Saturday, February 6, 2010

It's stuff like this

A lot of cooks complain about things in the kitchen, but they find ways to reward themselves. Sometimes those rewards are blowing the week’s pay at the strip club, like our saucier did on Friday night. Or having familial relations with as many waitresses/cooks as possible, a favorite pastime among some of our cooks. Or chain smoking a series of cigarettes and downing countless cocktails, like all our cooks do.

For me, though, the reward to working at a fast-paced kitchen is that I get to see and learn all kinds of cool stuff I’d be hard-pressed to see or learn elsewhere. The latest incarnation of this is working with whole pigs.

Exhibit A: We now have a new dish on garde manger, a pork head-cheese roulade wrapped with sardines and garnished pickled onions, radicchio, chives fried prosciutto chips, and onion-preserved lemon relish. The dish isn’t one of my favorites—I’ve never been a big fan of sardines, for one; the roulade is ridiculously big, for another—but the prep work involved is interesting.

Once a week we have to brine pig heads. I’m talking whole pig heads that have been sawed perfectly in half. You see the tongue, the brain, the beady little eyes, the floppy ears. They have different expressions (of the four heads I brined last week, two seemed happy to have been killed, one looked bored, the other terrified). It's like a scene from a Nine Inch Nails music video.

The brine is a mix of about ten gallons of water, mixed with several pounds of sugar, salt, chili flakes, peppercorns, celery seeds, and cloves. A cup of curing salt is added to the mix to add color and prevent botulism. It’s brined for a week, and then braised.

After the meat is fall-off-the face tender, it is separated from the fat and skin, and then the “good” parts of the skin (i.e., the parts without hair) is added back to the meat, along with numerous spices. The braising liquid is reduced to gelatin, poured over the meat/skin, and formed into a terrine, which is then rolled with the sardines. Voila, a head cheese roulade.

The head cheese is tasty, and I’ve learned that apparently the eye socket is the most highly prized cut among chefs. Didn’t get to taste it myself (my garde manger compatriot got one, and the chef de cuisine the other from the initial pig head), but I hope to soon.

Exhibit B: This last Friday I got to see chef butchering a couple of suckling pigs. Seeing him take a knife and carve out the breastbone and ribcage of those beasts made me yearn to learn more about butchering. Not in a gay way, or a psychotic way, but rather in a “I want to be that impressive” way.

It’s stuff like this that pumps me up about going into work, keeps me sane while on the line, and stays with me as I hump my knives back home to Jersey on the PATH train.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The inspiring chef

I know I've dubbed this blog The Aspiring Chef, but I’m not sure it’s apropos. After all, I went into this field with the very real possibility that it would be a short-term diversion from the world of writing.

There is a part of me that would love to be a chef. The power to create my own menu is alluring, and I’d love not to be the recipient of screaming (frankly, I don’t think I’d like to be the screamer either). Wifey has talked about opening up our own place eventually, but the financial risk involved keeps me from embracing that possibility wholeheartedly. After all, three out of four restaurants fail in the first couple years. Or so I was told in culinary school.

There are certainly other downsides to being a chef. For one thing, there is a mountain of responsibilities that have nothing to do with cooking, including worrying about crooked purveyors trying to sell you crappy produce/meat/fish; the constant number-crunching of food costs; flaky employees who don’t show up for work; rent; garbage disposal; power problems; etc.

Indeed, for many chefs, it seems, expediting—the act of organizing the soldiers during the rush of service and ensuring dishes go out on time and in an adequate fashion—is the primary responsibility. Creating new dishes is also a duty, but actual cooking? Fugghedaboutit.

I think what I really want to aspire to is to know all I possibly can about food. How to cook it, how to properly eat it and savor the flavors, where it comes from, why people like or dislike it. And most importantly, how to fix it.

For me, the most impressive thing about the more practiced cooks on my station is their ability to discern a problem and then within seconds know how to repair it. It’s not often that a good cook will throw out something and start over, especially in this economic climate.

If a vinaigrette looks too shiny, it probably has too much fat in it, so add a little stabilizer like xanthan gum and emulsify the hell out of it with an immersion blender. If that Meyer lemon puree is too sweet and thin (because yours truly added too much simple syrup), quickly chop up some oranges and lemon segments and add it to the puree. Fix it.

Mostly the thing to which I aspire is to avoid that look of panic or fear when somebody I want to impress looks at a dish I created and quizzes me about it. I want to be able to discuss the dish and all its components with complete confidence. I aspire to be as inspiring as those other cooks with whom I work.

It will be a while until I get to that point. My learning abilities seem tied inevitably to screwing up; I need to ruin something early on before I’m able to perfect it later. The good thing is that where I work I have lots of opportunities to work with new dishes I never would conceive on my own, which is helping me push my own boundaries and reduce my fear factor.

Tis the season

Recent studies have shown a pretty high intake of salt, blamed mostly on processed foods. There’s no doubt that eating that Big Mac (31% of the suggested daily intake of sodium) or even a Lean Cuisine (often 14% to 29% of the daily intake) is going to up your salt consumption. But let me tell you, eating out ain’t gonna help much either.

If there’s one thing that novice cooks fail at, it’s seasoning food correctly. When I first started at the restaurant, I was constantly being told to season more aggressively. In fact, some dishes I’d have to season every component; in the lobster appetizer I’d have to season the cheese, the tomatoes, the pickled eggplant, the lobster, and then finish with sea salt.

And every restaurant uses salt liberally. You have to. If you want to properly sweat out aromatics for a soup, you don’t want to have to keep stirring. Just throw in some salt to draw out the water and prevent carmelization. This also concentrates the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. And salt to finish is used primarily for texture—sea salt is crunchy.

Just something to think about next time you’re turning your nose up at McDonald’s and eating out at a nice restaurant.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brief starfucking

We have a number of celebs and VIPs come through the kitchen, and with the exception of two reviewers, it's never really caused a stir in the kitchen.

The other night, though, we were visited by Beyonce and Jay-Z. I won't say it caused a commotion, but for the first time cooks were trying to peer out the small porthole in our door to sneak a peak. Turns out Beyonce likes to play with her food (the crab dish comes off my station). She also wrote "WOW" with the remainder of her risotto, and created a smiley face with the leftover chocolate tuille from her gianduja.

The beginning is the end is the beginning is the end

It’s been a while, but for the last few months I’ve been going through a bit of a crisis: do I really want to do this?

There have been days where I’ve been elated to work at what is one of the best restaurants in New York. There are days when I am envious of “normal people” and their ability to enjoy weekends and daylight, rather than spending their time indoors.

And then there are days where I’m terribly depressed at how shitty a cook I can be (a fact that is sometimes verbalized by my peers, although not so directly). But mostly there is a monotonous repetition that I’ve settled into at Marea, which has numbed me to a lot of my angst.

My usual day consists of arriving just before or during the lunch rush, and hitting the ground running with the massive prep list. Often that means picking through crab (very tedious, as the peekytoe meat we get is riddled with opaque, celophane-like shells); killing and cooking upwards of twenty lobsters; cleaning said lobster shells for soup/stock and portioning the meat; making the Granny apple gelee for the crab; making the salmoriglio sauce and salsa verde; candying fennel; butchering hamachi and rolling into roulades using our “meat glue” active; making chive and basil oils; and too many other tasks to list.

Some of these duties are kind of relaxing. For example, I enter a state of zen while slicing paper-thin sheets of lardo for our sea urchin crostini appetizer. Other jobs are very laborious, like the salsa verde, which is essentially gremolata. It involves washing and fine-dicing seven bunches of parsley, as well as tarragon, basil and mint, then making a paste out of lemon zest and garlic, mixing that with anchovy paste, and combining it all with olive oil. A lot of prep for something that is doled out on the side with our whole fish.

And it all begins anew the next day.

Repetition has helped hone some of my knife skills, though I am still far from good. It has also helped improve my plating so that I can get out almost every dish on my station well under a minute (the sea urchin crostini takes time, but toasting bread can only be done so quickly). But it also causes boredom. There are only so many times you can wash lettuce before you get bored. Fortunately, dirty joking with the Latinos in the prep kitchen and mariachi music gets me through those times.

The other plus is that we change our dishes every month or so, which means I get to watch as the chefs dabble (some of them have come from molecular havens such as wd-50 and Eleven Madison Park, which is why we sometimes incorporate chemical cooking into our routine). And I also get to pick up new techniques, also a plus.

After all the soul-searching I’ve done, I am back firmly routed to my “gunna be a chef” path. That may still change—I am debating with wifey a six-month trip abroad to work in a foreign kitchen, either Italy or Asia, and I’m still thinking about corporate cheffing or food writing eventually if and when I want to have kids—but for now, I’m going to stick it out.

There will surely be ups and downs in my career, and I’m now more than ever convinced the culinary lifestyle is a breeding ground for alcoholism, sex addiction, drug abuse and mental instability. I’m sure I can come out the other side without having to worry about those things, but hopefully I also come out with a greater appreciation of food, rather get burned out by the repetition of simple tasks.