Monday, May 24, 2010

Pith and Vinegar

Like an orange or a lemon working in a restaurant kitchen is equal parts bitter and sweet. Bad days both demonstrate the sometimes seediness of it all and the acidity of tongues that are more often than not turned on each other ; good days are refreshing, they stand out crisp in the mind and light in the heart. But enough metaphor, time to get to the meat of things (okay maybe one more metaphor). Saturday was my last night at the restaurant, they've hired someone far more qualified to take the position left vacant on the line. I really wish them the best of luck; I think I learned a number of things about myself and about the industry while I was there.

It occurred to me while I was helping out at garde manger that 'staging (pronounced stah-ging) is a lot like being a surgical nurse. You have to anticipate the moves of the person you are helping and be there utensil or ingredient in hand before they think to ask for it. It is an elaborate dance of movements and if you are good at your job the whole thing moves like a ballet. Unfortunately 'staging is always done for free, which is something about the industry I understand but don't really approve of for extended periods of time. With as much work as needs to be done in a kitchen, the long hours and hectic pace of things, the least you can do is pay someone a reasonable wage for the time they are there, even if it is only a night (to be honest I'm sure most onetime 'stages would settle for being paid in booze or food).

Lately I've been reading "Devil in the Kitchen" by Marco Pierre White. He is one of those chefs famous for being horrible to work for with a tendency for hurling things at his staff or yelling at his patrons. It really comes as little surprise that he trained Gordon Ramsey, but he also worked with Mario Battali and that chef is famous for his kindness in the kitchen. Reading his autobiography has given me some insight into the whole "I scream at my staff because I want them to be better" ideology practiced by pastry chef at the restaurant but I can't say I subscribe to it. It goes back to the old adage "is it better to be feared or loved". I've always been a proponent of love myself and I think the main reason that the pastry chef and I didn't click is simply because he failed to understand the one thing all my instructors at school learned very quickly; I am always and will always be my own worst critic.

It's a bit of famous fact amongst my friends that I am never happy with what I've made. I'll bake something and then pick it a part wondering how I could do it better. Last Christmas I baked four coconut cakes and discarded the first three because they didn't rise the way I wanted. The week we made petite fours in class mine weren't the perfectly coated and decorated morsels I had envisioned and so I came home, made them that weekend and took them to class to show chef that Monday. My last day of class I asked Chef Danks what piece of advice he would give me and he told me that I needed to stop doubting myself. It's been a hard piece of advice to follow but I'm trying the first step to overcoming is admitting and all.

Looking back at my eight weeks in the kitchen of the restaurant I gained quite a bit of knowledge. I learned to move more quickly than I had thought possible, how to juggle multiple plates and tickets at a time, how to make bread (though I'm still not great at it), the proper way to plate a salad, and most importantly how to work under great amounts of stress. I also learned that while some may view culinary school as a waste of time and money it in the end is worth it, especially if you are passionate about food and want to learn to do it well. There are things you learn as a pastry student that you won't learn in most restaurant kitchens, how to properly temper chocolate for instance, or why you meringue won't whip up when it appears you've done everything correctly. You'll learn the proper name for techniques that are used and the proper way to complete them. An example of this is Paté Bomb, which is how mousses can be stabilized without gelatine. The process is relatively simple, heat your sugar syrup to 248F and temper it into egg yolks that have been whipped until pale and frothy. You continue to whip the mixture until it is cool. At the restaurant when we made mousse I noticed that the pastry chef wasn't letting the mixture cool completely before adding it to the whipped cream. Even though I would never correct him that was why the mousse he made came out loose. When making the mousse became my task it was something I self corrected.

The remaining weeks of my externship (since I have to make it 11) will hopefully be spent at a cake bakery closer to home. I'll be 'staging but given that I have little to know knowledge in how to decorate a cake I don't mind working for free because it is a heck of a skill to have. There will also be no more forty-two hour weeks which doesn't hurt, and the hours will be more conducive to having a part time job somewhere to help with bills. I guess the most important piece of advice I can give to anyone it the one that has seen me through these past eight weeks, there is no crying in pastry.



Friday, May 21, 2010

Banana (not a)Pound Cake

This post has nothing to do with my internships but this cake is so good I just had to share the recipe. On a recent trip to an unnamed food warehouse (shameful on my part I know), I came across a southern dessert cookbook by the editors of Southern Living. I had tried so hard to get an internship with them despite their massive layoffs that I just couldn't resist picking it up and adding it to my cart. Last Sunday with it raining so hard and my banana's turning brown at a rapid rate I decided to try one of the recipes. Man oh man; I am so glad that I did. I've been nibbling on this delicious cake all week and it is still just as moist as it was Sunday night!

The recipe is posted below and although this cake is incredible tasty don't let the title fool you, it isn't a pound cake. A pound cake is so named because of its ingredient ratio, a 1:1:1:1 ratio of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar Traditionally this was a pound of each of those ingredients however as long as the ratio is preserved, the resulting cake will generally be very similar to that using the traditional quantities. My lack of a tube pan caused me to substitute a Bundt pan instead and the result was just as great. Don't worry if the batter takes up most of the pan, this cake doesn't rise very much.


Banana (not a) Pound Cake

(Courtesy of Classic Southern Desserts by the editors of Southern Living)

Makes 10 to 12 servings if you feel like sharing

Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 10" tube pan or Bundt pan

In a mixing bowl cream 1 ½ cups of softened butter at a medium speed for 2 minutes or until creamy; gradually add 3cups of granulated sugar and continue beating for 5 to 7 minutes until light and fluffy. Add 5 eggs, one at a time, adding each egg after the yellow of the previous has just disappeared. Beat 2 minutes or until it looks like one mixture (not bits of fat mixed with egg), be careful not to over beat or you will have air pockets (tunnelling) in your finished cake.

In a second bowl combine 3 ripe bananas (mashed) with 3Tbsp of milk and 2tsp of vanilla, combining.

Sift together 3cups of all purpose flour, 1tsp baking powder, 1/2tsp salt in a third bowl.

Starting with the dry, add 1/3 of dry mix into the butter/egg mixture and combine, then 1/2 of your wet mixture. Repeat ending with the last third of flour and mix well between additions; do this at low speed as you just want things to get combined.

Pour the batter into your pan and sprinkle the top with 1/4cup of chopped pecans. Bake for 1hour and 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Let it cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing it and finish cooling on a wire rack. (It takes about one hour to cool completely)


Bon Appetite!


Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Winner Is...

The test results are in, I have a B12 deficiency. The Dr isn't sure if it is because I just haven't been eating enough foods that contain B12 (meat, dairy, eggs) or if something is stopping my body for absorbing the B12 I do eat but either way I'm on a super supplement for 30 days and blood work for the next three months. Of course this also means I have to eat more animal products, to make up for the B12 my body may not being absorbing, but at this point I'll do anything not to feel so dang tired, absentminded and achy all the time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Well this kind of bites.

I'm home sick, second day in a row, and feeling horribly guilty. Yesterday I went to work and managed to screw up the bread TWICE before excusing myself to go to the Dr. I'm really lightheaded, and sore, and horribly forgetful. I went to the fridge last night to get something and couldn't remember what it was by the time I arrived. The Dr. I saw is checking my thyroid, my B12 and some other things but to be honest I have this feeling that all my symptoms are actually the work of an old friend.

Oh Lyme Disease, Virginia's parting gift to me before I moved and started school. I was on my but for six weeks with it last fall and was sincerely hoping that the antibiotics had killed it completely, I'll know in a few days either way I suppose but in the meantime the Dr recommended I stay at home and not do anything involving knives, fire, or driving. Yah me!(not)

I wish I had more exciting things to report, when I do I assure you I will. In the mean time this is going to be it for me today, I foresee another nap in my future.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Karma Pie.

Aside from my four devote followers *waves*, I'm not sure who reads this blog and to be honest I don't really mind. This is my space to be honest about the kitchen and my experiences in it be they good or bad. I realize that lately it may seem that there is a lot of bad, it is amazing however how one bit of good will go so far to erase all of that.

Today was hangover day in the kitchen, apparently everyone stayed after close yesterday to drink and celebrate getting through 200+ patrons. Everyone was quiet, even the dicing was done at a whisper. Since we had made so many desserts in anticipation of Mother's Day we had enough to carry us through today and tomorrow and so I only had to make muffin batter and bread. Yes you read that right, I made bread!

As I was saying, I'm not sure who reads this blog maybe two angels appeared to him in a dream and said he had been acting like a jerk, or he had an out of body moment and saw it for himself. Maybe it was the after effects of too much beer...again I don't know but the pastry chef was a human being today. Not only did he show me the legendary second "no intern has been able to do this ever" step to making bread, but he talked to me as if I weren't something at the bottom of the cooler. Between my shock and the suspicion I had actually ventured into some Bizzaro universe he apologized if he had been an arse and said I was doing a good job. TWICE. That's right...he said I wasn't a total failure at this chef thing TWICE.

You could have knocked me over with a feather, the rest of the day flew by in almost an LSD-esque trip. It is amazing how after five weeks of thinking I was making the wrong choice that two little " You are doing a good job"'s renewed my spirit so effectively. He even demonstrated some dishes on the savory side of things to me.

So to whatever kismit that caused today I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks. It was just icing on the cupcake that in one of the line guys departures I've been hired as a temp to fill in.

Mothers Day Merry Go Round

Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and New Years Eve are the three holidays that every restaurant chef should never expect to have off. So I drug my sleepy, caffiene deprived self out of bed yesterday and went in to help the guys at the restaurant; not because I ever want to be a restaurant chef but because I knew they would be swamped and I wanted to help out. It almost didn't happen, I walked into the kitchen to over hear the pastry chef talking smack about me to the Sous Chef and the little line cook and almost walked back out. I wasn't on the schedule and I was half an hour early so I imagine he thought it would be safe to trash talk. Whatever I have one more week of him and then I don't have to deal with him again.

One valuable lesson I have learned over the course of these five weeks is that you should always have a back up. If you know that you have one third pan of sauteed apples containing about thirty servings and you only have 18 people with reservations you should make more apples. If nothing else you won't have to make them tomorrow. Yesterday I made more apples, I also made more pears, more chocolate sauce, more mousse cakes. I pulled extra ice cream and sorbet from the freezer, and even with all that I wasn't completely ready for the onslaught of 200+ people that walked through the door at noon.

Everyone was in a bad mood before opening. There were a ton of things to do and the grill cook had called chef that morning and said he quit. Chef was rather stoic about it, but then he is rather stoic about most things, the pastry chef on the other hand would just not let it go (big surprise). Between threatening to hunt the guy down and feed him a knuckle sandwich and going on about what a crappy cook he was to begin with there wasn't a moment of silence in the kitchen until we opened. It was reminiscent of a Chihuahua that sees a squirrel outside and insists on barking long after it is gone.

Opening came quickly with waves upon waves of families descending on our normally reserved space with the normal kid noise. There wasn't time to think, there wasn't time to blink or pee or do anything other than cook and plate. Between flipping pancakes and dropping biengnets, running to the cooler for mousse cakes and scooping sorbet I was swamped. I'm kind of impressed with myself though. I didn't need anyone to come to my station and help, in fact I helped with the kids menu with the pancakes. I did manage to break an ice cream scoop (I have no clue how)but I also avoided generally injuring myself in the process of running about like a madwoman. For one of the first times in a long time I didn't feel overwhelmed by the kitchen, this weird sense of calm just came over me and I was the eye of my own pastry hurricane.

In other news, this is my last week at the restaurant, not only will have completed my 180 hours as of today but I found a nice little bakery close to the house and they seem interested in letting me finish my internship there. I'll be doing a lot of cake decorating, which is something I definitely need to learn, and it will be mostly days, something that will allow me to work at night or go to school and get my BA. The chef at the restaurant has asked me to work the same hours as last week since they are now a man down, he's a nice guy despite the general idiocy of his pastry chef and so I'll help him out.

Friday, May 7, 2010


[Enter Post Title Here]

Why do I want to be a chef? I've been asking myself that a lot lately and the answer is getting harder and harder to find. It used to be that I loved to cook because I felt like it was the only place in the world where I felt at ease, where I was in control and successful. That rush you get when someone eats something you make and experiences pleasure can only be beaten by the look that they get when you have shown them how to make it. Maybe all chefs are emotion junkies, I mean the kitchen is rife with its drama's and adrenaline as well as ego. I don't know...I'm beginning to think I made the wrong decision pursuing this dream.

I did good in school, honest I did. I was on the President's list all four semesters, carried an average that didn't dip below ninety percent. I asked questions, took notes, but now I feel like that was all for nothing. The pastry chef at the restaurant disdains those who go to culinary school rather than work in a kitchen. He sarcastically poo poo's the things I've learned as being wrong, or time consuming. Why do you need that thermometer to take the temp of your sugar? Why are your knife skills so horrible? Why are you so slow? You'll never get hired at a restaurant if you keep doing it that way.

But I've never wanted to be a restaurant chef, I want to reply. My dreams don't lay in serving people awesome food; I want to show them how to make it. I want to give them the ability to go out and create these things they pay us $200 a two top for. Once they see how easy it is, how rewarding it is to make things instead of heading to the drive thru they will care what goes into their mouths and we'll be giving them something more valuable than a full stomach. But I don't say that, because in five weeks he has managed to pretty much kill my culinary spirit.

I feel powerless in the kitchen now, whatever I do is almost doomed to fail. He was off yesterday but called the line cook (who is 18, has never been to school and admits to now knowing jack about pastry and not caring to learn really) to bake a birthday cake that was ordered for tonight. He gave him instructions that I wasn't to bake it, because he has never had a pastry student who could bake a cake correctly from the school. But the intern had to work the line right? And I know how to bake a cake, so I made it, and sure enough, even though I baked it for an hour the middle fell, more than likely because everyone in the kitchen including me kept opening the oven to see how it was coming. They don't want me to be yelled at anymore then I want to get yelled at. I suppose yelling is the wrong word, it's not yelling. It is talking in a condescending manner that makes you feel like an ant, or worse, like a failure. It's the way my ex-husband talked to me when he wanted to put me in my place, a slap to the face without raising your hand. The bruise is verbal not physical but it still hurts.

And then he (the line cook) said that the night before, my night off, the pastry chef had spent pretty much the entire night harping on the failures of culinary students, myself included. Some part of me knows that it is jealousy that he couldn't hack it in school or was afraid to try and that is his problem. Part of me knows that this guy is a shitty pastry chef himself. Mario Battali said in an interview that a chef who yells at his staff, belittles them, does so because he is filled with self loathing. That he yells because he realizes he didn't do a good enough job training them how to do their job. The great Battali is probably right, I mean the man owns 14 restaurants and has countless cookbooks, TV shows, etc. Emotion however, often over rules logic.

I come home depressed every night now, my wonderful and supportive boyfriend makes me tea and tells me that I am a wonderful cook as I remind myself that there is no crying in culinary; that every Napoleon has a Waterloo. The sadness leads to anger, because essentially this guy is making me dread the thing I love, food.

I need to leave this internship, immediately. I just don't know what to do.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Monday Morning Math.

I know I've talked about this several times here, especially at the beginning, but I just wanted to take a moment to write a short post to show you all the math and economics of what unpaid internship really is.

So by the syllabus I have to work 18 hours a week for 11 weeks for a total of 180 hours ( doesn't add up).  This kind of matches what I did when I was actually in class, I went to school 20 hours a week and each  semester was about 6 weeks long.

 My hours at the restaurant have been as follows:
Week 1 : 32 hours (14 hours over)
Week 2: 34 hours (16 hours over)
Week 3: 28 hours (10 hours over)
Week 4: 28 hours (10 hours over)

So in total I have worked 50 hours over what I am supposed to have. Now the school says if you work over then the employer should pay you the difference in hours, my employer has chosen not to pay me, they claim this is just school. The average Pastry assistant or sous gets paid $9/hour if we only calculate the overages in what I have worked compared to what I am supposed to work then that is a gross total of $450 of work I have done for free ( I'm sure it would be significantly less after taxes). 

In DC $450 would have been half of my monthly rent, here in Alabama it is that following things: my car payment, my cell phone bill, my credit card bill, a tank of gas, a week of groceries.Because I have worked all these extra free hours I have been unable to find a job that will pay me to work, and yes I know that it is all about the "experience" but to be honest I'm not sure I want to put the restaurant on my resume. Not that it isn't a great place but I'm hesitant to list them when the pastry chef spends more time telling me how I'm doing things wrong then how I'm doing them right.

This week I am scheduled to work 36 hours, which will put me at 156 hours completed of an 180 hour internship that was supposed to take me 11 weeks and instead will take me six. Which is five weeks of absolutely free labor that the restaurant will gaining (since I have to work the remaining 5 weeks to make 11). Five weeks of labor, at about 28 hours a week (which is the minimum they will work me) is another 140 hours, so basically I will have completed almost two internships in the time I was supposed to complete one.  For those hours at a paying job I could expect to be paid $1260 gross, roughly one third of my five thousand dollars tuition for this semester.

So lets add it up. By the end of this I will have paid $5000 plus $1710 in lost gross wages for the privilege of working for free so that I can graduate with a diploma, not an associates, not a bachelor's but a diploma.

How is that for math?