The Process

Tag: food

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.

 

 

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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.”

The Lost Kids

ELEVEN

I walk into work on Thursday, slightly dazed from all the wine Dennis and I drank the previous night.  When I get into the locker room, I’m surprised to see Dennis there, since Thursday is usually his other day off.   “The fuck are you doing here?”

“Devon called in.  I’m filling in.”

“Sucks for you.  Should’ve let the call go to voicemail.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t have Downton’s number saved in my fucking phone, so I thought it was the delivery guy calling up with the food I ordered this morning.”  I give him a look of sympathy and laugh.

“Well, you’re lucky I’m here.  How are you feeling?  I feel a little shitty.  I kind of think that ice wine at the end sent me over a bit.”

“I’m fine.  Takes a lot more to bring me down.  But I am slightly worried that we’re gonna hear about that table cloth.”

“Fuck it, dude.  I don’t think so.  I’m pretty sure the karma of the birch bark is on our side.  Just don’t pick up your phone if Demo calls you.  As a matter of fact, just stop answering your phone unless it’s me.  It’s safest that way.”

“Oui.”  We walk into the kitchen and set about our days.  Andre is in, mouthing off about the concert he went to on his day off.  He claims his cousin hooked him up with a backstage pass to meet Drake and that he smoked a joint with him, but we never believe his stories.  I mean, really.  If Drake wanted to smoke weed with the likes of Andre, I would take back both my mild enthusiasm for his music and my childhood crush on him as Jimmy, the wheelchair kid from “Degrassi.”

Prep goes as usual, without any major hitches.  Although I’m fairly bored prepping the hot apps station, I take slight sadistic pleasure in watching Andre go down waiting for all the ingredients he needs to come in on second run.  Since Chef realizes Andre can’t continue prep for another thirty minutes, he puts him in charge of making the protein and starch for family meal, which is amusing and makes my life about one batch of polenta easier.

Andre catches me smirking as he huffily browns ground meat in the tilt skillet and glares my way.  “Too hungover to help a brother out, then?  Don’t pretend.  I see your red-ass eyes.”

“I’m not hungover, man.  I just smoked a joint with Drake out in the alley.  He and I are pretty tight these days.”  I’m feeling snarky and not in the mood for Andre’s normal bitchery.  He ignores me and continues his work; Dennis holds his laughter.  To avoid confrontation, Dennis and I eat Andre’s crappy family meal, but our cease-fire is too difficult.  “I’m really glad you’re taking chef’s hypertension into account when you make family, Andre.  I mean, salt, shmalt, am I right?  It’s the devil’s spice, if you ask me.”  Dennis snickers.

“Aw, fuck you guys.  If you want good food, maybe you should lend a hand.”  I can feel Andre’s love for me waning with his patience.  Maybe it’s a good thing.  I never considered myself “too nice,” but maybe signals got crossed.  This new enemy could be much more tolerable.

We finish up our bland food and set up for service.  It’s a slower night, so things move quietly and steadily at first.  Tension in the kitchen dissolves, and everyone is focused.  About an hour in, though, I put up a scallop, and as Chef reaches for it, Andre says, “so what’s up with the great pepper shortage of 2015?”  Chef snaps his head toward me, and my breath catches as my hands go cold and sweaty.  Fuck.  Andre had started to laugh at his seemingly harmless joke, but it’s clear it isn’t funny, and his face goes serious.

Chef turns purple but doesn’t yell.  “Gretchen,” he starts: “Get the fuck out of here.”

“But—“

“Now.”  My chest fills with anger, and everything seems surreal.  Andre has blown my cover, and I am suddenly jobless.  What a goddamn idiot.  I stay calm and put my knives in my bag, as chef pulls a sous off the pass to work my station.  But I can’t just leave.  I walk down the line to Andre, grab his ears, pull his face down to mine, and lay a long, passionate kiss on his lips.

“Is that what you wanted, motherfucker?”  I let go of his face, slap his right cheek, and walk out the back door.  Although I’m still freaking out about getting kicked out of the restaurant, I feel a heavy adrenaline rush.  And if Chef really wants to lose me over black pepper, he can suck it.

I take the train home and decide to drink away the events of the evening.  I can worry about finding a job tomorrow.  But for now, I have to take my mind off this shit.  Once I’m back in Queens, I plant my ass on a stool at the bar of the Gentry House, a well established local bar.  I know the bartender, and when he sees me, he says, “Fernet and Coke?”

“Nah, Ben.  I’ll have a Modelo and a Jameson shot.”

“Coming from work, then?  Ah, I guess not.  It’s only nine.”

“No, I am.  I just fucking lost my job.”  Ben looks sympathetic and puts up the beer with two shots.

“What happened?”

“Long story.”  I drink my shots consecutively and leave my beer a minute to feel the burn of the whisky in my throat.  Then I down half of the icy lager.  I feel my shoulders drop as my reality begins to fade.  Andre can go fuck himself.  And so can Chef.  “Ben,” I say, “Hook me up with a Fernet and Coke.”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll make it a double.”

“You’re my only friend, Ben.  I love you.”

“You have lots of friends, Gretchen.”

“Duh, I know.  But you wouldn’t tell Chef that I’m a fundamentalist anti-black pepper radical.”

“I would not.”  I drink the rest of my beer and then start my cocktail.  A few girls next to me at the bar have noticed my heavy drinking.  I size up their situation, guessing their mostly full, clear beverages are my arch nemesis cocktail:

“Vodka-soda?” I ask, making eye contact with them.  Bitches love bubbly booze water.  The one closest to me is a pretty blonde, the one next to her is a brunette Latina looking girl, and next to her is a chubby Asian girl.  Kind of a motley crew, but it seems they might all have the commonality of enjoying the swill of basic bitches.

“How’d you know?”  The brunette asks.

“Wild guess.”

“So you’re pretty thirsty, the blonde says, looking at the plethora of glasses in front of me.”

“I lost my job today.”

“Oh.  That sucks.”

“I didn’t like it there anyway.  I was gonna leave soon.  Maybe do my own thing”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a cook.”

“Are you a chef or a cook?”

“It depends on who I’m talking to.  You’re pretty.  Maybe I’m a chef, then.”  Ben laughs.  The girl can tell I’m being an asshole, but she also doesn’t fully understand the joke.  “What do you do?”  I ask.

“I work for a PR firm.”

“Nice,” I lie.  Although I respect a good PR person, I secretly hope she won’t talk about the business.  I’m still sizing up her friends, and I notice the Latina girl I originally pinned as mostly basic has a bunch of ghetto tattoos all over her forearms.  I briefly wonder if she’s dangerous.  Or basic and dangerous, which kind of equals dramatic prison material.

“I’m Olivia.  This is Natasha and this is Gina.”

“Nice to meet you all,” I muster.  I’m starting to feel a little drunk, which I think is a good thing, considering my new friends.

“So what do you want to do on your own?  You said you want to do your own thing?  I’m actually a really good cook myself.  It’s funny, but I have friends that are cooks, and I cook much more advanced stuff than they do at home.  I’m just really good in the kitchen.”  Here we go…another civilian with over-confidence in their cooking ability.  There’s probably nothing more gratifying than talking to a normal person who has no regard for the lifestyle cooks take on to hone their craft.  “What’s something you make well?”

“Well, my favorite thing to make at home is fresh pasta.  Usually with a braised lamb ragu.  I braise lamb shanks with like dark beer, thyme, juniper–”

“I would use rosemary instead.”  I pause.  Bitch, are you serious?  I’m mildly incensed that she’s asked me what I like to do only to give her civilian input on one simple dish I like to make at home.  I don’t really know what to say, but I let it go.  “So what do you want to do next?  If you could do anything, what would you do?”

“Um…”  I’m losing steam, but I figure I’ll give it one more shot, since I have no one else to talk to, and Ben’s boyfriend has come to the bar and started talking to him.  “Well, it’s not a traditional concept, but I want to throw pop-up dinners in museums around the world.  And it would just be about the art.  And the food would be awesome, but it would sort of be like in the background.

“I just don’t see how that would work.  I mean, you say you’re a chef, but you’re all about this art.  I don’t understand how that connects.  If you’re not one hundred percent focused on the food, how are you supposed to market this to anyone?  Who would want to just go look at art and kind of maybe eat some food?”  This girl is getting super annoying, and my patience is wearing thin.

“OK, you asked me what I wanted to do, and I’m telling you.  But you’re being annoying as fuck, and I’m not really into being cross-examined while I’m drinking in a bar after losing my job, if that’s OK with you.”  She looks shocked.

“I’m just trying to have a conversation with you, and you call me annoying as…”  And she’s sensitive.  This is what I get for being surrounded by guys all the time.

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not feeling like this is a conversation.  You’re so confident in your shit, but you’re gonna sit here and shit on my dreams, because they don’t fit into your cookie-cutter idea of how the world works.  So let’s just drop the topic.”  Olivia looks annoyed but intrigued.

“Fine.”

“Olivia, I’m getting so bored at this bar.  Can’t we go somewhere with better music?” Natasha is starting to get antsy, and I fear her mood could quickly swing toward belligerent.  Olivia confirms:

“she’s about to go crazy.  We better go.  You should come with us!”

“Really.”  I am mildly surprised by her suggestion, considering my bluntness.

“Yeah!  I mean, you seem cool, and I feel like it could help to have a badass chef around when I need to hold back Natasha from a fight later on.”

“I’d rather not.  I think I’m just gonna go home.  But you could come with me,” I smirk.  She looks up and catches my eye, laughs, and declines my offer.

“Not tonight, but here’s my card.  Let’s get a drink sometime.  I live around here.  How old are you anyway?”

“Old enough to know better.  You?”

“Thirty-two.  But really, what about you?”  Damn.  Hmm…

“Twenty-nine,” I bluff.  But what’s in five years?  What I lack in age, I make up for in crankiness.  “Well, I gotta go.  I’ll see you around.  Ben, can I close out?”

“It’s on me.  Just this time.  Don’t need you taking back to the streets, now, do we?” he jokes.  Olivia shoots me a sideways glance.  I give her the poker face, pick up my stuff, and head out the door.  Always best to keep them guessing. As I walk into the night, my phone buzzes, and I see a text from Chef.  It says, I’m not gonna lie, that was awesome.  I will give you your job back if you come in tomorrow, eat a tablespoon of black pepper, and swear to use it when I fucking say.  I’m surprised at the offer but uncertain.  I always knew Chef hated Andre.  For now, I put it out of my mind, get in a cab, and take a five minute ride to my bed.

The Fault in Our Michelin Stars

Anonymous (right?)

I wanted to be a chef in the
times when that meant cooking

for people

I grew up making pancakes
for my brother and his friend
Sebastian.  They said thank you but
they did not give me a

gold star.

Wasn’t that the kid
in school that cried
when the teacher took away his

gold star.

It wasn’t the tough guy.  Stars
mean asses in chairs, too.  I
comprehend the business but there
are people who go to eat at places

just because there’s good food.

I can’t afford to eat the stars.  Stars
are shiny like maybe they forgot who
their friends are. I want a

goddamn plate of food.

What is chef?  Hello?  Are you a

chef

Where is my

chef

chef

chef

chef

Flew away on a shooting star

chef.