Tag: cooking

ENOUGH WITH INACCURATE TV FOOD SHOWS

ENOUGH WITH INACCURATE TV FOOD SHOWS

Nearly everyone in the restaurant business that I know cringes when anyone mentions one of the “reality food shows” on various networks. Inaccurate would not go far enough to describe the environment that is portrayed. Some may clarify and say, well this is really entertainment, but to a professional chef or cook, this “entertainment” does insurmountable harm to a great profession and paints a picture far from reality.

Way too many young people choose to attend culinary school as a result of over-exposure to shows that infer that cooks can wear what they want, chefs can say what they want, everything they prepare is judged by a panel of critics, that whatever piece of equipment they would like to see in a kitchen is available, cost is no object, and everything evolves around the spontaneity of developing a menu on the fly with obscure ingredients. This is not the kitchen of today, nor is it the kitchen that most professionals are used to or would accept. So let’s take a minute to define what it is really like.

The kitchens of Gordon Ramsey with red vs. blue teams, constant screaming (in full view of the guest), belittling of cooks by the chef and everyone looking out for themselves is so far from real that I am not sure where to begin. This is not to say that tempers never rise or that chefs never raise their voice, but the environment portrayed on TV would easily fall under the heading of: hostile work environment, a situation that can bring the department of labor or even lawsuits hovering at the back door of a restaurant. It just cannot happen like this any more. Most of the cooks that I know, if they were attacked in the way that Chef Ramsey is portrayed would either walk out the back door or pin him up against a cooler wall. Professional kitchens today stress the importance of team work, define success in terms of how everyone carries themselves on the job, how the chef attempts to manage calm in the kitchen that could easily melt due to the physical nature of the tasks involved and the pressure surrounding the timing and complexity of preparation.

As much as every chef and cook would love to have $100,000 Bonnet ranges in their operation, beautiful copper pots or Cuisinart cookware, that is rarely the case. Typically we work on ranges that have survived past their useful life and are kept alive through magical maintenance repair work and aluminum pans that are seasoned through heat and salt polishing and are bowed from constant exposure to open flames. The only copper is sitting in the chef’s office and brought out for decoration on dining room buffets. Cooks have been known to hide pots and pans in their lockers to ensure that they have something to work with on their shift (especially breakfast cooks who claim their egg pans are private property never to be touched by any other food except eggs).

Although cooks and chefs today may have a heavy dose of body tattoos, their uniforms are likely to be conservative white jackets, houndstooth pants, skull caps, side towels, white or blue aprons and supportive black shoes. Professional kitchens take pride in the tradition around the uniform and enforce the need for cooks to respect this.

It is very rare that a chef or cook is required to make a spontaneous menu out of silly ingredients that have no business in the same dish. Menus and recipes are developed painstakingly over a period of time with input from cooks, dining room staff and management. Recipes are tested, plate presentations are wrestled with and what appears on a menu is well thought out, researched and executed. Some restaurants are able to offer menus that change daily, but even in those cases – items are drawn from a chefs repertoire or expanded from dishes and techniques previously developed. Chefs take menu development very seriously, even daily features that might be drawn from available ingredient inventory or an occasional item that is driven by an unusual seasonal ingredient.

Iron Chef and Top Chef are sometimes fun to watch, but you may note that basic business acumen rarely comes into play. No one ever worries about the cost of ingredients, the limitless availability of equipment, or what a restaurant would need to charge for the items produced. I have seen dishes with excessive amounts of shaved truffle (probably $25-30 worth of cost on a plate which would equate to $75 or so in additional selling price), foie gras used as if it were the same price as chicken liver, items sautéed in expensive extra virgin olive oil and 25 year old balsamic vinegar drizzled on tomatoes at 10 times the price of a more standard balsamic product. Chefs are responsible for operating a restaurant as a financially successful business and to portray the position as being oblivious to this is terribly misleading.

If the networks want to portray accurate life in the kitchen, then they could find thousands of examples that are exciting, realistic and focused on painting a picture that could be easily digested by those in the industry, those who love to dine out and young people contemplating a career in a professional kitchen. Demonstrate the total commitment to cleanliness, sanitation and food safety. Show a typical day in a chef’s life from menu building, to working with purveyors, training cooks and ensuring that standards are followed, setting up the line for service, pre-meal with the service staff, keeping dishwashers happy, taking the time to build great plate presentations, keeping the rhythm of the line such that cooks don’t crash and burn half way though a busy night, and the challenges of adjusting to food allergies and unique food preferences. Show how a chef sweats the details of cost control: portioning, price shopping with various vendors, waste management, cross-utilization of ingredients, and inventory management. This is a daily challenge that consumes much of a chef’s day.

The restaurant business is very difficult and those who can adapt to the kitchen, understand their role, work well as a member of the team, remain focused on the foundations of cooking and be consistent in their approach to food preparation are a unique, proud breed who needs to be portrayed accurately: MY two cents.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting, Training and Coaching
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

DEEPER STILL: LINE COOKS AFTER HOURS

DEEPER STILL: LINE COOKS AFTER HOURS

Everything seemed to be in order at the end of service. Jake’s station was spotless, his knives were cared for and locked up, his dirty uniform replaced by jeans and a sweatshirt, and his prep list for tomorrow was on his clipboard. Time to unwind.

Jake was never attracted to the drug culture that some of his fellow cooks subscribed to, but he had, over the years, acquired a taste for really good wines and craft beer. He always seemed to wind up at his favorite late-night café after work to enjoy a drink or two (or sometimes more). As Jake was leaving the restaurant, his fellow cook on apps (her name was Sara) asked if she could tag along. “Sure” was his immediate response. He would always wind up mingling with cooks from other restaurants so one more from his shop would be just fine. The Café was his social outlet, his only social outlet.

While walking the five blocks to his favorite after hours establishment Jake thought to himself: “Why did Sara want to tag along? His experience was never positive when it came to relationships built on co-workers. Is this what was starting to happen?” Sara was pleasant, high energy, attractive and really competent as a cook. In the 10 minutes it took to walk to the Café he discovered that she was 27 (Jake was 31), had dropped out of college as a history major because it was just too boring, had grown up in a restaurant family so knew kitchens from the age of 10, and had been cooking again for the past three years. She loved the intensity of line work more than anything and shared Jake’s love of great wine.

In the Café, Jake was immediately welcomed by cooks from a handful of other local restaurants, all sharing stories of the night’s drama behind the line. Sara immediately fit in with her outgoing personality and mastery of the conversation subject matter. One cook turned to her and asked: “so what do you think of Jake’s art?” She had no idea what he was talking about, but quickly learned as he pointed out the three paintings of Jake’s hanging on the Café walls. “Wow, this must be Jake’s great secret, no one at PLATE knows that he paints”! The work, in her opinion was quite good and colorful depicting scenes of nature (the absence of people in the work was very noticeable). She was impressed and smiled when she looked Jake’s way.

Jake passively admitted that he had enjoyed painting, but no longer had the time. The only canvas that he had touched in the past eight years was a plate in whatever restaurant he was working. Food, after all, is the ultimate art form that appeals to every human sense.

While Sara was joking with other cooks in the bar Jake surveyed the room and made a mental note of the artistic sub-culture of kitchen workers. There were musicians, writers, other painters, a goldsmith, world traveler vagabonds, intellectual college dropouts and even a poet. He wondered, as he did most nights, why these folks wound up in the kitchen and if the trade tends to attract frustrated artists.

Everyone in the room shared a passion for quiet self-expression. In a mix of their own kind, these culinary pirates were extremely outgoing and full of self-confidence. In the presence of people from outside this sub-culture, they would shut down and become the social introverts that seemed to have no interest in interaction. These folks were strange for sure.

Jake was on his third glass of David Bruce Pinot Noir (every time he turned around someone had bought him another) and was now carrying on a pleasant discussion with Sara (drinking Sangiovese) about the complexities of social media as an art form. Jake had put aside the polenta issue for the time being, but it would no doubt return to his conscious mind in the morning. Tomorrow was another day, busier than Friday and full of challenges just as unique as the ones he experienced today. He made a mental note to go home soon and get a good night’s sleep. He would once again make every attempt to exercise in the morning and build up his stamina for a night on the line.

In between conversations with Sara and his friends Jake wondered if he could make a go of a real relationship with her. He instantly liked Sara but feared the consequences of a relationship at work. Maybe he was just destined to be single like most of his colleagues. Relationships and the job of line cook seemed to be something that was unrealistic.

Two more glasses of wine and Jake hailed a cab for Sara and paid the driver to get her home safe. He walked the additional seven blocks to his apartment and crashed at around 3 a.m. The 11 a.m. alarm came as a shock. Jake reached for another cigarette, clicked a K-cup in his Keurig coffee maker, stared at Robin Meade on HLN News and realized that exercise was again out of the question. First things first – he needed to shower, shave and get to work by 12:30 to get ready for the Saturday rush. The cycle of life for a line cook continues.

Thanks for reading this mini series on the life of a line cook. I would assume that many who took the time to read these passages have experienced the life cycle of a line cook first hand. To you, I tip my hat. Line cooks are the backbone of the kitchen, but they oftentimes live a life that is consumed by the craft and the energy it takes to make it all work. For those who read the series and have not had the pleasure of working in a professional kitchen I hope that you have a better understanding of what it takes to present that plate of beautiful, well-prepared, flavorful food in your local restaurant.

My intent is to use this theme (including Jake) as the basis for my next book – publishing date to be determined. ☺ In the meantime, you may find my first piece of partial fiction to be amusing. In the Shadow of Cooks is available through amazon.com. A nice gift for a food friend this Christmas.

http://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Cooks-Chicken-Getting-Brown/dp/0595436951/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382967718&sr=1-5&keywords=In+the+Shadow+of+Cooks

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET’S LOOK AT THE MENU.

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET'S LOOK AT THE MENU.

The restaurant business is built on very narrow margins. We are constantly faced with decisions that nip away at the pennies that operators try to make on every dollar in sales. Let’s look at some basic facts that have placed us in this position:
* We deal with highly perishable raw materials
* Many restaurants have succumbed to the feeling that bigger is always better
* If we are concerned with quality, then labor cost will be looming very large
* Many restaurants have also fallen victim to the belief that in order to satisfy customers they must adhere to a list of menu items that are extremely costly to the operation
* With rare exception, there is a ceiling to what we can charge for the items we produce
* Waste, theft and spoilage are curve balls that seem to always cross the plate (no pun intended)
* Even with a plethora of culinary school graduates on the market, the majority of restaurant cooks are technicians trained to follow steps rather than express themselves through cooking. This requires the operation to plan menu items that are easy for technicians to execute consistently.

So, all of this being said, even the noblest restaurateur must realize that they are in business and will only remain in business if they are profitable. I have been around so many chefs and restaurant owners who work incredibly hard, producing very good food, keeping customers happy, only to lose money. This is so discouraging to those involved and ultimately results in closure. How can restaurants make money?

The formula is not easy and the guarantees are never very solid, however, it would make sense to look at the menu first. The menu is the center of the business operation. Everything else: staffing, equipment, facilities, advertising, vendor selection, table top appointments and decor, marketing and advertising, and operational image are all based on the product design and delivery. How many restaurant menus are flush with items such as: Angus Filet Mignon, Foie Gras, Morels and Fresh Chanterelles, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lobster, Crab, Pacific Halibut, Rack of Lamb, Fresh Berries in February, Asparagus out of season and Twenty-year old Balsamic Vinegar? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love all of these items and thoroughly enjoy eating them with reckless abandon. The fact is, they make it very difficult to make money. How many restaurants, after all, can charge the $45 they should for the 8 oz. Angus Filet or $30 for that Lump Crab Cake appetizer? There is a ceiling in pricing (with rare exception) and most restaurants are unable to price those items for profitability – yet they continue to put them on their menus, fill their dining rooms with eager guests who have come to expect that Fillet for $19.95 and would raise hell if the restaurant charged what they should.

As an aside, these items are built for technicians who can be trained to produce an item as expected, time and time again, but who more often than not are not trained to really cook. Please don’t take offense, I have great respect for that seasoned broiler cook who can grill steaks perfectly throughout the night, or the saute’ cook pan frying that beautiful crab cake to a crisp, golden brown and artistically placing it on a plate with remoulade and frisee. The problem is that neither item is destined to make a healthy profit unless you are buying sides, hanging them in your temperature/humidity controlled meat lockers, cutting your own steaks and grinding the beef, making gallons of stock every day, buying your shellfish dockside, picking the meat from shells and reducing the stock from shells for beautiful fumet.

Think about the restaurants that are consistently profitable (and delicious) and look at their menus: homemade pasta (flour and egg), braised meats (shoulder and shanks), artisan pizza (flour, water, salt and yeast), roast whole chicken (still a very reasonably priced product), sustainable, regional flat and round fish restaurants (haddock, cod, smelt, anchovies, bluefish, catfish, trout, flounder, etc.) that offer delicious fish broiled, sauteed, pan fried, and baked en papliotte. All of these restaurants plan menus that are driven by great raw materials that are seasonal, reasonably priced, and that beckon the talents of a person trained to cook and make in-expensive items taste expensive.

Look at your menu. Is it designed to use all of the ingredients that you buy (Chef Marc Meneau once told me that restaurants don’t make money on onions, they make money on the onion skins)? Are the items on your menu seasonal and only used when they are at their peak of freshness and lowest in price? Are your listed items driven from recipes that challenge cooks to draw flavors out from an understanding of proper cooking techniques? Is your staff trained to properly promote these exceptional items to guests who are typically focused on the high cost items that you cannot afford to sell? Are your plates balanced with a variety of vegetables, flavor accompaniments, and proteins that can stay within the 4-6 ounce range rather than 12 ounces or more? If the answer is no – then begin there. Profitability in restaurants is a science and an art, but it is most importantly a reflection on your understanding of the product and how to make flavor sell above familiarity and portion size.

More than 2/3 of the restaurants that open today will be closed in a year and the vast majority that survive year one will likely close in the next five years. Don’t be a statistic – start with a plan for profitability, select and train staff to nurture flavors, buy right and educate the guest through their palate.

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.

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.

Onions – The Most Important Ingredient

Two things occurred in the same week a few years back when I was the Executive Chef at a four-diamond resort. A server approached me when I was expediting and stated that a guest was allergic to onions and wanted to know what items on the menu he could eat. I thought for a few moments and had to respond “nothing”. I, of course, prepared something special for the guest, but up to that point I had not realized how important onions, and those ingredients in the onion family were to my cooking. That same week I was interviewed on a regional radio show as the host asked me what ingredient I liked to cook with more than any other. Without hesitation I said “onions”. He was a bit taken back until I explained how essential these ingredients were.

Onions are part of the Allium species of vegetables and include: brown skin onions, white onions, Spanish onions, purple onions, scallions (immature onions that have yet to form a bulb), Vidalia (sweet onions), cipollini, leeks, shallots, pearl onions, ramps, garlic and chives (there are numerous varieties of most items listed) .

I use brown skin onions in mirepoix for my stocks, soups and sauces; purple or Spanish onions for pickling and an accent in salads; Vidalia for those Bistro Burgers that everyone craves; scallions in stir fry and marinades; garlic in dressings, pesto, various saute dishes and bruschetta; cipollini in stews and with various braised items; ramps as an accompaniment to organic chicken in the Spring; shallots in just about everything that I can think of; and chives in numerous salads and maitre’d butter for steaks. The thought of cooking without Allium vegetables would be very difficult.

What is ironic is that members of the onion family are rarely thought of as a primary ingredient. We too often place all of the emphasis on the protein and rarely give credit to those ingredients that give the protein a unique flavor profile.

Onions and garlic define the most vivid aroma memories of life in the kitchen. The smell of caramelized onions can make you salivate. I recall working in a food operation once that was part of an office complex. The manager always made us throw onions on the grill just before lunch to fill the cafe with that sweet, intoxicating aroma. He was convinced that this smell increased sales.

The rich flavor of a perfectly made onion soup granitee’ can best be described as rich and full of umami (the taste of savory). Onions rings on a steak, lightly sauteed garlic in Pasta Vongole, Cipollini caramelized and served with a perfectly grilled veal chop, creamy shallots blended with the rich flavor of Osso Buco, and sweet ramps with roasted organic chicken change a dish from good to spectacular.

I suppose the reason that onions make us cry is a reflection of the onions disappointment in how they are treated in comparison to the more expensive proteins that take center stage. Treat those onions with care for they are the ingredients that define all of us as cooks.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

A few years back I read of an interview with a prominent chef who was asked: “what is the difference between a chef and the millions of cooks throughout America.” The response, to me, was a perfect definition: “Most reasonably intelligent people can follow a recipe with mixed results, a chef can be given a basket of ingredients and is able to create something wonderful.” Although this is an over-simplification, there is a real element of truth to this statement. A chef is certainly a manager and a leader, a cost accountant and a marketer, a social scientist and an organizational guru; but above all, a chef is a passionate and accomplished cook.

The ability to “create something wonderful”, stems from a persons ability to draw from his/her flavor memory. A serious cook must be a person who has experienced a full array of flavors, taste combinations, foods at their peak of maturity, seasonings, and texture combinations. Without this “data bank” it would be nearly impossible to create magic with food. To go even further, chefs have life experiences that are filled with an understanding of history and various cultures. It would be difficult to cook wonderful Spanish foods without understanding the culture of Spain, it would be challenging to understand classical French food without studying Ferdinand Point, Larousse, Escoffier, Careme, Bocuse, Robuchon and Verge. To cook French you must feel like you are French, to cook Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, or Thai, you must understand the culture of those countries and most importantly have cooked with those who were born into those cultures.

“A recipe has no soul…..” was a quote from Thomas Keller, truly one of America’s great chef’s of the past few decades. This should not be viewed as an endorsement for kitchens without structure; just the contrary. I am sure that Keller has his own version of the standardized recipe, however what he and most accomplished chefs know is that a recipe does not create a cook. The recipe is a reference, but the cook must draw from his/her flavor memory and understanding of culture to build the recipe into a great dish. There are just far too many variables that come into play (seasonality, maturity, size, terroir, brand, shipping, storage, etc.) to rely on a recipe as the consummate guide in cooking. Some of the best cookbooks that I have used such as: “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine”, only list the ingredients in a dish without procedure or amounts. The ingredient list is a reminder for the chef who knows, though experience, what a dish should look and taste like, and the method of cooking that is appropriate for the outcome of that dish.

Those who have a desire to become great cooks and chefs must live the following: taste everything, experience as many different cooks work as possible, travel and experience cultures, read about the history of food, learn from the best, taste again and record your experiences. Keep recipes as a guide but cook with your soul.

Kudos to Thomas Keller for getting it right.

PROFESSIONAL COOKING IS A TEAM SPORT

The cadence of orders in a busy kitchen seems unrelenting. A staccato clicking from the point of sale printer sends out a drum roll of orders while the expeditor calmly, yet seriously calls out tickets in kitchen lingo to the battery of cooks on the line. They in turn signal back receipt of the order by either repeating it or simply saying “yes chef”. Ordering, fire, picking up, re-fire, I need an “all-day”, is part of the script that every professional cook understands and responds to with surgical precision. Orders are pre-fired and finished, plated as per the accepted design, edges wiped, placed in the window, inspected and finished by the chef/expeditor and passed on to servers in a seamless stream of syncopated and rehearsed activity.

To watch this interplay is truly amazing. The orchestration by the chef/expeditor is possible because everyone on the line is in sync. To allow this magic to occur every cook must be on their game. They must have impeccable mise en place (prep and organization), must know not just the details of their station but that of every other station, they must have the desired flavor profile of each dish embedded in their flavor memory, and must approach each single plate as if it were their personal work of art that makes a statement about their abilities and passion for food. Each cook must accept their role and understand how important their role is to the whole. They must respect the chain of command and never question directives from the chef, and must at all costs maintain the desired quality of their work. They must support those who are “in the weeds” and be comfortable asking for help when they see the same issue creeping into their station.

When it works, the busy kitchen is a beautiful thing. WHY? Because this group of cooks has become a team, not unlike any other professional body with a focused mission. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, the military, or for that matter any driven business adheres to the same “call to arms”: Understanding, acceptance, discipline, preparedness, practice, respect, passion and common goals = TEAM. TEAM = SUCCESS.

Contrary to what you see on these very un-realistic television “reality cooking shows”, kitchens cannot work when there is a lack of any one of the aforementioned components. Chefs who yell and belittle do not inspire great cooking. In fact, this will do just the opposite. This type of chef (and I use the term loosely here) will create an environment of winners and losers and survival of the fittest. The result will almost always be chaos, back stabbing, inconsistent food, and unhappy guests.

Effective chefs can learn from those leaders in any business who aspire to create a team environment. To do so will lead to a cohesive group of committed, proud, supportive and successful cooks. These individuals will relish the opportunity to work in such an environment and treasure their employment as a result. Great teams = longevity among a restaurants cooking staff.

Given the chance, every diner would benefit from touring the kitchen of a restaurant they choose to dine in. If the operation is clean, if the cooks seem focused, if they are able to occasionally smile and if the chef works like a coach whose job it is to support, encourage and orchestrated, then I can assure you that the food will be great.

Escargots – So Much for Eating with your Eyes

I oftentimes find myself asking “who was the first brave person to eat………(fill in the blank)”. A long-time advocate for insuring that food looks good, I am somewhat perplexed at the exceptions to the rule. Food does have to get past the eyes before it gets to the mouth, yet adventurous individuals continue to push that envelope.

Let’s talk escargots for a moment: I happen to love the classic French version from the heart of Burgundy wine country and relish any opportunity to eat a dozen or so, but I would not have been one of the first to go that route. There is very little about the snail that is enticing (as the picture demonstrates) and alive they would hardly make a typical lover of food salivate. Yet, here we are still listing snails as one of the delicacies of the gourmet world.

If we love them in formal restaurants, the French countryside residents can eat them like we might enjoy a bushel of crayfish in New Orleans (the French consume about 10,000 tons of snails each year).

Apparently, according to Larousse Gastronomique, snails have been fodder for the table since the days of the Roman Empire. In France, one would find most of the snails that were bound for the table, clinging to the leaves of grape vines, thus very plentiful throughout this world wine capital.

Keep in mind that the habitat for snails is not very sterile and they are not discriminating eaters themselves, so I would not recommend that you pick those creeping through your garden and cook them without some methodical work. Snails have been know to eat plants that might be toxic to humans so they must be purged before cooking. Those that are raised for consumption are placed in isolation for quite a few days and fed a fiber diet that will clean their systems before being placed on the stove. If you are willing to move past the appearance, the best bet is to probably order a few cans of pre-purged and par cooked snails (French Helix preferred) from a reputable purveyor. I would avoid those from China.

With a small amount of work, you can be the gourmet hero of your community by preparing a delicious, fun and conversation provoking “Escargot tapas event”. You can add some authentic eye appeal by ordering beautiful escargot shells and snail clamps on line.

The recipe could not be easier:

SNAIL BUTTER (for 3 dozen):

Softened salted butter 1 pound
Minced garlic 8 cloves
Chopped parsley 1/2 cup
Pernod 1 oz.

Blend all ingredients.
Place a cooked snail in each shell and fill the rest of the cavity with snail butter. Place in a pan of raw rice to keep the snails upright and butter intact.
In a 375 degree oven, bake for 15 minutes.
Serve piping hot with generous amounts of your favorite wine. I prefer Pinot Noir, but if white wines float your boat, then a Sauvignon Blanc like Sancerre or Pouilly Fume would be terrific.

Close your eyes and savor.

It is Time for Reform – Your Health is the Top Priority

The Elephant in the Closet:

So here is the reality: I praise the president for making an attempt at healthcare reform and unlike some I do not necessarily oppose what has been labeled as Obamacare. I think the greatest nation in the world should be able to make quality healthcare affordable for everyone. The real issue is that nothing has been done to address the sinful pricing structure of hospitals (some of which is driven by extraordinary cost associated with liability, bureaucratic processes, and fund distribution), the immoral pricing imposed by drug companies, and the lack of support for preventative medicine (nutrition, exercise, healthy choices).

Two cases in point: I recently had to spend a few hours in a Philadelphia Emergency room where they drew blood, had a doctor see me for less than two minutes and scheduled a CATScan that took about 5 minutes. I received a bill for $13,800 of which $75 is out of pocket for me and the balance was billed to my insurance company. The bill was not even itemized! This is immoral and should be considered illegal billing.

Another case is a friend of mine who has to take a medication every day for the rest of his life. Each pill cost $150. Fortunately for him, the majority is covered by insurance, however in both cases it is this sinful billing that continues to cause an absurd increase in healthcare costs, fraudulent misuse of funds, and healthcare costs that without government support would be out of reach for most Americans.

We should stop blaming the president and put pressure on our representatives to investigate the drug companies and immoral pricing expenses from many health care providers. Additionally, isn’t it time for another national wellness and physical fitness campaign similar to what John F. Kennedy did in his administration? We can reduce the cost of healthcare by simply addressing the need to take better care of ourselves in the first place.

As chefs and restaurateurs we have a role to play in this. I would support a national campaign for healthier menus, smaller portions, reduced use of sodium, fresh always before processed, and calorie, fat and sodium counts that are required on all menus. As a nation we are killing our people one fork full at a time and restaurants should be the voice of reason rather than the nail in the coffin.

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