Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Major Leagues...

They called me.

As a cook I applied to a 5 Diamond restaurant, one of the top rated restaurants in the country.

They called me!

It is one of those restaurants if you can endure and succeed at, it can be a 'game changer' for you future as a chef.

I can remember applying, being fresh out of culinary school, and even though I had worked for some good chefs, my resume was incredibly thin. Even when I was applying to the restaurant I can remember chuckling, thinking that they would never call on me.

They did. And set up a tryout for me in a few weeks.

My heart pumped with excitement, anticipation, but mostly fear. Fear that I didn't haver enough experience, fear that I was out of my league, fear...frankly...that I wasn't good enough. I even went into the tryout consoling myself that I should be honored just to have even having a try out.

The restaurant was in the middle of nowhere, literally. My reception for my cell phone completely died leading up to the restaurant. It was in the evening, early evening, and it looked as if the entire town had already turned in for the night.

The restaurant had politely set me up with a snack, and a place to lay my head as I would be trying out in the evening.

That evening and through the night I couldn't sleep. I had the worst stomach cramps, all night it felt like my stomach was in knots, then would untie, loop around, and then form a double knot.

To the average person this might seem silly, someone being this nervous about working in a kitchen adn preparing food, but this is my passion, this was my try out for the LA Lakers for a ten day contract. If I make it, and prove myself, my career could changed DRASTICALLY.

And for that night, I couldn't sleep....

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Salt of the Earth

My culinary education has helped changed my palate.....a lot. When I use to cook before I thought I knew what 'flavor' was. To me flavor was acheived by dumping mounds of seasoning on whatever poor piece of food you were preparing. I would make dishes that were covered in season salt, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper, and believe this was cooking at its finest.

When I actually began culinary school, there wasn't any season salt on the spice rack, or garlic and onion powder. If you wanted to add onion or garlic flavor to a dish, you added garlic cloves and sauteed onions. 

With my palate being handicapped by years of artificial flavorings and seasonings, at the beginning of schooling my dishes would suffer when it was time for grading. I could always pick up the techniques, and I could easily follow directions, but it seemed every time that I would present a dish the chef instructor would say "more salt".

I didn't really understand at the time what the Chef instructor meant. Visually taking a palm full of kosher salt seemed like enough to cause hypertension(upon measuring later on it only amounted to about a table spoon). Visually I couldn't see it, and at the time I couldn't even taste it.
One day we made shrimp bisque in class. Frustrated I decided that  I was going to take my dish, cook according to the directions, and finish with salt at the end, bit by bit while trying the dish. As added a hint more and more of salt I could taste the flavors improving. By the time I finished adding salt, I hadn't added a lot but I reached a point where the salt allowed me to taste EVERYTHING in the dish, the vegetables, bay leaf, tomato, butter, brandy, cream, stock..all of the flavors were accentuated by the salt. It actually got me to the threshold where I could to taste teh benefits of the different components in the dish.
When I presented it to my chef instructor he told me the shrimp bisque was "spot on", and told me to leave the dish so he could finish it.
Now I enjoy the simplicity of cooking. Kosher, sea salt, and crushed black pepper are my 'go to ingredients' with more of a focus of buying the top quality ingredients I can find, and cooking them properly. These components accentuate what you are cooking, not masking it.......

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Psychology of Eating

Food is vitality, food is exciting, food can be sensual, and intimate experience upon itself. There is so much in a dish that a chef thinks about, the minor details that could lead to a diner's enjoyment, such details a diner probably never even notices. Such details as rough chopping vegetables to create a "homey" dish to induce nostalgia in a diner, or giving a brunois or paysenne cut to add color and consistency to a dish, portion size and placement, everything that arrives in front of the diner has been thought of up to the inclusion or exclusion of a garnishment.

I think about these things being a young striving chef, as I work the grill at a hot spot in my town, I see an order for "well done" on a grassfed beef item.....I wonder, do people get it?

The psychology of eating....what makes somebody take a beautiful piece of meat, and burn it to the ground? Even with the education, sophistication, and compassion our country prizes itself on, why are so many parts of the animal typically going to waste because we won't eat tripe, tongue, ear, or head cheese?

What makes a diner drive past family owned restaurants that have preserved time tested recipes for generations, just to pull into Olive Garden?

And then as I cook the order of overcooked grassfed beef, I begin to think that maybe it's just me being a pompous ass. I grew up most of my life too asking for everything "well done", and asking for "medium well" when I felt adventerous. The idea of steak tartare or a medium pork chop would not even be entertained, but then I began to study the culinary arts and step out of my own comformity. And at times I feel my self becoming what I never wanted to be, an uppity foodie. But what I would like to do is open the diner's eyes to the possibilities of food when it is treated right. But it is hard to undue learned behavior, and the psychology of eating.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Gift and the Curse of a Great Chef

  As a diner when you enter a restaurant, the minimal expectation is to eat food that reaches your sense of value.
But for the chef it means everything....

Every item that comes out of the kitchen is an extention of the chef. It is a combination of his vision, his hard work, dedication, 16 hour shifts, his time away from his family, everything that makes the chef what he envisions himself to be pours out like a cornucopia onto the plate.

The food for the diner is the chef's summation of who he sees himself.

So what the diner doesn't see is this pursuit of perfection that is transferred around the kitchen, an energy that is unspoken yet blanketed around everyone involved from the dishwasher to the sous chef. For the chef this vision of perfection is seen, but never felt, except for brief moments before it slips through their fingers like water in a cupped hand.

It is the true essence of madness....pursuing something knowing that in your heart it is truly impossible to achieve.....and yet it still is your motivating factor.

So what the diner experiences at best is a taste, a taste of their sense of perfection, but for the chef buried in the kitchen he will never know perfection was achieve. But they will attempt to reach it on the very next plate.

This is the gift and the curse of a great chef......

Saturday, November 6, 2010


To pursue my dream of becoming my chef I had to go part time at my job so I could attend school full time. I figured after budgeting I could deal with the pay cut, I just had to be wise about managing my expenses.

But then "it" happened.

After the first week of school my car died, or more accurate, my clutch died. A major expenditure that I hadn't budgeted for, nor did I now have the money for.  And to make matters worse I didn't have a back up plan.

On certain days I was fortunate enough to be able to drop off my girlfriend and borrow her vehicle when her schedule permitted, and somedays my brother would pick me up from school and take me to work. But most days I would have to use public transportation.

Due to the way the public transportation system is structured where I live I had to walk a half a mile, take two buses and two trains to cover the 18 mile distance to my school. My commute had been changed from a 20 minute drive to a two and a half hour journey one way. I was taking morning classes so I could still work at my job in the evening. I had to make work enough hours to repair my car.

Everyday felt like an internal battle between my desire to succeed and the temptation to just quit. I was trying to keep up with my studies but the wear and tear of my long days was catching up to me.

I use to ride the train and think of the movie The Pursuit of Happiness, I felt like I had to be tested to determine how bad I wanted this, for me to figure out how bad did I really want to become a Chef?

My answer.....really bad!

I began to look at the struggle as part of my voyage, and I passed my first test. Due to some fundraising, and literally asking anybody I knew to "donate" no matter how small the amount, I was able to raise enough money to repair my car. And even though I received my first and last "B" in one of my classes, missing in "A" by only ten points, I knew in my heart that for the rotation of classes I had excelled in conquered my obstacles.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Beginning.....

My first class beginning my culinary career was Foundations I, an injection of the obvious, was a class meant to teach us the foundations of French cuisine.

We studied Escoffier, stocks, mirepoix, dimensions of knife cuts, mother sauces, and different cooking techniques. The class was taught by a serious chef in both skills and demeanor who would flash his dry witty sense of humor.

 He taught with the fervor of a symphony conductor. He lined us up ten minutes before class started everyday and inspected our uniforms for cleanliness and appearance, ensuring that we were clean shaven, nails trimmed, shoes shining. And if we weren't points were taken from our daily grade.

Some found it tedious, but I felt its importance. They were shaping us to become young professionals with the habits we were forming then to impact the kind of chefs we should become. All great chefs were detailed oriented....sometimes bording on insanity, or at least OCD.

How unforgettable it was when we were given our knife kits, I am sure that is a memory that will always stay with me. Having the knife kit in some ways validated me. I felt like a chef now and it help remove a layer of  amateur insecurities I felt about myself.

I looked around at my classmates. For this moment all of us having various skills, experience, and backgrounds but were all given the same tools to succeed.

But how we mastered them would be what would eventually seperate us from each other.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life is all about timing....

I was excited.....

I felt like I had already had a lifetime full of education, but my first day at culinary school was the first time in my life I could ever remember being excited for school.

It was different.

My whole mentality had changed. If I had went to culinary school straight out of high school I wouldn't have the maturation I currently possessed now. School now to me was a place of infinite possibilities, possibilities that I knew wouldn't be given but could be achived only by the sweat on my brow and the end of my blade.

School to me was now about networking, volunteering, receiving the most value for the money I would eventually have to hand over to Sallie Mae. My goals spanned from achieving straight "A's" throughout my program, to studying abroad for my externship, to not missing a single day of class throughout the program. I was confident these were goals weren't easy, but all were within my reach.

I was going to blog, I was going to Twitter, I was going to map out my journey and share it with all of those who wanted to hear.

I was humble, yes, or maybe I had been humbled through time.  Gone was the young man that would snicker at someone else's suggestion on how to do anything better, a young man that had felt that he had done everything and seen everything, a young man who was at one point uncoachable, unteachable, and in some aspects unreachable.

I knew my  chef instructors I would defer to, as if I was now let into a secret society where they were my superiors. They were men and women who had been in the industry, and I wanted to absorb as much knowledge and skill  as possible.

Life is all about timing, and I knew all of my experiences had brought me to this point and put me in the best position for me to succeed, I could feel it. But I had to put mentally and physically position myself and do things I had never done before to achieve things I never have. So the first day I did something I had never done in ALL of my years of schooling.

I sat in the front of the class....