throughout my shift. My incompetence persisted. When searing some mahi mahi steaks for a banquet, I forgot to season them with salt & pepper?!?! What is wrong with me?? When flipping the sheet tray of fish onto the grill (la plancha), the tray hit a basket of blanching water, splashing water onto the grill & the fish. Result? No sear, more of a steaming method :( The tomato concasse that I spent all afternoon on burned in the oven. I had mistaken the a speck of dust for the dot on the temperature dial (these ovens are so old...the speck & the dot look almost identical) and the tomatoes burned within 30 minutes. I returned from my break to find my tomatoes crispy and charred. Just so you can share in my pain, let me recap the process of tomato concasse (french cooking 101). Start with a crate of tomatoes (large volumes of food are becoming common to me now). They are first cored, and small X shape slits are cut on the bottom...not piercing the meat of the tomato, just the skin. Next they are blanched in boiling water (just enough for the skin to peel away easily, but not cooking the tomato). After cooling in an ice bath, I peel each one. Then, they are quartered and seeded, leaving petal-shaped pieces. They are then lined up on sheet pans lined with parchment paper (this was enough for 4 large sheet trays) and sprinkled with chopped garlic, shallots, and thyme. Olive oil is drizzled lightly on top. They should roast at 250 F for about an hour. This whole process took up about 2.5 hours of my afternoon. In my frustration over my burned tomatoes, I burned my arm too (the burn resembles a cyclops smiley face). Instead of applying ice or burn cream, I decided to leave the burn as a reminder to double check the temperate (masochist streak?). Carrying the trays of tomatoes to the trash can, one of the cooks says "Crispy!", I grumble something in return. Did you just say "f@*ck you?" he says? No, but I thought it. That night, walking to my car, feeling defeated, I was reminded of the above quote from Ano Ano. On so many nights I have practically skipped back to my car on my cloud of self-congratulation. This is all part of the cycle. Awareness of the cycle will sustain me.

Fast forward a few days, my outlook is improving. I learn how to fabricate lamb...taking the rack down the bone (this is called "frenching"). The result is like a lamb lollipop. The sous chef says "I think you have a natural aptitude for this cooking stuff". My heart swells with pride from this one little, well-timed compliment. Later, I get the chance to practice my new skill. Sadly, the owner of the hotel passed away, losing his battle with cancer. His memorial and reception (at the hotel) means huge numbers of people to feed. I stay there until 1:30am the night before, hands aching, prepping rack after rack of lamb (enough to feed the expected 800 people). I never met the owner (heard he was quite the foodie), but I consider this hard work my simple tribute to him. The weekend, with the memorial service, the 2 restaurants still open for business, and a previously scheduled wedding at the hotel, was an incredible production. New faces filled the kitchen, chefs and former employees there to help for the day. It was an amazing thing to be a part of. This huge effort...loads of preparation, mountains of cheese and fruit, tray after tray of canapes, boatloads of food! The result was a sort of controlled chaos, but from outside the kitchen you would have never known. At the end of the night the chef gathers the few remaining employees around. "Are you guys proud of yourselves?", he asks. "Because I am proud of you!" The cycle has come full circle. Yep, I'm pretty proud of me too.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Adventures of a kitchen slave pt. 4, That which shall not be named

"Buzz buzz", says my alarm clock. It can't possibly be right, I just set this clock 5 hours ago? "Good morning love, how do you feel?" I am so tired. It's the only response I can muster. I have never worked this hard in my life, hands down. My new schedule rages at an unrelenting pace. In one week, I work in 3 different Gymboree sites, plus the Hotel gig. I've found myself sitting at the top of my street, pondering which way to turn...where am I going? Last week, I completely forgot that I was driving a stick shift, embarrassingly stalling out at a stop light (In my defense, this car is still new to me). My social life is laughable in comparison to its glory days, but my beloved friends often send home goodie bags consisting of family dinner leftovers and my favorite treats. My 30 minute break from the kitchen has become catch-up hour for Ry & I, condensing the day into a quick conversation, while I chew noisily and talk with my mouth full on the other end. When I finally cross the finish line into my house, it's time to shower off the funk and pop my kitchen scrubs into the washer (as I only have 1 set!). The dryer will have to wait until the morning. Even in my exhaustion, it takes a while for my busy brain to wind down at the end of the night. I realize that late night food tv is often aimed at men...Man vs Food (when did watching gluttons gorge themselves become entertainment?), Diners Drive-ins & Dives...I find myself channeling Anthony Bourdain here. "What did Guy Fieri ever do to me?" Can't help it, don't like it.

A big believer in the law of attraction, I realize that declaring my tiredness (muy cansada!) every morning is not helping me. Ryan & I begin to refer to it as "that which shall not be named." It's still there, I'm just not talking about it.

Despite that which shall not be named, my hunger for culinary knowledge grows. More live lobsters die at my hands, more tomatoes are diced in pico de gallo (at accelerating speeds!), 10 dozen oysters are shucked, shrimp are poached in a court bouillon, pizza dough whirls around the dough hook of a ridiculously large mixer...all before break. Tomato concasse (which I'm pretty sure translates to "pain in the ass") were covered in a culinary lab, but have now become a daily routine. Mastery through repetition. I try to tackle every job with determination, big or small, glamorous or not (often, not). Some co-workers still seemed surprised by the little-blonde-girl-that-could (Laurita...roll the "r"...has become my new nickname). They try to carry all the heavy items for me. They don't know how strong I am. Honestly, until recently, I didn't either.