Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wooden Spoons

A friend recently asked for some guidance on processing a plethora of tomatoes from the garden into a sauce that could be canned. By email, I rattled off a quick and simple recipe. The main objective was to explain the process so that the cook could improvise a bit within an easy to manage framework. Critical to a good sauce, as many know, is the development of a fondt on the bottom of your pot. That layer of caramelized goodness which walks a fine line between Mailliard magic and a burned disaster. While explaining this, I specified using a wooden spoon to continually scrape it up and incorporate it into the sauce. "Why a wooden spoon?" I was asked. "I don't even own one..."

The wooden spoon has always been my favorite kitchen tool and it's about time I transcribe some thoughts on why that is. First and foremost it's versatile. Wooden spoons are not just for stirring. As examined above, they are essential for scraping the fondt off the bottom of a pan (more on this in a moment), as metal tools would result in some awful metal on metal action. Bad for the tools, bad for the pan, etc. I also use the handle of a wooden spoons to extract marrow from beef bones, and quite possibly my favorite use; hanging various concoctions in cheese cloth over a cambro to slowly drain extraneous liquid. Pictures would be helpful, but I'm still building my portfolio. Maybe later. There are many more uses, I'm sure and would I would love to hear your favorites in response to this post.

Looking beyond the practical uses of a wooden spoon for a moment, I got to thinking about what it represents. In this age of new technology and techniques, it's easy to forget about what got us here. Wooden spoons have been used probably as long as cooking has been a passion for those who practice it, if not longer. Still a staple tool in most kitchens, that shows some admirable staying power in a genre that is constantly adapting to sleeker, more ergonomic and more stylish formats. In a way, the wooden spoon is a link to the past. While I may have the benefits of a powerful gas stove top, stainless steel cookware, and a wealth of scientific knowledge built specifically around cooking; two things I have in common with the folks who did this job before all that is a wooden spoon and a will to create the best possible final product. I have made a point recently of referencing the entire history of cooking when approaching a project, as opposed to only the most recent advancement. The results are astounding. On a personal level I feel that my end results have improved greatly, being rooted in many points over a long tradition rather than focusing on one newly acquired technique.

One final thought on the wooden spoon. Scraping up that fondt when making a sauce or stock, braising, caramelizing, or whatever the task at hand may be is the essence of cooking. I never went to culinary school, but I sure hope they are teaching this point, starting on the first day and continuing through the whole program (based on the grads I interact with, I somehow doubt that they are...sigh). Scraping up the fondt encompasses, but is not limited to the following concepts, all of which are central to cooking: liquid reduction, flavor encapsulation, caramelization and complex Mailliard reactions, temperature control, and concentration by the one doing the cooking. When someone tastes that sauce or braise and inquires dreamily why it tastes so good? The true answer will not be some super secret ingredient(nutmeg? cinnamon?), but rather that you respected the process and had the patience to do it right from start to finish, building flavors through smart cooking. All of that accomplished by an old workhorse who's burns and cracks tell a story of all it has done. A stalwart that for this job has no peer among kitchen gadgets: the wooden spoon. If you don't have one, get one...

Monday, August 17, 2009

La vida de los cocineros

The search is over and I was able to fill my kitchen vacancy with someone quite up to the task. This is a tiny operation that takes certain sensibilities to be able to succeed. Truthfully I'm lucky that the proper person crossed my path in such a timely manner. In what can only be described as serendipitous, I had two highly qualified applicants vying for the position and was able to put one in a newly opened front of house position. Said applicant was narrowly edged out by the other for the cooking gig, but had an impressive resume that included multitudes of experience in all manners of restaurant work. The opening of an FOH position blessed me with the opportunity to make two great new people part of our family. And since I only interviewed the pair, I didn't have to turn anyone away. Bonus!

All this resume reading and subsequent orientating or new employees got me to thinking about restaurant culture, that of the kitchen to be specific. I came up through the ranks with a generation of young cooks drawn to a lifestyle glamorized by celebrity chefs. The "tell-all," Kitchen Confidential made what was largely viewed as boring and sometimes gruesome hourly work to the kids around me seem like rock-star status. What was just normal life to them was now immortalized in the memoirs of someone cool and successful. I read that book and loved it. It inspired me to press on with a career in restaurants. I was a bit surprised by how many other people it inspired, but more so with how it moved them. As I moved forward I found myself competing for jobs with people who didn't really have any passion for food. They didn't take any pride in their work. Status in the kitchen for them was not perfection in each plate put forward, but rather in how hard they could party the night before a double. It didn't seem to matter that their station was a mess, that they couldn't keep up with a brisk kitchen pace, or that they regularly had plates returned to the kitchen. I was recently chatting with a friend's sibling who was contemplating a more serious career in kitchens. He had some experience and I was trying to help him formulate a strategy for approaching chefs on this current job search - a subject I feel qualified to consult on given my recent search for new employees. We talked about the important points of a resume, and what sort of things most chefs are looking for in an applicant. He was going on an on about how he works hard during "the rush," likes to joke around the whole time (I think this is meant to illustrate how cool he is under pressure), and then drink beer with everyone else while cleaning up. He didn't talk about taking pride in his dishes, striving to cook better and find new techniques for efficiency, working clean and organized, or anything like that. It hit me at that moment: any cook who thrives on the glamorized version of "line-cook" lifestyle, will hate my kitchen. Sure, we work hard and long, but the atmosphere is always relaxed. There is no chauvinism in my kitchen. Needless machismo is not tolerated. Music is never blasting, and is certainly never on during service. No one shows up hungover, and if someone was, they would probably try to hide it rather than boast about it. Pranks are rare (but not unappreciated). No one yells, intimidates, or threatens. That's simply not how we do things, and it that's what you're into you won't fit in with us. I find the line-cook lifestyle so conflicting because only one in a million can actually pull it off. The rest are simply posers and will go the way most posers do in end.

When I said Kitchen Confidential inspired me, I meant it. It was one part in particular. When Bourdain described chef Scott Bryan of a neighboring restaurant, that was my "a ha" moment. I want to be like that guy. The kitchen was quiet while everyone worked at a steady, fluid pace. When it became busier, rather than getting worked into a frenzy, the pace simply picked up. Still quiet, still fluid. I'm not there yet. In fact, I may never be. What I do know is that by dedicating myself to this ideal, rather than to rockstar living and kitchen shenanigans I've been able to steadily improve and build on prior success to reach further in my career. I'm proud of what I have right now no matter how difficult it can be at times and my cooks are proud to be a part of it. This is not by any means a rant and I'm certainly not suggesting that by living a certain lifestyle you are suddenly not good cook. What I have seen over my years is that it's rare to be both, and one does not lead to the other. I wonder how long this trend will last, and if a day will ever come that does not produce hundreds of useless resumes in response to one Craig's list add. For now though, I'm satisfied to know that there are a few people out there who feel the same way I do. There must be, because all the great food available here in Portland and beyond surely is not being made by a bunch of loud-mouth hacks, and also because I've found a few of them to hang with me in my a-typical kitchen. To share in the cooking and occasional dish washing...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Search

I've just about dragged myself out from under a mountain of resumes that all offer the same thing. Recent culinary school grads with no experience who miraculously know all and have numerous qualities to offer that take most people years of practice to perfect. My job posting on Craig's List has also generated a great deal of interest among people who once cooked, but mainly have experience in some form of construction. Right about now, I'm considering hiring a team of contractors to build me an IHOP, and then staffing it with all the culinary shcool grads who applied. I was under the impression that talented cooks were unemployed in large numbers at the moment, but I must be wrong. Either that, or they have given up hope and stopped applying for jobs.

At first, I thought I could avoid the CL search all together by dipping into the stack of resumes I had saved from past applicants. The first prospect was all set to stage when an unexpected emergency created a need for him to be out of town for the foreseeable future. #Fail. The add went up and the resumes started to pour in. Within fifteen minutes of posting, thirty resumes were sent. The constantly vibrating Blackberry in my pocket made it difficult to concentrate on prep. I sat down in the office after service to wade through the fifty or so that had arrived, saddened by the mainly pathetic lot. With my departing cook's final two weeks ticking away, I was starting to get nervous. I printed the few notables and walked home dejected, my Blackberry's battery nearly dead from all the vibrating.

The next morning I came in early and sat down to go through the resumes that had rolled in overnight. At one point, as I would read a resume another would roll right in behind it. This went on for about ten minutes. Finally a hit! I cook with positive experience at notable restaurants had applied and even better, he currently works with a friend of mine. I called my buddy for the backdoor reference. Is this guy worth talking too? The answer was a resounding yes. I made the call and set up an interview. I then set up a few more interviews to cover my ass. You never know, right? Cut to this morning, two hours before interviews are set to begin. My top prospect e-mail's to say a scheduling snafu at his current job will render him unable to meet with me. He goes on to explain that this sort of shit is why he's out looking, but none the less feels obligated to honor his current employer's wishes. Well...from my perspective that's a great sign. This guy obviously has a positive work ethic and his priorities seem to be straight. Only problem is, he can't meet with me until next week now. #DoubleFail! I've got a need to fill this position immediately, or I'll be cooking alone. At this point, I was feeling pretty low. My top two prospects had both essentially dropped out of the process due to unavoidable circumstances. How is that possible? With only two interviews set up mainly as something to fall back on, I was not looking forward to work today....

So, here I am plunking out this post after having those two safety interviews. They actually weren't as bad as I was expecting. Sometimes it's easy to work yourself into a frenzy, especially with a looming deadline. Both interviewees are coming back to stage, and I imagine one of them will work out. Hopefully...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Just when you think it's safe...

For the past year I've had to make major adjustments to how I approach work. It's a project which bears my name, so naturally I'm going to take each and every aspect, no matter how minute, very seriously. This leads to an unhealthy habit of needing to be around all the time. I realized early on that this propensity for working around the clock was not sustainable and that the only fix is having a staff that I trust in place. There were issues early on but amiable changes were made and recently I've been able to breathe easier and take a little extra time. In fact, the long weekend I have planned a month from now that will have me away from the restaurant for a few days didn't faze me a bit. That is, a trusted employee gave the dreaded two weeks notice. All urges to throw a tantrum suppressed... People come and go, and letting that unhinge you is simply not an option. Needless to say, I'm disappointed that I now have to hire someone new, train that person and somehow build up a level of trust that will set my mind at ease when I'm away from the kitchen for a few short days less than a month from now. Am I up to it? Why not...

On another note...summer food is in full swing and it is truly the easiest seasonal selection to create magic with. Grilled items are hitting hard including our Steak & Fries, a pork shoulder that is cooked sous vide over night before being portioned and grilled with radicchio and peaches, and our ever popular burger, which was recently voted one of the best in Portland (Huzza!). We're also flying through seafood, which is always a relief. A server commented to me last night that the entire dining room was filled with regulars. I must say, that no matter how many slow nights we have in a row, a room full of regulars restores all hope that we can succeed. If only we could figure out how to fill the room like that nightly!