My Creations, Places I like

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Where Angels Go to Die

(If you want music to set the tone)

Its now past twelve fifteen A.M. on a wild Saturday night and I am hunched over an L-shaped table that houses our little compact dishwasher. An equally compact little man, Crispin, operates the machine with barbaric force. His massive forearms thrust open the steel door seconds before the cycle is complete. Water shoots everywhere and steam billows out as he pulls the rack of plates from the machine. The temperature and humidity skyrocket with each cycle while the ventilating hood does very little to suck anything up. Stacking like items together, Crispin forms a leaning tower of delicate yet piping hot china before bear-hugging it all so he can carry it to the metal shelves across the kitchen. His little feet scurry across the bare concrete floor stopping at each shelf to drop off plates, ramekins, soup bowls, and ladles. Briskly jogging back to his little den, Crispy arrives to the machine just in time for the next cycle to finish. He timed it perfectly. Seeing him in his own element brought a smile to my face. There was something so raw, so visceral about the way he operated within the confines of his tiny kingdom. He was in a zone that most of us cooks and chefs get into when service is in full stride. You can't bother someone when they're in a state like that. You can only sit back and let them do their thing. It was breathtaking to watch.

I stare in awe as he repeats each step with military precision. Wash, rinse, prepare the second load, pull out the first, put in the second, stack the first, run it to the shelves, dispense, run back, and repeat all in the time it takes the machine to wash one load (approximately forty five seconds). He never skips a beat. I look on while simultaneously stacking ramekins filled with half eaten butter. He and another muchacho, Jorge (yes we call them muchachos by the way) laugh as I hit my head (for the second time) on the steel bars that prop up the glass racks above me. "Hehe YOU STOOPID MENGG!", Crispin cries out. I raise an eyebrow and glance at him as if to say, "c'mon bro, I'm saving your life here..." We glare at each other for a second then both laugh at my misfortune. "YOU LAYY CEE", he shouts again, chuckling. "I'm not LAY CEE! YOU lay cee! YOU TORTUGA!" Crispin smiles showing the gaps of missing teeth before turning to remove the next rack of plates.

Still hunched between the table and metal rack holder I work quickly to unload the pile of black bus bins filled with dirty plates and still full water glasses. A fork in one hand scrapes unfinished dinners and soggy popover fragments into the garbage while the other pulls out water glasses to place in the glass racks above. I am filling in for Ricardo who usually works this area but quit last minute, leaving Crispin and Jorge a man down on a typical chaotic Saturday night at Sperry's. Right now, at this moment, there is no cultural differences. There is no language barrier. I am one of the amigos. "El blanco diablo", they call me; "The white devil". 

Like most nicknames, mine was not self-imposed, but earned. Earned over many nights just like this one, unloading filthy bus bins way past my shift had ended and all the other employees had gone home for the night. While the three of us work hard to bust out the last late-night push of dishes, I reminisce about my very first stint in the dish area. "The gallows", "the dish pit", "the pit", or as I now refer to it: "the place where angels go to die", is a world that was always very close to me spatially (the dish area is right next to the salad station where I first began) yet seemed so foreign. On night, very similar to this one I mustered up the courage to lend a helping hand to those who desperately needed it the most--the dishwashers. I strolled over, said nothing and just jumped in. At the time I was still very new, and had only spoken a few words to the dishwashers beyond the usual "como estas?" Wearing a pristine chef jacket complete with culinary school issued pocket notebook and pens I timidly tried to help out but was getting in the way. "YOU! OVER THERE!" One of the amigos said, pointing to the bus bin drop off area. Not asking questions, I ran over and started unloading. Within minutes I was dripping wet from the humidity and copious amounts of water being sprayed everywhere. My once pristine chef coat was covered in sauce and filth. 

Akin to other new-comers I've seen fall victim to the same scenario, I felt like I was in some strange dream where I was regular-sized but stuck in a house made for tiny people. The whole dish pit was designed specifically for tiny people, for Mexicans basically (this may seem offensive, but I mean it in the most endearing way. You'd have to spend time in my world to understand fully I presume). So there I was, a giant delicately unloading bus bins while my Mom frantically tried calling my phone wondering if I was abducted. I was still twenty three at the time so this is a testament to how much a mother can worry about her son (she still calls if I am late to this day). 

 "Ay ma fren!", Crispy shouts to me from within the stainless steel fortress. Suddenly  the memory fades and I am transported back to real time. A cold, refreshing Corona Lite glistened in front of me. "For YOU", he exclaimed as he hands me the sweating bottle. We each sip our Coronas and take a minute to chat in a sort of half Spanish/half gringo dialect. I ask him about his family back in Oaxaca (where they're from) and learn of their musical talents. Jorge speaks with pride about his "abilities with the piano", and the music they used to play together back home. Here I was, in what seemed like light-years removed from Culinary School, sipping cold Corona Lite (they earn a shift drink every once in a while just like the rest of us) and busting my ass with the muchacos way past my shift had ended. The only difference is I am older now, wiser, a better cook, a better teammate, and I really know how to break down a freaking bus bin. My chef coat discarded into the pile of dirty linen, my loose chef pants (a size too big) were riding low, most likely revealing my green boxer briefs to anyone who came down the back staircase. The white V-neck tee I was wearing was now damp and covered with yellow sweat blotches like a bad tie-die experiment gone wrong. I was earning my keep with my fellow compadres and I was doing it at a time of night when no one in the right mind would. 

There is a part in Martin Scorsese's famed crime drama, "The Departed", where the police captain and his right hand guy, played by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg respectively grill Leonardo DiCaprio about why he wants to become a cop. 

"We have a question. Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It's an honest question. A lot of guys want to appear to be cops--a gun, badge, pretend they're on TV", Sheen states before Marky-Mark interjects with his own personal interrogation. Sheen goes on to explain that the real aspect of the job encompasses so much more. That the real grunt work transcends the uniform and the badge. Well I cannot help but translate that moment into my own world. 

Lots of young culinarians just want to appear to be chefs. They want to wear perfectly pressed white chef coats, use sharp knives and hi-tech equipment, and be able to play with expensive ingredients like foie gras, but no one ever tells them about all the other aspects that go into becoming a great chef. The real world is not like all those silly commercials trying to entice you to go to culinary school, where a "student" calmly chops carrots in the background while another "student" lists off the benefits of attending that particular academy. No the real world is much uglier than that. There is real pressure to perform at the highest level day in and day out. You work in a small space prepping a single item for hours on end alongside other people who have developed family matters, substance abuse, personality disorders, fled a poverty stricken country illegally, who were all at one point cast out by society in some way or another (both literally and metaphorically speaking). You all come together in an environment that is loud and hotter than hell so you can make complete strangers feel at home even if for only a brief moment. This is what they never teach you in culinary school, that cooking professionally is just as much about the people as it is about the food. 

So when I am confronted with the awkward question of, "how do you know this profession is right for you" for the hundredth time, I can look back and say with confidence: because long after my tools are put away and my chef coat is discarded, I'm still there in a dirty t-shirt helping the last few guys go home at the end of a hellish night, and I'm laughing and smiling while I do it...

"Crispy" Crispin cooks us pollo con mole

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Houston's Veggie Burger, My Way

Part III:

        The following is a side post to a story I wrote about that details events in my life both in the restaurant  biz and out. It goes into some detail with some restaurant psychology sprinkled throughout. There are no pictures in that post but there is a song that I highly suggest playing while you read to get the full experience. Although you can certainly just read this recipe without reading the background story but I like to think of it like looking at a painting. You can go to an art gallery and look at paintings, but the whole experience is so much more rewarding when you have a working knowledge about the artist, and why he chose to do the things that he did with the painting. Just a thought...ok I'll shut up now, and give you what you want: a recipe to follow(Parts I&II if you would like to read them first).

Houston's Veggie Burger Recipe (Copycat): (Yields about 4 patties)
  • 4T Hickory BBQ sauce + more for slathering 
  • 1T Molasses
  • 1 (15oz) can of black beans, drained & rinsed
  • 2C cooked brown rice
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, minced
  • 2T raw oat bran, ground
  • 1T canned beets, finely chopped
  • 1T pickled jalapenos, diced
  • 1t beet juice
  • 1t chili powder
  • 1/4t cumin
  • 1/4t black pepper
  • 1/2t salt
  • 1 egg white (binder)
  • 2T olive oil (for pan-frying)
  • pepperjack/colby jack cheese (optional)
  • 4 burger buns
(My alterations to the copycat recipe):
- Hickory BBQ and + in Dinosaur Bar-be-que's "roasted garlic honey bbq sauce"
+ roasted 1/2 giant beet instead of 1T of canned
- beet juice and + juices from roasted beet
- oat bran and + raw steel-cut oats, ground
- the pickled jalapenos
- the egg white and + 1 whole egg (binder)
+ 3 garlic cloves, minced
+ 4-5 baby bella mushrooms (baby portobellas, hence the name), brunoise/small small dice
+1/2t Hungarian Paprika (wayyy hotter than regular paprika by the way)
+ 4 dried figs, small dice (my secret ingredient)
+ 6 wheat thins, ground (my secret ingredient)
+ few sprigs of Savory, thyme, 1 sage leaf, finely chop all
+ Montreal Steak Seasoning to sprinkle over top
+ smoked Gouda cheese instead of pepperjack 
  1. Boil a large pot of salted water like you would for pasta and once its at a boil dump in 1C brown rice. Let fully boil for 30 minutes, strain for 10 seconds and return to the pot, covered, to steam for 10 minutes. 
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (still oven, subtract about 50 degrees if convection). Wrap a rather large beet unpeeled in tin foil with plenty of salt, pepper, and olive oil. place the foil ball into the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes until so tender a fork can slide in/out effortlessly. Let sit wrapped in foil to cool slightly. 
  3. Meanwhile, mash the black beans in a large bowl and set aside. Working with a sharp knife (knives should have a personality, a dull knife is no fun) chop the onion, and mushrooms and saute quickly to get some color and release their flavor/aroma. Add the garlic at the last moment so it wont burn/blacken. 
  4. Grind the steel-cut oats with the wheat thins in a mortar and pestle (if you have one) or in a food processor until a fine powder. Mix in the spices and chopped herbs and grind some more.
  5. Once the brown rice is done steaming, fluff with a form and add to the mashed beans. 
  6. Once the beet is roasted and has cooled slightly, gently peel off the skin with your hands or paper towel (it steams in the foil so the skin comes off like cake)
  7. Finely chop half the beet or brunoise (thats 1/8" X 1/8" X 1/8" cube if you were wondering...) and reserve the other half for another time.
  8. Finely chop the figs/brunoise (there's that word again) and add everything to the rice/beans bowl with the whole egg. Mix everything together with your hands and form into patties. 
  9. Lay the patties onto a platter and season liberally with salt, freshly ground coarse black pepper, and Montreal Steak Seasoning
  10. Get a cast-iron skillet or heavy-bottomed skillet screaming hot, add a bit of oil such as grapeseed or canola (for the love of God DON'T use extra virgin olive oil) and gently lay the patties into the pan in batches if needed (do not overcrowd the pan). 
  11. Let the patties get a good sear, flip them over (gently), turn the heat down to med-high, and toss in a pad of butter. Tilt the pan towards you, scoop up the melted butter with a spoon and baste the patties to keep them moist and hot. Once they are cooked through slather on some BBQ sauce and top with all the fixin's you like! 
Tips/Tricks to Help You Out:
  • Rinse your brown rice until water runs clear before cooking b/c some of the rice gets ground up in the bag and if you add it the rice will stick together an me mushy due to the extra starch content (similar effect to pasta sticking together in water)
  • Roasting the beet in foil with oil and salt/pep helps infuse the flavor into the beet while also steaming it so the skin is removed effortlessly
  • Always clean your shrooms cause they literally grow in shit, but rinsing under water won't allow them to get a good sear (they will steam instead) so do this instead: wet a paper towel and ring out the excess water. Use the damp paper towel to clean the shrooms so they will be clean AND you can get a good sear on them. Searing food = flavor. 
  • Adding mushrooms to the mix introduces the mysterious 5th flavor (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) discovered by scientists in the 1950's called Umami. It's found in various types of seaweed/kelp, MSG, mushrooms, and other things. It's what makes you salivate and crave more (kind of like Prosecco does before a meal)
  • The steak seasoning tricks your brain into thinking you are eating actual meat. Your brain naturally associates the seasoning with beef cause we use it on steak and such. Tricking your mind is fun, unlike trying to tickle yourself...which is not. 
  • The dried figs are not just for filler, but for sweetness. Meat can taste almost sweet sometimes so this also tricks the brain.
  • I like to use a mortar and pestle to grind the oatmeal and wheat thins (my secret) because you can control the process and ensure an even grind, but also because the motor and pestle becomes seasoned over time (always wipe out with a damp cloth NEVER NEVER NEVER use soap and water b/c its porous and the soap will live in the pours FOREVER!) so you get flavors that you couldn't have otherwise
  • Rather than buying beet juice (or using my juicer) I just use the juices left in the foil from the roasting process for a deeper, earthier flavor. 
  • Do not try to grill these suckers because they will fall apart on the grill. Let me repeat this, DO NOT GRILL THE PATTIES!!!!
  • Hungarian paprika has a better flavor profile than regular paprika and can be found in most super-markets. Forewarned though, as Hungarian Paprika is way spicier, so a little goes a long way. 
  • when sauteeing the onions, mushrooms, and garlic, add the garlic in the last few seconds so it wont burn.  
  •  Play music, pour wine, and ENJOY YOURSELF! Cooking at home should be a pleasurable experience. Freaking the F out is not allowed! 
  • If there are dishes in the sink already, DO THEM as you will accumulate lots of dirty dishes over the course of this whole process. 
  • Harping on the point above, wash pots/dishes as you go! Clean as you go! this way when your done, you can eat and relax. No one wants to do dishes after the fact...
Pictures of the Process:

Eye level recipe 

how to chop an onion: slice into the onion in layers 
Then slice across the onion
Finally slice down the onion to create the desired dice size 
Go over the dice again to mince finer if needed 
nice cleaned shrooms, remember the damp towel method! 
Baby vine ripes aka "cocktail tomatoes" (garnish)

Secret ingredient: FIGS!
Roasted beet: skin should slide right off now

Slice discs then brunoise/super small dice to help recreate meaty texture
Don't forget your herbs: savory, sage, thyme. Rough chop 'em! 
Now we rollin'
I added wheat thins to oat meal for extra flavor
Beat the life out of them
stop. Now add your spices and beat again. 
Work with your hands as much as possible to build a connection w/ your food! 

patties and a small tester (that failed miserably on the grill)
Screamin' hot cast-iron is best for searing. 
Not shown here, but add some butter when you flip the patties and turn the heat down to med/med-high. Baste the patties by tilting the pan towards you (the food will stay put down worry) and scooping up the melted butter with a spoon. Baste it over a few times to keep the top side moist and hot


Now doesn't that just look like real beef? It will taste like it too if you followed my simple techniques to trick your own brain!  Going back to something I said in the story post for this recipe, you can take simple things that most people neglect to give the proper care and elevate it beyond what it should be. Veggie burgers don't just have to be those frozen patties at the super-market anymore. By taking the time and care you have changed its nature from ordinary frozen patty condemned by society to something so spectacular it might even change the way you think about vegetables...
The combinations all made sense and tasted out of this world. Sometimes when you improvise and add lots of ingredients they compete against each other and the food has too many sharp contrasts. But if you know how to approach food (or if you're lucky) you can create balance, and harmony, just like...well you get the idea by now.

Just Like Music

        When we last left off I was graduating from CIA and about to embark on full-time employment at Sperry's restaurant back home so things got a little too hectic to add posts. Once my life got real busy again I seldom wanted to set time aside to do this, but almost a year later I am poised for a triumphant return to the blogosphere. That being said, I am toying with the idea of limiting this blog to weekly posts, because truth is I just do not have the time anymore to write lengthy posts daily. I think we all will be better off because of it as this new format will allow me a full week to develop material for posts.
        This segment is broken up into three parts, where part one and two tell the story about how a dish evolved over time. The third and final segment is in a separate post titled, "Houston's Veggie Burger, My Way". This segment jumps out of the story and into your lap in the form of an easy to follow recipe filled with detailed pictures and my personal tips to guide you through the whole process. Even if you don't plan on making the dish it is still a great way to peak inside the mind of a cook on the rise!

Part I:

     A long time ago our old Pastry Chef/good friend, Greg Kern and I got to talking about the underratedness of veggie burgers when compared to the real thing. Almost everyday I would stop by Greg's pastry station, and we would briefly chat about whatever before I got to work. I was running the Garde Manger station right next to his, so there was always ample time throughout the day to discuss various things mostly related to movies or food. On that particular day the topic somehow shifted to veggie burgers, and how delicious they can be if done correctly. I told him that I secretly loved those veggie patties you see in the freezer section at the supermarket. Being the well traveled guy that he was, he guided me towards a small chain of burger places named Houston's that have become known in certain circles for their heavenly veggie burger. Since the chain is only located on the West coast and a few states in the dirty south I turned to the internet to see if anyone out there had come up with a copycat recipe of this highly sought-after burger. There were, and they did. Not just one, mind you, but literally dozens of people had posted faux Houston's veggie burger recipes online. Users argued over the secret recipe like it was some sort of ancient message left behind by primitive cave dwellers. They were all slightly different, yet the basic recipe components were the same. I had to be on to something here, so I scrolled through all the fluff (the internet is 84% fluff I'm convinced) until I found a recipe that I thought would be the one. The following day I strutted into work like I had just discovered the cure for Cancer. Stopping by Greg's station I whispered to him while his back was turned, "I found it". There was no confusion about what "it" was, he knew what I had found. I planned to recreate it later that week and bring in a sample for him to try. Well, like most dreams it never came to fruition...
        Greg has since moved on from Sperry's and the memory of that elusive recipe went with him I think.
You gotta understand, working in a restaurant is a lot like playing on a sports team. You build a bond with a select group of people that transcends the environment that you are in together. For some its a way out of a life of drugs or crime or poverty (even though these things are still highly prevalent in my profession), while for others like me, its a chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Day in and day out you show up in a kitchen or in an arena, or on a court or on a field so that you can entertain a crowd of people who will never quite understand what it takes to do the things that you do. Through the course of the season your group builds momentum, winning key games, or busy services until total victory is in sight. On the final game you sacrifice everything, both mentally and physically down to the final seconds. Once its over, the confetti rains down, champagne is poured, and everyone laughs and remembers the good times. The following year, key players are lost due to retirement, contract issues, free agency and the like, making the quest for another title that much more improbable.
      Working at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs where the seasons change so drastically is a lot like this. During the off season you practice your craft and strengthen the bond with your team so that you can make a push for the championship. In the summer, the town is love drunk off of the racetrack and the plethora of wealthy elites that it brings in. The momentum starts to build, and the fire within ignites once again. The summer is the playoffs, and Travers (the busiest racing day of the year) is our championship. After that,  the rich go back to Manhattan, or the West coast or where ever and key players in our staff  leave for other jobs or go back to college. Through the course of the year new teammates slowly filter in. Suddenly the locker room is filled with unfamiliar faces. Things just feel different. I never fully understood this parallel between sport and restaurant because I was always the kid who left for college at the end of the summer. It takes full-time employment to be able to fully understand the woes of seasonality in restaurant culture. So when Greg left I think the hope of ever making that dish left with him because I no longer had anyone to share it with...

(Part II after the jump)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

78 Things I've Learned From Culinary School

    I've been extremely busy lately as things come down to the wire, so here is a comedic list of things I have learned during my two years at the CIA (in no particular order), hope you enjoy. 

  1. Your kitchen shoes will smell no matter what you do. Under no circumstances should you leave your shoes in your car (especially if the windows are closed), or in your closet with your weekend attire. Place them in a well circulated environment or you will regret it. 
  2. Which brings me to my next point, if you step in a puddle by the dish pit at the beginning of class and you can feel it in your socks for the entire day, its time for new kitchen shoes...
  3. Side towels, aprons, and toques (chef hats), are the currency that will one day run this school. People will always steal them from your laundry, and they are fairly expensive to buy new ones at the bookstore.
  4. Always do laundry late at night, or early in the morning otherwise #3 will occur. Side Note: I had my bed sheets stolen during the busiest three weeks before externship leaving me no choice but to turn my blanket into a cocoon to avoid sticking to the plastic mattress the school provides. 
  5. It doesn't matter how shitty your dorm bed is. After a long day in the kitchen, every bed is the best bed you've ever slept in.
  6. If your school I.D. is not in your pocket when you get to class, be prepared to wait outside your lodge at midnight in the rain for twenty minutes until someone walks by to let you in. 
  7. HBO GO and illegal TV downloading sites are essential to your survival. Never in my life have I watched so many shows I've heard nothing about while making timelines and  writing down recipes in my room. 
  8. Buy note cards in packs of five hundred.
  9. Solo cups and disposable plates are your fine china.
  10. The basketball court is full of the most nonathletic kids who all know how to make a decent hollandaise.
  11. Never eat in a kitchen that is on its day one, especially pre-externship kitchens. We switch classes every three weeks and every day one is a shit-show. 
  12. If your suite mates are on opposite schedules as you, chances are you will never know them. There used to be four of us in Juniper Lodge room 200, now its down to two of us. We have spoken to each other for a month now about classes and everything else under the sun, and I still don't know his name. I'd be willing to bet he doesn't know mine either. "Man" and "bro" always works. 
  13. Save your culinary will need it when your real currency fails you
  14. When your kitchen class needs a "volunteer" to take out the gigantic bag of dirty linen at the end of the night, don't be the guy to volunteer. Just don't. 
  15. Every chef you ever have (except for one or two) completely forgets who you are once you are done with their class
  16. AM schedule is the worst thing imaginable. 
  17. You can never have TOO much fabreeze.
  18. The scariest chefs are not that scary after three days.
  19. If you do not fall asleep during the first hour of climbing into bed, your f*@ked.
  20. When you wear your front of the house uniform (FOH), it does not matter how short your tie is because you wear a vest. Go for the fat double-winsor, or GO HOME. 
  21. Only buy bars of soap if you really really trust your roommates.
  22. NEVER buy disposable razors...
  23. If you fold your laundry fresh out of the dryer, the iron in your closet will become the most useless thing you have ever bought.
  24. To outside visitors you are just "part of their experience".
  25. Chef Eglinski is the MAN. How a master baker puts up with class after class of culinary students fresh from externship blows my mind.
  26. When you first get here, befriend a baking student.
  27. The students who constantly name drop their externship site most likely got treated like dog shit and must constantly validate themselves in front of their peers. 
  28. When your chef is on a rampage, tearing the entire class a new one....look not important. 
  29. Never throw rubber gloves in the compost bin. Especially if your name is Clayton Nelson.
  30. Have your school email forwarded to your real email account.
  31. Always have a minimum of three sharpie markers at all times.
  32. If you move your leg just the slightest during the night and your calf cramps from dehydration, DO. NOT. MOVE.
  33. If your window doesn't have a screen, prepare for bugs...
  34. Students complaining about the crappy knives in the knife kit we are GIVEN deserves a "first world problems" MEME.
  35. Pay attention in wines class. The spit cup is mandatory, but its really optional. 
  36. Zero absences on your transcript means nothing. 
  37. Most of the people you meet will come and go in front of your very eyes. In fact, 98% of the people you meet at school you will never see ever again.
  38. Noravirus is NO JOKE.
  39. Parking is impossible unless its the weekend. If you're lucky enough to bag a spot in the front row, never drive your car again. 
  40. You will get tired of the world's greatest college meal plan within a few months. 
  41. If you spend more than a dollar on shower flip-flops you're not even looking. 
  42. Dried pasta ain't that bad.
  43. Your RA does not care what you do.
  44. If your kitchen has a dishwasher, befriend him. He will save you more than your classmates most of the time. 
  45. Neckerchiefs feel like you are slowly being strangled by a small baby.
  46. Everybody looks better in a FOH uniform.
  47. You have two towels for the shower, you only need one.
  48. Buy shampoo, toothpaste, soap, shaving cream, and toilet paper BEFORE you run out....or get creative.
  49. If you grab an oven door or pot handle without a side towel chances are you're going to have a bad time. 
  50. Steam and blisters do not get along.
  51. There is ALWAYS a secret staircase that gets you there faster. 
  52. If you leave a ballpoint pen in your chef jacket when you do laundry, buy new chef jackets...
  53. Stuffed pretzels from Apple Pie Bakery will blow your mind. 
  54. The basketball court is closed every three weeks for graduation. 
  55. Never use metal chopsticks.
  56. Your mechanical pencil is always out of led. 
  57. When serving customers, always serve from the RIGHT with the RIGHT. 
  58. Aprons are reversible. 
  59. The bread in the dining hall is almost always stale bake shop bread.
  60. Your chef sees EVERYTHING. 
  61. When walking in the halls, never walk in the middle. 
  62. Tap water is drinkable. 
  63. Printing requires culinary cash. 
  64. Never walk near a flock of geese in the Spring. 
  65. Special Project Days means no class. 
  66. When you move in, pray for a floor close to the ground level. 
  67. If there is a spider in your room...good luck sleeping. 
  68. Customers are everywhere.
  69. White V-neck Tees are your only clothing. 
  70. Chef pants can also be pajama pants. 
  71. Your knife better be able to cut through a sheet of paper. 
  72. After extern, the group leader pin means nothing. 
  73. Scrape out your pots before dropping them in the sink or everyone hates you. 
  74. Always bring a water bottle to class. 
  75. If you do not drink coffee, START. 
  76. Label all your knives and utensils with unique colored tape. 
  77. The smallest cuts bleed the most.
  78. If you have a food blog, it will never get updated. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Prelude, Part I

This post is dedicated to the close friend 
who listened to my story
and told me to chase
my dreams

(Play me if you want music to go along)

    I read a book some time ago that would later become an underlying reason why I choose to do the things that I do. One dreary afternoon I stumbled upon a cardboard box of books that was tucked away in the back corner of my brother's closet. Intermingled with an extensive collection of philosophy books written by Nietzsche, and Stephen King's The Stand, I found a book with dark blue and violet water colors on it. The words The Alchemist appeared at the top as I brushed away the dust that had collected on the book's cover. There was something alluring about it. I couldn't help but feel drawn towards the mysterious item I had found. Why I was even in my brother's closet to begin with is something that to this day I still don't have an answer for. Maybe it was one of those bad weathered days where you were looking for something to do because all of your friends seem to be occupied with other things and nothing was on the tube except bad midday Judge Judy

    Sitting Indian-style in my brother Chris' small attic closet I examined the back of the book for clues on what in the hell this book was actually about. I can recall a few paragraphs discussing a character by the name of Santiago and his journey through the unknown to discover the hidden treasures of life. Each night thereafter I laid in bed with a flashlight at a time of the night where most of the world had gone to sleep, reading The Alchemist chapter by chapter. My initial fascination quickly blossomed into full fledged obsession. Soon the old pages were covered in sticky notes and neon yellow highlighter. There were days I would sit in class slouched down in my unforgiving steel chair and daydream about what could possibly happen next in the book. What was Santiago looking for? The text was as mystifying as its dark, unassuming cover, and I craved for more...

    I found Paulo Coelho's book at a time in my life when I too was searching for answers. Adolescence was walking out the door and the next chapter in the epic saga that is life needed to be written. Seemingly overnight I had to decide on a college and major to pursuit that would ultimately determine the outcome of the rest of my life (that's not quite how it works, but no one ever really tells you that). That's a tough pill to swallow for an seventeen year old kid who's biggest decision in life up to that point was which sport to play in the Fall. Sitting at my desk reflecting back on my teenage years while drinking vitamin water I can tell you I eventually chose a general business degree at the University at Buffalo because at the time I thought it was the safe bet, but I would be lying to you. What ultimately swayed my decision to attend a state school to study accounting, consumer behavior, and micro economics was the two men I shared a roof with.

    My dad went to UB some years ago to go on and spend six years in Rome studying to become an ER doctor for which he has been mastering ever since. My older brother had just graduated from one of the best colleges in America and was transitioning into a business field that would have him employed by the New York State Assembly with notions of big city living under the bright lights of New York City and company names you would find in the Wall Street Journal. On one hand I had a father who worked his ass off everyday so that his family could live comfortably in a safe neighborhood with a swimming pool; and on the other hand I had an older brother who was successful with everything he set his eyes upon: music, school, sports, and girls. I made my decision in hopes I could emulate the paths they had chosen, because in my eyes they represented the very essence of what success was.

    What I would discover, however, is that the more accounting classes I took and all the career fairs I would attend talking to suited business professionals about things I had known next to nothing about, the more I realized that being a desk jockey in an office somewhere was not the life I wanted to pursuit. I had traveled so far down the rabbit hole looking for answers only to ask myself: "why in the hell didn't I take the blue pill..."

"What I'm not going to tell you is that either way, you're f@%ked"
    Once again I found myself on the outside with no door to get back in. Over the next several weeks I thought more and more about The Alchemist and how Santiago was able to see the signs camouflaged by the world in order to find happiness. The book had religious undertones about finding the "omens" God leaves each of us to find the path we are destined to take, but for me it was less about destiny and more about finding the courage within yourself to navigate a sea of uncertainty in order to do what makes you happy. Through fear and necessity my passion for food and cooking was born like a phoenix rising from the ashes. An obsession with the Iron Chef, the Food Network, and taking summer jobs that always seemed to relate in some way to food were the hidden signs I was looking for.

    Akin to the way Dave Kujan discovers that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze in the classic film, The Usual Suspects, I was starting to put the pieces together and see the whole picture. Sgt Kujan was searching for answers about a crime only to find out that the clues were all around him the entire time, but by the time he discovered it, it was too late.

(SPOILER ALERT if you haven't seen this movie)

    Unlike Sgt Kujan, for me it wasn't too late. I was fortunate enough to see the signs early on and make a change to something that has brought me a mountain of happiness the likes I cannot begin to describe. With the support from those who are closest to me and the guidance of an old book found in a box on a rainy day, I am able to embark on a new journey, and continually be surprised every step of the way. If there is one thing I learned on my quest for answers it is this: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail". 

  Do what you love. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Importance of Rabbits

    Let me start by saying I wholeheartedly expect this to me a somewhat shorter post, but you all know how I get. I sit down to share a few tidbits from class with everyone, and before I know it the post turns into a full fledged novel. The truth is, I am working on a much lengthier post for you all so this will be a little amuse bouche to get your palates excited.
    Last week the my class and I (what's left of us anyway) embarked on our journey through the homeland and beyond in Cuisines of the Americas, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all what exactly we have been doing for the past week and a half.
   Everyone has watched that one movie where the protagonist eats a meal in a foreign country and is taken back when something unusual such as monkey brains are brought to the table; i.e. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (picture below). The character looks on with troubling eyes as the natives gorge themselves on the "delicacy" of the land. The audience gasps, wondering if people eat that sort of thing in real life. Well I am here to tell you that they do, because yesterday I had the pleasure of willfully eating the heart, brain, and eyeballs of a goat. Yes, you read that right....

"Leftovers again..."
    There we were, setting up demo plates for the class (we only have service every other day so we can work the kinks out before we feed the masses) when I stumbled upon the head of a goat sitting on a cutting board. One of the teams in the kitchen were braising sections of the goats body for a curried goat dish, but what was the head doing there? Naturally I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and took my phone out to snag a quick photo. Chef Phillips gathered the class around the serving tables and explained what everyone had made. My eyes were fixated on the goat head chilling ominously in the corner; which looked oddly similar to the pig's head from Lord of the Flies

    Actually, after looking at it they look nothing alike. I guess its because I've never seen an animal's head detached from its body before. Anyway, Chef Phillips finally made his way to the end of the large silver prep table where the goat's head was resting. "So this is the head of the goat we braised earlier in class", he said as some of my classmates gasped in horror. Without hesitation Chef Phillips cut into the head with a large cleaver while simultaneously describing the benefits of eating the head. "Here in gringo land we usually toss this out, but south of the boarder they utilize EVERYTHING", he continued. Going to town on the noggin, he shaved off chucks of the cheeks to distribute to the class for tasting. "Funny, I've never tasted a goat's cheek before...", I thought while plunging the tiny morsel into my mouth. For some of the students in the class this was already too much to bare, but it did not stop there. I glanced over at my friend Kaitlin to see how she was doing right at the point where the goat's eyeballs were being plucked out. Her face was pale as Caspar the friendly ghost, and I could feel her soul die with every hack and chop of the head. When the jaw was removed, I thought she was going to faint, but she soldiered on. Now that the eyes were on the table, Chef Phillips cut them into tiny pieces for everybody to try. All eyes (including the goat's...) were on the always cheery Kaitlin Hill. I was curious myself to see if she would muster up the courage to eat a piece. She did not. For someone who just started eating pork again only a few months ago, seeing an eyeball chopped to smithereens can be a traumatic experience, so you really can't blame her. I on the other hand was far to curious to not eat some goat eye. It felt like the fatty grizzle on the end of a steak in my mouth, but was surprisingly delicious. 
    Our wild trip through the inner workings of Gary the goat's head was coming to a close but there still was one more part to try; the brain, or as the zombies would say: braaiiiiiiiinsss
    As with the eyes, the brain was chopped into bite-sized pieces for the class and we were again encouraged to try it. I did not hesitate (there goes that curiosity again...), but the question still remained, would Kaitlin give it a try. For the record she was not alone in her refusal to eat goat head parts. Alex, our group leader also was defiant in his stance against it. One of these two would step up and eat some brain. Now Kaitlin is a small blonde haired girl who on most days fancies eating bananas for dinner, and quivers at the thought of killing cute or small animals. Alex on the other hand is a 6"1' 230 pound (rough estimate) ex-lineman from New Jersey. Who do you think ate the brain? The Vegas odds were going off with Kaitlin at 50-1 and Alex at 3-1. Well if you're a lover of money I would not take this bet...Everyone in the class including Chef Phillips were cheering them on when finally Kaitlin grabbed a small chunk of the brain and ate it like a champ. Holding back vomit no doubt she swallowed it and forever will be able to say she knows what brain tastes like.
"GARSON! Be a doll and fetch me some brain"



    We as a society are conditioned to enjoy "beef" and "pork" as delicately fabricated pieces of meat cooked in a pan. We never see the happy cows lining up to be belted over the head with a mallet (its more humane these days I assure you, but still), or the chickens that are put into special machines designed to rip off all the feathers in one motion. Even fish served with the head on can freak some people out. There lies a disconnect between us as consumers and the animals we kill for food. Just ask my Sous Chef at Sperry's back home. He was asked by one of his purveyors one day to assist in the rabbit slaughtering process and its something that probably haunts him to this day. "I was fine when I got there", he said to me one day while chopping vegetables for stock. "but when you get into the pens were they keep them I started to loose it. You have to grab them by their hind legs, and these things really scream because they know what you're trying to do. It kind of messed me up for a while." This is coming from a guy I've seen fillet an eighty pound Halibut no problem...
    The point I am trying to make here is not to depict the modern day David & Goliath scenario of Kaitlin vs Alex in brain eating, but rather to explain how people feel about food when it suddenly has a face to go along with it. Its one thing to eat "venison", but its an entirely different thing to shoot Bambi in the neck and physically feel its heartbeat slow down before digging into its still warm body to remove the guts. Unless you're like my boy Clayton who has killed more ducks in real life than I have in Duck Hunt, than you probably will never see that part of the process. I've never been a part of the killing process but I hope one day I am. We all should. Not just as chefs, but as people. We all should be there to kill an animal before it is broken down for consumption. Taking the life of an animal creates a closer bond, an intimacy if you will, that Thomas Keller describes in a chapter of one of his books titled, The Importance of Rabbits (from which this post is named). Below is an excerpt from that chapter that I think you all should read if you want to understand the deeper bond I am talking about.

“From 1980 to 1983, I worked in the kitchen of a small restaurant near Catskill, New York, on a patch of the Hudson River Valley so remote it didn’t have an address.  The sixty-seat restaurant was owned by René and Paulette Macary (she remains its proprietor today).  La Rive, named thus because it sat on a wide running creek, was a fruitful training ground, and New York State had extraordinary livestock.  Beautiful veal came down from Utica.  I found a man who raised spectacular pigeons.  I began to ask these farmers for unusual items to experiment with, things like pigs’ ears, cockscombs, duck testicles.
One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit.  I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking.  The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.  He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it - the whole bit.  Then he left.
I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan.  I clutched at the first rabbit.  I had a hard time killing it.  It screamed.  Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly.  Then it broke its leg trying to get away.  It was terrible.
The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste.  Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them.  I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.  It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away.  A cook sautéing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself?  No.  Should a cook squander anything ever?
It was a simple lesson.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where Brooklyn At?

                                        (Background music)

                     Yea I'm out that Brooklyn, now I'm down in TriBeCa

right next to Deniro, but I'll be hood forever

I'm the new Sinatra, and... since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yea, they love me everywhere
I used to cop in Harlem, all of my Dominicano's
right there up on Broadway, pull me back to that McDonald's
Took it to my stashbox, 560 State St.
catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons with them Pastry's
Cruisin' down 8th St., off white Lexus
drivin' so slow, but BK is from Texas
Me, I'm out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie
now I live on Billboard and I brought my boys with me
Say what's up to Ty-Ty, still sippin' mai tai's
sittin' courtside, Knicks & Nets give me high five

    It was 2009 when Jay-Z's much anticipated Blueprint III permeated into our mainstream culture. Universally adopted by frat bros, preppies, jocks, skater punks, and quiet types, Jay's Empire State of Mind quickly became the anthem of the summer. The flow of the song meshed perfectly against a vibrant piano backdrop and breathtaking chorus lead by Alica Keys. Listening to the lyrics, Jay describes his current success as he drives down Broadway in a luxury sedan. For Jay, the song was a nod to the city that transformed him from a hustler selling drugs in the housing projects of Brooklyn to a multi-platinum recording artist, CEO, and business tycoon. As my friends and I would cruise down our own Broadway with windows down and speakers blaring, the song meant so much more than just another rags-to-riches story. For a brief moment in time the song made you feel as if you were going to make it in this world whether you lived in the bright lights of NYC or upstate; whether you were rich or poor, black or white, or anything in between. It was a song for the youth because we had the whole world ahead of us...

    It had been five and a half decades since Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Danny McDevitt, got Dee Fondy to ground out in the ninth before the dodgers skipped town for LA (I am no Baseball aficionado, I had to look that up...) Over half a century went by as the citizens of Brooklyn watched teams flourish in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and across the river in New Jersey. Fast forward to present day where Jay-Z recently finished christening the brand new Barclays Center with a series of concerts spanning eight nights (yes I said eight) that helped usher in a new era of professional sports for the city of Brooklyn. While the Nets were transitioning from New Jersey to their new home in Brooklyn, team owner, Mikhail Prokhorov had this to say about the new stadium:

"Not everyone, in their lifetime, gets to witness a project that changes the face and the destiny of the city," Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov told news reporters at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Friday. "Maybe those who were at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, they could say it. We saw a symbol being born, and I do believe that we're all the lucky witnesses to such an event, because Barclays Center arena is so much more than just a building.
"It will be the place where everything is happening and everyone is welcome. If you are from Brooklyn or Manhattan, from Miami or Moscow, Barclays Center will be the heart of Brooklyn."

    Say what you want about Jay's whopping less than one percent stake in the team, but you cannot deny that his brand is doing tremendous things for the new look Nets. He revamped the logo giving it attitude, and his music can often be heard blaring from the stadium's speakers during timeouts and halftime. You see for Jay, the this new arena is more than just "bricks and mortars" in the same way that his Empire State of Mind track was more than just another summertime anthem in the eyes of many listeners. The Barclay's Center was the perfect way to give back to the city that had made him so famous over the years. You're probably wondering by now what any of this has to do with me or this blog. Well this past weekend I took a trip down to the city to hang with my bro Brett Fuller to watch St. John's play in the new state of the art facility. This is that Story.