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From Short Order Cook to Chef and back…III

During an interview at the Waldorf Astoria I was asked by the Executive Chef who my influences were? I told him I was influenced by the people I worked for and trained under, they where the Chefs I admired and that had put there mark on me. He didn’t like my answer. Maybe he wanted to here me say David Bouley or Charlie Trotter or Emeril or even¬† himself…I’m not sure, but I didn’t get the job. I truly believed in what I said. I was never a believer in the Ego of the Superstar Chef. It is, in my mind, a team effort. But there is no denying the influence one person can have on a kitchen.

III…Introducing the Superstar Chef and their Demons!

Lets start cooking some real food

After 2 months at Christopher’s working with 2 different Chefs, serving half-ass versions of high end food and making an utter mess; the place was teeter tottering on closing it’s doors. It was that bad. That’s when Davey was enticed to come back and take over as Chef. I was excited, because I knew his reputation. He was a star. He would fix all the ills of the place, he would teach me how to cook, I couldn’t wait, I was just hanging on….I was the one positive in a kitchen in the murk of mire. I was forewarned though, as great as a chef as Davey was, he was also a real prick. I knew him a bit, and when we met up he let me know that I was his partner in this, part of his team. He was smart, because he knew he needed me as much as I needed him…it was on!

The day Davey started everything changed. To this day I use his blueprint when taking over a kitchen. First of all, we embarked on cleaning and organizing the kitchen. I mean, deep cleaning…we scrubbed out reach-in refrigerators, pulled apart ovens, cleaned fry-olators, etc etc etc….We also organized all the products we used into small plastic containers, labeled and dated everything and completed a full standing inventory. Once the place was up to snuff we were ready to get on to the fun part…cooking!

Davey carried around a copy of Le guide Culinaire, often quoting Escoffier himself; and of course we where cooking from it. In no time we were making huge vats of veal stock from scratch, filleting whole salmons, whipping up fresh hollandaise sauce, ricing potatoes to creamy puree perfection. It was culinary bliss, and I was loving it. I was Davey’s right hand man…his loyal partner…sometimes in crime.

Our Mentor

As we grew more comfortable with our situation Davey became the dictator of the kitchen, and I his willing henchman. Davey started doing shots of whiskey towards the end of the shift. This was my signal that the line was all mine. Davey would end up out at the bar…shit faced…while I mopped up. Later I would be cornered for one of his many speeches on the meaning of life. Never the less we became friends.

It was at this point that I achieved what I call Kitchen Independence. It was a Tuesday night, Davey’s day off, and I was covering the shift alone. This usually was not a problem. Weeknights were not that busy, and I had the support of 2 teenagers, one a prep cook, and the other a busboy/dishwasher. What I wasn’t aware of was that there was some sort of Spring Break keg party going on…and my teenage help called out sick…together!

I found myself alone…I had to cook, bus tables and wash all the dishes; not to mention sweep and mop and take out the trash at the end of the shift. See, in a restaurant, if dishes are not cleaned and trash isn’t discarded, the place grinds to a halt: no silverware, no plates = no business! After a short period of panic, I stepped outback and had a smoke….I told myself I was ready for this…

The night wasn’t slow; it was downright busy….but I hustled. I was so organized that I could do 6 things at once. Whipping out gourmet meals, lugging full clanking bus pans, scrubbing greasy dishes…all the while washing my hands in between and air jamming to hard rock radio. When the night was over the bartender gave me a few on the house. I was beat, but happy. I did it! I overcame one of the biggest fears of any cook. I didn’t fail!

The next day Davey took me out to the old Clam Bar that had been converted into our prep room. A huge pot of veal stock was slowly simmering on the stove to jellied perfection. He rolled a huge (bleep) and smoked it with me under the protection of that wonderful aroma of the veal stock….”Congratulations!” he said. “Welcome to my world!”


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Posted by on March 11, 2011 in Food & Culture

 

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From Short Order Cook to Chef and back…II

What sets a career in the Food Services and especially restaurants apart from others is the feeling of family and camaraderie that can occur. Many hours spent together in a hyper intense atmosphere, direct contact with the customer who can give instant feedback create this unique environment. Stressful, emotional, physically demanding and instantly rewarding! It’s like being on a sports team, every day is a new game to win or lose, and like being part of a team a good coach can make all the difference between success and complete disaster!

Welcome to the land of the Gourmet Burger

II… Whiskey a Golf Cart

My next step seemed perfect. With the help of my buddy Porto, I accepted a job working for his mother at the Beekman Country Club in Upstate New York as a PM Short Order Cook. Free golf was a perk. I started work at noon, relieving the AM cook, Ned. We served breakfast and lunch to hundreds of hungry golfers, most escaping their wives for a few precious hours of golf with the boys. The menu was mostly burgers and hot dogs, fresh salads, sandwiches, and yes, of course, the dreaded turkey club…which I had still yet to master!

Ned was great. He was an old rocker, a bit washed up, but a hell of a short order cook. He had a frightful habit of pulling a chef knife across his tongue, using the back side as his trick, fully freaking out anyone who would watch!¬† He took me under his wing and trained me so I could handle the busiest of days. It was in his best interest, because as soon as I could stand on my own two feet, he could head off to the golf course, and then the bar and drink whiskey till his heart’s delight! Hence his nickname: Whiskey a Rocker Roller, or “Whiskey” for short.

Of course it wasn’t all fun and games. Driving into work on the weekends you could see the parking lot while cresting the hill. If it was a nice day the lot would be jammed. If it rained all day the place would be dead and you could look forward to peace and quiet and some much-needed cleaning. The dreaded combo was; a nice hot day, with a sudden downpour. That meant a stampede of hungry, wet golfers, wanting their food fast so they could jump right back out as soon as the weather let up. On those days Ned and I would work together until things were under control.

The days of free golf...

This was the perfect situation for me. I was learning how to cook on the line, having fun, and playing golf for free everyday with Porto! I mastered the Club Sandwich. The food was simple, but the pace was fast and furious!

The best thing about this job turned out to be that I had joined a work family. Porto’s mom was the matriarch of the business and she had put together a staff of loyal hard-working people who were dedicated to their work and having fun while doing it. This was a new experience for me. I felt like I was part of something. I was learning how to be a good line cook and how to be part of a team.

There was a chance I could stay on in the winter at Porto’s moms restaurant, which was down the street. I would only be able to get a job their if I proved myself over the summer. So I worked my ass off and was offered the job as assistant chef. There was a catch though. Davey, the star chef of Christopher’s, had left a year earlier. The place had been in a bit of disarray since with a constant stream of chefs falling on there face.

I couldn’t wait to get there!….


 
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Posted by on March 1, 2011 in Food & Culture

 

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From Short Order Cook to Chef and back…

In the beginning…

During the interview I said yes to every question John asked. Could I handle pressure, a fast pace and the heat of the kitchen? Yes! Could I work early mornings, long hours, all the time standing on my feet? Yes, of course! Was I comfortable taking direction and being part of a team, was I comfortable making decisions on my own and telling people what to do? Did I know how to make a Turkey Club? Yes, Yes, and Yes!

Over Easy's ready for the flip...an essential skill for a short order cook.

I left the greasy spoon and lite a smoke, got in my car and sped away. I wasn’t sure exactly what I had just agreed to, but I did know that I would be reporting the next day to work at 5 am at the Hopewell Diner…for 7 bucks an hour…

What I also knew, is that I didn’t really know how to cook. I mean, I could “cook”. I had been working at a Conference Center the past two years cooking breakfast and lunch buffet, but that was batch cooking, not line cooking. I wondered if I was ready to step on the line, read tickets and cook like a pro.

Do I even need to tell you what happened the next morning? I was half asleep when I arrived, and was more concerned with finding a cup of coffee than getting prepared for breakfast. Things started out OK, but as soon as the rush hit, I was (burnt) toast. The pleasant waitresses turned into fouled mouthed demons who spoke a language I could not understand! Tickets came in at a pace Carl Lewis would be proud of. My head was spinning, yolks were breaking, pancakes were burning, all the time with that language that I couldn’t grasp! “Two eggs over back w/ a side of jack, ASAP!”

John had to step in and take over, I was over and out. He wanted me to stay. Let me know I would be all right. But I knew otherwise, I was in over my head and needed to go. I lasted 4 hours in my first attempt at line cooking.

I was embarrassed and distressed. I told myself I would never be in that situation again. My ego was bent but not broken. It was back to the lab for some much-needed inner resolve…Baby steps were required. I needed my next break….

to be continued….

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2011 in Food & Culture, Living in Jakarta

 

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