Sunday, November 24, 2013

In the woods Chef is King

To all of my fellow culinary professionals out there and that special group of people they go everywhere with. And by go everywhere; I mean those 4 days a year you get to take vacation, and they make you leave your comfortable cave of TV shows everyone has been telling you about and your co-workers quote endlessly. I mean after all you just want to be a part of the group. That one group that doesn't consist of only restaurant workers a place where your friends are; students, artists, actors, doctors, lawyers, and such.  Why do we always have to be around other cooks, and chefs? I'll tell you why; because the rest of society doesn't get us, we are so special, we only like restaurant people, yada yada... Really we just feel more comfortable complaining about our work around our industry friends, they get it. You will just be offended. Oh and yes we talk mad shit about picky guests, we cook our asses off for them while they are in our restaurants; but once they're gone... And besides when was the last time our business professional friends had days off on Wednesday and Thursday? Yeah our days off are really ass backwards sometimes, but who else would cook your food on Friday or Saturday night? That's right we sacrifice a lot for the public to have a great time.

So for those 4 special days we get to leave our restaurants and venture out into the wild, I have put together a list. This is for our normal friends that would most likely starve or only eat oatmeal if we weren't there..

This is a list for anyone planning a trip that will include a culinary professional.

1.) Is there a gas stove? Seriously, you're inviting a chef, did you think we would cook on electric? If it's open fire pit cooking you're in for a special treat. Have you ever had squirrel slow cooked in tin foil basted with duck fat? What about wild boar rinds? You're about to.

2.) Is there refrigeration? This will determine how much food we will have to prepare ahead of time. If it's ice chests only you better have a big one, deli cups stack nice but they take a lot of space. You should plan on at least 2 coolers for food and 3 for beer, wine, and spirits.

3.) Are there any vegetarians in the group? This is important and while we need an answer you may as well let them know to pack their own food, we will hunt, fish, and forage while camping but I guarantee we'll have packed a lot of protein for the trip. 

4.) What kind of appliances are there? This is for the times that "camping" means a sweet cabin in the woods. Please take the time to find out if there are appliances; we love to show off for you, and the more cool gadgets we have to play with, the better your "wild" camping experience will be. 

5.) How many single friends are coming? If your chef is in a relationship move on to #6. If not; HEY! You know that hot co-worker who is always talking about how they love good food, and would love to date a chef? Yeah that one. invite them! We don't always get out of our kitchens long enough to "date" but be advised we do often break hearts, so be prepared for the aftermath in the office.

6.) How far away is this place? You never want to lead your chef to believe that there is a store near by, odds are said "store" will only have corn chips, double stuffed Oreos, beer, and "Live Bait." Let us know so we can plan accordingly, we are masters of our craft, but if someone forgets to pack the duck fat, pigs trotters, or rack of lamb you are going to feel our wrath. 

7.) Chefs don't make a lot of money, and they are going to spend every last cent to be sure you all have an amazing meal every time you eat; so it's polite to know exactly how many people are coming, this way those last minute additions don't get stuck watching us eat a 4 course meal over an open fire, whilst eating oatmeal out of coffee cup.

8.) How far away is the sky diving air strip? Yeah we're fucking adrenaline junkies so lets get crazy. Jump off a bridge, mountain bike off a shear cliff, hunt wild boar while juggling flaming brulee torches... Who am I kidding if we are going to get peace and quiet we want to spend it with a deep fryer and some new cookbooks.

9.) Don't try and help us. Seriously we really do appreciate that you want to help, but odds are after we explain how to properly dice an onion, you are going to take way to long, become distracted by a wrestling match, and we are just going to do it ourselves anyway. Seriously thank you but stay the Fuck out of our kitchen.

10.) Oh, by the way... You're doing the dishes, that's the rule, if we are going to cook, you are going to clean. We are going to sneak away from the table early and start this process and if you don't catch us in time? The level of resentment will be to big to overcome. And "Live Bait" may become breakfast. But be sure to let us start, if you start before us we may become agitated that you're not cleaning the pans right or putting the tongs in the wrong bin.

As much honesty that is in this list, it really is in jest. I recently had an amazing weekend cooking for a great group of friends and I am so grateful I was able to do so. As a chef I love to cook for people I love. Odds are if you're eating food I've prepared on a trip, or for a special dinner party, it's because you are special to me, and I want to be invited back. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chef's that shaped me.

Many men and women in my chosen profession will tell you that they were shaped by one individual chef who magically transformed them into the brilliant chef they are today. I am not saying that it isn't possible to be so moved by the time you spend with one chef; what I am trying to suggest is that many people tend to forget about the hours they spent slinging grits at Waffle House. It sounds better to drop a big name TV chef or a cookbook author. I am not afraid to tell you the truth.

The first ever tax paying job I held was as a dishwasher at a small pizzeria in Kenwood, California. At 15 years old I had no idea what I was getting into. Marco Dana's was owned and operated by my pee wee football coach D. Margreiter. I worked only a few nights a week, alongside my friends Mark and Paul. Being the small town Glen Ellen is the three of us actually grew up on the same road, not a street; this is rural Sonoma County ya know. Washing dishes here was a defining moment in my culinary career; I learned that every person in a kitchen has a role, and if that role is not properly filled or the job is not being executed at the highest capacity everyone else in the kitchen feels it. EVERY role in the kitchen is equally important, if you can't see that you should get out. I still vividly remember the double stack dish machine I was in charge of, the dark damp closet I called home, the burnt cheese on ceramic casserole dishes. I had never worked so hard or fast in my life. I felt the importance of my role, no one ever told me what a great job I was doing, I didn't have customers sending me cash tips or newspapers calling for my secrets. I was a simple dishwasher, washing dishes as fast as they came in, scrubbing toilets, cleaning floors, washing windows, and cleaning out trash cans. But the most memorable part of this job? At the end of every shift, the guys would make a few pizzas and a salad, then we would all sit down and eat dinner together. We would all sit down and eat dinner together. I would later learn this is called family meal.

The next real job I had was as a deli hand at the Sonoma Cheese Factory. This job was probably the most fun I could have had working. My good friends brother got me the job and I wound up working with my good friend Chad as well as a few other really good buddies. We got into so much trouble. I mean we were 16 year old boys with a sweet summer job, what else is there to expect? We had cash, we had driver licenses; we were kings. I took a lot away from this job, most importantly how to make cheese, the art of using the meat slicer, I still have all my fingers, customer service, old ladies love me, old men tell me I remind them of their youth, and of course how to make a sandwich. The managers were also really good managers, they had a great style of management, just the right mix of authority with a splash of fun. I also learned the art of customer service that summer, we dealt with some pretty picky and uptight customers, so learning how to make them smile became a game, and I refuse to loose at any social game.

I joined the Army straight out of high school; This job taught me everything you see in TV commercials and pretty much 99% of what you see in movies. Food wise... Insert clever mess hall joke here. Wait no, I had to pull KP duty now and then while on training missions, I learned how to make scrambled eggs by the 20# bag. Yes there are eggs that are packed in boil safe bags. You boil 40 gallons of water in a 50 gallon pot, put the bag of eggs in the pot, when the eggs look cooked you take them out then put them into a steam table. That's simple cooking. Then I was fortunate enough to get to clean up after 150 soldiers ate. Oh man that was awesome. Seriously I loved being on KP duty, the cooks may possibly have been the most interesting soldiers I was able to meet. The other great time about my Army service? I was stationed in Southern Germany "Bavaria". Germany's bread basket (I made that up) was a place I learned more about the culture and soul of local and sustainable food. In Bavarian towns there are often one or two butchers who buy their animals from local farms where the animals are treated with dignity and respect, they are not force fed hormones to make them grow larger; the vegetables are not doused with pesticides or fertilizers to make them non nutritious. This food reminded me of home, it took me back to my childhood eating fresh veggies straight off the vine. I was infatuated with this, every chance I had to get off post and visit small rural towns I did. I went to Spain, France, Spain, Italy, Amsterdam, Ireland, France, Denmark, Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland once because I got on the wrong train, best wrong choice I've ever made, seriously those Swiss Miss commercials! Those women exist and they travel in packs, and if you are polite and treat them with respect, they will talk to you and show you all the cool places to go and see. But that's a story for a different blog. Ok where was I? Ah yes traveling Europe! I was fortunate enough to see some of the most amazing sights a man can see, the wine, the cheese, cuisine, farms, restaurants, castles, apple orchards, women, the world's oldest wineries, Normandy, Catalan, Basque Country, fuck it was amazing. I got lost for 10 hours in Rome once, fucking lost as could be, but found my way back. I watched a French butcher work for 8 hours butchering different primal cuts of animals, turning them into charcuthceri, steaks, roasts, breasts, thighs, and stock. I ate the best duck breast I have ever eaten in my life. It was the best time of my life to that point.

When I came home, I started working at Viansa Winery, the chef there was beyond kind enough to take a friends word that I would do well. Chef Chris tested me, god damn he made do the most annoying kitchen work, but I wasn't washing dishes; well not everyday. My usual day consisted of grilling copious amounts of vegetables, chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, and egg plant, god damned egg plant. One the best lessons chef Chris taught me here; In my first week he hands me 10# of fresh garlic and says; "peel and mince this, you have 1 hour." Sure sounds easy, but I had never peeled and minced that kind of volume of garlic. My hour had past and chef came to collect his garlic; not only had I peeled and minced the garlic, I had also grilled the 10 of 25 pounds of chicken I was to grill later. The look of astonishment chef had taught me that if I work hard and multitask I will not get into trouble. Later that month while "multitasking" I burnt 5 loaves of bread, over beat heavy cream, destroyed a vinaigrette, and managed to burn the hair off my arms. Sooooo, maybe know what you are capable of before getting ahead of yourself. But in those mistakes were lessons, I learned what my capacity at the time was, I learned to tell the truth because you can usually fix mistakes, I learned to cover up the truth if you can fix it without chef knowing. Oh what a summer.

Wow you're still reading? Thank you.

Ok so, after my first few months I decided to go to culinary school. I choose to attend the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts Certificate program. I made it through 2 semesters before I was board to death of my fellow students. Remember I had been through some life via the Army so these children were unimpressive to me. I did meet my first true mentor. Chef Maria DeCorpo; chef DeCorpo was my knife skills teacher, soups, stocks, and sauces, as well as vegetables. 4 years after being a student of chef DeCorpo, she would call me her colleague as we shared a meal together in her home, this where I learned the importance of respecting those who came before you. I could write a short story about Chef Maria DeCorpo, her intelligence, candor, integrity, culinary knowledge, respect for others, dynamic forward thinking, and kindness. However I will save that for my book. One thing I will share is while I was a student of chef DeCorpo's I was also struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, there were few days I was not hungover or bewildered in her classroom. But chef saw past my bullshit and gave me chance, she encouraged me to grow up and learn to be a chef. I still have the letter of recommendation she wrote for me to attend the Culinary Institute of America. Chef DeCorpo taught me to believe in people. To encourage those around me and to bring my peers up not down. She taught me to be a chef.

My next stop was at a small Spanish restaurant. I learned how to do cocaine off the dish machine without spilling it, how to pick up guests, how to impress servers with my sweet knife skills, how to ruin working relationships via sex, how to party until 6am and get back to work by 10am and kick ass for 12 hours just to do it again. I credit Zangria Restaurant with teaching me the art of kicking ass and taking names. I highlight the alcohol and drugs here because this is where I really found out how to work hard and play harder. My boss told me if I ever screwed up on the job I would be gone. I was not fired. However in the 6 months I worked here, I bused tables, washed dishes, prepped food for hours, cleaned and organized the walk-in everyday, set tables, served food and wine, made Zangria, and  I was able to recreate many of the Spanish dishes I fell in love with while traveling through Spain. Most importantly I learned how to make paella. The hours of making stock, followed by the endless stirring of rice, I had no idea how important of a job I had until 2 years later when I was an Executive chef making rice dishes for a Zagat rated restaurant. My boss also taught me how to peel and de-vane prawns quicker than anyone in the county. Every other week Carlos would grab 20# of prawns and challenge me; "First to finish their bag gives the other his pay check" little did I know as an owner of a small start up he had no check in order to pay mine. Non the less every time we raced I tried so hard to win, but I would always loose, he never made me sign over my check, he'd only laugh and say maybe next week. The first time I actually won he smiled and said to me; "I expected you to learn this sooner." he smiled and walked away. Later that night, after 10 hours of stewing in my resentment, I mean come on where is my pat on the back, where are my glorious winnings? I worked harder and faster and with more accuracy than I had ever worked, I was going to prove to him how fucking awesome I was, it was a beast of a night and I fucking kicked ass. As I clocked out Carlos called me over to a small table asked me to sit, poured me a glass of wine then had a server bring me 3 thin slices of Iberico Ham, 2 slices of aged Manchego cheese, and an order of mussels in chorizo and saffron cream. I honestly don't remember the conversation we had, but I remember the resentment from earlier in the night melting away, I was calm. I realized then it's never about the money, it's about the food, the people, my co-workers, and the tradition. After that day I have rarely sought a pat on the back, and very rarely given one. But I have shared many meals with my mentors, colleagues and employees. I learned it's not always the prawns; it's almost always the mussels.

Next I worked for TV's Guy Fieri; before he was on TV. It was a step down but I thought the money was better. Honestly I do not remember a lot about this job either, I mostly remember Guy telling me that I had to push the boundaries, try something different, don't just fit a mold, and most importantly be a man. I remember my first interview, I sauntered into the restaurant sat in a chair straddling the seat with the back at my chest, and said "what's up Guy?" He told me to check my attitude pull my pants up and sit properly in my chair, I was thrust back to basic training in a heartbeat and quickly righted myself. I worked for Guy over about 1 year, I took horrible advantage of this job, and Guy saw right through me, but for whatever reason he kept me around. I can't put a finger directly on what I did at this restaurant, I but can put a finger on the lessons I learned; 1.) Always be willing to make mistakes. 2.) You're only as good as your team. 3.) Push the envelope. Guy Fieri gave me a chance to be better and I took it and ran, he taught me to be a better team player, to support the staff not beat them down. To learn every position so I could be more valuable to the team. See a pattern? Yes? Good, lets move on.

These are only a few of the chefs who took the time to help shape me as young man and chef. They cared enough to tell me when alcohol and drugs were running my life ragged. They gave me opportunity to be better and showed me through their own actions how to do it. This was my begging, this is where Chef Andrew H. Garrett joined the ranks. It wasn't all duck liver and truffles. I scraped shit off of toilet bowls, and cheese off of plates. I peeled shrimp, and mashed potatoes. I minced garlic and bused tables. I made mistakes and learned from them; these chefs shaped me. These chefs taught me the value of work, the quality instilled deep in their souls and how to give it back to the next generation.

I am forever grateful for my first years of cooking professionally.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Grateful for life


Yes every time I say I am going to try and post more and more of what I do in my Chef life I seem to trip up somewhere shortly after my post stating my objective. So I will make a point to not tell anyone how I am going to try and write more, I am just going to write more.

This blog was initially setup to be a place I would post about all the cool chef stuff I get to do in my day to day life. What it has become is a blog about all the cool chef stuff I get to do when I think it's cool enough to share with you. I think that if I really get to the brass tax of the damn thing I should share the truth and reality of what I do, and how I got here. If I take this approach I'd be well on my way to a book about my life, however that is really a boring read.

So let us start over, let's start at the beginning; I can honestly say I do not remember my first cooking experience. Luckily for you my father Dennis was constantly at the ready with his camera and I have photo evidence of the first few times I was allowed into the kitchen. In true kitchen fashion my first task was to wash dishes, apparently I was a afforded a sweet striped dishwashers shirt and awesome blue cooks pants. After seeing this photo I now have a clear understanding of my joy of washing dishes, seriously I love to wash dishes.

I really feel that I was born to cook, I am one of those chefs in the world that can just walk into a restaurant and execute the required dishes with little to no menu training. I have what I typically refer to as "it." Was I born with "it?" Of course I was. You're right! That is really ego centered. If you don't believe me invite me to your kitchen and give me a prep list and spot on your line. Moving on...

Cooking has afforded me some of the most amazing experiences. In fact it has defined my life. I'm not just talking about working in restaurants or catering or hot sauce, I'm talking about life, love, and spirit. Growing up on a 12 acre fruit farm in Glen Ellen, California just outside Sonoma, where my parents acted as care takers lead to many home cooked meals. It was here that my father taught me the joy of cooking at home, I can still remember the smells of breakfast on Saturday mornings before watching The San Francisco Giants play baseball. In these Saturday mornings I found true joy, a boy and his father. As I grew old enough to join my father on hunting and fishing trips, I learned the importance of respecting every animal; I truly respected these animals for giving their life in order for me to have mine. My father taught me the importance of treating nature with respect and we would often just photograph the wild game and fish. I am so grateful I had these experiences with my father.

I spent my teen years living with mother who was a single mom working 12-16 hours days at the local emergency room in order to give me the best possible teen years a kid could have. I can't tell you enough about how much I love and respect my mother, her work ethic is directly visible through my own. My mom taught me the value of being a respectable employee, hard worker, and great co-worker. The respect I saw my mom receive from her co-workers was and still is, beyond encouraging. Since my mom worked these incredible hours I was left to my own devices many nights. It was in these nights I began to experiment with recipes I would find in cookbooks my mom had given me, as she new how much I loved food and the pictures in these books;  I still love a good cookbook and actually have over 100, I kinda collect them. It was in these books I learned that a recipe is simply A GUIDE for creating your own dishes. However when starting out I strongly suggest following the recipes until you grasp the concepts of cooking.

Ok, since my mom allowed me the task of cooking at home, she and her co-workers often benefited from these meals. In these experiments I found absolute joy. When I would arrive at the ER to do my homework I would bring dinner for most of the staff and they would openly except and eat these experiments. I'll be honest many were absurd and over thought and the staff would smile politely. However it was in the meals that were well received that I gained the most satisfaction. The smiles, the head nods, the happy feet and chatter of happy customers. This is where the drive to please palates took hold. From here there was no looking back, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to make people smile, twitch, and wiggle through food.

I'll stop here for now, but I promise to continue this story in the near future.