SOUP’S ON!

SOUP'S ON!

The air is crisp, fog sits on the lake every morning, leaves are turning to vibrant colors, sweaters come out of hiding, the sun burns off the fog but still leaves a chill in the air, and cooks are busy combining a variety of ingredients for the soup of the day. This is my favorite season on the year. Working in professional kitchens becomes a bit more tolerable since the humidity has dropped and temperatures are manageable and menus have transitioned from lighter preparations of grilling and chilling to most cooks favorite preparations of braises and roasts. Most important is the soup.

Soup is a real test of a professional cooks skills. Yes, many restaurants have standardized recipes, but the “soup du jour” provides an opportunity for cooks to demonstrate their ability to work from a blank slate and build on their palate.

Michael Minor of Minor Foods once told me that when he enters a restaurant for the first time he always orders the soup of the day before he even looks at the menu. If the soup is good then he knows that the kitchen has skill. If the soup is a disappointment, he pays the bill and moves on. It is soup, after all, that provides the opportunity to demonstrate knife skills, understanding of ingredients and how they marry, how well tuned a cooks taste buds are, and an understanding of stocks and broth. These are the foundations of every proper kitchen.

There are very few foods that are more satisfying than flavorful, interesting, hot soups on those crisp fall days. We all have our own soup memories, but few who grew up in America would deny the nostalgia surrounding the greatest comfort meal: Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese. This constitutes one of the first “a ha” food memories that most of us have. We did, after all, grow up as part of the Campbell’s generation. What was unfortunate was the creation of a generation that was less inclined to cook and enjoy the opportunity to test basic skills in the kitchen. Today, that has begun to change as more and more people are finding the process of preparing soup an integral part of life at home.

Soup, through history, was at first a basic source of sustenance. A food product that came from broth and bread and helped the poor survive. Today, the symbolism is not lost on the unfortunate who find it difficult to provide a meal and lean on soup kitchens for foundational nutrition. To others of varying socio-economic groups, soup is a reflection of ethnicity and interest in a cultural food experience. Most regions of the world have their benchmark soup that defines their cuisine: French Onion, Italian Minestrone, Chinese Won Ton, Gazpacho in Spain, Gumbo in New Orleans, Chowder in New England and Borscht in Russia to name a few.

Soup has even become part of our entertainment culture. Even the show Seinfeld is likely most remembered for the “Soup Nazi” who held customers captive with his antagonistic rule: “you-no soup, one year!”

One of my favorite soups is a version of Tuscan Bean and Kale. This recipe takes a little time, but provides tremendous flavor memory and if you have the freezer space, can be a backup dinner when your schedules become too complicated to cook every night.

Enjoy!

SORGULE’S TUSCAN BEAN SOUP

Ingredients
________________________________________
Dried Navy Beans 2 cups
Water 2 quarts
Salt 1 tsp.
Onions 1 large (medium dice)
Carrots 2 large (medium dice)
Celery 4 stalks (medium dice)
Garlic 6 cloves (sliced)
Ham 8 oz. (medium dice)
Tomatoes (plum) 5 each (remove seeds- julienne)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chicken Stock 3 quarts
Kale 4 cups (chopped)
Italian Parsley 1/2 cup (coarse chop)

Soak the beans in water and salt overnight.
Strain the beans and combine all ingredients except kale, tomatoes, parsley and salt and pepper.
Simmer until the beans are tender (about 60 minutes).
Add the kale and tomatoes and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
Adjust the seasoning and add the parsley.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese and your favorite hard crusted bread.
This makes enough for 6-8 servings.

A Sad Day for Those in the Restaurant Community

A Sad Day for Those in the Restaurant Community

This is a day, as we all well know, that will always be remembered. September 11, 2001 was a day that changed all of our lives forever, a day when evil seemed to win over good. Each of us remembers where we were on that day and what we were doing. I was in a meeting when an administrative assistant stepped in to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Each of us thought that this was likely a small private plane that went astray and proceeded with the meeting. A few moments later the same administrative assistant stepped in to say that a second plane had crashed into the Towers. We were first in shock as our thoughts immediately went to our own families and then to those who we worked with. It was quite a few hours, as the day unfolded, before were were able to grasp what was happening. I was a teacher and after calling my wife and children, turned to our students to counsel them and help to make sense of what was transpiring. Was this the beginning of the end? Who was responsible for this and how far reaching will this event become over the next few hours, days, weeks?

I would later find out that one of my former students, Chris Carstangen was on the second plane that crashed into the Towers. My heart broke for his family and friends. America, of course, acted and reacted bringing our country to a place that we would not have dreamed: 12 years of war trying to find an answer and prevent this from happening again on our soil.

As we remember that fateful day I felt that it was important to reflect on one group of people who suffered and then united as a result of 9/11. When the planes hit the Towers, one of America’s great restaurants fell target to this unthinkable attack on innocent people. Seventy-nine employees of Windows on the World Restaurant died on that day in 2001. They were serving breakfast and preparing for another beautiful day overlooking Manhattan. Chef Lomomaco, through a twist of fate, was delayed in arriving at work that morning while he was getting his eye glasses repaired. As he began his trip up through the Towers, the first plane hit and diverted people on to the street. He watched in horror as his restaurant burst into flames and the Towers eventually collapsed. Seventy-nine beautiful people who were his co-workers and friends lost their lives, leaving behind families and friends of their own.

Kevin Zraly was the director of the Windows on the World Wine School and shared in Chef Lomonaco’s grief and deep sense of loss. He too lost his friends and colleagues.

In the days that followed, restaurant workers, chefs and restaurant owners from NYC and around the country descended on Ground Zero to help feed the hundreds of firemen, police, and other volunteers who were sifting through the rubble looking for survivors and recovering those who lost their lives. It was what restaurant people do. It was the one way that we all know how to help and give some small sense of relief to those who were stunned, but committed to the awful task of recovery.

It took many years, but the New York landscape is returning to a sense of normalcy, restaurants have come and gone, but the food scene is once again vibrant, the 9/11 memorial is scheduled for an opening in the near future, and fundraisers have collected money to help the families of the restaurant workers who lost their lives on that day in 2001.

Today we remember all of the nearly 3,000 who lost their lives on 9/11, the subsequent thousands who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting to make sense of these events, and especially those innocent restaurant employees who only wanted to make great food, serve the public, and bring a smile to the face of those who could view Manhattan from the top of the world.

We will never forget.

LABOR DAY THOUGHTS

This picture was a perfect opening for some Labor Day musings. I am part of an industry that is interesting to many on the outside, challenging to those who own restaurants, exciting to those who find themselves in the grips of the service adrenaline rush, back breaking to those who have made it their life, unbearable to some and inspiring to many who become part of a close knit restaurant team. The restaurant business as portrayed by the new wave of reality shows, Food Network segments, Anthony Bourdain adventures, colorful coffee table cookbooks, and countless magazines on the art of cooking is really a far cry from what it is like.

On Labor Day we celebrate those who work hard every day to support their families, provide for others and make this country great. It is only fitting that I spend some time paying homage to those who work in OUR industry, the industry of food and service.

Allow me the privilege of telling the truth about the day-to-day. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, just like those who begin their career in either the front or back of the house. The dishwasher is one of the most important employees in a kitchen. If you don’t understand this statement, realize this: if a cook doesn’t show up everyone rallies to cover the station, if the chef is out sick (unheard of) the cooks would quietly cheer, if the manager doesn’t make it in the restaurant will likely not lose a step, if the dishwasher doesn’t show the place falls apart. Why? This is oftentimes a thankless job that involves standing on your feet for an entire shift, working around heat and steam, cleaning everyone’s dirty plates, lugging out tons of garbage, bending at the waist scouring greasy pots and pans, handing scalding hot plates as they end their cycle, lifting and pushing heavy racks of dishes and doing this to the din of demanding cooks and service staff. The dishwasher has no one to delegate to, yet he or she manages the single most expensive piece of machinery in the kitchen as well as thousands of dollars of china, glassware and flatware. An entree improperly cooked can be forgiven and re-fired, a dirty plate on which that food is placed is inexcusable and not correctable if it makes it to the guest.

Cooks come to restaurants with all sorts of baggage. My favorite people in the world are cooks. Some are vagabonds searching for a place to fit, others are introverts who need an opportunity to work with their hands without the pressure of interacting with others aside from the person standing next to them. A number are what we call “pirates” who are tough, crusty, oftentimes a bit obscene, full of pent up anger, but content working over a 700 degree char-grill; and a few are those culinary school interns or graduates who came to make their mark, learn the trade, build their chops, and aspire to become a chef. All-in-all, as tough as many of them seem, they usually love food and take pride in what they do. Snap at them and beware, tell them their food is not very good and you may need to reach for tissues to help fight back their tears and broken confidence.

Chefs, are always there. Even when they are not physically there (which is rare), they are still mentally there. A chef can expect to work 70 or more hours per week and should plan on being in the restaurant from mid-morning until the last few dinners hit the window. If they have developed a name for themselves, the guest will expect to see them there. Guests have no concept of a day off or of the effort that a chef must put in. The chef started as a person who loved to cook, but in his/her current role they are a business manager. They plan menus, hire and train staff, order food and negotiate with vendors, monitor the sanitation and safety of the restaurant, help to market the image of the place, set the tone for the kitchen and ensure that the quality remains consistent, interact with guests and guest special requests, serve as the mentor for those fragile egos in the kitchen, and oftentimes serve as a fill-in person when a station is in the weeds or a cook or even dishwasher fails to show or bails. This can be exciting and fun, but trust me, it is not as glamorous as TV would have you believe.

Servers and back waits are always on the firing line. What guests do not realize is that most service staff are paid sub-minimum wage (allowed by law) because their wages are typically supplemented by gratuities. Servers and their support are entrepreneurs who have been given the opportunity to set up shop in a restaurant. They certainly must represent the restaurant, but in essence are working solely for the guest. The guest, in turn, is expected to reward them with a gratuity that reflects the level of service provided. The vast majority of guests are nice, reasonable, polite and respectful, however, there is a smaller percentage who view service staff as subservient and fail to recognize them as people with feelings. As a chef I have spent many an hour consoling servers who have been verbally abused and offended by that 5% of guests who enjoy being abusive. People should not treat other human beings this way, but it is, unfortunately expected. To add insult to injury, some kitchens dish out the abuse to service staff making the whole experience of working the front of the house anything but enjoyable. Shame on the chef who allows this to happen.

Managers, like chefs, are married to the restaurant. They have the same responsibilities in the front as chefs do in the back with the added pressure of financial management. True the chef is responsible for food and labor cost, but the manager is ultimately responsible to keep the restaurant afloat. What guests do not realize is that the average restaurant only makes a net profit of about 5% if they do everything right. Many restaurants simply hope that cash flow is positive and ignore the fact that eventually the bills will catch up. Running a restaurant is very difficult and very expensive. Guests are fickle and rarely as loyal as you would like them to be, so the manager must always be on his/her toes. Just as the chef is responsible for the temperament and vibe in the kitchen, the manager must be on stage and insure that whatever may be going wrong is not evident to the guest.

The picture of screaming and yawning feet at the beginning of this article was a vivid symbol of the cycle of life in a kitchen. Restaurant people are always on the edge and one never knows how today will turn out. All this being said, I love this business as do many of my dearest friends and associates. My hat goes off to all who call restaurants their home on this day.

Happy Labor Day!

IT’S ALL ABOUT CHEW

“Chew your food!” I am sure we can all remember hearing that from our mother and grandmother along with: “close the door, wipe your feet, wash your hands”. It was part of Parent 101 to state those requirements of existence sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes simply because it sounded right. Human nature, for a rebellious adolescent was to ignore those directives or seek out an escape from their core meaning.

Restaurants accommodated that rebellious streak in various, creative ways: doors with automatic closers, advanced technology floor mats that suck the dirt off your shoes while you walk, latex gloves for staff to use in lieu of washing your hands 50 times a day (if I had only bought stock in latex 30 years ago), and food that requires very little effort to digest (chewing is such a waste of energy).

I can remember a steakhouse chain in the 60’s and 70’s called Bo…..za (named for the home of Hoss, Little Joe and Hop Sing) that advertised: “our steaks melt in your mouth” (steaks are not suppose to melt in your mouth). This chain used some type of tenderizing agent for their less than prime cuts of meat.

Real bread in the 50’s and 60’s became “wonder bread” designed to build strong bodies with a product pretty much void of texture and real nutritional value. The product was “manufactured” to be light, soft and white. Jell-O was the dessert of the decade (available in a variety of colors) – nothing to chew and if you work at it the gelatin might eventually melt in your mouth, French fries were made from cooked and extruded potatoes, hamburger buns were as light as pillows, and our shellfish became Surimi made from pureed and extruded fish stuff. Shape it, paint it to look like crab or lobster and voila – shellfish without the work.

What had we become? Were we a society of wimps who couldn’t even chew our food, wipe our feet, or close the door behind us? In the process we lost our ability to truly “taste” food. An important part of taste is experiencing the natural textures of a product and chewing brings out the flavor. Without chewing, we might as well just give up and drink Ensure. Webster offers a variety of synonyms for “chew” and none of them go beyond the physical process: to munch, chomp, champ, crunch, nibble, gnaw, consume. What these words fail to point out is that chewing is an enjoyable part of the experience of eating. Chewing certainly, as we all probably realize, helps in and begins the process of digestion, but more vividly begins the process of sending flavor signals to the brain. Chewing and taste do go hand in hand.

Fortunately, over the past 20 years chewing has experienced a come back as part of the American food experience. We have returned to the future and relish in the process of chewing wood-fired pizzas and intensely flavored artisan breads. Gone are the chemical meat tenderizers in steakhouses as we enjoy the fact that even Kobe beef must connect with the jaw to build the experience. Customers wait in lines to purchase those fantastic New York bagels and work hard at tearing and chewing this wonderful boiled and baked extraordinary (tough by design) hand food. Even fast food restaurants are trading in their ground and fabricated chicken nuggets for real pieces of whole meat. We “chew” a great red wine to build the full mouth attack on this beverage of the gods and have returned to “under-cooking” fresh vegetables, as they should be to preserve their color, crunch and nutritional value.

Thankfully we have come to our senses (I think chefs, dietitians and farmers had a lot to do with it) before we found ourselves without a need for teeth and absent any way to distinguish true flavor. Put the straws away, bring the steak knives out of storage, make sure your serrated knife is sharp enough to work through that dense and flavorful artisan bread, build up those jaw muscles and get ready to taste and savor food the way it was meant to be. “Chew your food” – now it makes sense.

BUFFALO – MY KIND OF FOOD TOWN

Yes, in case you have not guessed, I am originally from Buffalo. After you get all of the stinging quips out of your system let me tell you what Buffalo is really like. It is true that the press has not always been kind to the Queen City and it almost feels like Buffalo has enjoyed being the punching bag for the media. In reality, Buffalo is a very special city with tremendous history, unfaltering pride, and yes – even a healthy food scene.

OK, so the Bills never won a Superbowl and the Sabres have only gotten so far, but don’t ever try and tell a Buffalonian that these teams are not worthy. We have the right, as people from the city, to critique our teams, but other’s do not. We will defend them till the end of time (there, I got that out of my system).

Let’s talk about the culture of Buffalo. Many are familiar with New York as a true melting pot city with every imaginable ethnicity and race, pockets of ethnic communities within a city, and all of the food influences to match. Buffalo is simply a smaller version of that.

The area known as the First Ward is a thriving Irish community with bars and neighborhood eateries that reflect the heritage of the real “green community”. Allentown, although a mix of ethnicity, is a true bohemian artist community with a national reputation and an ever-changing landscape of bistros and bars. Just down the street on Main is the world famous Anchor Bar, where the chicken wing was born (they still serve the best). The area known as the Fruit Belt is the cities German community with its share of great sausages, pickles and beer. The Lower West Side is home to a deep-rooted Italian neighborhood and a growing Puerto Rican community as well. There is no problem finding some great Italian-American fare or influences from the islands. The Eastside is home to Buffalo’s Polish community. During my youth, the Broadway Market was one of the greatest culinary experiences with sausage makers, pierogi’s, fresh hams and lots of sauerkraut. Finally, the downtown area is encompassed by a vibrant black community with Buffalo soul food at its finest. The general make-up of the city is 52% white, 36% black, 7.5% Hispanic and 1.5% Asian.

The food scene is changing in Buffalo – for the better. It has been many years since I walked through the communities of the Queen City, but I still have vivid memories of uniquely Buffalo foods back when I was young. JaFaFa Hot’s was the best char-grilled, natural casing hot dog with their special sauce to be found anywhere. This was a treat when I finished up with a baseball game down at Grider and Bailey. A Roast Beef on Weck (a unique roll with caraway and coarse ground salt – not to be found anywhere but Buffalo) at Tin Pan Alley (some say it was horse meat) with loads of Weber Horseradish and a touch of au jus was truly to die for. Every Friday was fish fry in a community with heavy Catholic influences. Trautwein’s was the place to go for “takeout” fish fry – I can still smell the fish market. You can’t forget the baked Spaghetti at Chef’s on Seneca, even though it was not in the Italian neighborhood, it certainly was Italian. If you want to talk pizza, it has to be the Bocce Club, hands down, and of course there will always be the Anchor Bar for wings. Finally, let’s not forget the peanut stick donuts from Freddy’s Donuts (long since closed) on Main near Fillmore. You could watch Freddy’s donuts passing through the conveyor fryers pretty much 24 hours a day.

I worked at some great places where I developed my chops at an early age. The Statler Hilton apprenticeship program gave me the chance to work many stations from banquets to saucier, from the butcher shop to garde manger, and from breakfast to the hot line for the Beef Baron Restaurant. I spent a year at Shore’s Orchard Downs in Orchard Park (home to the Bills) and learned from a Greek immigrant who made a name for himself with his food. A short stint at the Cloister where I began to understand what it was like to serve hundreds of people prime rib and lobster, and even that diner where I received my first culinary exposure as an assistant short order cook at the age of 15.

The Buffalo food scene is maturing as young chefs are beginning to understand just what a special place the city is, how nice the people are, and how deep seated the culture. If you are a NYC dining scene fan you probably know about Gotham Bar and Grill, consistently one of the best-rated restaurants in the city for the past 25 years. The Chef/Operator is Alfred Portale who started his career in Buffalo. Before you write the city off allow me to make a few suggestions:

• Go to a Bill’s Game and make sure you tailgate with the locals (the best and craziest fans around)
• Buy a ticket to a Sabres Game and press your nose up to the glass (beer in one hand, local hot dog in the other)
• Take a stroll down Elmwood Avenue and pick a restaurant, any restaurant – they are all good
• You haven’t have roast beef until you have had a Beef on Weck: I like Charlie the Butcher for this delicious sandwich
• If you are a fan of wings- you must go to the Anchor Bar – it is the Holy Land for wing enthusiasts
• Pick up the local dining out magazine and read about some of the up and coming new Buffalo star chefs – they are all looking to make their mark

When it comes to my hometown I will always remain a fan and will always stay BUFFALO PROUD!
p.s. Maybe this is the year for the Bills.:)

DON’T MESS WITH MY KNIVES!

Masa Morimoto once said: “Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them. You wouldn’t put your soul in a dishwasher.” (or in the hands of another person…

WOW! So what is the deal with chefs and their knives? Maybe it is a deranged fascination with things that are sharp, or maybe it is professional pride. More than likely it is a respect for the tools of a trade – no different than an artist and their brushes, a photographer and camera, a musician and their instrument, a plumber and their wrench, or a carpenter and their hammer. It is, after all, the tools that allow a craftsperson to accomplish tasks and demonstrate their skill. I tend to think that with chefs it is more like a Hell’s Angel and their Harley (don’t even think of looking at my bike).

There is a very interesting bond between a craftsperson and the tools that they use. I would go so far as to say that you can tell how serious the cook is by how they treat their knives.

Let me point out a few personal stories with my own knives. The first real knife that I purchased was in 1968, a student of hospitality encountering my first knife salesperson. I had to have one! He convinced my to fork over (like the play on words?) what little money I had for a 12 inch, 100% carbon steel Sabatier French knife. It was a beauty. Nothing holds an edge like carbon steel and this one could be used to shave with. It did not always sparkle like stainless steel, but man could it cut. I had that knife for 20 years until it disappeared one day from my knife kit, grrrrrr. By the way, if the person who “borrowed it” is reading this post, I hope that bad karma catches up with you. When my grandfather was still alive (he was a pattern maker) he made a knife for my father who later passed it on to me. Again, carbon steel with a rosewood handle. This 10 inch chefs knife served me well for many additional years, but alas, it also grew legs and walked (a pattern is developing here).

I felt that I really came of age as a cook while working as the lead night cook at the Beef Baron Restaurant, part of the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo. One day when I arrived the Executive Chef assigned me my own knife drawer with a lock. I was important and my tools had a home.

As time went on, I began to hone my knife skills, especially with detail garde manger work. I was pretty good with a paring knife and was able to tourne vegetables with the best of them. One day I was introduced to a bird’s beak knife and my life changed. To this day, no one can match my tourne skills as long as that knife is in my hands.

Another event that demonstrates how I feel about those tools happened while I was working at the Statler Hilton. I was 20 years old and working on a Kosher Wedding (the type where the Rabbi must be present, the ovens burned off to sanitize and all stainless tables covered with starched white linen). During service of a prime rib dinner (had to be hand sliced) my knife became dull so I reached for another trusty 12 inch slicer in my drawer. Just as the blade was to touch the meat, the Rabbi jumped up from his stool, grabbed the knife from my hand and threw it on the floor (it had not been blessed beforehand). That was probably one of the few times in my life when I came close to causing bodily harm to another human being.

Knives have not always been kind to me. I have more stitches in my hands than I care to count (well over 30) from various incidents when my knives turned on me. At one point I was on a first name basis at the emergency room. Now, those cuts serve as battle scars and the source of some interesting stories.

So, how do you choose the “right” knives? To me, there are only two parts to the selection process: how well it maintains and edge and how does it feel in your hand. If at all possible buy knives that have a healthy percentage of carbon steel in them (the blends with stainless look nice and stay sharp), I prefer wood handles, although the health department frowns on them and make sure that the bolster and tang are such that you can minimize blisters on you hand from repetitive motion.

I do have a pet peeve (having been in culinary education for 30 years) with way too young novice cooks owning $300 knives (Henkels or Shun). It would be similar to buying a 17 year old a new Mercedes after they get their learner’s permit to drive. You need to earn the right, through experience to have something that beautiful. Get your sea legs on something in the $50 range until you have cut yourself at least 100 times.

Another pet peeve is when others assume that your knives are public property and can be used for anything and everything (opening cans with the heel, servers using them to cut lemons on a stainless table, or dishwashers using your carbon steel French knife to breakdown cardboard boxes). This is when chefs and cooks might just go postal. Just watch the look of either disbelief or contempt when someone asks a chef if they can borrow their knife, or worse, simply grab it off of their cutting board. Be prepared!!!!!!!

Some people have more knives than they can keep track of. They need every special tool that comes out and can be seen wheeling in their Craftsman 20 drawer chest to their corner of the kitchen. The other extreme was my friend, and talented chef: Jose Faria who owned two knives that worked just fine for him.

Don’t mess with my knives is a message to all who enter the kitchen. These tools are more than just instruments to perform a task, there is an unusual and yes maybe a little creepy, relationship between a chef and a blade – don’t go there.

SHORT ORDER COOKS WERE MY HEROS

I can still remember that day in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was 10 years old and on a shopping trip downtown with my mother as we came upon that restaurant with a full picture window framing in the vision of a short order cook preparing lunch for a growing crowd. His movements were synchronized as he easily moved from the remaining breakfast items on the grill to sandwiches, fries, blue plate specials, and appropriate side dishes. No movement was wasted as he pivoted, grabbed plates, flipped burgers and rolled omelets in pans. Waitresses were lined up and did not seem to marvel at the poetic motion of a man in control of the situation – I guess they were simply accustomed to this daily routine. I was mesmerized.

Five years later I had my first job (working papers in hand) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in the Central Park section of the city. It was the summer, so without the pressures of school I was free to work and rub elbows with the cook. She was about the same age as my mother, maybe a few years older, and had recently lost her husband who was a real chef. When it became busy she would ask me to help by buttering danish to be grilled, toasting bread, cracking eggs and setting up burger garnishes. I watched as construction workers came in early to order coffee and danish or grilled hard rolls (apparently a big thing in Buffalo at the time). I marveled at how the cook was able to keep track of everything, still smile and carry on conversations with those sitting at the counter. Servers would call out: “2 scrambled, eggs over easy, 3 cakes with syrup, another grilled danish,1 western omelet, and as it approached lunch time – various sandwiches including the house burger”. This was the original “fast food” restaurant concept and my hero was at the helm. By the end of the summer she let me take over the grill during slower times so that she could prep for the next day.

I wanted to be a rock drummer (didn’t everyone), but my parents were smarter than me and strongly urged me to go to college. What should I do? My only other love was that job working the grill, so when I heard about colleges that taught hotel management and cooking, I knew that this would be choice #2.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working in kitchens that were a bit more sophisticated than my first experiences at the short-order grill, yet it was that early training that allowed me to apply organizational skills and personality to working on the line. My responsibilities were to prepare items from the dinner menu in a 1,200 room hotel for an audience willing to wait a little longer and spend quite a bit more. This was invigorating, yet I still would marvel at watching our breakfast cook prepare food at the same speed and with the same grace as that first cook in the window of a downtown Buffalo storefront. I always had respect for the breakfast cook.

Throughout my career as a chef, a sign of stability in the kitchen was finding a breakfast cook who had the same passion, speed, grace and organizational skills as that guy in the window. Whenever I found myself without that stable force in the kitchen, things just didn’t seem to work well. First of all, I might need to arrive before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast which unless your body is in that cycle can be torture; and second, as you age it becomes much more difficult to wrap your head around the speed with which breakfast orders come in and fly into the “window” for pick-up. Still, there is nothing more rewarding than smelling bacon come out of the oven at 6 a.m., home fries on the grill, fresh brewed coffee long before most reasonable people are awake, and the crack of egg shells with one eye still closed. This is the time of day when even the restaurant kitchen is struggling to wake up.

After four decades of a food service career, I still remember that cook in the window and marvel at his skill. I don’t know his name but would love to thank him, if he is still with us, for introducing me to a business and starting the wheels in motion for a 10 year old without a clue what he wanted to do with his life.

Short order cooks rock!

The picture in this article was taken by Harold Feinstein, a professional photographer able to capture the spirit of people on film.

100 IDEAS A WEEK, IS ONE OF THEM BRILLIANT?

So here is the dilemma – I can’t turn it off! I can’t stop designing the next great restaurant concept in my head. Is this a problem? A good friend of mine, in a totally different field, suffers from the same disease: always thinking about the next great concept. His spouse told me once: “he has 100 ideas a week, and one of them is brilliant”. Are we all living under the delusion that the next great idea is just hiding under the surface and with a little nudge we can build the next Microsoft?

Here is an example of how relentless the process can be:
* I am oftentimes unable to sleep because I am planning a concept that came to me while I was having that last cup of tea before bed.
* I finally bought a pocket digital recorder so that when ideas came to me while driving, I could store them for later planning.
* I plan my part of family vacations around the restaurants I want to visit, not just to enjoy the food but rather to stimulate more ideas.
* I have more cookbooks than I will ever read, but they are there primarily to stoke the fires of creative thought: “how could I tweak this idea and make it unique to me”.
* I read quite a bit, but the majority of my books are written by chefs and restaurateurs about their daily routine. I am constantly using a highlighter throughout these books to point to ideas I might use later on.
* I walk through stores, not to purchase, but to look for ideas on restaurant decor, systems for delivery, service tips, etc.
* I have framed pictures in my office, not of scenery, but of restaurants, kitchens and chefs.
* When dining out, I always frustrate my wife when I am taking pictures with my cell phone.
* I walk 2-3 miles every morning and oftentimes find myself lost in thought about an idea. If only I could remember to bring that digital recorder with me.
* Even in the shower, I find myself drifting off with an idea about a restaurant concept.
* Empty buildings and stores are always fuel for the concept planning fire. “Just think what could be done with this space”!
* When in a restaurant with friends I need to work hard at keeping my focus on them and not spinning around looking at how they execute their system and how I might make it better.
* Although I am coming to the later part of my career and rarely cook in restaurants anymore, I still make my daily prep lists and market orders for meals at home.
* I even take pictures of my own food at home and post them on Facebook!

The whole process is like that annoying ringing I used to get in my ears after attending a rock concert in the 60’s. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. How many ideas have come and gone? How many of them were brilliant or will the next one be the real winner? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never invested my bank account in one of these ideas. Then again, what if I had and it really was brilliant? I guess I will never know, but it is still fun thinking about and developing a cool idea.

Does anyone else suffer from perpetual idea overload? By the way, the photo is from “The Big Night”, a movie that I consider as great as Casablanca.