My Creations, Places I like

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

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)

        I chose Marvin Gaye's, "Just like Music" for this part primarily because it came up on my Pandora (Outkast radio if you are wondering) while I was making dinner for myself and the fam tonight; but of course it wouldn't be right if I did not tie it all together somehow. Ok, back to my story.

Part II:

                                                (Play Music for full storytelling experience)

      Since Greg's departure, there has been other vast changes both at Sperry's (management, chef, etc) and in my own life outside the restaurant as well. At work, I moved to the grill station which I now run (you will be missed Nick D) with the much needed help and guidance from my close buddy/newly pointed Head Chef, Mike Spain. His girlfriend, Shelley who used to work for us, comes in on her day off from another restaurant to help with grill, desserts, or whatever else is needed (you have no idea what people are capable of until you are short staffed and a million thanks go out to all my fellow brothers/sisters/amigos). Outside of Sperry's I have some new developments in the works too. I will be going to Mexico for the first time with my closest BROS (its an all-inclusive so it could be in Ohio and the feeling would still be the same, but STILL!), and I recently started a juicing-based diet forty some odd days ago (I eat real foods too don't worry...). With all these drastic changes and new developments colliding at once things were starting to get a tad overwhelming. I felt like the walls were closing in, and the air had a certain uneasiness to it. During all this, I could not help but resort back to the familiar, to a time when things were simpler. A time when I felt the most safe. I started listening to old jams, and even dusted off the old road bike from the basement to check the tires and get it tuned up. I thought a lot about old food dreams that have eluded me over the years (I keep a list of foods to eat before I die, doesn't everyone?). Through this struggle I stumbled upon my old handwritten copy of the copycat veggie burger I found online. "Houston's Copycat Veggie Burger Recipe" it said at the top in red sharpie. Call it what you want--a moment of clarity, a point of reflection, whatever, but I suddenly felt this feeling of calmness wash over me. I knew this was going to be the day I would finally make this damn dish! 
        My family wanted me to grill some burgers for them (perks of having a child that can cook I presume) but with my new found health outlook I wanted something different. Alas, the recipe would finally come back into my mind at the perfect moment. The major benefit of making this dish now, rather than when I originally intended a year ago, is that I am a better cook now. Better at organization, better at planning, better at interpreting recipes and making necessary tweaks/changes to suit my style. I used to be a DISASTROUS home cook because I didn't have my Mexican amigos prepping things for me, I didn't have a full restaurant kitchen with high-tech equipment, with endless ingredients to work with. Now, I have all the equipment I need (buying piece by expensive freaking piece) and I know how to prep things ahead of time. I've taken little tricks/secrets I learn at work and implement them when I cook at home. Once the ingredients were perfectly arranged on the counter (kitchen OCD) I began. First, I took the recipe, made a few alterations and added in a few secret ingredients to bring it over the top. Then I taped it on the windowsill at eye level so I wouldn't have to keep looking down at a recipe. I could just bang everything out, and quickly glance at the paper when needed. I cannot stress this enough though, when reading a new recipe, read it over till you can basically memorize it and everything will just make so much more sense. I tackled the items that took the longest time, like boiling water for brown rice (a new trick I learned), and roasting a giant beet in the oven. While that was going, I quickly moved through onions, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, and mashing black beans so that everything would be ready at the same time. You see, cooking is a lot like comedy...its all about timing. This might explain why most people in a kitchen are HILARIOUS.
        When the water came to a boil I added the brown rice, cooked for a half hour then let it steam so it would be fluffy and soft. This is where most people go wrong. They buy those boil-in-a-bag brown rice packets from the store and that stuff is really shit, and gets mushy and taste like dirt. I buy quality rice, and take the time because I want good food dammit! Once all the prep was done I mixed it all together and formed the "patties" and cooked them in a screaming hot cast-iron skillet with some oil and butter before slathering on the BBQ sauce (don't buy the cheap stuff either, buy good quality sauce or better yet, make your own!) Outside on the patio I cooked real burgers that were part ground beef and part pork. We all sat together at the table with the sliding door open and chatted briefly before everyone ran off to do their own thing. A few minutes at the table with friends/family is all you really need to feel right as rain. 
        Looking back on my crowning home cooking achievement I finally felt some closure (cooks really are highly emotional creatures and if you know one or live with one you are in for one wild ride but its all worth it trust me). Here was this recipe I had longed to try for so long, but it always seemed to slip through my grasp. It not only was the greatest veggie burger I have ever eaten, but one of the greatest burgers I have ever eaten. I mean it really ranks up there! 
        Before I go I will leave you with something to think about: when cooking someone else's recipe, try to alter it to make it your own. There's food and then there's food. What I mean is, anyone can follow a simple recipe, but adding or subtracting or using different methods is what cooking is all about. There are thousands upon thousands of recipes out there with different ingredients and styles but how you interpret them and make them your own lies the foundation for great cooking. This is why you can go into a restaurant and order something prepared by a cook and it will taste great but somehow it tastes even better when prepared by the chef who came up with it--the true artist. The recipe is still the same, but there's just something different about it. There are subtle nuances that cannot be written down onto paper. I dunno, its just like, "its just like music".   

P.S. if you want to read about the actual cooking process with tips, secrets, anecdotes, and plenty of pictures to make you go "wow" then click here for Part III 

1 comment:

  1. Just came across this post now, a few weeks late. Welcome back, a year lata. ~ M