The First Double Shift (Almost).

Today’s adventure in the kitchen brought me to a place where I feel I am making less serious errors, but I am still making errors as I try to do more and more each day. In short, I am trying to do anything I have half an idea about how to do it. That is, anything I can actually do half-assed, I then try to do full-assed, and, well, the results are not always stellar. But I am a firm believer in experiential education. A little lecture from the chef on how to do it right goes a long way after having done it wrong. A lot further that his just showing me, and my attempting to get it right when the time comes.

Still, some mistakes continue to plague me:

  • The plating of the lasagna continues to elude me. It is in the center of the plate, and has two “swishes” of tomato sauce on two opposing corners. Personally, I think it looks weird even when it is done right, and I just can’t seem to get it too look “right”.

    This is spaetzle. It isn’t pretty.


  • Spaetzle needs more salt than pasta when cooking. Vic seems to know when it tastes right, and I believe him seeing as how he is Austrian. I personally am not a spaetzle person – I prefer pasta by quite a bit – so it is hard for me to tell when I have it right.
  • All of the different chicken dishes have different sized portions depending on the dish and if it is lunch or dinner. The system has them piled in a series of places on the reach-in fridge and I just don’t think I have the hang of it yet. (Though I made no mistakes at lunch today on which chicken went where…)

But yes, perspective chefs reading this take note: there are very specific portioning guidelines to how a restaurant is run, and it makes sense quite frankly. Serve someone too much chicken in their chicken parmesan, and you are no longer making money on it. Cease to make money on a popular dish, and your restaurant goes belly up. Expect to be forced to comply with such rigorous guidelines when you go into the kitchen.

So today was supposed to be my first double shift, and I have to admit, I was apprehensive. I was wondering what it would be like to work for 13 straight hours, as will be the norm more often when I am done with culinary school (for now) and am able to fit into a more permanent role there. But there was a mix-up in the scheduling, and I was not needed for the dinner rush, but I stayed anyway (unpaid mind you) until the dinner started a little bit so I could see how it went.

Please note this was not my chef taking advantage of me. He said he could not pay me, so I was free to go home, but I offered to stay on and help some so I could see how the transition went, and how things were different during dinner. We all had a good laugh when I was moving a bunch of things quickly and someone said that they needed something right away. My reply “Hey, don’t yell at the volunteers!” got a good laugh from all.

Yeah, something like this was my lunch

But all in all, it was neat to see how people in restaurants break between shifts. There is a clean up from lunch, a quick once-over in the kitchen to make sure there are enough supplies for dinner, and then a general cool-down period where everyone enjoys their first chance to sit since 8AM. And time to eat too. Amazing how much food can disappear into you when you have not eaten – yet have been surrounded by food – all day.

For those of you concerned about my well-being, my wife has already stated that I must start eating breakfast.

So let it be written.
So let it be done.

Chef Matt

Things I Need to Get Over

Day 2 is done. Much more responsibility involved as I was taking some tickets and making them my own today, though mainly I was just helping with the little things here and there that I had learned how to make by watching. Sure, I was not without errors galore, but the end game of it all was that people were eating things that I was preparing today.

I always thought that would be a weird feeling, you know, handing out the first dish that I ever made for public consumption that someone had paid for. The reality of it though: I was too damn busy to even notice I had done it. Lunch started at 11:30 and it didn’t even begin to let up until 2:15. I could see it even on the faces of the experienced crew members – everyone was just beat after this lunch rush, and I was too. I am writing this in a sort-of bent-over state. It is hard for me to be upright when I am this tired.

So here are some things that I think I now know I need to leave behind from the world I once knew. I thought these were part of the way life was, but now that I am in a kitchen, I can see they are no longer part of my world.

  • Getting to work after 8AM
  • Eating anything before 3PM
  • Having active nerve endings in my finger tips
  • Sitting
  • Saying “Good Enough” when serving food. It has to meet my chef’s standards now.
  • Needing to exercise (not complaining about this one, but I am on the move enough at this job to replace going running)
  • Not having to avoid 3 foot pillars of flame in my work place. I used to enjoy knowing that random spouts of fire would not appear at my work place when I would, say, reach across a desk. Not so much the case any more.
  • My days of note-taking are NOT over. My chef does not have recipes – he shows me how to do things, and I have to write them down. My pocket is full of recipes for things like Goulash soup and tomato sauce.

Chef math. Food + Power Tools = Awesome.

So of course what you all really want are stories about the job. Did I cut myself? Did I deep-fry my left arm? Am I now a master chef? The answer to all of the above is “no”. I sustained several minor burns in the course of the job today as I learned there are even more hot surfaces in a kitchen than I first assumed. Also, please see the aforementioned note Re: Pillars of Fire. As a little something that rates kind of high on the coolness scale though, I did get to watch Vic use a reciprocating saw to cut up some osso bucco.

But the real point is that I know more than I did yesterday, I was more helpful than I was yesterday, and I made less mistakes. In short, progress is all happening in the right directions. Now I just need to keep it going that way next week.

Chef Matt

Day 1 is Done

I’m back, and I am still alive. So those who bet against that have to pay up.

First off, thank you all for the kind notes of congratulations. I really appreciate it, and hopefully similar sentiments will be forthcoming from my chef instructors as well later this evening…

So wow, how do I sum up an entire first day? So much has happened since last night – I guess I will start there. I went out for a happy hour, but remained sober and got home at about 11:30 PM to go to sleep so I could be rested for my first day. The problem, I couldn’t sleep. Too much pent-up nervousness was having me dream that the restaurant had tripled in size and I needed to do all the cooking for them. I kept waking up thinking I was running late, and I was pretty sure I was going to slice a finger off at some point today.

Well, I got up, and got to work on time. It was neat commuting wearing chef’s pants and not carrying any bag of any kind. I almost felt “naked” since I wasn’t bringing any papers or anything – just my own two hands. I arrived at 8:00 AM, and the chef – Vic – put me right to work. Well, at least, he got to work and I watched everything that was involved in the morning prep. Basically he is the only one there until 9AM, so he tries to get as much done as he can then, and I am telling you, it is amazing how much can get done in an hour when you know what you are doing and there is nobody in your way.

The rest of the gang started to show up around 9, and that is when things really started humming along. Everybody knew their role and what they had to get done. This kitchen was prepping like a well-oiled machine, and it was a pleasure to watch and learn. Even I had some things I could help with, as I helped make a chicken sausage special for lunch (no casings thank God – what pain in the ass those are…) and I also skinned and trimmed about 30 rockfish fillets.

And here is where the injury happened. I will allay all concern now since I know my mother reads this blog, I am OK. This was in fact the single stupidest injury of all time. Here I am in a kitchen, surrounded by sharp implements everywhere. 80% of the surfaces are too hot to touch and will burn the shit out of you. The other 20% are things like meat grinders and so forth, so they will just maim you. In short, I am surrounded by danger, and what did I cut myself with?…

The back of a knife.

So. Freaking. Lame.

No, not a knife blade mind you, that’s how cool people cut themselves. Jackasses like me cut themselves with the back end of knives apparently. Which is what I did while skinning a rockfish fillet. So lame. I had to clean it and get a BandAid and all, and I was about as embarrassed as is humanly possible. I asked (rhetorically) “Who the hell cuts themselves with the back of a knife?” Vic looked at me, and with a smile on his face said, “Beginners.” Sigh.

So yeah, I have a long way to go. My goal is to draw less blood tomorrow.

The lunch crowd hit, and the staff said it was a busy day. They had a line going out the door for a solid hour. Call in orders and one crowd of about 15 people near then end made it a non-stop wall of hectic activity for an hour and a half. This was a kitchen that knew what it was doing. I was duly impressed, and did what I could to help and stay out of the way. They even let me help mess up a chicken Caesar salad for them by the end. :)

So all in all, it was a great day and a fun experience for my first day in a professional kitchen. There will be a lot of room to grow in this job, and like I said, I think I can really injure myself a lot less tomorrow. Or I could get complacent and end up deep-frying my left arm… either way.

In short, I knew I was in the right place when I was leaving, and saying to everyone how it was nice to meet them and all, and the wife of the owner looked at me and said “Welcome to the madhouse”. I looked back at her and said “Well, at least I know I belong then!”

One day done. Hopefully many many more to go!

Chef Matt

It Begins…

The job is mine!

I am now a chef!

I have never been so scared in all my life! :)

So here’s how it went down. I went out to Cafe Tirolo (that is the name of the place, which I can now tell you all) to see if they were interested in bringing me on board, and well, basically I already had the job. The head chef is selling the business to my neighbor and my neighbor had already made up her mind she wanted me – sight unseen – and, well, the head chef (Vic) could really care less as far as her decision.

But that being said, he is obviously a really nice guy, and really knows his stuff. He is the perfect example of pragmatism over idealism. He does not wear the chef’s jacket and the checked pants, he wears a t-shirt, apron and shorts. (He confessed to me the shorts are not smart as he has been burned several times, but he still prefers it. I informed him I would be wearing long pants – a decision I made on the spot.)

The cafe is in a small space, and there is no walk-in fridge. Much of the food is delivered daily, and they make all of their own pastry on the premises. In short, it is a real hard-work place with a lot to be done by all on hand, and he asked me if I could start tomorrow morning. 8 AM.

And here I was afraid I would be working late nights…

So here is how my day is filling out tomorrow:

7 AM

      – get up, go to work

8 AM

      – arrive at Cafe Tirolo, observe prep work, and help out as much as I can

2 PM

      – lunch shift is over, having sufficiently made a useless mass of myself in the kitchen, I go home

2:30 PM

      – start working from home on old job

5:30 PM

      – go to culinary school

11 PM

      – get home from culinary school, go to sleep

7 AM

    (Friday) – get up again to be at work at 8 AM

I think the theme of this blog is “mixed feelings”. While I’m excited to become a chef, I’m simultaneously terrified of the possibilities. While I’m thrilled to be starting my cooking career tomorrow, I’m not looking forward to that schedule.

But most importantly, I have to make sure to tell you how it all goes. Tune in sometime tomorrow afternoon, and I will try to let you all know how it went! I can’t promise coherency, but I will do my best to let you know what the first impressions are!

Man, this “Bachelor Week” thing is just not working out the way I had planned…

Chef Matt

Kitchen Humor

This will most likely be an ever-growing series as I notice that a lot of jokes are told in the kitchen, and it is amazing how many of them revolve around food. Or is it that a lot of jokes have food-related angles and I never noticed it before?…

Anyway, this one struck me as particularly funny, so I thought I would post it to give you all a sense of how low-brow it goes in a kitchen. My current chef instructor is a C.E.P.C. (Certified Executive Pastry Chef) and is gay. (Not that I care that he is gay, but it is important to note as you will soon see…) So we were making pound cake last night, and we needed to grease the pans. I had to get shortening and flour form the back to grease and flour the loaf pans.

I go into the stockroom and find the shortening which is in a giant box. No, not little tubs people. When you need a lot of shortening (and since it pretty much never goes bad) you get it in giant boxes–we’re talking bigger than wine cases here. I heft the box up, and carry it into the room.

The fact that I was carrying about 20 lbs of pure fat amused me somewhat, and as I came hauling that into the room the chef caught my eye (making sure I had the right box) and I said “Aww YEAH!”. I set the box down, and the conversation goes as follows:

shorteningChef: “Matt, when you come into a room carrying a giant box of lube, please don’t say ‘Aww YEAH!’ It conjures up the wrong images.”

Me: “OK Chef, but when I put this back, I think I may need you to help me squeeze it back in.”
Chef: “You’re a bastard.”

Yes, it is entirely that low-brow, but it had us both laughing for some time. Thank God I have a delightfully low threshold for what I find funny. (Believe it or not, I was actually voted “Most Likely to Laugh” in my high school class. I am still not entirely sure what that meant, but I thought it was funny…)

Anyway, like I said, I am sure there will be many more of these jokes to share, and if anyone has a good food-related joke (or funny story that involves food) I would love to hear it! Keep it clean though people! There are children reading this! (and my mom does too…)

Chef Matt

Something that doesn’t make sense to me…

There are many things that don’t make sense to me in this world, but there is one of them that specifically applies to culinary school. In school there are many types of students. There are the “second career” types like myself. There are the people who are going to school right out of high school as they want this to be their career. There are people who are already working in restaurants and are going to school to further their careers. There are even some people who are going because they are not sure what they want to do, but they think this would be a great option for now.

All of these are fine reasons to go to culinary school. But there is one group of people that make no sense to me as to why they are there:

The culinarily unadventurous

Can you believe there are people who are going to cooking school who won’t eat seafood? Or try blue cheese? Or won’t try anything without asking for every ingredient first? (Not for allergies, they are just looking for any on ingredient that will keep them from trying it.)

It’s Blue Cheese. How could you NOT want to eat this?!?

I may be a bit extreme in my culinary adventurousness, I will grant that. I will try anything that anybody legitimately eats as food. (So no, I have never tried dog food, and I don’t plan on doing so…) I’ve had chicken’s feet in China and blood sausage in Spain. From broiled eel in Japan to kangaroo tail in Australia, I have tried many odd foods, and I am willing to try (and looking forward to trying) many, many more.

I don’t necessarily expect everyone to be that bold in what they want to sample in school. But refusing to even try sushi? And you want to be a chef? What the hell is that? It is so ridiculous to me that some of the pickiest eaters I have ever met would want to pay to get training in fine cooking. Do they really expect their careers to go anywhere when they won’t even taste a dish made with sweetbreads? (For the record, they’re not sweet…)

You don’t have to like everything if you are going to be a chef. Broccoli makes me want to gag. Liver usually tastes like leather to me. Head cheese (yes, it is made from a head) is truly nasty. But I have tried all of them. But I’ve never tried deep-fried rats either, but hey, maybe they’re good once you get past the bones…

To not sample the different foods of the world is to forego the greatest discoveries that are available to you in the culinary world. Learning new cooking techniques is awesome, but it is the end product – the finished meal – and that wonderful anticipation before my first taste that I live for. If I didn’t have it, I can’t see myself having the push to go through with what I am doing. So where do these people get their motivation? I just don’t know. It’s something that just doesn’t make sense to me.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear what you can come up with…

Chef Matt