Archive for March, 2011

Are You Clowning Me?

Today when I got to work, I was surprised to see a stage in the prep kitchen. Non-culinary readers might want to take note that in kitchen-lingo, a stage (rhymes with Taj Mahal) is someone who apprentices theirself in a kitchen for a short period of time, usually working for free. If a kitchen is hiring, they set up a stage to see how the potential employee works. If a cook just wants to see what a certain restaurant’s kitchen is like, they might just set up a stage for fun. A couple of months ago, we had a stage who happened to be Adam’s friend who was visiting from New York. We also once had a stage who couldn’t handle the line and slipped away in the middle of service without telling anyone. Sometimes I wonder where he is now….

That said, at Avec we have stages prep for a while and then hang out on the line where the action is. Today was no different. Except that this stage would be observing me, which I thought was going to be surreal, since I’d only started working the line myself. I kept up pretty well actually and in retrospect I think I looked pretty good. During a lull, John had me switch with the stage so he could get a taste of line time, with me acting as his guide. “Oh no… it’s going to be the blind leading the blind,” I groaned. But he was pretty decent. He handled the heat well. He caught on quickly once I explained some basics or told him what ingredients went in a dish. In fact, he was so decently proficient, my self confidence kind of waned. I had half expected for him to get swamped and I’d jump in, like when I got overwhelmed and Dylan would help me out of my jam. But it never happened. He only switched out once, when he cut his finger and he went to get a bandage. A couple minutes later he was back with a glove on and jumped back on. If anything, I kind of got bored and a little sad that I had nothing to do but observe and fetch items ._.
It made my night really easy though. And when he left later that evening, I just breezed right through the rest of service.

I’d like to say that tonight was a WIN situation, but I kind of wish I had my line time. Whoa…how weird is that, considering last week I was nearly prostrated by fear of the line? Am I getting better or growing up? Maybe a little bit of both.

My next two days are off days and then I’m back on prep Saturday. Hmm… does that mean I’ll be working a Sunday?! OOOH!! Will report back as soon as I find out.


So Close Yet So Far

I woke up this morning from a pretty disappointing dream where I discovered that John (who’s leaving us in May) had poached Elliot away from us, as well as Adam, who is currently in France. But in the dream, he’d LIED about going to France to secretly move over to John’s side. And they were going to work in John’s new place in DETROIT. And not only that, I’d found out Elliot’s focused awesomeness stemmed from an addiction to prodigious amounts of cocaine.
None of this is probably true but dreaming about it is a little disconcerting.

That said, worked the line last night and again, I feel roughed up. I’m improving (I kept up on dates; a small victory) yet I feel like I’m not. If it’s not date sauce, it’s chicken that’s holding me up. I’ll make the mustard greens salad but realize at the last minute I forgot red onion. And when I try to move fast, it’s like I’m not. Yesterday, after a trying episode of chicken orders, Katie made some comment about how it was a “boring” night so far, and I remember thinking, “Really? =__=;; Man, I must suck.” But it’s all in the small victories: my food looks great, it tastes great (according to Katie). My palate’s great (according to Koren). All I can do is keep plugging away, which has been my plan since day 1, so it’s not like anything’s going off-track.

In the burn department, I somehow got one awkward one on the side of my arm, which I rubbed the skin off when I was drying my hands after washing them.

Working the line again tonight (yay?) and I want to say a little prayer for the Kitchen Gods to smile down on me or something, but I’m just going to leave it for my abilities (or lack thereof) to take their course.

Does Not Compute

Hi all,
I’m going to make this short because I just want to take a bath and then go to sleep. Today was another rough-ish night. I just can’t seem to move as fast as I want to (damn my fat self), or I just can’t get ahead as much as I want to. I DID keep up with my dates. So I’ve got something there. Now all I have to do is keep up with date sauce aka piquillo sauce. Mlurf =_=;;;;

Last week I burned myself, not that I made a big deal about it. They’re healing but they look dark which everyone noticed, even Koren. She and everyone else today (save for Elliot and Armanzo, who are of the “whatev” school of thought, of which I’m also a believer) kept telling me to put something on my burns. I guess I know where they’re coming from, but really, I’d prefer to let nature take its course. Okay, I take that back. I just asked my dad for some Asian burn cream. I got a new burn today which is puffing up in that way where you know there’s that gross liquid underneath. Anyone know what that stuff is called? I got it when I hit my wrist on top of the wood oven. The new burn is right on top of an old burn. D’oh!!! >__<

Back on the line tomorrow night. I wish I could say “fun times!” like I always do, but this time I’m actually hoping for a day off on Wednesday. I was so tired tonight I didn’t even check my schedule to see what time I clock in.

CRAP. I think I forgot to clock out. D’OH!!!!!!!! >_<

First, Second, Third Gear

Whoaaa, I feel a little shell shocked.

Tonight I got my ass kicked a little again, but I’m glad to say I fought back just as hard. Like in that Dylan Thomas poem where it says, “Do not go gentle into that good night…. Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Not tooting my own horn or nuthin’ but I think I was doing pretty fine in the beginning. I was keeping up on dates (I learned my lesson yesterday), keeping up the pace, making the food look pretty.

And then a huge push came and it seemed like EVERYONE wanted something off my station. In a span of, like, 2 minutes, I went from having 3 pork shoulders in the oven to having 8 orders total coming in. Plus 3 chickens, 2 sausages, a couple of burrata, pork terrine… dates, dates, dates, DATES, LOAF OMFGIWANTTOKILLMYSELFAUGHHHHHHHH
Luckily, Katie helped me out of my jam by taking over some of the terrines and dates, and had no problems with me asking to put things in her oven. I was really good about that. No weird stupid pride today about “Oh no, station 2 is helping me out of a jam, I must be soooo lame and can’t keep up.” I might have thought that for about a millisecond, but then reality set in and was like, “Get food out NOW, Stupid! Go, go, go, GO!!” I burned myself a couple of times (the worst of them is almost the size of a quarter) but I just accepted it and slogged through.

Later when it was all over, Katie told me that Koren almost thought about pulling me off the line. She’d asked Katie if I should step off, but apparently Katie backed me up. I don’t know how to feel about that, except that I’m grateful that Katie believed in me. I’m also glad Koren didn’t pull an executive decision and ordered me off, cos then I would’ve had to comply, which would’ve dampered my spirits and resulted in a pretty sad blog. I’m glad someone gave me a chance to stick it through, which is what I ended up doing. Looking back, I’m sure while I was toiling through the push, that little voice of mine reminded me that others before me have done the same and survived, so there was no reason I couldn’t.

Katie and I shared a cab to the station and she gave me a lot of good insight, some pep-talking, and post-push analysis that reaffirms what I already feel: I’m getting better, the push threw me for a loop, and the Little Voice that tells me I can and will do it will always ensure my success.

I wish I could put the working theory to the test, but sadly the rest of my schedule is prep. A good respite, but I know it’s going to throw me off balance if I’m scheduled back on the line next week. Goddammit, we need an intern. So I’m not pushed and pulled in different directions, so I can focus strictly on the line without worrying if someone messed up the deviled eggs (which someone did, sigh =_=), so I can train my muscle memory.
It’s funny how I’m actually disappointed that I’ll be prepping the rest of this week. I feel like I’m making headway in becoming a line cook!

Your Chosen Fate

Elliot: You ready for tomorrow?
Me: (after a slight pause) I have no choice but to be.

I have to make this short cos I want to go to sleep, but I’m gonna say I had my ass handed to me on the line today.
Fell behind on dates (STUPID!) and Elliot helped me out of a jam. Like helped me big time. By cooking two pans of dates for me on his side of the oven, while I muddled through my other dishes.
I fell a little behind making chicken. John gave me some helpful pointers (no, really) which I’ve got to think about how to make work for me. I can make headway if I figure out tickets (which isn’t hard, but they keep telling me not to worry about tickets, so I keep secretly sneaking peeks). Some points I feel like I’m doing fine. Others not so much. Everyone keeps telling me I’ll get better yadda yadda yadda and they are being kind and supportive, but inside I know this. I’m just inexperienced, working it out, and trying to make station 1 my own.
I used to dread cooking pork shoulder, but today I actually found it pleasant. Sure, it’s a bitch to slide them over with the oversized tongs while I fire is going raging hot, but it’s a comforting dish that, for some reason, touched and calmed me today.

Also, I dropped a pan of chicken veg on the floor. Slightly mortified, but mostly disappointed that I’d have to cook more veg ASAP. I definitely got over it and moved on. Koren’s word from before flashed in my mind briefly.

I have no idea how many covers we did. I’ll find out tomorrow. But now that it’s over, I’m hungry for more. Is it a masochistic reaction? I have my goal. It reinforces itself over and over again each time I am reaching into the oven and my hand is almost burning, or I’m getting behind, and I’m so mentally frazzled I almost forgot Elliot’s name, how to say mustard greens, and calling John “ma’am” instead of “sir” (true events all from tonight). But I have to keep on keepin’ on, cos of two reason: because I have the goal and because other line cooks before me didn’t have anyone to bail them out when things got tough. Sure, Station 2 could help you out of a jam, like Elliot did for me today (for which I am super grateful), but it’s not like when you’re staging and it gets to be too much and the regular line cook jumps back into the fray for you and you step back and watch. It’s a little bit of hard truth and pride. I wouldn’t have stepped back unless Koren actually came over and made me get off. Weeds or no, I’ve got to figure my learning curve on my own.

It wasn’t until I was so busy I didn’t have time to think of anything else did I lose my nervous fear that had been plaguing me all morning. Going to work, starting my dates, getting all my little things together (aleppo pepper, a bain for my utensils, vinegar)–a nameless terror clutched at my heart and stomach. I feel foolish and a little sheepish now, but I know I’ll feel it again for a while until I am comfortable about what I’m doing on the line. But at the time it was awful. I felt like I could cry (not that I would) but the fear welled up in me because I didn’t know what to expect. Armanzo* talked with me a little and he comforted me a little but again, I couldn’t shake it off until I had nothing to think about but putting food out as fast and nicely as possible.

After work I listened to Katie and Elliot talking on the train. Katie has worked at Trotter’s and you can tell that the experience there has made her the kind of worker she is today. Fierce and ready, like a seasoned soldier. She apparently at some points would work 96 hour days!! O_O;; The love-hate I feel for her at times definitely took a step back today because I was in such awe at her ambitiousness. It makes all my feelings seem so petty and stupid. I don’t want to be her, I don’t want to be like her. I want to be capable in my own right so that we can work together. Right now I’m (to be humbly truthful) at the bottom of the totem pole. But I can either get better or get worse, and I’m sure as hell not getting worse. (At least, I don’t think so!)

No more reflections I can think of. I forgot Katie took the brown line too, so I couldn’t ask Elliot if he might leave us. Actually I was going to plead to him to NOT go if he was considering it, but that’s just a little dream right now. Dylan also helped me a little today after his opening. Not too much, if any at all, but his presence also gave me a bit of comfort.

If I sound frazzled and somewhat incoherent in my tone, it’s cos I’m trying to bust this out and go to bed. So good night.

*Armanzo is not his real name. He’s a line cook who opted not to have his real name used and chose this name because it sounded hilarious to him.

The Last Huzzah

Today is like the last time I’ll ever have a set off-day, like I did when I was just a prep cook. I start tomorrow at 4PM. Whooooaaaaa…. O_O

Actually, I guess officially my last set off day was Sunday, but today I was helping old sous chef/current chef de cuisine of Big Star Justin in an event. It was a school presentation that tied in with their school lunches. Justin, Paul Kahan (the ruler of us all), Koren, and a bunch of other chefs are in a program called Pilot Light that aims to improve school lunches. So while Team Paul & Justin (plus Helper Betty) were teaching second graders about noodles and its ties to the Chinese and Chinatown (the kids had learned about neighborhoods last week), they were also teaching the kids on a deeper level to think about where this food (and in a sense, ANY food) comes from. In the noodle’s case, wheat: where it comes from, how it gets made, what becomes of it. And then as a reinforcement, they got to eat it (along with other chefs’ educational contributions) in an optional school lunch. It was pretty amazing. Or should I say, it is freakin’ awesomely amazing. Not only are Paul Kahan and Justin Large really good speakers (they were warm, personable, engaging and funny) they gave a really good lesson from which even I learned a few new things. And they brought it back to the school lunch improvement agenda, getting the children excited about noodles and vegetables.

Today’s menu was (comprised of the chefs’ educationally edible contributions): pork stew with polenta (though everyone was calling them grits since I guess the third graders had been learning about corn or something), cooked carrots, buckwheat noodle salad, and apple strudel. YUM! Versus regular school lunch of “taco”, steamed corn, and some fresh fruit. I have no qualms about steamed corn and fruit but until I took a closer look at the wrapper, I had no idea it was even a taco. I actually thought it was a honey bun or a doughnut. Actually it was some quasi-taco pocket that was actually just warmed up in a huge warming contraption. Yeah, warmed.
If you’re like me, you’re probably vaguely aware but not totally knowledgeable on present day school lunches. You could say Lunch Lady Doris is still there, but she doesn’t cook anything she serves anymore. She just warms up what state contracted caterers made and hands them out. They’re already portioned and sealed in plastic and you just rip it open and eat it. It’s basically airline food. But this makes airline food look gourmet. At least I knew what I was eating all those years ago on that Air Korea flight. Cos I sure didn’t recognize that taco even if someone had smacked me in the face with it. As Justin had said, “It may as well be Soylent Green.”
And that also reminds me, the school kitchen was TINY O_O;;; Since schools don’t cook lunch anymore in the conventional sense, they’ve shrunk the kitchen down to the size of a large classroom. When I walked in, I just kept looking around expecting there to be more. There wasn’t a fridge anymore to hold food, but a freezer for all the pre-cooked, pre-portioned stuff that they’d load onto a tray and put in the warmer O_O;;

But other than that, the in-school demonstration and lunchtime was FUN! I played my part during Paul’s and Justin’s lesson by showing the kids how to hand make pasta dough, rolling and cutting noodles, and talking a little about my Chinese heritage. And the kids were really smart. Not only were there huge signs hung up about composition writing (I sure as hell don’t remember writing compositions when I was a second grader. In fact, I think I was continuing through a phonics workbook >_>;;;), Justin once showed me their lesson plan and they were learning economics. Not “social studies”, but ECONOMICS. I don’t think I even knew that word when I was their age. So when one little girl raised her hand and asked if wheat grew in Libya, we were all pretty stunned. The US and European air strikes were still fresh in my mind since I saw the front page of the New York Times, but where does a 7-year-old learn about Libya?!?! (And yes, Libya does grow wheat as well as barley plus dates, olives, peanuts and soybeans. Thanks Wikipedia!)

And now I can check off one of my life goals: Become A Lunch Lady For a Day lol. Not that it was intense like standing in front of a 700° oven slinging dates, but it was a controlled wave of kids and we had to get out food fast for them since they don’t have too much time to eat it and then go out for recess. So we assembly-line portioned food and handed it out, and then got to reap the rewards by seeing their smiling faces while eating and some of them even wanted seconds. YESSS! I may not enjoy the idea of having kids of my own, but I can’t help but smile when after each lunch period was over, 100 kids would line up and just before they left to play, they yell “THANK YOU!!!!!” cos they really enjoyed their food.

There was a hairy moment when we found out we didn’t have much cooked carrot left, and what was a veggie side eventually became a carrot garnish for the pork stew +_+;;;
“What the-” I started to say when the plate was passed to me to portion, but Justin cut me off with a wry smile: “Don’t say it. We know.” I don’t know if Chef Erick thought kids wouldn’t like carrots, or he grossly underestimated how much kids would eat, or he left half the carrots in his car, but the fact is there were no more carrots, he’d left early, and he apparently didn’t want to take his 2-inch half hotel pan with him. Justin decided to take it with him back to Big Star. “Hell, I’m not gonna pass up free kitchen equipment.” Damn! I was just about to claim it for Avec but was just a heartbeat too late.

Anyway, I hope when Pilot Light does another school lunch installment, Chefs Paul and Justin (or even Koren) invite me back cos that was really enjoyable. It’s awesome seeing happy kids learn something. It’s fun to see professionals gab and pal around. It’s fun to hear Paul and Justin (and Koren and Publican-employee Sam) talk industry (or in Koren and Sam’s case, memories of Newport, Rhode Island).
And now, I need to take a much needed nap because I’ve been up since 6:30AM…. Nighty night.

Taking It On The Run

Whoa!!! Just heard the confirmation that our sous chef, John, will be leaving us May 1.
I’d heard the rumor about 2 days ago from our butcher Jorge, but I didn’t really think much of it since John’s always taking time off for something. Once it was a trip to China. Another time, it was Iowa State University’s Meat School (a meat class where you learn about sausage making). Other times: a farm dinner in Michigan, the SXSW music fest in Austin, a collaborative chef dinner in Ohio… you get the picture. He’s out and about so hearing news of “leaving” meant little to me.

Though I did wonder if it meant what I thought it meant.

I doubt anyone at work knows this (unless they’re reading this blog, then secret’s out) but I have an inner love/hate for John. I respect him and (sort of) admire him because he’s my senpai (bordering on sensei) and he’s worked a very long time to get to his current position. He can be funny and disarmingly charming. He has tons of food ideas that end up on the menu (way more than my current zero). He’s got pretty good taste in music. (If you’re wondering how music figures into my kitchen admiration, it does a little. If I’m working next to you and your iPod is blasting shitty music that does not fit the situation; for imaginary example, drone metal while I’m peeling carrots; I won’t tell you to turn it off, but I will dislike you for playing it in the first place.)

But you can take those same reasons and look at the flip side: he became sous chef when his predecessor stepped down to take the chef de cuisine position at Big Star. (At the time I wondered if he had what it takes, but I guess now I have no choice but to grudgingly concede.) That same charm can sometimes border on douchery; once one of our servers mentioned she couldn’t drive and he said laughingly, “That’s okay, because you’re a woman.” Sure, he as lots of food ideas, but sometimes it leads to larger food cost for the restaurant (toward which I sometimes wonder if he occasionally turns a blind eye). Well, despite all this, at least he still has pretty good taste in music! (Even if he does pay for it all on iTunes, and I’m just a pirate >_>)

Anyway, I heard it from his lips that he will indeed be leaving to help open a place in Logan Square. And with that piece of news, I wonder: who will be the new sous chef?
I’d imagined Elliot, since he’s worked here next longest, and has a good head on his shoulders to boot, but there’s unconfirmed speculation that he’s leaving to follow Johnny. I don’t know what to think about that, but I’ll definitely be blogging my 90 cents about it when news of it hits my ears.

Katie, my sister-in-arms, will also be leaving sometime in the week before Easter. Hers will be a temporary leave, as she will be participating in Outstanding In The Field, a cross-country event dinner that honors its farmers and local artisans…yeah I’m not going to copy the description word for word from the site itself. Anyway, Katie will be gone til December, whoopin’ it up outdoors preparing farm dinners and being all badass and cool, while I will be slaving away at Avec, trying my damnedest to be a line cook with even a tenth of her capabilities. Not that I’m lesser or nuthin’, but when all you’ve known for most of your professional culinary life is the equivalent of a military desk job and you suddenly get stationed on the front lines (in part cos you asked for that position), you’d be a little insecure from time to time, too.

My fellow blogger, Ms. Nao, kindly let me know that Avec will be participating in Chef Week. Hmm… not only will we probably be hella busy, I’ll probably see line time during that week.