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)