Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cinco de Mayo..

Reaching Denver, CO I knew exactly who I would stay with. My good friend Mike "Milk Shatter" Shethar from culinary school. Unfortunately after many, many tequila shots and a night out on the town, these pictures make up the bulk of my memories from the night. However, I do remember that the food was delicious, the drinks were strong, and Denver is a fantastic fucking town to be in!

Mike Shethar, banana board enthusiast.
Max May and myself, celebrating cinco de drunko like were back in Alaska.
The mexican feast before hitting the bars.
Deftly prepared by Milk Shatter, Chef Extraordinaire

Heart Attack in a Bowl

At the tail end of a two-day stage at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, OH I was asked to pick any item off the menu for my dinner. Obviously I chose the item that would cause the most arterial damage. Animal Style Fries baby!

Crispy bacon lardons, melted mozzarella curds, golden brown french fries, two fried eggs, and a healthy scoop of whole grain mustard. Oh ya, and what looked to be about a full cup of gravy. Perfect.

Greenhouse tavern is on East Fourth Street, a recently revitalized walking only street in downtown Cleveland, a welcome break from the usual industrial town traffic. Michael Symon's flagship Lola is literally next door to the restaurant, offering a unique contrast between Symon's food and the chef of Greenhouse, Jonathan Sawyer's. Sawyer was Symon's Chef de Cuisine at Parea in NYC and while I never got the chance to work with Sawyer during my time at Lolita, it was interesting to see the difference in styles between the Iron Chef and his protege.

Sawyer has been named one of Food and Wine's Top Ten Best New Chefs for 2010, an award Symon won as well. If there is anything that I have learned through my journey in the restaurant world it's that to be a great chef you have to work for great chefs. It's all about the pedigree.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

7th in the World

Alinea Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois. Three days after my stage it would be named the 7th best restaurant in the world, and # 1 in the United States. I spent a week in Chicago, and for a solid 3 days after my one and only day staging in the kitchen, I would attempt to recover from the experience. But first, the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the son of King Aeolus. He made his name through navigation and commerce, and was a force in the industry. He commanded great respect, however he was conniving and deceitful, often killing travelers and competitors to remain in his position of dominance. Sisyphus had nothing but disdain for the power of the Gods. He felt that there was no reason for their supremacy over man, and he made his opinion known. With his skills in commerce unmatched, he believed his own power to rival that of Zeus. When he learned of one of Zeus' improper sexual conquests, he decided to make his move.

In this conquest, Zeus took the form of an eagle and abducted Aegina, taking her to an island near Corinth, where Sisyphus was now king. Aegina's father Asopus, God of the Rivers, chased after them. Luckily for Asopus, Sisyphus had caught a glimpse of an enormous bird carrying a beautiful maiden to one of his nearby islands. He was more than willing to share this information with Asopus, who rushed after them with all of his powers. But when Asopus came crashing upon the rocks of the island with the force of his waters, Zeus threw down his thunderbolts, sending Asopus reeling back in retreat.

For his blatant defiance of Zeus, Sisyphus was swiftly punished. He was forced to struggle with a huge boulder, told by the Gods to roll it up the largest hill in Corinth. Sisyphus labored with this task day after day, coming closer and closer to the summit, but just when he thought he would finally reach the top the weight of the boulder would overpower him and it would come crashing back down the mountain, erasing all of his toil and struggle of the day. This struggle continued into eternity, giving us the word sisyphean, which means "both extremely effortful and futile, an endless labor or task."

Cooking at the highest levels, say in the 7th best restaurant in the world, can only be described as sisyphean. (like how I brought that one around full circle?) All day you fight and struggle, negotiate with your fellow cooks for space on the stove, stash away pots and pans that you will need later in the day, furiously prep your station, practically sprinting through the kitchen, all in the hopes of being set up on time once the doors open for the nights service. You have to become an absolute cutthroat cook, bending to none of your peers, if you want any chance at survival. And all of this, the brutal struggle that all 22 cooks at Alinea go through on a daily basis, is only half of it. This is the atmosphere in the kitchen from 11 am to 6pm. Then service starts. It is mind boggling the struggle that the cooks are put through just so that they will even have the OPPORTUNITY to do their job. Alinea is sink or swim, kill or be killed, to the nth degree. If you refuse to become diabolical, if you tell yourself that you are going to maintain your humanity towards other cooks, you will fail. The kitchen will chew you up and spit you out. It is every man for himself for every minute of the 15+ hour day.

My stage was on a Friday, my second day in Chicago. A good friend who is the AM kitchen manager set me up with the day of work on only a days notice, for which I am feeling very grateful as I pace the alley behind the restaurant, ticking off the minutes until my 11:30 am call time. With my black clogs, black pants, white tee, four days growth on my face, and my leather Messermeister knife bag I stroll through the back door feeling confident but still a bit apprehensive. This will be the best kitchen I have set foot in thus far in my career, and I am eager to get started. I pick the sous chef, Matt Chasseur, out of the crowd of cooks. He sends me downstairs to put away my knives and suit up. Flying back up the flight of stairs to the kitchen I start to get a familiar feeling. It can only be described as pre-game butterflies. It is a feeling that every cook knows all too well. It's the quick rush of adrenaline pulsing through your veins, rushing throughout your body to the tips of your fingers and back again, all set to the now quickening rhythm of your heartbeat. It's the feeling you get when you are walking in the back door of the restaurant, mentally scanning your prep list for the day, and realizing that you are fucked. But you have no choice, so you take a deep breath, and start another day.

Travis, (a.k.a T-Train) sets me up with a cutting board, and I set my tempo to that of the cooks around me, which is 5th gear. Juicing lemons and limes faster than I ever have becomes my own personal relay race. Other items on my prep list for the day include shelling a case of spring peas, making french fries for staff meal, cleaning a case of ramps, and juicing fresh coconut. Staff meal needs to be up and ready by 4:00 T-Train informs me, and even though it's only 1:00 I decide to get started on the fries. I will need to cut a case of russet potatoes into fries by hand, blanch them in oil at a low temperature to cook them through, and then crank the heat to finish them off at high heat so they will have a crisp, golden crust. I then make my fatal decision for the day, the decision that will change my stage from an intense but invigorating experience into a burning, fiery, hellscape. Figuratively not literally.

I start to peel the potatoes.....

"What are you talking about Garrett? How could peeling potatoes decide your fate?"

Peeling a 25 lb. bag of potatoes takes a little bit of time. And it is the 30 minutes that I spend peeling them that starts the chain reaction that will ruin my day, even my week. With my potatoes now peeled, I start to cut them by hand, it's 1:35. I am a blur of motion, slicing through the potatoes as fast as I possibly can, but again, 25 lbs. requires a chunk of time. 2:00 comes and goes, at 2:15 I finish the last of them, and ask T-Train where the fryer is.

"There isn't one." Travis says flatly.

I run downstairs to grab a 5-gallon jug of fryer oil and a rondeau(a huge pot with shallower sides than a stock pot). Sprinting back up the stairs and into the kitchen I scan the flat-top but see that there is absolutely no room for my pot of oil to heat up. I head over to Chris' station where he has a couple of portable induction burners and manage to convince him to let me use one of them. While my oil is heating up I busy myself with some of my other projects, and nervously glance at the clock, 2:30. Shit.

It is going to take me at least 30 minutes to blanch off all the fries in batches, and then another 30 to fry them crispy. My oil needs to heat up FAST. The rest of the kitchen is hauling through their work just as fast, with the minutes before service quickly melting away. 2:45 and my oil is almost there. I grab my bucket of raw fries and head over to Chris' station to get started. Chris is sweating profusely, obviously stressed out, and when he sees me heading his way with the fries I can visibly see something in him snap.

"No, no, no, you can't fry those off yet. I have to blanch my peas first. I have to blanch peas, make a puree, and then freeze them in liquid nitrogen before 4:oo so that they will have time to temper before service." he says, widening his eyes so that I can feel the full effect of his predicament.

"Yeah, well these are for staff meal." I retort, bulging my eyes right back at him.

"I don't care!" he squeals under his breath, "I need those peas shucked NOW."

Kill or be killed. In this case, since I have the misfortune of being a lowly stage, or apprentice, I will be the one who is killed. I race back to my station and start shucking peas faster than the Green Giant. 3:00. Five minutes pass and I already have a quart of peas, Chris walks past and whispers menacingly in my ear, "You HAVE to go faster."

"I'm going as fast as I can." I reply starting to lose a little patience. Chris jumps in to help me out and just manages to get in the way, slowing me down even further. 3:15.

I finally get him the 3 quarts that he needs and rush off to start the fries, acutely aware of the fact that I am well behind schedule. The first batch hits the oil with a satisfying hiss. Dropping cold fries into hot oil works just like ice cubes, and since I am frying them on an induction burner the oil takes longer than I had expected to regain its temperature. The second batch hits the oil at 3:25, and I still have at least 4 more to go. And this is just the first step! I still have to fry them off at high heat to get crispy! At 3:30 my good friend who I cooked with in California, who lined up the stage for me, whose apartment I am staying at in the city, delivers me the final crushing blow.

"I need you to make Caesar salad too."

"Are you kidding me?!" I say, in shock. "I'm barely gunna be able to get the fries done!"

"I'll clean the lettuce for you but I need you to make the dressing." he replies.

It's not his fault, his workload is just as crushing as everyone else's, but it is at this moment in time, this snapshot in my life as a cook, that I lose it. I start spinning in circles frantically setting up the blender and trying to locate the ingredients I will need for a Caesar salad. I have made Caesar hundreds of times before, but being in an unfamiliar kitchen makes all the difference. I am now jumping back and forth between mixing together the caesar and frying off my fries, none of which are crispy yet. 3:40.

I give up on blanching off the last half of the fries I cut, and crank the heat. I have to have something ready for staff meal which is now only 15 minutes away. Throwing in salt and vinegar to my salad dressing I taste it, and recognize that it is not really good at all. I don't even care at this point and take it over to the washed greens. I don't have the time to fix it. 3:50 and the first batch of blanched fries hit the oil, with me standing over them willing them to cook faster. It wont help. The entire crew of cooks are now scrubbing down their stations, and setting up the prep table for staff meal. Hot dogs, sauerkraut, Caesar salad, and...... french fries.

The meat cook, whose sole contribution to staff meal was to boil the hot dogs walks by and says condescendingly, "You gunna have those fries ready for staff or what?"

I bite my lip to refrain from clocking him in the face. It's now 4:00. I have officially fried two batches of fries, enough for ten people. Maybe. The front of the house staff starts to line up and I can feel my face reddening. I'm feeling lower than I ever have in a kitchen before. The sous chef, Matt, walks up to me and adds insult to injury, "Just walk away."

"No its ok I'll just keep frying 'em as people go through the line so I can replenish the fries..." I reply.

Matt, glaring at me, repeats, "I said walk away Chef!" So I do. I walk out the back door of the kitchen and out into the Chicago rain. Pulling out some hair I am beside myself. I am cooking in the best restaurant in the U.S. and somehow I just managed to be defeated by french fries. FUCKING. FRENCH. FRIES!

It was without a doubt the single worst day I have ever had cooking.

As service starts I am relocated to the basement to continue with the prep list, which isn't even close to being finished. Monotonously juicing coconuts and cleaning ramps my head is with the kitchen upstairs, and I wonder what I'm missing. Finally finishing off my list I head up to the main kitchen..

Alinea has two options for guests to choose from, the 12-course tasting menu or the 26-course Tour. It generally takes about 3 hours or more to eat a meal there. As I walk into the kitchen
a cluster of cooks are all swarmed around pristine plates and offer no room for me to jump in whatsoever. Looking to the other side of the kitchen, where pastry and a few of the hot apps stations are housed I see Ben, one of the pastry cooks, beckoning me over to his station. He is still finishing the final stages of his prep, it's 7:00 and none of the guests have started their dessert courses yet. Ben, as it turns out, used to work at Chez Panisse in California, where I had staged while I was in school. Finally able to calm down for a second and talk he seems to be one of the only cooks in the kitchen that has held onto his humanity, the only one who won't kill you for the last pound of butter. I help him with plating his dishes throughout the night as the intensity level rises, and in return I get to taste the dishes on his station.

As I am watching all of the amazing plates of food leaving the kitchen I am overcome with an unfamiliar feeling for me. I want to be out in the dining room, tasting the food. Every restaurant I have worked in it has always been a no-brainer for me. I always prefer to be in the kitchen, where the action is, rather than sitting down eating the food. Alinea is different I decide. Alinea's kitchen is toxic. It's an effect of the amount of work it takes to produce dinner for around 80 guests a night. 22 cooks are employed at Alinea as far as I can see. 4 come in at 6 am and make up the prep crew, 16 come in at 11 am and make up the line cooks, with a sous chef and a chef de cuisine coming in around 10 am. In the time that passes before the first guest arrives and sits down for dinner 176 man hours have been logged in total. Every single one of these hours are needed for service to flow smoothly, for the food to leave the kitchen the way it was intended by the Head Chef. That is a ridiculous amount of work to be expended for someone's dinner. And for how artistic the food here is, it may as well be disposable. After all of this effort, all of the toil and hardships endured by all of the cooks in the name of fine dining, by the end of the night their boulder will have rolled back to the bottom of the hill. Only to start again tomorrow. Sisyphus lives on.

For some amazing pictures of the food:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On the Road...

It has been a full two weeks since my last entry, and for that I apologize. In the time since my last post I have covered a lot of ground. Portland, Maine, Montreal, Syracuse, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and now have made the trek across the Midwest to Denver. Chicago supplied me with a stage that rocked me to my core, leaving me almost comatose for a few days that followed. But more on that later. For now I have a few pictures... enjoy!


At the arch in St. Louis

Central Park with the Uncle, Howard III

Upstate New York @ 65 MPH

New Jersey, really.

Momofuku Ssam Bar, NYC

New York City in Spring

Old school photographer near Union Square charging $5 per picture.
This one's free..

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stealing a Shower

Stealing a shower. It's not as bad as it sounds, it's more like borrowing a shower. When I do occasionally make it to a city with a friend that I can crash with one of the first questions is always, "How do you shower on the road?"

The truth is I haven't had to go more than 4 days without one yet, which I think is pretty remarkable. 6 month cross country roadtrip, sleeping in the back of a bus, cooking with a portable stove, freezing my ass off huddled in my sleeping bag most nights, but I can always find a nice hot shower.

"How?" you ask.

It is actually quite simple, just takes a little bit of patience. It goes like this;

"Welcome to 24 Hour Fitness (or any other random gym)!" says the front desk attendant.

"Hey there, so, I just moved to town and I was thinking about getting a membership!" I say with a big smile.

"Great!" replies the polo shirt-clad employee. "Let me just call up our membership associate."

I twiddle my thumbs, scan the gym, feigning genuine interest and curiosity. Then, and this is the case 95% of the time, a juiced-out, veiny, super tanned gentleman with spiked hair comes to greet me by attempting to break all of the bones in my hand.

Recognizing me as another male human being, and therefore competition in the land of steroid saturated brain cells, he almost yells,

"Hey Bro! Name's Ryan.. let's take a tour!"

This is the part where patience comes in handy. "So over here we have the cardio equipment, standard stuff really, but our cardio machines have individual T.V.'s built into them! Nobody has this!"

Everybody has it.

Then, as if he is having trouble walking, Ryan waddles over to the free-weight area, bobbing his head not unlike the way a pigeon walks, flexing in the mirror for good measure.

"So, dude, this is like, like my second home. Free weights, it's what I'm all about. I love it!"

I can't tell at this point whether or not he has noticed that he looks like Atlas. That he actually stands out in a crowd, not in a good way but in an almost circus-freak way. Of course he's all about free weights, in fact that is probably all he is ever about.. But I digress, I am on a mission.

"So what are your prices like?" I ask, "you know, I'm on a budget."

My budget for gym memberships and showers during the trip: $0

"$80 initiation fee, then $25 a month after that, but were having a deal! (They always are) If you sign up today, we will drop the initiation fee to only $50!"

"Whoa!" I blurt out. "I know, right?!" he gushes, completely missing my sarcasm.

It is usually here, after a 10-15 minute tour, that I ask the question that will determine my level of sanitation for the next few days. "So Ryan, I really like what I see here, I could definitely see myself joining, but I have to say, I don't know how comfortable I am joining a gym without trying out the facilities first. What can you do for me?" I've gotten really good at this last part over the past 3 months.

Ryan, lowering his voice because we are apparently on a team now, replies, "I totally know what you mean bud, totally know. You don't buy the car without test-driving it first right?!"

Ryan takes a big, deep, dramatic breath, looks over his shoulder, and finally, in a near whisper, "I can let you try it out today. But when your done come find me and we'll talk business!"

"Deal!" I reply to my new best friend. After my workout and a much appreciated hot shower, I cram my headphones into my ears and make a dash for the door. I couldn't bear breaking Ryan's over-worked little heart.

Brooklyn Bridge -> Grimaldi's Pizzeria

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan

Waited in line for an hour and a half. No joke.

Worth the wait.

Pepperoni, anchovy, basil, mozzarella.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Restaurant That Must Not Be Named..

I am writing about this restaurant with the threat of legal action. On my first day staging, I was handed a confidentiality agreement to sign before I was allowed to suit up and get to work in the kitchen. I can tell you it is in New York City. I can tell you it is a very very fancy restaurant, with astronomical prices. I can tell you that it is the East Coast outpost of the West Coast original. Friends who cook will know by now which restaurant I am talking about. For friends that don't, all I can say is that there was a certain je ne sais quoi to the atmosphere in the kitchen, a measured level of pompousness, spread in a thin but perfectly even layer, and cut into a precise brunoise. And it had better be cut PERFECTLY! Otherwise, I am going to curse at you, but under my breath and in a very polite manner.
I don't mean to bash the experience. It was invaluable to me. I have never worked in a kitchen of that caliber before. I have also never peeled celery for three hours. It was eye opening. The last restaurant that I cooked in for money, Ubuntu, in Napa, CA employed a certain nose-to-tail philosophy, even though the restaurant happened to be vegetarian. In the words of my Chef there, Jeremy Fox, we were cooking "from seed-to-stalk" and I fully embraced that mentality. Food should never be wasted, whether it is cramming the last few bites of food left on the table into your face, or peeling the upper stalks of fennel to get at the juicy flavorful core, which is almost always tossed away.
So, it was with nothing but my thoughts to keep me occupied for the hours of monotonous labor that I set about dissecting why I felt the way I did. I was already feeling at odds with the establishment, with the entire ethos of the place. I have worked in fine dining before, but just because you can charge almost $300 for a tasting menu doesn't necessarily mean that you should throw that piece of food away. Sure, the little guy is not quite as cute as the other baby turnips, but I'm sure we can find a place for him in the world. If we save it, and then we happen to find more hideous, retarded turnips just like it, maybe we can put them all together in one place. Then, when we have enough of these rejects, we could make a really tasty soup out of them. Stupid fucking ugly turnips they may be, but now we have taken advantage of them, turned them into profit instead of garbage. It's official. I have been peeling celery for WAY too long!
Finishing with the celery I get to make parisienne scoops of red beet, a difficult and dirty task. There goes another 45 minutes, now it's on to some knife-work, thank god. I thought I wasn't going to get to actually cut anything today. Brunoise (1/16th inch cubes) of cornichon for a mustard emulsion that is going with the Foie Gras tonight, 60 tournes (little football shaped cut) of baby carrots, and then my last task before service, picking 460 perfect little leaves of micro mint. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not telling you this to get your pity, this is just an illustration of what a lot of stages at fancy restaurants consist of. I am used to it by this point, the value I get from the restaurant is generally not in what I am able to do, but what I see.
During service at The Restaurant That Must Not Be Named, that is all I will do. I am instructed to stand, "over there by that wall" and observe. I am ok with this. The standards in this kitchen are impossibly high, I would like to watch the flow of service before making an ass out of myself. The brigade here is huge, 12 cooks for no more than 90 guests a night.

As the first ticket comes ringing in the Chef de Cuisine looks it over, and calls out, "Order in for two, one Chef's Tasting and one Vegetable" firmly but not loudly.

The ENTIRE brigade of cooks calls back, in unison, " ONE AND ONE!" with such thunderous force that I literally jump. Wow. It was probably the most impressive single display I have seen in any kitchen thus far on my trip.

Service is passing by in a blur, gorgeous plates of food whisked out to the dining room, with the cooks deftly preparing each and every component. There doesn't seem to be any wasted movement on their part. All the while they are calling back the orders from the chef in unison. The contrast between the volume of the call backs, "TWO AND TWO!" and then the immediate calm and quiet that follows is an impressive display of how the kitchen is run.

It's 7:30 and the pace is starting to pick up. I can tell because the entire board is filled with tickets. However, I definitely could not tell just by looking at the cooks, who I am starting to suspect are robots programmed to cook. I realize why I am standing, "over there by the wall". I am completely out of my league. As much as I want to jump in and help, it's not gunna happen, at least not on my first night. Confronted with this thought, my ego being challenged with each passing minute watching these cooks, I am filled with jealousy.
I want to grow up someday and be a cook at The Restaurant That Must Not Be Named! Then midnight rolls around, and the last orders are still leaving the kitchen. This would be ok in a normal kitchen, where you would clean your station and leave the deep-cleaning to the night porters. But this is not a normal kitchen. Night porters are not to be trusted, they don't have the same sense of clean as the cooks have been instilled with over the years it has taken them to even make it to their current positions. After the last order leaves the exhausted cooks, who have been here since before noon, wrap up all their mise en place for the next day and then clean the kitchen from top to bottom. Scrubbing the counter-tops, cleaning the flat-top stove, deck-brushing the floor, then mopping, and after everything else is finished we go back over all of the stainless steel with polish, as a finishing touch.
With the kitchen spotless we sit around a large prep table in the back kitchen and start the process of writing the menu for the next day. The menu changes every single day, not in its entirety, but enough changes to warrant an hour-long debate at the end of a 14 hour day. With all the issues for the next day covered, we finally walk out the back door and out into the NYC night, and it's 2:20 a.m. All the cooks will be back in the kitchen by 11:30 a.m. The pay isn't great so most of the cooks have to commute to Brooklyn or Queens to get some much needed rest. My knees are aching, my back is twisted into a knot, and my feet are swelling out of my shoes, but my head is glowing with all the images and intensity I just witnessed in the kitchen. This must be the reason someone would give their entire life to cooking dinner for rich people. I don't know if I could do it week in and week out, but I can say I have nothing but the utmost respect for those that do.