Saturday, March 27, 2010

The professional kitchen and me

Foremost this was not supposed to be a blog about me.  But anything worth hearing at this point might just have to come from the inside, so I'm posting this at 2am (don't worry - tomorrow's my day off).
I work in a restaurant.  Restaurant life is hard.  4 months in and I've nearly reached a breaking point of self-mutilation and kitchen/personal sanity.  In my sleep I'm mixing pork sugo with orrechette, AP stock, and raddichio to order at work (don't forget to season), or slicing meat while babysitting the chef's children at his home (bedside meat slicer - don't we all have one?).  While I'm awake I spend my spare time working out for a healthy distraction or numbing myself in exhaustion in front of the television.  What part of my life is supposed to be sustainable now?  My personal life has taken a blow also.  Having the opposite schedule as nearly all my friends is rough, and my campaign to make Tuesday the new Friday was only mildly successful.
Enough complaining - isn't work supposed to be hard?  Work is hard - everywhere - says the chef.  Our restaurant is not unique.  Right.  Work IS hard.  But it's worth it if you love it, right?  Do I love it?  I love to cook...  I'm learning more and more that there may as well be an ocean between my kitchen and the professional kitchen at work.  The days of leisure cooking are over to be replaced by a haze of what seems to be like kitchen rape.  I exaggerate.  But the truth is - going in, I wasn't quite prepared for the ball of stress that can be the kitchen.
Needless to say I do still go back everyday, an hour early (like clockwork), wanting to learn more...learn it all.  There is so much to learn.  And once it's with you it stays for life.
Here's something true about the kitchen, something disappointing to me.  There's very little thinking involved.  The kitchen is all muscle memory.  I cannot stay up all night studying the kitchen and suddenly master my station and get an A.  There is no replacement for experience in this respect.  And for someone with an academic background this is quite frustrating.  The best way to get good at 'the kitchen' is to push myself really hard, just about every day, to perform the best that I can.  You cannot take shortcuts.  You cannot take time off.  X and Y need to get done and you must do it, because if you don't  the restaurant is not ready to open.
Likewise attitude is everything in the kitchen.  I've been complemented many times by the line cooks, the sous-chef, and the chef as well about my positive attitude in the kitchen.  "With an attitude like that you'll go far" - Chef.  If I didn't say it before you cannot be averse to hard work in the kitchen.  You do everything that is asked of you and with a smile.  A bad attitude in the kitchen is like a bad attitude anywhere else - it brings down moral and can create a toxic environment.  My experience with this is mainly with the sous-chef (ex sous-chef) of my restaurant.  He was profoundly unhappy with his position in life and in his career and took it out on the food and the restaurant.  Often I'd hear comments from him such as "see you tomorrow in hell" or "that looks like shit, what was the chef thinking."  I'd occasionally even hear him bad talking the food in earshot of customers (open kitchen....hellooooooo).  It really shocked me how one bad attitude can be contagious and all of a sudden everyones in a bad mood because no one is allowed to have fun.
So why am I still there?  I love to cook.  I like making ravioli when I'm not a ball of stress.  I don't quit things when they get hard - I push through and triumph, in one way or another.  Part of it is proving to myself that I can, in fact, do it - not to mention that I am still very much interested in learning to cook.  Part of it is giving the work a fair chance (though I suspect this will not be my life long career).  And another part of it is seeing where this takes me - if I will gain any other valuable insight about my life or future through this process.

I can only wait to see how the cookie will crumble...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food and Me

What I ate today:
Honey nut cheerios (a knockoff)
A blueberry pop tart (Trader Joe's brand)
Peanut butter filled pretzels
Smoked tuna sandwich (at work for staff meal)
A single malfatti (a spinach/ricotta dumpling like thing that's shaped like an egg, and takes multiple days to work)
Crostini (thin slice of bread toasted with oil)

Things about food that interest to me:
Nutrition: what's good for my body and yours.
History of nutrition in the US: 1960's industrialization of food.  Being the nation that is the most obsessed with nutrition and nutrients and vitamins and all that jazz, and paradoxically being the most obese and unhealthy (much thanks to advertising and the food and drug companies).
America exporting it's diet to the world.
Food scarcity
Food as community, religion, pleasure, family.
Food movements - oragnic, slow, small plates, local, all that stuff California adores.  Pluots.
Organic certifications in and out
Food as history: We've been eating some of the same essential (regional) foods for a very long time, fried chicken and the south, hummus and the middle east, Sicilian Pizzuta almonds...
Food in history: "Let them eat brioche!" Marie Antoinette
Food made in the right way.
Food idioms (I have been collecting them since I incorporated some of them into one of my lessons at English language summer camp in Russia).

People I draw inspiration from at the moment:
Marion Nestle - NYU professor in food studies, PhD in Nutrition, Food/Nutrition columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and food writer for The Atlantic.
Peter Reinhardt - baker, professor, master of the Pain Poilane (famous Parisian loaf), and author of the most fabulous bread book I've been learning and experimenting from, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice."
Michael Pollan - food writer/author (currently reading his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto)
Ari Weinzweig - most endearing food writer for the Atlantic
Lara Vapnar - food novelist - author of "Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love" - short fiction stories about Russian immigrants to the US  - all of which use food as metaphors to explore their personal lives.
Julia Child - food enthusiast
Richard Olney - poetic food writer of the past - must read his chapter on eggs.
Chlotilde  - French food blogger who makes me want to eat everything she makes.

My lists will grow as will legitimate blog posts I hope.  Here's to restarting and re-vamping my food blog!  And along the way maybe I'll learn a thing or two about where my interests really lie.  Same time next week ish.