The Top of My Game

I go to work in a little over two hours, and I really don’t want to. It’s not that I hate my job or anything. I absolutely love it. But between the pain and the shingles, I am still worn down to a nub and having to work at 100%, anyway. I am very proud of my body for allowing me to do this. During the adrenaline rush of service, I don’t physically feel anything. It’s nice to get a break, but then afterwards, I wilt like a flower. So far, the only thing I’ve done outside of work is sleep and watch Netflix.

I wish I had more energy. The laundry is piling up and I just can’t force myself to care. The most frustrating part is not knowing how long the shingles are going to last. Once they scab over, I am no longer contagious and can go about my normal life. But I am not quite to that stage yet, although I know it’s coming soon because it seems like it should be long enough by now. But even after passing the contagion stage, that doesn’t mean they go away. It just means I can complain around other people. All of my coworkers have had chicken pox, thank God. It would be worse to lose hours at work than has been to force myself to go…. and yesterday was actually really fun. Rachel (my chef’s knife) and I got to spend a few hours together and nothing makes me happier than taking her on a workout. She sliced through five pounds of carrots like they were nothing. God bless Chicago Cutlery. For the price point, they are seriously the best knives ever…. and having used really expensive knives before, I can tell you that it seems true to me that they need sharpening and honing more often. Perhaps it’s that the metal is softer- who knows?

When I finish tonight, it starts my weekend. I have Friday and Saturday off. In some ways, I hope I get called in anyway, because what cook knows what to do with themselves on Friday and Saturday nights? Please. The good part is that on my days off, I can actually go to bed early and sleep with my natural circadian rhythm so that I get even more rest than normal. There’s such a difference between sleeping and resting, because the sleep I get on off hours just isn’t as deep. I rarely dream anymore, which just tells me that I am only superficially asleep.

On my weekends, I get the chance to truly restore lactic acid to my muscles and don’t have to depend quite so much on pain meds (Aleve and Tylenol, no narcotics) and caffeine. It’s interesting to me that I am more experienced, more valued now as a cook than I ever have been… and right when I get to the top of my game, my body starts falling apart. The axiom “youth is wasted on the young” has never seemed more true. I have never felt more like an old person, having all these aches and pains and acid reflux and God knows what else is coming down the pike…….

But again, I am very proud of myself. I am at the top of my game, thriving even when service feels like drinking from a fire hose. Last night, I even took the time to take the pub up on a shift drink, because I burned the hell out of my thumb while cleaning the flat top (huge griddle). The alcohol is neither a pain reliever nor an anti-inflammatory, but it did make me forget I was in pain, and that’s not nothin.’ It was a Hefeweizen with a slice of lemon called “Foam Party,” reminiscent of one of the first Oregon beers I tried- Widmer Bros. Hefe. It brought me right back to shivering on the banks of the Willamette during Fourth of July fireworks.

For those who are unfamiliar with beer, Hefeweizen is a German style which is unfiltered, so it’s cloudy, hoppy, and just generally the best summer beer ever. I am smitten…. and yet, too old to enjoy too much, because did I mention acid reflux?

I take medication for it, but my biggest triggers are alcohol and tomatoes, not unusual for anyone, and I’d rather save the medication for an unlimited supply of strong coffee. It helps that I put whole milk in it- the fat is padding, because if there is anything I hate, it is coffee made too weakly to actually be called coffee in the first place. Right now I am buying different kinds of beans and mixing them all together, the way my grandmother made her cereal- buying six different kinds and putting them all in the same container. It’s delicious- some dark roast, some medium, some blonde. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Brands don’t really matter. I just buy whatever’s on sale that week. It’s the mixing of the roasts that make it pop.

And the word “pop” reminds me that it’s time to take a shower and get ready for service. It really means a lot to me, because I am still so sad about losing Anthony Bourdain that being in a kitchen feels like the best way to honor his memory. On Facebook, I often use the hashtag #DoitforTony when I’m checking in to the pub. If you’re a cook yourself, I’d be honored if you used it, too. Because he was such an inspiration to me, sometimes I still have to breathe deeply when I walk in and change into my kitchen shoes and apron.

That one still moment energizes me, and I think it’s what helps in terms of being at the top of my game…. inspiration and motivation all rolled into one.

I suppose I am just preparing myself to really let go, but I’m not there yet. Perhaps I never will be, and that’s okay. It can’t be a bad thing that his memory drives me forward in everything I do. I don’t think I’ll ever be half the journeyman cook he was, but perhaps writing about cooking and food is where our minds truly meet. It is as if my mind has opened up and said, “Anthony, you live here now. Welcome. There’s drinks on Thursdays and a pool in the back.” It is not unlike the way Obi Wan Kenobi lives in Luke Skywalker.

Now I feel like he’s nagging me to shower because I said I was going to five minutes ago.

That guy………

Big Night -or- Low and Slow

I got to the pub around 4:30, because even though I wasn’t officially on the schedule until 5:00, I had stuff to do. I got some t-shirts, I took my time getting ready, and I just watched for a few minutes before I took Rachel out of her sheath. Then, it was business time.618uwbCFL3L._SL1500_ However, I did not get to use her as much as I wanted, because there was too much to do in other stations. I used her more with prep for the next day than I did during my actual shift, where I watched with trepidation as my kitchen partner used her for tomatoes. She made short work of them, but as I’ve said before, skins are death to a blade, but being only hours old, I reasoned it was okay and went to my happy place.

As I predicted, it was literally walking into a hurricane, as you are wont to do in a pub kitchen at Happy Hour on a Friday. I introduced myself to my kitchen partner. It was his third day. Luckily, we had an experienced cook coming to join us, because my kitchen partner only knew two days more than I did. There were orders coming through that no one had shown either of us how to make, but having been cooks before, we pulled it out of the fire, as it were. Once she got there, relief was palpable. We were “in the weeds,” and when it’s that busy, it took us hours to pull ourselves back out…. and I’m not sure that we actually did. Eventually, it just slowed down. At one point, we were up to an hour wait, not for the food, but the number of people waiting for tables. As I’ve said before, this particular pub is quite popular.

At one point, I was moved to the back kitchen for the sole purpose of making one batch of fries after another, which I deemed the most important job of all of us, because pubs get judged on their fries more than any other thing…. especially at Happy Hour, when they become an entrée.

We serve ours tossed in salt and Parmesan. It was awe-inspiring watching the lead cook toss the very largest bowl in the kitchen, because she’s maybe five feet tall, and about my body build.WW-SantaCruzGarlicFries-Up Once I’ve been there long enough to make suggestions, I want to add garlic fries to the menu if its welcome, because the fries at The Laurelwood are some of the best I’ve ever put in my mouth. But my job is not to do anything but watch right now…. and some kitchen managers are open to menu suggestions, and some aren’t. For reasons I will not disclose, Jorgé does not work there anymore, so it remains to be seen what the new kitchen manager will allow. We’re hoping to get the position filled by next week.

As the fry cook, I was also in charge of salads and Brussels sprouts, which we deep fry until they’re crispy and toss in Ponzu sauce. Because the prep cooks had taken care of most everything, I didn’t get to use Rachel much at all, but my kitchen partner freaked out because my knife was also his favorite brand, and he has a Global. Here’s the thing about Globals, Wusthofs, Henkels, etc. They’re all amazing, and you can pass them on to your grandchildren’s grandchildren if you take care of them. But Chicago Cutlery is the absolute best for the price point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they could be passed down with the proper care and feeding, as well. The handle is just so comfortable, and truth be told, seems to need less babying to achieve awesome. All our lettuce for burgers has to be shaved so thinly you can read a newspaper through it, and for Rachel, it was the easiest task ever. Before I had her, I was using a dull knife that just couldn’t achieve perfection. She also took down some spring onions like they were butter.

Also, a true achievement for me, I did not cut or burn myself during the entire evening, even though I was working with very, very hot oil. I just tried to work as clean as I could, as fast as I could, and it worked. I tried not to leave a mess by cleaning as I went so that the end of the night was easier to shut down…. although there were times when it just wasn’t possible due to the speed with which everything had to be done. With that amount of people, I would get a little messy, wait for the inevitable break, and do it to it.

It was a godsend to have three people in the kitchen, because there are two complete sets of fryers and ranges. That way, I could keep fries going at an alarming rate, the color and crispiness perfect.stainless-steel-bain-marie-pot-42-litre Towards the end of the night, the ticket machine became calm enough that two people could handle it, so I got out a medium-sized bain marie (the bottom pan for a double boiler), and filled it with a few drops of dish soap and lots of water, just like Kinkaid taught me, and went after every surface that still had oil on it. The dish soap wasn’t Dawn brand, but it was serviceable. While every blue dish soap contains a degreaser, there really isn’t a substitute for the real thing. You just need it in proportions that won’t leave bubbles on whatever you’re wiping down so that you don’t have to go over it again with more water.

Because I was cut before the heavy cleaning began (disappointed, truly), I didn’t get to clean the griddle. It’s my favorite chore, because few people can do it better. If you’re not in the know, you need to pour a little lemon juice or white vinegar and club soda on it while the griddle is very, very hot to basically deglaze before you start scraping and scrubbing. You don’t need much- otherwise all the liquid will fill up the grease traps and possibly overflow them so that everything runs onto the floor…. always a good day, and I’ve done it many times (dumbass attack). But the basic point is that you should let the heat do most of the work. By the time I’m done, it will look brand new. It was John Fot who taught me the soda water trick- the carbonation is invaluable, as is the acid. If the pub ever starts a brunch program, it is an even better method, because bacon and beef grease stuck on is les worst.

We do our burgers on an open flame, but when I’m making my own, I prefer a griddle to let the meat confit (cook in its own fat). An open flame makes all the fat drip off- probably healthier, but to my palate, doesn’t taste quite as good. However, it is a matter of personal taste. Some like grilled better, some don’t. With both methods, you have to respect first contact. If you put something on a grill or griddle, leave it alone. Keeping the meat flipping will rip it to shreds, because you are essentially removing the meat’s ability to sear on the outside so that it will lift on its own, also taking off the outside layer of crispy goodness. a63bc3e1-52f9-46e1-9451-d4e6e8c4091e_1.82a983e49d612bf851d8e35c2a88d911In a kitchen, you just don’t have time to do this, but the best way to cook any meat is low and slow. My favorite is  turkey Spam (bet you’re singing the Monty Python song right now), sliced thinly so that it’s brown and crispy like thick-cut bacon, with a tiny, tiny bit of mealiness in the middle. It takes 15-20 minutes to achieve that kind of perfection, but it’s worth it. For those who say, Spam…. ew…. you’ve never tried it the way I make it, so get the fuck out of here with your judgment. There’s a reason it’s insanely popular in Hawai’i. Just trust me on this one. If you hate the taste of Spam, it’s probably because you’ve just warmed it up, perhaps in the microwave, or taken it out of the pan before it’s honestly and truly finished. Again, respect first contact. Low and slow, completely browned on the outside, strips thin enough that you won’t even recognize it as Spam in the first place. If you really want to fool someone, cut off the rounded edges and feed them to the dog….. 😛

Now I’m getting hungry. I think it’s time for breakfast. I go back to the pub at 5:00, so I need some sustenance and a nap to restore at least a bit of lactic acid in my muscles and myelin on my nerves. I need it, because I am again, walking into a hurricane.

With Rachel.

An Open Letter

Dear Dana,

I couldn’t have done it without you.

kcstrI got the job at Denizen’s, seriously one of the most popular brewpubs in the DC Metro. Believe it or don’t, I haven’t tried any of their beers, which seems like a prerequisite for working there, but I’ve got time. I’m not so much on the alcohol these days, because living with a Middle Eastern family, it’s not that there’s any prohibition against drinking, we just don’t. My tolerance is so low that the other night I had a cocktail and I felt like I was losing my mind, and as we all know, I don’t have much to spare. 😛

It’s a different atmosphere than we’re used to. Front of house and back of house barely have any interaction, because the pub is built on three levels, and the kitchen is at the bottom. I feel damn lucky I got a job in BOH, because I cannot imagine with all my movement wonkiness that I’d be good at carrying food up stairs. It’s funny to picture, though.

But the thing that makes me the most happy to picture is learning to cook from you, and I remember everything in bits. When a ticket comes across, your voice in my head tells me what to do, and we debrief endlessly in my dreams about what I could have done better or faster.

The most important thing was ordering my own knife, because just like everywhere else we’ve worked, the community knives are not up to our standards. I got the same Chicago Cutlery we loved at Biddy’s before you got Lenore, and if anyone borrows it before I get first blood, I will have a hard time not coming unglued, as I have every right to do. This time, it’s personal.

They’re on sale if you happen to need extras, because the original price was $27.99 for 7-1/2-inch Chef, 4-3/4-inch utility and 3-1/2-inch parer, and I got them for $17.49, the cost of the Chef on its own. They should be here before I start on Friday, God willing and the creek don’t rise…. but I don’t think I’m going to carry them all. Just the Chef…. it’s all I need. The bread knives seem to be solid, so I’ll skip that, at least for now. Maybe a santoku later on….. I thought about buying a second set for home use, but I am terrified that someone will put them in the dishwasher while I’m not home to be vigilant.

I still have a shot at the job at University of Maryland, which is customer service for a new GPS app in the Engineering College, and I’m excited to say that the pub is flexible enough I can still work on the weekends if I succeed, because I can’t think of a better cure for customer service than continuing to follow what, thanks to you, has become and incredible obsession/passion. I knew that I needed to do something when I realized that I was cutting all my water bottle mix-in packs on the bias. They look very professional.

I wanted to write just to say that you’ve given me an incredible gift, because since my mom died, this is the first thing that has really “cut through” the fog of grief. For the first time in what seems like eons, I am excited about something, as if life is starting to bubble up from the spring in my soul. It is such a kick in the ass, one that will knock you down with incredible force, when you realize that your parents are not immortal. I feel like I have been crawling on my belly, and am just now starting to crawl on my knees. Maybe in a few months, I will even be able to walk. Let’s not talk about running just yet. I still feel like hiding under the blankets when I think about Mother’s Day.

But right at this very moment, it helps that your spirit is inside me, because I can do more and be more in the kitchen with it than I ever will be without. I’ll never be half the line cook you are, but it’s my goal to try…. and to never, ever give up. I am no stranger to working hard and with pure excitement, because few people would understand better than you what it’s like to feel that much adrenaline at once.

Even though we don’t talk in words, I hope you realize that every time I pick up a knife, we are in communion with each other. You’ve never given me a better gift than your knowledge, and I won’t forget it.

Best,

Leslie

 

Hot.

Writing’s just as natural to me as getting up and cooking breakfast.

-Dolly Parton

I think getting the stage at the brewpub has given me a new lease on life. Whether I take the job or not, it is a huge ego boost. I feel something unfamiliar as of late. To quote Miss Hannigan from Annie, “do I hear….. happiness… in here?” Though I’ve had a few laughs, this mood lift has lasted, when normally, as soon as the laugh is over, I retreat back into my head.kcstr I went downtown and bought some chef pants and some white t-shirts that I can wear with pretty much anything, because I don’t know if there’s something special I have to wear once I get there. These clothes are pretty standard. If I get there and find out I can wear crazy pants, there are some mirepoix prints waiting for me at Fenton’s Uniforms. Yes, wearing pants (and maybe a coat, depending) will be hot AF in the kitchen… but you’d always rather be protected from all the food that inevitably splashes all over you than bare any skin. Also, touching the stove, griddle, or oven hurts less when there’s fabric in between you and them. Mario Batali always wears shorts, by which I am mystified. It would only take one pot of boiling soup spilling down my front before I decided that was a bad idea. I take that back. It’s a bad idea just thinking about it.

I also need to check out their knives, because if I don’t find one that fits my hand perfectly, I’m going to need my own. For the longest time, I preferred German, because they are heavy in my hand, and the heft feels good. Then, I tried using a heavy knife for eight hours at a clip and I wasn’t so impressed anymore. I’ve been to Sur la Table and tried just about every knife on the market, and I swear to God, I didn’t find anything as good as the one I got from Chicago Cutlery on Amazon for $15. I didn’t even have to sharpen it for a year.

And speaking of knives, I’m feeling one right through my chest, because Dana’s not here. I know that there’s not a chance in hell I won’t hear her voice in my ear all damn night. It’s been a minute since we’ve cooked together, but I’ve never had a better partner. Being so intimate with your kitchen partner is a plus, because you know each other so well you can have entire conversations with one look each, and every second counts. I just took a Klonopin.

My best wish for myself is that I find someone I can dance with tonight. Drew and I literally danced to Aqua in the kitchen (as Doctor Who fans, it took less than a second for “Dr. Jones” to become “Martha Jones”), but what I mean is that the entire night is a series of movements, not unlike ballet. What’s running through my head is that I hope I remember the most important thing…. communication with the others.

  • Behind you (with a knife)
  • Coming down the line hot
  • Coming around the corner (or just “corner”)
  • Heard, Chef
  • Answering “what do I need all day?”
    • That means looking at every ticket and counting items across them for the uninitiated….
  • Work clean

The most important, therefore listed first, is “behind you with a knife.” The way you carry it is blade down, and if someone bumps into you, you are way more likely to cut yourself than them. The reason that this is more of a ballet than at other restaurants is that things are not divided up by station. Everyone picks up everything, from sauté to pantry to fry station.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to have my professional tools back. There’s nothing like having the right ones, especially a large griddle and scrapers. My favorite chore is cleaning the griddle at the end of the night. I can make it shine like the top of the Chrysler building! I am not kidding myself. Even if it is just a stage, if we get slammed, no one is getting cut, and it’s Thursday. It’s how I know that the kitchen manager wants to literally throw me into the fire. Easing me in would be a stage on a Monday.

Please send good thoughts, energy, prayers if you are a God person, black magic prayers if you are not. I need to be at the top of my game, because when I’m on, I’m ON. I want to walk into the kitchen like I own it, because I know I’m capable. But there’s a chance that everything will be overwhelming and go to shit within an hour. A small chance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t overthink about it.

I think I’m going to meditate and stretch now. It’s been a long time since I’ve put this much pressure on my knees, and I need to concentrate on everything within my control going right, knowing that not everything is. Now that the Klonopin has kicked in, I no longer feel the knife in my chest. Dana is my guardian angel, and I know I can call on her when I need her. She’ll sit on my shoulder until closing time if I ask.

Just like in Eat. Pray. Love., I’m creating a contract to do well and having people sign it. Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain signed it. Chef Dana signed it. Julia Child signed it. James Beard signed it. Pati Jinich signed it. Vivian Howard signed it. Andy Ricker signed it. Auguste Escoffier signed it. The Two Fat Ladies signed it. Gabriel Rucker and Naomi Pomeroy  signed it. Michael Cordúa signed it. José Andrés signed it. Now, not only do I have one angel on my shoulder, I have a lot of them.

All of the sudden, I am at peace. I got this.

Depending on what time I get home, let’s get together and post-mortem. I am sure I will have a ton to say, depending on whether all the energy in my body has leaked out of my ear. Alternatively, I may be a live wire, adrenaline coursing through my body. It’s anyone’s guess.

Stay tuned.