Archive for November, 2007

How a cook spends thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

With all the menu’s posted online documenting the extensive tables bloggers are setting for thanksgiving, I thought I’d share how most cooks will spend the holiday.

They will most likely spend the time working a grueling shift wednesday to acomodate all the people with extra family and friends in town, and go in early friday to do the same thing.

This leaves us with thanksgiving off usually. If any of us have family or friends close by, we drag our tired butts over for dinner, hopefully with enough time to enjoy ourselves. Maybe even with enough time and energy to shop for ingredients and cook a little something. The rest hang out with eachother and a few bottles of wine.

Much of my family requires a 6 hour drive, so like so many years in a row, I am taking the little time I have, rushing as fast as one can in thanksgiving traffic. Often I am late, or just in time for dinner. I eat, and then I pass out cold. I visit a little, and get back in the car to make it home for my next shift.

I am not saying this because I want pity, or anything like that. It comes after hearing countless comments like, “ooh, I wish I was at your thanksgiving, I’ll bet the food is so amazing.” Or even, “your family must get so many great desserts.”

The truth is, my family barely gets me. And it goes for most cooks. We work when you play, which means evenings, weekends, and holidays.

I dream of all the pies I would make for my family. The huge table I would set with room for my family and friends. The days I would prepare to make an amazing meal. The turkey I would brine, the side dishes familiar and new, the ooh’s and ahh’s and smiles I would give. Then the kitchen timer goes off, unrelenting in it’s reality, and I am pulled back into my daily schedule of cooking for customers instead.


Farmers Market Finale #4; Butternut Cream Chiffon

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

I know there are many of you, like myself, who drag ourselves through the stalls of the farmers market rain or shine. As the season turns from summer to autumn and finally into winter, it takes a real effort to patronize the farmers markets this time of the year. Especially here in Seattle where the perpetual drizzle begins in September and ends in June.

The effort is needed not just in motivating yourself to get there and waltz around in the rain, but also in envisioning the dish hidden in the markets offerings. The produce available takes an additional effort once in your kitchen. No longer is the food ready to eat out of hand, rather we are seeing vegetables that need a lot of heat to be rendered edible, hearty greens, earthy potatoes, and plenty of root vegetables. This leaves a pastry chef with few choices.

Oh sure, there’s honey and hazelnuts, they’re always there, and the apples and pears we have been waiting for all year. But we are looking at a long stretch, and one can begin to tire of these things quickly. This leaves us to wonder, “what else can we make dessert with?” Pumpkin is nice, but what of the other squashes they tumble around the oversized bins with? Is the long necked butternut that much different than our pie pumpkins in flavor?

Not much, but just enough to make a classic thanksgiving pie better.

The flesh of the butternut is a little easier to deal with, and provides a creamier and more flavorful puree for pie. Now I doubt any who eat this pie will be able to differentiate between the squashes. Our palates are so accustomed to the trio of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove spicing pumpkin pie, that it is common to associate those flavors more with pumpkin that the flavor of pumpkin itself. Have you ever had a pumpkin pie latte? No pumpkin there, but it sure tastes like it.

I once read in a magazine that there is absolutely no reason to extract your own pumpkin rather than using canned squash. This statement, said with too much authority, really rubbed me the wrong way. Anyone who walks the farmers market can give you a reason for each beautiful squash spilling out of the cardboard bins. They were correct, however, in assessing the difficulty of making your own puree by comparison to opening a can.

However, roasting the squash makes this task a bit easier. Simply quarter your butternut, rub it with a little neutral flavored oil to prevent the skin from drying, and pop it in a 400 degree oven. Now, walk away for about an hour. When the squash is nice and tender, allow it to cool to a temperature your hands can tolerate, and scrape the flesh from the skin. If you have a food processor, puree the squash for a minute or two, or do your best job with a potato masher. Now, freeze the squash overnight.

This step will add another day to your pie making, but your pie will be better for it. Drawing from a previous post, this additional step is a perfect example of controlling water. When freezing, the water molecules expand, and loosen themselves from the starchy puree. As they thaw and contract, they seperate and bleed out of the puree. If thawed over a strainer, the liquid drips away, leaving us with a thicker, denser, richer puree.

A benefit to taking this extra step in a restaurant, is that I can process a large amount of squash at once, store the puree in the freezer, and take what I need out over the season, ready to thaw.

This puree is going to make our chiffon more intense. A classic American pie, the family of chiffon is lightened with an egg white meringue, giving it the delicate texture it takes it’s name for. While i love the delicate texture, the flavor of the egg white isn’t quite right for me, so I have exchanged the meringue for a light, whipped cream. A caloric increase to be sure, but this pie is a rare treat, coming to us in a season of celebration and reward buffets and gluttony.

A chocolate crumb crust laden with ground hazelnuts holds this chiffon in place, offering a deep, bittersweet balance to the richness of the pie. While on Veil’s menu the dish is accompanied by two sauces, a vanilla bean anglaise and a swipe of nutella sauce, along with hazelnut praline, pie spiced whipped cream, and nutella powder. However, when it makes it to my own thanksgiving table as it has for 3 years now, a simple vanilla whipped cream will be served aside the pie, along with dare I admit, coolwhip, a family favorite with my inlaws.

All in all, this pie should be started the two days before you want to eat it. I know it’s quite a time frame to ask of you, but most of it is wait time. It’s just that time of year, when an effort has to be made for everything from going outside to cooking the seasons offerings. I suppose this pie is a good excuse to stay in!

Butternut Chiffon Pie

One chocolate crumb crust, home made or purchased

One butternut squash, roasted, pureed, frozen, and thawed as described above

1 1/2 cups cream, kept cold to whip

2 cups butternut puree

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp clove

3/4 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

5 sheets of gelatin, re-hydrated in ice water. (approximately 4 tsp granulated gelatin sprinkled over 1/2 cup water until hydrated, and melted over low heat.)

1. In a medium saucepan, cook the squash puree, brown sugar, and spices over low heat. Stir to avoid scorching for about 2 minutes, until the puree is glossy.

2. Transfer the puree to a food processor, and turn it on. Spin the puree for 2 minutes.

3. Add the milk and spin for 1 minute. Scrape the sides of the work bowl down and add the eggs. Pulse until the eggs are evenly distributed.

4. Transfer the pie filling back to a medium sauce pan, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Continue cooking until the mixture thickens a bit, as a custard would, about 3-5 minutes. Add the softened gelatin and cook until it is completely dissolved evenly distributed.

5. Transfer the squash filling to a bowl, and cool it on the counter until it is cool enough to fold in whipped cream without melting it, about room temperature.

6. When the squash filling is cool, whip the cream to soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the squash in 3 additions. Transfer the chiffon to the prepared pie crust and chill for 4 hours, or overnight.

Breaking down at night

Monday, November 12th, 2007

After every service comes to an end, and the cooks have been there for at least 8 hours, one thing is certain; they want to leave.What ever they want to do, have a beer, go home to their cat, go see their partner, go out for the night, they definitely don’t want to be in the kitchen any more. So putting everything away, packing up, or as we say, “breaking down a station” can be the only thing between you and what ever else it is you want.

Too often, this process is rushed, things are put away as quickly as possible. I was told very early, that it is a mark of you as a cook how well you break down your station. It takes more time to do it right, and giving up the extra time, showing restraint and not rushing to get out of the kitchen marks a better cook.

This means…

Make sure everything is wrapped, covered, encased in some way. The refrigerator is food’s enemy. It destroys it. However, if wrapped, covered, encased, the refrigerator preserves food.

Dont’ store ANYTHING in pots and pans.

Change out every container, putting food in clean vessels for storage overnight.

Rewrap anything that is stored covered in plastic wrap. Do not leave dirty plastic wrap covering anything. Dirty plastic wrap is garbage. Don’t leave a piece of garbage on your food.

Wipe down everything. Inside the fridge, outside the fridge, the walls behind your counter, the front of the stove, the handle to anything. Use hot soapy water, not just a wet side towel.

Throw away any bits of food you aren’t going to use. Don’t leave scraps of a cake you cut with the cake. Don’t leave a portion of meat you aren’t going to use with the meat you are going to use. Again, if you aren’t going to sell it, it’s garbage. Don’t leave garbage with your prep.

Inventory everything, and make your prep list the night before. You don’t want to set your station up before service the next day and say, “uh, I think I need hazelnuts.” It’s too late to do something about it before service. Make it a habit to do it as you break down.

Organize everything in the walk in, the freezer, your shelves, the low boy you keep your station set up in. Make it look like a grocery store.

Label things. Don’t leave until every container is properly marked as to what is inside it, and when you made it.

Live with this. If you are conscious of a better way to do it, and you aren’t doing it, then you aren’t doing it right. You are cutting corners, and the great chef’s out there don’t get there by cutting corners.

I know it takes more time than you want. I’ve been there. But if you truly want to excel in a kitchen, want to be an awesome cook, a great chef, then break your station down as best you can. It will mark you as a better cook, and show everyone around that you have a great respect for your station, the food, and your craft.

Ignorant Bliss

Friday, November 9th, 2007

Do you ever ask too many questions? Do you ever look around a little too much, and find that in looking for one simple answer you have only found more questions? Have you ever innocently opened the proverbial can, looking for one little worm of information, only to find yourself staring into an abyss filled with slithering, pulsing information?

I have opened a can of worms folks, big and beyond my grasp, by asking a simple question about ice cream.

It wasn’t long ago that I had a simple counter top ice cream maker like most have in their homes. For this little machine I made simple egg custard ice cream bases. When I wanted a different flavor, I adjusted the recipe. When I wanted a richer ice cream I added more cream. Sometimes I added simple syrup to make it softer. But for the most part, I made my recipes, and never asked any questions.

When I stepped into my position at Veil, a new ice cream machine was waiting for me. The Paco Jet doesn’t function like any other ice cream machine on earth. It doesn’t use a liquid base. It doesn’t want my tried and true recipes. And honestly, I don’t know how to make it happy.

The machine takes a small canister filled with ice cream base that has been frozen solid. It sends a whirring blade down slowly, shaving the ice at microscopic measures. Pull the canister from the machine and viola, ice cream. Simple enough.

But when it comes to formulating recipes to put in that canister, I am at a loss. What I am doing right now is taking a recipe someone else formulated, and changing the flavors as I need. But it’s like shooting in the dark, because I don’t know why on earth I am using the ingredients I am, and why the quantities are as they are.

At WD-50, Alex used the same machine, and I watched consistantly perfect and ready to use ice cream come out of the canisters just after the paco did it’s job. So when I spun my first batch at Veil, I was shocked to see a runny liquid. The formula they use is ready 3 to 4 hours after spinning. From there, it is only the correct texture for about an hour, after which it becomes too hard to scoop. So my window of usable ice cream is hard to time, and if you get busy and forget to spin it at the correct time, you are screwed. Really screwed.

The person who formulated the recipes is no where to be found, as the chef collected them from other restaurants he has worked in and brought them along. The best explanation I can get out of him is, “there are 4 different sugars in the recipe” (there are two) and “you know when you buy ice cream and you take the lid off and it’s gooey…. that’s because there’s too much stabilizer.” (not an answer to anything)

A piece of wisdom I took from Alex Stupak was this. Most chefs are just changing flavors out, and don’t know what their recipes are doing. I vowed then and there to become more than that. I want to understand, to gain true control. I don’t want to be at the mercy of a recipe created for a different kitchen, because it is out of context.

So I have started looking around for my answers, and opened the biggest can of worms I could have found. It seems ice cream is everything all in one. Solid, liquid, and gas. A foam, an emulsion, a matrix.

It has become clear that if I really want that little answer I was seeking, the understanding of how to control the final product coming out of my paco jet, I need to know quite a few things. I look back a few months, before I asked my simple question, and see my ignorant bliss. A state in which I had no idea of the journey I was about to embark on, the length of the trail I need to follow before I come to my destination; ice cream.

Setting Limits and Expectations

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

With every restaurant, there are essentially two sides. The restaurant (us) vs. the customers (them). We are two sides of an equation, relying on the other for existence. In this equation, inevitably there will be conflict. The general rule in dealing with this conflict seems to be that the customer is always right. Keep them happy so they will come back and spend more money, thus keeping your business alive and you happy.

So for the most part, when customers voice any kind of request, complaint, dissatisfaction, or dislike, they are appeased in what ever way possible. Especially at Veil. Like, but don’t love your duck? It’s off the check. We are out of peanut butter ice cream? The chef gives you a gift card so you can come back and order it some other time.

But sitting in the back of the house, I hear requests, complaints, etc that make me wonder where the line is.

A customer became very upset when he requested a recipe that I was unwilling to part with. It struck me, because I would NEVER ask a restaurant for a recipe from their current menu. And if something was so amazing that I broke with manners and did ask, I would never be angry that they wouldn’t give it to me. With the world of cooking becoming so high profile, chefs offering their names like the labels on fashion garments, are recipes no longer sacred? Is this a common expectation that has shifted?

Or is it an issue of drawing a line, us vs. them, and keeping your position firm and your line steady. At what point do you give a customer everything they ask for, and when can you say no?

Another customer recently became upset when they were charged for soda refills. They blamed the server for not making it clear as they requested seconds, thirds, and fourths of their soda that they would be expected to pay for it. This time, the management not only buckled and gave the customer every one of their sodas free of charge, including the original, but rewrote house policy on the issue making soda refills free. We moved the line to accommodate a recent customer expectation that all soda’s are bottomless.

But it struck me, because I don’t remember when soda refills became free, when the common expcetation shifted.  Sure, at Red Robin you can chug the carbonated sugar as fast as your server can bring them to you, just like it says on the menu.   But has this policy in commonplace chain restaurants across the country created a customer expectation for every restaurant?

There are simple requests, like for extra this, or no that.  Like the woman who asked for extra sauce 3 times.  Having to ask for anything repeatedly can annoy a customer, and having the same request can make a kitchen feel like they aren’t doing it right.  Both sides were irritated by this situation.  The kitchen ready to draw the line, and the customer pushing her expectations.  Finally we learned she didn’t secrete saliva, so rather than limiting the “extra” we gave her we ponied up with a nice 4 ounce cup and have done so ever since, as many times as she needs.

There are obscene customers, like the one who demanded I was fired. She was lactose intolerant, and didn’t care for the dairy free dessert I had on my menu. When I drew my line, and didn’t allow her to order a plate of cookies that are used as a garnish for another dessert (I didn’t have enough to spare by that time in the evening), she became irate, offended, and demanded my job. How far are we expected to go to accommodate every dietary restriction, and limitation? How much expectation does a diner have to enter any establishment and have their needs met on the spot?

What about the party that brought a 3 and 5 year old with them, not totally unheard of, but out of the ordinary for a restaurant like Veil. The children proceeded to throw a plate on the floor tear up the flowers in the centerpieces and scatter them, all the while screaming and shrieking for nearly the entire 2 hours they were there. One table asked for their check noting the piercing screams as their reason for leaving early. How accommodating does a restaurant need to be in this case? The were clearly diminishing the quality of the other diners in the room, so who do we accommodate? Who do we offend? Where do we draw the line on this one?

You can guarantee that nearly every line a restaurant draws will be tested. Rules like “no substitutions” might as well be written in Sanskrit. “No cell phones” doesn’t seem to matter either. Customers still demand both.  Tug-o-war issues each night as customers manipulate the experience to their liking, while the restaurant attempts to give the experience they have created.

It’s been a while since I have been in the front of the house. It is there that the servers are expected to satisfy both parties. They are expected to firmly hold the line for the restaurant, but give the customers every thing they want, getting verbally pushed by both while playing go between. I have to say it’s a job I don’t miss.  “Don’t kill the messenger” I used to think daily.

Each restaurant has different lines, and different stances on how firm to stand.  At Lampreia, Carsbergs line was absolute.  He had created a specific experience and cuisine, and that was that.  Many customers left vowing never to return, you can read all about it on various internet sites.  But for those who allowed him to do what he does exactly as he does it, the reward is great.

At The Fat Duck, it seemed as though every dietary restriction was presumed, and little courses were designed in advance, in expectation of these expectations.  A lentil course was the replacement for those who couldn’t eat the oyster amuse.  A scallop dish replaced foie gras for those (my sister) who wouldn’t touch the stuff.  The sardine on toast ice cream was made with gluten free bread, just in case.

And at Veil, the chef does everything he can to accomodate his guests.  Generosity abounds, and he instructs servers to graciously give give give, keeping customers as happy as possible.  The woman who wanted me fired?  She got a special plate made of every lactose free dessert garnish I had.  The screaming children?  They got ice cream.  And the customer who wanted my recipe? Sorry, but no.  This line I held firm.

Any thoughts on a restaurants ability to set limits vs. a customers expectations?  Any personal experiences?

Dine Around Seattle

Monday, November 5th, 2007

It’s that time of year again, folks. Sure, time for holidays, nesting, hot cocoa, and all kinds of cold weather behavior. But it’s time again for Seattle’s biggest restaurant promotion. You knew it last march as “25 for 25″, but things have changed a bit.

For starters, the promotion is now being referred to by the public relations company that hosts it as “dine around Seattle”. (It may take me a while to stop saying 25 for 25). But the spirit of the promotion is the same, a cheap 3 course menu in Seattle’s favorite restaurants.

The numbers now total to 30 restaurants, and the 3 course menu is now 30 dollars, making it “30 for 30.” In addition to last years restaurants diners can now enjoy this promotion with the “bold original kitchen artistry” at BOKA in downtown Seattle, the Andean cuisine of Mixtura on the Eastside, old world Italian at Barolo, neighborhood dining at the 35th street bistro in Fremont, and visit little old me Veil.

The best change for me is their independent website. Now fully managed by the PR firm that runs it, I can fianlly use more than 50 characters to describe my desserts, and have the capability of changing them online during the month long event. In the past, a truncated description was given 3 months before the event. With no flexibility, the online menu often didn’t reflect what we were actually serving, as we changed things seasonally or according to our own whims.

You can guess that much of the kitchen banter has centered around this promotion. One topic has been Seattle’s “dine around” being born of Manhattan’s “restaurant week.” Our chef de cuisine spent 4 years with Jean George, and participated in the promotion there. Much like here, it becomes a balancing act of cost effective but delicious and impressive cuisine. Each dish must be quick to cook and plate to accommodate the high volume of orders, but look polished and beautiful as though the kitchen is cooking just for you. Each customer must be given extensive service, but not so much that it denies the very full dining room any attention. They must stay long enough to have a completely enjoyable meal, but finish and leave in time for the two other parties that have booked the table later in the evening. It’s a true exercise in efficiency. While many restaurants experience this kind of volume year round, it brings a flood of business to the rest of us on traditionally slow nights, sunday through thursday.

The irony, we all joked, is that this is the only time of the year when the cooks can actually afford to eat in many of these restaurants. Let me remind you that well paid cooks made about twelve dollars an hour, the starting wage is nine. If you are making fifteen dollars an hour you are either in a large corporate chain, or in a position of management, (or very lucky.) So the cooks at a fine dining establishment, where the average diner spends one hundred and fifty dollars per person for food and wine, simply can’t afford to eat there. After taxes, a meal at the restaurant we work at will cost us roughly two days pay. So you can bet we take advantage of this sweet deal.

Last year I had a meal at Nishino, a japanese restaurant way out of my price range, and at Yarrow Bay Grill, where the entire promotional menu was less expensive than a single entre from their dinner menu. This year I am planning on checking out Cascadia, a high priced establishment in Belltown that I have been curious about for some time now.

There has been some controversy over this promotion, voiced publicly by local restaurateur and chef Ethan Stowell. While the promotion brings large crowds to the participating restaurants during otherwise slow months, it leaves those restaurants not participating even slower. While I have seen some restaurants not officially participating in the event offer the same menu at the same price, they don’t benefit from any of the p.r. efforts which direct would be diners to those featured in printed and online publicity.

Veil is participating for the first time this year, and we have been tweaking the menu all month. I have just finished the development of a rosemary marshmallow enriched with brown butter for our celery root soup, and finally set my warm almond soup, a dish I had been struggling with as it was not born of my own conception.

Our menu offerings for the first 2 weeks follow. In two weeks time we will likely change things a bit, offering a few new dishes. In particular, a butternut chiffon will be entering the dessert menu. A chic version of pumpkin pie, a butternut custard is lightened with whipped cream, and set over a chocoalte hazelnut crust. It’s light and creamy, and lacks the slight bitterness I associate with pumpkin itself.

Celery Root Soup, sage marshmallow and balsamic vinegar
Roasted Beet Salad, hazelnut, herbs, and grapefruit confit
Hard Shell Squash Risotto, mascarpone and parmesan cheeses, chive oil

Drake Duck Confit , root vegetable hash, sherry vinegar and caramelized vegetable sauce
Ruby Trout, roasted yams, green apple, bacon, apple cider puree
Roasted Abalone Mushroom, curry potato pave and wild mushroom puree

Salted Peanut Butter Ice Cream, cocoa nib crunch, milk chocolate cremeux
Chocolate Fondant Cake, bittersweet caramel truffle, Cracker Jack
Warm Cream of Almond Soup, ceylon cinnamon, roasted pears, orange blossom cream