Monday, August 31, 2009

Salty Dogs

There is a certain breed of line cook in every professional kitchen that I have named the "Salty Dog." Anyone who has worked in a restaurant before or dealt with professional cooks has met one or many of these people and they deserve a little explanation to those who have had the misfortune of never having worked with these folks.

First, the name. A pro kitchen operates a lot like a man o' war, and as a HUGE fan of the Patrick O. Brian Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books, many of my current kitchen references have evolved directly from the historical wooden battleship days and the peculiarities of the Royal Navy. Restaurant kitchens are small, cramped, uncomfortable, overcrowded, loud, and a mystifying combination of stunning boredom coupled with frenzied activity. The people who operate under these conditions for many years are obviously different to begin with, but throw them all into a pot together for several years and other strange metamorpheses begin to take place. One of the most recognizable denizens of the pro kitchen is the piratical "Salty Dog."

Now, a "Salty Dog" in my kitchen refers to someone of lengthy kitchen experience with little or no formal culinary training. They are the backbone of any kitchen, just as an experienced "able seaman" would be the backbone of any first rate 74 gun man o' war fighting the French in the mid to late 1700's. Salty dogs have a variety of pros and cons to their make-up, but the main thing to remember is that even though you need them to make your kitchen work, if left to their own devices they will destroy your restaurant almost single-handedly.

1. They work FAST.
2. They can't cook.
3. They don't care that they can't cook.
4. They are very quick to train.
5. They work HARD.

First the pros:
1. Salty Dogs survive in the kitchen because of their ability to bang out food. These guys (and gals) produce. THE main problem with 95% of culinary school graduates is that they are slooooowww to do anything and are easily overwhelmed and flustered. Salty Dogs are the inverse of this. They have been pounded with insane rushes in every craptastic kitchen you have never heard of and know this comes with the territory. They understand that rules apply to everything we do but that sometimes you just have to GET THE FUCKING FOOD OUT! When you tell them that they will be responsible for breaking down these 15 chickens in the next five minutes they won't flinch and they won't panic.

The only problem is they won't know how to break down those 15 chickens until you show them. A great myth of the pro kitchen is that everyone who works in one is an aspiring chef creating little mini masterpieces in their spare time because they are so passionate about the work. Bullshit. The reality is that most people do this kind of work to pay the rent. Rather than cooks, Salty Dogs are more like Assemblers. Show them a task and the good ones get it just from watching you one time and then can repeat it ad inifinitum, which is good for business.

As assemblers you just have to make sure that Salty Dogs get enough hours and enough smoke breaks and they are happy. They have no real desire to work their way through Escoffier cooking each and every recipe for their own personal edification, and most of them don't want the responsibility of running anything other than their station. They have seen first hand how crazy the restaurant business is and they want to leave that mess at the door when they clock off.

As stated in #2, you point a Salty Dog in a direction and show them what you want done and they will blow through it. I have had guys walk in the door for their first night during a crazy rush with everyone yelling and freaking out and they intuitively know where to go and what to do having never seen the kitchen layout or the menu before. They jump on the line and start banging out plates, because no matter where you are that is your job, and the people who can filter the madness of a busy service and start producing with limited guidance from above are a very valuable commodity.

Salty Dogs understand that some days they have to blow through a monstrous prep list and hellacious service while the chef is glad handing some VIP customers, out on a catering, or just screwing around in the office. They understand that service is still coming full tilt even though the grill guy got arrested and might not be back for the foreseeable future. The good Salty Dogs have a higher gear in these times and can get. shit. done. For this skill alone they will always have a job somewhere.

1. They can be exceptionally lazy.
2. They can't cook.
3. They take shortcuts.
4. They must be supervised.
5. Their personal lives.

Now the dark side:
1. Salty Dogs generally judge the success of a day by how many sit down smoke breaks they get during one shift. You have to realize that these people get paid the same on a night with two tables as they do on one with 2000. The dream job for a Salty Dog is in a slow kitchen where they have a high hourly rate of pay, no clean-up, no sous chefs or chefs to boss them around, long hours, very few customers, and a couple sexy co-workers to hook up with from time to time. The problem is that these places usually don't have the benefit of being successful as a business so the Salty Dog is once again soon looking for a job. Not all of them realize the correlation between busy nights and success either.

Salty Dogs can't cook worth a shit. And by "cook" I mean create something from scratch with no recipe. If you ask them to come up with a special for tonight they will typically give you a look that defines the term "poleaxed." You can't tell them to "just fix that damn soup!" because you'll come back to find it in even worse shape than when you left it to their incapable hands. Remember, they are Assemblers, not cooks. We have to put them into a place where their strengths can be utilized and their flaws hidden.

"Salt? Why do I have to take the time to flick a few grains of white sticky kosher salt over this stupid chicken? It looks the same on the plate either way." If you are having problems with bland food or recipes that suddenly fail spectacularly for no apparent reason, chances are a Salty Dog is to blame. Remember how fast they are? Yeah, a lot of that comes from finding new ways to do things that involve reducing the steps in a particular recipe from eight to five, or in really bad cases even lower. Salty Dogs almost never taste the food they are making and because of this tendency to "just bang it out" they can really wreck your menu if left unsupervised. Usually one day is about the limit they can maintain your standards before starting to chop off parts of their assembly to hurry up and cram in another smoke break.

Obviously without supervision from you or your sous chef Salty Dogs will pillage and destroy your precious menu, but their debauchery can extend to other areas of your restaurant as well. Locked liquor storage is a huge priority for obvious reasons. Giving out keys and security codes to Salty Dogs, no matter how experienced and fast they may be is bound to end in expensive disaster. Counting steaks, fish portions, and portioned shrimp every night is a must or some enterprising Salty Dogs will eat your food cost into the toilet or barter your higher end food for free alcohol upgrades from equally criminally minded bar backs and/or bus boys. Take time off at your own risk.

Broken down cars and cigarettes are a huge financial obligation for Salty Dogs. Court fines and restitution figure in prominently as well, and occasionally you'll hear the word "rent" thrown in for good measure, but not nearly as often as the aforementioned smokes and shitty cars. You'll hear all this because whenever you choose to employ a Salty Dog (and you DO need them) you are then their de facto loan officer, medical specialist, relationship counselor, day care coordinator, attorney, mechanic, and any other specialist you are not qualified to be. You will find yourself embroiled in many differing and disturbing life episodes of Jerry Springer quality that you nevertheless are forced to help resolve because you need these people to come in and bang out salads for you next week.

I really feel sad for the people from outside the industry who decide to open a restaurant on a whim because it looks like fun and run into Salty Dogs with no prior understanding of how to utilize and manage them. They get taken for the proverbial ride by saavy kitchen brigade who doesn't give two shakes of a dead rat's ass how your precious dinner service is going, just that they get paid on time and don't have to work too hard. If you don't have the insider knowledge on how to motivate and control these folks (if you're not a pro cook yourself) they will ride into your kitchen like Genghis fucking Khan razing the Russian empire and instead of a pile of skulls outside your wrecked city you'll have only empty #10 cans full of cigarette butts.

Fear and respect the Salty Dog.

The French

What's a red blooded, classically trained American chef to do when asked about his feelings on the French? As an amateur WW2 history buff my opinions on the surrender specialists typically turn towards derision, but then the fact that they invented the modern restaurant which turned into something that I based my career and ultimately my life around, turns my cognitive dissonance up to 11.

Usually when asked about France by a stranger I respond with a staccato "MaginotLine" before they can get another word in and this image never fails to pop into my head. Mockery? Most assuredly. Deep respect bordering on worship of Careme and Escoffier and the kitchen brigade and traditions they created? Absolutely.

So again, what am I to do with this obvious conflict? Compartmentalize of course. Look, the French chefs of the 1940s were way too busy actually working and kicking ass in their respective kitchens to go and help the politicians/generals who were busily giving their country away. Based on reputation alone I think that if classical French chefs had run the defense of Paris the fight would have been much more like Stalingrad than the way it turned out.

Classical kitchens are built around a military type hierarchy and unquestioning obedience to your chef (general). Anyone who has ever watched one of Gordon Ramsey's yell fests on cable can grasp that. It seems in true French fashion the community subconsciously decided that their greatest warriors should be refining sauces and tormenting prep cooks behind a 500F stove instead of slaying Nazi's on the battlefield. It is from these great leaders that I find my love of French cuisine and the French culinary traditions, and it is from these great leaders that I can still continue to mock the French at large as any American should.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Julie & Julia

Just saw this movie on monday and liked it. Good food movie even though it wasn't about chefs. Julia Child was an amazing person and learning more about her personal story was great, she is such an inspiration. There was NO REASON she should have had any of the success she did, the French at Le Cordon Bleu didn't want to teach her, people didn't want to publish her cookbook, and she wasn't a real chef (in the sense that she never actually cooked for a living and managed a professional kitchen). She kept going anyway. She ignored all the haters and just pushed herself along the road she knew she should be on. She changed the way America thought about food, and thus, itself. I would have loved to have met her. Icon is too small a word for her.

Go see the movie.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Full Stop

Really looking forward to this sunday, my "full stop" day. Around our house our schedule is crazy seven days a week with housework piling up on top of business duties, phone calls to return, kids to be played with, church obligations, you name it. Occassionally I will call a family "full stop" day.

On a "full stop" day we have NOTHING on the schedule. We skip church, sleep until we feel like getting up (which with two kids under 5 is not very late), eat pancakes together, maybe watch a movie or two as a family, take some naps, and try and stay in PJ's or sweats all day. Everything else can just wait a day.

I can't even remember the last time we had a "full stop", must have been several months ago, so this one is going to be great. Active rest. You gotta get it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movin' to the Country, Gonna Eat a Lot of Peaches...

If you're a peach nut like me this is one of the best times of the year, peaches galore, and Washington grows amazing peaches. It's so cool as a cook to be in this area with all the amazing produce surrounding us. The only downside is that the cold dark winter is upon us before we're even ready for it and then have a few months of very little good local stuff.

But that's for later.

Right now our amazing peach creme brulee is up and running. It's from Johnson's Orchards and is great stuff.

Monday, August 17, 2009


I say reluctant because unlike a lot of people in this industry it was never my dream to grow up and be a chef. I grew up in a working household, both my parents were very busy all the time so meals, which were always eaten together, were about efficiency rather than exotics picked from the farmer's market (which wasn't around when I was young anyways). In that sense I'm just an average American. Eating in the car while on the way to somewhere undoubtedly very important, high end eating reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, or relatives visiting from out of town. Culinary experimentation? Never heard of it.

But then I got my first job, working in a restaurant of course! Man those cooks were cool. Bunch of bad asses swearing and yelling, bossing everyone around, fire and knives... Yeah, that was where the cool kids hung out.

It wasn't until I got to college that I got my first cook job, banging out fast food. The intensity, the noise, the fast pace, the team work, it was just like I hoped it would be. Good stuff and good times. Still had no interest in becoming a chef, though, I just wanted to be the boss line cook, the guy who anchored the whole place, the VIP on the busiest nights, the lynch pin. Worked on becoming that in a few places but then made the mistake of working with some creative people who made things from scratch and loved making beautiful plates, as opposed to just banging out food as fast as possible.

Things started to change. This new type of food was HARD. The pace wasn't any slower, but the technical challenges were increasing. It was the difficulty, the challenge of it all that drew me in. And there was something else, something beautiful started to emerge. Looking at a plate I had just put together gave me satisfaction, the artistic urge to create was being fed like the diners I was serving. I could put a plate or ten in the window and sit back feeling full myself, even though I was physically ravenous after forgetting to eat AGAIN before service began. Eventually I realized that I needed some real training if I was going to get to the next level so I dove in to culinary school, once again not to become a chef, but to become a top notch line cook.

Fast forward another couple of years and line cooking is getting repititous, mostly because it seems like annoying chefs keep getting in my way as we line cooks try to rock out some good service. I guess if you can't beat 'em, you need to join 'em, eh? An opportunity to run a whole KITCHEN (not just a saute station on the line) presents itself and I realize that this is yet another mountain to climb, another challenge to overcome, another very difficult thing to try and do so I leap at it.

If you're sensing a common theme here, you should. I arrived at where I am professionally not because I followed a dream, but because I followed the work. It was not fulfilling a fantasy to open Sage, it was the removing of the last obstacle (owners who were in the way) to finally just get a chance to work without anyone bothering me. Reluctant chef? Maybe that's not quite the right title but it seems to fit.

Here's a quote from Uber-Chef Marco Pierre White that sums it up the best: "I wish I wasn't a cook. I wish cooking was just a passionate hobby, but it's an obsession. I caught the bug at the Box Tree [restaurant where he worked] and it's terminal. I used to dream about food - smells, tastes, textures. That must be how dishes come to me. All these ideas steam away in my head like old cabbage leaves in a compost heap, and then one day something clicks and they get translated into beautiful food on a plate."