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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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Java Junkie in Java!

The cocoa like coffee of Java

OK, lets face it. I love coffee. Always have always will. Being a Chef has it’s “perks”so to speak: free unlimited coffee consumption. This is needed when you are working 12 hr days…so instead of being coke heads, most of us Chef’s are Java Junkies.

So why when I found out that we were moving to Jakarta, which is on the island of Java, did I not get excited about the prospects of going to the land of Java? I guess I had other things on my mind, like moving across the World…but to my delight, I entered a coffee paradise.

My favorite Brand so far....they have many varities....

So what makes the coffee so good? It is rich in flavor, full bodied yet mellow and mild. It is hard to explain, you just need to brew and drink it. Java is Arabica coffee ; which tends to be smoother than Robusta coffee. Java also has hints of Cocoa and earthy tones and when it is  brewed the smell is fantastic…

People ask me how I brew my coffee…everyone I speak with uses a Coffee Press…But I prefer a traditional drip brewer. Maybe it’s because I was raised on Mr. Coffee, or maybe I prefer the smell a brewer makes; but I swear they make a better cup of coffee. The key to success with the drip brewer is to use ice cold water….it steams when heated and extracts more flavor from the grind.

My traditional Drip Brewer

Another coffee trick I learned while working in Deli’s is if adding milk or cream, add it to the cup before the coffee, pour the coffee over the cream…it will froth up and make a delicious cup of Java….Just don’t try this at Starbucks, you may cause a riot!

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2011 in Food & Culture, Living in Jakarta

 

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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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Chinese New Year & Donuts at a the Pondok Indah Mall

Dance of Hands

We stumbled upon the Celebration of Chinese New Year during one of our many trips to the Pondok Indah Mall in Jakarta. This mall is awesome. It is actually 2 malls in one. The two sections are connected by an air bridge.

Mall 1 is more pedestrian with practical stores: bookstores, electronics, media. It is anchored by Metro department store, which is like a Macys. Mall 2 is more fashion forward: Zara, TopShop, Hugo Boss, Longchamp, and anchored by Sogo department store, which is like a Bloomingdales.

Kids lined the Mall to view the Dragon Dance!

The mall was filled with pleasant surprises: fantastic Chinese food, cool performances for Chinese New Year, and most of all, the best fresh made Donuts my wife and I have ever had. I had a Belgian chocolate stuffed, chocolate glazed donut. My wife had a chocolate sprinkled donut. They are fried right in front of you. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts are nearby, but J.CO Donuts & Coffee had the biggest crowd by far.

Shana smiling in front of J.Co

That’s right, Indonesians have a sweet tooth, and a very healthy taste for high quality cakes, donuts and confections…..This apparently is a holdover from Dutch Colonial rule.

Mango Cream and Banana Chocolate Cream!

What makes the donuts a J.CO so special is how light they are. Yes, they come in all kinds of exotic flavors: banana cream chocolate, mango glazed, etc… but the fact that they are so delicate makes them so much better than the rest. I admit, we were somewhere else in town and tried some Krispy Kreme; which felt like I ate two lead bricks! That’s when I understood just how good J.CO is….

I am very impressed with the cuisine I have sampled so far in Jakarta. I am truly surprised by the amount and quality of tasty treats. I cant wait to try some more…and I cant wait for some more Pleasant Surprises!

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2011 in Food & Culture, Living in Jakarta

 

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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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Ode to Anthony Bourdain…

No Reservations (book)

Image via Wikipedia

10 years ago someone gave me Anthony Bourdains Kitchen Confidential” as a gift. I gave the book a cursory view, didn’t like what I read and threw it in a pile of books on a shelf in our apartment.

I was a working Chef in NYC, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, and at that time was running the catering department at Columbia University. I had no time for trivial stories about some drunk’s exploits in the kitchen. I myself was a drunk, trying to get on the straight and narrow….and succeed in the Big Apple.

My career in NYC started in 1999. My future wife and I moved to the city for her educational pursuits and I scored a sweet job at the Russian Tea Room as  Chef Tournant. The Tea Room was re-opening in a grand new gaudy style, with the backing of restaurateur extraordinaire Warner LeRoy.

By the end of the first week I knew I had to get out of the Tea Room. I was starting work at 2pm and not leaving till 2 in the morning. The minute I clocked in I was running up and down 4 steep flights of rat infested stairs, pumping out borscht by the cauldron, getting yelled at by coffee drunk Sous Chef‘s and in turn yelling at line cooks! The place was an utter mess. Completely F#*cked up! One night the catering department served 200 raw Chicken Kiev‘s to a dining room full of stunned VIP guests. The only benefit was when I made a quenelle of Caviar for the signature RTR stuffed potato, I could lick the spoon clean of the excess delightful Ossetra row; tossing the sterling silver utensil into the dish room with gusto! Hey, it was 1 in the morning!

At the Cape

In 2001 I was lucky enough to score a job as Catering Chef at Columbia University….and get out of the restaurant mayhem….never to return. Later I would run Ferris Booth Commons, Columbia’s premier gourmet retail outlet. Working for Columbia had its own issues though….weekend parties, 5000 guests/parents on graduation day, Ivy League Politics etc…..But Columbia  gave me a semblance of normalcy, and that’s when I was given Bourdains book. So you can see that I had no interest, or time for Tony.

Cooking the Goat Heads

Columbia did afford me time to travel, and my wife and I went off to Peru, South Africa and Europe. With this new love of traveling came an interest in Tony’s travel show, “No Reservations”. At first I was reluctant to watch, maybe even jealous: this old Chef got it right…and here I am still slinging hash. Regardless, I couldn’t help but enjoy his show. He was a natural on-screen. He was funny, insightful. His shows went to all corners of the world…and he ate whatever was served to him. When I was in South Africa I attempted to copy Tony by agreeing to eat roast goats head. The head was buried in hot ashes and was fully intact, eye balls and all. Luckily the tour guide forgot about our deal….thankfully I was let off the hook.


So I was now a fan of Bourdain…watched all his shows, rented the “Lebanon” episode from Netflix. I was impressed that as he became more popular, he stayed true to his form; unlike Emeril, who I used to watch when his show was simple and interesting and he didn’t wear so much make-up.

Recently my wife was promoted to a position in South East Asia. The location was between Bangkok, Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia. We eagerly rented Tony’s shows on the 2 mega cities. Bangkok was our first choice, but to our surprise, Bourdain didn’t have great things to say about the city (protests and all). Jakarta on the other hand came across quite well. So Jakarta it is. I’m not saying we made our decision based only on Tony’s show, but it did make an impression.

Last week we were back in NYC, saying goodbye to friends and family. I was looking through some old stuff of mine at my mother’s house. I came across Tony’s book…in the same place I tossed it 10 years earlier. The book didn’t look a day older, not even a crease, just a bit of dust. I was about to put it in the “goodwill” pile, but hesitated. I thought to myself….”should I read this? Give it another shot?” I was at a different place in my life, maybe the book wouldn’t bother me as it did long ago. I thumbed through the first few pages, and there it was, the connection I missed in my arrogant past. Tony mentioned that he was the guy who came in after  “the first Chef turned out to be a psychopath, or a mean, megalomaniacal drunk, “and stabilized the kitchen. He was no superstar, but he was a solid, damn good Chef, and that was his value. That was my role as well. And it took some time for me to accept that role. Everyone starts fresh out of school thinking they will be the next big thing on the Food Network.

Anyway, I always followed some high paid, blustery fool, who had ground the kitchen right into the grease-trap/sewer. After a few successful “clean ups”, I found my niche. I introduced sanitation programs, addressed employee issues, tightened up inventory controls, lowered food cost and got the business into the black. Not very glamorous, but a solid career. So after all, Bourdain and I did have something in common. We were both solid Chefs…so I read on…and was hooked!

Now, just as Bourdain has, I am about to embark on my next career path. No one should stay in the kitchen for too long…it can burn you out, but you will never get the kitchen out of your blood. So thanks Tony. Sorry for dismissing you way back then….but back then I was too close to the fire to enjoy the burn!

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Food & Culture, Living in Jakarta, World Travel

 

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