I just learned that the place I started out at is closing. It’s always sad news to hear that a business is closing down. It affects the lives of so many. In the restaurant world it’s never surprising news even when a restaurant appears to be doing well.
I’m thankful for the short time I had and all that I learned. The chef/owner will be concentrating on their first location.
A lot has happened over the past year including the loss of my mother and the arrival of my son. In a moment of clarity what is obvious, life is precious, has an even greater effect on how I spend my time. The age old problem of time working is time away from problem is hard to reconcile.
Although I did not work for long in a restaurant, what has become clear is that restaurant life isn’t for me. If I could, I would be in culinary school forever or I stage at as many restaurants for as many chefs as I could to learn cuisine, technique and about who I am as a cook. A life-long learner, the path to being a chef is not one of glitter and fame for me. It’s simply a goal backed by experience, confidence and a wealth of knowledge.
Over the next few months, I’ll work at teaching at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts while also seeking out events, stages or opportunities in general that are flexible. For now, that’s what is right for me and my family. Anything more or less can’t be considered the right progress for me now.
I filled out my paperwork yesterday to start at Garde Manager at the restaurant where I did my second stage. I’ll be working part-time and be responsible for prep as well and work at the Garde Manger station where I’ll work on cold appetizers, and desserts. I start on March 3rd and am beyond excited to start this next chapter in my culinary career.
Last night I completed my second restaurant stage. I had set this up with a chef that was a guest speaker at my school in the fall. Much like any job interview in the “business world”, this culture, atmosphere and team were very different from my first stage as was the food. The overall experience was amazing and gave me a lot to think about with respect to my career as a chef, personal growth and how I’ll continue to learn about food.
My arrival was a little different from my first stage. I was greeted by the chef as before, but to start off we had a quick chat at a table. He asked about my experience, but more importantly what I was looking for. I was more prepared this time after reflecting a lot about what I wanted to get out of the experience and stated that first and foremost I wanted a place to learn and grow. I had left culinary school with more questions than answers to which he replied, “that’s how it’s supposed to be”. I also let him know that for now I wanted to start off part-time and that I’m looking for a mentor. All sounded good and I think having that grounding set us up for a successful evening.
Initially I was asked to do some prep, starting with a mirepoix for a soup. I started with one onion and showed the sous chef to see if I was on track. Too small he said, as everything would be cooked and then puréed at the end. They key of course was uniform pieces. Oops, I’m glad I asked. I finished the rest of the task. I thought it would take me all day, but I was done sooner than I had expected.
My next task was to cut up some squash for the soup. A fairly easy task, although they were large. Thankfully I have a 10″ chef’s knife that I had recently sharpened. It’s so important to keep your knives sharp!
The next task was a bit more involved. I had to scrub purple and green radishes that were going to be used for a pickle. The task wasn’t hard, but it took a long time. Nature doesn’t produce the perfect food we find in supermarkets. It really gives you a lot to think about.
I was next invited to the menu rundown. Chef went through the menu and changes. One of the things I really like about his approach to food is to truly use what’s in season and available from purveyors. Everything is made from scratch which I find amazing, but the quality of the food shows it. Chef also prepared the staff meal, a hearty combination of foods and plenty of nutrition to keep everyone going for the long evening ahead. It was delicious.
During service I was put on garde manger to help and observe the person on that station, essentially trailing them. One of the things I was shown how to make was a delicious spiced beet salad. I was also able to help out making a Roxbury Russet Apple salad and some desserts.
During service Chef came over to me and said I could order anything I wanted. I chose the veal agnolotti. It was sublime. I was truly satiated and was even more convinced that this is the type of food I wanted to learn more about.
The evening went well. At times I still felt like a deer in headlights, trying to study and absorb as much information as possible. While I knew I needed to be fast to get food out, I was also keenly aware that whatever goes out represents the restaurant and the chef. I wanted each and every plate I worked on to be perfect.
As the evening started to wind down, I had an opportunity to catch up with Chef. We had a great conversation about starting and said he hoped to hear from me in a few days. I got similar feedback with respect to my work saying that I need to improve on speed and essentially “go from culinary school speed to restaurant speed.” I want that, and know it will come quickly as I familiarize myself with the menu, the approach to food, how ingredients are cared for and handled and more. There is a lot to think about and also a lot to be excited about.
I find myself wondering “what is it about food that I need to understand? Why am I so interested in sacrificing my personal time, body and potentially friendships because I want to learn more about food, cooking and the kitchen?”
I thought my troubles sleeping after my first stage were an anomaly. I found it equally as hard to fall asleep last night. I was so amped up on what I’ll suppose was adrenaline. My heart and mind were racing as my head hit the pillow and it took a long while to fall asleep. I’m feeling great today. Much more ahead.
Yesterday I did my first trail (also sometimes referred to as a stage) at an upscale restaurant near where I live. It was an amazing experience! I arrived early, found parking, entered through the back door and asked for the Chef. Passing through the door was interesting as it was a reminder of how things are different as a cook. I had previously been to eat at this restaurant as a guest for my 1 year wedding anniversary last May. They had recently opened, had great reviews. I liked the food, service and atmosphere so much, that I immediately applied when I saw a job posted and was super excited to be invited in for a trail.
After being greeted by the Chef, I was taken upstairs to change and then given a tour of the kitchen. The restaurant’s focus is farm to table, sustainable food. They source many of their ingredients from their own farm when in season and many of their food purveyors are local keeping in spirit with their mission and reason for being. It is truly an impressive operation and I was so inspired by everything I saw. I couldn’t wait to get started.
I felt calm as I knew how to do each task that was asked of me. I can thank school for that and yet being on the line for service and working was so different than school. The day started off with doing some prep work to get ready for service, in contrast to my school experience where you start from scratch and build a recipe from ingredients to food on a plate all in one go. Clearly in a restaurant, you assemble, cook and serve for speed, effeciency and consistency. School was more like home cooking where you get to see every component whereas at a restaurant, you see your little world and there is a whole team executing on that one plate and several plates at once to provide a meal for your guests. My hope was to get to see the whole world even while doing my tasks and I would find out that the Chef wanted that for me too.
At first I wasn’t sure if the tasks I was given were mere tests or if I was doing actual work. It became clear that my final products would be used in the night’s recipes. I wasn’t nervous about it like I thought I would be, and yet I moved a bit slower than I would have liked to ensure my cuts and work were the best I could do. I wanted each guest to enjoy their meal as much as I had when I was on the other side. Tasks included cutting orange and lemon segments (supremes), brunoise apples (very fine dice), dicing sweet potatoes, dicing tomatoes, and whipping cream with some herbs and seasoning with salt and pepper to name a few. I thought the whipped cream assignment was a bit of a kitchen joke as I was given a huge bowl filled with heavy cream and herbs and a whisk and asked to do it by hand. It seemed to me that a machine was better suited for this, my arms agreed with me as well, given the size of the bowl and the amount of cream there was to whip. Obviously we were making enough for the night and the volume I was making was greater than anything I ever made at school. Looking back at it, doing it by hand required fewer tools and setup time. Time is everything.
Dinner service was minutes from starting and one of the cooks showed me how to complete the recipes for Garde Manger, the cold appetizers including beef tartare, salad niscoise and a hamachi dish. She showed me her method for assembling and garnishing while also giving me an overview of where to find ingredients, find the refills, and last minute prep that needed to be done like pealing more eggs, cutting up fingerling potatoes and refilling some of the garnish containers. With that, she was off! I was left there to figure it out with the help of other very busy cooks of course. I half wished the ticket machine would not push anything out while also being excited about getting tickets and learning. I had never worked with a ticketing machine and sharing it with another cook was challenging. I had no clue about what to do, but was quickly shown the ropes. Service picked up and things were humming along. I was really starting to enjoy myself. This was it. This is where I needed to be.
During service I got to sample a lot of the food, see the chefs interact with each other and got a great feel for the team and the restaurant. The chef was great about making me little tasting dishes for what was going out which I devoured. One of my fears of working in the food industry is going to work at a place and then never wanting to eat there either because of how I know how the food is made, sanitation issues, the team or a myriad other reasons. I can’t wait to go back and eat more of this food. It’s my style of cooking, plating and atmosphere. At different points the Chef allowed me to move around to get a sense of other stations like expo, pastry and observing the rest of the line. I got to see the whole operation humming along and how the pieces fit together. I knew I was being sold, and enjoyed every moment of it.
I definitely had moments between tickets where I thought to myself that “What am I doing here? I am being selfish and crazy” for enjoying or evening wanting this lifestyle, especially when I considered the hours and shitty pay. I guess this means I haven’t “committed” to this life yet. I have already done so much selfishly when I consider starting my own company, Media Armor which sucked up countless hours and interrupted many events, personal and family alike with “emergencies” and long days at the office or working at home. My wife Elizabeth and I also made a huge financial investment and sacrifice with me going to culinary school. I am not sure if this is the right step personally and wish I had worked nights in restaurants when i was younger to have a better sense of what I’m getting into. Ah hindsight!
The chef and I met at the end of the night to talk. I was offered a full-time position and a lot to think about! They want me nights 2 to 11 Tuesday through Saturday. This would be a major change for me personally and financially. I’m thrilled for the opportunity, especially for working with such a talented team and for learning from such an accomplished chef. This is very much a teaching kitchen. I got pointers the entire night that will make me a better cook. When I was asked what I could have done better, the answer was essentially have “a sense of urgency”. An astute comment as I am very laid back and it takes a lot to get me stressed out. My posture was not one of an experience cook ready to be attacked or one that has been chewed out by a chef or scarred by a crazy night of service before. I’m clearly green and yet have an opportunity to grow with a chef who is invested in training and seeing each of his team members grow. I’m very lucky.
One of my classmates, Karen sent us all a link to a video. While it relates to writing, you could easily substitute cooking for the subject matter. I am at the point where I still have so much to learn and so many mistakes to make. I’ll always have a lot to learn as I strive to become better and better.
I only had one class due to a snow storm. The recreational class was great. After leaving, I went home to cook dinner and was tired too. Being on your feet all day and moving around quickly is a lot of work. Office life compared to kitchen life is so different. There is so much more standing and moving in the kitchens which is great and yet it’s sad how taxing it is!
I reached out to Career Services for contact information for graduates that are running private classes as well as for local businesses that might be looking for extra kitchen help. I’m excited to make some new connections, gain perspective from others and to start getting more out of class experience.
The school requires all students to participate in our of class activities ranging from stages at restaurants, volunteering for culinary events or helping out with recreational events among other things. For my first activity, I volunteered to help out with a recreational class on the pastry side on Pies and Tarts. I thought it would be a great review following my class on Pâte Brisée, but as luck would have it, class was cancelled and it ended up being an intro to a rescheduled class.
I’m particularly interested in helping out with recreational classes because after school, I would like to go into teaching myself. I enjoy teaching others and classes are part of a grand vision I have about educating people about food, helping them eat healthier and making a positive impact on society.
I arrived at the school an hour before class and met Chef Elise. She was incredibly welcoming and introduced me to the other two assistants for the day. She had arrived earlier than us and had already started putting things out for the students. We immediately began working to help her out.
Setup was straight forward. I helped measure out some ingredients for pâte sucrée using a baker’s scale. Plus one for new experiences!
With everything measured, I got to watch over the big stand mixer and bring the pâte sucrêe together.
The class was held in the pastry kitchen which is not a kitchen I spend time in. I required a little extra time in terms of finding items I needed. I set out some flour for rolling the dough, aprons and side towels for the students.
The lecture was a brief overview for the students of the dough and the recipes. Chef Elise provided an amazing overview on how to work with the dough, add water and check for doneness all by hand. Each student was allowed to select which recipe they wanted to do. It was briefer that the lectures we normally get in class, but that is understandable. We aren’t going into food history and science here. These people are here for technique and a challenge and to make friends among other things.
As I’ve mentioned before, a new kitchen can be tough. It’s harder when you’re being asked questions about where to find tools and not familiar with it. I enjoyed helping everyone that asked with where to find tools, the best way to measure something out, assistance with the ovens and more. Time went by quickly as I moved from one area to the next helping out. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, but part of teaching is getting questions you didn’t expect.
After class was over I had the opportunity to talk with Chef Elise about the class, the techniques covered and teaching. I asked for her perspective on learning, where to get experience and how she decided to go into teaching. She was very open with her learning process, where she’s worked and suggestions for getting the experience I needed.
Mistakes happen. Students will measure dry ingredients with wet measures and wet ingredients with dry measures.
I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of class. Everyone was there to learn and have fun.
Some students definitely have the idea of attending school in the professional programs and really enjoy to talking with assistants.
It was tricky to stand over students or around them and not have them feel like they were being judged.
Skill levels vary. Teaching hands on involves adapting to the student skill level.
I’m super happy I got to help out in this class. It was an easier than expected introduction into teaching.
The honeymoon with food is over. We had our first class with Chef Richard and covered a lot of material related to food safety, regulations and how we should think about food preparation going forward.
This class understandably draws lots of groans when it comes up in conversation, and that’s understandable. It’s not a pleasant topic, and yet it’s one of the most important ones that we’ll have to learn about as students. Customers trust food operations with their lives, literally. I hesitate to use a word such as fascinating to describe the class, but it was informative, eye opening and at times overwhelming.
There is a lot to cover in preparation for the managerial exam that is coming up. The biggest focal point was on bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxins, and physical risks and controlling what you can to increase safety.
FATTOM: Optimum Conditions for Bacterial Growth
Food > high in protein or carbohydrates
Acidity > neutral or slightly acidic
Time > cummulative 4 hours in the temperature danger zone
Temperature > in the temperature danger zone (41 degrees F to 135 degrees F)
Oxygen > aerobic or anaerobic growth depending on the bacteria
Moisture > adequate moisture for growth
Key Observations and Learnings:
Look at food through the eyes of a food health inspector. This will go a long way to keeping your customers safe and employing good practices.
Food inspectors are looking for risks. Sometimes Food Quality and Food Safety are at ads. Always go for safety first.
Cold food must be maintained at 41 degrees F or lower
Hot food must be maintained at 135 degrees F or higher (140 in Massachusetts for now)
Ah, a class I was definitely waiting for, where we get to make Pies and Tarts. I love pie! Pies and Tarts are simple and yet require proper technique to get a great end result, a balance between flaky and tender, textures that are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Chef Deb provided a brief history of pie and tart making and specifically Pâte Brissée in Europe and American influence on fillings, preparation and look. We discussed the difference between a traditional American crust, usually made with everything mixed in a bowl and Pâte Brisée (European) where butter is broken into flour. Pâte Brisée is also usually rolled thinner than an American crust. A variant of Pâte Brisée, Pâte Sucrée (sweet version) was also discussed allowing us to compare savory versus sweet products.
Pies as compared to bread, which we’ll cover in a future class, require the control of gluten. Gluten is our “enemy”, as too much will result in tough crusts. Just enough is needed for structure and nothing more.
Chef Deb went over different fats that go into crusts ranging from butter, oil to lard and shortening. Each have pluses and minuses with respect to the end texture and flavor.
We also went over a blanc (blind baking) techniques and when to use them depending on what we’re making, a pie, tart or savory item.
A final key element is the rolling pin and the balance of rolling and shaping vs. overworking the dough. Properly flouring your work area is important and is a learned skill. Too much and you’re changing the ratio of lour to other ingredients. Too little and you might find your dough sticking to your work surface.
Chef Deb gave us a demo from start to finish for mixing ingredients, adding water and rolling that helped round out everything we went over and then set us out to pick recipes and get to work. I selected the Honey Walnut Tart.
For this lab I ended up with a recipe that didn’t call for working with the dough by hand although there were some other components that I needed to work on that were likely going to be challenging for me, caramel and ganache.
I set out my mise for the first part, the dough more quickly this time which felt great. It allowed me to get to work quickly, which was necessary given the timing and components to my recipe.
I started out with my dough so it could be chilled while I worked on other components. As it came together in the mixer it was hard to tell if it was ready or if I needed more water.
The dough seemed dry and I kept adding more water until I thought it was ready for chilling.
As the dough was chilling, I moved on to making the batter for the filling.
The batter called for making caramel, something I’ve seen other classmates make, but I haven’t done myself. As I was making mine, Chelsea was making hers. She was using a brush to wipe the sides of her pot and I wasn’t. Uh-oh. Chef Deb had suggested she do that to stop the formation of sugar crystals which would ruin the caramel last time Chelsea made caramel. I remembered hearing that but didn’t know the technique. Fingers crossed, I moved forward until my caramel started boiling.
I got a brush with water and wiped the sides just like Chelsea was, but I couldn’t get some of the harder chunks to disappear. Chef Deb came over at one point and immediately noticed the sugar crystals starting to form and recommended we add some lemon juice to the sugar water as an interfering agent with the hope we could save my caramel.
Unfortunately it didn’t work as I was too far gone. I had to start over. Chelsea’s caramel was looking great and she carried it over to complete her recipe. As her luck would have it, the cast iron pan she was using for her Tarte Tatin was so hot that the caramel burned and she had to start over.
We both laughed at our fortune, and yet nervously worked on our next batch hoping to get it right. We did prevail and I combined the rest of my ingredients to finish my batter.
I rolled out my dough and placed the bottom into a flan ring which is a ring mold with rounded edges instead of sharp ones. I had to cool down the batter filling first so that it wouldn’t melt my dough.
Once cool, I added my batter to the dough inside the mold, spread it out and then put a top on, and rolled the edges closed. With it ready, I put it in the oven to bake.
Next was the ganache. It was quick and simple to make. With everything mixed together, I pulled it off the heat and left it on the back of the stove until I was ready. Big mistake. With my tart baked and cooled, it was time to pour on the ganache. The ganache wasn’t terrible, but it was grainy, likely from too much heat exposure. Chef Deb gave us a demo on how to easily cover a tart with ganache.
The end result was delicious, although very sweet! We also got a demo on how to decorate a fresh fruit tart.
With one final recipe to go, Chef Deb gave a brief demo on how to spin sugar or caramel with a fork. Pretty cool!
Combined with all of the other delicious items we go to eat, I definitely left class thankful for my stretchy chef pants.
My recipe, Walnut and Honey Tart
Tomato and Eggplant Quiche
La Tarte de Demoiselles Tatin
Fresh Fruit Tart #1
Fresh Fruit Tart #2
Key Observations and Learnings
Caramel requires constant attention to make right
Chocolate also requires attention. Too much heat or activity can result in an undesired texture.
Everyone could have done better with their crust. It’s hard to know what was not done correctly when your crust is baked. Control for variables and overtime improve your technique.
Pie weights and docking your dough are important for blind baking.
What a start to the week. We all arrived around the same time and began to unpack. When Craig took his winter coat off, we saw that he was wearing his Chef’s coat. The remaining 4 of us obviously asked how he got it and if he knew anything about ours. Since Craig is not in the same Baking Basics class as the rest of us on Wednesday, he got his on Thursday. Immediately jealous, I went downstairs to the pantry and storage area right away along with Peter, Jen and Maya to check the status on ours. They had arrived also! We promptly put them on and sat in our seats just in time for lecture.
Chef Eliana was out today as planned and swapped Food Basics classes with Chef Erin. While Chef Eliana was missed, it was interesting to observe another teaching style and and discussion for methods to execute our dishes.
We reviewed eggs from last week before starting our lecture on this week’s topic, soufflés. It was great to tie things in as eggs are a major component of many soufflés. As we went through the egg review and proper techniques including mixing and folding, we touched upon two things that can happen with eggs and/or protein in soufflés, hydrolysis and syneresis. Hydrolysis is the breakdown of protein by water, and syneresis (also known as weeping) is the breakdown of protein and water, generally when too much mechanical action, such as over whipping, has occurred.
Chef Erin discussed the different properties of metal and cooking pots, and how some aren’t good to use because of how they react with the food such as aluminum and acids. Others work really well for the same reach, such as copper with eggs. The challenge is using the right pot for the right application.
We got a demo on the proper whipping of egg whites by hand, something we’d have to do in lab so we could learn how to do it properly. Using a good whisk with many tines made the process easier and we were able to observe the changes easily. It was important to do this by hand, because eggs can be over whipped easily in a stand mixer and if they are whipped too far, syneresis can happen. Chef Joe was asked to find some whites and put them in a stand mixer and let it run for a while. They were beat to hell and we could easily see the difference between the properly beaten eggs from Chef Eric and the eggs in Chef Joes mixing bowl which had water at the bottom.
As the lecture came to a close, Chef Erin talked about using collars on our ramekins so they could be filled to the top and then expose our wonderful sufflés. This was very different than the technique I was shown at Sur La Table and we discussed this. Essentially, if you’re going to go through the trouble of making a soufflé, why hide part of the rise in the ramekin? We ended with a word about folding. Mise and place and timing are important. When the egg whites are whipped, the clock starts ticking to get everything folded and into a ramekin and then to the oven. The longer you wait, the more the egg whites will fall and you’ll miss out on some of the rise from baking.
After our lecture ended, we chose our recipes. I chose the Grand Marnier Orange Soufflé with Grand Marnier Sabayon. I was assigned kitchen cleanup duty which seems like an easy task, but is hard in practice when you’re focused on making your own recipe. Dirty dishes keep coming no matter how hard you try to keep up. Luckily, given the nature of soufflés, we were told to serve them right out of the oven instead of coming up with a service time. This is likely the only reprieve we’ll have from the stress of serving on time.
Mise en Place was fairly straight forward. I was able to pull my custard together and then whipped my egg whites appropriately in a bowl. We did this by hand to avoid over whipping, and so that we could recognize the different stages of egg white whipping. It’s amazing to see how quickly egg whites can go from not whipped to whipped and hold a soft peak. As Chef Erin stated, when the egg whites are whipped, the clock starts ticking. I folded the whites into the the custard and then into the ramekin, then everything went into the oven. I set out to make my Sabayon.
I haven’t made Sabayon before, although I love eating it. I’m glad I got a chance to make it this week. We amped up the wine used for the recipe by finding a bottle from a recreational class that was not fully consumed instead of using a generic white available in the pantry. I whipped vigorously as I brought everything up to temperature and it thickened. Right before pulling it off the stove, I added a bit of Grand Marnier. Just at this time, my soufflé was ready.
My soufflé rose but was slightly overcooked as it was left in too long. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any skewers to test that it was at the French Cream stage, slightly soft in the middle and cooked throughout. This cost me a few extra minutes of wasted time and my soufflé had some cracking on the top.
I had missed the doneness I was looking for. A missed Mise en Place error for sure! Regardless, we dug in and poured in the Sabayon.
My Recipe, Soufflé Grand Marnier
Soufflé de Crevette
Amarene (Wild Cherry) Soufflé
Lemon Souffléd Pudding with Blueberry Sauce
Key Observations and Learnings
Even though recipes call for measurements for things like butter and sugar, that will be used to coat a ramekin, I can save time by using common sense. An exact amount is not needed.
I can still be even better with mise en place. This includes tools I’ll need for execution like skewers, which are not in the recipe.
When making something delicate like a soufflé, timing is hard. You can’t just open the oven door when you want as you might ruin someone else’s work.
Seasoning will be an ongoing learning process.
Teamwork is essential in the kitchen as is some level of selfishness. There is a line between hoarding the tools that you need and sharing with your classmates. I am sure this is magnified in a commercial kitchen.