The Process

Tag: cook

Kitchen Trails and Industry Fails

 

When looking for work, restaurant employees, especially cooks and chefs, are normally expected to trail in the restaurant for a day to see the inner workings of the place and to give the employer an idea of their work habits and skills.  Trails are a simultaneously smart and tragically stupid way to interview candidates for a job.  For a first job, a trail makes sense in the same way the SAT is used to measure learning aptitude.

Does the person take naturally to the work or stand there like an awkward scarecrow?  If they are enrolled in or have graduated from a culinary school, do they have anything to show for it, or are they dumb as rocks and have no idea how using a knife in school translates to using one in real life?  Do they know how to use salt to their advantage, or do they not even realize its importance in cooking?  To verify a new cook’s capability, a trail makes total sense.  For those more experienced, however, a trail can be an awkward, backwards, aggravating, and/ or laughable experience.  For someone with a proven record of experience, in my opinion, a general trail is a waste of time when an interview and tasting or cooking practical would be more than sufficient.

Beginning the search for a job with a trail often has the “starting from scratch” feeling.  None of the cooks are usually informed about the qualifications of the candidate and sometimes don’t know what position he or she is trailing for.  In some cases, that’s because it’s for one of the jobs held by the cooks or chefs present.  Often, the chef who beholds the information about the candidate is too busy and/or too introverted and/or too socially anxious and/or too hungover and/or has forgotten they scheduled a trail today and/or pretty much anything to brief the staff on the person’s background or goals.  And, so, The Trail (as the staff commonly refers to this human who has already introduced their actual name–something I’ve been both guilty and victim of) is guilty of idiocy and ineptitude until proven innocent.  And so often, the real trial–line cooking– doesn’t start until after a couple hours of prep work patronization.

In general, you can’t blame the staff for over-explaining the steps of work to The Trail.  After all, this alien in the kitchen is going to be responsible for some of the food preparation for the restaurant, and it has to be right to serve.  To best prevent any mass destruction, that means that usually the cooks will either play hot potato with The Trail and try not to let it help them by saying things like, “I’m good, do you need it?”  I’ve had the distinct honor of being on a trail the same day as someone looking for a culinary school internship and being pawned off to another cook as in, “Are you using both of them right now, or can I have one?

“No, do you need one of them?”  No names, of course.  The minute things get named, relationships get complicated, after all.

Otherwise, the cooks will give the trail the golden opportunity to chop herbs or go gather all the shit they keep forgetting in their ADHD cooking brains: “Here’s a list of all the things I still need for service, which started five minutes ago.  Can you grab them?”  And so, after a couple hours, the only discernible qualities this human has is whether they can not cut themselves with their own knife on the first task and whether they are able bodied enough to see shit and carry it in their hands.  Having been in the position of both cook and chef administering many trails, I have seen plenty of dumb or green potentials that make a solid argument for the way trails are conducted currently: they cannot be trusted with anything more than the bare minimum.

I’ve seen a guy cook meat on a grill for kebabs and put it on a stick after it was cooked!  I’ve seen a girl label a container of zested citrus as “juice meat” instead of “juice me.”  I’ve had to tell a guy that salads should be dressed with salt, acid, and oil as opposed to just black pepper and oil.  I’ve had a girl triumphantly spilling over with excitement that she knew about the word umami.  That same girl slapped my ass when she left her trail even though I was the one who was deciding whether or not to hire her.  I’ve seen a man go into the bathroom with gloves on and come out wearing them.  For these people, a trail is a kind buffer between them, the potential employer, and their respective and mutual fates.

For people that have years of experience in cooking, though, the time spent dicking around and standing there with a thumb up their asses while waiting for direction (or even watching the cook who owns them for the day do a terrible job and refuse help or advice) is not the most productive way to convince the chef or coworkers of their ability.  It’s quite like if instead of taking the SAT to get into college, you had to take a basic addition test where the first section was finding pencils and proving that you knew how to count to ten and no one was really sure if you’d ever made it past the first grade anyway.

Lately, in my own hunt for a job, I’ve been subject to some interesting moments in kitchens around the city.  Being young hasn’t done me any good in commanding immediate credence in each new kitchen team.  Looking even younger than I am has done me less good.  And say what you will about it, being a female has probably done me even less good.  I get it.  I look more or less like a cherub out of a Michelangelo swathed in chef garb.  My looks don’t give off the same aura of strength and badassery as that possessed by tall, lanky men covered in tattoos, often ones who have chosen to grow a beard to suggest wisdom.  And no matter the growing quantity of damn amazing female chefs out there, the industry is still dude obsessed.

I’m small.  I can’t grow a beard at all.  Automatically, nothing much is expected of me, especially physically, and I’m not established enough in the industry to have a reputation that precedes me.  Staying at the same acclaimed restaurant and climbing through the ranks is a good answer for that, but I don’t like staying somewhere for four years.  So I go back into the culinary playpen every so often.  Here is a list of some times I had to reach deep inside myself and not let myself stick my hand in a flame or chop off a digit to get out of the trail or even first days of a new job early:

  1. When I dropped a microplane on the floor and a cook told me I had to wash it before using it again
  2. The time no one, not even the chef on duty, was informed that I was trailing for a sous chef position and I was therefore lumped in with the culinary school extern hopefuls.  The cook in charge of The Trails was new to cooking and taught us very badly how to make a beurre blanc sauce, wasting expensive cheesecloth as she made her bouquet and including her own variations that she followed based allegedly on her mood any  given day (something very scary to hear from a line level employee charged only with keeping up the consistency of the chef’s recipes).  Luckily, this was also the time I got pawned off on another cook
    1. The time that same girl told me it was best to put hot used pots and pans in a separate bus tub from dirty plastic containers.  Mind blown.
    2. When the other cook I was pawned off on asked me if this was my first restaurant but then said he could tell it wasn’t because I did a good job of slicing bread.
    3. When one cook told the other not to throw away extra jus, because it’s expensive, and she replied, “we don’t buy the jus; we make it in house!”
    4. At the end of the night when the chef on duty, after paying me no attention during my trail, asked me if I was still in culinary school and whether I was looking for a cooking job there
  3. The time a cook on the meat roast station at a well known restaurant told me that he only put the garlic and thyme in the roasted mushrooms when he had time.  He wasn’t busy all night and only did it right on one pick up.  Another very worrisome moment for consistency in New York City
  4. The time a sous chef, whose job I was previously offered, told me that leaving a sauce on a burner without stirring it would result in scorching
    1. When that same sous burnt a batch of crackers and threw them all away except for the amount needed for the night’s service instead of making new ones in the ample time left in the day.
  5. The time a cook asked me if I had heated up the sauce I was spooning over a hot fish entree

It takes a lot of effort on the chef’s end of things to coordinate trails and find suitable employees; the kitchen is such a rotating door of staff members, and a lot of times, potential candidates have a lot of trails lined up and will of course only be choosing one place.  So it does seem a little bit to ask of chefs to plan better for trails or interviews with people who are barely invested in taking the job as much as they are just curious about behind the scenes and tasting some fancy food for free.  However, it seems to me that with a little extra research into the candidate (calling their references, etc.,) and some kind of premeditated cooking practical, a chef would be able to make a much better informed decision about a new hire and waste less of the The Trail’s time and anguish as they do pairing them with some half baked newbie line cook for Picking Parsley and Getting Salt and Squeeze Bottles of Oil and Water.

 

 

Love in the Time of Cholesterol: A Tale of Fried Bologna

It started out with an epiphany: I was at work one day and realized that I had a favorite food.  It may sound odd, but if you ask a cook what her favorite food is, your likely response is going to be somewhere between “go fuck yourself,” and “who’s your favorite child?”  I was at work prepping, in my own little world, when it randomly occurred to me that the most delicious and valid food I have ever known might be the fried bologna sandwich.  My mom made it for me when I was a kid a few times, but it wasn’t even something I had on the reg.  Why now?  Why realize this as I’m preparing to lay my metabolism to rest when my twenties end?  But mostly, enough with the questions, because it’s a goddamn revelation to realize that you have a favorite food.

I didn’t act on the epiphany right away.  Many cooks don’t cook much during their time off, unfortunately, and in my case, I try to avoid cooking myself all the dankeries my heart desires, because I feel that when it comes to the size of my ass, there’s a fine line between bounty and excess.  Long story short, I don’t really have food at my place.  However, around the time I realized my one true food love, I met this woman.  She was also a cook in New York, we hit it off fairly quickly, and once I felt I had almost won her heart, I decided we had to make one of these sandwiches together. I got the ingredients and brought them to her place, and we set to work.

I fried the bologna in butter first, crisping up the edges and watching it contort into its wavy, strange fried bologna shape.  The transformation is nothing short of a Pokemon metamorphosis.  It’s intense.  After the bologna was crispy and dank and delicious, I took it out and added more butter to the pan.  Then, I slathered a piece of whole wheat sandwich bread with Hellman’s mayo and laid it in the pan, mayo side up.  I shingled the little rounds of bologna all over the bread–but not too much, lest the sandwich be too meaty…maybe two layers.  And then I topped it with another mayo’d bread slice, flipped it, adding more butter to the pan to ensure for perfectly crispy bread.

We cut it in half and took a bite when it was golden and perfect, and the thing was nothing short of glorious.  “Mouthgasm” could come close to describing it, but that seems cheap.  What happens when you take a bite of this is that your mouth corners immediately shoot up into an involuntary grin, and your mouth waters in rapturous satisfaction at the perfect combination of brown butter, meat, salt, and chewy wheat.  And it bothered me, you know, when people on Instagram laughed at the wheat bread.  They said, “Oh, to balance out the bologna.”  “Trying to be healthy.”  But no…that’s just the kind of bread I had growing up, and it tastes so much more intense than white.  White would ruin this masterpiece.

So the woman fell in love with me, maybe, or maybe me and the sandwich, much in the way the couple in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” needed Scarlet Johansen to make their love life whole.  Either way, we have been very happy.  But one day she woke up hungry and wanted fried bologna, and we didn’t have any more bologna.  And we didn’t make it that day. But then a day came when we woke up and decided that we would go seek out the ingredients and take control of our destiny.  And it turned out the deli downstairs from her place had bologna all along, so it wasn’t even that difficult.  We bought so much bologna that we had at least a half a pound left after we cooked, which comforted us, because we are Jews, and we need to know where our next sandwich is coming from.

Back in her kitchen, we produced two perfect fried bologna sandwich specimens, made coffee, and brought the feast to her bed, as we do. “Wait.  I have to take my pants off.  Sorry.  I just do.  It makes sense,” she says.

“No, you’re right; that does make sense.  Why would this be a pants occasion?”

We wanted the best for ourselves, so we ate the sandwich that was fresh out of the pan first.  It was perfect.  So perfect, in fact, that we really almost cried.  I felt high.  We had arranged slices of extra fried bologna on the side of the plate just because, and that felt so right.  After the sandwiches, we laid in our coma of ecstasy for a couple hours, just basking in the glory of my favorite food.  It was so perfect.  And then we went for a walk in the sun.

When we sat down by the river, looking out at the nice day, I said, “You know, it’s almost kind of sad to take the first bite of the sandwich.  Knowing it’s never going to be better than that.  That the rest of the day may never measure up to that one moment of bliss.” “I agree,” she said.  And we just sat in the sun and accepted that life passes us by and that the sandwich moments happen.  We were OK with it, though, because we enjoyed what we had when we had it, which is the point.

“Do you think I should ask those people for a hit of their joint?  Is that rude?”  She said.

“Nah, do it.”

“Meh…”  We did not smoke their weed.

Later that night, we decided to go to a bar and attempt to enjoy ourselves despite knowing that we already lived the peak of our day sometime around noon, year of our sandwich.  So we got fancy cocktails and beers at The Dead Rabbit and talked and talked and talked.  We drank and smiled about how perfect our lives were, even in light of the passing of the sandwich moment.  How perfect we were, how anything was possible.  She talked about her upcoming trip to Iran, and I said how she better not show her hair to anyone but me, and we laughed.  I offered to wear a head scarf in New York for three weeks while she was away as a sign of my devotion and also to be funny.  I’ll do it, but I also kind of hope she forgets that I said that.

When we left the bar, we walked home, trying to figure out why it took so many matches to keep my corn cob pipe lit and whether it was worth it.  “I’m hungry,” she said, as we neared her place.

“I’ve eaten a fried bologna sandwich, a whole ficelle, and half of that giant salad you made today.  But I like eating.  What are we gonna eat?  I’m not eating when you go to Iran.  I’m gonna get skinny and then when you come back, we can eat all the things and I’ll get fat again.”

“That’s a good idea.  We have more ingredients for another fried bologna.  Let’s go smoke and make another.” I grin.

“OK.” We get into her place, and we hit her little bong a couple times.

“I want to make it this time,” she says.

“Yes ma’am.”  She does the sandwich process, but before she puts on the bologna, she says,

“I want to fry the mayonnaise side.”

“Sacrilege!” I yell.

“It’ll be good.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be against trying it.  But you have to put more raw mayo on it again before the bologna.”  I dip my finger in the mayo and put it in my mouth.

“OK.  Haha.”

“I just have to taste the ingredients in every different context, you know?”

“No…you’re just being luxurious.”

“True,” I grin, caught in my stoned bullshit. The sandwich comes out of the pan hot and beautiful, as usual.  We each raise a half to our mouths, bite, and get the sandwich grin.

“It’s the best one yet.”

“It is.  Oh my God.  And you know what?”

“What?”

“We beat the system.  It’s the best moment of the day…again…”

“We did beat the system.  I’m happy.”

“I’m happy too.”