Monday, October 31, 2011

Veal Stock & Demi Glace, Obsessive Simplicity

I am a saucier at heart.  The daily ritual of making demi has eluded me lately and I feel a void where this obsessive-compulsive task is missing from my everyday schedule.  Not one chef I've ever worked for has ever made it the same way and the details hold glimpses into the heart of the chef in question (atleast for the French trained).

I start with fresh, not frozen bones if possible.  The only vendor who carries them currently in the Chicagoland area that I know of is Lex Foods, the owner being John Lex.  (847) 432-5741, BTW.  He's related to the guys who run JDY, who should be able to get the bones from John if you're interested in the product.  This isn't cheap, however. 

I personally don't mind cutting hard bones with soft bones 50/50.  Soft bones are cheaper and tend to run smaller.  They're great for second washes or remoulage (the term for making veal stock from the same bones twice, often used to start the next batch of demi instead of water).  The only issue with soft bones is that I can't find them fresh, and I'll only use them if I have to drive down my costs.  Some brands are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, which is a water retention chemical used in food processing to make the bones hold water and weight more and also helps with preserving the bones. 

This sucks.  I can smell it slightly, I swear.  And when treated bones are roasted, they'll drop water, ruining the beautiful color you need to get from your veal stock.  Crazy story somewhat off topic.  For a while we were able to get ostrich bones at half the price of veal bones in the late 90's early 00's.  Roasted and used in demi 50%, you couldn't tell the difference.  I won't name names but you'd be surprised to know who bought them.  Now the prices for ostrich bones are through the roof, as large soup companies caught on and buy almost the entire market.  I shit you not.  Effing ostrich.

Anyways, the next item is your mirepoix.  I haven't weighed a batch in ages, and I personally go easier on the veggies as a whole (especially the celery).  I like flavor, but primarily the flavor of the main ingredient in a recipe.  Veal stock should taste like the distilled essence of a thousand dead baby steer.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The veggies should be peeled, and no ass ends of carrots or peelings make it into the stock.

Why you ask?  Have you ever eaten the ass end of a carrot?  Tastes like bitter carrot pukings!  If you won't eat it, don't put it in your stock.  It's a building block, not a fucking garbage pit!  Next is the tomato product (I use paste).  It's essential to giving body to your reduction, but I err on the light end.  I will put four heaping kitchen spoons in for 100 pounds of bones.  Michael uses 4#'s weighed out if I remember right, and Bernard uses a full #10 can.  You can taste the difference, and you're able to reduce it more with less tomato.  It is essential to getting the gelatin to take hold in a finished sauce though. 

Speaking of gelatin, a few pig's feet thrown in at the end helps too.  As for color, I will brulee my onions by cutting them lengthwise and charring the shizznit out of them.  Your stock will never pick up any burnt notes, and the end product is worth seeing.  On the other veggies being cooked, caramelization is essential, but not too much.  Deglaze with red wine, but don't use too much.  Again, it's veal stock, not effing bordelaise.  Also, make sure you start with cold water or remoulage and bring quickly to a simmer.  That gives a level of clarity that's desired.

Thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and fresh bay leaves finish the stew.  Don't forget to skim, all the time!  Re-emulsified fat kills a stock if made in the western tradition.  The Chinese do some beautiful things with reincorporating fat into their stocks, but it will make an unappetizing demi with an ugly color and whorish taste.  If you like tasting whores, go eat at the docks, not where I hang my hat.  Cook overnight.

When straining for further reduction, save the bones and make stock out of them to start your next batch.  And obsess!  There's always another step to be taken to make a better product. 

A sushi chef once told an apprentice, "The sushi is never perfect until all the rice is pointing the same direction."  The lesson being that there's always something to improve on, no matter how good you are at the task.

A Culinary School Rant

How do I put this?  I've been to culinary school, graduated, and paid off all my student loans.  I have an Associates of Applied Sciences pertaining to the culinary arts.  But had I been told that I could get the same education by working in the field, buying a set of decent knives, and a bunch of industry cookbooks for a fraction of the price...  I would have gotten a degree in accounting at a community college and just worked in the field. And I'd most likely have been to France by now to boot.  Probably be driving a mercedes too.

So, I guess I want to say is...

...fuck culinary schools.

There.  I've said it.  While I'm at it, the ACF sucks too.  Too many kids go through culinary arts programs, while being told that they're bonafide chefs upon graduation.  Bullshit.  I remember an old school-er telling me to work for 3 years as a cook or chef de partie, another 5 as a sous chef and only after 10 years... or when I felt ready, take a job as an executive chef.  I'm 32.  Do the math.  But too many kids with rich parents and/or trust funds open places or take these jobs after working at one or two good places, and then crash & burn after only a short period of time.  Kinda crashes your credibility when people you want to work for have been burned by this type of tongue-in-cheek "chef".

And currently it seems that overall menus have been dumbed down to become idiot proof, thus making the better trained line cook something most restauranteurs can't afford!  Any shoemaker can make pesto in a blender or reduce cream for an easy sauce.  Not to mention all of the quality store bought prepared products you can buy though most vendors.  I feel that I'm from a dying breed.  Think I'm being melodramatic?  How many good fine dining French or Italian restaurants still exist, atleast in the Chicagoland market?  Name 'em.  Are they still turning out real chefs that are opening new places?  Think about it a bit.  With fine dining growing increasingly smaller here, where do all the culinary students go?

Effing nowhere.  And they don't train them well enough to succeed in the business side of the industry.  Out of the last 15 cooks I've seen come out of culinary school, saying one might make it is being too generous.  However, out of the last 15 immigrants I've seen, most will probably work 10 times harder than the other 14 students without ever going to culinary school.

Do the math.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Arizona Stories, The day I lost all my facial hair...

I ended up taking a lot of 3rd shift work at the resort during the end of my externship.  Part of my contract specified that if a manager got a hold of me personally or via phone and asked me to work a shift, that I couldn't decline... even if I'd already worked a 16 hour day.  I'm not saying that I hated this, but since the night shift had the most no-call-no-shows or other bullshit excuses, I often found myself working with little sleep and having to strain stocks at 4 in the morning.

The best part about night shift was the lack of supervision and the freedom to do things in any order I thought would be the most efficient.  I was always looking for ways to get done faster, especially if room service was picking up due to high occupancy.  The night shift person was responsible for staff meal for about 35 people, mainly security, night cleaners, and over night bakers/pastry cooks.  You had to strain and cool all stocks, prep anything the executive sous dropped onto your plate, handle room service, grind meat for the butcher, and set up breakfast for the 175 seat dining room. 

Breakfast prep for the dining room entailed breaking down a few cases of eggs for omelets, dicing and par-steaming potatoes, setting up bacon, sausage links, and patties, cooking steelcut Irish oatmeal, clarifying butter, and getting all of the ovens, flattops, etc. hot for morning service.

One morning I had gotten towards the end of my shift at 7 am, when I went to light the old school flattop on the line.  It was an old model, and the pilot was about eight inches to a foot under the griddle.  You'd light a wooden skewer to light the pilot, and turn the gas to light the damned thing.  This morning was different.  As I got on my knees and lit the skewer, I reached under the griddle and triggered and enormous blast of flame that engulfed my head briefly.  I immediately shut my eyes and hit the ground.

Apparently, one of the nightcleaners had used the stove as a ladder to reach the hoods earlier that morning and had turned the gas on slightly with their boot, much to my dismay.  I lost a few eyelashes, curled my eyebrows, and burnt off part of my sideburns.  To this day I have difficulty growing hair where my ears meet my beard.  I also looked sunburnt for about a week. 

So the first cook comes in, an old asian dude that rocked the omelet station as if he was twenty years younger.  With one look at me, all he says is,

"That's why I don't light the pilot anymore."

Go figure.  Now I always let someone else deal with pilots and gas first until I'm comfortable with the machine or conduit in question.  I saw a chef friend of mine once light an easy release hose on his fryer on an open burner by accident on his line.  He set his sleeve on fire and it looked like a flame thrower until the grill cook closed the release valve.  Scary, scary stuff to see.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arizona Stories, Best Kitchen Mispelling

Manually keyed into Micros by a server for a special:

Frog Raaaaa!

At the time, I didn't get it until I said it out loud.  For the longest time I had the ticket taped to an old notebook, now missing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Arizona Stories, Sammy the Grill Cook

Sammy was awesome.  I first learned a busy grill station from him as an intern in Phoenix and he was quite the character.  He originally moved to Arizona from Texas after getting into some gang problems in Dallas.  He was shot a few times in the knee and ended up getting his right leg amputated.  You wouldn't know it except for his limp, and it wasn't the first thing he'd run up and tell you.  This led to some interesting stories... mainly because Sammy had a warped sense of humor.

He used to play box with the saute cook, Kenneth.  Kenny used to draw pictures of Sammy in permanent marker on the line, and repeatedly hit it with things while muttering, "Can you feel that?!  Can you feel that Sammy?"  I had to work the middle and set up plates for them during service when I first started, which honed my trash talk a lot better than my cooking skills for a brief period of time.

One day Sammy decided to play box with a newer cook, and the two of them were having a great time.  It was the beginning of our shift, and the newer cook hadn't buttoned his jacket up all the way yet.  Sammy grabbed a small Braun stick blender from a bain marie and started to "fence" with it.  It was still plugged in, and tore into the skin on the new cook's chest.  While it wasn't a deep cut, the new cook looked down with disbelief before he was rushed off to emergency care.  Neither were fired, but Chef J had an hour long reprimand waiting for them both about goofing off at work.

Now, in Phoenix, the bars close super early in comparison to Chicago, so it leads to more and more house parties & socialization after work.  At one party, Sammy had been drinking quite heavily, and was getting more and more angry at a rich girl that wouldn't stop talking about all of the skiing equipment she'd just bought and how great of a time she was going to have in Colorado when the snow fell.  She was sitting next to him on the couch, when he hopped up, threw off his leg, and stated drunkenly...

"I'll never hit the damned slopes again!"

He then proceeded to hop to the kitchen to pour another rum & coke.  His "friend" screamed and ran out of the party, proceeding to ditch her boyfriend taking the only car.  He was about to start a fight with Sammy until our friends broke them up, and some samaritan gave the unhappy man a ride home. 

I couldn't stop laughing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Michigan Farm Visit Yesterday

Thanks to Midwest Foods, I had the opportunity to visit Tree-Mendus Fruit in Eau Claire, Michigan.  A fourth generation orchard (Est. 1927) run by the Teichman family, the farm is over 450 acres and contains 250 apple varieties, as well as cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears, & raspberries when available.

The son of the founders, Herb, was an enjoyable host and general operations have remained in the family.  His son was extremely hands on and knowledgable.  We ended up seeing and tasting some incredible fruit, a couple of apple varieties actually had pink to reddish flesh, which were the first I'd ever seen.  The Black Arkansas variety also stood out, thicker darker skin and an enjoyable flavor.  It's cider season too, check out theirs, it's incredible.

Do me a favor and check them out.  They're open to the public and you can pay to pick.  They'll also ship out on request.  Here's their info.
Tree-mendus Fruit Farm
9351 E. Eureka Rd.
Eau Claire, MI 49111
(269) 782-7101 or (877) 863-3276

Monday, October 17, 2011

Le Francais Stories, My Petit Lapin

I worked with a young Frenchman at Le Francais some time ago, who was aggressive and more than a wee bit sinister.  (From here on in I'll refer to him as Lapin.)  Lapin was the textbook saucier.  Not quite Sous Chef material, with a good deal of potential, but not without some deep character flaws that would keep him from ever going too high in the Chicago dining scene.

One of those was his being violent.

A newer fish cook, young, blonde and female was a frequent target of his douchiness (in France, also known as "showeriness").  One day she was prepping and standing with her legs somewhat crossed.  He kicked her leg out from under her and stated, "That's why you don't stand in the kitchen like that," as she fell. 

I was target a few times, as he often had projects that needed working on.  My first day in the kitchen staging he dropped two cases of beef marrow bones in front of me to scrape the sinew from (prep for the filet on the menu).  I made a chef's knife serrated after a day of scraping.  Another day, I was cutting mirepoix into a very small dice (coincidentally for the same dish's prep that would be sweated and quennelled to order), when he hit my right hand elbow while I was cutting.  His only words were, "Good.  You didn't cut yourself.  You know how to use a knife."

I was pissed off, and saw red.  Grabbing him by the neckerchief (standard unform), I quickly turned my knife on him.  I believe I said something to the effect of, "I do, and unless you want to be a dead Frenchman at my feet, I suggest you apologize."

We got along fine after that, for the most part.  Later on during my stint there, Lapin needed something from the cooler during service, but his heavy accent made it indecipherable to me.  "Hex!"  He called.  I came out with some random thing from the walkin, only to meet with his disapproval. 

"HEX!  Don't you American's know what HEX are!  It's by the mustard!!!" 

Confused, I went back to the cooler and brought out some other random article.  That was when he completely lost it.  Red faced and shouting, Lapin screamed,


I replied.

"Oh!  Eggs!" 

He wasn't too happy after that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Arizona Stories, A Request

An old Chef of mine (I'll call him Monroe) from Phoenix wanted to hear a story about our old Executive Chef J.  Now Monroe really wasn't too keen on J's rules and general Boy Scoutedness.  There's a few key things for you to know about Chef J to make this post make sense.  So let me give you some background.

Chef J (and our head steward) used to search the employee housing weekly (where I lived) to ensure the interns and/or current residents were living to code.  Heck, we weren't allowed to have food in our rooms, all meals were supposed to be eaten at the resort or somewhere on the town.  Which sucked.  One day he stole the vanilla wafer cookies I had hidden in my sock drawer.  Swear to God.  Never got written up for it, but the empty package was in the trash...  With no cookies! 

With that I decided a prank was in order.

Our fearless cookie thieving leader also had stickers of his face made to put on the tops of the spice rub jars the resort sold and/or gave away as amenities.  With a small distraction from an unnamed intern I was able to lift a roll of the stickers.  Good thing the statute of limitations is over in this epic crime of mine.  Later, I went back to the employee housing and proceeded to hang out with a coworker in their room.  After some drinking, the coworker decided to run some laundry.  I was still in the room, and made it to the restroom.  I quickly turned off the water valve and flushed the toilet to drain the tank.  I then dried off the bowl with a wad of Kleenex and stuck a bunch of stickers (of Chef J's head) to the bottom.  I then turned the water valves back on and walked out of the washroom. 

The epic part of the plan was this was one of the last nights the neighbor was in town.  They ran a shorter internship. 

And after they were gone, the chef had to inspect their room with the head steward. 

Word is the head steward caught the prank only after he'd used the facilities.  And he was the one that had to scrape the stickers off of the basin.

And that's what you get for stealing my cookies, jerks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Arizona Stories, The Ballad of Lonely Bob

I used to work for a five starred, five Mobile Diamond resort on the west side of Phoenix.  It seems to be the source of most of the stories I retell over and over (much to my wife, family & friend's dismay).  I'd like to share a few of these choice gems that I've been polishing, as most of you won't get the chance to hear them in person.  And if you have heard them in person, well, quit whining.  I'll write about you next.

The property was huge, including three professionally designed golf courses, an incredible spa, a killer pool, over 365 rooms, three high end restaurants led by an ex-White House chef, and had a considerably large area to house workers and interns.  I was one of the latter during my internship from Kendall College.  I worked through every kitchen and station I could over two seasons, eventually working in their four star, four diamond ode to Southwestern cuisine.  We did everything from scratch.  We made our own bread, desserts, butchered only prime meats, and carried the biggest chip on our shoulders for doing this on a day-to-day high volume basis.

I saw an extremely large number of cooks flow though the line over a short period of time though those two seasons.  One of those I shall call "Lonely Bob".  We named him this because there were too many Bob's.  I should know, I was one of them.  My nickname was (still is) Shaky or Shakes.  I drink a lot of caffiene.  Lonely Bob got dumped by his girlfriend for a fellow cook.  Thus the lonely moniker.  Well, to put it kindly, Lonely Bob sucked.  Royally.  The culinary school he'd applied to said that he needed atleast a year's professional experience before they'd let him into their program, and they set him up with us.

Good 'ol Lonely quickly found himself on night shift duty.  It was the consumate bitch shift, 7 pm to 7 am.  The job entailed a few key tasks; to strain and cool the stocks, perform general prep, grind butcher scraps, set up breakfast for the main dining room, and to cook employee meal for the the night cleaners, bakery, & security staff.  Two days in, the night cleaners logged a formal complaint.  He'd marinated chicken in raw white vinegar and then cooked it with peppers, calling it chicken fajitas.  I swear every time a hispanic person walked by him they muttered a death threat under their breath.

The evening before Thanksgiving, Lonely was given the task of cooking turkeys for the next morning.  He was told by the Executive Sous to cook 8 turkeys to 135 degrees, and to set them up in a closed door speed rack with 6 sternos on a sheet pan on the bottom to keep them warm for the next morning, when they'd be brought up to temp before lunch service. 

For those of you who don't know how sternos work, they're the little cans of gelled, napalm heat that are placed under pans on buffet lines.  When lit, they burn blue flame.  They're effing hot.  Well, good old Bobby has never used them before, and interpreting the directions literally, takes the gel out of the cans with a spatula and smears the goo onto the oversized cookie sheet.  He puts it on the bottom, lights the pan, shuts the door, AND WALKS AWAY.  Now usually only a small surface area burns with these things.  He's multiplied this over tenfold. 

Long story short. my friend, a night baker comes out of the pastry shop and sees flames licking the outside of the cart.  Wide eyed, she runs to the dish area, grabs a mop & bucket, uses the butt end of the mop to open the cart's latch, and throws the dirty mop water over the fire frantically. 

All of the turkey's were ruined.  Blackened by Metallica comes to mind.  I remember the smell vividly as I walked into the kitchen for my morning shift.

Lonely had burnt a hole through the sheet pan.  No shit.

We had run to Safeway for more turkeys.  Lonely didn't last much longer after that.