Previously on Consumed by Food …

Hot Line
June 17, 2008

Some days are diamonds.

I walked into the kitchen this morning a bit tired from yesterday, which was 340 house salads, a gigantic cheese and fruit mirror and several large crudite trays … all working with two guys in bad moods because Father’s Day service cleaned out every prep item on everybody’s list, and everything had to be done from scratch. There’s hard and harder and then there’s a bad day in pantry.

But today … Exec Sous Chef saw me coming in the door and said, “You’re with Bilal.” That’s Bilal Mohammed, line cook for the patio grill. He is a very laid-back big skinny black guy from New Jersey, who is so relaxed that in any real universe he would be from Southern California. Bilal is extremely organized and methodical, which the patio requires. It’s fine dining outdoors and the summer kitchen is set up in a canopy with screen sides. On a day like today – mid 70s, nice breeze – it’s just very extremely PF cool. And fast, like a ticket a minute for two hours.

The prep goes on for freaking ever, and this morning the salsa looked so sad that Bilal had me make new. I doubled the house recipe which is:

16 ounces diced tomatoes

1 ounce minced garlic

3 ounces minced onion

1 ounce minced cilantro

1 jalapeno, minced

1 lime, minced

olive oil

salt, pepper

I dumped the seeds from the jalapeno but kept the other interior bits, which hold the heat. I had my friend Stephanie taste it, and she liked the heat. So did I. Bilal was a bit surprised by it, but kept it in the mix.

Then we loaded the carts and headed for the patio cookery, a space about 20 by 40. We sell a lot of entrees. Espresso Rubbed Flat Iron Steak with Mixed Baby Greens and Roasted Sweet Potato Salad is number one, and Grilled Chile Rubbed Salmon Fillet with Baby Spinach, Corn Relish and Charred Pepper Sauce is second. Tandoori Grilled Tuna, Rosemary Rubbed Duck and Grilled Smoked Pork Chops follow.

I worked the salad end: Lightly Charred Hearts of Romaine with Roasted Garlic Parmesan Dressing, Croutons and Shaved Asiago (Chicken or Grilled Shrimp extra); Grilled Chicken Caprese (my fave) with Fresh Mozzarella and Tomatoes tossed in Garden Greens with Balsamic Vinaigrette; Grilled Curried Shrimp with Strawberries and Spinach, Goat Cheese, Sliced Almonds, Chile & Lime Dressing; Chile Salmon Salad with Greens, Carmelized Onions, Roasted Tomatoes, Black Beans and Roasted Sweet Corn Salsa; Pulled Barbecue Chicken Salad with greens, Grilled Pineapple, Tomatoes, Cukes, Shredded Cheddar with Buttermilk Chive dressing.

These I mention in detail because I made them in detail. And I have not even gotten to the sandwiches, which are about as complex.

It was a rock n roll day, and I came out on the other side just happy to be. Lotta work, lotta food, lotta fun. Some days are diamonds.
Training Days
June 7, 2008

This week I’m working more hours and working in a new way. Basically, it’s what you might call Figure It Out.

It started with Brian in Sideboard, where we made Upscale Sandwiches for a board meeting of the development corporation that owns the hotel. Really, they’re listed on the Banquet Event Order as Upscale Sandwiches. It’s just steak, chicken, ham or turkey or whatever (tuna salad, say), but every base has to be different and every bread is different – kaisers, croissants, rye, pumpernickel, whole wheat wrap – so that spread out on the trays there is a variety of sizes, colors and textures.

Most of what I’ve done with Brian in the past has been large fruit or cheese or salad presentations, or a couple hundred individual salads. Sandwiches like this are unknown territory. So he just told me to mark off a sheet tray of steaks on the grill, then a sheet tray of chicken breasts.

This means placing the meat at a ten o’clock angle on the grill, letting it sear, then turning it to two o’clock to get those diamond grill marks, and turning it over to sear the other side. Both chicken and steak are finished later in a 350-degree oven, a much more controllable environment.

The grill itself is over several rows of live flame about One Zillion Degrees and the key is to move the meat quickly and not let your hand linger over the heat. And to change hands a lot. I’m right-handed but it is interesting how easily I go to my left once the tongs get insanely freaking hot.

After that, I carmelized onions for the steak sandwiches.

All of this is entirely new or nearly new to me, but … I know where to get the food, I’ve been at the grill, I know how to carmelize onions. What’s new is to do the whole thing start to finish and not have anyone really watching what I’m doing. Brian feeds me clues and lets me alone.

For the chicken, I slice sourdough loaves and mark one side of each piece on the grill. The toppings are basically burger sets, lettuce and tomato with bacon added. The chicken is sliced and fanned on the bread, the sandwich is closed, then it gets two toothpicks and is sliced on the bias.

The steak sandwich gets the carmelized onions and crumbled bleu cheese on an olive roll. The steak is sliced and fanned and still hot enough to partially melt the cheese, and the onions are gleaming and golden on top.

From marking the meat to cutting the sandwich was probably 45 minutes of pretty intense activity. At no time did Brian tell me to hurry up. Instead, he mentioned things I could do at the same time, like putting the chicken (14) minutes and steak (10 minutes) into a 350 oven while I was marking the sourdough and carmelizing the onions. If that sounds simple, the ovens are 25 yards from the grill, just far enough so I couldn’t hear the oven timer go off. I don’t wear a watch. All the clocks in the kitchen are different. Not as simple as it might be, but possible to work out.

I gave the onions a good flip and took the chicken to the oven. I flipped them again and took the steak, and it went in 3 minutes after the chicken, so it would be done 1 minute before. I went back to the onions, which were in a pan on a burner next to the grill. I put the sourdough slices on the grill and marked them pretty quickly, kept turning the onions; finally pulled the bread, pulled the onions, took them both back to the plating area and went to pull the steaks, then the chicken from the oven. It worked.

And WTF … it turned out there was an extra piece of perfectly medium-rare steak. We split it. Brian took his away and did something with it. What I did was go to pantry, get two slices of whole wheat bread and go to the grill. I marked the bread, took it back to the plating area. I sliced the steak, fanned it on the toast, sauced it with horseradish mayo and carmelized onions. To me, that’s a sandwich.

Ever since that day …
June 5, 2008

… that day mentioned in the previous post … Chef Joe has been ramping up my activity level. I did a week on Cold Line, not by myself but with ever-decreasing assistance. On Friday, he said “Don’t get weeded! This is not the day to be in the weeds!”

Everything in Kitchen World is based on the military hierarchy established for the French culinary workers by Escoffier. Being in the weeds is an American nicety for being dans le merde, or in the shit – so far behind on orders that you can’t think straight or work well and you hemorrhage chaos. After he said it, Chef Joe walked away and it took me all of ten minutes to go dans le merde.

The hotel has been near 100% occupancy for the past two weeks and we are getting slammed daily in both restaurants and banquet.

The cold line serves two, sometimes three of our restaurants. The challenge is putting together salads and sandwiches that can be a bit complex. Here’s our second most-popular salad:

Mediterranean Grilled Chicken

To Mixed Greens add Chickpeas, chopped Haricots Verts, chopped Eggplant, chopped Zucchini, chopped Roasted Red Pepper and toss with Lemon Vinaigrette.

Put Roasted Roma Tomato halves in 2 corners or a square plate. Put Grilled Chicken in the other 2 corners. Top with Fennel, Feta Cheese and Carrot Zest.

So that’s pretty straightforward. But if you don’t have the menu and plating descriptions memorized, you have to read off each one before you make it. That’s okay if the tickets are coming one every five minutes, but when they start to come one a minute, or two a minute, or three items to a ticket, it gets weedy.

Which is where I spent several days.

For what it’s worth, here are my notes on the top salads and sandwiches.

Cold Line
May 21, 2008

Last week I had one of those epiphany things. I was pretty bored out in the restaurant, making simple food, being nice to people, standing by the action station even when no one came by. It’s good for me, I reasoned. I’ve always admired patience in others, and never had much of my own. Now I had an opportunity to practice.

At the same time, I don’t know how much time I have here. I could get pulled back into my other job next month. I wanna learn more stuff. It’s the small world view … Little Me wants more!!

So the epiphany was that I am not limited by my scheduled tasks when I am off sked. I went to Mike the Line Cook, who does breakfasts in the restaurant, and told him I wanted to flip some omelets. He said “sure.” As in, “I’m here all week.”

At the next opportunity, I got up at some hour I don’t usually and went to work but didn’t clock in. Mike wasn’t there. Figures. But Sam was … Sam the Kid Cook, lured to Bricco from the York culinary school by Jason and working here a couple days a week. I told him I want to learn omelets and he obliged.

The morning omelet setup is two racks of three bowls each with peppers, onions, mushrooms, ham etc. Sam put peppers and onions in a very small skillet with olive oil and sauteed them to just barely carmelized. Then he poured in liquid eggs and let it set a little. If you know omelets, you know we’re making frittatas here, or what we call country omelets, not French omelets.

Sam folded the egg mix in half, then flipped it. Very cool.

Then he had me do it. Mine didn’t flip so well. Sam left and went back to the kitchen. He returned with a pile of beans, and we spent the next 10 minutes flipping beans in a saute pan. “Circular motion,” he said. It took a while to get smooth motion going, but I knew I could practice at home.

On the way out, I ran to into Chef Joe. We said “good morning” and that was it. No “why are you here?” stuff.

So next, I was gathering bread from the dock freezer – 4 baguettes, 4 quarters of focaccia, 12 bread sticks for the lunch crowd – when I noticed Banq Chef catching a smoke. (Cigarettes are very necessary here, still.) I said hey, when you have patience and time I’d be glad to stick around after my shift and learn some stuff. (I’m not strong on subtle.)

He said OK. Next thing I know, I’m subbing for the cold line chick, who is going on vakay next week. Shit. Everything I know about not making karma I have violated. Oh well.
May 12, 2008

We got a new Food & Beverage manager today, mostly because Exec Chef would rather be in a toque blanche and a chef coat in the back of the house than a suit and tie in the front of the house.

Okay by me.

But with change there’s always churn, and today we began using vegetables as decorative elements on the buffet.

Our buffet already looks pretty good. It’s an oval that starts with chilled salad plates, greens, dozens of toppings and six dressings leading into a shellfish bar, then steam table inserts with one fish dish and one meat dish, a starch and a veg, then New England clam chowder and one other soup, then the action station – me – with a carve or a saute, and on to dessert. Cakes first, then pastries, then pies, then cobbler, bread pudding and frozen yogurt. Oh yeah, and fruit plates and cheese plates. It costs $14.

Now we have whole bell peppers, purple cabbage and zucchini as trim.

Even though I don’t think we need trim, I’m not being skeptical. But if the new Food & Bev guy means to cut it at this level, he’s gonna hafta be a hawk on all that produce, every service, every hour. Quality control. We’ll see.