Thursday, May 31, 2012

Highwood Story, Kitchen Fight!!!

I used to work for a notorious restaurant in the North 'burbs, where the Chef/Owner's temper was nigh near legendary.  He worked for 4 Michelin 3 star kitchens back when it meant something. His kitchen was the most militaristic, intense place I've ever had the um... pleasure(?) of working.  Cameras were everywhere, 16 in the kitchen areas, plus one webcam that the public could watch.  Which was nice for my wife, as she could tell when I was done working by seeing us clean at the end of shift.  Bad for the cooks though, as Chef had a habit of watching (even on vacation) and would call back to chew out the staff if he caught something out of place. 

I have a feeling there will be more than one blog about this place, but I'll start with this story.  Kind of ease back into it, see if there's any response.

So one day right before service kicked in, one of my cooks has an issue with a busser.  The cook was Fernando, who I believe was lying about his age to work.  I think he was honestly turning 16 years old halfway though his employment.  Acne riddled his face; he was prone to hormone addled rage at anything and everything.  He was a quick learner though, and was one of two main cooks on the pasta station.  Angry at the world, chip one his shoulder, and hadn't had his ass kicked hard enough yet.

The busser was Ishmael.  Twenty one years old, Ish was a full 4 inches taller than Fernando and ripped.  Ish was training to be an amateur lightweight boxer.  He could also clear more plates than most men could carry, with one hand.  Sweet guy though.  Softspoken and very polite.  I wouldn't want to start anything with him though, I doubt I'd win a fair fight (emphasis on the word fair). 

So the two get into it verbally, I pretty sure Fern told Ish to go have sex with his mother in an uncomfortable place, and it wasn't the back of a Volkswagon.  More words were exchanged and a small shove or two commenced.  They agreed to take it outside and I started to follow.  Except they never made it outside.

Ish had gone first, and as he reached the stairwell before exiting the back door, he swang the service door into Fernando's face.  Hard.  His hand then shot out and pulled the cook by the neck into the small area at the top of the stairs.  By this time I'd ran past the dish station to follow while calling out for the General Manager at the top of my lungs.  I cleared the door and confronted the two workers, who were now fully punching each other in their respective faces.  With 13 stairs leading into the basement right at their feet.  Idiots.  Someone could've died there.  Not thinking any further, I grabbed both of them and pulled them apart, all while calling for the GM, who came in time to see me holding the two apart by their shirts.

The best part of the whole thing was that it had been entirely caught on camera.  I was able to watch and replay the part where I broke up the two a good half dozen times later that evening.  I also had no issues with the kitchen staff for a few weeks after the incident.  I guess they thought I was a little crazy or something.  I think they were right.  

I ran into Fernando earlier this last year.  He works at a Garden Fresh market, his acne cleared up, and his English is better than mine now.  I'm glad to see this was just a phase or something and that he turned out okay in the end. 

A pic from said restaurant. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Show

There's a certain showmanship that goes with a successful restaurant.  Can you honestly say you've never watched what the table next to you has ordered, with the anticipation of your own pleasure or displeasure awaiting for you?  Have you ever just sat down to see the table next to you order a souffle, and watch the waiter pierce the top and pour sauce in the now deflated carcass before them, and while you drool, decide that, you too must have that pleasure as well?  Or sat at a bar and seen the bartender shake a martini fifteen times over his head (even though there's no reason to do so) and as they pour it into the chilled glass before them decide that, "Hey, I could go for one of those..."

I try to think about this as much as possible, especially when writing menus.  The French knew this style of service well.  You might not want to pay a few hundred bucks for simple sustenance, but we'll all pay for a show.  Think about how much you'd pay to see The Doors if the Lizard King himself came back from the grave.  Tableside crepes & cheese carts fill the same pleasure spot in our brains.

Take the night I proposed to my wife, August 23, 2004.  The restaurant, Tru, was the stage that I was to perform.  I'd been working some insane hours at Karma and unbeknownst to Anne, had a diamond broker meet me at the restaurant during a quick break to show me settings a few weeks before.  The ring was burning a hole in my pocket (actually my sock drawer), and I made the excuse that I needed to see another fine dining restaurant to give me new ideas, inspiration, and some peaceful respite.  She bought it hook, line and sinker.  When I made the rez, I told the FOH what I planned on doing, and they told me they'd play along.  Awesome.

Tru has a show kitchen of sorts, with windows that let you see parts of stations and the cooks working.  They also have a cheese cart, caviar staircases, live goldfish in bowls under one course, a dessert cart, multiple people waiting on you, a cool bathroom... you can't not talk about it, and that's the point.  I lucked out, as the head waiter was one of my old chef's cousins and our waiter, Fredrick, was the sommelier at Le Francais when I cooked there.  Crazy.

So we get 3/4's of the way through the meal and Anne excuses herself to powder her nose.  I grab the waitstaff and tell 'em I'm ready when she gets back.

I proposed in between salad & cheese courses.  She said yes, and the crew took pictures as it happened.  When she teared up, they brought out a box of kleenex in a chrome tissue box.  And they printed the pics on the menu we ate and as we finished, gave us a tour of the kitchen.  The show here was great.  They did misspell congratulations in chocolate on our dessert plate... at least Gale wasn't in the kitchen that night.

Oh, BTW, Happy Anniversary, baby!  As of Monday, 6 years married, 12 years together, and we're still stupid for each other.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Of Chefs & Doctors...

I've been really sick lately.  I caught a bout of gastroenteritis (viral stomach bug) and in combination with the normal stomach problems I generally ignore day-to-day has led me to seeing 3 doctors in 4 days.  Ugh.  But it's reminded me of a story, and since I'm bored as heck right now, here we go.

I once ran into a veteran line cook on a flight out west with my lovely wife Anne (probably over seven years ago now, wow).  We were sitting next to this blond gal a few years older than us that was looking at my scars.  It took her a few minutes to ask if I cooked for a living and after that the rest of the flight flew by.  She'd worked through some of Chicago's older school restaurants... almost all now closed, but definitely knew her stuff when it came to professional kitchens.  She was getting out of the business for the most part, mainly because her ego had gotten her into issues with her family, in particular her mother.

This veteran had been bragging about this, that, or the other thing concerning work and her mom snapped at her.

"All you do is cook.  You're more likely to have poisoned someone by accident, than to have saved someone's life.  You don't deserve to have an ego.  Doctor's deserve to have an ego, but you?  No."

That has never left my memory.  I can't remember the cook's name (Kelly? Kathy? Komodo Dragon?  K something?), but when I see young cooks strutting their stuff, I like to bring this story up.  We can't lose sight of the customer with what we do for a living, be it with food temperature, controversal/risky cooking techniques, accidentally exposing someone to an allergen, etc...  That's all I got today folks, more next time...  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Kitchen slang/phrases

It's been said I should write something on this topic, since I've been considered an expert on this catagory.  If this were ever a topic on Jeopardy! I'd probably take home some mad cash.  Especially if there was one of those daily double things there.  That'd be sweet.

"Get the cigar"   - roughly translated, getting chewed out by the Chef or Sous.  Not used as commonly as it used to be.  In a sentence, "Ben just burned that lobster bisque, he's gonna get the cigar for sure."

"Magic dust, Japanese magic dust, glue, meat glue"  - terms for transglutaminase, an enzyme that sticks meat to... well, other meat or similar protein.  Often snuck into culinary competitions years ago before most molecular hackstronomists started using it willy-nilly on anything and everything.  Heard rumors that it was being used in some diet pills to bind with loose proteins in the body and allowing them to be... well, um, passed.  Currently considered safe to eat, I would think that in excess it's prolly not too good for you.  Lobster corndogs in Chitown often contain magic dust.  Not PCP.

"In the weeds", "Lost" or "Sinking"  - term for a cook who can't keep up with the orders coming in.  Horrible feeling, often precludes getting the cigar or being 86'd.  Most often heard on Fridays, Saturdays, New Year's, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, etc...  The times most kitchens are packed beyond their means.

"86 or 86'd" - to run out of something or to take it off the menu... not usually a good thing.  Happens too much to you, and the chef will 86 you from the kitchen (meaning you've been fired). 

"Swimming" - not sinking.  A new cook who's swimming is keeping up for the most part.

"Rockstar" - a particularly good cook.  Rockstars are always swimming and never in the weeds.  Could also refer to a chef that used to be in a rock band.  Dirk Flanigan (The Gage, Henri) was sometimes in the industrial band, Pigface.  Thus, Flanigan is a rockstar twice.  Or something.

"Behind, Atras, Hot, Chaud, Watch your huevos, or anything similar..." - get out of my way.  Now, or face possible consequences.  My favorite is saying, "I'm not stopping," while playing chicken with someone that's in the way.

"Ordering! (followed by menu item or ticket number)"  - get this ready, now.

"Firing! (followed by menu item or ticket number)" - put the food that was ordered in the window now.  In good restaurants the cooks will call out in response to orders and fires with a time or acknowledgement.

"The Tank or Pit" - dish area.

"Meat Grinder" - a kitchen that turns through cooks like most people use tissues.  Usually when the Chef is intense or the pace of the kitchen is harsh (or the checks bounce).

"Sergeant's stripes" - burns one gets on their body, betraying their existence as a cook or chef.  A lady once stopped me at a bookstore and tried to get me to join a recovery group for heroin addicts after seeing my burns and thinking wrongly that they were track marks.  Needless to say, I was unenthused by her mistake and told her I was a broiler cook. 

"Put a bird on it..." - this one's just a reference to the tv show, Portlandia.  Check it out.  Funny show.  For a week I was telling cooks "put a bird on it.  Now it's ready." Priceless.

"Piano" - the stove you cook on.  Some chefs can't stand when you put plates on the piano, or don't clean it often enough.

"Whites" - your uniform.  Even when black or a different color, referred to as whites. 

"Pitbull" - a particularly mean chef or sous.  "That Bob jerk is a real pitbull, man.  I was sinking last night and he gave me the cigar."  Some chefs keep a pitbull in their kitchen to keep the other cooks in line so they don't have to yell themselves.   

"Salamis for hands..." - a person who's all thumbs.  Most often used in Italian kitchens.  I guess if you had galantines for hands you might be French.

"Sally" - term used to describe a salamander or broiler.  Often used to hurry orders, but sometimes to the order's detriment. 

"Meez (or Plass)" - short for the French term "mise en place", or "everything in its place."  The zen-like term of setting up one's station.  If your station's completely set, there's nothing that can stop you.  But the second you f*#k your Meez, you're in the weeds, Rockstar.

"Guy, sweetie, honey, etc..." - in kitchens that are meatgrinders, it's hard to remember everyone's name, guy.  "Hey guy!  Get over here!"

"Shoemaker (or mercenary)" - a person who's only expected to do the minimum amount of work, but generally doesn't cost too much to employ.  Strength in numbers?  aka- a hack.

"Shoe leather" - well done steaks or such.  Suburbanites are known for eating shoe leather on occasion.

"Meat coming out of their ears..." - in reference to a meathead.  So meatheaded it's coming outta their ears, guy.

"Beginner's night, Amateur hour, (or something similar)" - a night that anyone who really enjoys eating well avoids... as in any really busy night were a kitchen might be compromised or stressed keeping them from getting food out to you in the way the chef meant, ie. hot and tasty and on time.  Valentine's Day is a beginner's night, as any self respecting gastronaut should not looking for culinary epiphany then.  Also used in reference to St. Patrick's Day when talking about drinking, or 4/20 to those other folk. 

Another memorable quote from a Sous named Joe on his way walking out from a restaurant in Winnetka was, while carrying a sack of his stuff, "I wish this was a bag of d*!ks for *insert name here* to suck!"
Any other slang I'm missing?  Feel free to comment, there might be a sequel to this topic but for now, signing out, guy.