Archive for March, 2008

Top Chef

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

It’s no secret to those around me, I am hooked on Top Chef.

This season I have been invited by Leslie Seaton a writer for Buddy TV to comment on each episode for their website.  It was particularly fun this week as Wylie was the guest judge.

“Once again, Dana Cree, pastry chef at Seattle’s Veil restaurant, took some time out to chat with us about the most recent episode of Top Chef 4. It was an especially great episode to talk about with Dana, since she’s actually completed an internship at WD-50, the restaurant of this episode’s guest judge and chef Wylie Dufresne.”

Click here to read the full article on Buddy TV’s website.

critics choice

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I have been in the public eye long enough to have met my critics.  Those individuals for whom my work does not only displease, but offends.

My first year at Eva, my use of huckleberries in February sent a customer into a snit.  “These taste as if they had been frozen, and that’s disgusting in and of itself.  I can’t say anything more for this dessert.”  The offending dessert, a huckleberry trifle with layers of huckleberry soaked genoise, a thick huckleberry compote, and none other than pierre herme’s lemon cream layered in a highball glass was on the Valentines Day menu.  The comment was delivered to me along with the picked at dessert, and it sent me reeling.

Of course my huckleberries were frozen, it was February.  Jeremy, our forager had picked them himself, frozen them properly during season, and stored them in his deep freezer for us.  Sure, we were on our last of the stock, but they were still absolutely delicious.

I dropped everything I was doing, pulled another trifle from the reach in, and started tasting.  A slight relief came when it tasted exactly as I wanted it to, exactly as it had when I made them, exactly right.  But then I wondered, was it me?  I made everyone taste it until the owner started laughing.  He reminded me in his way that you set your own standards and live up to them, because no matter what you are going to have critics.  Like the huckleberry hater.

Teaching is yet another avenue for me to collect critics.  My first class, called “Tips from a pro” had an outright heckler.  You see, I am young for a chef, 28 now and this was 2 years ago.  So I was standing up there professing knowledge at a mere 26, and I tend to look even younger than I am.  This older woman had clearly been baking longer than I had been alive, and was vocally skeptical of my tips and tweaks to the recipes.  It was really starting to get to me, but I pushed on.  And after the class, when we tasted everything, her face brightened and she said, “Well, I’ll be.  This really is the best lemon tart I have ever had.  And that pie crust is flakier than mine!  I am going to freeze my flour every time now.”

It doesn’t always end that way.  One woman wrote down every word of mine that she didn’t agree with, and called a culinary school to prove that how blatantly wrong I was.  She then provided the school I teach at with a list of my offensive quotes and her contradicting information.  She said I was a terrible teacher and was hampering the education of the students in my class by giving them false information.  She also wrote a paragraph about my hygiene, with a hand washing count, and focused on my coffee cup I had been drinking from while lecturing.  She thought the class was a failure because I had to bake a cake in a sheet pan instead of a tall pan to save time.

When this email was passed along to me I knew how to handle it.  I screamed in my head, vented to my husband, and simply wrote, “I have had critics before and will have them in the future.  I stand behind every word I said, and will take from this what I can.”

What offended her most was my method of measuring dry ingredients with a cup measurer.  She was taught to sift the flour before measuring, I never do and told the students so.  But that isn’t the problem.  The real problem is the fact that we are using the cups in the first place.

This is such a perfect example of why the professional pastry chef employees a scale to weigh all their ingredients.  My cup of flour will never be exactly the same as your cup of flour, but 6 ounces will always be 6 ounces.

Now I will do you one better.  Not only have I completely converted to the exclusive use of a scale to measure my ingredients, I have also converted all my recipes into metric measures.  So my cup of all purpose flour is 150 grams.

Why would I do this, when I live in a culture of cups and spoons?  It is a million times easier to increase and decrease recipes based on grams.  It is also much easier to understand what percentage of the bulk of a recipe an ingredient occupies.  When a recipe needs tweaking, it is much easier to think about adding 30 grams of sugar to 100 grams of sugar than it is to add 1/8th of a cup to 1/3 of a cup.

My work is much more accurate now, and as a baker that is something we all strive for.  It’s not enough to know how to make an amazing brownie, you have to make it equally amazing every time, in any size.

So if that woman every sat in my class again, I would start the lecture with a little bit I do every time, that if you ask 100 chefs how to cook an egg, you will get 100 different answers.  I simply give the information I use to achieve my best results, and why.  And I would tell her to forget what her grandma told her about sifting the flour and buy a scale.

Anyone?

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

I have a question I haven’t been able to answer.

Is there anyone out there making their own bubble gum?  I can’t find any.

The closer it is to Seattle the better.

Is there a mom and pop  candy store out there with home made bubble gum?

A small family run producer mixing batches?

A tiny taffy shop hidden in your little touristy town with the Z-arm mixer to mix gum base need I ask?

Help!

Schwa

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The New York Times food section featured an article today about a growing trend in dining that eliminates the service staff.  This is nothing new if you have sat at the counter at a small sushi restaurant.  However, this intimate scenario has become increasingly popular in newer restaurants, exemplifying the shifting trend in the diners desire for a food based experience, eliminating the middle man and interacting directly with the cooks.
When I first started working with Veil’s Chef de Cuisine Johnny Zhu, who’s recent homecoming to Seattle drew him from Chicago, he told me tales of a restaurant with no service staff what so ever, where the chefs not only cook, but take your order, run food.  A dining room where all beverages are on a bring your own basis, where they filled the house with hip-hop, the Ramones, what ever they liked.  A cooks kind of place.

I flew to Chicago just to eat at this homage to everything a cook is.  Schwa it’s called, a slang term thrown about in elementary school. I arrived alone, spent the next 2 hours chatting with the guys, cook to cook, while enjoying an immensely creative, if not a bit fragmented menu.  I might have wondered if there was a cohesive thread to the menu had the cooks not been at my table.  Two minutes with the chef and it’s clear that he is the cohesion to the meal, his invitingly spastic personality being reflected in the seemingly random progression of modern dishes.  The menu pulls you here and there, just like a conversation with the chef, but centers you with the joy in seeing food so clearly representing those laboring to create it.

With each course the cooks and I peeled back the layers, spoke of those we knew in common.  Chatted about the time both the chef and I spent at The Fat Duck.  Talked about Johnny, who had worked with one of the cooks for a while.  And when they found out I flew in just to see them, they gushed. Then while dropping my dessert, they invited me out for beers afterwards.   As a cook, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better dining experience.  It was worth every penny, the two days out of my life it took to eat there.
My friend Chris visited with a group from The Fat Duck, so we chatted a bit about the meal, and he dropped a bomb on me.

“It’s closed” he told me.  Apparently the day after Chris, Heston, and others dined there Schwa closed it’s doors.

A little devastated, I told Johnny.  We weren’t really sure what to believe.  Since then we have looked at each other and asked, “do you think it really closed?”  Or, “any word on Schwa, is it happening?”

We talked about cold calling the restaurant to see if anyone answered, “but no one answered when it was open,” we said.  “The website is still up,” we chatted with hope.

It was a beacon for us, even if it was far away, and a place we can only dine at with plane tickets and hotel rooms.  It was a place run by us, for us, so to speak.

Thank goodness for this recent article, which speaks of the sudden closing, and it’s reopening.  Just knowing Schwa is there feels good, it’s shear existence bringing joy to my little cooks heart.

One day, I think, I’ll make it back.  One day, I day dream, I’ll open something like it.

The Cheese Truck

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

I manage the dessert menu in it’s entirety.  This means not only creating the desserts and producing the components on a daily basis, but developing their replacements as the seasons change, and managing the inventory and ordering of my ingredients, and producing extras like the little amaretti cookies that come with each cup of coffee.

But vying for my favorite aspect of my job is managing the cheese plate.  This entails creating garnishes, and keeping 4 different cheese on hand at any given time, all up to my own discretion.

This job is made easier and more enjoyable with the help of Ed and the Peterson Company, who have given Ed a large white truck packed with cheeses.  Ed arrives after a prompting phone call, cheese in tow, to help me choose.

This kind of face to face interaction is priceless to me.  My own cheese monger, who knows me and my taste, the requirements of my cheese plate.

Ed knows that I love to celebrate American artisan cheeses, and am a sucker for anything Basque.  He knows that my triple creams may spend a month in my walk in, and any tendency to ooze or further ripen during that period is a deterrent for me.  He knows my price point and helps me balance costs.  He knows that our chef loves Blue D’Auverne, and I love to try different blues every time.  He tells me that the Rouge Creamery smokey blue is incredibly popular, but has a flavor profile like cheeses we haven’t liked in the past.

Sometimes when the truck arrives there are new things to taste, like the Knights Vail, a buttercup orange washed rind cows milk cheese from a small creamery in Wisconsin.  A cheese I added to my purchase before I swallowed my first bite.

Sometimes there are cheese makers on the truck, like the fellow from Cypress Grove, a cheese producer from northern California who’s Humbolt Fog cheese has been a favorite of mine for years.  This day, I had no intention of purchasing another Cypress Grove cheese, as there had been two in my rotations over the previous months, and I like to share the love.  But since the cheese maker was standing there, I chose a third.

I was justly rewarded with what is my new favorite Cypress Grove cheese, their Midnight Moon.  This black waxed wheel, an impressive 18 inches across, holds a goat cheese made in the fashion of Gouda.  Each bite yields intense flavor and a much sought after “crunch” of salty crystals which are formed as moisture evaporates and calcium lactate crystallizes.  Thank goodness there is so much, because I can’t keep my fingers out of this beauty.

It’s a rarity to have this kind of face to face interaction with purveyors anymore.  Eva sought out the few individuals like this left in our world.  Like Merv, who brought produce from Yakima in his pick up once a week.  Merv who did this in his retirement from dairy farming, who stayed with his daughter here in the city, who took his wife to Branson once a year for vacation.

Or Tian, who brought produce collected from small farmers just north of the Canadian Border.  An Asian immigrant working hard to succeed, who had wild mushrooms she was delivering held at the border.  An aging woman we consoled as we helped translate a needlessly cruel letter describing the infested state of the mushrooms, which were held in a warehouse and inspected 30 days after being taken from her.

But it takes a huge effort to keep purveyors like these.  Large companies not only have unbeatable prices on most items, but they have delivery minimums upwards of two hundred dollars.  As a small business, this is a hard minimum to make at times.  We need a delivery to arrive with things we are out of, but when it’s not enough to make our minimum, you get creative and start tacking on extras, like dairy from the produce company, or eggs from the meat company.

What this does to people like Merv, and Tian, is limit a small business’s ability to order from many purveyors.  If you have consolidated all your purchases just to make a minimum, then Merv is out of luck, and out of business.

It’s infuriating, really.  Because face to face interaction with purveyors like Ed and his cheese truck, Merv, Tian, and the many others that I met working at Eva, is invaluable to me.  And I see how fragile it is, how quickly we can loose these amazing people.

Tip pools

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

While surfing the web, I came across an article featuring 10 things a restaurant doesn’t want to tell you.

This little tidbit particularly irked me.

At high-end restaurants such as New York City’s Per Se and Napa Valley’s French Laundry, both owned by chef Thomas Keller, the practice (of tip pooling) is called service compris.

“The 20% service charge is clearly stated on the menu, and it’s equally divided among the staff,” says a spokesperson for both restaurants. Though the tip pool is designed to foster a team environment among staff, for customers it means something else entirely: that your gratuity isn’t specifically rewarding the waiter or sommelier who provided you with exemplary service.”

What bothered me most was the idea that unless your server/sommelier isn’t getting the full “reward” you give them, then you are being somehow cheated.

Then I thought about it, and realized that what really bothered me was the fact that there is clearly no understanding as to what it takes to give a table exemplary service.

Folks, your server and sommelier are able to give you exemplary service because of their support staff.  Food runners, bussers, bartenders, bar backs, back waiters, dish washers, and lets not forget cooks.  For service, particularly at the level of Per Se, it takes a large team.  A team that shows up hours before the restaurant opens to polish silverware and glassware, set the dining room.  A team that busts their butts to make everything relating to your experience as smooth as possible.

To think that the face time with your server is the only component to great service, is a huge disservice to those making the servers look good.

I have worked in restaurants that do and don’t tip out the kitchen.  I don’t know that I would ever take a job again in a restaurant that didn’t tip out the kitchen.  This is not out of my desire for a few extra bucks.  At management level, I’ll never see another tip.  It’s the idea that the people toiling in the kitchen, dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, are contributing to the experience, and should be justly rewarded.

It’s never much.  10 or 20 dollars a week each, usually.  But it’s the gesture, the acknowledgement that everyone contributes.

It’s also in part to help rectify the fact that the front of the house always takes home far more money than the kitchen.  In fine dining, even the busboy takes home more than the cooks.  I often work with servers who take home in one night what I make in a week.  An entry level position requiring minimal training in the front of the house can be worth more money than the lead line cook, someone with years of experience, and often a degree complete with student loans.

Veil’s chef Johnny came from Alinea, a restaurant where the prerequisite to a position in the kitchen is a position as a food runner, which is a low level front of the house job.  He laughs about the fact that he has never made more money in his life.  Even now, and he’s our chef.

So would I work in a kitchen that doesn’t recognize the inequality and at least make some kind of gesture towards the fact?  Not if I can help it.

Should you be miffed that your entire tip doesn’t end up in your servers pocket?  Absolutely not.  And heck, if you really liked your dinner, tip the kitchen directly.  10 dollars will buy the guys a beer, and will honestly make their week.