Sunday, August 23, 2015

kitchen commandments

When I worked overseas, I had dreams of moonlighting at a restaurant in the great European tradition of culinary apprenticeships.  During my travels, I crossed paths with many cooks, bakers, brewers, and passionate food industry professionals.  I did plenty of cooking with locals, had some epic international potlucks and picnics, and tasted every foreign ingredient I could.

an international potluck in Copenhagen's Nørrebro neighborhood

a bakery's organic bread offerings in the city center

a traditional Danish Christmas lunch in the Copenhagen suburbs

a sampling of herring at a Slow Food event

I attended food festivals and conferences, took cooking classes, and immersed myself in culinary experiences.  But I never found that ideal professional apprenticeship opportunity.  I realize now that this is a classic "if I knew then what I know now" scenario.  Since enrolling in culinary school and gaining industry experience, I can now knock on the door of any kitchen armed with a stronger knowledge base and higher confidence level.

Thanks to school instructors and industry mentors, I discovered there are certain universal rules you can apply to all professional kitchens.  Here is a short (although not exhaustive) list of kitchen commandments.  While these tips are mostly common sense with a dash of industry insight, I hope this content is helpful to those just starting out.

1. Always leave a kitchen cleaner than you found it.  Work as clean as you can, establish good habits, and treat your cutting board like a pristine surface.  And beware when picking up large stock pots: if they are scorched underneath, they will put a big black stain on your white chef jacket when you pick them up.  Classic rookie move (and I have the bleached chef's coats to prove it.)

2. Use every drop of product possible.  If you ever have your own business, you'll think about every cent that goes towards your food cost, and the most thoughtful employees do this too. So scrape each and every last drop of nutella from that nutella jar before you throw it away.

3. Be willing to embarrass yourself.  No one is born knowing how to filet a fish.  Be willing to ask questions, admit what you don't know, learn from your mistakes, and embrace these humbling experiences with open arms.  A kind restaurant colleague recently told me, "All chefs have screwed up way more than they've gotten it right."  It takes a lot of practice to get to where you need to be, so find beauty in the frustrating but ultimately rewarding process.

4. Invest in high quality slip-resistant shoes.  You're going to be on your feet a lot.  A 50-year industry veteran once told me, "you can be cheap with other things, but not with your shoes."  As much as you can afford to, spring for the good ones with lots of support.  

5. Mise en place.  It's a way of life.  Prepare your ingredients in advance and stay organized. And remember that recipes can only take you so far-- you must also evaluate what you produce and know how to fix it if it's not right.

6. Take notes.  Whenever possible, ask your chef how to do something only once. Always defer to how the chef you are working for wants the task done, even if a previous boss or teacher taught you a different method.  Keep a little notebook in your back pocket and make it your kitchen bible.  (For the record, my favorite kitchen notebooks are Moleskin's hard cover pocket size and I stock up on them when they go on sale.)

7. Learn from everyone.  Respect each job in the kitchen.  Especially if you want to be running the show someday, know how to work the dish machine, how to clean the fryer, and observe the way everything works in the operation.  Be a sponge, absorb everything, and show appreciation for your kitchen teammates.

8. Respect your knives. Never try to catch a falling knife, it's a losing game.  Keep them sharp.  And be careful not to leave blades hanging out in a sink where they can injure someone.  The most common knife you'll use is an 8 inch or 10 inch chef's knife, so it's practical to invest in one of those. And don't break the bank with your first purchase: you can get a decent starter knife for under $40.

9. Be vocal.  Make yourself seen and heard in the kitchen, or else you're going to get cut, burned, or otherwise injured.  Say "behind" when you're walking behind someone, "hot" when you're carrying hot pots and pans through the kitchen, or "sharp knife!" if you're walking through the kitchen with sharp objects.

10.  Walk faster!  Make your trips within the kitchen as efficient as possible and have a sense of urgency.

Finally, be bold and use common sense.  Julia Child offered the best advice when she said: "The main thing is to have a gutsy approach and to use your head."  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

midnight mise

Before starting culinary school, it was typical for me to spend sleepless nights dabbling in new recipes.  After a day at the office, I would decide it was urgent that I learn choux pastry, attempt the perfect lattice pie design, find a recipe utilizing beet tops so the greens wouldn't go to waste, or figure out what made the filling in Indian samosas taste so good.  I produced all of these curiosities in a tiny but well equipped studio apartment kitchen in Santa Monica, California.

My galley-style kitchen, roughly 57 inches by 17 feet, sat separate from the bedroom but close enough for the smell of freshly baked cookies (or whatever was in the oven) to permeate every square inch of space whether you wanted it to or not.  Vertical storage solutions were key, and strategic hooks and shelves lined the walls. Meanwhile, the bar sink made washing dishes and equipment a struggle, and the oven and refrigerator were smaller than typical American household appliances. While the average apartment dweller might decide this was too small a space to ambitiously cook in, I was an avid cook with serious determination.  Plus, I decided that there was a certain romance to it. During my studio apartment residency, the New York Times posted an article about Mark Bittman's famously bad New York kitchen.  Bittman's visibility as a food writer certainly fueled my motivation and my midnight mise en place habits: if he could produce so much content and develop so much knowledge in a less than perfect kitchen, why should I hold back? Like Bittman's well known book, I wanted to know how to cook everything and often used his recipes as a reference.  Through these apartment cooking adventures, I was joining the ranks of food writers in overcrowded yet desirable culinary cities, which felt like good company to be in.

A little snapshot of my old bookshelf and the beginnings of my cookbook collection, a collection which has rapidly expanded each year

So it was in this kitchen that I started experimenting with bread doughs and spices and many weekly impulse produce purchases from the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  Looking back, I think it was fate that one of the best farmers markets in the country was just a stone's throw from my office door.  It is still one of my favorite produce destinations, with artichokes the size of your head, colorful squash blossoms, juicy blood oranges, and culinary inspiration wherever you turn.

No wonder I could get lost for hours exploring new dishes and cooking methods. I learned a lot about different ingredients during this time of experimentation.  I also learned the valuable lesson that you will never have the perfect kitchen or all of the right equipment that a recipe demands.  What's important is to spend time practicing in the kitchen regardless of perceived obstacles.

Now that the culinary world is my main professional focus, my late night experiments are more rare. I spend more time wearing aprons than regular clothes, and I'm a different cook now than I was in the days of that studio apartment.  I still have a lot to learn, but now I am lucky to have so many more tools at my fingertips.  And while I may never have an ideal dream kitchen, the stuff of cookbook spreads and architectural magazines, I'll always have my determination.