DIGGING DEEP: THE PRESSURE IS ON THE LINE COOK

DIGGING DEEP: THE PRESSURE IS ON THE LINE COOK

Having finished fabricating his fish for Friday prep, Jake moved on to the other proteins on his mise en place list. Venison tenders and Wagyu beef tenders were trimmed of their silver skin and portioned: three-ounce medallions on the venison and four ounces on the beef. The chain from the beef tender would be ground as part of the burger meat for the bar menu and the boot would wind up as tenderloin tips for the Saturday feature. Pheasant, airline style breasts were removed from the carcass leaving the frames for stock that the commissary-shift would use tomorrow. Finally, Jake removed the braised and chilled lamb shanks from their gelatinized braising stock and trimmed them in preparation for re-heating to order. The stock would be reduced with a caramelized mirepoix, red wine and fresh rosemary to accompany the shanks with a side of polenta. “ There”, thought Jake, “all of the proteins were set”.

It was now 3:30 and Jake knew that time was creeping up. He still had not even touched the prep for his vegetables and sauces as well as the set-up of his line station. While he washed and sanitized his table and reached for a new cutting board, he noticed that the other line cooks and interns had arrived and were busy working on their own “mise”. He felt better knowing that he had arrived early and would some how be ready for the chefs pre-meal tasting at 5:00.

Now it was time for some rapid knife work. To save time, Jake took a few minutes to write down all of the vegetables he would need so that he could make one trip to the walk-in, saving time and energy. He collected onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, Yukon gold potatoes, plum tomatoes, baby carrots with tops, chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms, Italian parsley, apples, asparagus and assorted herbs. Once again Jake drew his knives across a stone and steel, washed them and wiped them dry. He was ready.

Jake was masterful with a chef’s knife and bird’s beak. He had, after all, been going through this routine for many years leading to the point where his knives were simply an extension of his hands. Jake was focused but generally pretty easy going. Everyone liked him and respected him but also knew to stay away from his knives. These were his tools and no one else had any business using them (pretty much the rule of thumb with any serious cook). Jake attacked the vegetables dicing, mincing, cutting julienne strips from the leeks, trimming the baby carrots leaving a 1 inch length of green tops as a visual accent, pureeing the shallots so that they would actually melt in a sauté pan, trimming the stems of the chanterelles to make them tender, peeling the bottom half of precisely cut asparagus spears, picking parsley leaves for a garnishing salad on scallops, and cutting fresh herbs with a razor sharp knife into a chiffonade. In some cases vegetables (like the carrots) would be blanched and shocked in ice water so that a simple sauté movement in a pan would finish them in a few seconds at service time. While all of this was taking place, Jake found the time to start the reduction for the lamb shanks and was keeping a close eye on a beurre blanc that he was working for the fish. Time was flashing by. It was now 4:15 and he needed to finish his sauce work and set-up his station.

Moving to his set-up, Jake washed down everything again, counted out his sauté pans and moved them to a 600 degree oven for tempering, clarified his butter for sauté work, lined up his 9th pans for the roll top mise en place cooler, filled everything as per his standard arrangement (everything has a place and everything is in its place), folded a dozed clean side towels, made sure that his burners worked well, stacked plates under the lamps in his station – ready for service, filled a sanitizer bucket with water and the right amount of bleach, and once again drew his knives across a steel. The last step was to bring out his proteins to the lowboy coolers, strain his sauces, set-up his beurre blanc in a bain marie, soften some raw butter for finishing and breathe. It was 4:45 and the chef would be around in 15 minutes to check on mise en place and taste sauces. Jake scrubbed his hands for the 30th time today and grabbed a sandwich from the staff meal set-up while mentally working through his completed prep. He was ready.

Jake popped open a Red Bull and grabbed another double espresso. He would need to be on fire in a few minutes and welcomed the double jolt. While he waited for the chef he looked around at the other line cooks and interns, still a bit behind. He smiled to himself still realizing that in a few minutes he would need to jump in and give them a hand leading up to the restaurant opening at 5:30. He thought to himself again how lucking the interns were to have the ability to go to school for culinary arts. He wondered how much they really appreciated the opportunity and were willing to do what it took to become a great cook. He knew that if he had the chance, he would give 100% to every opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, it was not in the cards for Jake. He then thought about the chef as he left his office for the pre-meal check. Jake thought the world of this chef, the best he had worked for. The chef was talented, professional, totally committed and very hardworking. He was tough but fair, someone that Jake would certainly try to emulate. He did wonder if the chef still remembered what it was like to be a line cook.

Time to focus. The chef was at his station. “Jake are you ready”? “Yes Chef”! As he tasted his lamb demi and beurre blanc, Jake was confident and although the chef didn’t say anything, the fact that he simply moved on to the next station was a way of saying that Jake was spot on. The chef did bark at a few of the other staff members who were clearly not ready so Jake jumped in to give them a hand. Cooking was, after all, a team sport. It was now 5:15 and tickets would begin to spit from the printer any minute. Jake grabbed another Red Bull while helping others in these final minutes.

Game time!

DIGGING DEEP: THE LIFE OF A LINE COOK

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I thought that I would re-post an old series that was presented through Harvest America Cues a few years back.  As I continue to marvel at the focused life of line cooks I was compelled to introduce this story (one that happens every day, in every kitchen across the country) as a tribute to kitchen warriors everywhere.

This is part one of a mini series of posts on the life of a line cook. The intent is to present the reader with a better understanding of the sub-culture that is a professional kitchen, the unique traits of people who make line work, in particular, their calling and to pay homage to those unique and sometimes troubled individuals who make up the kitchen brigade. This is NOT designed to be another “portrayal of the underbelly” of restaurant kitchens, but rather a study into the drivers that make some of my favorite people who they are. Throughout the series I will tell a story using fictitious names and operations to best define the environment and those who work in that environment.

It is noon on a Friday in November and John (Jake as his friends call him) is just waking up. His shift at “Plate Restaurant” doesn’t start for another two hours, but he keeps trying to live up to a commitment that he made in early January. “I need to start taking better care of myself, so I will begin to exercise every day, quit smoking, get a good night’s sleep, cut back on drinking and look for a relationship”. As Jake moved his feet to the floor he immediately reached for a cigarette, stumbled to the kitchen/living room in his two-room apartment and turned on the TV. He turned on his Keurig and inserted a K-cup for his first of many coffee’s for the day. As was the case every morning (or afternoon when he woke up) he gave thanks for the invention of the K-cup. As he smoked and drank his coffee while half watching the news, he pushed the whole exercise concept out of his mind and turned to a mental review of his prep work for the day at “Plate”.

After a long shower and haphazard attempt at shaving, Jake made another cup of coffee and decided he might as well go right to work since he had nothing else to do anyway. Fortunately, the restaurant was only 12 blocks away and he could walk (his only exercise for the day), since he had lost his driver’s license a few months back for a DUI. It really didn’t matter anyway since he couldn’t afford to keep a car in the city on his current salary.

The fresh air helped to clear the cobwebs from his brain, the residual effects of a few too many after work beers from the night before. As he walked he was beginning to form a clearer picture of the work ahead. It was Friday, so tonight would be quite busy. He vaguely remembered checking the reservation book before he left last night and there were already 120 on the books.

Jake’s station was sauté, typically the busiest in the restaurant and the most complex. He knew that he had to be sharp for tonight so even though the walk was just a few minutes long, he stopped at a Starbuck’s for a double espresso on the way. By the time he walked through the doors of “Plate” he was wide-awake, a little buzzed from the espresso, and ready to hit the ground running. Jake was once again grateful that the restaurant, as is the case with most, provided clean, pressed uniforms; he never had to worry much about doing laundry since the majority of his life was spent in cooks whites. He pulled on the hounds tooth cooks pants and crisp cooks coat, tucked his hair under the black skull cap that the restaurant provided, tied on a fresh apron and double-checked the polish on his Birkenstock’s (one of the few luxuries that he allowed himself). As a line cook your feet are by far your most important body parts.

As he walked through the kitchen offering a few fist bumps and high-fives, Jake said good morning to the chef (who had already been there since 7:30 that morning), and went immediately for the coffee machine. Another double espresso and Jake was ready to go. It was now 1:15 and Jake had 3 ½ hours to prepare for tonight’s onslaught of orders (hopefully balanced between stations – but he knew deep down that it would be all him on a Friday night).

Jake was now in his element. The kitchen is where he felt whole again, he had purpose, people depended on him, this is where he met up each day with his only friends, this is where he was meant to be. Slowly the cobwebs from this morning turned to a subtle smile and a sense of focus and contentment. Jake pulled down his mise en place clipboard, dampened a towel to keep his cutting board from sliding, removed his trusted knives from his own tool drawer, drew each blade across a water stone and steel and set out for the cooler. Today was going to be great!

Friday’s are always big fish nights so, as per notations from the chef, he immediately went to the ice bins and pulled out (3) 8-pound Pacific Salmon. Over the years (this was Jake’s 3rd year at Plate and his 8th working in professional kitchens) he had been able to master the process for filleting fish. Young apprentices who would come and go in this kitchen would always marvel at Jake’s speed and accuracy with any round or flat fish. His treasured knives would pass through the fish like butter, leaving only small traces of meat on the bone. If it was white fish like halibut or bass, the bones would be saved for fish fumet, if it were salmon – well they had not figured out any way to use the bones from this oily fish – yet. Within 20 minutes Jake had removed the heads, filleted the three sizeable salmon, tactfully pulled out the pin bones with tweezers and cut them into identical 6-ounce portions. The portioned fillets were neatly organized on silicon paper in hotel pans and returned to their ice caddy’s- ready for the line. Jake followed the same procedure with Red Snapper and Black Cod as well as tonight’s feature of Barramundi. He ended with removing the “boots” from (2) 8 pound tins of U-10 Diver Scallops, scrubbed down and sanitized his table, passed his fish cutting board on to the dishwasher and gently cared for his knives. It was 2:15 and all of his fish work was done.

Now it was time to move on to meats and poultry. The current “Plate” menu would require Jake to trim and portion venison tenders, Wagu beef tenders, Pheasant breasts and pre-braised lamb shanks ready for finishing. Once again, he prepped his table for a new cutting board, cleaned up the edges of his knives and went to work. Time was ticking and the anxiety of being ready for those first tickets was beginning to creep up.

More “Digging Deep” continued later this week.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

The Chef’s New Essential Cookbook

The Chef's New Essential Cookbook

There are hundreds of cookbooks released every year (I know because I am addicted to amazon.com), yet very few can be revered as “essential” A book that will appear on every serious chef’s desk, must be one that defines a new standard, is the reference most used, carries the beauty and soul of the food that the author considers his or her signature, and approaches food in a timeless way.

Daniel Boulud’s new cookbook (actually much more than a cookbook) is just that. I do order way too many cookbooks, but in this case I had very high expectations and found myself excited when it finally arrived.

This book does not disappoint in any way, in fact it offers some value added information that was quite unexpected. I have been around for a while and was trained in kitchens that were fairly classical in nature. Many of those dishes and preparations are long forgotten, yet to a professional they become an important part of the history of the profession.

The first 260 plus pages are dedicated to spectacular dishes that you might find on Daniel’s menu. The recipes are accessible and user-friendly and the photographs are fabulous. Having had the fortune to dine at Daniel in the past I can attest to the fact that what you see in the book reflects the same quality that you will find at this superb NYC restaurant.

The next 100 pages focus on what Daniel refers to as “Iconic Sessions”, demonstrating the very complex process of preparing those items from the past that were the staples of Classic French Cuisine during the times of Careme and Point (and to some degree the first hotel kitchens that I worked in). I am not sure that many of us could replicate the dishes offered, but again, I found it refreshing to have an opportunity to look back.

The book finishes with some basic recipes for foundational items and reference terms. All-in-all a tremendous, beautiful book that can serve as a coffee table focal point, a challenge for the serious home cook, but most importantly a book that will likely be worn out in a professional chef’s office.

This is a “must have” book for all of my chef friends. Rush out to purchase it or put it on your Christmas list!

http://www.amazon.com/Daniel-My-French-Cuisine-Boulud/dp/145551392X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382452412&sr=1-1&keywords=Daniel+Boulud

COOKS and CHEFS NEED to TAKE CARE of THEMSELVES

COOKS and CHEFS NEED to TAKE CARE of THEMSELVES

The excuses are all around: “I don’t have time to eat properly; I’m around food all day, a meal just doesn’t appeal to me; I can’t watch what I eat, my job requires that I taste everything; A real meal will slow me down; I know I should eat better and exercise, but it doesn’t fit my schedule”; etc., etc., etc.

Think of it this way: professional cooking, which is a physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing profession; is similar to a professional sport. Athletes cannot perform at any level of competence without conditioning. This conditioning includes an appropriate diet, an exercise regime, and a balance of work and rest. If cooks and chefs are to perform at the highest level (what is expected every day on the job), then he/she MUST take care of their bodies. For far too long this was not the rule of thumb, in fact, we have long subscribed to the adage that” “you can’t trust a skinny cook”. Regardless of your frame size, a healthier life style will allow you to perform at a higher level and withstand the physical abuse that is oftentimes associated with a career in serious kitchens.

The typical cook or chef is rarely scheduled for an 8-hour shift. Cooks may work 10-12 hours on busy nights and chef’s even more. Your body burns excessive calories during that period of time under intense heat, constant movement, being on your feet without rest, and seemingly under attack by the stressful monsters of time and unrelenting communication. This environment can easily take a toll on a person’s body and mind. What is the typical response to the body’s need for energy replacement? Carbohydrates and caffeine are the fuel to fool the body into believing that you are responding appropriately to its needs.

After hours, the cook’s respite is to grab a few beers simply because the body and mind were drained but the adrenaline was mountain high, reinforced with lots of caffeine. If a cook eats a meal while on the job, it is typically something next to him or her at their station during the final few minutes before the tickets start flooding the kitchen. The thought of sitting down to a balanced meal and taking 30 minutes to replenish before cranking out 150 dinners just doesn’t happen. To many cooks, dinner might be a few bites of pasta and a cigarette out back by the dumpster.

I confess to falling into that trap. A meal to me was oftentimes a sandwich while standing over a trash can to catch the crumbs, wolfing down this quick carb meal within 2-3 minutes and moving back to work. There even was a period of time when my diet was chocolate chip cookies for a sugar boost and 8-10 cups of coffee during a 12-hour shift. I never exercised, rarely slept for than 5 hours a night, and usually forgot to hydrate (aside from coffee which doesn’t really help). The result was weight gain and a few medical issues that are fortunately now under control.

When a cook or chef refuses to take care of him or herself, the damage is cumulative and WILL, WITHOUT a DOUBT, catch up to them. Far too many of my friends and co-workers have found themselves in dire health because they lived in the moment and avoided the necessary maintenance that would allow them to be productive cooks for a long period of time and enjoy their lives at the same time.

In a recent article by Harry Kimball, a writer for Newser Staff, http://www.newser.com/story/76322/how-skinny-chefs-stay-that-way.html

reference was made to some foundational rules that will allow any professional cook to maximize their effectiveness and feel much better at the same time. These rules include:

TASTE: Yes, chef’s and cook’s do need to taste many items. “The key word is taste”, which does not take the place of building in a balanced meal as well.

EXERCISE: Every cook, just like an athlete in training, needs some type of exercise regime. It may be running, walking, biking, skiing, snow shoeing, yoga, or a workout at the local gym. Whatever you choose, it must become an integral part of your daily life.

Eric Ripert, chef/operator of Le Bernadin in New York (one of the finest restaurants in the world) walks 2-3 miles to and from work every day, regardless of the season. This is a time for his body to prepare and recover from a work shift, an opportunity to clear his mind for the day ahead, and an emotional break from the stress of the kitchen.

HAVE A PLAN AND STICK TO THE PLAN: Just like every cook lives by his/her mise en place list, so too must a successful cook live by his/her personal wellness plan. You owe yourself this commitment.

DON’T SELF-MEDICATE WITH FOOD: Just as many cooks starve their bodies of good nutrition, just as many use food, any food, as the prescription to take care of energy slumps, stress, mental lapses, and depression. “Eat when you are hungry, not freaked out.”

SIT DOWN: Grabbing a bite here and there will lead to excessive amounts of the wrong calories, too much sodium and an imbalance of nutrition that leads to peaks and valleys in performance. There are numerous cookbooks out today that focus on the staff meal in restaurants and how certain operations invest in this time to share with other members of the staff and enjoy balanced, great meals in preparation for a busy shift. From my experience, this rarely happens as it does in these wonderfully thought-out books. A staff meal that receives similar attention to the restaurant menu will help to build team work and energize cooks and service staff for a high performance lunch or dinner shift.

Allison Adato recently released a book of interviews with a handful of prominent American chefs entitled: “Smart Chefs Stay Slim” published by: New American Library. Chef’s talk about their regiments and “tricks” for balancing the demands of the professional kitchen with a healthy life. This is definitely worth the read.

http://www.amazon.com/Smart-Chefs-Stay-Slim-Americas/dp/B00B1L7FT6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382351462&sr=1-1&keywords=Smart+Chefs+Stay+Slim

Although my daily routine does not parallel what I did when full-time in a busy kitchen, I have changed my habits and created enjoyable health routines that include balanced diet, appropriate balance of calories, fat and sodium and everyday exercise. The result is a healthy weight for my age and size, comfortable energy levels, a clear mind and feeling better about my wellbeing than I have in many years. I implore every professional cook to incorporate this type of lifestyle change into their daily routine – the payback is worth the effort.

RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

We oftentimes depend on the complexity of marketing principles to build our business. These principles have created a new generation of chef’s and restaurateurs who are consumed by innovation and pushing the envelope, simply because they misinterpret the statistical data that is behind what is known as the “customer bell curve”. The concept of the bell curve is built on five categories of customers (applicable to any industry): Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards or Late Adopters. Statistically, it breaks down like this:

Innovators: 2.5% of the customer base
Early Adopters: 13.5%
Early Majority: 34%
Late Majority: 34%
Laggards: 16%

**from an article by: Morgan Gerard in Idea Couture: “Noodle Play”
http://www.ideacouture.com/blog/innovation-early-adopters-beyond-the-bell-curve/

Innovators are typically people who jump at the chance to try whatever is new and proclaim: “I was first”. Early Adopters are close behind and believe that their role in life is to define what is fresh and start the next trend. Most businesses would agree that attracting this audience is important if you are interested in creating a “buzz” around your business. Buzz does equate to new customers and many feel that the Early Adopter is the key to getting close to a new audience. Morgan Gerard dispels the belief that Early Adopters are the opinion leaders. He states: “this is only true if the Early and Late Majority actually follow their lead.” This points to the premise of this post.

As a consultant for restaurant operations I am constantly faced with the dilemma of the chef’s need to be creative and “test the waters”, versus the need to create a business model with staying power. Now, I personally love to try new restaurant concepts and unusual dishes. When I travel I tend to seek out those unique experiences and check them off my list. This is the challenge with Early Adopters (I consider myself to be one). Once they have experienced something new the need is to move on to the next breakthrough. Restaurants that have the ability to survive and thrive must appeal to the Early Majority (they don’t usually jump at new things until they are truly proven) and the Late Majority that move to a new concept kicking and screaming. These two categories of consumers represent nearly 70% of the potential customer base. To be successful, long-term, this is where restaurants need to be.

The challenge, of course is getting to that point. Certainly, restaurants need to evolve at some level and try new things, but it is imperative not to stray too much from what works: well prepared food, great flavors, consistent outcomes, attentive service and stellar hospitality.

I just finished filling out the annual ACF/NRA survey of “what’s hot” that will become a benchmark for chefs as they plan the next iteration of menus for their properties. What was interesting is how many niche (what I might consider short-lived) products or preparation concepts were offered as choices. There are restaurants, in large urban markets, that can take on the role of “innovator” and do well for a long time, but they are few and far between. I will leave this role to Grant, Ferran, Rene and Heston. To try and emulate these unique, highly sophisticated concepts, would be dangerous for most restaurants to attempt and likely lead to business failure.

Attention to ingredients, serious cooking, building on great flavors and beautiful presentations with the right amount of friendly service will always trump those restaurant concepts that come and go. If restaurants and chefs used the parallel of investing 2.5% of their menus and time to pushing the envelope and stay focused 97.5% of the time on cooking well, serving well, paying attention to customer needs and building a base of return guests they would have a much better chance of weathering the storm, surviving and thriving for the distant future.

Keep the innovation going, watch what the highly creative few are doing, experiment cautiously with your own operation, integrate ideas when that Early Majority feels compelled to “buy in”, build on constantly improving the great food and consistent overall experience that 70% of consumers are seeking, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The picture attached is of Duck Confit resting after a few hours in duck fat. Serve this with flageoulet beans, or polenta, sautéed kale and a robust glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. All the innovation in the world would have a tough time competing with this flavor profile.

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

In most cases credit for a great restaurant meal goes to the chef. At least that is what most guests believe to be true. There is no question that the vision for a menu, oftentimes the recipes and plating design are a result of the chef’s experience, planning and direction, but what many guests do not realize is that the chef is probably not the person who actually prepared their meal. Unless the restaurant is a very small, mom and pop operation, the meal was probably prepared by a line cook.

There is a difference between building a menu and executing that same menu. There is even a greater difference between creating a dish and replicating it under pressure, with a hundred or so guests ordering different items simultaneously and working through a battery of service staff to deliver the message to the kitchen. Those who have never worked in a quality restaurant kitchen have absolutely no idea what goes into the facilitation of that meal they so enjoy.

The pre-preparation of a line cooks station as he/she gears up for the meal period to start involves speed, dexterity, significant planning, math, science, mental exercises, organization, and a razor sharp memory. Cooks refer to this as mise en place (everything has a place and everything is in its place). Just think of these critical steps: mincing shallots, chopping parsley, clarifying butter for sauté, slicing mushrooms, portioning center of the plate meats and seafood, softening butter for monte au beurre, julienne petite salads for garnishes, frying leeks and onion rings, marking steaks ahead in a busy restaurant, scrubbing down counters, sanitizing knives, positioning items in precise locations so that the cook can find them without even looking, burning off sauté pans so that they don’t stick, counting out plates for a stations dishes and setting them under heat lamps, folding a pile of side towels in preparation, setting up your seasoning pod, filling wine bottles and oil for cooking, heating foundational sauces for the bain marie, blanching and shocking vegetables to aid in the finishing process, and hydrating and pounding down a few espressos to get the adrenaline ready for an onslaught of tickets. This all takes place in the 2-3 hour period that cooks have to get ready for the tickets to start flying. The pace is intense.

Once service begins there will not be enough time to focus on more prep. Your mise en place MUST be ready for anything. If you run out the ship will begin to sink and that spells disaster for that cook, his/her teammates, the chef, the servers and the restaurant as a whole. It is a delicate balance that you don’t want to mess with.

Each line cook will respond in those last few minutes to the pre-tasting of ingredients by the chef and a response to the question: “Are you ready”? The answer had better be: YES CHEF! The tickets start coming in slowly at first, but by 7 p.m. the point of sale machine is ticking them off in a steady stream.

The chef (keep in mind that most chefs will admit that they would have a tough time working on the line at their age) has now moved to the role of expeditor. In this position the chef will call out orders, wait for acknowledgement from each station cook responsible for each dish, serve as a liaison between front and back of the house staff, monitor the timing of dish preparation, inspect plates before they leave the kitchen and help to keep the stress level high enough to channel the energy, but in control so that cooks don’t crash and burn (literally). Very soon “the board” is full, plates are cluttering up “the window”, the clatter of voices is deafening, pans are clattering on the range, plates are sliding down the pass, the heat has risen to an even 130 degrees on the line and hotter when they stand over a char-grill or French top, hands and arms are being burned but everyone works through it, and great line cooks start to feel the synergy of working as a team. When it is working, it is amazing to watch. When it falls apart you can feel the tension in the air.

In today’s kitchens many line cooks are interns or recent graduates from culinary schools. This is a great learning environment for them, but typically they have their eyes on bigger fish. The money they spent on a culinary education drives them to believe that they should only be satisfied when they reach the chef position in a kitchen. There are rarely thoughts of making the “line” their career.

Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that a goal must be to find, somehow, a core kitchen staff of line cooks who love doing just that, who are great at what they do, who relish the opportunity to work in that type of environment, and who would not dream of doing anything else. So who are these people, where can they be found, and what do they want?

It is probably not wise to generalize people, however, time has demonstrated that certain types of positions attract a very distinctive profile. Great line cooks, career line cooks, are oftentimes those who are perfectly content to follow someone else’s lead. They are deeply proud individuals who find that they feel best about themselves when they can make something with their hands. The plate is their canvas and they take the set-up of each dish very seriously. Great line cooks are night dwellers who are more often than not – single and content being that way. After work they cannot turn down the adrenaline so you will likely find them seeking out some late night food at another restaurant and usually with a drink or two in their hands. They sleep late and start the cycle all over again. Great line cooks may seem rough around the edges, but are usually pretty fragile. Much of their self-worth is tied to how well they did tonight on the line. Returned meals may seem to agitate them, but they really crush their self-confidence. They don’t always seek compliments, but are content just not to have any complaints. Unless you really screw up as a manager or chef, the great line cook is usually quite loyal and only concerned about money when they have no choice but to be concerned.

Where do you find these individuals? This is a tough question, because they are few and far between and likely already working for another chef who is glad to have them. Be there to catch them when a chef does them wrong, but never try to pirate them. This is part of the chef’s code. What do they want: they want the tools to do their job, they want food they can be proud of, they want other people to stay away from their mise en place, they want a chef to listen when they have something to say (rare), they don’t want to have to deal with anything other than their station, and occasionally they want a thumbs up at the end of the night. Not too much to ask.

In the end, know this: if the restaurant you are dining in is great, if the food is consistently superb, if the steaks come out perfect – every time, if the plates are spotless and beautiful, it is the vision of the chef but the precision of the line cook who made it happen.

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

There is an old statement that still holds true for restaurants that are consistently successful: “The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast”. As a chef by career choice, I certainly spend a great amount of time focusing on the value of food in creating a restaurant buzz. As a person who oftentimes had responsibility for the successful operation of a restaurant business I am acutely aware of how the sincerity of service and the commitment to making people feel at home is critical to the overall financial success of the restaurant.

I have been a part of training thousands of students and entry level cooks who aspire to be the next great chef and find it frustrating to note that very few of these “next generation” restaurateurs really get it. The FoodNetwork, a plethora of beautiful cookbooks, trade magazines and culinary schools continue to focus, almost exclusively, on the product. It is rare to find any serious talk about hospitality and the role it plays in building that next great restaurant.

Drew Nieporent talks about this as a contributing writer in “The Art of the Restaurateur” by: Nicholas Lander. Drew infers that the days of the restaurateur have come and gone with the focus on the chef. The shame of this is that the restaurateur was, for decades, the reason for the reservation. People wanted to go to that person’s operation, to meet them, shake their hand, laugh a bit and feel like they were uniquely welcome to dine. The new generation of restaurant that is chefcetric, can be successful “if” the chef is also the visible, gracious host. Guests will come initially for the opportunity to try the food, and may return a few times if the food is special, but they will only become loyal return customers if the operation is a mecca for unique hospitality and a personality who personifies this trait.

“Why isn’t my restaurant successful?” I hear this statement so many times from people who have dedicated their hard work, time, family life and talent to building a vehicle for presenting their special food. “The food is great, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, the location is perfect, but the tables are half empty.” Look to that secret ingredient: what are you doing to make people feel like they are the most important guest; guests who are have a perceived unique relationship with the owner/operator. Make everyone feel like Norm entering Cheers to the unified greeting by employees and guests at the bar. This “hospitality” always trumps price, and can even rank higher that the food. It is the experience that keeps people coming back.

This is not to say that the food, somehow is not important – it certainly is! Great food today is really the price of admission. It is the expectation of guests who know more about the product than ever before. The food must be great at any level, it is the hospitality ingredient that will make your restaurant unique.

The whole package is critical if your restaurant is to thrive in a highly competitive market. Bring back the hospitality of the restaurateur. If the business is chef owned and operated, then make sure that the chef provides the “handshake of the host”.

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

Well, it is definitely fall. To most people this is the beginning of close family events and memories. A time when we begin to hunker down for a winter season and start to fill our pantry with those ingredients that are unique to the season. From a chef’s perspective it is the time for “real” cooking and the best opportunity to earn a profit.

In a previous post I talked about the challenges surrounding profitability when so many restaurants focus on high cost, center of the plate ingredients. Steaks, chops and premier seafood items are not only difficult to make money with; they are also those items that truly take the least amount of cooking skill to prepare (no offense to all of those exceptional grill cooks that work in restaurants).

Fall and winter bring out opportunities for roasting; braising and poaching that require an acute understanding of seasoning, development of stocks, broths, braising liquids and marinades. Slow cooking gives a cook ample opportunity to draw out the flavor from a dish whether it is protein, vegetable or even fruit. Chefs begin to integrate compotes and chutneys as complements to the dishes they place on menus and introduce rich flavors that have been missing since the beginning of spring.

Root vegetables and squash are not prevalent so restaurants can introduce butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash; parsnips and turnips; red, golden and candy cane beets. These full flavored fall vegetables take on robust flavors when roasted, braised or stewed.

Chefs are now able to work with other cuts of meat and game as well as lesser-known varieties of fish that work extremely well with roasting, poaching and braising. These slow cooking methods of cooking are too hearty for the spring and summer months. Briskets, shoulder, and shanks have a significantly lower price point than center cut steaks and chops, and these colder month methods of cooking allow accomplished cooks to work with oilier fish, whole fish for roasting, and fish stews like bouillabaisse and cioppino. Moving away from higher cost lobster, scallops, swordfish, and tuna will open the door for restaurants to generate a higher rate of return without sacrificing quality and flavor.

The profitability of a restaurant does evolve around menu and chefs who understand how to work with the seasonality of ingredients and coax flavor and value from them is a chef who positions the restaurant for ultimate financial success. This is the chef’s job.

TO BRAISE:

*Sear the cut of meat that you choose to use. This caramelization enhances the flavor of the protein and adds depth to the fond in the pan – a flavor enhancement for your braising liquid.

*Roast a mirepoix (2 parts of onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery) and add to the seared protein in a deep rondo or roasting pan.

*Deglaze the pan used for searing the protein with a dry red wine.

*Add enough braising liquid (appropriate stock) to cover the meat half-way.

*Season with salt and pepper, add fresh herbs (thyme and bay work for most meats, sometimes rosemary and mint – especially with lamb), cover with silicon paper and foil and braise in a slow oven (300 degrees F.) for typically 3-5 hours depending on the size of the protein, until fork tender.

In a restaurant, this can take place a day or two in advance. The line cook would simply re-heat the protein in a small amount of stock and finish with a sauce derived from straining and thickening the liquid from the original braise.

**NOTE: The picture in this post is of Osso Buco prepared by Executive Chef Christian Kruse from Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, Vermont.

MY OCTOBERFEST – MEDALS BEFORE BEER

MY OCTOBERFEST - MEDALS BEFORE BEER

The Culinary Olympics were over. Our team was exhausted, yet numb from exceeding our own expectations. It certainly felt good to walk away victorious, but what would take some time to sink in was that we were successful because we came together as a team. It had much less to do with individual talent, it was all about a group of chefs with a common purpose. A team of people who understood and supported each other. We had become the “cinderella” team to many back home and a model for each of us and others who worked with us for the years to come.

After the final award ceremony we headed down to the Saxon House district of Frankfurt (one of the only historic sections of town that survived the bombings of WWII) to a Brathouse that had been rented by Michael Minor for the various teams that represented the United States. A restaurant full of chefs eating German sausages, Sauerkraut, Pigs knuckles and toasting with tankards of German beer. It was incredible and such a wonderful release. Thank you Michael!

After our first decent nights sleep we boarded a bus for Austria. We were to be the guests of the Austrian Team that shared the kitchen with us in Frankfurt. Driving at night on the autobahn hid the wonderful scenery that we would encounter the next day. We checked into a pension later that evening and awoke to the most spectacular view of the Alps surrounding us. That day we were given the key to the city of Innsbruck by their mayor and toured this Winter Olympic community. In the evening we traversed through the woods to a Hanzel and Gretel style restaurant owned by one of the Austrian Team Chefs. We enjoyed tremendous ethnic food and were honored to be the first Americans to ever set foot in the chef’s private wine cellar. We toasted with schnapps, drank more wine and claimed our friendship for life.

It has been twenty-five years since that date in October 1988. Our team members have gone on to pursue their individual goals. We will always share in that experience that changed our lives. Charles Carroll (the youngest member of our team) has gone on to receive international recognition as one of the most accomplished chefs from the U.S. He served on subsequent ACF Regional and National Culinary teams, left the Balsams, his employer in 1988 to now serve as Executive Chef at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. He is the author of two books, frequently serves as an inspirational speaker at conferences, conventions and graduations and most recently has taken on the role of facilitator for culinary and entertainment events for our troops in Afghanistan. Michael Beriau moved on to become the Executive Chef for Dole and Bailey out of Boston and now serves as the Executive Chef for White Cliffs Country Club on the Cape. He returned to competition to serve as a team advisor for the U.S. Culinary Team in recent years. George Higgins is now one of the most revered pastry instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and turned out to be quite an accomplished drummer with a band comprised of other chefs from the CIA. Walter Zuromski founded Chef Services Group, a firm that works with foodservice companies to develop gold standard product formulations. Danny Varano continued teaching in the Connecticut School system and recently retired. Varano was inducted into the Order of the Golden Toques for his accomplishments as a chef. Lars Johannson eventually retired from Johnson and Wales as the director of the pastry school. The college named their retail bakery after this incredible pastry chef. Joe Faria left the Ritz Carlton in Boston shortly after the team returned. He is now Executive Chef at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida. I stayed at Paul Smith’s College as Dean until 2005 when I returned to industry as Executive Chef of the Four-Diamond Mirror Lake Inn. In 2008 I returned to education as Vice President for New England Culinary Institute and in 2012 formed Harvest America Ventures, a consulting company for restaurants and culinary schools.

We lost three of our team members and a dear friend supporter over the past few years: Anton Flory, our team manager and certified master chef; Roland Czekelius our team captain; and Neil Connolly a pastry chef member of our team. Bud Matheson was the owner/operator of Dole and Bailey. Without Dole and Bailey’s help, our team would have never raised the funds to support our efforts. Bud accompanied the team to Germany and Austria. What we did not know at the time was that on the way to Austria the team was out of money. Bud pulled out his checkbook and donated additional funds for the team so that we could enjoy our accomplishments in Innsbruck. A great man.

In the years that followed, I worked with many students and tried to relay the joys of teamwork and the challenges of competition. I am always proud to note that two of my former students represented the United States on teams over that period of time. Jamie Keating as a member of the U.S. Regional and subsequently a member of the U.S. National Team and David Russ (one of my first students) who represented the U.S. as a member of numerous Army teams competing in the Culinary Olympics.

That call from Anton Flory in 1986 changed my professional life. If it were not for that moment, I would not have had the opportunities that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the past 25 years. I am sure that each team member feels the same way about their opportunities.

Twenty-five years later I tip my toque to Anton Flory, Roland Czekelius, Neil Connolly, Bud Matheson and all the suriving team members and advisors for a life-changing opportunity. Happy Octoberfest!

In January of 2014, the remaining team members will gather at Joe Faria’s shop in Vero Beach to share stories, and cook for charity.