Monthly Archives: March 2010

Making space smart.

One of the unsung heroes in terms of “concept” in the kitchen is planning. As much as I have cawed (shameless plug of our logo) over cleaning, we can’t forget the importance of where to put things and on knowing all of our steps. So many of us have had that moment when we realize we have forgotten something we need. That mental mis en place is critical, as critical as where we put the salt.

The efficiency of a cook’s movements.

“Don’t waste a move.” Are we martial artists? The first time I heard that I laughed and looked around thinking “ok, I’m not in a mixed martial arts arena or dojo…” The don’t waste a move motto came from a former sous chef and was a great lesson for the staff.  Minimize your movements grasshopper, a brilliant realization.

So how do you minimize your movements?  Keeping things in their place is huge. Everything on your station has to be in a sensible place, grouped together by dish, left to right, start to finish. If there’s crossover of an ingredient (herbs, oils, garnishes a lot of times) it should be centered in the station, to allow for easy access for all pick ups. What you don’t want to see is some cook on a Friday night looking like the Tasmanian devil. At Temple Bar the seasoned guys will often chuckle at the newbies in the kitchen “There’s a lot of dancin’ tonight chef” you hear from the vets as they crack up. I usually will let someone go through it for a while, maybe the whole service. Then we will talk about it.

I’ll explain how to group movements, stage several moves, and prioritize steps. Oh and the big one, to finish plating that dish you started. Never do I want to see half picked up plates on a board while a frazzled cook tries to stay ahead of the next pick up. So it always harkens back to the organizing and setting up the station the right way. I’m pretty liberal in the sense that I don’t have so much hubris to think that I’m always right (another big lesson). I’m always eager to see a new, more efficient way to do ANYTHING. I’ll listen to just about anyone when the time is right. But it’s on the chefs to set up for success to begin with, finding a home for “running stock.” Running stock being what you need to get through a shift…

At Russell House our dry storage feels like it’s a mile away. I want all the “running stock” to be in the main kitchen. And figuring out where to put everything is a job here. It’s one that I’m taking a good amount of time with. It has to be right. It has to be set up for quick response, and success.

Now where am I going to put that salt…

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A happy kitchen…

Some of this stuff was just unbelievable...when its finished, you know why you did it.

…is always a clean kitchen.

That’s what comes first. I’ve always been uncompromising on this & as any former or current employee will tell you, I’m obsessed.

Nothing good will come from anything less than a pristine workspace. I’m not ashamed or embarassed to tell you that the first people to be asked to leave my kitchen are the ones that slack on clean up or organization–if they can’t master that basic skill, they can’t cook in my eyes.

In our (and most) kitchens, you can’t proceed until you have mastered the basics and this is all the more important with a new restaurant. So much develops in those early days of an opening, critical to the success of the entire staff.

It’s not just about the cooking in the beginning, everything in our world has a base layer to build on. I humbly submit to you that in this profession, the biggest mistake is moving on too fast, & you see it a lot. Cooks advancing to quickly, leaving to soon, forgetting the basics–the most important stuff. It’s a huge lesson, one that’s not lost on me. As I get older I try to instill that in my crew even more. There is a reason your going to spend all day on one small job, one piece of equipment, one small seemingly insignificant patch in the corner of the kitchen…you don’t realize what’s happening when your doing it.

But really, you’re learning the most important lesson. It all starts with the basics.

So that’s where we begin in the kitchen. The relationships are already forming, the trust amongst my staff is growing and their reliance on each other is as well.  In other words, a team is forming. It starts with the cleaning…


turning point (pt. 2)

Suspended.

It was a big blow.  Suspended for cutting myself?  Everything came to a screeching halt for me and it was all very sobering.  In hindsight, the Chef was right to do it.

I was sitting at home in my studio apartment, out of school and out of work.  I came to a quick realization that I had been kidding myself.  I thought I was doing great at everything.  But what had I really done? The honest answer was nothing.  I wasn’t even cooking at the restaurant. I had left my previous post working a very busy wood oven in a 400 seat, high profile boutique hotel to take a job that was by all accounts a step down.  At my previous job I was getting my ass kicked on a daily basis and it was good for me. I left that hotel to be a low level expediter in a prestigious kitchen, and I hadn’t even progressed past that. I started to realize I wanted more.  And I knew to get more I was going to have to work hard.  It’s a realization that has stayed with me to this day.

After a few weeks I returned to work and school with a renewed vigor. Days off became opportunities to learn new skills from the Chef like how to clean and butcher fish.  My grades were perfect and I was becoming more of a standout at school. At work I started taking initiative to do things like organize the walk-in or to come in early and cook staff meal before my shift (cooks don’t do this enough anymore).  I did it to get noticed and it was working, but I also loved doing it.

It was starting to pay off.  I was promoted to AM pantry, a small step but a step forward nonetheless.  Because the menu changed every day cooks had to consult with the Chef at the beginning of each shift to receive a daily menu and prep list.  On one particular day I was told I would need pancetta vinaigrette for a salad but instead of waiting for the Chef to instruct me, I took the brazen step of making it myself.

I rendered the pancetta and saved the drippings to which I added sherry vinegar, shallots, honey, whole grain mustard, and fresh thyme.  I tasted. The Chef approached the station to give me instructions and I sheepishly told him I had already made the vinaigrette. He gave me a double take, grabbed a spoon and tasted. As he put the spoon down he gave a nod of approval, and then said “nice, let’s run with it.”  It was a euphoric moment and a big lift to my confidence in the kitchen.  I still make that vinaigrette at home to this day.

Days later I saw our three chef contingent huddled in conference discussing how they were going to handle the fact that the PM salad cook had called out sick.  I saw my opportunity and offered to cover the station if they would let me.  It was a risky move.  I had never done that position (which consisted of a 1000 degree tandoori oven you had to reach in and slap naan bread on to the side of) and I was clearly pushing my boundaries by even asking. But after brief consultation, I was given the nod. I never looked back.

Not long after, I was on the A-team working Friday & Saturday nights having progressed past salads to working the wood oven, a busy station responsible for making the restaurant’s signature dish.  I remember one Saturday night in particular where I was given a sizeable pick up, something like 17 dishes. I remember calling it back effortlessly to the Chef while noticing the more seasoned cooks looking on approvingly, and then knocking it all out flawlessly. It was a tremendous feeling, the feeling of real cooking…

It keeps me going today.


the first turning point for me…

…involved 24 stitches. They ran across three fingers on my left hand, and required two months of rehabilitation. All at the ripe age of 21.

I was a culinary student in Portland, Oregon and I was midway through my school. My grades were ok up until that point, but truthfully I wasn’t rocking it in that department. Early on at school, I felt I already had the abilities, and that I was above everything they were teaching. It was the height of arrogance. I was working as an expediter (not touching food) in a James Beard award winning kitchen, and I was pretty much just going through the motions there too.

So how do you teach someone who thinks they know it all already? At school I was in bake shop class and we were slicing 9 inch round layer cakes to prepare them for frosting. I was using a very long slicing knife, straight-edged, razor sharp, with a very flexible blade. After slicing a few cakes the blade needed cleaning. So I grabbed a paper towel. That was mistake number one.

To clean the knife I gripped the blade tightly in my fist (I’m cringing as I write this, literally squirming in my seat), carefully wrapped in that paper towel (read: I’m an idiot) and I quickly pulled the knife through my clenched fist to clean it. Mistake #2.

Mistake number 3 was that the blade was turned away from me when I pulled, meaning as I pulled the knife through my clenched hand I literally pulled it through my hand, cutting through the paper towel and my fingertips.

I was shocked. At first I didn’t fully realize what I had done but as I started to see the blood, I knew. And I passed out. What followed was a trip to the hospital, those 24 stitches, and a meeting at school, where I was informed that I wouldn’t be able to graduate with my class because I was going to miss too much time with the injury. I was thoroughly defeated. The cut to my fingers was deep but this was far worse.

Following that meeting I ventured to my job in search of some much needed sympathy. With an air of drama I walked into the kitchen, hand bandaged, anticipating the nurturing I wanted and needed. After taking one look at me, the Chef called me to his office, sat me down, and asked me how I was feeling. As I told him how I was and how it happened he looked at me, nodding in a cold and unemotional manner. After my dramatic retelling of the events he looked me straight in the eye and said words to me that I’ll never forget:

“I’m not trying to kick you while your down Michael, but you’re completely unfocused, and your cut is a direct result of that. You’re suspended for two weeks.”

I thought I had already experienced the worst, but this was total devastation. At the time I couldn’t imagine a worse day. But in the end, it was really the best thing that could have happened. It became the firing point for a complete turn around in my time in that kitchen. I’ll finish telling the story next week…


The Gameplan.

Taking you through the day to day. Thats the goal going forward. Stay tuned and thanks for checking in…