Monday, October 26, 2009

Bye Bye Blog

I started this blog for several reasons:

1) To provide an honest account of my working life as a chef.

2) To perhaps answer some questions or educate those who are looking to work in the industry or perhaps become a chef in the future.

3) To entertain.

It has come to my attention that my use of the occasional rated R word and excessive venting of the spleen was offensive to any number of my half dozen or so dedicated followers. Perhaps I was expected to be more politically correct, but I prefer honesty. I do apologize for the offense. It was not my intention. I am sorry.

Therefore I'll go back and remove the offensive material and won't post any more here. I am still committed to interacting with our guests and friends, so I'll leave my personal email here. If you have any questions or comments just drop me a line or talk to me on Facebook and I'll do my best to get back to you as time allows. I can't promise that I'll live up to your expectations, but I'll always tell you the truth.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chef or Cook?

A lot of people have asked me what is the difference between a Cook and a Chef. Most of them are wanting to know if they, or their grandma, or their favorite uncle is good enough with food to be considered a "Chef." Where exactly do you draw that line they ask? What is it that a chef has that a cook lacks?

The short answer is two words: FOOD COST.

A chef has a responsibility to keep his food cost in check from week to week and month to or he loses his job. If a chef goes out and buys "only the best!" of everything and then sells it for what their guests can actually afford, that kitchen is leaking money like a sieve and a bunch of people are going to lose their [adult word] and their jobs. If a good home cook spends a ton of money on a really righteous thanksgiving dinner... They get extra hugs from their guests? I don't know really, do you see the difference now?

Chances are pretty good that if you give a decent chef carte blanche with the check book they can cook you some food that will blow your mind. "Why don't you put this on the menu?" An intrepid friend might ask; "It's amazing! I would order it every time!" The chef's reply might be something like: "How many $50 or $60 plates can you order because that's what dry aged ribeye with porcini mushrooms and truffled potatoes would sell for."

Of course it tastes amazing! Unbelievable ingredients often translate into unbelievable food when prepared with a modicum of skill. When you have dry aged kobe or fresh caught wild salmon, the only thing you have to do with is not [adult word] it up and people will think you are an amazing cook. That's not what chefs do. Chefs are left with using their craft and their knowledge to take lesser priced or lesser known ingredients and turning them into something people will happily fork over hard earned cash for... aaannndd have that plate cost add up to PROFIT. Or, take those higher priced ingredients (so you can get that name on your menu) and strrreeeeetchhh that flavor out as far as possible so you can actually afford to buy more food the next week.

A good hobby cook's reaction to a slab of expensive beef might be "I hope I don't screw that up!" while a chef would only be thinking about the price per pound, the yield ratio, trim loss, and how to make the rest of the plate cheaper so that the final price to the customer remains within the bounds of reason.

A chef screws up on the food cost just a few times over the course of a month and their percentage for the month is shot they lose their bonus which is usually a substantial part of their income. A salty dog sends out bad steaks that come back to be thrown away because they're overcooked, that chef is hosed and they know it. Someone walks by and bumps the stove and five gallons of soup get scorched and ruined? Badness. Another salty dog decides that timers are for [adult word] and lets 25 pounds of chicken turn into the equivalent of shoe leather before wandering in from his smoke break and peeking into the oven.... "Sorry chef, is there any more chicken?"

You only need a few of those a month for everything to go to hell. Home cooks ruin food and they have a funny story to tell their dinner guests as they all decide to go out to eat instead. That's the difference.

You put a pro chef in someone's kitchen and chances are good that they can put together some awesome meals without even having to think about it. You put your buddy the backyard grill genius on the line or in charge of $15k worth of perishable inventory and you are going to lose some money over the course of that month. All chefs can cook, some better than others. Most chefs can manage as well. Home cooks? It's a toss up. Some of them can do some amazing things with food, but it's like an old salty dog chef once told me: "Any [adult word] can give food away and have people like it, but it takes a chef to be able to sell that food to people... and then make money off it."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Aftermath

Had a great wine dinner with Bonair Winery last week. Put together six courses for six wines and everything turned out really well. The pic is of seared anise rubbed duck breast with pomegranate reduction, a yukon gold and beet napolean and some wilted chard. It was a nice plate, went well with their malbec. We also did salmon with risotto with their chardonnay (gotta love the ability of an oaky chard to stand up to rich foods!), shrimp with strawberry/rhubarb with the blush wine, and a chicken roulade filled with sage, apples, pancetta and mushrooms and a honey/horseradish sauce for the dry gewurtztraminer. Also a composed cheese course and port stewed pear to finish them off.

Working my [adult word] off to get these dinners up and running and to forge some ties with local winemakers but it isn't easy. We keep the prices really low (this last one was only $45 per person, wine included) and the prep is involved, but I think that in the long run this is something that can really go a long way towards developing the area. As it stands there just aren't a lot of connections between area restaurants and the great local wineries besides the wine lists, and I really wish that could change. The hang up comes because both restaurants and wineries are small businesses, and small business owners do not have lots of extra employees or lots of free time to plan and execute these kinds of things. So to go to all that extra effort for very little money at the end of the day you either have to have a serious love of the event or an eye for the long view.

Fortunately I have both. I really do love this kind of cooking and also think that it's the future for developing wine tourism infrastructure in this valley. Our wines are every bit the match of anything California has to offer, but the food? Not so much. It takes a lot of time and effort to change that and to connect with other brilliant local businesses like they have throughout California, but I believe that the potential is here, and I am willing to work for it.

The Chef as Entertainer

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heating vs. Cooking

It's always a good day when I get to make stock, even though when I look at the prep list and see it there I sigh because it is a fairly laborious process. But it brings to mind one of the key misunderstandings about what chefs do versus what home cooks do. I read about the concept of "heating v. cooking" in The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, one of the best chefs of our generation (or any generation for that matter).

It breaks down like this: You throw a steak on the grill and you are not really cooking anything, you're simply applying heat. The steak does the rest itself. All you have to do is make sure you do not overheat it. If the steak is good and you season it properly... Ta da! You're awesome.

Cooking, on the other hand, is a transformational event. Take stocks for instance; bones, carrots, onions, celery, and a few tomatoes. At the end of the cooking process you have something totally different from the ingredients that you started with and for people unfamiliar with the process the stock is so far removed from the ugly mix of browned bones and caramelized vegetables that gave birth to it that it seems like magic.

And it is magical. When you're doing it yourself, moving through every step of the process from the browning of the bones to the deglazing of the pan to the addition of COLD water (very important) you feel as though you are using your knowledge of the craft of cooking to weave a spell. You are, in a way, creating something from nothing. Taking cast off portions from the butcher, bones covered with gristle, cartilage and tendon and through the application of certain skills you can turn that into a silky smooth sauce the color of a perfectly cooked steak which contains in it the very essence of the reason we eat beef in the first place. Amazing.

This is cooking at its very finest. The difficult and technical parts of the work have always attracted me the most, and it is a shame that the day to day job is such that it tends to sap the will to undertake these projects from us chefs. Our jobs are neverending marathons that we must sprint through in order to take the time to really cook and not just heat the food that you all eat.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Great Day

I remembered today why it was that I love this business and why I went to all the work and expense of starting my own place. It's to have my OWN KITCHEN where for better or for worse I get to set the tone. I really do love cooking, and I really do love kitchen work, but the craziness inherent in this industry and the crazy people that you end up spending so much time with on a day to day basis tends to sap all the joy out of the work itself.

Today was one of those grinder days where I had a lot planned to get done but then I took a serious look at the prep list and realized that I was a prep cook today and all that other [adult word] would have to wait. I started in at about 10:30 and just went straight through until dinner service was over at 9:30. Took a break to eat some spaghetti, but the rest of the day I had three projects at a time going plus a little knife work in between pulling something out of the oven or deglazing a pan. It was a wonderful day, exhausting, but very fulfilling.

There was a moment that stood out to me: Dinner service was about an hour away, I had just gotten through talking to my sous chef about the prep situation and was back in the mix banging out sauces, cutting proteins and other prep stuff when I caught myself and looked around. All the cooks were quietly bent over cutting boards or hauling product to the line, our three six burner stoves were overflowing with pots and pans of all shapes and sizes, and I was right in the middle of it with them. It was a group of disparate individuals from all walks of life coming together to try and put out a great meal for a bunch of strangers. There was no shouting, no drama, no messes, no confusion. Everyone knew what needed to be done and was doing it without being asked. The only talk was the occassional joke, query about prep or announcement about what project they were finishing and what they were starting on next. Sometimes people would sing along to the old Bon Jovi playing on the radio, and sometimes that person was me. There was a zen quality to the work, a confident calmness that I have only experienced in a couple of kitchens and desperately wanted to find again and it was there.

I was really tired, but when I looked around and realized where I was, what I was doing, and who I was doing it with, I figured out that no bad thing can come out of this honest work, this team work and this dedication. The calm busyness and the focused but relaxed energy was invigorating and made me for the feel so happy that I had made this decision to put so much into Sage. The chance to simply come to work and JUST DO THE WORK is so rare in this business, I had to buy my own kitchen just to find it again.

It's so satisfying to have engineered a kitchen where that kind of energy is evident again. I feel blessed and lucky to work side by side with our crew on a daily basis.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gardening? Not so much

I don't like to brag much but my garden is amazing. In terms of biomass tonnage grown I would hazard a guess that my garden is one of the most prolific in Yakima. We only grow one crop though: WEEDS.

I see in magazines how some chef in New York or San Fransisco is wowing the foodie world with his own herb garden where he specializes in 400 different kinds of organic hand grown, hand massaged, prayed over and sun kissed baby whatevers. I am not that chef.

Now don't get me wrong, I have plans to grow a herb garden here at Sage, and have talked to the architect about modifying some of our roof space to accomodate a medium sized herb garden (are you reading this Don? =) ), but my garden at home is where the wild things are. I spent over an hour last night "weed logging" and finally killed off the madness before the locally grown, totally sustainable crop of weeds which had sprung up organically (note the use of key words in that last sentence that gets the foodies all revved up) started attacking the house.

There were some legitimate 9 footers that had to be tamed and of course I waited until the sun was shining brightly on what was probably the hottest day left in this miserable summer, so streaming with sweat, covered in dirt and fluff from the weeds I did valorous battle with my garden. I wanted to hit the whole patch with weaponized defoliant, but my stocks of Agent Orange and napalm have run low, and I'm not sure that SYSCO carries that stuff. Also, Michelle said she did actually want to grow something there at some future date so all my prayers to the Almighty to salt the earth in his wrath were ignored.

The mistake I made was thinking that I had time or interest for some kind of engaging hobby. Next time I am making the garden here at Sage and just adding it to the work load because then it will get done. Hobbies? Especially those with time requirements? Bad idea.

I learned something here I hope.